Friday, March 6, 2009

Baby Quilts

Thusfar in my quilting career the vast majority of the quilts I've made have been in celebration of the birth of a baby. The following are a few thoughts on baby quilts, especially how their function determines my design and construction decisions including size, shape, backing fabric, fabric color, fabric preparation, washing and drying finished quilts, machine or hand sewing, and the subject matter of prints.

I think of baby quilts as utilitarian art. So the primary questions I ask myself when I design my baby quilts is what will this really be used for. One possible use, especially if your quilt will arrive between birth and about three months: swaddling. I've heard the optimal size for a swaddling blanket for up to a pudgy three month old is at least 42 inches square. I've also heard that square is the optimal shape for swaddling. For more on swaddling, check out Dr. Harvey Karp's The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer. With this in mind, most of the baby quilts I've made have been square rather than rectangular. Looking back, it seems the trend is for the quilts I finish closer to birth to be square and quilts I kinda knew from the start I wouldn't finish until after the swaddling stage were more likely to be rectangular.

Another possible use to which a baby quilt might be put: play mat. Either parents are getting weird about letting their progeny play on the floor or the infant industrial complex has perpetuated some parental paranoia about the evils of flooring such that they can market nonsense like pack-n-plays. Regardless, the end result is Junior needs something between him and the floor. Your quilt will likely be it. So I like to make the back out of a durable fabric with a print that will hide dirt.

Short of a wall hanging (and even then, not near the changing table), the use to which a baby quilt might be put will invariably lead to stains and dirtiness. This leads me to my almost compulsive paranoia about using fabric with large areas of white in quilts for kids, which I've previously discussed in the comments to my post about selecting fabric for a particular baby quilt. I feel like any white will show every stain or speck of dirt that will inevitably be part of a baby quilt's life. I'd hate to give a parent something that they would feel guilty using for its intended purpose. I've even contemplated overdying fabric that is really awesome, but too white, in my opinion, for a baby quilt. In fact, one of the reasons I laid off a pretty intense '30's reproduction fabric collecting habit was because of the prevalence of white backgrounds, particularly in kid-themed prints.

Along with getting dirty, I assume all the baby quilts I make will be machine washed, probably with hot water and detergent, and then thrown in the dryer. So I prewash all of my fabric for baby quilts with hot water and detergent on high agitation. Then when I'm done with the quilt, I wash it again in hot water with detergent and I even throw it in the dryer to dry it. I can wax poetic about the importance of prewashing any fabric for WAY too long. But I prewash baby quilt fabrics on hot to shrink them and with high agitation test their durability. If they're not going to survive less than an hour in a washing machine, they're not going to survive the first day with a baby. I wash the quilt again when I'm done partially to get out all the schmutz with which the quiltmaking process endows its subject. But in the case of a baby quilt it's also to test my stitches, particularly to binding, to make sure there aren't any weak points that need to be reinforced.

Which leads me to another point, while I have hand appliqued and hand quilted portions of baby quilts in the past, now I only machine piece, applique, and quilt baby quilts. Hand stitches are too easy for little fingers to pop. And, more annoyingly, in my experience, when a parent realizes you made the quilt literally by hand, they wrap it in archival paper, place it carefully in an archival box, and gently tuck it into the topmost corner of the topmost shelf of the least used closet in the house. Then they forget about it and wonder why you were so rude as to not give their baby a present. OK, that only happened once and I'm not going to name names, but I really should NOT have been surprised. But now when I give away a baby quilt I emphasize not all the work I put into it, but how durable it is. I tell them I already machine washed it on hot with detergent and ran in through the dryer so they shouldn't be afraid to treat it the same way. Somehow arming them with this knowledge frees them to actually let their kid touch the quilt.

Recounting that nightmare story about the handmade quilt, which I'm pretty sure the kid never even laid eyes on, reminds me of another story of neurotic parents who have changed my approach to baby quilts. Again, I don't want to be too detailed because someone someday might figure out who I'm talking about and I really do love these folks even if, or perhaps because, they're nuts. As I was at the design wall stage of making a baby quilt for boy, I got the word that the parents were adamant that everything for said baby be extremely masculine, including the colors of everything this kid might ever see. Well, the quilt I was working on was a scrappy, '30's Repro, one-patch which I had painstakingly arranged on my design wall in diagonal rows in sort of, well, a rainbow pattern. First, I had to pull all the pinks and lavenders. Next, I had to pull all the prints with flowers and girls. Then, I had my husband, who is not the macho-est man but can pass in a pinch, to look through the remaining patches for anything that might be construed as "feminine." Mind you, I was working from a few charm packs, so it's not like I had unlimited options. Well, by the time we'd done our butch best, the one-patch center had shrunk significantly and the borders grew a few inches wider all around. And the one-patch arrangement become randomly arranged rather than by color. Now I'm waiting for a very girly girlfriend to have a girl so I can use up all my '30's repro pink, lavender, and femme themed prints. So with that in mind, I now ask parents what the color scheme of the baby's room is going to be. This is a pretty subtle way to see which way they're leaning on the whole "gender stereotypes in infant interior design" spectrum. And if I don't know or can't get a straight (pardon the pun) answer, I go with green and yellow abstract prints.

Now that I've shared my "rules" for baby quilts, I'm sure all of the baby quilts I blog about will break every one. Isn't that what rules are for?

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Thalia said...

Dude, that is such a nightmare story.

If I am ever in need of a baby quilt, I will definitely pick your crafty brains about it.

Sarah said...

Well, the dramatic retelling heightens the nightmare qualities of those stories. On some level these experiences have reinforced my belief that making a quilt is about the process and the journey. It is not about the production of gifts whose worth is solely determined by the reaction of the recipient. If that were the point, it's a lot cheaper and less time consuming to buy something mass-produced at the mall.

If you're ever "in need of a baby quilt," just tell me what the color scheme of the nursery is going to be. :)