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 (okay-ish) at quilting a cushion cover. and a couple of other pieces though my stitching didn’t really look too much like pictures i was seeing in a book (this was all before the internet so didn’t have You-tube or anything like that to watch or get help from….luckily before I’d had enough of my new hobby I was fortunate enough to meet a lovely lady called Alison Farmer who took me under her wing who gently guided and showed me that bits I wasn’t quite understanding…..
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…..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) 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” but that was it. It didn’t look very much when I laid it on the counter but when it got rang through the til it still made me wince.
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 pricey items such as the big rulers I either saved up for or I’ve had bought for me when it’s been my birthday or Christmas and 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 too much to part with it…….some of the leftover fabric scraps from that first quilt still crop up and get used in smaller projects.
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 persons’ hobby and that they couldn’t afford it….I disagreed because I certainly don’t think that is true although I think it can definitely seem that way on first appearance. I really hate that because much of the history of quilting and patchwork has come about by making something out of nothing, people from the poorest communities creating patchwork quilts that are rich in colour, texture and self expression.
At the end of the day, patchwork and quilting is all about joining fabric together with stitches. Fabric doesn’t have to be bought new, you don’t need a sewing machine, you can sew by hand, and scissors cut fabric fine.
Really, all you truly need to begin with is fabric, sewing cotton, 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…. It’s great if you have access to a sewing machine, but that isn’t truly an essential, but it does make sewing patchwork a lot faster.
Next would be something to make the templates for your patchwork with (you can use cereal box card) or if you aren’t using templates or papers, something to measure and cut your fabric. Then comes the wadding or batting (an old wool blanket that has worn thing will suffice, or you could sew together things like old jogging bottoms and sweat shirts, big wool scarves from charity shops), backing fabric (you can make this out of smaller pieces of fabric sewn together if you want or use an old sheet), thread for the quilting and needles.
There are loads of books now about patchwork and quilting, and a trip to your local library will nowadays reveal shelves heaving with books full of inspirational quilts. Most of my quilting and patchwork books are second hand, picked up from charity shops and car boots.
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.
It’s a good idea to know what sort of quilt you intend to make, this is going to sound rather odd but personally I think it is 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 (it was a really huge one), 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….
If you are looking to make a very light weight quilt for summer or to throw over the sofa then you could use an old flannel sheet as the batting, winter quilts would benefit from something more substantial. And then you have quilts that are for the wall or small pot holders so it’s good to have a think about the purpose of what you are making.
One of the easiest types of quilts has a patchwork top made up out of different coloured squares. 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.)
The fabric you buy to make your patchwork top doesn’t have to be bought new, you can easily re-purpose items such as shirts or outgrown childrens clothes. Personally I find stitching stretchy fabrics like t shirts quite difficult so I tend to avoid using those, but shirts and summer dresses, light weight trousers and skirts are all good. Pieced together t-shirts can be used as a batting though if you are looking to make a lightweight quilt as the patchwork and backing seems to stop any stretch. and it’s nice to sew through. You can also use fleece fabric as a batting, that gives a bit more of a quilty pucker when it is quilted.
Specialist quilting shops will sell fabric called “quilting cotton”, this is lightweight and is perfect for patchwork, it doesn’t fray too badly and It gets softer and softer as it’s handled, washed and slept under. You can buy it in smaller quantities such as fat or thin quarters so you can pick and mix lots of different colours and pattern. Linen is another option for fabric, while not being the easiest fabric to work with, it has a wonderful texture and wears really well. My main piece of guidance here with buying “new” fabric would be to only buy fabric you really love…if you’re undecided and not sure in the shop then you aren’t going to be suddenly falling in love with it and wanting to sew with it when you get home… (I speak from experience)
However, both quilting cotton fabric and linen are pricey and can easily be out of a lot of peoples budget which is where using recycled/resalvaged fabrics can come in.
Recycled or re-purposed fabrics
Clothing from charity shops and carboots can be ideal to use in patchwork. Things like cotton shirts are good as there is lots of fabric in them though I’d just advise checking that the fabric is strong enough and not too lightweight as you don’t want it to start tearing as you start sewing it. Old pillowcases and duvet covers, sheets and tablecloths are also good. The only down side is that they might be woven quite tight so can be a bit harder to sew through than the shirt cotton. I think you should always use fabric you like but at the same time it’s best to know what the fabric may do a few washes down the road.
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 brilliantly with being washed. I think both of these are more suitable for crazy quilting with lots of embroidery to support the fabric. (Certainly with vintage silk I’d go so far as to use a piece of lightweight American muslin underneath for support even with crazy quilting and embroidery)….old tweeds and woollen fabrics will quite often shrink so again they are best used in items that aren’t expecting to be washed in anything other than a very cool wash.
Really old, vintage fabrics which you think will be fine can often be a bit frail so you might want to check they haven’t been damaged by sunlight if you are buying them for patchwork (I once bought some lovely old curtain material to use in a quilt. It was folded up and tied off in a parcel so I didn’t get a chance to properly check it, when I got home it pretty much shedded apart when I shook it out as it was so fragile).
I would also say here that it’s always worth mentioning to friends and family if they have any spare fabric or do they know anyone who sews. I’ve been extremely lucky and have been gifted heaps of lovely old sewing things from friends and family having clear outs. Pretty much all the quilters and sewers I know have a bag or box of scraps that they are more than happy to share some of. It might not be the fabrics that sets your heart on fire but it you never know….
Needles for patchwork
The needles you generally use for hand sewing patchwork are called “sharps” or applique needles. They are a bit skinnier than regular sewing needles and have very sharp points. They tend to have quite a small eye to thread the sewing cotton through. I’d also recommend milliners or straw needles. They are similar to the “sharps” but are slightly longer and finer needles, very sharp and again excellent for sewing patchwork and applique or sewing patchwork over papers.
When I’m piecing or sewing my patchwork 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)…Brands I tend to use the most when buying new are John James, Milward and Newey Craft. All of these are very good and have nice sharp tips. I like a number 10 needle myself but packets with a variety of different sizes in them are really good..
Although I like to use a lot of vintage thread in my hand 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 a 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.
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 really beautiful scissors and I’ve got a pair of their 8″ Tailor’s Shears……mine were a Christmas present, they get used loads, and when I’ve finished using them they get put away in their box. But I also bought a pair of craft scissors from our local market which were well under £5 that I only use for fabric and they are still super sharp ten years later.
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) but 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.
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.
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 persons past-time” …. I’ve never had much that is 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.)