Nothing says "cozy" better than the classic patchwork quilt. Quilts are tokens of family tradition, often passed down through the generations, and bestowed as gifts for life's milestones, like graduation, a new baby or a wedding. The level of intricacy possible in quilting is limitless, but the basic steps you need to master to get started are well within even a beginning sewer's grasp. Quilters have their own set of terms and tools for their craft. This short introduction to the basics is the perfect first step. Browse through most home dec stores or retail catalogs these days, and you'll find an amazing assortment of quilts for sale. But why pay for a designer quilt when makingy our own is so much more rewarding? Take these tips and techniques and create your own first family heirloom.
Once you're ready to move past the basics, you'll be amazed at the wealth of instructional material available for quilting. Your local quilting store, sewing machine dealer, book store and library will all have selection of project books to help you develop your skills. Here are a few of my favorite online quilting sites:
- About.com for quilting - About is always a go-to resource.
- World Wide Quilting Page - Ok, it's not especially pretty, but it's an amazing resource.
- American Quilter's Society - The society for quilters. They're so important that Janome made a machine to celebrate their 25th anniversary! Check it out here.
- Youcanquiltthis.com - a great site for patterns, and it has great advice too! (You may also love their sister site, youcanmakethis.com.)
- SAQA - Studio Art Quilt Associates. Check out their site. You'll be amazed!
- Free Quilt Patterns - A ridiculous amount of - you guessed it - Free Quilt Patterns.
Tools for cutting
Some of the tools you'll need are similar to others you already have. For instance, you'll want one good set of shears, the ever-essential seam ripper, and one set of snips for cutting threads.
Cutting your fabric to the correct measurements is always important, but but in quilting there is very little room for error. If you cut one piece incorrectly, then sew it to another, it makes the new piece incorrect, and then the next seam is even worse, etc., etc., etc.. My husband, the tech guru, refers to this as "accumulated tolerance." Fancy wording aside, the point is to be careful and to cut as precisely as possible.
A rotary cutter, cutting mat, and clear ruler make this job easy. A rotary cutter is kind of like a pizza cutter. It has a round blade that rolls along the fabric and cuts. Be very careful with the rotary cutter - it is extremely sharp! Also, it is important to get into the habit of closing the rotary cutter (retracting the blade) each time you put it down. Bleeding on your fabric is never pretty.
The rotary cutter should be used with a self-healing cutting mat. This is like a kitchen cutting board, but the cutting mat surface is made out of a special material that absorbs the cuts you make and won't cause divots. There are a variety of sizes of mats available, but for standard quilting, the 18" x 24" mat works well.
A rotary cutter is used in conjuction with a special clear ruler for measuring. The ruler is clear so you can see through it to the fabric below, and so you can match up the notches on the ruler to the precise edge of the fabric, down to an eighth of an inch.
When you cut your fabric, you want to cut along the grain line – from selvedge to selvedge. (The selvedge is the edge of the fabric across the width. It usually has markings of the brand of fabric and maybe dots that show the colors used in the fabric.) You need at least one ruler 24" or longer, because quilting fabric is 45" wide, and you will make cuts with your fabric folded in half. So you need a ruler that covers half of 45" or at least 22½".
How to cut your fabric
"Square Up" the edge
- Iron your fabric.
- Fold the fabric in half lining up the selvedges. The edges of the fabric may not line up exactly, line up the two selvedges and move the edges until the fold in the fabric hangs evenly. This will assure the grain of the fabric is straight.
- Place the fabric on the self-healing cutting mat, and use your hand to press out any wrinkles.
- Place your clear ruler on the edge of the fabric. Place one measuring line marker along the fold in the fabric.
- Line up the ruler with the edge of the fabric so the entire ruler is on top of the fabric. We're doing this to "square up" the edge of the fabric.
- Place your rotary cutter against the edge of the ruler, and cut along the side.
- Pull away the cut fabric. You now have a clean, straight edge along the raw side of the fabric.
Cut smaller shapes using strips
The easiest way to cut smaller pieces for use in patchwork piecing is to cut your fabric into strips, then cut your smaller pieces from these strips. For example, a pattern you are following may call for 3" squares. You could cut one 3" x WOF (width of fabric) strip, then cut this strip into 3" squares, following these steps:
- Square up your fabric edge following Steps 1-7 above.
- Place the fold of the fabric along one measuring line of your clear ruler. Put the 3" mark on your ruler on the straight edge of the fabric. Check to be sure that the edge of the fabric is on this 3" line the whole way up the ruler.
- Using your rotary cutter, cut the fabric along the inside edge of the ruler. You now have a strip of fabric 3" x WOF.
- Open the strip on your cutting surface. Cut off the selvedge.
- Line up the bottom long edge of the fabric with one measuring line on the clear ruler. Place the short edge of the fabric on the 3" line of the ruler.
- Cut the fabric with the rotary cutter along the outside edge of the ruler.
- Repeat along the length of the strip until you have the required number of squares.
Making half and quarter-square triangles
A lot of quilt blocks use triangles to create an interesting pattern. Quilting instructions will tell you to create "half-square" or "quarter-square" triangles. As the name implies, these triangles are made by cutting a square in half or by cutting it into quarters.
- Square up your fabric, using the steps you learned above, and cut a square to the required size (based on the quilt pattern you've chose, you would have already decided if you are making 3", 4", 5", 6" or whatever squares).
- To make a half-square triangle, cut your square in half diagonally across the square. Line up the edge of the ruler on two opposite corners, then cut on the diagonal line. Note: Some rulers will show diagonal markings at 30˚, 45˚ and 60˚. You can use these as further guides for cutting.
- To cut these half-square triangles into quarter-square triangles, line up the long bottom edge of the triangle with a measuring line on your ruler.
- Align the ruler with the triangle point opposite this line.
- Cut along the ruler using a rotary cutter.
You may have noticed in many of our home dec project instructions here on sew4home, we say to use a ½" seam. If you've noticed this, you get a gold star for paying attention.
However, in quilting, the standard seam allowance is ¼". Your first question may be, "Why do we have different seam allowances?"Your first question is a good question, and I don't really have the answer! Somewhere in the history of quilting, someone decided a ¼" seam allowance would become standard. My initial educated guess is this small seam allowance is easier to work with and less bulky when you are making lots and lots of tiny seams. I'm sure someone out there has an even better story that involves a sturdy frontierswoman and a corn cob pipe. If so, please let me know.
You don't HAVE to use the ¼" seam allowance, you can use any one you'd like, but you need to maintain a CONSISTENT seam across your entire project. Much like our "accumulated tolerance" conversation above, if one seam is off, then that makes next piece off, and when you sew it to another, that one will be off, and ... you see where this is going.
The Quarter Inch foot
A great tool for getting straight, consistent seams is the ¼" Seam foot. This foot has a flange on the side, and the side of the fabric butts up against this.
With this foot on the machine, you will place your fabric under the needle and against the flange.
The flange will act as a guide, and as you sew, you just make sure the edge of the fabric is always right up against it.
Once you are done putting two fabric pieces together (called, appropriately enough, "piecing"), you need to iron the seam to one side – not flat open as you often do in other types of projects. Standard practice is to iron the seam toward the darker fabric, unless the instructions you are using specifically instruct you otherwise.
There are a multitude of quilt blocks to choose from. Basically every block starts with squares or triangles and builds from there. They are classic designs and have cute names, like: log cabin, double pinwheel, flying geese and tumbling blocks to name just a fraction. You can find tons of projects with instructions that will show you how and in what order to sew pieces together in order to build each block.
Quilting is an art that grows as your skills grow, but is satisfying at even the most basic level, like the four-patch design shown above. Don't be afraid to give it whirl.