Do you have a favorite quilt? Ever wondered how quilts are made or what makes them so awesome? Are you just bored and in the mood to read whatever is in front of you? Whatever your reasoning, I’m glad you’re here. Today, let’s talk about quilting.
My love affair with quilts
When I was young, one of my favorite things was to get up early on a Saturday morning to watch cartoons. We had this quilt that my grandmother had made my mom as a wedding gift. I would pull it down from the closet and settle in to watch Bugs Bunny and Superfriends. I say “we had” like it was a communal quilt. The truth is that my mom would have probably preferred I not use it since it was a sentimental gift, and since it started falling apart over the years.
There aren’t a lot of things I remember about that quilt. It had a big rooster in one of the blocks. The layers were tied rather than stitched together. It weighed more than a blanket which felt comforting. Guess I was experiencing the positive benefits of weighted blankets way before they were all the rage. My mother’s tied rooster quilt was the start of my obsession with quilts even though it would be over 20 years before I started making them.
Nowadays, I find myself saying things like, “I need another quilt around here like I need a hole in my head.”. This thought usually crosses my mind while I am working on another quilt, but I keep making them because I just love quilts. I love making quilts, using quilts, seeing the look on people’s faces when they receive a quilt I made. Quilting relaxes me. Curling up under a quilt relaxes me too. What can I say? I’m addicted.
What is a quilt?
According to Wikipedia, “A quilt is a multi-layered textile, traditionally composed of three or more layers. These layers traditionally include a woven cloth top, a layer of batting, and a woven back combined using the techniques of quilting. This is the process of sewing on the face of the fabric, and not just the edges, to combine the three layers together to reinforce the material. Stitching patterns can be a decorative element. A single piece of fabric can be used for the top of a quilt (a “whole-cloth quilt”), but in many cases the top is created from smaller fabric pieces joined together, or patchwork. The pattern and color of these pieces creates the design.”
I edited the definition slightly to eliminate the part about two or more layers. If you are talking to me, or reading what I write, then two layers of fabric is sewing. Three or more layers stitched together so they move as one is quilting. Quilts can also be tied which isn’t mentioned in that definition. This is a great foundational start though.
Do you like options? I mean, do you like having a ton of choices? If you like do, I’m about to make your day. In quilting there are SO MANY options. Let’s look at the components of a quilt and talk about some of the options for each of them.
Almost everyone has seen quilts made by cutting fabrics and sewing them together in fun, imaginative ways. These types of quilts are called patchwork or pieced quilts. Quilts can also be made from whole pieces of cloth on the top and bottom layers. As previously mentioned, those are cleverly called ‘whole cloth quilts’. Hey! Don’t judge! Less time spent on creative names means more time making great quilts, right? If you choose a pieced quilt, you can sew the pieces together by hand or by machine. I prefer machine, but to each his own.
The fabrics are usually woven, cotton fabric. They don’t have to be though. A lot of people use knits. T-shirt quilts are a thing, ya know. Personally, I use anything that will fit under the foot on my sewing machine depending on the mood I’m in and the look I’m going for. I’ve made art quilts with plastics, mylar sheets, etc. Not great for snuggling under but can look amazing on a wall or decorative pillow.
In between the top and bottom layers, a quilt needs some type of batting. The batting plays a big role in giving the quilt many of the final properties it will have. Is your quilt warm…breathable…heavy? Is there a lot of quilting or a little? The choice of batting decides all of that. Batting can be made from cotton, polyester, wool, bamboo, recycled water bottles, flannel, or even old clothes. It can be needle punched, wet laid, fusible, natural, bleached, or dyed. There are low and high loft versions depending on how poofy you want your quilt to be.
When you choose your batting, pick one that has the properties you want and be sure to read the packaging. The manufacturer should list what the batting is made from, how much it is expected to shrink, and the maximum distance you should plan between quilting. For instance, don’t get a batting that says you should stitch every 4 inches if you only plan to stitch around the outside edges (stitch in the ditch) of 10-inch blocks.
I use a lot of low loft cotton batting. It quilts nicely and doesn’t look like I jumped a snow skier, stole his jacket, and tossed it on my bed. Cotton also shrinks a bit with the first wash giving the quilt that cozy quality I love. That’s me though. You pick what works for you.
The bottom layer can be a solid piece of fabric, or it can be pieced to just like the top layer. Piecing the back makes the quilt reversable, but it does take more time. You may also have to worry about alignment issues if you need the pattern on the top to line up with the pattern on the back. Careful planning along with some checking and rechecking can solve those alignment issues.
Just like everything else, there are choices here too. A good rule of thumb is to use a thread made of the same fibers as your quilt top and bottom. Did you use cotton fabric? Then, use cotton thread. That kind of thing. In fact, that cotton on cotton combo is one I try to stick to. Polyester thread can be stronger than the cotton in the fabric. Over time, it can cut the fibers that make up with quilt. If you use cotton on cotton, everything will weather the years in the same manner.
If I’m making an art quilt or even a traditional quilt with artistic elements, I’ll use whatever I need to get the effect I want. That means thick threads, thin threads, polyester, rayon, metallic, etc. Quilting is supposed to be fun. It is an art form. So, don’t stress too much about thread. Pick what you need to accomplish your goal.
Layering it up
To turn your fabrics into a quilt, you’ll need to layer them and then quilt them so they don’t shift around. Are you ready for a shock? That’s right! There are options here too.
If you are going for a traditional quilt with a binding, put the backing down on a flat surface wrong side up. Smooth the batting over this. Smooth the quilt top over the batting with the right side up. Everything should be in the same order as it will be when the quilt is finished.
If you don’t want to fool around with a binding, you can make a pillowcase or envelope style quilt. To do this, lay the batting out. Put the backing over the batting right side up. Place the quilt top over the backing wrong side up. Sew around the outer edge leaving a four to five inch gap for turning. Reach inside the layers and turn everything inside out so you have the quilt top and backing with their right sides showing and the batting in the middle.
Once your quilt is layered, baste it together. Use pins, safety pins, thread, temporary adhesive, fusible adhesive…heck, use magic if that works for you. Whatever you use, just make sure it will hold the layers together until you get them quilted. Personally, I use safety pins. I never know how the adhesives are going to behave over time. I’ve seen some discolor the fabric or get brittle and crunchy. Other people use them with great success. Pins stick me when I’m quilting, and I don’t know any spells for basting fabric. Safety pins for the win.
The stitches, or tying technique, you use to sew the layers together is referred to as the quilting. You can quilt by hand with a needle and thread, or you can quilt with a machine. You can stitch straight lines, try free motion, or even use an embroidery machine to do the quilting for you. Quilting can be as minimal or as elaborate as you want it to be.
My first quilt was a very simple stitch in the ditch piece. Over time, my designs have become more elaborate. It is your quilt. So long as you are following the manufacturer’s instructions about the maximum distance between the quilt lines, then just enjoy the process.
Tips and Tricks
Here are some tips and tricks that have helped me over the years.
Tip #1 – Do what makes you happy
After I had been quilting for a couple of years, an student in one of my classes took issue with the fact that all of my quilts were done by machine. She told me I “just had to quilt by hand at least one time in my life.” Fine. I was looking for a new challenge anyway.
Since it was going to be my first one, I chose to make a small baby quilt. After quilting an area approximately 8” x 11”, I said the heck with that. For those of you who know me, you know I didn’t use the word heck. The stitching looked awful. My hand was hurting. I was not enjoying the process. I immediately stopped and hid that little piece in my sewing room…not even sure I could find it if I needed to. I do know this though…That quilt scrap isn’t seeing the light of day until someone digs it out after I’m dead. 🤣 It is that bad.
Pretty sure I said this before, but quilting should be fun. You are making a piece of art. You might even be making a piece of art that you get to snuggle under (hopefully with someone else). If you aren’t having fun, why are you doing it? Remember, quilting has so many options. There is no one way you have to do anything. You could make quilted pieces and use them to make other things like pillows, pot holders, backpacks, wall art, etc. Quilting doesn’t have result in a flat object that lays on a bed. Do what makes you happy.
Tip #2 – Don’t be so hard on yourself
If you are anything like me, you are your own worst critic when it comes to the things you make. You know where every mistake is and think everyone else in the world can see it too. Sound like you? Then, I want you to remember this line.
If you can’t see it while riding a galloping horse from 50 paces away, it is not a mistake.
Paint it on the wall of your sewing room. Doodle it in the margins of books. Put it on a t-shirt. Tattoo it on your forehead. Whatever it takes, do it. No one else sees those little things you a know are there so when they tell you something you made is beautiful, believe them.
Tip #3 – Buy quality tools and fabric
My dad taught me this next lesson from a very young age. Use the right tool for the job and buy the best quality you can afford. If you are starting out and aren’t sure you will even like quilting, maybe you spend your money on better fabric and use the needles and scissors you already own. Swap them for better quality tools over time if quilting is something you choose to stick with. You don’t have to buy it all at once.
If you have been quilting, and want to keep quilting, but your quilts just aren’t quite as good as you would like them to be, it might be your tools. A rotary cutter and ruler are more precise than a pair of scissors. A good sewing machine is better than the Holly Hobby brand sewing machine from the toys aisle. (Yes, I know a woman who bought one of those to learn to quilt on. She paid me to quilt the quilt top for her that she made on that little toy sewing machine.) Just know your tools and fabric play directly into your enjoyment as well as the quality and longevity of the finished piece. Invest in better tools as you progress.
Tip #4 – Prewash, use starch, and iron
Prewash your fabric. That shouldn’t be a suggestion. It should be a universal law. Washing gets rid of any excess dyes or contamination on the fabric. You don’t want to make a quilt with light and dark fabrics only to find the darks bled into the light areas when it was washed. Prewashing also lets the fabric shrink before you use it in your quilt. If you cut and sew first, then wash, you might end up with a little wrinkled ball. Separate the darks from the lights. Toss the fabric in the washer with some detergent and set it to the gentle cycle. Then, throw it in the dryer on the highest setting you can get away with for the fabric. Don’t skimp on this step.
After you prewash and dry your fabrics, you should spray them with starch and iron them to within an inch of their life. I buy the big bottles of Sta-flo fabric starch and mix it 50/50 with water in a spray bottle. Since starch is also food for microorganisms, I use distilled water and add a capful of alcohol to the mix too. There are also things like Best Press that you can buy if you don’t like messing around with starch. Just use something. The starch keeps the fabric from moving around as much. This helps with precision during piecing as well as quilting. The starch goes away with the first wash. Win-win.
Don’t just iron when you starch things either. After sewing each seam, take the pieces right from the sewing machine just like you sewed them and press your iron straight down. Do this before you open the pieces and press the seam to one side or press it open. Those books or shows that tell you to “finger press” the seam open aren’t doing you any favors. I mean, it gets the job done, and it is a look, but it isn’t a technique that is going to take your quilt to the next level. Pressing pieces with a bit of steam if they have previously been starched gives you the opportunity to straighten things back up too. This can mean the difference between ending up with a rectangle or a trapezoid at the end.
Tip #5 – Get to know Eleanor Burns
Things that seem silly now, really bothered me when I was first starting out. Am I cutting the fabric correctly? Do have the right thread weight? Are the points on my corners sharp enough? Do I need to follow the directions exactly even if I can see an easier way to do this? Then, I watched Eleanor Burns’ show, Quilt in a Day. One word…amazing!
Eleanor Burns has no idea who I am, but just like I owe Mrs. Oseman for Heartstopper, I owe Mrs. Burns for setting me free with my quilting. When I saw her laugh and toss the fabric over her shoulder, it was mind blowing. She taught me that quilting can be fun, and that mistakes are no big deal. As I got more into quilting, I also discovered her rulers and books made tedious tasks much easier. Her flying geese rulers alone have been life savers. I highly recommend her shows, books, and rulers to anyone interested in quilting.
Anything from Quilt in a Day was bought and paid for with my own money. As previously indicated, none of the famous people mentioned on my site are aware of my existence, or if they are, it is a secret from even me. I’ve never even met a celebrity unless you count turning a corner too fast at a Star Trek convention in Montgomery, AL and nearly knocking Marina Sirtis down. (She was so tiny.) Since I don’t count getting an irritated look from her while I apologize profusely as meeting someone, I can’t even say I’ve met her.
The point is that any links on my site are here for your convenience. I make no profit from this blog. Should that change in the future, I will clearly identify any affiliate links. For now, I’m just another fan boy sharing things I enjoy with the hope of inspiring others and meeting people with similar interests.
Incidentally, should I ever meet any of the famous people I gush about, you’ll know that too because the next blog entry will need to be uploaded by someone other than me. It will read something like, “Daniel met <insert name…Eleanor Burns, Kit Connor, Joe Locke, Alice Oseman, Cher, etc.> whereupon his traitorous brain failed him completely making the moment completely unmemorable in the other person’s eyes. He passed away from embarrassment shortly thereafter.”
Until that day comes, you can find me here happily rambling on every week. Thank you for stopping by. Scroll down a little further for a gallery of some of my quilts. Hopefully, you found something here that makes your life just a bit better.
If you love quilting or Eleanor Burns, or Heartstopper, LGBTQ+ life, or any other thing I’ve rambled on about, don’t hesitate to reach out. New friends are always welcome.