My patchwork essentials……or quilting on a budget part one….


When I first started quilting I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing, I’d watched a 15 minute program on telly showing how to make a log cabin quilt and I thought “oh, I think could do that”….and while I didn’t then make a log cabin that day, I tried my hand (badly) at quilting a cushion cover…..luckily before I’d had enough of my new hobby I was lucky enough to meet a lovely lady called Alison Farmer who took me under her wing who gently showed me where I was going wrong…..

My first trip to a specialist quilting shop with her was a revelation…the shop was stacked to the ceilings with more fabric than I’d ever seen in such a small place, and all of it the perfect weight for quilting…..then there was a wall of equipment that I had no idea what it was for, including an array of the widest rulers I’d ever seen …(why on earth did they have what looked like a pizza cutter? )….not forgetting all the different threads and different needles….at the time I was on an incredibly tight budget (and some things never change) so there was no way I could buy everything that I was being shown…..I bought some fabric and because the first quilt I made was a sampler quilt of my own design, I bought some quilters template plastic, and a packet of very fine “sharps”.


Over time I learnt what the other things were for (the pizza wheel or to use it’s proper name …the Rotary wheel, was a real eye opener) and some items I saved up for, other pieces of equipment I’ve had bought for me when it’s been my birthday or Christmas….not everything I’ve bought has been used….the tiny 1/4 inch seam allowance disc sits un-used in a work box along with a skinny 1/4 inch ruler…silver quilting pencils linger there too……. other items have been used more times than I believed possible.  My rotary cutter is a bit of a death trap but I find it really comfy to use compared to some of the skinny ones nowadays, my first transparent gridded ruler has barely any outer markings left but I like the size to much to part with it…….some of the leftover fabric scraps from that first quilt still crop up and get used in smaller projects.

piecing triangles

Anyway, after finishing the star quilts I thought I’d write a list of some of the things I use when I set about sewing a quilt (from piecing the patchwork to quilting the layers together)…..writing this post is the result of a couple of conversations I’ve had with different friends, we’ve talking about quilts and patchwork and a couple of friends felt even though they would like to take it up as a hobby, quilting is a rich woman’s hobby and they couldn’t afford it….I disagreed because I don’t think that is true.

It’s all too easy to go a bit crazy to begin with and to feel you need every gadget out there.  If you are careful how you spend your money then I don’t think it’s a hobby or past-time that should really break the bank.

stack of fabrics

Really to begin with you need fabric, sewing cotton, the correct needles, some pins and a pair of fabric scissors.  It also helps if you have a small pair of scissors to cut your thread with rather than keep using the larger fabric shears.  Those are your essentials and I’d guess the pins and scissors you’d have if you already sew….

Next would be something to make your templates for your patchwork with or something to cut them out with.  Then comes the wadding or batting, backing fabric, quilting cotton and appropriate needles.  It’s only after you’ve had a go at quilting would I suggest you buy anything more expensive or “specialist”…if you really don’t get on with it then it will be money wasted.

quilt books 003

There are loads of books now about patchwork and quilting, and the choice available can be a bit overwhelming….when I first started making quilts I thought a lot of the books on offer were a bit fuddy duddy (too many pictures of overtly fussy 1980’s style prints for my liking) luckily things have changed and a trip to your local library will nowadays reveal shelves heaving with books full of brightly coloured quilts.

I wrote a piece the other year about my favourite resource books, the Barbara Chainey one and the Maggie Malone book are both in the Norfolk Library system so you can take them out on loan…..I’ve also got a book which was like 25p or something from a car boot simply called Patchwork.  It’s part of the traditional needle arts collection and is written by Diana Lodge……it covers a nice range of patchwork designs and although some of the colours and fabric choices aren’t really my cup of tea, the information inside is very sound.

dresden plates 016

It’s a good idea to know what sort of quilt you intend to make,  this is going to sound rather odd but it’s actually easier to start off making a decent sized quilt than something too small…….my first quilt took me cough cough…five years to make, but in that time I also made and finished other smaller quilts.  Working on the larger quilt allowed me to gain my confidence as a quilter, and also become a more accomplished sewer….

holiday sewing 006

One of the easiest types of quilts has a patchwork top made up out of different coloured squares.  I recently bought fabric from Pretty Fabrics and Trims and they sell smaller cut pieces of fabric that would be ideal for this sort of patchwork (25 x 35cm rather than the regular 55 x 50 cm in a fat quarter).  There is also a block called Nine Patch which looks really effective repeated over in an array of fabrics.  I’ve mentioned before on my blog that I am a hand sewer, and sewing squares by hand is pretty easy, and it’s nice and portable…however if you prefer to use a sewing machine then that’s fine (I just have a tendency to go a bit doo lally when I get on a machine.)

When you first step into a specialist quilting shop then it’s like an Aladdin’s cave, there’s so much choice of fabric and notions that it can be pretty over whelming, which is why it’s a really good idea to know or at least have a good idea of what it is you want to make. (a few hours spent at your local library looking at quilts will really pay off later)

The fabric you buy to make your patchwork top will be the biggest expense so it’s good to have a really long think about your fabric choices.

pinks and red


In my opinion the fabric can make or break the quilt.  I always try to buy good quality fabric that is 100% cotton….don’t scrimp on buying mixes or poly cottons. Always look for “quilting cottons”, it’s lightweight and is ideal for sewing, it doesn’t fray too badly and It gets softer and softer as it’s handled, washed and slept under.  Money well spent in my book.  Only buy fabric you really love…if you’re undecided and not sure in the shop you aren’t going to be suddenly falling in love with it and wanting to sew it when you get home… (I speak from experience)

Recycled or re-purposed fabrics

In the past I’ve bought clothing from charity shops to use in patchwork but it’s getting harder and harder to find really good quality fabric in a lot of them, after a few washes the cotton on shirts just bobbles and looks tatty….  By all means if it is fabric that has sentimental value then use it, but sadly it’s a fact that much fabric used for clothing nowadays isn’t of a very high standard so anything made from those fabrics will need to be treated with that much more care.  At the end of the day, I’m not the quilting police, and you should always use fabric you love but at the same time it’s best to know what the fabric may do a few washes down the line.  (however if you’re making a quilt for your cat or dog then flannel shirts from charity shops are generally pretty well priced and your pet isn’t going to mind a bit of post washing bobbling)

les soeurs anglais 002

Vintage fabric

Vintage cottons are generally a safe bet, they’ll already be soft from years of washing and being worn.  However some other fabrics don’t cope so well.. silk disintegrates or “shatters” and becomes almost like dust, some old velvets bleed colour non stop, so don’t cope with being washed.  Both of these are more suitable for crazy quilting with lots of embroidery to support the fabric.  (Certainly with vintage silk I’d use a piece of lightweight American muslin underneath for support)….old tweeds and woollen fabrics will quite often shrink so again they are best used in items that aren’t expecting to be washed.

vintage quilting needles

Needles for patchwork

The needles you need for hand sewing patchwork are called “sharps”.  They are a bit skinnier than regular sewing needles and have very sharp points.  They also have quite a small eye to thread the sewing cotton through.

When I’m piecing or sewing my patchwork I tend to sew it by hand, I like a nice sharp needle and where possible favour vintage “sharps” as I find the older needles somewhat stronger than modern ones. (Norwich has loads of great antique/junk shops and many of them seem to sell vintage haberdashery items)…if you’re buying new then Clover Gold Eye are very good “sharps” for hand sewing patchwork, their number 10 is a very nice needle to use.  Slightly cheaper are John James, Milward and Newey Craft.  All of these are still very good and won’t break the bank.

If I’m sewing over papers (which is how I make sew hexagons together) then I really do like to use Clover Black Gold applique needles.  They aren’t cheap (an eye watering £4.50 for 6 the last time I bought a pack)..however they really are incredibly sharp and super fine (even skinnier than a regular “sharp”), while being nice and strong.  They make sewing patchwork or any other fine stitch sewing a real delight.  If I didn’t think they were worth the price then I certainly wouldn’t mention them…if they are too much for your budget then you could always put them on a Christmas present or birthday list.

vintage threads

Sewing thread

Although I like to use a lot of vintage thread in my sewing such as Sylko Dewhurst, I’m also quite happy to sew with Gutterman 100% cotton thread.  I don’t like their polyester thread though, I find it tangles too much.  It’s fine when I’m using it in a sewing machine, but for hand sewing I prefer their 100% cotton thread.

Generally when you’re sewing patchwork, if you use grey thread you’ll find it blends in really well with most other colours, especially if you are using prints of more than one colour, and your stitches won’t be so noticeable when you turn over your seam.  When I’m using the Gutterman thread I like the grey in shades No. 40 and No. 5705

cream blanket inner needlecase

Something to cut your fabric with

Obviously you need something to cut your fabric with, a good quality pair of fabric scissors will last you a life time as long as you don’t use them to cut anything else with.  (If you live in a household where you think someone might “borrow” them to cut wallpaper or hair then hide them.)  Merchant and Mills make beautiful scissors and I’ve got a pair of their 8″ Tailor’s Shears……mine were a wonderful Christmas present and get used loads.

And a small pair of scissors or thread snips to cut thread with makes life handy.

Regarding rotary cutters….I didn’t buy one for quite a while, because I just didn’t need one. My first quilt was a big sampler and each block was unique, so I would cut out the templates for a block, and then draw round and cut with scissors the shapes required from my fabric.  And even if you are making a patchwork top with squares then you can quite happily draw round templates and cut your fabric with scissors.

Rotary cutters combined with a thick ruler, and a cutting mat can make life much easier however ( I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sewn up tiny little patchwork log cabin squares where I’ve had a stack of ironed fabric and have cut the fabric in strips before sewing together on a sewing machine) if you’re on a tight budget and are really new to patchwork and quilting, I’d wait a while before investing in any expensive equipment.

ruler and template plastic

Quilter’s Template Plastic and cutting mat.

This can be bought in A3 sized sheets or in packs of A4.  It’s available gridded, plain or with an isometric pattern (which is good for cutting hexagons and diamonds. It depends what you are drawing or cutting as to which you’ll need.

You can buy templates already pre-cut.  Personally I like to make my own as it’s a lot cheaper, but you do need to be accurate in your cutting and drafting.

I have a small plastic square ruler by Creative Grids, (it measures 4 1/2 inches each side) and it cost me under £10.00 and I really don’t know how I managed without it.  Now I’m not saying you definitely need to go out and buy one of those, I make a lot of small patchwork and find this really handy as it’s small and I find I can be more accurate.  I also have a couple of bigger rulers but for me my small ruler is worth it’s weight in gold.

When I made my first quilt I bought a pack of gridded Quilter’s Template Plastic.  As it was already gridded I just had to very carefully cut out my templates along the pre-printed lines.

Cutting mats can be bought from art supply stores and a small A4 sized one is really handy even if you don’t have a rotary cutter, I use one I bought from a cheap stationers, and save it for tucking under my fabric to lean on when I’m drawing round my templates onto the cloth.

dutchman's puzzle 009

I think this pretty much covers what I think are the basics for sewing patchwork.

I really hope this helps anyone reading to see that quilting (and patchwork) doesn’t have to be a “rich woman’s past-time” …. I’ve never had much worth watching in my purse which is why I probably favour hand sewing over machine sewing, it does take longer but then it’s lots cheaper…I’ve tried not to let what’s not in my purse prevent me from enjoying what has become one of my favourite past-times.  (And when you’re making something for yourself or someone  you love, it’s nice to be able take your time.)

2 thoughts on “My patchwork essentials……or quilting on a budget part one….

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