- You might see some terms that you don’t understand – you can find explanations by referring to this blog: https://ukqu.co.uk/hints-and-tips-terms-used-in-patchwork-and-quilting/
- This blog relates to general patchwork / quilting.
- Any recommendations for specific products are items I use – I have no affiliation to any of the companies mentioned.
How did I get into this?
I read regular comments on the UK Quilters United Facebook Group – “I’ve got a new sewing machine and I want to make a quilt. How do I do it?”.
When I see these comments I think “How did you come to that conclusion?!?!?”. That sounds like an odd thing to say, but I’ll explain. I’m a serial crafter – always have at least 2 or 3 crafts going at once. However, despite having a sewing machine I really was not into sewing at all! And patchwork!?! I couldn’t work out why anyone would want to cut fabric up into tiny pieces just to sew them back together again. I went on a half day course locally, had no idea what I was doing, but by the end of the session I had completed (all bar some hand sewing) a table runner using a disappearing 9 patch block. I was hooked.
Going on a course is not available to us at the time of writing, so we have to find other ways to get the knowledge we need. I have been trying to work out what I have learned to help you.
What I had to learn / What I needed:
– Learn: The difference between patchwork and quilting. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably but they are not. Patchwork is precision sewing bits of fabric together into new pieces of fabric, whereas quilting is decorative sewing through 3 layers of fabric to construct a quilt.
– Learn: Quilters use imperial measurements (inches) rather than metric!
– NEEDED: A decent quality cutting mat – the biggest one you have room for – taking account of the fact that it might need to be accommodated on a dining table etc. My first one was a 24×18 inch mat, which still gets a lot of use. Essential for use with a rotary cutter.
– NEEDED: A quality rotary cutter with replacement blades, and learn how to handle it safely. Rotary cutter blades are VERY sharp. I also advise getting a rotary cutter with a handle which automatically covers the blade when it is not in use for safety sake – locking the blade when not in use is also a very good idea. It is possible to use decent scissors, but a rotary cutter and ruler is the easiest way to get clean, straight cuts, which is what we need when doing patchwork. I started out with a 45mm OLFA cutter.
– NEEDED: Acrylic rulers and how to use them. These are not rulers you can buy in a stationers. Acrylic quilting rulers are about 1/8th of an inch thick, and come in a vast array of sizes and shapes. You don’t need them all, particularly in the beginning. The rulers need to be marked in inches, as the vast majority of patchwork and quilting patterns use inches. My essential starting rulers would be a 6in x 24in ruler and a 10in or 12in square. Learning how to handle the rulers sounds obvious but is not. You need to learn and practice how to keep the rotary cutter upright and close to the ruler, and how to hold the ruler steady without it slipping. In combination with a sharp rotary cutter, a decent acrylic ruler allows you to make the clean, straight consistent cuts we need.
– Learn: SEAMS! We use quarter inch seams in patchwork. It is important to practice making consistent quarter inch seams, because any pattern that you follow will expect consistent quarter inch seams or it won’t work properly, so this is useful practice. Don’t be afraid to measure from your needle inwards, to the body of your machine, making a quarter inch mark at the appropriate point on a piece of masking tape if necessary. Remember though – if your machine has different needle positions, you will need to remeasure if you move the needle.
– Learn: A quilt is made up of 3 layers – the top, often but not always patchwork, the batting and the backing, which are quilted together by sewing through all of the layers.
– Learn: Fabric – generally woven cotton. Buy what you like initially, or buy for a specific project. You will see people talk about having a large “stash” of fabric, and others worrying about how to build up a stash. Don’t worry – your stash will build itself! (Ask me how I know…..) Some quilters are very proud that they only have a minimal stash, and only buy what they need for their next project. Oh to have that sort of control!
– Learn: Prewashing fabric. This can be a controversial subject. Some people wash every piece of fabric prior to piecing a quilt, some never do. It is a choice you have to make. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. You cannot sensibly wash pre-cuts because they are too small and fray too much, but fabrics bought in at least fat quarter sizes can (and probably should) be washed both to preshrink and to check for colour fastness.
– Learn: Use quality thread. Thread can be another contentious issue. It is usually recommended that you match your thread fibre to your fabric eg if you are piecing cotton fabric, use cotton thread. I buy big cones of quality cotton thread (usually Mettler). I don’t use the generally available cheaper threads, but that is a personal preference – having used better thread I realise I don’t like these cheaper threads. Threads like Mettler might look quite expensive, but thread is probably the cheapest component of your quilt, my machine loves it and you don’t need masses of colours for piecing – I only use either pale grey, dark grey or sometimes cream. Buying large cones of limited colours can be quite cost effective. You don’t need any other colours for piecing.
– Learn: Use the best fabrics and threads you can manage. This does not mean the most expensive – we cannot all afford expensive stuff. We might want to recycle garments or fabrics – after all, this is what our grandmothers and their grandmothers did. You can use anything! Quilting cottons (indeed fabric in general) can be eye wateringly expensive these days, so use what you can afford. If you want to practice by using old bed sheets or old shirts – go for it! My recommendation here is to try to keep consistency across your block – don’t mix cottons and synthetics for example. Also, try to keep the fabric “weight” consistent across your piece – probably not the best to use lightweight cotton alongside heavy corduroy in your first item (unless you are determined to go completely off piste – in which case good luck to you!)
– Learn: Think about the purpose of your quilt. If you are making a quilt for a dog’s bed (and I have!) then the cost of your fabrics is probably less important than their durability. If you are making a quilt that you would like to become an heirloom, do you want to spend all of that time and effort using inferior quality components?
– Learn: What is batting (wadding) and what type is best? The 10,000 dollar question! There are all sorts of battings, with a wide range of costs, a wide range of materials and useful for different purposes. Do some investigation – some shops do sample packs. The only advice I would give is PLEASE make sure that you use batting meant for quilting, otherwise you might be disappointed. For example, a common batting used is 100% polyester. The polyester batting used for quilting is branded (for example Hobbs Polydown, but there are others). If you see polyester batting / wadding described by weight eg 6oz polyester wadding, this is a different quality and is meant for upholstery rather than quilting so will not give the right effects and will be hard to work with. Common batting used to begin quilting is either 100% polyester or 80/20 cotton /polyester, but there are plenty of other types.
– NEEDED: Pins and / or fabric clips (known as wonder clips). I use both, but I use clips all of the time when binding my quilt. My pins are long and fine – often known as lace pins. They are more expensive, but I find them easier to use.
– NEEDED: A decent iron. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but ironing each seam and the block flat after sewing pieces of fabric together are key steps. Many people use a non steam travel iron.
– Learn: How do you iron your seams? Most quilters advocate ironing seams to one side (the dark side, so that it cannot be seen through the light fabric). However, some quilters swear by pressing the seams open. I press to the dark side – I find it easier.
– Useful / NEEDED: Non silicon starch. I didn’t realise I needed this until a while into my quilting journey. It makes your fabric easier to iron, to cut and position for sewing together. You don’t need anything expensive nor do you need something which says “specifically for quilting” – as you might be able to guess, those tend to be more expensive!
– NEEDED: A method of basting the 3 layers of a quilt together prior to quilting – this can be as basic as a needle and thread (but see Nice to Haves below).
– NEEDED: A reliable method of sewing – machine or / and hand sewing. A machine does not have to be an expensive, top of the range machine, nor does it need to be computerised. A simple machine with multiple stitch positions and multiple stitch lengths will work perfectly. I generally machine piece my quilts (often on a 50 year old Bernina machine!) because I am impatient, but I do hand finish my quilts, and I sometimes hand quilt too. Don’t forget that you need to regularly change your machine needle – they do get blunt. A good recommendation is at the beginning of every new project.
Nice to haves
– Odil 505 spray (or equivalent). This is a wash out adhesive spray that can be used to baste a quilt sandwich. I was shown this on my first quilting course, and I think it is excellent, but not everyone likes to use it. On a bigger quilt I use this and some hand basting or safety pins.
– Curved safety pins – another method of basting a quilt sandwich.
(You will find more information on 505 spray and curved safety pins on this blog relating to making a quilt sandwich https://ukqu.co.uk/adventures-of-an-inexperienced-quilter-making-a-quilt-sandwich/)
– A walking foot for your machine. I would say this is a NEED rather than a nice to have, but they can be a little more of an outlay than a normal machine foot. A walking foot helps your machine to feed thick multi layer fabrics eg a quilt through your machine – it effectively adds a set of feed dogs on top of your fabric, as well as those underneath. It is possible to buy cheaper generic walking feet for most machines, and some people find them excellent. However, if you can afford the specific walking foot for your machine, you will probably find that it gives better results.
What advice would I give?
– Practice consistent quarter inch seams . I cannot emphasise this enough. This might sound boring, but any pattern you follow is going to assume consistent quarter inch seams, so it is as well to start out the right way.
– Practice again. Practice your quarter inch seams. Practice the “standard” type of blocks eg half square triangle (hst), four patch, nine patch etc. If you can make something while you do this practice then so much the better. Try to make the practice blocks a standard size – then you can sew them together to demonstrate your progress!
– Start small – cushion covers are great, or simply make individual blocks of a similar size that you can join together afterwards.
– Make use of YouTube. There are huge numbers of videos available – from making quarter inch seams and absolutely basic blocks to guides to making complex quilts. I regularly watch Donna Jordan (Jordan Fabrics) and Jenny Doan (Missouri Star Quilt Company – MSQC), but find someone you like – everyone has their own qualities. Jordan Fabrics often do tutorials on paid for patterns, but they do them on their own free patterns as well, while Missouri Star sometimes do not use classical ‘best practice’, but their videos do make things very accessible – look for their “Quilt Snips” videos, which are instructions for single blocks.
– Make use of free patterns on the internet. Jordan Fabrics, Moda and others have free patterns that you can use to get you started.
– Make use of the UKQU website – https://ukqu.co.uk/ . There are masses of instructional and interesting blogs, with free and paid for patterns there – and access to the individuals who produced them too!.
– While doing all of this practice remember – do your own thing! No one is going to judge you (if they do you don’t want them in your life). No pressure, and no quilt police!
– There are no mistakes – they are design features. Do your best to get it right obviously, but an error is not the end of the world. In fact, it makes your project unique.
Finally – enjoy yourself!