This article honors a gift handed down to us by the pioneer women of our country. . . a skill conceived in poverty, pride, and love and considered by some to be the only true American folk art.
I’m talking about quilting, the craft of taking what you have and piecing it together into a blanket… a craft which — sooner or later — naturally evolves into the more complex art of combining odd pieces of fabric into intricate patterns and designs.
I got started on this delightful pastime in the traditional way: I had eight beds to cover warmly and few funds to do it with. My only assets were a big bag of scraps and the memory of Mom and Gram piecing material for quilts when I was a child.
Since I’m a strong believer in the public library, that’s where I went for help and I recommend that you do the same. Glorious works have been published on the subject of quilting, and references to designs for the coverlets abound in all the folk history and antique books. Also, if there’s a historical museum or landmark house near you, visit it and copy down in a notebook the quilting ideas and patterns you’re sure to find there.
It’s odd that, among all the wealth of available reference material, I’ve never found a basic manual to show me step by step how to make a quilt. The fact remains that I haven’t and my first attempt — a nine-block design, of which there are more variations than minds to think them up — is known accordingly as “Comedy of Errors.”
I did everything wrong on my first attempt at quilting and then learned later how I should have done it. And that’s why I’ve written this article: Amateur though I may be, even after several quilts, I still think I can save other beginners some trouble. Mainly, however, I hope to whet your appetite for, and pass on the great tradition of, this craft (as moms and grannies used to do).
Just what is a quilt, anyway? Webster defines it as “a cover, or coverlet, made by stitching one cloth over another with some soft substance in between.” And there are, basically, three kinds: patchwork, applique, and piecework.
Patchwork is “crazy quilting” — piecing together in random pattern any scraps of fabric you might have on hand and finishing the whole with decorative embroidery stitches,. The result is beautiful in spite of itself. This kind of work originated several hundred years ago among the peasants of France and had a poor reputation with our early settlers, who did very little of it. Nowadays it’s an especially good use for wools, velvets, fur, or other odds and ends that you can’t do anything else with.
Applique coverlets are made by stitching fancy designs onto a backing of solid material and then padding and quilting the whole thing. These days the makings are often embroidered blocks, all cut out and packed up into kits but early coverlets of this type were ornamented with pieces of fabric that were carefully shaped, often puff-quilted (a rather special technique), and stitched by ladies of old in their drawing rooms, as only they could do it.
Piecework — what most of us now do — produces the type of quilting best suited to today’s purpose: that of using what we have and recycling discarded goods. The scraps of fabric used in piecework are all geometrical and uniform in shape and size. (Designs based on the square and the triangle work out best.)
People have always named their quilts, and still do, with phrases that reflect their own times, politics, lifestyle, or what have you. When you browse through books on the subject you run across such designs as “Wheel of Fortune,” “Odd Fellow’s Path,” “Storm-at-Sea,” “Drunkard’s Path,” “Flying Geese,” “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul,” “Old Maid’s Ramble,” “Duck’s Foot in the Mud,” “Crown of Thorns,” “Log Cabin” (a very popular pattern) and on and on through an endless list.
Maybe you’d like to try this old craft but lack the well-filled ragbag of yesteryear. In that case, where do you get the raw materials for a quilt? Everywhere! Ask a grandma or try the door-to-door approach or the tell-a-neighbor-you’re-making-a-quilt method (which always produces more cloth than you know what to do with). Or scrounge leftovers from the Goodwill. Or check with fabric manufacturers (although they may make a small charge for their remnants). Or drop in anywhere sewing is done. City dwellers, for instance, may find themselves near a tailoring shop, the alterations department of a store, or a clothing manufacturer. (You’ll wind up with a lot of knit goods this way, and I’d love to hear what you do with them.)
The following is a rundown of the materials and tools you’ll need to make a basic quilt:
1. Top: Cottons or other washable materials are best. Patterns and colors can be what you have or are able to find.
2. Padding: Although old blankets can be used, quilting batts (available at a low price) make the finished cover easier to handle.
3. Backing: This can be a mended sheet or square of unbleached muslin pieced together in strips (two for a single bed, three for a big one). Make sure that whatever you use is solid and won’t come apart.
4. Thread: Regular sewing thread — any old bits on leftover spools and bobbins — will do to piece the top. Heavy-duty white thread is used for the quilting, and is supplied on large spools especially for this job.
5. Needles: It’s best to use quilting needles, which are shorter than the regular kind and cost little.
6. Sewing machine: Not strictly necessary although, of course, it does take longer to fasten everything together by hand. (If you do make your quilts by hand, use a close running stitch.)
7. Quilting frame: These can be found new in the major catalogs, or used at auctions or garage sales. They’re also quite easy to make (see Elizabeth Martin’s Instructions In Issue No. 31. — MOTHER ).
8.Ruler: A yardstick is handy because of its firm edge.
Quilt Design and Top
Start your quilt-making by designing the pieced top. And that job will be at least partly guided by the selection of fabric scraps you have on hand. So get your odds and ends together and let them tell you how to form the colors and patterns into a pleasing overall effect.
That trip to the library I mentioned — by the way — should give you more design ideas than you can use in a lifetime. For a first quilt, though, I recommend that you use a square block. Make a paper pattern of your “standard” block, and then a cardboard template that you can lay on your material and trace around (remember to leave half an inch seam allowance on all sides of each piece!). Draw and cut out all the blocks you need in advance and although even Grandma wasn’t perfect either, try to come close. Neatness at this point helps keep the piecework straight later, when you stitch it together. (You’ll be able to work with greater accuracy If you glue sandpaper to the back of your cardboard. pattern to keep It from slipping — MOTHER.)
How many blocks will you need? I’ve made a table that answers that question for quilts of several sizes (the measurements given are those of the completed covers). Please note that the all-important seam allowance is included in the dimensions of the blocks (the finished square wiII be an inch smaller on a side). Note too that the “border” mentioned in the last column is a strip of fabric added to the quilt top to produce the right width or length. It’s usually plain white but can be patterned. (Please click on the “Image Gallery” to find the table and a easy-to-use diagram on stitches)
After you’ve cut out all the blocks for a cover, lay them on the floor in an arrangement that pleases you. (This is a big part of the real art of quilting.)
Next, pin the pieces together (I organize mine in rows, which I then label). It’s then quite easy to join the blocks into long strips that run the length of the quilt. It’s also a snap to pin these rows side by side — so that their seams match — and stitch them together. This gives you very straight lines of sewing in both directions.
Surprise! The top is almost done. Iron it, and you’re ready to assemble the quilt!
Padding the Quilt
SWEEP THE FLOOR and spread the backing out as smoothly as you can. Then lay the padding carefully over it. Don’t worry if the filling overlaps the edges of the cloth. It can be trimmed off later. Just go right ahead and spread the pieced-together top across the stuffing.
Then, starting at one corner, roll the quilt up as far as the center section and baste diagonally across the coverlet — corner to corner — and through all its layers with long running stitches. Unroll the cloth a bit and add another line of basting 10 to 12 inches from the first. Proceed in this way, from the center to the edges, until the whole cover is securely held together in preparation for the final sewing (which will be done on a frame).
The idea of quilting is to make enough rows of firm stitches to bind the top, filling and back into one strong blanket. You can sew in fancy designs, or just outline the blocks, or both. It doesn’t matter as long as you use enough stitches. I usually outline each square and then fill it in with a scroll or circle (a good plan for the beginner).
Whatever design you choose, make a cardboard pattern and trace it onto every block with a soft lead pencil. I often use a crayon on dark fabrics and then wash the marks off later. The important thing is to be able to see the lines, since they’re your sewing guides. If the quilt has a border, you may want to use a different pattern of stitching for that area and this too must be drawn on the cloth.
Incidentally, if you don’t want to get into all this sewing, you can tie your quilt together instead (see Elizabeth Martin’s article in Issue No. 31 — MOTHER). Four of us once finished a coverlet that way in a couple of hours.
We didn’t even baste; just pinned everything together first and tied like mad. The filler was a blanket, and we needed it back on the bed!
Let’s assume, however, that you’re going to sew your coverlet together. In that case you should next whipstitch the two shorter edges of the quilt to the cloth covering of the frame’s ends. (This sewing doesn’t need to be fancy, just secure.) Then roll under both edges of the stretcher-quilt and all-so that the central portion of the coverlet is pulled tight and ready to be stitched in the middle of the frame.
Quilting as a Community and Finishing Your Quilt
Many hands make light work, of course, so now’s the time to call in friends to help with the quilting. (You can get about six people comfortably around a frame.) Organize your crew to sew along the lines you’ve drawn on the fabric, with a quilting stitch, which is just a running stitch made one at a time, as closely and evenly as possible.
Quilting is done with one hand above the pieced-together top and one underneath the backing sheet on the bottom. Punch your needle down through all layers from the top, then upward again with the other hand. Use short lengths of thread to minimize tangles. If you’re doing’ the job alone, proceed from the center toward each end alternately. When one row is done, unroll the quilt to the next section and so forth until the stitching is completed.
All that remains then is to finish the quilt’s raw perimeter. You can do so by stitching one border of a binding strip or bias tape to the top edge of the cover, turning the tape under and hemming it. That’s the method I use but you might prefer to turn the edges of the quilt’s top and backing under, press the folds flat, and whipstitch all around. Or you can use blanket binding, available from notions departments and fabric stores. You’ll need three or four packages, a matter of several dollars’ worth, if you use the binding, which is why this method of finishing a quilt is usually reserved for special covers.
Finally, wash your creation (in warm water, never hot!). Dry it on a line if you can and let the breeze fluff it up. If you must use a dryer, set the heat at “warm” and expect the process to take a while.
And that’s all. Admire your masterpiece, and start planning the next!
Time Commitment and Other Ideas
Just how much time do you need for this craft? My answer is based on a quilt I’ve just made from scratch, for the edification of a male friend who looked over my shoulder during the writing of this article and who couldn’t understand sewing lingo. I call the coverlet “Sampler” because I worked several designs into it to show the variety that’s possible. The final product will be 82-by-100 inches — big enough for a king-size bed — and the top consists of 99 blocks, each nine inches square without the seam allowance.
As of this writing I’ve been two weeks preparing the cover and it’s just gone on the frame for the final quilting. I expect that task to take the evenings of two or three weeks (with help). Then I’ll need an additional day for the binding. After the “bee” everyone who worked on “Sampler” will stitch her name in bright thread into the border row and my friend will remember how to quilt for a long time, because we’re giving him the demonstration piece.
Anyhow, that’s five or six weeks of spare-time work altogether, about average for a square block quilt. Fancier designs take longer. You can, however, cut your working time a good deal with the help of one of those groups of women who meet periodically to quilt other people’s pieced tops– a takeoff on the old-timey quiltin’ bee. Some of these specialists charge the customer by the number of spools of thread used, while others simply look over their finished work and fix a price.
When you become an expert, of course, you can pick up some extra money yourself by quilting for others. (The great majority of people are buyers, not doers.) Or your creations can bring a nice dollar at craft shops, antique stores, or anywhere you can sell them on consignment. Antique dealers like to take in a pretty quilt to show off an old bed, especially if both are for sale.
There are many other things you can do with patchwork, too. Yards and yards of scrap material can be made useful by anyone with the patience to put it together. Combine enough squares of corduroy in various colors, for instance, and you can create anything you might have wanted a new piece of corduroy for. I made chair covers and pillows that way once, and have also formed simple skirts from quilted patchwork. I just left out the padding and backed the pieced cloth with a piece of old sheet (mainly to hide all the seams, but also to make the garment a bit heavier and warmer).
Other possible uses for patchwork:
A maxi or midi skirt, with old jeans for lining.
Ponchos, capes, shawls (line them and fringe the edges).
Hot pads, potholders, big mittens. I make mine from the extra padding trimmed off my quilts. If you’ve never tried patchwork before, these small items are good practice: Make one block of the kind you plan for your quilt, pad it, bind the edges, and stitch it through.
Slipcovers, pillow covers, floor cushions.
Use your imagination: backpacks, slippers, aprons, an ecology flag. (Incidentally, the American flag is a combination of piecework and applique.)
Right now, though, our own family project is bedcovers. As I write, we’re rolling up our sleeves to finish some tops from Grandma’s trunk — one a hundred years old — pieced by three generations of our family’s members. We plan to do six quilts this winter. (“We” includes the five children who are still at home. My eldest daughter is on her own, and completed her first quilt last year.)
If this article gets you started on quilting, that’s just what I hoped because, of all the ways to reuse everyday castoffs, few are as fulfilling as this craft or as aesthetically satisfying. The sight of a homemade bedcover, created alone or with a group, gives you a lift all along the way and long, long afterwards, too.