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Quilting for Beginners: What to Know Before Starting

So You Want to Quilt

Have you ever thought about making a quilt? Are you wondering what is the best way to start quilting for beginners? Do you want to make a family heirloom, a memory quilt, or some other patchwork masterpiece that is currently residing in your imagination but begging to break free? If so, this article is for you. I’m sharing the inside scoop on what your should know before diving in so you’re prepared and you have some ideas on where to go next on your learning path. But first things first…

Every Quilt Has a Story

We have many quilts in our family and each one holds a story. The oldest longest loved quilt I know of in my family is affectionately called “Patches.” My great grandmother made this warm, snuggly colorful patchwork quilt which was in my mom’s possession forever. Well almost forever. During my college years I “borrowed” it and kept it hidden in my duvet cover whenever she came to visit. I finally returned Patches to my mom a few years ago and confessed my crime. Surprisingly, she didn’t completely lose it when she learned her daughter had swiped a family heirloom. If you know any Spanish-Italian-NY mamas, you know that NOT yelling is a rare occasion.

To my confusion and delight, mom responded by making me an intricately detailed quilt of my own. I guess she figured if I had my own quilt that is beyond comparison, I wouldn’t feel the need to “borrow” hers without asking!

“My quilt” took mom 9 months to make. It’s detailed and breathtaking. She chose the Seeds Sewn pattern, carefully chose colors to match the decor of my first house and made every detailed piece by hand. All that to say, quilts are not quick projects by any means. Putting a quilt together requires time, patience, planning and a love for working with fabric.

Seeds Sewn Quilt

Seeing the intricate details of this handmade quilt piqued my interest in the stories and artistry that goes into quilt making. Since then, I’ve tagged along with my mom to quilt shows, dropped in on her quilting classes, and wished her well as she set off for quilting exhibitions abroad. At my house we like to brag that my mom is an international quilting exhibitionist. But hey, it’s true!

Mom made a quilt out of my stepson’s soccer jerseys. He outgrew the jerseys but still gets plenty of use out of his quilt. My aunt surprised me with a beautiful nautical themed quilt featuring a mother turtle followed by two babies. I thought she got it because she LOVES turtles but she blew me away when she told me that she made it herself, just for me and my two babes. I have a quilted art piece called “Two Ships in the Night” that my mom designed. My daughter quilted a mug rug for grandma as an “I love you” for Mother’s Day a few years ago. In short, we have lots of quilts around here.

For anyone exploring the idea of getting into quilting, whether it’s to create family heirlooms, customize blankets (or maybe stylish patchwork fashion pieces like those popping up on the runways these last few years), here is the inside scoop on getting started. Yes, it’s an advanced sewing technique, but it’s so worth learning, especially when your creations are passed down with love through the generations. Triple points if you can make a work of art from scraps of other projects. That said, here is a glimpse of the quilting world so you know what you’ll need to get started.

What is Quilting?

Quilting is the process of stitching (at least) three layers of fabric together by hand (with needle and thread), by sewing machine, or with a long arm quilting machine. These three layers include a top fabric layer, a middle batting layer (for warmth) and a backing fabric layer. Together, they are lovingly referred to as a quilt sandwich.

There are a variety of quilting techniques and patterns. Simple patterns are most suitable for beginners, whereas experienced quilters sometimes create extremely elaborate designs that include embroidery and other speciality techniques.

A quick note; sewing and quilting are not the same thing. Sewing is a broad term used for all types of techniques that use thread and needle to join fabrics. On the other hand, quilting is a type of sewing technique that involves stitching two or more layers of fabric with batting in between.

What You Need to Get Started: Must Have Quilting Supplies

Before learning any new craft, you need to have the right tools. Here is a list of must-have quilting supplies that you will need to make your first quilt. These are the must have tools for quilting for beginners as well as the experienced.

Close Up of a Square on Seeds Sewn Quilt

Sewing Machine for Quilting

If you aren’t planning to hand quilt, a sewing machine for quilting is absolutely necessary. You don’t need to start with the most expensive sewing / quilting machine. Choosing a cost effective sewing machine is a perfectly good way to start quilting for beginners. You just want to keep an eye out for the throat size.

The throat of a sewing machine refers to the space between the needle and the base of the machine. The bigger the space is, the easier it is to pass a three layer fabric sandwich through it. This does not matter as much if you are only using the machine to piece together the top layer (and then using a different machine or hiring a quilter to quilt the top piece together with the middle and backing layers). A popular, cost effective sewing machine for quilting is the Brother CS6000i which is under $200, easily purchased online and has 4.5 stars by over 15,000 reviewers.

Quilt Machine Needles

Quilting needles have a thin, tapered shaft with a slightly rounded point on the end. It’s designed to pierce through several layers of fabric at the same time without damaging them. These needles come in 75/11, 80/12, 90/14 and have a green stripe on it to signify that it’s a quilting needle. The finer your fabric weight, the lower the needle size to use. I’ve read many reviews that Schmetz needles are a great option at a reasonable price. There are pricier options but these do just as well for quilting for beginners and experienced alike.

Quilting Thread

A strong thread if crucial for quilting since most quilts must withstand wear and tear in addition to washing. The thread is what holds it all together after all. Start with a simple, strong thread and save the speciality threads (metallics and transparent threads are harder to work) for later. Here is an example of a good cotton thread for quilting by Aurifil.

A Square of Seeds Sewn Quilt

High-Quality Fabrics

Since quilts must stand up to everyday use and washing, use a cotton fabric that is sturdy, high in quality, and doesn’t stretch. This will be easier to work with than jersey or silk that need to be reinforced in order to keep their shape and stay in place during the  quilting process. Quilting cotton has a tighter weave than regular cotton and is (no surprise) preferred by many quilters.

Quilting for beginners tip – one way to make your first quilt easier to start is to chose a pre-cut bundle of fabric. Usually you can find them in coordinating colors and patterns.

Here is an example of a vibrant, fun pre-cut bundle in an assortment of colors by the beloved Tula Pink. If you don’t yet know Tula Pink, look her up. Her designs inspire a cult-like following and out of print patterns command outrageous prices on the secondary market. 

Rotary Cutter

Like any sewing job, quilting also requires accurate measurement and cutting. The best way to cut fabric for quilting is to use a rotary cutter. It has a handle with a sharp circular blade to cut different layers of fabric simultaneously, making it quicker and easier to cut fabric for patchwork. It also ensures that the shape and size of all the fabric pieces are the same. This rotary cutter by Olfa is sharp enough to cut through more than 6 layers of fabric, maximizing the speed of your cutting work while minimizing hand / wrist fatigue. It is ergonomic and has a safety lock too. 

Self-Healing Cutting Mat

Self-healing cutting mats provide a solid surface to cut on and protect the surface of your sewing station from damage – as well as the mat itself. This mat from Olfa also comes with measuring rulers on each side to help cut the fabric to proper measurements.

So You Want to Quilt

Quilting Ruler

Another essential quilting tool is a quilting ruler. Most quilting rulers are transparent and have 1/4-inch increments allowing you to measure and got the fabric accurately. These rulers also have quilting specific markings such as grids and 45-degree diagonal lines.

This ruler features neon colored markings for easy visibility no matter what fabric you are working with. 

Iron and Ironing Board

You will need an iron and an ironing board to press the fabric so that it lays flat when doing patchwork. You do not have to buy a special iron. The one that you own should work fine. Many long time quilters decide to invest in a super high quality iron for their quilting work but you don’t need to worry about that to get started.

Fabric Scissors

The most important quality for scissors is how sharp they are. ONLY use them on fabric to maintain their sharpness. Using a sewist or quilter’s fabric scissors for anything besides cutting fabric is a crime, punishable by hours of yelling. Or so I hear. Here is an example of a standard pair of fabric shears for your reference. 

Quilt by Aunt K

Batting or Wadding

Batting or wadding is the insulation material between two layers of fabric in a quilt. There are different types of wadding materials available, including polyester wool and bamboo fibers.

Here is an example of batting fabric that you can purchase online.

Pins

Quilting pins are necessary for holding things together. They are sharp and thin – perfect for using in multiple layers of fabric. If you will be ironing while the pins are still in the fabric, consider getting glass beaded needles which are heat resistant. Here is an example of pins that are good for quilting.

Seam Ripper

Seam rippers are essential for unpicking. No matter how talented and experienced you are, you’ll always find a need to unpick a seam or two. This is my absolute favorite tool in the world. Here is an example of a standard seam ripper.

Now that you know what quilting essentials you need let us introduce you to types of quilting.

Types of Quilting

Quilt Made of Soccer Jerseys

Hand Quilting

As the name suggests, hand quilting requires you to stitch by hand. It is a slow and methodical process. It is the classical method of quilting where you sew the fabric piece by piece. For hand quilting, you can use a hoop or not – depends on the pattern and design of the quilt. 

While quilting machines offer convenience, some people still choose to quilt by hand as it gives more freedom to choose custom stitches. You can choose to use large or small stitches as per your liking.

Machine Quilting

You can either use a sewing machine to piece together the top layer as well as to quilt the fabric sandwich. Like any other machine, it will speed up the process and make things a lot easier. Remember that each brand and model have different features, so pick the one that works best for you.

Free Motion Quilting

Free motion quilting allows you to move the fabric in any direction so that you can create stitches in whatever design pattern you want. Your sewing machine must be able to lower the feed dogs so that there isn’t resistance or any pushing of the fabric. Once the feed dogs are lowered, you can use your free motion presser foot to be in full control of the fabric and stitching to maneuver the fabric in any way that you want. 

Longarm Quilting

Another quilting method is long arm quilting that requires a special quilting machine. This machine is a large sewing machine (10 – 14 feet) with an extended quilting head that can be guided digitally or by hand. It also includes a fabric frame and fabric rollers to stitch all the quilt layers together simultaneously. Thus, long arm quilting super-efficient and convenient for making large quilts in no time! Some quilters take their three layers of fabric sandwich to a longarm quilter to do the final quilting and stitch the three layers together.

How to Quilt: The Crash Course in Quilting for Beginners

Baby Quilt

Now that we have discussed types of quilting and different quilting techniques, here is very simplified crash course in quilting just to give you an idea of what the process entails. 

Step 1: Choose a Quilt Pattern

If it’s your first time making a quilt, start with something small and simple. A baby quilt with squares or triangles (half squares) is a great option to get your groove and learn the basics.

For the sake of simplicity, for this outline, we are going to imagine making a square patchwork quilt, a great choice for beginners and a personal favorite of mine ever since I “stole” my great grandma’s.

Step 2: Select Fabric

Choose a non stretch, quilting cotton. To make things easy, consider getting a precut bundle of coordinating fabric. You can figure out how much fabric you’ll need by deciding the dimensions of each square, and then decide how many squares you will need to make the size quilt you want.

Once you have selected the fabric, you need to decide which type of batting/wadding you want to use. You can use cotton wadding or a thicker polyester wadding.

Step 3: Gather Supplies

Before you begin, set up a sewing station with your tools and materials. Since quilts are longer term projects, it’s nice to be able to come back to the work area and pick up where you left off.

Two Ships in the Night Quilt

Step 4: Cut the Fabric for your Patchwork

Stitching your squares together accurately starts with cutting accurately. 

Cut all the pieces in the same shape and size, making sure that you have seam allowance on all four sides. (Having those pre-cut pieces will make this super easy.)

Step 5: Sew Your Patchwork

This is the fun part of stitching all your pieces together for your top layer.

Step 6: Create Your Fabric Sandwich

Put the layer of your quilt together – quilt backing fabric, quilt batting and the beautiful patchwork layer yourcreated earlier. You’ll need to baste the quilt together (or use a temporary spray adhesive) so that the layers stay put during the quilting process.

Step 7: Quilt the Layers Together

Use one of the quilting techniques we went over earlier to stitch your three layers together. 

Step 6: Bind Your Quilt

Add a binding to the edges of your quilt to “frame it” and add the finishing touch.

Quilting books

Learn to Quilt: Books and Online Classes on Quilting for Beginners

These days we learn almost anything on Youtube. Quilting is no different. You can find lots of great examples and tutorials on Youtube to help you get started on your quilting journey. However, if you are like me, and also appreciate having a book or a virtual class with detailed instructions and visuals, here are some great options to consider adding to your sewing space.

Quilt As You Go Made Modern by Jera Brandvig

The Quilter’s Ultimate Visual Guide by Joen Wolfrom

Creativebug’s quilting classes range from small patchwork projects like a foldover clutch or oven mitts, to large quilts. You can take a class on making a particular kind of block or a full size creative quilt. The unique thing about Creativebug is exclusively focused on arts and craft classes.

Creativebug Quilting Classes

SkillShare is an online learning community with thousands of classes in design, business, tech and more. SkillShare offers a variety of quilting classes from how to design a piece a mini quilt, to more advanced techniques like how to sew a hexi quilt top. Hexi quilts are a personal favorite and specialty of my mom – ornate and beautiful. Skillshare provides classes on a many different topics, across categories. If you need a learning resources with different kinds of classes – let’s say, tech for work, writing for hobby and learning quilting too, SkillShare is a great option.

SkillShare Quilting Classes

Find a Teacher. If you can find a quilter that is willing to teach you, definitely take advantage of the opportunity! The experienced quilters talk often about finding ways to bring new quilters into the craft so the art stays alive and continues to thrive. After all, the ability to pass beloved quilts through generations requires people of all generations to learn the art and keep it going.

The master at work

We’ll alway have new stories to tell, we just need the skill of stitching them into fabric to preserve it for future generations. So, if you know a quilter that is willing to teach you, don’t miss the chance. They will likely appreciate the chance to pass the skill along and you will have a passionate and experienced teacher. My mom is an expert level quilter and has worked with many teacher over the years. She still takes classes with her favorite teachers via Zoom.

Finishing Touch

I hope this primer on quilting gave you helpful insights into what it takes to get started with quilting. For more insights on helpful learning resources check out our article on online sewing classes. We also have articles on sewing machines and how to go about purchasing one for your needs.

My mom always says, “if someone makes you a quilt, you know they must love you deeply” because of the time, care and attention required to make one. I hope you’ll give it a try and sew your love into a timeless quilt – one worthy of being “stolen” and returned, with even more love given than when it was first created. That alone inspires the women in my family to make quilts.

What’s inspiring you to start quilting? I would love to hear your story too so feel free to comment below.

Happy quilting!

CategoriesArlington Sew
Jessica Yahfoufi

This is Jessica, she sews.

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