The creation of any quilt has 5 phases:
- Concept : picking a design, colors, and size
- Piecing : sewing together fabric shapes to make the quilt top design
- Construction : attachment of backing and batting to make a stuffed fabric sandwich
- Quilt stitching : decorative sewing to hold the layers together and form a design
- Binding : the fabric strip that holds the three layers together at the edge
Step 1: Concept art
Think hard, look at design books, scour the web for inspiration, and come up with an idea that speaks to you. Don't limit yourself to reading and thinking about quilts, look at artworks of all kinds; most pleasing images can be adapted to a quilt concept. Once you've got an idea, sketch out a line drawing about the resolution of something you'd see in a coloring book. You can think of a quilt as a picture colored with fabrics, so broad swatches of cell-shading-style solid color will work a lot better than shadow gradients.
Keep the complexity relatively low and remember that things with lots of curves will be harder to construct than those made of straight angular lines. If you're a beginner, start with something small and simple--this may seem like obvious advice but I know I always stress myself out by letting my ambitious get ahead of my skills. An awesome idea can still be simple to construct, so lean heavily on the concept and pick something clever but structurally simple (I know, easier said than done).
Step 2: Pattern creation
Measure your sketch, determine how big you want the result to be, and compute how big the shapes should be once sized up to scale. Tape pieces of butcher paper together to create a sheet the size of your intended quilt and transfer your sketch to the larger size. As you draw the scaled-up image check in with the relative measurements and positioning of the initial sketch to make sure the drawing remains properly proportioned.
Also, if you don't have a large enough piece of paper, then you can tape smaller pieces together as necessary to form a drawing surface. You can also break the design into a few pieces to make it more manageable; the point is just to have final-sized pattern pieces to guide you. Once you have a full-sized pattern you can cut it apart by intended color region and eventually use these paper templates to guide the cutting of the fabric pieces for quilt top.
Step 3: Gather equipment
- Sewing machine
- Colors of thread to match your fabrics
- Spare bobbins for each thread color
- Rotary cutter, cutting mat
- Sharp scissors
- Ruler, straight edge
- Template plastic
- Straight pins, safety pins, basting pins, needles
Step 4: Fabric preparation
Cheap fabrics can shrink tremendously in the wash and that can ruin a project once it's sewn up. You want to get any surprises out of the way before you've invested work in the fabrics. Preshrink and rinse any excess dyes and chemicals off of the fabric before you start using it.
Different materials have their own way of stretching and behave differently in water and heat, so try to choose fabrics of the same type for all pieces of a project. If you're using a flannel blend for one color, it's best to use a similar blend for all of them. I personally like old fashioned quilting cottons because they are consistent, inexpensive, and easy to work with.
Step 5: Easy piecing technique: traditional tiled blocking
Though it was easiest to construct the hexagon lattice in strips, it's more common to fit mini patterns into square blocks. There are libraries of quilt block patterns you can find in books or on the internet, many of which even have old timey names. Just search the web for "Quilt Block" and you'll find more ideas for cheesy geometric arrangements than you ever wanted. The nice thing about the block approach is that each square is like an independent little mini project--you can do one a day, parallelize creation by distributing blocks among friends, and maintain interest in the project as it comes together in satisfying little bites.
Also, smaller square blocks are easier to wrangle than large swatches of fabric; this is true in general--you always want to use a divide and conquer strategy to piece your quilt together. If you're constructing a line of 8 squares don't just sew a line together one after another; sew together in 2s then 4s, then join the two halves into a line of 8. It will be much easier to handle the fabric, to to mention detect misalignments if you keep the pieces you're working on smaller for longer and always divide in the middle.
Step 6: Easy piecing technique: pixelation
To create your own pixellated pattern either begin with a digital drawing program or start with a paper concept sketch and scan / photograph it to get it into a drawing program. You can also work with graph paper, which is what I used to do when I was younger and less savvy with digital drawing tools, but the colors and immediacy of a drawing program are really helpful if you're doing anything complicated.
Decide on the resolution of your quilt top and down-res the image to match that size. It might help maintain clarity as you scale the image if you adjust the contrast (depends on the drawing program and the image). Once it is the correct resolution, the pixels will probably be blurred colors from the scaling operation. Paint each pixel a solid color to create the final pattern and then resize the image back up, turning off anti-aliasing (if your program has that option) to get a nice pattern where the pixels are big enough to see. I know that these image processing instructions aren't really specific enough because they will vary with your design and your tool of choice, but you get the idea: make digital image of the resolution of your quilt top, edit pixels to make a pattern.
Once you've got the pattern, choose colors and cut pixel squares, then begin the process of sewing them together, remembering to use a divide and conquer construction strategy. First pick a block size (10x10 shown below) then think about making 10 10x1 strips. To make each strip sew a 5 2x1 pairs, then one 4x1 and one 6x1, then sew those halves together to complete the 10x1 strip. Once you've got rows created use the same technique to join the second dimension. Once you've got 10x10 blocks, sew them together into rows using the same technique again.
Step 7: Medium difficulty technique: arbitrary straight edges
To begin using this technique first look at your design and decide where you can draw straight lines across it. Once you've identified your cutting lines, you can determine the best way to set colors inside each other by cutting and sewing scraps repeatedly. You'll end up with a lot of crazy angles and a bit of a cubist look, but this is a great way to piece together any spikey design. This works especially well if you've got a lot of fabric scraps around, because irregular pieces are a benefit.
Step 8: Difficult piecing technique: applique
To make an applique shape first cut the fabric to size, leaving allowance for a hem. Next fold hem under and, pin flat, and iron the shape, then use basting stitches (long loose hand sewn stitches intended for later removal) to hold the seam in place. Technically you could skip this step and just use pins, but I find that pins can pull the fabric slightly out of alignment, are hard to sew over, and I frequently poke and scratch myself while working with things with lots of pins in them. Once the shape is ready lay it over your existing work and very carefully sew the edge down, staying as close to the border as you can.
You can use this technique either to create curved shapes to overlay your design (this is the classic way to add circles), or you can construct the whole quilt out of overlapping applique-style curved edges.
Step 9: Attach the batting
Take your roll of batting and spread it over the backing fabric, smoothing both layers down carefully as you go. If your quilt is too wide and you need to use two separate batting rolls you can attach the batting sheets together with long basting stitches. All you need to do is hold them in place until you do the quilting, but you do want to be sure that the batting doesn't fold up on itself while you're trying to work with it. Lay the top right side up on top of the batting and smooth the layers some more. Working across the fabric from one edge smooth the fabric, then use basting pins about every 10 inches to hold the layers together. Smooth and pin, smooth and pin, to work your way across the three layers.
Once the whole thing is pinned up, go back across the whole thing and replace the pins with long lines of hand-sewn basting stitches. Again, you could probably get away using the pins, but I hate the stress of quilting around them and they can tug at the fabric. The reason you pin first is so you can easily pick the fabric up to stitch it. Once the whole quilt is firmly held together with basting stitches you're ready to start quilting it.
Step 10: Quilt stitching
Much like piecing, quilting is all about the design you've chosen. This is an opportunity to define color borders, jazz up open spaces with repeating patterns, or create line drawings on top of your quilt. Take a hard look at your design and decide where quilt stitching would enhance it, then use tracing paper to sketch the lines that you intend to draw. Attach the tracing paper to the quilt with basting stitches and sew right over it as a guide (once the quilting is done it will tear off with no ill effects to the final outcome).
Try to make your quilting stitches follow long continuous lines rather than starting and stopping a lot of stitches. Also, try to make the beginnings and endings of lines run off the circumference of the quilt so that the ends will be hidden under the binding. Depending on your concept choose threads that blend in or contrast, with the one word of caution being to test your thread colors and quilting technique on an unimportant scrap before you try to work on the project that you've already invested so much time into. If you make mistakes you can cut out stitches with no (or nearly no) harm, but it's frustrating and a real pain.