Home > Techniques > Specialty Sewing > Quilt Basics – Part 1 of 5
Quilt Basics – Part 1 of 5
The word “quilt” or “quilting” has many different meanings. It’s a special word because it can be both a noun and a verb. Quilting can describe the overall craft itself. What type of sewing do you like? I like to quilt, or I like quilting. It can also mean the act of quilting, which is the process of sewing the layers (quilt top, batting and backing) together in a predetermined pattern or method (we’ll talk more about this in Part 5). Some quilters (there it is again as a noun) refer to the patchwork piecing (or sewing) of the quilt top itself as quilting. And, in the end, the actual finished item is indeed a quilt. However you refer to it, quilting is a wonderful and exciting craft to incorporate into your sewing skills. This new series is designed to help beginning quilters get rollin’. We’ll explain the basics of quilting, including the various tools you’ll need (and may already have), cutting techniques, how to create quilt blocks from basic shapes, piecing tips and techniques, and actual quilt stitching.
First, a disclaimer: quilting is a huge and varied craft and a very personal process, and we certainly don’t consider ourselves to be top industry experts. But, we are good at showing those new to a craft, how to get started in a way that will produce the best results with the least frustration. We’ll just be scratching the surface as we go through this series of tutorials. As always, our comment fields are open. We know our S4H audience includes many quilting gurus! Please feel free to share your own hints and tips along the way.
Before we move forward, we believe it’s important to look back. Understanding a little about the history behind quilting will help you to see why it’s become one of the most popular crafts in the world today!
A really brief history
When it comes to quilting, a “brief” history is practically impossible, but we’re going to give it a try. For the history buffs out there who want to learn more, there are plenty of related books, articles and blogs on the subject. A general Internet search will lead you in the right direction.
The Tristan Quilt. Made in Sicily, Italy ca. 1360-1400. Linen quilted and padded with cotton wadding with outlines in brown and white linen thread. V&A Collections.
Historians and archeologists have discovered and unearthed examples of quilting that date back to the Pharaoh of the Egyptian First Dynasty about 3400 B.C. Other examples were found in China, dating to somewhere between the first century B.C. to the second century A.D. In the eleventh century, an early form of quilting found its way to Europe. Knights wore quilted garments under their armor! Eventually, quilted petticoats for ladies were a common undergarment, as were other quilted outerwear garments. These early examples, made for warmth and protection, were indeed very quilt-like: two layers of cloth, with a layer of insulating fiber in between, held together with hand stitching. The purpose of the stitching was to keep the fiber between the layers from shifting during laundering. The same holds true today.
Whole-Cloth Quilt, 18th century, The Netherlands (textile made in India). Hand painted, pieced, quilted and embroidered cotton with silk border. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
It’s no surprise quilted bed and wall coverings also became popular for warmth and insulation in early European homes. Depending on one’s status, quilts were considered family heirlooms to be passed down to future generations and were listed in estates as part of an individual’s personal furnishings. Usually a family of influence and wealth could afford to have quilts made for them from the highest quality textiles of the time, in contrast to those found in poorer homes, which were made from available scraps.
Appliqué Album Quilt, 1848, Cotton. St. Louis Art Museum
Quilting, along with its history and techniques, traveled to America with the first settlers. Many of these early Americans used quilts for warmth, but they were also used as a form of currency… even those made of calico prints from worn-out dresses! A handmade quilt has always been, and will continue to be, a culmination of the creator’s time, effort and true love of the craft.
Made in Portland, ME in 1865 by the Portland Ladies Soldiers Aid Society. Mystic Seaport Museum Collection, Portland, Me.
During the Civil War, quilts were made to raise money for the war effort as well as to keep soldiers warm. There are countless quilt block patterns; many of today’s most popular ones have their own historical tale and vary slightly based on their place of origin.
Even with such an impressive history, many of the construction aspects of quilting remain the same. We have new tools, computerized machines, and so much more to make the job easier and quicker, but the foundation is the same.
And, quilting is still a form of social gathering as it was so long ago. In fact, in today’s hectic society, many turn to quilting as a source of stress release. The infamous “quilting bee,” where women would gather to work together on a quilt, is more commonly known as a quilt guild these days. Although most members now work on individual quilts, there is still much socializing and trading of quilt secrets.
Quilting trends vary from popular colors and/or pattern combinations, innovative fabric substrates being used, favorite block patterns, ever-evolving techniques, and more. We have no doubt something new is surfacing in the quilt world right this very minute! It might be the latest and greatest gadget to make all our lives easier or a hip new quilt artist hitting the scene to share his or her innovative quilting concept through a book, blog, pattern and/or seminar.
Modern Quilt: Wonky Block Quilt by Heather Jones.
Quilting and making quilts can still be for necessity and warmth, but it’s a tremendous industry with increasing potential as an artistic outlet as well as a business. Many individuals have innocently begun making quilts for their own enjoyment, and eventually found themselves designing fabric, quilt patterns, garments, writing books, even developing new techniques and/or products! Some are world renowned quilt celebrities whose knowledge and techniques are sought after by dedicated followings. The ways in which they manipulate fabric, fiber and thread as an art medium can be mesmerizing. This high level of art and success can intimidate the newbie, but there is a place for everyone in quilting. You can learn the basics and incorporate simple touches of quilting into all kinds of handmade projects. You might be amazed at the subtle charm a little quilted item can add, bringing a little bit of history to your every day world.
Types (or categories) of quilts
When we say there’s something for everyone in quilting, we mean it!
Quilts come in all shapes (yes, shapes!) and sizes. They don’t have to be square or rectangle, and they can vary in size from that of a postcard to the side of a building! A quilt’s end purpose can vary too. No longer used just for warmth and protection, many of today’s quilts are meant to be hung on the wall as artistic decor. If you ever see an “art” quilt, you may not believe it’s made from fabric. Many incorporate oodles of techniques: appliqué, hand stitching, beadwork, embroidery, foundation paper piecing, and on and on.
There are dozens and dozens of types, themes or categories of quilts, many of which have their own history or origin as mentioned above. Quilts can also be a combination of styles and technique. To give you a glimpse, we’ve put together some categories of our own to illustrate the range of quilts and/or quilting types and techniques. Keep in mind, this is a short list and in no specific order.
General categories: traditional, heirloom, medallion, samplers, memory quilts, art, abstract, modern, holiday, kids/baby, quilt-as-you-go, signature, scrap, strip, serger
Specific regions, people or time in history: Amish, African-American, Japanese, Hawaiian, Native American Star, Mennonite, Quaker, Celtic, Victorian Crazy Quilt, Colonial Revival, Baltimore Album, Double Wedding Ring
Specific technique: patchwork, appliqué, trapunto, rag quilt, foundation paper-pieced, English paper piecing, pictorial, landscape
Specific size: postage stamp (size of the patchwork pieces), miniature (size of the quilt itself), journal (a series of small quilts that tell a story)
In addition, a quilt does not have to be a patchwork design. It can be made of whole cloth, or one large piece of fabric.
Our plan with this five-part series is to encourage you to venture into some form of quilting or patchwork that you can then use in a future project. The first thing to understand are the basic elements that make up any quilt (or quilt sandwich – top, batting, backing).
Quilt top – The top layer of a quilt. It can be sewn by machine or by hand. It can be patchwork-pieced, appliquéd or whole cloth.
Batting – The insulating layer in the middle.
Backing – The bottom layer of the quilt. It can be one piece of fabric, one fabric color/pattern that is pieced to fit the overall size, partially pieced (a new trend), or patchwork pieced (for a reversible style).
Quilting – The actual machine or hand stitches that hold the layers together. Some quilts are simply “tied” with thread, embroidery floss, or even hand-sewn buttons. Regardless of type, some form of stitching must be completed to hold the layers together.
Binding – The fabric strip that encloses the raw edges around a quilt.
Sleeve – Quilts that will be hung on a wall have what’s referred to as a sleeve on the back. A rod or pole is fed through the sleeve for the quilt to be properly displayed. This is optional, but a must-have for a wallhanging quilt.
Fabric & batting
If you want to make a quilt, you definitely need fabric. Usually, quilts are made from woven 44/45” wide cottons. For this tutorial series, this is the fabric we’ll be using in our examples.
However, you are not limited to traditional cottons, and there are plenty of fabric options from which to choose, depending on the end use of the quilt and your budget. You can find quilts made in variety of textile types (or combinations of types), such as voile, velvet, linen, satin, silk, and more. There are other quilt trends that harness the repurposing craze and feature well-loved t-shirts, sweaters or jeans. Some quilters make memory quilts from old clothes saved over time, presenting the finished project at a special event or anniversary.
As you venture to your local fabric store or quilt shop, or shop the myriad of online stores, you may run into some new fabric terms. Since quilts are made of small cuts of fabric, you don’t necessarily need numerous yards to start (you may need lots of yards for the back though!). There are pre-cut bundles of fabric that help keep you from having to pile up bolts for the cutting table. If you hear terms like: fat quarters, fat eighth, layer cakes, charm packs, honey buns, and jellyrolls… don’t worry, you haven’t stumbled into a pastry shop; these are pre-cut blocks and strips in various standard sizes. They can be combinations from a particular designer’s collection or created by the store’s staff. To learn more, take a look at our pre-cut tutorial. You’ll also likely find quilt kits, where the fabric has been preselected and the yardage pre-determined, so you can get right to the final cutting and piecing. These are great for beginners.
Many quilters will tell you one of the best parts of putting a quilt together is selecting the fabric. You get to combine all kinds of colors, textures and prints within a patchwork design. So much so, many quilters take time to study the theories of color so they can optimize their personal color combinations or stay true to a particular quilt pattern’s history. There are special tools available to help you see the true value in a fabric’s color, such as color wheels and color viewers.
It will seem like there are as many choices in batting brands, sizes, weights and fiber content, as there is fabric choices. Like fabric, you want to compare washing/care, drape and resiliency. Much of this can be determined from the batting label itself.
The easiest part to determine is size. Batting is sold in pre-cut packaged sizes or by the yard. You need to know the final size of your quilt top and backing. You can either actually measure the layers when you get to that stage or, if you are following a pattern/tutorial, batting size will be indicated.
The most important thing to remember about batting is that you will need an excess of about 4″ on all sides of your quilt sandwich. The actual quilting process, where you stitch through all the layers, will pull up the layers. This means two things: one) your actual finished size will be slightly smaller after the quilting is completed, and two) if you do not have excess batting beyond the edges, the batting can draw up between the layers, producing an insufficient quilt sandwich.
Deciding the weight (or loft) and fiber content of batting to use is based on a few things. You may choose a specific batting type based on the end use of your quilt, such as for warmth, or because you simply prefer a certain type to another. It may take some trial and error and/or recommendations from others to find the type(s) of batting you like most. Below is a general list to get you acquainted with the kinds of batting available, some of which have specific uses.
- Blends such as poly/cotton, bamboo/cotton
- Needle punch
- Flame retardant
- Heat resistant
- Recycled plastic bottles
Here again, a general Internet search will lead you to plenty of feedback, comparison charts and more about batting. And, here at Sew4Home, we’ve been working with some of our favorite sponsors to put together our own tutorial, outlining the who/what/when/where and why of battings.
Cutting & marking tools
In this section (and the next), you may discover you already have some or all of the supplies you need to start a quilt project. This is because many of the general sewing tools we use all the time for other projects are the same ones needed for quilting. We will go into more detail about cutting tools and techniques in Part 2 of the series.
Scissors– If you’re here at Sew4Home, reading this tutorial, you probably have a good pair of fabric scissors. Although cutting fabric into smaller pieces is easier with a rotary cutter, you can certainly use scissors.
Rotary Cutters – This is a must-have for any quilter and you should own at least one. Rotary cutting fabric is swift and easy to do! Similar to scissors, there is a wide selection of rotary cutters by brand, size and blade size/type. If possible, it’s a good idea to test drive one before purchase.
Cutting mats – You will not be able to use a rotary cutter without a cutting mat under your fabric. It helps to have one that is “self healing” (meaning cut marks disappear) so it lasts longer. There is a wide selection of sizes available. You’ll need to decide which size will work best for your creative space.
Quilt rulers – In addition to a rotary cutter and cutting mat, a quilt ruler is the third component to successful cutting. You will see a huge selection of rulers available – some are considered standard, others are designed for a special purpose. If you’re unsure, request a demonstration of one at your local fabric or quilt shop. We recommend the most common size: 6″ x 24″ and/or 6″ x 12″ to start.
Template plastic – There may be some work on a quilt project where you do not want (or need) to purchase a specific size ruler. An economical and easy solution is to use template plastic, which is sturdier than paper and can be used similar to a ruler for cutting out special shapes. You can find packaged plastic:
and sheet plastic:
In quilting, you use different marking tools for different stages of the process. When cutting shapes, drawing stitch lines, etc., you can use a number of marking pen or pencils. There is a wide selection, as you may already know from other types of sewing projects you’ve undertaken. These include fabric marking pens or pencils (water soluble, air soluble, etc.), tailor’s chalk, mechanical pencils, and soap stone.
Other marking tools you’ll come across for quilting can include chalk transfer paper, pounce pad, chalk roller, chalk wheel, chalk line, stencils, quilting paper and pantographs. These are all aids to create quilt designs on a quilt top prior to stitching through the layers.
Quilter’s tape is somewhat set apart from the other marking tools because you can use it for a number of quilting techniques and even sewing tasks.
NOTE: Certain quilting techniques will simply use general items from around the house, like freezer or parchment paper.
Sewing machine, feet and accessories
Once you have the cutting and marking tools you need, you should take inventory of your sewing machine feet and accessories. Regardless of the type or brand of sewing machine you own, we guarantee there will be a whole host of accessories (some standard, some optional) specific to quilting.
As you know, Janome America is our exclusive sewing machine sponsor here at Sew4Home, so we will be showing items specific to this brand. We recommend visiting your local sewing machine retailer to ask about the appropriate quilting accessories for your model/brand. Before you go, review your Instruction Manual and inventory the feet that came with your machine; you may already have what you need for the basics.
NOTE: In addition to a basic sewing machine, there are machines with many built-in features specific to quilting. For instance, Janome has models with the AcuFeed™ System and longer bed space to accommodate large quilts. And, there are high-end embroidery models with built-in quilt designs and more. To see these and other models ideal for quilting, visit a local authorized Janome dealer.
Sewing machine feet for quilting
We’ve put together an extensive list of feet (and explained why you might want them), which all have a place in the quilting process. You do not need to own all of these, but should familiarize yourself with them for future reference as your quilting skills progress. You can certainly use a Standard foot (the one that comes on the machine) for piecing, but you will need a special foot for the actual quilting, such as an Even Feed foot and/or Darning foot. So, be sure to keep that in mind. Remember, some of these feet may have come with your standard accessories in the box with your machine.
A. Quarter Inch Seam foot – The standard seam allowance in quilting is ¼”. Accuracy is vital when piecing a quilt top. This foot makes that process very easy. We’ve found plenty of other uses for it too!
B. Even Feed foot (or Walking foot) – Another foot that has plenty of uses. It has a separate set of feed dogs built in that help feed the fabric layers in conjunction with the feed dogs on the machine. You are essentially feeding from both the top and the bottom at once as you sew. It’s ideal for difficult fabric types or bulky layers. We use it for stitching through the layers of a quilt.
C. Even Feed foot – Open Toe – This is the exact same foot as above, but the front of the foot is open so you can see exactly where you are stitching.
D. Darning (or Free Motion foot) – Unlike the Even Feed foot, this foot works without the feed dogs. It’s used for what’s called “Free Motion Quilting,” a technique used to stitch through the layers of a quilt. You drop the feed dogs of your machine or cover them with a Darning plate, depending on the type of machine you own. Then, you move the quilt around under the needle, instead of the machine feeding it for you. Some people describe it as “moving the paper under the pencil, instead of moving the pencil.”
E. Darning foot Open Toe – Again, this is the exact same foot as above, but open so you can see precisely where the needle is penetrating the fabric layers.
F. Ditch Quilting foot – A term you often hear in quilting (and other forms of sewing) is “stitching in the ditch.” The built-in guide on this foot helps you to stay in the ditch and stitch accurately along the seam line.
G. Appliqué foot – A historical, and still quite popular, form of quilting is appliqué. Although it can be done by hand, appliquéing by machine is much faster. This foot is clear, and specially designed to go around all kinds of shapes.
I. Quilt Binder Set – (not shown) Once a quilt is completed, you need to sew binding around the edges. This foot helps you do that in one step!
Since quilting is so popular, many sewing machine manufacturers produce special sets of feet that include many (or all) the feet you’ll need for machine quilting. Below are links to the various sets Janome offers:
- Quilting Attachment set
- Open Toe Quilt Set
- Convertible Even Feed Foot Set
- Free Motion Quilt Foot Set, Convertible
- Clear View Quilting and Guide Foot Set – See our product review on this set here
Needles – Use a universal needle for quilting. The most common size to use is 75/11 or 80/12 for piecing, quilting and attaching binding. However, you may need to vary the size depending on the type(s) of fabric you’re using, if other than cotton, or if you have thicker layers. Remember to change your sewing machine needle often (approximately every 8 hours and not just for quilting) since some batting fibers can dull your needle. You may find times, or quilt projects, where a little hand stitching is needed too. So, it’s a good idea to have hand needles at the ready as well. Look for sewing machine and hand sewing needles at your local or online supply store or quilt shop.
Thread – 100% cotton thread is the most common thread in quilting for the various steps. Be aware there are different types of cotton thread – Egyptian, mercerized, etc. – and different weights. However, you can certainly use other types of thread for finishing details, appliqué and more. We discussed these in our quilting thread buying guide.
Straight Stitch Needle Plate – When piecing a quilt top, you’ll be sewing together small squares, rectangles and other shapes. It’s not uncommon for the fabric to get pulled down under the needle plate, especially when starting at the very edge of the fabric. To combat this, many quilters use a straight stitch plate on their machine for piecing, and often for the actual quilting.
NOTE: Often, a Straight Stitch Needle Plate is used in conjunction with a Straight Stitch foot for other types of sewing, such as when sewing with delicate or very lightweight fabrics.
Darning plate – Not to be confused with a needle plate, a darning plate is a small piece that is attached to the top of a needle plate to cover the feed dogs. You use one of theses when you do not have the ability to drop the feed dogs on your sewing machine.
Bobbin Holder for Free Motion – This is a special bobbin case specifically made for free motion quilting. The tension is set lower than the standard one that comes with the machine so the thread feeds more easily while quilting.
Quilt bar – This bar can be attached to the back of most of the feet mentioned above or to the foot holder itself. You guide the bar along a previous row of stitching to achieve evenly spaced lines of quilting.
Cloth or seam guide – We have a built-in cloth guide on many of our Janome studio machines, and some sewing machine manufactures offer optional ones. We find it helpful to use these in conjunction with the Quarter Inch Seam foot for accurate seaming – a key element in patchwork piecing.
Extension table – Again, some sewing machines come with an extension table as part of the standard accessories. Otherwise, these can be purchased for a specific model/brand machine. Basically, it increases the bed space in front, back and to the side of your sewing machine, and helps disburse the weight of the quilt. Quilters especially like these tables for free motion quilting.
Knee Lift – This is like having a third hand. A lever attaches to your machine that allows you to raise and lower the presser foot with your knee so you can keep both hands on your project. It’s not on all sewing machines, but if you have one, you’ll find it especially helpful whether piecing a quit top or actually quilting. It’s also great for appliqué.
Setting up a proper space around your sewing machine (and you) is important for any kind of sewing. Quilting projects, depending on the complexity (and size), can be fairly time consuming. It takes time to piece the top, put the layers together, and quilt them. Therefore, creating an area in your home where you can work at your leisure is a good idea. Take a look at our Straight Line Quilting article by Heather Jones for a peek inside her studio.
Part of that set up should be a cutting area with your rotary cutter, cutting mat and quilt rulers at the ready. Often, quilt blocks are cut, sewn, and then trimmed to accurate measurements. So, it’s especially nice to be able to have your cutting area within arm’s reach of your sewing machine.
Good lighting is important for sewing, whether by machine or hand. It’s also important for combining fabric colors/prints. Today, special “true color” lighting is available at many fabric and sewing retailers. These help you to see a color’s actual hue.
Since quilting is addictive, it will be hard to pull yourself away from your machine. A comfortable chair is important for your posture, and saves your back and shoulders.
There are numerous therapeutic products to help with back and hand strain, many of which are available where quilting supplies are sold. Your hands get a workout, so many quilters like to wear wrist support.
As with other types of sewing, you must have a quality iron and ironing board. For instance, a huge part of piecing a quilt top is the pressing of seams in one direction or another.
If space allows, an item that many quilters like to have in their workspace is a design board (or wall). This is made of a foam core board (or insulation foam) covered with felt or batting material. When designing a block, or quilt, the fabric pieces will naturally stick to the felt/batting while you decide where to place pieces and/or blocks before you actually piece them together. These boards can be fairly large and nailed to a wall or smaller and placed on an easel. You can do a general search on the Internet to learn how to make your own.
If we’ve piqued your interest in the world of quilting, there are many resources available to you where you can learn, see and touch even more.
You can find quilting fabric and quilting supplies for your project at Fat Quarter Shop
Visit your local quilt shops and fabric stores (many have dedicated sections for quilt fabric, notions, etc.) You will also find a selection of books and patterns.
Of course, the Internet is a tremendous source for online retailers, blogs, classes, free tutorials, quilt groups, and more.
You can also look into local, national and international quilt shows. There, you can take classes with quilt experts, see amazing quilts on display, as well as shop the vendor area full of, you guessed it, quilting stuff!
In addition to all the above, you can incorporate quilting into your travel plans. There are quilt museums around the U.S. you can visit. Many quilt shops and groups sponsor quilt retreats and cruises where you can quilt to your heart’s content in a relaxing environment.
Other tips and tidbits
If you think you’ll become a quilter-on-the-go, you’ll be happy to know there are travel sizes of everything for quilting from machines to cutting boards to irons. There are even special travel bags and cases.
If you’re more of a traditional quilter, we recommend familiarizing yourself with the various hand quilting notions, frames, etc. at your local quilt shop.
Long arm quilting is a phrase you’re bound to hear as you become more familiar with quilting. This refers to the quilting of a quilt on a large commercial machine mounted to a quilt frame. If you attend a quilt show (or maybe at your local quilt shop), you will definitely see one there! Read more about it in our article about free motion quilting star, Angela Walters.
For those techies out there, you might enjoy combining your love of all things computerized with quilting by using quilting software. You can design your own blocks, create quilt designs, play with colors/prints, plan your quilting and more.
There are also many suggestions, ideas and products for displaying and/or storing finished quilts. Believe us, you’ll want to learn about this too, because when you complete your first quilt, you’ll be so proud, you’ll want to show it off!
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly
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Can you post in Part 1 links to Part 2,3,4,5, please?
We will add as soon as possible – in the meantime, you can jump to all the sections from this summary article: https://sew4home.com/category/techniques/intermediate/
This is a nice introduction to quilting, thanks.
Thanks, Pam – having your “seal of approval” means a lot.