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Birds of a Feather quilted table runner using foundation piecing

by Pam Voth

After baby quilts and bags, Dresden plates, hexies and zipper pouches, I decided to return to a quilting project I originally attempted soon after beginning my quilting journey using foundation paper-piecing.

 A quilted table runner with birds on it

My Birds of a Feather quilted table runner

I originally completed a series of fish (from small to large), which I currently have swimming (framed) across my bathroom wall and so, after doing some research, I purchased a book, Feathered Friends by Jette Norregaard Nielsen with 18 paper-pieced blocks for bird lovers (available for $30 on Amazon). I’m creating a nuthatch, stork, woodpecker, and swallow for a friend who has recently moved into her first home. I have known her since our boys started pre-school together and so, now, in her twenties, she has found her life partner and they’re making a home together. She’s a nature lover with a heart for gardens, puppies, and birds so, this table runner will be a colorful addition to her home.

 Scraps of fabrics of various colors (oranges, blues, black, pink, grays, reds, beige) are displayed on the green-leaf fabric that will be used as the background for each bird. 

Fabric scraps ready for my paper-piecing bird quilt.

This is also an end-of-summer stash-buster project. I dug through my stash and pulled out the various colors required for my bird project. Will I add some things as I go? Change my mind about some of the fabrics? Absolutely but, stash buster projects are always fun because you dig through and find a fabric that reminds you of already completed projects that are out in the world being enjoyed. When you’re doing paper-piecing, remember, that any size fabric is worth keeping because bird beaks are really tiny.

I’m beginning with the nuthatch because it seems like the easiest – time will tell about that. I have chosen the colors for this particular bird from my stash. A dappled medium gray and light beige for the body, as well as two shades of orange. A pale gray for the beak, a wood patterned fabric for the branch, and the background leaf fabric (a gift from my mentor). The pattern is scanned and printed. I printed several copies which were very useful because I misplaced the tiny pieces and had to recut them.

n the top photo, you can see section B of the nuthatch piecing with the green , beige and gray fabric. Section B has been sewn together showing the start of the body and the green background. The bottom photo shows the setup of the green on Section C with the background green and the beige and gray for the next part of the body. 

Nuthatch fabric with first section of paper piecing complete

Do I remember how to do paper-piecing? Well, thankfully, there were some great instructions in the book. Keep the pieces of fabric big, make sure you have at least a ½” edge around the outside of the paper for the first piece. My advice, turn your machine to turtle and move slowly, press in between each addition and trim at the end.

The left side shows the front of the B section of the bird with the sewing lines on the paper. You can see the different colors of the nuthatch underneath. The right side of the picture shows Section B turned over. You can see the shape of the gray and beige body emerging inside the green background. 

Paper piecing sewn from back and front

This pattern requires you to do the paper piecing in A-I sections. B and C are completed first and then sewn with right-sides together, matching the paper and using a ¼” seam. When you unpin and unfold it…ta-da! You have the bird’s head. I had to rip and tear to get everything to match appropriately – although it’s a bird (feathers are not exactly completely even) and it’s homemade. My rule of thumb is that a mistake must be fixed if I look at it and that is where my eye goes. If it blends in, it was meant to be.

In the left picture, you can the pins holding the B and C sections of the paper piecing together, right sides together with the sewing paper visible. You ca see the ¼” seam. The right-hand picture shows the photo of the completed Nuthatch from the book, you can see the green background, the log it is sitting on, the gray, beige and dark and light orange of the body. The right-hand picture shows my completed Nuthatch head, the gray and beige attached to the green background. 

Sewing together section B and C to make the Nuthatch head

Before you sew the pieces together, you need to trim a ¼” seam on both sides of the pieces that are being matched. This has become a learn as I go project because as I move through it, I find ways to make it easier. Careful trimming of the sides that are to be matched is one tip – make sure your lines are straight and don’t curve in, it makes matching it more difficult.   Hold your ruler firmly and use a rotary cutter to ensure a straight, ¼” edge.

The section of the bird can be seen through the yellow ruler grid. The ruler is placed along the edge that will be joined with the matching part of the bird. You can see that the edge of the ruler is straight at ¼” ready to be cut with your rotary blade. You can see the paper through the ruler showing the different pieces that have been pieced together in gray and green fabric. 

Trimming before sewing the pieces together

As you continue to sew the pieces together, you get better at matching the paper with the right sides together and the ¼” seam allowance. You can use the folded fabric to help you match and you can also stick a pin through the fabric from one side to the other to ensure the corners match. It’s tricky and having a second person around to help you (like a great mentor) really helps. Again, the turtle setting for speed on your computer is very much your friend during this project.

Before and after…sewing the sections of the nuthatch together

Before and after…sewing the sections of the nuthatch together

The Nuthatch is complete. You really need your mentors to encourage you because you’ll see all the flaws. I was actually pretty surprised at how well it turned out.

Warning – I used my stitch ripper a lot, particularly when joining the sections and trying to get them to match as perfectly as possible and turtle, turtle, turtle on my machine, as well as lots of ironing, being careful to fold the pieces of fabric properly along the paper piecing lines. I’m now ready to try the stork.

My completed nuthatch

My completed nuthatch

The stork is extremely challenging because the pieces are smaller. The stork is built in 13 sections. You make the body sections first, then the head and neck sections and then you sew those sections together. I followed the same tips I shared with the nuthatch except, I used pinning more effectively, pinning along the sewing line when putting the sections together and then folding back to examine and adjust my matching skills. It did save a bit of stitch ripping.  Always remember to use a smaller stitch as well on the sewing machine. This is important for holding the seams firmly, as well as ease in ripping out the paper at the end. I now move to the swallow – 21 sections and some very tiny pieces.

This picture shows the nuthatch which I completed first (greay, beign and orange body agains a green, leafy background, sitting on a brown patterned branch) on the left and the recently completed stork on the right. The stork is standing on the green, leafy background with its bent red legs and feet, the body is black and white with a long red beak, against the gray sky as a background. The grays and greens are the same for each bird and this ties them nicely together. 

Completed nuthatch and stork quilt blocks!

I have never been a quilter to have more than one project going at once but, I’m starting a huge project that will probably take me at least a year. I’m making a quilt for our bedroom – a sampler quilt with log cabin blocks. I have chosen the fabric and I’m ready to start the first log cabin. I’m starting with one to ensure that I like the way the fabrics go together. I completed the paste-up page to show the fabrics from my to-be-created block (Eleanor Burns, Forty Fabulous Years, page 31). So, my quilting journey is advancing to another skill level! This means I’m working with my mentors more than ever (then consulting with my husband because he wants to have input into our quilt as well). Moving forward, setting goals, becoming more confident, and willing to try more challenging projects is a big theme of my blog posts – the birds and my long-term quilt project are pushing me to even greater heights, both as a person and a quilter.

Log cabin fabric paste up page

Log cabin fabric paste up page

I know I’m really pushing myself with this bird project when my two very experienced mentors have mentioned a couple of times that I might be crazy. I have been thinking a lot about contentment these days, especially when life is so different and, generally, we’ll be stuck for a while due to public health issues and winter is coming…cold weather and snow. Working on a project that’s challenging means I practice patience daily – the sewing is slow; the matching of pieces is even slower and I spend time re-doing things. Slowing down is always a good thing – appreciating what you have, worrying less, taking time to accomplish goals and trying things that stretch you. I’m now almost finished the swallow – tiny pieces are sewn together. The head of the swallow took me two hours to finish. To date, I have spent approximately 10 hours just on the swallow. Think about this as a winter project – cold and snow – a cup of tea or glass of wine (I highly recommend the glass of wine) and cutting, sewing, matching, folding open, ironing…and using up lots of scraps.

This photo shows the assembling of the swallow. At the top of the picture, you can see the top of the head of the swallow mounted on a gray background, the bottom half of the head and the top of the body (white, blue and black) are on the section below and you can see the beginning of the gray beak. You can see the instruction page and diagram of the foundation pieces for the swallow, as well as the cutter and scissors and cutting mat. At the bottom of the picture, you can see all the pieces that have been created for the bottom half of the bird, including the tail, sewn and ready to be assembled.

Making the swallow

I completed the swallow and tackled the woodpecker. This bird had even more sections and tinier pieces. The challenging part of the woodpecker is that you end up with many thick seams that you have to cut through. Take your time and cut slowly. I ended up replacing the blade on my rotary cutter because there was so much heavy trimming for this project. I worked on one section at a time – A – Z and then AA, BB and CC. I did not use any fabrics that were directional because when sewing on a piece upside down and backwards, adding the challenge of a pattern that must go a certain way would have been very frustrating. The pieces of the bird are also so small that pattern would have just gotten lost. I used mottled fabrics for the tree branch, the sky and the leaves and they added texture to the project.

The completed swallow is shown facing the right with long black tail feathers, a white belly, the back and head are a combination of blue and black (mostly black) with a white face dark gray beak. The swallow is sitting on an orange wire, you can see the dark gray feet gripping the wire. The swallow is mounted on light, dappled gray. 

The completed swallow

I completed the project by sewing a 2½” border onto each of the birds and then sewing another border on top and bottom. I pinned it to the backing (leaving a 2½” strip all the way around the project on the backing for the border). I decided to do stitch in the ditch around the edge of each bird and then create the border.

Adding the binding to the Birds of a Feather table runner

Adding the binding to the Birds of a Feather table runner

I have been thinking a lot lately of how we add value to the lives of those around us. Quilting is a hobby that really adds value to our own lives and the lives of those for whom we quilt. Everyone needs a purpose – it doesn’t have to be building skyscrapers, or finding the answers to all of life’s mysteries, it can be as simple as taking some beautiful fabric (or even some scraps of fabric) and creating something that will add beauty to someone’s life. I know this project looks more difficult but, I’ll reinforce the fact that a little over a year ago, I had never quilted anything and by committing to each project, working with trusted friends and mentors, making a lot of mistakes and stepping way outside my comfort zone, I have amazed myself and I think that I have amazed my mentors too!

Now, I’m always on the hunt for fabric and ideas for my next project. With Christmas around the corner, I’ll create another table runner as a gift – so, stay tuned because now that my birds have flown the coop, I’ll focus on Christmas and moving forward with my sampler quilt for my bedroom.

Now, I can’t wait to write an encouraging note and send my Birds of a Feather table runner off to a young couple who are full of enthusiasm, with their lives before them filled with challenges, with joys, and yes, in all probability, sorrows. But with love, openness, and joy to sustain them…as well as a bright and beautiful table runner to remind them of all the beauty that exists in nature and in the world around them, their future is bright!

Join me next month, for my next quilting adventure!

The table runner is outside on the deck, the red, black and white woodpecker is on the far left ready to tap on a dappled brown branch, the black, blue and white swallow is sitting on the wire with the gray sky in the background. The stork is walking across the green grass background with gray sky in the background, feet and beak of red, head and body of white and black tail feathers are the colors. The final bird on the far right is the upside-down nutharch, clinging to the dappled branch, the gray body ad orange belly are offset by the green leafy background. The birds are each framed in black and the binding and backing for the table runner are the green, leafy fabric used for the background. The binding is the green leafy fabric. 

The completed foundation piecing table runner ready to be gifted to my friend


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