If you make clothes and you decide its time to try your hand at quilting, this post is for you. As a pretty experienced dressmaker, I naively assumed that quilting was just straight line sewing, a lot of cutting and a lot of bulk to work with. Uh oh – naive much? Turns out quilting is a different discipline altogether. Speaking from experience, below are some hints and tips to make your new quilting experience less of a baptism of fire than mine!
1. Learn the lingo and the shortcuts
- Fat quarters, fat eighths, jelly rolls, cake layer rolls, blocks, FMQ (free motion quilting), HSTs (half square triangles), low volume colour … the list goes on and you need to know them. And for my friends that live in countries that use metric, get used to using imperial.
- There are ways and means of being efficient with cutting. Before you set off on making hundreds of HSTs, google the shortcut to make 4 or 8 of them in one hit. It’ll make quilts like this prism one a lot easier to deal with. Luckily this was a team effort though with many of the blocks being made by the quilting bee.
2. Invest in quilting equipment
- Rulers – a 24” long is your best friend for cutting long strips across the whole width of fabric (WOF). As quilting cotton is typically 42” wide, the 24” works great once you fold the fabric in half. I also like a 12.5” square ruler as many blocks are written for that size. As soon as you place the ruler on top of your block you can see your wonky edges. Finally, a 6.5” square is really handy for smaller jobs. As accuracy is everything, a variety of rulers really helps.
- Rotary cutter and big self healing mat – my Olfa rotary cutter cuts everything like butter. Previously I had Fiskars and even after numerous blade replacements it never cut half as well as the Olfa. But of course, this is personal preference. One of my local haberdashery shops said that customers swore by one brand or the other.
- 1/4 piecing foot with a guide – accuracy matters. There’s no room to mess with fit or ease. Once upon a time I pulled apart and remade about 20 blocks because they were 12″ square instead of 12.5”. Seam allowances are 1/4in so it wasn’t possible to work with them as they were.
- Walking foot – if you plan on doing the actual quilting bit at home you need this. It’ll help with the puckering and wrinkling that can happen. If you really get into quilting, my sewing machine repairman-dealer-guru guy tells me to look for a machine with a 7 feed dog system.
- Leather thimble and sashiko needles for hand quilting – the best combo I’ve tried! And thread conditioner for thick threads (e.g. visible hand quilting). Not needed for things like hand sewing the binding.
Random useful household items
- A butter knife – the non-serrated edge makes great crease marks for piecing or quilting. There’s also the Clover Hera marker if you want an actual quilting tool. After a bad experience with a washable marker and a disappearing pen which subsequently reappeared, I don’t trust pen technology one bit.
- Marigold gloves (or any rubber washing up gloves) for machine quilting – the thickness of the quilt layers means you need to apply pressure to help feed the quilt through a domestic sewing machine. After awhile you risk getting tennis elbow. Gloves give you the grip that your fingers don’t have on the fabric. Suddenly you’ll find you are gently guiding the quilt instead of wrestling with it.
3. Consider your fabrics and threads
Scraps – I initially joined a quilting bee with my sustainability hat on thinking to use up scraps. But I ended up having to buy small packs of mixed colour fabric anyway to mix with my scraps! Here are some blocks I made for charity this year.
I believe the history of quilting involved using what you had. But these days unless you’re really either into traditional looking or scrap quilts or have colour cohesive scrap bins, you may need to buy fabric.
Does it have to all be quilting cotton? Sew Adagio Becky told me that her quilty mom said that different weights and fibre types in a quilt are less durable. For example, the heavier pieces might tear apart from the lighter pieces in the wash. So how much are you washing your quilts?
In terms of handling during sewing, I have another quilt top which is quilting cotton with thicker fibres mixed with pieces from an old bedsheet with densely woven thinner fibres. I did notice they behaved a little differently when sewing. It didn’t me put me off upcycling the bedsheet though.
A final note on this one – another quilty friend told me that backs should be all 1 fibre, i.e. all cotton, or all polycotton. She found that if she used one piece of cotton and sewed it with a piece of polycotton she got twisting and wrinkling.
Threads – cotton thread or regular sew all polyester thread? I asked quilty guru Sew Becky Jo who showed me a picture of one of her quilts that is 20yrs+ old. The cotton pieces had started to rip at the seams as the polyester thread was stronger and harder than the cotton. Sounds like whether you choose one or another might be determined by whether you’re making an heirloom quilt or a picnic blanket to be used outside all summer!
4. Get the professionals involved when you need them.
On my first quilt adventure, I had a failure when I basted together the quilt top, batting and back. I read all the tutorials, basted with thread, supplemented with curvy safety pins and when I started the quilting I still managed to get wrinkles. After hours hopping around the floor to unpick and re-baste I gave up. The £20 (plus postage) for my quilt to be basted by a professional on a long arm machine was the best £20 I ever spent. ‘Nuff said.
PS – before you send your quilt off to the professionals, make sure your batting and back is at least 4 inches bigger all round than the quilt top. They need this to clamp the batting and back to the machine.
5. It can all add up
Quilting can be expensive as a hobby – more so than making clothes. My latest quilt for my sister is a throw size (65x65in). You can see the start of it below. The fabrics were all Kona solids and cost me £65. There’s more than I need but as shops tend to sell in long or fat quarters and my sister was specific about her colours I bought what she wanted.
But let’s imagine for a moment all the fabrics for your quilt top are upcycled. You still have to source the backing fabric – around 4m for a throw size quilt. If you’re looking at designer fabric (Moda, Art Gallery, Andover etc) rather than upcycling something else that will be another £50.
The equipment can expensive, e.g. each ruler can be £15. Obviously, I wouldn’t bother for just cushion covers. But if the aim is making blankets then the right equipment makes life a ton easier and sewing = happy.
Finally, if you get your quilts professionally long arm quilted, the prices in the UK appear to start from around £45 for a baby size through to £70-100ish for bigger ones.
Quilting and sustainability
My quilting isn’t all from sustainably produced material as I have chosen to go with the design first. That meant that to date, my scrap collection just doesn’t give me what I want although I do use what I have. To save buying small packs all the time to satisfy quilting bee requirements, I even joined a fabric club (shock, horror, yes). I plan to stay in it for about 3 months so I have a decent range of colours. It is such a different mindset from dressmaking – more variety is better, and every scrap bigger than 2×2 is kept for future use. No wonder ever quilter is a hoarder of sorts.
What about all those quilts?
If you get really stuck into quilting, what do you do with all the quilts? There’s only so many you can use for the beds and sofas in your house right? I take comfort that the two full quilts I’ve done in the one year have been for charity (one with an upcycled bedsheet + stash fabric). My sister’s upcoming one is a farewell gift – she’s moving from being 20min away to an 8hr plane ride away.
A quick google search revealed that besides the obvious family and friends options there are numerous charities that take quilts. But reading through blogs and forums it seems there are also people who churn out a new quilt on average every 2-3 weeks and have the space to keep all of them.
I suppose that like dressmaking, quilting has the potential to be wasteful – but that depends on your definition of waste and how much stuff you are comfortable with having and creating. Personally, I am trying to keep my stash down and organise my leftovers better (apparently quilters, like dressmakers, also really like buying fabric). And most quilting I hope to be for charitable causes or a special gift.
That’s it for my spiel on quilts. I hope that the minutes needed to read this post will save you many minutes! For more information, check out Suzy Quilts. I am a massive fangirl and besides her designs being totally awesome, she has a load of great beginner friendly tutorials. Also Stitched in Color is another one I found with different (non-traditional block) tutorials and modern patterns. Happy quilting!
Do you quilt? Or do you prefer only garment sewing? If you are a quilter do you have any essential tips to add to the list for newbies?
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