Last May I wrote a rather lengthy piece about what I’ve found to be really essential when I make my patchworks…I hate that a lot of people seem to think you need to be super rich to make a quilt, okay, it would be wonderful to have big pots of money and to just buy everything all in one swoop but that’s never been a situation I’ve found myself to be in. For the most part, I’ve bought the pieces I use slowly, in dribs and drabs…some fancy shmancy pieces of equipment (like gridded rulers and fabric shears) were bought for me for my birthday or Christmas (which makes using them extra special), but most of my quilts were made without a lot of flashy stuff.
I had a message the other day from Buttercupandbee regarding my quilts, and well, you know what I’m like, there’s never a short answer with me (I see it as being thorough)….but it reminded me of my original post and thought it was time for a follow up.
This is a break down of what I use to make my quilts once I have a patchwork top ready to work with…first up I’m a hand quilter and while I have made one quilt using a machine, I really do prefer to use my hands..(but if you like making them on a machine then that’s great, I’m just saying it just wasn’t for me). I don’t live in a particularly big house so there isn’t the space to store more than a couple of quilts. Nor do I have the funds to make an unlimited amount so the fact each one takes me a good while is a positve thing to me….If a quilt takes me a couple of years to make then that’s okay, I’m fine with that….obviously the ones I make for commissions don’t take as long as that but there’s still a lot of hours in all those stitches…the real pleasure for me is in the handling of the fabric, finding an inner quiet time in those tiny stitches….the rhythm and motion of the needle passing through the fabric, joining pieces of patchwork into a whole and then later embellishing with quilting……
As I say, funds for quilts that are made for our home are quite limited…the biggest spend after fabric for the patchwork top tends to be on the wadding but I’ve found that buying wadding in bulk (I buy a kingsize pack of wadding and then cut it down into smaller pieces) works out excellent value for money…..next comes fabric for the backing, then thread and needles and a quilting hoop, something to mark your pattern out with and something to draw around like a template….anything extra is just that…extra.
I try to keep all my quilting/patchwork tools and equipment together though there are bits and bobs that cross over from one sewing box to another…but while you’re making your patchwork top you might like to keep an eye open for the items you’ll need later to make your quilt…it’s surprising how often I’ve seen a quilting hoop in a charity shop or beautiful vintage needles at a flea market….and if you’re making a quilt for you or for your home, then vouchers for your birthday to spend at your local quilt shop will help toward the costs of wadding and backing fabric. I think a mistake people can often make is to feel that you need to buy everything all at once…I think it’s much better to buy slowly, and if you’re lucky enough to have friends that quilt they’ll probably be happy to lend you things so you can try them out first.
Marking your quilt
You can buy special silver pencils or chalk pencils from quilt shops to mark up your quilting design. Both of these wash out really easily. I don’t get on so well with the silver pencils myslef and prefer a white chalk pencil. When I’ve made very small quilts I’ve marked the quilt in wash out blue pen but I don’t recommend this for larger projects as the pen can become permanent if left for a long period or is exposed to sunlight….regular HB pencil isn’t generally suggested to use as the graphite rubs off against your hand which then brushes against the fabric making the quilt become rather grubby..however, I’m not going to say I’ve never used it because I have, but I do need to wash all my quilts as soon as they are finished (this also helps the fabric scrunch up and look a bit “time softened” rather than something I’ve just made as well as sprucing it up)…..Not that long ago I read in a recently published book to mark up your quilt using tailor’s chalk…seriously I would not suggest this as tailor’s chalk is waxy and it doesn’t always wash out properly. I’d also suggest getting a top quality pencil sharpener from an art suplies store to keep the pencil tips sharp (cheap ones always seem to chew up the “silver lead”/chalk inside).
Depending on your quilting design you can also use strips of masking tape, (although I tend to buy big reels of it from a local Ironmongers as it’s cheap as chips from there, you can also buy skinnier versions from quilt suply shops)….you just stick this to the patchwork and quilt either side of the line and then it just whips right off, you should be able to use it a couple of times before all the sticky has gone….it’s quite handy for quilting squares or diamond shapes in the middle of feathered circles….and you can stick it diagonally across the quilt, and quilt along like that, though you’ll need a sturdy ruler to guide you so the line is kept super straight (or spread your quilt out flat, and tie and pin across a piece of thread across the corners, then run the tape along the thread line.)
You may prefer to get fancy and want to quilt cables around the edges of your quilt, if so then I’d suggest buying some quilter’s plastic, you can buy this in A4 packs or in A3 size sheets ( I buy the sheets as they work out better value for money and last me ages)….but you can also use the plastic to make a bar for baptist fan quilting.
Wadding or Batting
I prefer to use a pure wool wadding from the Tuscany Collection by Hobbs…it’s not cheap but it hand quilts beautifully, and when washed carefully gives a wonderful drape and lightness to your finished quilt. I’m happy to spend the extra money this wadding costs as it is so wonderful to work with.
I also use cotton wadding and find that quilts up really well. I tend to use it more on notebook covers and small projects rather than bed quilts but if you wanted to make a Summer quilt and were on a bit of a budget then that would work beautifully. Most quilt shops sell this on a big roll so I don’t know a brand name, however I’ve bought cotton wadding from 3 different places as it’s all been about the same so I think it’s quite generic.
I don’t use synthetic waddings as I find the fibers seem to resist the needle, and it’s much harder to make my stitches. I think it’s a bit of a false economy to skimp on a good wadding, okay I know you don’t see the wadding but the time you spend working the quit, if you’re constantly fighting with your needle then it becomes a chore not a pleasure….I also find it doesn’t really “flop” like a wool wadding (I like a quilt that flops over the edge of the bed, corners forming soft folds)….instead it sort of just sits there
Also because I’m a cheap skate and don’t like to throw anything out….I often sew small pieces of wadding together to make a larger piece…when you make your quilt you get left with strips from the side, rather than throw these away I just save them until I’ve got a few and then just slightly overlap the pieces and then sew them together with a slanted tacking stitch.
American muslin/quilting calico
For the most part this is what I’ve used to back several of the quilts I’ve made…it’s available in really generous widths so you could buy a couple of metres to back a quilt with it without having to join the fabric and have any distracting seams….it tends to come in two colours, bleached and un-bleached..so white or natural. It’s not the prettiest fabric in the world and I know most quilts in more modern quilting quilts seem to use printed fabrics for their undersides (this is what I’ve done in the above picture) but if you’re on a budget then using this will help save a fair bit of money, also your quilting will show up much clearer on a plain background…it also holds dye incredibly well so you could also dye some and just wash it a few times before basting your quilt together.
Generally I wash all my fabric for quilting before I begin sewing with it, and I make sure to wash the muslin/calico too as it does shrink up a bit. There isn’t a particular brand of calico I favour, I just ask for American Muslin at my local quilt shop, however don’t ask for English Muslin as that’s cheesecloth and isn’t suitable to back your quilt. American Muslin is also a lot softer than dressmakers calico so I find it’s best to buy it from an actual quilting shop.
If you wanted to make a wholecloth quilt (a quilt which doesn’t have a patchwork top but instead is a single piece of fabric which is then beautifully quilted) then this is the fabric you’d want to use.
When I’ve had a long break from quilting I find it can take an hour or so for me to get my rhythm or quilting mojo back…I’ve always have a play/sampler quilt to feel my way back in to the motion of the stitches…this is often just a couple of pieces of American muslin with some cotton wadding inside (this is a perfect way to use up those wadding scraps you’ve saved and sewn together), basted together and which I can just randomly stitch until my fingers become familiar to the motion of the needle again. It doesn’t have to be very big, mine tend to be about 18 -24 inch square “quilt sandwiches”. It’s not meant to be a work of art or anything, the stitches aren’t made to be perfect, it’s all about you finding that needle,fabric, fingers rhythm again…..and when you feel your stitches are nicely consistant, then you start back on your quilt project, tucking the scrappy sampler away for next time…they can end up getting pretty heavily quilted, and in the past when I feel I can’t quilt them anymore I chop them up for cushion stuffing….like I say, they aren’t pretty, and aren’t designed to be admired or anything, it’s like scribbling with a new pen on scrap paper, encouraging the ink to flow….
I really like using Star brand hand quilting cotton, it’s incredibly well priced and makes for very nice quilting. It’s a bit thicker than regular quilting cotton so is a bit hard to thread really tiny needles (such as Clover Black Gold) It’s quite hard to source in the UK and I’ve only seen it available in a few colours (although mostly I prefer to quilt in an ecru shade or grey) but I’m told it’s widely available in the US and Canada.
However, I also like Gutterman hand quilting cotton. It’s finer than the Star brand so it’s easier to thread your needles, but is a bit more expensive. It’s available in a really wide range of colours. I always use proper hand quilting cotton and don’t touch the synthetic threads.
If you’re quilting a patchwork top made with brushed cotton then you could also try using coloured button thread by Gutterman, it’s thicker but the brushed cotton isn’t woven so tightly as regular quilting fabric so it doesn’t damage the weave. This is what I used on a very early quilt I made (actually it was a pair of quilts for two of my nieces, just large squares of brushed cotton hand sewn together and then I quilted rows of heart/star motifs on them…) it’s also what I use when I’ve made quilts for the cats…(which were made from an old pair of pyjamas and some plaid shirts)
Quilting needles are often called “quilters between” but sometimes it just says “quilting” on the packet. The needles are short, and slightly stubby. They need to be nice and strong to go through all the layers. (unlike the straights or applique needles you use for the patchwork, those are super skinny and a bit longer.)
Depending on what I’m quilting I go on and off different brands of needles, mostly I prefer the tiniest little needles imaginable, the sort you’d expect the mice in The Tailor of Gloucester to have used on those buttonholes…but I appreciate these aren’t for everyone. Some brands sell little packets with a selection of quilting needles in them, and while you may not end up getting on with all the different sizes, it gives you the chance to try out and find what feels comfortable for you ….also, don’t expect to find the teeniest needle comfy the first time you quilt…like most things, it takes a bit of practise and when I started quilting I prefered a longer needle to what I like to use now.
Millward and John James are both good basic brands, you get about 20 needles for around £2.00, you really want to store them in-between sewing in a needle case as the quilting needles are so short they’ll soon disappear to be forever lost if you push them into a pin cushion.
I’ve also used Clover Black Gold which are very very tiny and skinny, they probably aren’t so great for a beginner and they are very pricey, the last ones I bought were £4.50 for 6 needles, but they are super sharp. (their applique needles in this range are excellent)…from time to time in brickety brac/flea markets I’ve been able to pick up Blue Dorcas vintage quilting needles, these are my all time favourite and never cost me much. Always check for rust though if you look to buy vintage needles for your sewing (I like using them as I find they are stronger and sharper than modern needles)
If I’m quilting something small, anything less than a foot square I’m not likely to use a quilting hoop, I still baste it the layers with thread but find I can handle the fabric better without a hoop, but when I’m working larger than that I find using a hoop makes things a lot easier…and there’s much less chance of you quilting yourself to your work (it’s incredibly easy to catch a dress or skirt fabric on to your quilt when you don’t use a hoop…I speak from exprience)…a quilting hoop is bigger than an embroidery hoop, it’s also fatter, generally about an inch thick.
A hoop will help give the right amount of tension to your work as you quilt it…some people like their work to be held super taut like a drum, I prefer a bit more slack, but there isn’t a right way or wrong way, it’s what feels right for you.
I’ve got 2 different sized hoops, a couple that are 14 inches wide which I tend to use for most of my quilting, and a bigger one that is 18 inches wide and which I don’t use quite so often, even though I’ve got what I think must be freakishly long arms (cardigans and coats never seem quite long enough to my liking and cuffs often sit well above my wrist bone) I find the 18 inch hoop quite hard to manoeuvre when it’s in my lap….I imagine it would be perfect for quilting feathers and cabling when you need lots of space to maneuver and perhaps I’ll do some fancier quilting like that again when I quilt up “dear ethel”.
Some years ago when I made a huge sampler quilt that my mum now has, each of the blocks in the centre was quilted with a different pattern, cabling ran along the sashing and a double or triple cable ran over the flying geese border. Using the hoop helped me focus on each block as I quilted it without being distracted by what was happening in other parts of the patchwork. It’s nice to do fancy things like that for other people but I rarely bother for myself though I’m thinking “dear ethel” deserves it.
My favourite hand quilting book is The Essential Quilter by Barbara Chainey….it was recommended to me by the lady who taught me to quilt and I’ve not found better for the basics….it’s very clearly written and easy to follow. The only downside is that the quilts in it are a bit dated and fuddy duddy looking in my opinion but the workmanship is amazing. In the back of the book are some simple shapes which you can trace or photocopy to make templates to quilt around.
And as I mentioned in my patchwork essentials piece, 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.
And to be honest that’s it, little extras like fabric grips have only come much later in my quilt making. I do use a thimble but just a regular sewing thimble… I’ve seen fancier ones in shops but I get on fine with the one I have. I also a little velvet strawberry needle sharpener that was from the Royal School of Needlework, this was bought with birthday money from my dear friend Joyce so now she’s psssed away it’s become very dear…but a cheaper one filled with emery will work fine to keep your needle tips sharp. (note, if you do buy the Clover Black Gold then don’t sharpen them, the emery removes their black coating)….for me a quilt is all about time, slow stitches rather than a fat purse in which to go wild at a local fabric store with.
If you ever get the chance there is a fantastic collection of quilts at The American Museum just outside of Bath…the collection regularly rotates what’s on display. There are some really breathraking quilts on show and may of them incorporate scraps and would have been made with what was to hand.
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