Friday, June 15, 2012

Quilting 101

This information is geared for BEGINNER quilters, so if you are already quilting, it will probably not teach you anything new.

Quilting 101... Just the Basics!
Quilts have been made for centuries, utilizing salvageable parts of worn-out clothing or bits of fabric left over from sewing clothes in order to make something useful for the home with what was available.  Their makers took pride in putting together the pieces, creating decorative designs that have survived the test of time, with names that often reflect their origins, like Ohio Star, Road to Kansas, Sukey’s Choice, Lincoln’s Platform, Tennessee Waltz, etc.   While it is fulfilling to create new and unique designs, it warms the heart to work with antique, traditional patterns that have decorated homes for hundreds of years, connecting us with the past while interpreting these patterns in new and exciting ways.  We’ve come a long way since our ancestors painstakingly pieced their quilt blocks by hand in the lamplight.  We have electric sewing machines, rotary cutters and mats to facilitate cutting and sewing, and rainbows of fabrics to choose from in designing our masterpieces.  

One of the simplest blocks to make is a 9-patch, which consists of 3 squares set in 3 rows, and that is probably one of the first traditional quilt blocks that was made.  It certainly was one of the blocks most often made in early times.  I use modern methods of piecing, using a rotary cutter with a special cutting mat designed for rotary cutting.  You can do the piecing by cutting individual pieces, but it takes a lot longer than “strip piecing”, as it is called.  You can also hand-sew when piecing the blocks, but it will take a lot longer.

Supplies Needed:
Sewing machine          Fabric     Thread & bobbins
Rotary cutter & mat       Scissors/snippers     Seam ripper
Cutting rulers/guides       Quilting pins and pincushion          Tape measure
Sewing machine needles

Quilting fabric is traditionally 100% cotton, preferably in a broadcloth weight.  A blend of cotton and polyester may be used, but it is often a lighter weight fabric that’s more difficult to work with.  It ravels more easily, and the firmer fabrics are easier to sew.  Start by selecting at least one fabric that you love, and use that to choose coordinating colors.  You’ll be looking at those fabrics for a lot of hours, while creating your quilt!  It’s more enjoyable if you like the colors and fabrics you are using.  If you become “hooked” on quilting, you will find yourself joining those of us who frequent the fabric counters, stockpiling the fabrics we like and think we might use as a main or accent color.  Some people purchase “fat quarters”, which are ¼ yard but cut into a size more easily used in a variety of patterns, 18” X 22”, rather than 9” X 44”, which is the actual ¼ yard.  Some experts suggest buying 2 yards of a fabric you like, and if you LOVE it, buy 3 or 4 yards or more!  Neutral fabrics are always handy to have in your stock, as well as muslins, both bleached and unbleached.

Scrap quilts use a variety of colors and prints in the same quilt, seldom making each block of the same fabrics, but repeating the same fabric in the block or throughout the quilt.  Charm quilts do not repeat any fabric in the quilt, and quilt groups often exchange small squares of fabrics with each other, in order obtain the greater variety of prints and colors necessary to complete a Charm Quilt, which may take thousands of different fabrics. Sampler quilts use a different pattern for each block, usually the same size, such as a 12” block.  They may use the same fabrics in each block, or may use coordinating yet different fabrics in each, creating a uniform design to the finished quilt, with sashing strips or plain blocks separating the pieced blocks that bring the quilt together.  Medallion quilts feature a center portion that is the focal point of the quilt, with various methods of framing the center to set it off to best advantage.

In order to determine the amount of fabric needed for the quilt, first decide on the size of the completed quilt.  Choose the pattern, and break it down into colors and sizes.  For instance, if you are making a 6” block, and it will be made up of three 2” squares in 3 rows, it is what is known as a 9 patch.  For a 2” finished square, you will need to cut a 2 ½” strip of fabric, and then cut that strip into 2 ½” squares, allowing ¼” seam allowance on all sides.   If the fabric is 44” wide, there are 16 or 17 squares per strip.  Use this method to calculate the amount of yardage needed, depending on the size of your quilt and how many times you will repeat this fabric in each block.  Repeat your calculations for each color you want to use in the quilt, and always add a little extra to allow for errors.  The leftover fabric can be used in a future scrap quilt.

To wash or not to wash the fabric is your choice.  Most colored fabrics are now dyed using methods that will not bleed the colors when they are wet, and they are treated to retain their size without shrinkage.  Machine piecing and quilting is easier with unwashed fabric, which still has the sizing on it.  In fact, fabrics are often starched to facilitate quilting by machine.  If hand quilting, the softer finish of washed fabric is desirable, however.  If you are in doubt about the fabric being colorfast, cut a small square of the fabric and put it into warm water in a clear glass.  If any color seeps from the fabric, it is best to pre-wash the fabric until the water is clear.   Washing the quilt after quilting is completed gives it more of an antique look, as it creates a bit of puckering around the stitching.  I machine wash my quilts on gentle cycle, and hang them over a clothesline to dry, wrong side out.  Remember the sun can fade colors.

Rotary Cutters, Rulers, Mats & Other Notions:
There are a variety of mats, rulers and cutters available.  Self-healing mats are by far the best investment.  Although they are a bit more expensive, they will probably last a lifetime, whereas the cheaper mats will wear out quickly.   The mat should be large enough to fit comfortably on your cutting surface, and be marked in a grid of inches with markings of at least ¼” included.   You may want to have a large mat on your cutting table, with a smaller mat next to your sewing machine for trimming the blocks as you sew.

The style of the cutter depends on what feels most comfortable in your hand.  Some cutters have a retractable blade, which some may find is a benefit.  Rotary cutters are extremely sharp and should be used with care, and kept out of reach of small children.  Take care not to hit the blade against the ruler, as it will dull the blade very quickly.  Replacement blades are available for most cutters, and it is necessary to change the blade when it begins to skip areas when cutting.  Rotary blade sharpeners are on the market, and worth the investment, as blades are expensive.  A 45 mm blade/cutter is fine for most jobs.

Rulers are necessary to have as a guide for the cutter, and come in a myriad of styles.  A ruler that has a “lip” to hook onto the cutting mat is a good ruler to start with.  Smaller squares are also handy, for trimming a 2-1/2”, 4-1/2”, 6-1/2” block.  Square rulers 8-1/2” ,10 ½” or 12-1/2" are handy for squaring up blocks, but are not necessary.  Some are sold in sets of various sizes.  Sandpaper or rubber “dots” are also available to prevent rulers from slipping on fabric while cutting, and a necessity for neat cutting.  One of my favorite rulers for strip cutting is the June Tailor Shape Cutter, which is marked with cutting slots every ½”, and comes in a 12” or 18” size.

Final tip:  Be sure to have a sharp seam ripper handy!  Even the most fastidious seamstress will have an occasional seam that needs to be undone.  Thread snippers next to your machine and/or ironing board are also helpful for clipping loose threads.

Sewing Machine and Thread:
Any machine is fine, as long as it produces an even stitch.  A shorter stitch is often used for machine piecing, providing a stronger seam (I set my stitch length on 2).  For piecing, it is not necessary to use 100% cotton thread, although some feel it is best for quilting by machine.  Cones of thread are more reasonable in price than spools, and thread holders are available for them.  Check your stitching, and adjust the tension, as needed, to get neat stitching on the top and bottom.  Consult your sewing machine manual to accomplish this.  It’s a good idea to have your machine cleaned and serviced regularly.

A machine that has a needle up/down selection and a speed control may be preferable for machine quilting.  A walking foot may also be necessary for machine quilting, as that foot feeds the fabric from the top as well as the bottom feed dogs, so the fabric is evenly fed on the top and bottom.   The walking foot is fine for straight-line quilting or even a slight curve.  A free-motion foot is necessary for free motion quilting, such as feather designs or circular designs.  The feed dogs on the machine are lowered, and the fabric is guided through the machine solely with the hands.  This technique is more difficult to master, and takes a lot of practice in order to have neat quilting patterns.  You may need to use a longer stitch and adjust the tension for machine quilting.

It is necessary to calibrate your machine before you begin to piece your quilt blocks.  Most machines have a foot that is used for piecing, with a leg that measures ¼” from the needle to the outside of the foot.  These do not necessarily give a ¼” seam!   Cut 3 strips of fabric, each 2 ½” wide by 6 ½” long.  Join each strip, using a quarter inch seam.  When completed, press the seams to one side and measure your block on your cutting mat.  It should measure 6 ½” from side to side, and the center strip should measure exactly 2”.  If it is narrower than that, your “quarter inch” seam is wider than ¼”.  If it measures more than 6 ½”, your seam is too narrow.  When you find the place that does give a near-perfect quarter inch seam, it may be helpful to place a line on masking tape, directly on your machine bed, to help keep your seams uniform.

If your stitching is not even, if threads catch and pull, or if your machine begins to sound noisier with a “thud” as it stitches, your needle may be getting dull.  Have extra needles handy to change your needle readily while you are piecing your blocks (I use Schmetz 80/12).   It makes a BIG difference to have sharp needles!   Another handy trick is to wind at least four bobbins before you begin to piece your blocks, so they are ready to pop in whenever you run out of bobbin thread.  It usually takes 4 or more bobbins of thread to complete a full-sized quilt top, and another 4 or more to quilt the top.

Chain and strip piecing facilitate the piecing process.  Cut the pieces for several blocks at the same time.  If you are making a 9-patch scrap quilt, for instance, cut 3 strips of equal width in contrasting colors and sew the long strips together.  Alternate sewing the strips, starting the second seam from the opposite direction of the first seam, which helps to alleviate the natural difference in the way the fabric feeds, which can create a “curve” in the seam.  This isn't as much of a problem with fat quarters, as the length is only half as much. Press the seams toward the darker fabric.  After sewing and pressing the unit, THEN cut it into the size desired.  For example, cut three 2 ½” strips of fabric, and join them in the manner desired.  Press the seams, then cut into 2 ½” segments.  You will probably have 16 or 17 pieces that measure 2 ½” by 6 ½” each.  Repeat this two more times, alternating light and dark colors each time.  Sew the three different cut and pieced strips together, and you will have a completed block, 6 ½” square.  Since your seams are ¼”, this will give a finished block size of 6”.  Trim and square up your block to measure 6-1/2”, if necessary, before joining them.

Press As You Go:
 A good steam iron is essential to successful patchwork blocks.  Press each seam toward the dark fabric whenever you can.  In some cases, the dark seam may show through the light fabric on a finished quilt.  Set the seam first by pressing the seam from the wrong side, directly on the stitching line, with the dark fabric on top.  Flip the dark fabric up and press from the right side.  The seam will be pressed toward the dark fabric automatically and will be more likely to stay in place neatly. Alternate the direction you press the seams so that the seams butt against each other when joining the segments of the block.  A soft pad on the ironing board also makes pressing easier, so change the ironing board pad when necessary.

Most fabric shops have sales regularly and quite often have half-price off rotary cutting tools, fabrics, and other notions, so watch for the flyers, or search online.  Sometimes they have coupons for 50% off one item, as well.

Next time, I’ll show some photos of 9-patch quilts, to give you some ideas, and give some instructions on piecing your first quilt.  In the meantime, you can Google “9-patch quilt patterns” and you’ll have enough to keep you busy looking for a LONG time!  

WARNING:  Quilting is known to be addictive, and I will not accept responsibility for your addiction!


  1. Hi Alaena,
    That is so nice that you are sharing your knowledge about quilting.

  2. wow great job. i'm looking forward to learning!