Sunday, January 15, 2023

Tallit Commission: A Time for Machine Embroidery

Here's my latest commission, and although I live in California, and the client lives in the southeast USA, it was made with help from one of the best Judaica machine embroiderers on the planet, Marilyn Levy of Ontario, Canada. It's a tallit (prayer shawl) for a young man's bar mitzvah. 

Like all my commissions, this one started out with a  discussion with the young man's family. They wanted cotton, with a leafy design, in blue and grey, so I drew up choices.

They liked #1 best, the simple vines. What was most unusual - and why they needed a custom tallit instead of one off the rack - was that they wanted Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 on the atarah, the long rectangular band that marks the collar.

You know this verse: it begins, "To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven." 

An atarah is optional - store-bought shawls sometimes carry the embroidered prayer for donning it. But I've never seen one with this particular verse. 

Initially, the family hoped we could fit in the entire verse, which is a long paragraph. They wanted the letters big enough to read from a distance. I make a sketch to show them what this might look like. 

That convinced them that just the first line might be better. They wanted it in Hebrew and English. I told them I could only do this job if I brought in a subcontractor. I contacted my friend Marilyn Levy, a.k.a. "the TALLITmaaven," who graciously agreed to help. So now we had a three-way, international collaboration, with the family telling us what they wanted, Marilyn showing us what's possible in embroidery, and me getting everyone on the same page and doing the construction.

After much back and forth, here's a printout of Marilyn's design; the family was happy with the size and fonts she chose. (The straight lines help with placement; it's not part of the design.) Full size it was about 22" long.

I printed it out onto paper, cut out the lettering area and taped the two pieces together. I used that long paper strip to block out the area of the tallit where it would lie, and started sewing the other elements in place around it, while waiting for Marilyn to finish the fabric version. 

Marilyn did a gorgeous, flawless job with the atarah, as I knew she would. 

A little closer: 

She also embroidered the boy's name a few times, so I was able to cut those out and place them inside the tallit, inside a kippah (hat), and inside the quilted tallit case I made to hold everything. Here's the front of the case. The secret to quilting those lines so straight....
....was that I used my walking foot to quilt it from the reverse side, a star print, following the lines of the stars in three directions. Below you can see the print under the top flap. Lower down, the silver thread that shows against the blue was in the bobbin. One of the name tags is on the lower left (I blurred the name for this post.) 
I also made a pair of kippot with the same blue fabric, with grey binding.
The one on the left is reversible, but the other one, not so much, because of where the name tag went, as you can see below. (I didn't want to set the name lower, fearing it would interfere with the fit.) The hat pattern is from my book, The Uncommon Yarmulke (sold in my etsy shop at I used the "large, 4-panel" pattern on p. 19, which fits most teens and adults.
On the tallit, I freehand machine stitched veins on the leaves, and 6-pointed stars on the "pinot" (corner squares), with silver metallic thread. The leaves contain Decor Bond, a midweight fusible interfacing, which  gave them a bit of depth and stabilized them for embroidery. There's also Decor Bond backing the corner squares, which makes them strong for their duties holding a satin stitched buttonhole to surround the tzitzit, the ritual macrame strands, in place.

Like so many commissions, this one was not without its moment of terror. Marilyn put the package with the atarah and name labels into the mail, and headed off on vacation. After a week, the package vanished from the tracking system. I couldn't find it in the Canadian or the US mail. It didn't turn up on its due date, a Friday. My incoming US mail alerts showed no sign of it.

I lay awake that night, imagining the worst. What if it never showed? What if I had to do the embroidery myself, by hand? I decided to give hand embroidery a shot, just for my peace of mind. I spent the weekend doing the best hand embroidery I could possibly do, using Marilyn's paper printout as my model. Here's the result.

The closer you get, the messier it looks. This: 

Versus this: 
The handmade version is charming and might work for a compassionate blood relative; but it's not a job for a client. 

Thankfully, on Monday, Marilyn's atarah appeared, seemingly out of nowhere (according to two country's tracking systems).  I was thrilled with it.
The tallit and its accessories reached the family with plenty of time to spare. But you know how you sometimes find yourself buying fabric for the last quilt you finished? That's what sort of happened to me after this project. 

In this case, I started looking at embroidery machines, thinking, "Wouldn't it be nice if I could do this?" 

And then I answered myself. Machine embroidery is a complicated hobby and/or business. The cost and complexity of an embroidery machine is just the beginning. 

Then there's the knowledge, skill, time, and money required for acquiring and understanding lots of software; designing, sizing, adjusting, stabilizing, hooping and rehooping required for large, complicated designs including bilingual Bible verses on atarahs; not to mention mountains of threads you have to buy, and thread changes you must perform. Most of these things are so clearly not my strengths. But partnering with Marilyn who loves all this and does it so well - that was my idea of fun! 

I also vowed to learn a little more about hand-embroidery. I enjoyed doing it, even if the results were not suitable for formal occasions. I do wonder if flawless hand-embroidered  lettering - especially Hebrew lettering - in a reasonable amount of time is possible. If you've done it, I'd love to see and hear about your approach! 

To learn more about Marilyn's gorgeous Judaica, go to her website, More examples of my (mostly not machine embroidered) tallitot and their backstories are on my website, at

Monday, January 9, 2023

Sock Creature Do-Over for a Baby

Back in 2006, when my kids were in grade school, I became obsessed with the book, "Stupid Sock Creatures" by artist John Murphy. I made a bunch of them, including this entity, with a single two-button eyeball.

Well, now I have a grandson, so I removed the single choking-hazard eye, and replaced it with two embroidered felt eyes.

He's a little less weird, and a lot less dangerous.

There are now three books in Murphy's sock creature book series, and I'm warning you; making them is addictive. Even more addictive is shopping for the materials. You'll find yourself as I did spending hours in Target's sock and glove aisle, looking for the loudest most fun pop-art accessories! 

With Murphy's approach, the heel of the sock easily becomes the derriere, and they sit up nicely (with something behind them).

Murphy is a very interesting guy and you can learn more about him, his influences, and his thoughts about making a living as an artist, here. 

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Celebrate New York City! Make a Quilt!

My favorite things in life (aside from people) include most foods; most quilts made by someone other than me; and many aspects of New York City, which is sorta my ancestral homeland. 

So I am thrilled to announce that after a lifetime of gestation (plus a year of actual work), my book, "Quilted New York; Celebrate the City with Fabric and Color" is in print and available! 

Here’s the proof, my new book in my old hand, wearing my Dad's even-older ring (I think my grandmother gave it to him in the 40s). My Mom’s ring is on my other hand. I wish they were here, because New York City played a big role in their lives.

The book has detailed directions for making 11 structures inspired by iconic NYC architecture. There are two quilt patterns, one for this quilt, which I call "Color Block New York." (It can be about 70" square, more or less, depending on border choices.)

And for people with less wall space, there's "New York Condensed," which is about 60" square. 

My Dad's mother, a turn-of-the-century immigrant from Poland, settled in a one-room tenement apartment in Williamsburg (at 182 S. Third Street). Her husband abandoned the family, so she raised two sons alone, toiling at a sewing machine in a leather pocketbook factory. It’s such an irony that the sewing which wore her down brings her granddaughter so much joy. I understand how much luckier I am than her; the unconditional love she showered on us despite so many years of hard labor is one of the reasons I have the luxury of enjoying recreational stitching.  

My Mom was a death camp survivor from Radom, Poland, who moved to Brooklyn after the war. 

New York City gave both of them refuge and an excellent education. Dad earned an undergrad degree from NYU, and a graduate degree at Columbia U's Teacher's College; his tuition was paid by the GI Bill because of his combat service in WWII. I don't know how Mom paid for Hunter College, but it couldn't have been expensive, because it was public.

When I was in elementary school, we'd visit my Bubbie (grandmother), in that Williamsburg apartment. To my frustration, our parents absolutely forbade my brother and me from playing on the tantalizing fire escapes.

So New York always felt like my homeland. One building in my book is a tenement, complete with fire escape, in honor of Bubbie. (I took artistic liberties with the color).

It's my hope that the book will appeal not just to fans of The City, but also any quilter interested in portraying any city. 

First, because the book teaches my unique piecing technique for architecture, in which most raw edges are turned to the back during piecing, so you don't have to rip seam ends after the building's pieced. This method works well for all kinds of architectural appliques. 

Second, even though most of the buildings were inspired by particular New York structures, there may be similar buildings near you.

For example, the Empire State Building shares the wedding cake profile of many of its peers across the country that were built in the 1930s. Here's one of my depictions. 

The next structure was inspired by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the edge-turning-during-piecing technique works particularly well for so many post-modern buildings like this that have cantilevered sections hanging out beyond lower sections, with no supports at the ends, an engineering as well as a piecing and applique challenge.
Making my version of the Freedom Tower (gold below) was a little like making pants, because the base piece was so long. Next to it is a purple-ized Chrysler Building variation, with arcs of triangles.
And so forth! The book invites you to either follow along with detailed directions, diagrams, and measurements; or if you prefer, improvise your own variations. 

Learn more about the book at my shiny new website, here. Where can you buy the book?

1. Ask at your local quilt shop. Tell them they can order it from me, or via the wholesaler Ingram Books. (If you ARE a quilt shop, please contact me for more information, at

2. Order it from a local bookstore: Go to, and enter your zip code, to find a local bookseller who will order it for you (from Ingram).

3. If you'd like a signed (printed) copy; or a digital PDF edition, find both in my Etsy shop.

4. And, yes, it is on Amazon here, as well as other online booksellers. 

Please do feel free to email me with any questions!

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Clean Your House by Reincarnating Your Freemotion Practice into Psychedelic Gifts!

I've been on mental vacation for the past couple of days, because I just wrapped up a couple of big projects.  So I started procrastinating the next big thing on my list by cleaning up my studio and selected portions of my home. 

But then I wound up procrastinating my procastination with this gift project idea, just in time for the holidays: Wall art/kitchen art/potholders from old freemotion quilting practice pieces! Here's some of what I've made so far, in the guise of cleaning up my house:

1. An oven mitt made from light-threads-on black practice pieces. 
2. A square potholder made from two different practice pieces: 

And a dark-thread-on-white fabric potholder, colored with  fabric markers:

And you can do this, too! It started with the oven mitt. While cleaning out a cupboard in my sewing room, I found a forgotton stack  of freemotion practice pieces, including this: 

(Here's the quilt it was practice for, made for my next book "Quilted New York".)

You can't see quilting in the black sky above because I used black thread, so that my imperfect freemotion quilting wouldn't detract from the piecing. 

But on the way to that nervous and maybe temporary solution, I did a whole lot of quilting practice on black fabric with conspicuous threads. One of the most striking was a variegated grey which fades in and out as it shifts from light to dark and light again.
Also in my cleanup efforts, I've been throwing out old potholders. This is poignant; I made most of them in the last millenium; but especially because of the one below, a factory-made oven mitt that my daughter decorated for Mother's Day circa 2010. I have loved it dearly, but after a dozen years it's disgusting, greasy, and has a dangerous bald spot. It had to go. But I don't own another decent oven mitt, and, well, this one's got my precious little girl's art on it! 
Fortunately, the spirits sent a solution: Reincarnate it. I turned it inside out and traced around it to make a paper pattern. 

If you don't own an oven mitt, you can just as easily trace around your hand. I suggest you make the pattern substantially bigger. My first paper pattern, below, is about 8" x 12", but that was a little tight - my next one will be closer to 9 or 10" at the widest. (The 12" length was good, and you'll see I made another one a little shorter, which was fine too.)

I used that to cut out two opposite oversized mitts from my black freemotion practice pieces. (The one on the left still had gaps where batting showed - the white areas - but I easily covered those with more black fabric and a bit more uninhibited freemotion quilting.)

Now the two oversized halves looked like this. I added one more layer of white freemotion practice pieces under them.
The reverse sides:

I placed black sides together, outlined the mitt pattern closely on the back of one side, pinned everything in place, and sewed on the line. 
Trimmed the seam allowance far back.  Also clipped deep into the angle between the thumb and the rest, cutting up to but not through the seam. 
Then came the hardest part: turning it right side out.  It was a long, unladylike battle involving chopsticks, a metal ruler, bicep-flexing and grunting. 
Eventually I got there, and beat my chest with joy while giving a Tarzan yell. (Never say I'm not ladylike.) 
The other side. (The wiggly wave is the new patch, a slightly greyer black fabric.)
Binding the bottom edge was the last step.
I found leftover quilt binding, and ran it around the bottom to determine length. Then I pulled it off, trimmed back the extra with a half-inch seam allowance, sewed the ends together, and clipped it back in position. 
Sew 1/4" from the edge. Convert your arm to a freearm if you can, to make this step easier. 
Then turn the loose edge inward and hand sew in position. 

Awkward, but doable. And voila, here's the finished mitt, side 1.
And side 2 
That was so satisfying that I made a shorter oven mitt from the same pattern, and a shorter quilting practice piece, with dark thread on white fabric. For this one, I only used one freemotion practice piece on each side (instead of the double layer I used in the black one). That made it a lot easier to turn and I think the protection is still pretty good.  

I followed that with the two square potholders you saw above. This one was made from practice pieces from two different quilts, one grey and one black. I cut their mutual edges straight across, and did a multi-step zigzag to unite them. Can you find the guy shooting out of a cannon? 
The other side features guitars, suns, and a large upside-down cat. The seams criss-cross each other in opposite directions. I added a fried-egg binding.
That led me to dig up more freemotion samples, in this case white ones, to make another square potholder. 
The reverse side had two different white practice pieces zig-zagged together, with the join covered by a strip of popcorn fabric. 
Compared to the others, this one seemed boring. Wouldn't it be great if that white fabric were rainbow-colored? Wait - I can do the coloring myself! (My little girl is now in grad school  and doesn't have time to color these new potholders just because her mother is having a nostalgia fit.)

I dragged out my extensive (and old) collection of markers, pencils and crayons, and tried coloring with all of them. My unscientific findings: 
  • Fabric-tipped markers are much easier to color with than crayons or colored pencils. It's especially helpful if the marker has one narrow and one wider end. 
  • Crayola washable markers were my favorite for lots of courage and minimum dexterity required, but unfortunately they're "WASHABLE," which means the color will vanish with washing! This can be a good thing if you're doing this project with a very young child who also wants to color themselves and the walls.
  • I enjoyed using my old permanent Identi-pen fabric markers, Zig markers, and FabricMate markers. But all those sets were pricey when I bought them new, and they still are.

Marker and pen brands come and go, so I did a little online research and found many more choices these days! I was especially overjoyed to discover that Crayola now sells sets of  permanent fabric markers, and they are less expensive than most other brands. I headed for my local Michaels, expecting to find them easily. 

Michaels had at least three different sections with many brands of colorful permanent markers (fine art supplies, fabric supplies, and scrapbooking) - but nowhere did I find the Crayola permanent fabric markers. Here's what was in the fabric marker section:
Most are "Tulip" brand (the ones on the bottom are "Artminds". I decided to invest in a small set of the former, $8.99 for six pens. 
I tried them on my white potholder.
That led to another interesting discovery - the bottom section of the potholder above was quilted on a white-on-white muslin print. The subtle white design on the print was nearly invisible, until I colored it  - then the fabric's subtle leafy print appeared as a watermark-like texture! Kinda cool! 
Meanwhile, the area above it was on a smooth solid white no watermark texture appeared, you could just see the strokes. 
I had trouble coloring in the lines and the result was a bit blotchy. But once I colored more of it, it became psychedelic, like Yellow Submarine! I even colored over some of the popcorn, which you can see on the right. 

This would be a fun collaborative gift. Present a potholder, (or a pillow, or a throw) made from freemotion practice pieces, to an artsy-craftsy youngster or adult; along with a set of fabric markers (or washable markers if they're very young and the piece will never be washed). You could even sew a bunch of practice pieces into an artistic coloring book! 

I really want to know: What do YOU do with your old freemotion quilting pieces? 

Commercial postscript: My big projects that I just finished include my new website, and my next book "Quilted New York," which is about to be published!