Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Shirtings vs. Blenders

Scrappy vs. Stained

Today's cautionary tale is not about something I did, but rather about a quilt I saw at a show here in Ontario a few years ago. I've been to shows from Burlington to Trenton and all points in between, so I'll be no more specific than that!

Walking around the show, I saw a great log cabin quilt a few rows away, and as I approached I could see that it was badly stained. "Oh dear," I thought, "I'm surprised she still put it in the show." It looked like the victim of an encounter with a pack of untrained puppies.

But when I got right up to it, I saw that it was not stained at all. The quiltmaker had sewn all the light parts of the quilt from strips of light coloured blenders, that from far away had indeed blended together into a mottled disaster.

Since then, I've paid attention to how quiltmakers can make a successful scrappy quilt with light coloured fabrics. I've found that the difference is to use shirtings rather than blenders.

Every quilt shop in Southern Ontario has a shelf full of light coloured blenders -- those white on white, white on cream, beige on white "background" fabrics. So our anonymous quiltmaker was likely dependent on the local supply. I have quite a few myself:

But when you look at a great, light coloured quilt in a book or magazine, these are not the fabrics they used. In the Summer 2014 issue of Primitive Quilts Catherine Hughes has a very satisfying quilt called "Shoofly Delight" that shows what I mean:

"Shoofly Delight" by Catherine Hughes, Primitive Quilts magazine Summer 2014

Hughes used shirtings, light coloured fabrics with simple stripes or prints in dark colours. The difference is that with the variety of prints, the eye can clearly see the edges of each piece, even though all the fabrics are light in value. So the quilt looks scrappy rather than blended and/or stained.

And, to finally make this post relevant to my current projects, shirtings were also used in the background of Barb Adams' "Trick or Treat," the applique quilt project that came up in my "quilt lottery" back in April:

"Trick or Treat" by Barb Adams, When the Cold Wind Blows 2008

When this project came up I thought I had all the fabric in my stash and I could start right away. But this shirtings vs. blenders issue put things on hold. I very nearly made the same mistake as that other quilter a few years ago! I needed more shirtings for the backgrounds if I was going to be happy with the result.

I tried to go back to a different applique project instead, but I couldn't let this one go. So, I started shopping online for some new fabric. A dangerous situation! And a very surprising result, which I will show next time!


  1. Good eye, Monica. I have seen the effect you have mentioned with blenders. I usually like scrappy backgrounds for my applique projects and tend to go with ones that have a pattern or stripe to them. Just looks more interesting to me. Now I realize it also has the added benefit you described.

  2. Great post! It's something that I had never put together, but you are absolutely right. Thanks for sharing your insights. We'll all have better quilts as a result!

  3. I so agree! Mixed fabric use in background pieces need to be more carefully chosen! I'm still learning how to do this successfully. Looks like you figured out a key design decision that I'll need to try myself!

    1. Thanks, Audrey! I think this is largely a supply problem here in Southern Ontario. Most US quilters seem to have a good selection of shirting prints. If you have any of these white on white prints in your stash, I haven't seen them yet! I don't know what I'm going to do mine -- the gummy ink is terrible for hand stitching.

  4. great advice but so far I try to avoid strips checks etc as I am not good enough to get them straight yet and if crooked look so obvious. What a delightful quilt you have shared today

  5. Interesting point I never considered. I love the look of scrappy backgrounds and the current trend on low volume scraps as backgrounds. I will have to notice how they stand apart rather than blending.


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