(Check here for how to make a bolster pillow for bobbin lace)
Block pillows are very useful for bobbin lace done on a flat (i.e. non bolster) pillow, as it allows the lacemaker to progress the lace without having to “move up”: once your lace occupies most of the pillow, you have to unpin and move the whole thing up/sideways to continue, say you are working on a tablecloth or anything larger than a motif.
For me the drawback is that blocks are typically made of foam, and after a while all the pinning makes them go soft, not to mention that I’d like as much as possible to stick to natural materials.
I had come across a German lace supplier selling felt block pillows: beautiful, but very expensive, and on top of that the covering seemed to be held by glue, so I wasn’t too convinced I’d be happy afterwards. And so it was that I set out to make my own, and here is how I did.
First of all I ordered 50cm of this 100% wool industrial felt: it is denoted as “soft” for industrial purposes, but it is in fact pretty stiff, and I do mean stiff! But my expert lacemaking friends tells me that pillows must be stiff to hold the pins well, so why not?!
Before ordering I had tested on a sample that it would be stiff enough to hold the pins, but also soft enough not to be impenetrable (they kindly sent me a small sample, which was enough for testing). The “0.18 density” denomination means that it weighs 0.18g/cm³. So the whole 180cm wide piece I ordered (which came rolled up) weighs 180×1.2x50x0.18/1000=1.944kg. I should add that this was by far the cheapest 100% wool felt I could find, and in the right density (most others were denser, and I was afraid pins just won’t go in), and the people there couldn’t have been more helpful (and my guess is that mine was a tiny purchase from their point of view).
I made the blocks by dividing the 180cm wide strip into four pieces. I then put three of them one atop the other and cut through. To cut through this dense felt you will need a cutter – this video was very useful for me to figure out how to cut the felt:
It is worth investing in a good cutter with a suitably long blade (as in the video) – mine has a short blade, so it did take a bit of extra work.
The felt blocks are cut!
The blocks aren’t exactly identical (thanks to the cutter and my “skills”): I thought the covering would take care of that, but I kept track of the original position when I cut just in case. The blocks are laid on the uncut fourth piece.
To cover the blocks I used strips of calico and of close weave quilting cotton. I washed them first, just to be sure that especially the cotton would not run off any dye. Before cutting any pieces I “starched the hell out of them”, following the expert advice of a very accomplished quilter friend of mine. Just a couple of points to note with starching:
1. I put the piece of fabric to be ironed flat on a tiled floor and sprayed it with starch to make sure it was evenly covered in starch. Any starch ending up on the floor will make it very slippery, so make sure to clean it up very carefully;
2. if you starch while ironing, be aware that any starch ending up on your ironing board may be burnt by the iron if it comes in direct contact, so again do wipe it out
3. iron without steam.
The starching makes the fabric very crisp and stiff, making it really easy to cut. It also removes the need to zigzag at the cut.
I first cut a template in tracing paper, checking that it would accommodate each block, then cut the fabric.
The template should of course include a a seam allowance. I cut both calico and cover cotton of the same side, of course bear in mind that the covering cotton will have to also accommodate the thickness of the calico.
Again following the advice of my seamstress friend, I stitched the strips of fabric around the blocks using slip stitch. I found this video really useful to figure out the slip stitch, though unlike the video I had a seam allowance on both ends being stitched together:
My stitches were of course also much closer, I’d say about 3-4mm. I took an amount of thread equal to three times the length to stitch. Not sure what the size of my needle was though.
Stitching the cover so that it fits snugly means you have to pull the thread a lot, so I used silk sewing thread (Gütermann S303), which comes in many shades. I happened to have already the exact shades I needed, though with slip stitch the stitching should be invisible, so it should not really matter.
For each block, I started by stitching a tube (along the long side – my blocks are not square) with the calico: I made the the seam allowance so that it would fit the block snugly, but I stitched the fabric without the block inside, so that I could press the inside seams flat. I then slipped the block inside, so that the seam would be in the middle of a side. I pressed a seam allowance of about 5mm to cover the other two short sides, stitching it all along, then tucking the two corners inside. I pressed with the hot iron all around the block.
I repeated the same process with the cover fabric, wrapping it over the calico.
Of course there is nothing preventing using the sewing machine for two out of the three seams required for each cover, which is what I ended up doing after sewing both covers for the first two blocks.
And then it is done!
All is left for me to do is to add a strap all around to tighten up and minimise the (unavoidable) gaps.
Still to come, how I made a bolster bobbin lace pillow!