Learning to Stack the Deck

Posted by on September 3, 2012, in quilting & sewing, , ,

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Detail of Trident Links quiltI have a confession. Although I’ve read every one of designer Karla Alexander’s bestselling books, I’ve never made one of her quilts. It’s not that I don’t think they’re fabulous, I just didn’t think the stack/slice/shuffle/sew method was for me. Maybe it’s because I’m a traditionalist. Maybe it’s because I’m a stickler for precise piecing and this felt a little too spontaneous for me. Or maybe it was the fact that Karla works primarily in batiks, which are not my favorite fabrics (did I just hear you gasp? Hey, I like them, I just don’t love them). Whatever the reason, I’d never heard a stack-the-deck quilt pattern speak to me the way other patterns have.

All that changed when the quilts for Karla’s latest book, Dynamic Quilts with Easy Curves, came into the office. Not only are the projects exciting, they feature a broad range of fabrics. Her use of large-scale prints and even solids had me seeing her quilts in a whole new light. Suddenly, I found myself unable to resist the temptation to stack and slice and make a wonky quilt for myself. If you’ve been intrigued by Karla’s patterns too but haven’t yet taken the plunge, join me as I make my first stack-the-deck quilt.

Karla Alexander's books
Karla’s designed more than 100 quilt patterns for her books; take your pick!

Step One: choosing a pattern.
It was the designs in Dynamic Quilts with Easy Curves that got me inspired, so that’s where I started. But after spending hours poring over all the projects in Karla’s seven books, I chose “Trident Links” from New Cuts for New Quilts. Here’s the version that’s in the book:

Why that particular project? Well, for one thing, it’s a Nine Patch block. That familiarity put it squarely within my comfort zone and made the thought of trying a new technique less intimidating. I also like this project because it has fewer fabrics than some of the other designs but still looks interesting and complex. With my book in hand, I headed off to my local quilt shop for…

Step Two: selecting fabrics.
Even though I’ve been doing this for years, I’m one of those quilters who lacks confidence when it comes to selecting fabrics (which is one reason I chose a design with a limited palette). I agonize over my choices, so it takes me a looong time to put it all together. Does that happen to you? Is it because there are so many gorgeous fabrics that we’re overwhelmed by the possibilities? Or do I just lack the fabric-combining gene?

My strategy is to start with what I think will be my border fabric and build from there. This time, I used two of Karla’s fabric-selection tips to help me narrow my choices:

  1. The “10-foot rule.” Stand the fabric bolts side by side or stack them, back up 10 feet or so, and look at the collection. Replace anything that doesn’t seem to fit, and keep doing that until the group works together beautifully.
  2. “Eye cleansing.” Again, stack or arrange the fabric bolts you’ve chosen, and then turn and look at anything that’s a completely different color. I was choosing blues, greens, and browns, so I turned and looked at a wall of pastel ’30s fabrics for a few seconds. Looking back at my fabrics, I could see instantly which ones didn’t work.

In the end, the border fabric I started with didn’t make the cut, but here’s what did.

Trident Links quilt--Mary's fabric choices

What do you think? It’s kind of an unusual group, but I think they’ll work together nicely. And I even have a couple of batiks in there.

Step Three: stacking, slicing, and sewing.
Because this was my first stack-the-deck quilt, and because I’m a born rule follower, I read and followed all the directions carefully. I stacked my squares, paying careful attention to the placement of the fabrics in each of my ten “decks.” Then I sliced, opting to skip the ruler and cut my pieces freehand. I felt so daring!

Fabric decks cut
Fabric decks cut.

Next came the shuffling. This project used a “controlled shuffle,” in which only specific segments are shuffled a given number of times.

Fabric decks shuffled
Fabric decks shuffled.

Once I had everything cut and shuffled, I carefully pinned the pieces of each block to a sheet of paper, as Karla instructs. I was glad I did. I could see the chaos that would have resulted if I’d accidentally knocked a stack of unpinned pieces to the floor!

Fabric decks pinned
Fabric decks pinned.

The sewing itself couldn’t be easier. Since the pieces are all in order and pinned to their papers, it’s simply a matter of carrying each paper to the sewing machine and chain piecing away. The trickiest parts—which really aren’t very tricky at all—are making sure that you sew the pieces in the correct order and that you don’t turn any the wrong way. (I found out the hard way how easy it is to do just that, and it led to some unsewing!)

Step Four: playing with block placement.
After all the blocks were sewn, it was time to start playing with placement. My husband, Stan (who’s also a quilter), helped me with the arrangement. We flipped blocks and moved them, and moved them again, taking a picture each time to get a different perspective. Here are a couple of our early arrangements.

Stack the Deck quilt layout 1  Stack the Deck quilt layout 2

It took us quite a while, but we finally came up with a layout we could both agree on. Being the prince of a guy that he is, Stan also helped me sew the blocks together. Two simple borders at the end and we’re done! What do you think?

Mary's Karla Alexander quilt

When I looked at my finished quilt top and compared it to Karla’s sample from New Cuts for New Quilts, it took me a long time to figure out why they looked so different. Then I realized that the pieces in my blocks were all fairly consistent in size, while Karla varied the size of her block centers, making some of them quite large. That small change made her quilt more lively and exciting, and demonstrated how flexible the process can be. I guess that’s why she’s the bestselling author!

Mary's Karla Alexander quilt
Karla’s quilt and my quilt: cousins?

I sent a picture of my finished quilt top to Karla and told her about my initial hesitation. She was very complimentary, and said my experience was common. She says she likes to compare making her quilts to the difference between eating an apple and eating an artichoke. You can make the safe choice and grab the apple—the quilt pattern where all the pieces are cut to an exact size and you’re told just where to place them. Or you can go for the artichoke. By the time you’re done, you’re in elbow deep and you’ve studied every color, every layout, every option. There are choices to be made at every step, and that makes some quilters uncomfortable. But many of Karla’s students tell her that after they’ve made one of her quilts, they feel they have a little more command over their fabrics. They look at color and scale a little differently and are more likely to tiptoe out of their traditional box. I know I am!

Karla gave me even more encouragement with this final thought:

“Mary, I love your quilt and am so happy you ate the artichoke! Now you can breathe again and return to traditionalism. Just don’t forget everything you learned when you had to make your own choices. Perhaps a little of what you experienced can sneak into your future quilts!”

This quilt was so much fun and not nearly as tricky as I expected it to be. Now that I’ve gone through the process once, I’m sure I’ll be making more stack-the-deck quilts. I think this would be a perfect retreat project, provided the slicing and shuffling were done ahead of time. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to have to think too hard on retreat.)

Thanks for helping me tiptoe out of my traditional box, Karla!

Have you ever veered off the precise-piecing path? Where did your journey take you? Share your stitching story in the comments!

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