Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen….Goethe
You might want to put the kettle on and make a pot of tea as this is a bit of a long post……For the past five years I’ve had a skein of yarn, all softness and shimmers. I’ve called it my sleeping beauty skein as it’s just been sleeping….waiting for my knitting to improve enough beyond little dish clothes…..over this last year I’ve been slowly practising my knitting and I think barely a day has gone by when I haven’t knitted a row or two, ohh and there’s been plenty of un-knitting and ripping back going on too, but I often find that by making mistakes I then learn something I didn’t know, (just the yarn gets un-ravelled not the learning)….slowly slowly slowly my skills have grown (actually it feels very embarrassing to call them skills as my knitting feels more fledgling and fluttery than anything else) ….but finally I felt confident to cast on a shawl that’s owned a piece of my heart for several years…..
I first saw Ishbel about five years ago and about the same time I saw this yarn…. both the colour and the glossy gorgeousness of the skein seemed to whisper “buy me buy me”…..it’s been ferreted away since then for when I felt confident enough to start my Ishbel shawl…I don’t think I was really quite sure of when that one day would be….the skein was just tucked away safe, and has been sleeping like some fairy tale princess…..
If you regularly read my blog you’ll know I really only began making sense of knitting last Autumn, and while before that I’d knitted dishcloths and very simple pieces, actually being to read or understand my knitting was somewhat beyond me, reading a pattern…well, all those yarn overs and slip stitches was just goobledy-gook and as for charts…I might as well have been trying to read hieroglyphics. But very gradually I found myself being able to follow a pattern and with the Karise shawl I found I was actually able to read a chart…..now while I know this is because I was just becoming more familiar with the instructions and often the techniques used are variations of something I’ve just done, it doesn’t make it feel less magic, and I do still have to pinch myself when I’ve cast off whatever I’ve knitted as I can’t quite believe I’ve made it myself…. this is especially true with my latest knit…the beautiful beautiful Ishbel.
I love Ishbel so much, the shape of the shawl is wider at the sides and less deep in the back so it feels like you’re getting a bigger shawl for your yarn… the curved arcs of the lace almost looks like brush strokes …..The lace pattern is very rhythmic with those undulating shells flowing back and forth….
The Alice Sock yarn is quite simply breath-takingly beautiful, all shimmering hues of soft sea green delight, deep pools of blue and reminds me of glass washed up on the beach. The yarn is rich and silky and the added cashmere makes it feel incredibly luxurious. .the actual colour of the yarn is a bit deeper and jewel bright than in these pictures, and the fabric feels gorgeous, glossy thistle puffs of silk and softness.
Because the yarn was so wonderfully kitteny I found that it helped to scrub my hands (which are a bit gnarly and dry after I’ve been pottering about weeding the garden) with a dribble of grape-seed oil and a teaspoon of sugar, paying particular attention to the skin around my nails, this yarn wanted to be treated nice and fancy and didn’t care for rough hands…
When the shawl was un-blocked it was a bit hard to see exactly what the lace was doing, and actually it reminded me rather of over-cooked pasta shells, a bit squidgy …and the bottom edge is all rumpled and curled….while I was knitting the shawl I used a whole load of stitch markers which were quite weighty and when I’ve taken pictures of the knitting process then the lace had sort of secretly shown itself….
I also downloaded the stitch count which you can find on Ysolda’s support page just here, and this was really helpful (it’s like Ysolda’s there holding your hand)…between umpteen markers and the stitch count this was the first time I’ve made anything that I didn’t have to un-knit .
I don’t think I’ll ever stop marveling at how a wee soak in warm water and a little time and patience quite transforms knitting, and with a handful or so of pins, lace grows and opens up, looking quite different to when it’s first cast off the needles.
I didn’t find this the easiest knit but then I’m a beginner and didn’t expect to, however I loved every minute of it. Just being patient with myself and not rushing, checking my lace after every repeat, and counting my stitch rows…..definitely worth the time, and the sense of achievement I felt casting off…wonderful….I’m truly so over the moon happy with my finished shawl and know it will be a pattern I will knit time and time again. Indeed, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear I’ve already cast on my second one.
For the most part, I’ve bought any special 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 a friend 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 also tend to quilt quite small stitches but I think stitch size is very much a matter of personal choice.
I don’t live in a particularly big house so there isn’t the space to store more than a couple of quilts. If a quilt takes me a couple of years to make by hand 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……
But this is just what I like, what I find to be my essentials… What another quilter thinks will probably be quite different depending on the type and style of quilting they do.
As I say, funds for quilts that are made for our home are quite limited…the biggest expense tends to be the wadding becasue I like to use a pure wool one, 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 more economical but it is still pricey……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…. I think a mistake people can often make is to feel that you need to buy everything all at once or everything has to be bought new.
I think it’s much better to buy slowly, repurpose where you can 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 myself and prefer a white chalk pencil. 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 use them although I only press very lightly, but I do 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…personally I wouldn’t 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 supplies 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, ( I tend to buy big reels of it from a local Ironmongers as it’s cheap as chips from there)….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.)
I’ve also got a couple of hera markers which are made from plastic which you score on the fabric against a ruler. They look a bit like a butter knife (which you can also use though be careful there isn’t any chips or rough bits on the blade) and I used to have a lovely hera made from bone but managed to lose it. You can also get wooden ones and I’ve also used wooden tools that are used in clay work, again pressing the ‘blade’ against a ruler to score a line on the fabric.
You may prefer to get fancy and want to quilt cables around the edges of your quilt, if so then you can buy plastic sheets that are A4 and 3 sized but you can also use plastic from yoghurt containers and certain packagings…. you can also use this to make a bar for baptist fan quilting.
Wadding or Batting
When I have the money I prefer to use a pure wool wadding by Hobbs…it’s expensive but it hand quilts beautifully, and when washed carefully gives the most wonderful drape and lightness to your finished quilt. I’m happy to save up the extra money this wadding costs as it is such a delight to work with. Wool wadding is warm in Winter but it is also light for Summer as it actually weighs less than cotton. It only needs washing if it gets dirty, and then I bundle my quilt up in the washing machine, put it on a gentle wool cycle and allow it to dry outside draped over a rotary line.
I also use cotton and cotton/bamboo blend wadding. Though I tend to use it more on smaller projects like wall hangings, book covers, project bags rather than lap quilts or big bed quilts but if you want to make a quilt and were on a bit of a budget then it is a good second choice. 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 and it has all been about the same so I think it’s quite generic.
I save all my pieces of wadding and regularly sew them 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. You can use these in smaller projects but I have also used them in a larger quilt. So basically you get to use every last bit of it and it doesn’t get wasted.
However if you don’t want to buy new wadding/batting you could always use an old wool blanket that’s worn thin for the wadding which will give you a lovely warm Winter quilt. This is also really good for pot holders and oven gloves. You won’t be able to make the smallest quilt stitches as the wool in a blanket is denser than that used in wadding so you might find yourself needing to use thicker thread like Sashiko or top stitch thread and a thicker needle (darning ones are good if you can’t find the Sashiko ones). You can also use brushed cotton fleece like what is used for sweatshirts or you could stitch together old sweatshirts and jogging bottoms that have seen better days, or old fleece sheets that have bobbled a bit to make a batting for lightweight Summer quilts that you can take to the beach or fling over the sofa. Large wool cloth scarves/shawls from charity shops stitched together also make a good batting.
Generally I find synthetic waddings seem to resist the needle, and it’s harder to make my stitches. If you’re constantly fighting with your needle then it becomes a chore not a pleasure to sit and hand quilt the stitches so I’d rather look for natural fibre alternatives at a car boot or charity shop than buy a new synthetic wadding from a shop. But when my funds have been limited and I needed to use what was to hand then I’ve quilted with old duvets (between 1-4.5 tog), and used pieces of polar fleece fabric as wadding though I had to go up a few needle sizes when I quilted them.
Different battings/waddings will give different effects, some will plump up and be nice and lofty, some will drape and be nice and squishy, but never feel that you are doing something wrong just because you are using different materials to those you might see in books/blogs/quilt shows/social media etc.
I think it’s a good reminder to sometimes tell yourself that it’s up to you what you want to quilt with, no one is going to come round and stop you. In the past, the majority of quilts were made with what was at hand and quilt shops that sell all the fancy stuff are relatively recent where as quilts have been being made for hundreds of years.
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….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 books seem to use printed fabrics for their undersides (this is what I’ve done in the above picture) but I like how quilting stitches show up really clearly on a plain background… American muslin holds dye incredibly well so you could also dye some if you’d rather it a different colour
Generally I wash all my fabric for quilting before I begin sewing with it, and I make sure to wash the muslin/calico to soften it before sewing. 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 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 as the plainness of the fabric would really highlight and show off the pattern of your quilting.
You can also use old bed linens for the quilt back, the only downside to these is they are woven quite tight so they aren’t always as easy to quilt as the American muslin but it depends a lot on how small you want your quilting stitches to be. Charity shops and carboots are great for sourcing pretty vintage sheets and tablecloths for not much money.
But you can just as easily make the back from fabrics that have been pieced together in a patchwork effect. Having it made from bigger pieces will make it a bit easier to quilt than if you are making it from lots of very small pieces as the seams of the fabrics add an extra thickness that has to be sewn through.
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. 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.
(Updated to say that Star brand has possibly stopped being made, but YLI quilting thread is very nice as is the hand quilting thread from Empress MIlls)
If you’re quilting a patchwork top made with brushed cotton then you could also try using coloured button thread or top stitch 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)
I know a lot of people also like to use Sashiko thread for quilting and this is available nowadays pretty much everywhere.
Traditional 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 preferred a longer needle to what I like to use now.
If you are using a thicker thread like the button hole/top stitch/Sashiko then you will need to use a larger needle.
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 though are excellent but again, expensive)…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)
In an ideal world I would live somewhere where i could have a big old wooden quilting frame but I don’t so…. but I manage fine without.
If I’m quilting something small, anything less than a foot square I’m not likely to use a quilting hoop, I still like to 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 experience)…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 know a lot of people baste with safety pins and quilt their layers without a hoop so while I find I need one for my quilting, you may find otherwise. It does depend a bit on the type of quilting stitches you want to make.
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 manoeuver 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.
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 and mostly just use a regular metal one from nannys workbox that is a bit of a loose fit, I wrap a bit of scrap cotton fabric around my finger tip to protect my finger nail and it also helps with the thimble sweating (I find the thimble gets warm which I don’t like the feel of)… My dad made me a couple of little leather ones which were really comfy but I managed to lose those in a house move. I’ve also gotten on well with shop bought ones, preferring the all leather ones to any with bits of metal in them, but they are a bit pricey.
I also have 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 no longer with us 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 breathtaking quilts on show and may of them incorporate scraps and would have been made with what was to hand.
Most important though, please don’t think you need to have a lot of money to make a quilt, at the end of the day all a quilt is is layers of fabric stitched together. It shouldn’t be something that only people with big purses and endless pockets are able to make. I remember that I found it very daunting when I first started quilting, like I was the poor relation and felt ashamed that I wasn’t able to buy metres and metres of fabric brand new, but then I got to wondering why was I thinking like this and began to think of the possibilities and opportunities in using fabric and fibres sourced from other places.
When I was little I had two very different older relations that sewed…. my Great Auntie Dora, and my Nanny. They were incredibly different sewers and knitters and their sewing baskets reflected this. Auntie Dora’s was very neat and tidy, needles always in a case never in a pin cushion kind of lady. My Nanny was the complete opposite and her sewing basket was a bit of a death trap….I still remember squeezing out all the needles in her pin cushion for her, it was more prickly than a hedgehog. The photo above is one of my sewing baskets and you can see I do rather take after my Nanny, but I do try to make sure needles are in a case rather than in the pin-cushion.
I’ve been sewing for more years now than I can remember, and over that time I do seem to have amassed quite a collection of haberdashery items. Some pieces have been inherited, other pieces have been bought for me,some times I’ve bought from a car boot and other pieces have been bought new. My basic sewing basket kit consists of a few pieces that I seem to use every day and just always turn to. I could sew just fine without these items, but having them makes it that much more pleasurable.
These Japanese snips are just brilliant, they feel nice to hold and the tips are so pointy, I’ve found them to be the very best thing for un-picking stitches, general thread snipping and clipping. The embroidery scissors are rather swanky ones, they were a Valentine’s present from my sweetheart. They are super nice to use, and they are just so beautifully made. I appreciate that they aren’t the cheapest scissors in the world but they are beautiful. He bought them from Loop
I really like using Clover Gold Eye Applique Needles, they are just brilliant for patchwork and applique. They are lovely and sharp and a packet of 15 needles is only a couple of pound. Clover also have a more fancy smancy needle range called Black Gold. They are incredibly sharp and are brilliant for piecing patchwork especially if you are sewing really tiny pieces together but they do cost a lot more. I have also used John James and Milward brands. These are perfectly good needles but I do prefer the Clover ones.
When it comes to quilting I like John James Quilting Needles in size 11 and 12. They are pretty darn tiny, measuring a scant 22 mm, but practise does help, and they aren’t very expensive. I have also used the Black Gold range of quilting needles from Clover, they’re super sharp, and are nice as a sewing treat but they do cost a lot more than the John James needles.
The little velvet strawberry is a needle sharpener and is filled with emery. It is so good for keeping your needles super sharp (but don’t use the Black Gold needles in it as it will wear the black coating off the tips) I’m pretty sure it came from The Royal School of Needlework, it is all hand stitched and embroidered and is just beautiful. I bought it years ago with some birthday money from a lovely elderly lady I’ve known for over 30 years (she is like an extra Grandma or Nanny). Every time I use it I think of her.
I never thought I would need to need to use a needle threader but when I am using very fine thread and needles with tiny little eyes then this little threader comes out. I think this one came from a box of sewing bits I bought from a car boot.