Quilting 101: An Introduction to the Craft
Common Quilt Types and Techniques
Quilting is an amazing hobby and handcraft. It's also surprisingly old. While you might think of farmhouse quilts with small feedsack prints as an archetype from the past 150 years, quilting is much, much older. A leather quilt from 980 B.C. is proudly displayed in Cairo, and quilts are depicted in ancient Egyptian art from 3,400 B.C. Pre-Roman quilts have also been found throughout Central Asia and the Far East. Ancient warriors in civilizations that are still foreing to us wore quilted pants and garments.
If you're thinking about making a quilt, you're probably more interested in the techniques than the history, and I would be too. Many people who have quilting relatives assimilate the craft through them, but I wasn't that lucky. The rest of us are exposed to gorgeous quilts in magazines, at county fairs and, of course, the Internet. It's often the most dazzling and complex quilts that draw us in. Unfortunately, they aren't easy to make.
In this page, I hope to introduce you to a range of quilting styles and techniques, so you can find the one that appeals to you. When appliciable, I've included a link to related quilting classes that you might like to check out. What fun!
* All photos are my own, unless otherwise noted.
Here's a picture of my very first quilt, which shows my "go big or go home" philosophy. I caught the quilting bug at 20, and I've been quilting continuously for the past six years. I was pulled in by a stunning applique quilt featuring umpteen bouquets and countless blossoms each hand stitched to a whole-cloth (one-piece) top. I bought the pattern, which filled up an entire book. I even cut out a few of the pattern pieces, but I never made it, and don't really plan to. Applique doesn't seem to be my thing, but there are plenty of other techniques to keep me busy. You might find that the pieces that appealed to you at first don't truly fit your style or skillset, but fear not. Quilting is adaptable.
Please put your preconceptions aside. Quilting is not a craft for old ladies. There are young quilters, rebellious quilters and quite a few successful male quilters.
Eight Reasons Why I Love Quilting
- It's creative.
- It's a rewarding past-time.
- It's a satisfying hobby.
- You have total freedom to design and create your ideal quilt.
- Straight seams are easy!
- Curves are hardly ever required.
- Size doesn't matter! This is not like fashion sewing where you end up with a shirt that you just want to wad up and throw in the garbage.
- There's an endless variety of techniques. Find one that works for you, or invent a new one!
Modern or Traditional? - Share your quilty opinions!
The most "traditional" patchwork quilts feature fabric scraps and feedsacks. These became popular in the late 19th century when dry goods brands packaged their products in cloth sacks. Vibrant, small-scale prints became part of corporate loyalty plans and allowed women to collect coordinating fabric scraps and eventually create a quilt without tremendous cost. Even today, fabric is expensive.
Of course, quilting doesn't stop with "Sunbonnet Sue," a classic motif, or simple patchwork blocks. Quilting can be extraordinarily modern. Check out Denyse Schmidt. Or it can be extraordinarily creative. Look at Melody Johnson's abstract compositions or Laura Wasilowski's whimsical stills and landscapes.
Quilting is an extremely broad craft that's evolving as I type. Read on to discover a range of different quilting techniques and find the method or methods that are right for you.
What's Your Style?
How Quilts Are Made
What's a Quilt?
In general, a quilt is a coverlet or garment that has at least two layers of material "quilted" or stitched together. Unless specifically created for the summer, most bed quilts have a layer of batting (also called wadding in the U.K.) sandwiched between a layer of backing fabric and a top layer, which typically features a decorative print or patchwork pattern. Batting can be made from cotton, polyester, wool, bamboo and other fibers.
What Goes Into a Quilt?
A lot of work, and a lot of fabric. Seriously, it does take a lot of work. Even a small baby quilt or throw can take over 15 hours to complete. Don't let this discourage you. Quilts are well worth it. You'll find that the process breaks down easily into small one- and two-hour chunks.
1. Washing, pressing and preparing fabric takes about an hour.
2. Cutting strips and squares takes about an hour.
3. Stitching patchwork pieces and pressing the seams takes another 1 to 2 hours.
4. Joining small units to form a one-piece top takes another 1 to 2 hours. Then, the seams need to be pressed.
5. "Sandwiching" your layers also takes time. Plus, you'll need to baste the materials together. Even if you're not hand basting, it can take up to an hour to baste a quilt with large safety pins or even spray basting (a special adhesive).
6. Now, comes the quilting. Expect to spend at least two hours quilting.
7. Once your project is fully quilted, you'll need to trim off the edges to make them square.
8. Finally, it's time to bind off the raw edges by wrapping fabric strips around the perimeter. You'll also have to make the binding, so here's another two hours at least.
Now your quilt is done, and you can start enjoying it! Wasn't that totally worth it?
Wholecloth quilts have been made everywhere from India to Wales. They can be constructed from heavy wool, mid-weight cotton or light, airy silk. On a solid-colored surface, the quilted design becomes the pattern. Many quilters use solid fabric on one side and a small-scale print on the other. Welsh wholecloth quilts with their stunning Celtic designs were among the first to attract my attention. (Haven't made one of these either!)
First, the designs are marked on the fabric. Then, the design is quilted, usually by hand, but it can also be done my machine.
The colorful quilts of Gee's Bend, Alabama, are among the most famous in this style, in part because they've been traveling to museums around the country. Improvisational piecing can set your creativity free, and it's inherently modern. Use large pieces to make a large quilt, or stay small to make a vibrant wall hanging or placemat.
Patchwork quilts are generally traditional, but they can be modern too. Some of the most well-known are the nine-patch, wedding ring, rail fence, flying geese and Ohio star. Some are easy to make, and others are truly difficult.
Here's a quilt I made featuring a classic pattern called "Double Irish Chain." As you can imagine, there are single and triple Irish chains as well!
Applique is a technical and highly decorative variation. Usually small bits are fabrics are stitched in place. However, reverse applique is another option, where fabric is placed underneath and the design is then cut out. Hawaiian quilts with stylized hibiscus leaves and pineapples are done in this style. The Baltimore Album, a highly decorative sampler style quilt, is also done in this style. Although traditionally done by hand with small, short needles, applique can also be done by machine.
Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as public domain.
Like a relative to applique, paper piecing is super technical. The famous Grandma's Garden pattern, which features flower-shaped hexagons is done by wrapping hexagons over paper pieces and then carefully stitching the edges together.
Foundation piecing, on the other hand, uses a patterned grid. You line up pieces of fabric on the paper and stitch along pre-marked lines. Then, you tear off the backing. This method makes it possible to create the most intricate designs like the famous New York Beauty or Mariner's Compass, which are both extremely complex.
Foundation piecing is great for creating sophisticated animals, butterflies, flowers and especially Christmas trees!
Fusible Art Quilts
Fusing is SO much fun. This method really appealed to me because it's so easy do to and you can be as creative as you want. This method uses pieces of fusible web, a synthetic material with resins that glue or stick pieces of fabric together.
It's so easy to create your own patterns too. To learn more about this style, check out my favorite fusers, Melody Johnson and Laura Wasilowski as well as Quilting Arts Magazine for ideas and inspiration.
Here's a photo of a fusible art quilt that I designed. You can find the pattern of Craftsy. Or take an online quilting class on fusing from the lovely, and very funny Laura Wasilowski.
By Hand and Machine
In addition to the different techniques used to assemble or decorate the quilt top, quilts vary in the way that they are quilted, be it by machine or by hand.
Originally, hand quilting was the only type of quilting. Many people still prefer the relaxing pace and rustic look that go along with the process. Hand quilting can be used to create linear patterns or curvilinear shapes that echo the form of patchwork or applique motifs.
There are many different types of machine quilting.
a. Straight lines can be used to create familiar latticework patterns seen on lather handbags and other items.
b. Straight lines can also be concealed along the seams of patchwork blocks. This is called "stitch in the ditch."
c. Straight-line quilting can also be made 1/4-inch away from seam lines, which creates a much different look.
d. Your sewing machine can also be used for free-motion quilting. Stippling and continuous looped patterns patterns are just the beginning. You can create plumy "feathers," spirals, flowers and many complex patterns.
And then there's long-arm quilting, which you can just think of as industrial grade, because it's so much different that quilting on a domestic sewing machine.
Learning How to Quilt
There are countless options for anyone who is interested in learning how to quilt. There are classes, books, videos and online tutorials for beginners and for specific projects. Here are a few ways that you can pick up this versatile craft.
1. Teach yourself.
2. Learn from an expert. Is there are quilter in your family or on your street? Most quilters would love to share their craft with a new friend.
3. Sign up for classes locally. Quilt shops, fabric stores and community centers have a variety of classes, including many designed especially for beginners.
4. Look online. There are many blogs, websites and authors who publish free resources online. You can build an arsenal of skills by looking on the Internet.
5. Online classes from paid platforms, such as Craftsy, are also available. They are often led by well-known quilters and authors and are available on a variety of popular topics to fit your interests. The site currently has 89 unique quilting classes focusing on all types. There are even a few free classes! You can't beat that!
6. Get books from the library. You can also download e-books through some libraries to gather inspiration or learn new techniques.
7. Pick up a magazine at the store. Quilting magazines are filled with articles and projects, not just quilt patterns. Quilty is a new magazine created by Mary Fons (the daughter of Fons and Porter co-founder Marianne Fons.) It's created especially for newer, younger quilters.
8. Magazines and well-known quilt publishers like Fons and Porter, Interweave and Quilting Arts also have a wealth of online resources, including downloadable projects and tutorials.
9. PBS and local channels frequently have quilting and crafting shows on Saturday and Sunday. Check your local PBS schedule, or find a number of free episodes online at QNNTV.com
Share your favorite quilting techniques! Have you used any of these methods? Which techniques do you want to try?
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