Introduction: How to Make an Upcycled Art Quilt

About: Hi, I'm Marianne Bland, an artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2010, I completed a self-imposed challenge to create at least one new piece of art every day for a year. I published several instructab…

If the word "quilt" makes you think of Amish barn parties and pinwheels, it's time to start thinking outside of the sewing basket! Art quilting can be fast, easy and fun. I'll show you how to create a unique mini art quilt with paper, fabric and small objects from around the house in one afternoon. Art quilts are great because they don't have to be big, functional or washable. They don't have to take long to make, and you don't even need a pattern to make one!

If you like to sew, chances are you've accumulated piles of fabric scraps and notions. Have some scrapbooking sundries tucked away in the closet? Maybe you even have a box or two under the bed filled with ephemera from your journeys. We're going to dust off those supplies and get them on the wall for you to enjoy!

Here are a few ideas you can use to get started:

-Make a keepsake quilt. If you're the type who saves ticket stubs, cookie fortunes, arcade tokens, and vending machine photos from the state fair, this is a great way to empty out the souvenir box and turn it into art.

-Choose an event or general theme. Don’t save every scrap of paper from your excursions, but want to commemorate an experience or event? Maybe you want to make a piece with “France” or “Summer” as a general topic. Jot down words or details about the memory or theme you want to turn into fabric art and look for paper, fabric and small found objects for those elements.

-Seek inspiration in your materials. Right now, I’m working on, in which I’m making a new piece of art daily for a year, and let’s just say I don’t get a lightning strike of pure inspiration every day. One way to get the ball rolling is to look through the materials you have available to you and see if a pattern forms or an idea comes to you. This is the method I used in my example in this instructable.

Still need some inspiration? Check out some examples of mini art quilts I’ve made this year.

For this project, you’ll need:

• An old frame, preferably 8”x10” or smaller (don’t need the glass) and paint, if desired
• Scrap fabric, paper and odds & ends like buttons, tokens, rick rack, a few colors of thread
• Thin batting (or dryer lint)
• A sewing machine & pins
• Scissors, pen & a bit of masking tape

Step 1: Find an Old Frame & Use It Cut Out Your Base Fabric

Most of us have an old frame tucked away somewhere. If you don’t, you can get one at thrift store for 25 cents - $2.00. You don’t even need the glass, since you’ll be adding 3-D elements and it won’t fit back in there with the quilt anyway. I recommend using a small frame- 8x10 or smaller- because the larger you go, the harder it is to get your quilt to lay flat in the frame.

*TIP* If your frame has glass, save it so you can use it as an inking plate for linocuts. Check out one of my other instructables, how anyone can make a linocut here.

Take your frame apart. There should be a cardboard insert & backing board (usually this is thicker cardboard that slides in or is held in with bendable metal tabs). Use the outside edge of the frame as a pattern for your base fabric. Trace around it on the back of your face fabric and cut out 2 pieces. These will be the front and back pieces of your quilt.

Use the inner cardboard insert to trace and cut out your batting. Use thin batting; it will be enough to give your finished piece texture when you do the top-stitch and will help it to fit into the frame.

If you don’t have large pieces of fabric to work with, you can sew multiple pieces together to create a bigger one. Remember that only the front piece needs to be the color you want to work with as the background of your ‘canvas’. No one will see the back piece since it will be in the frame.

These pieces will be larger than the space that will be visible in the frame, but we’ll trim it down later. This helps ensure that the unfinished edges don’t fall out of the frame without the glass to hold it in.

*TIP* If you don’t have any scrap fabric, consider using old/damaged pieces of clothing unsuitable for donating or old sheets. You can paint or stamp directly on to your fabric first (or dye it if it’s a natural fabric; look up recipes for vegetable dyes for some non-toxic options). Here’s a mini cityscape quilt I made by painting on to sheet fabric, then sewing on top of the painted fabric.

If you don’t have and don’t want to buy some batting, you might want to try using dryer lint. There are some how-tos on the interwebs for this one, but it is highly flammable, so be careful.

Step 2: Gather Your Materials

See what bits of fabric, ribbons, notions, buttons, beads, baubles and thread you have laying around. Check your souvenir box, look for old books or maps and make copies of things you don’t want to cut up or sew directly on to your finished piece.

I try to make sure I have a mix of items for more visual interest- that usually means both illustrations and words of different fonts and sizes, fabric and papers in various colors, shapes and textures, objects that range in size and a few colors of thread.

In this example, I am using vintage book pages (from a dictionary, book about public speaking & piano learner), vintage buttons I inherited from my great-grandma, a shipping tag, scrap ribbon, a brochure, a vintage pattern illustration and one of my linocuts printed on to fabric.

Step 3: Trim and Layer Pieces in Different Arrangements on Your Base Fabric

Use scissors (or a paper cutter for straight lines with paper elements) to trim down fabrics and paper pieces.

When using paper, remember:
-it’s fragile
-the holes you make with a needle stitch or pin will remain
-you need a margin around words you want to remain legible for stitching

It is a good idea to build up small or thin pieces of paper on a few layers of other paper or fabric. It also gives your piece more depth and visual interest.

Rearrange your composition until you’re pleased with it. I always end up using less in my finished piece that I began with in my material pile. You can have a central focus with your piece, or an all-over approach like I used in this example.

Remember your margin- we cut the base fabric larger than will be visible in the frame when it's finished. When arranging elements of your art quilt, don’t put them too far out to the edges, because you’ll be trimming down your final piece and you won’t see them.

As a guide, lay your inner cardboard insert in the center of your base fabric and mark the edges with pins.

Step 4: Paint Your Frame (if Desired) and Start Sewing!

If your frame is damaged/ugly, consider giving it a pop of color with some paint. If you want to paint your frame, you can do so now that you’ve decided on your composition.

In this example, I transformed the standard 70’s fake wood veneer of this frame to bright yellow with just two coats of acrylic paint. Make sure to sand it lightly (wear a mask or work outside to avoid breathing in particulates) so the paint won’t scratch off later and then apply the first coat of paint with a brush. Set aside.

Begin sewing elements on to your base fabric. I just set pieces to the side of my work space in the general positioning I’ve selected as I work.

*TIP* Have a camera phone? Snap a quick pic of your arranged composition and use it as a guide as you work so that you can remember where things go as you take them off.

Start by sewing together the layered bits first. Once your ‘vignettes’ are sewn together, work from your base fabric up to sew on the other elements. You will probably have some overlap, so pin on what you can of the bottom layer (shown in the first photo of this step) and go from there. Try to avoid pinning the paper pieces if you can.

*TIP* Switch up thread colors and stitches. I use a SINGER machine and in this example, I’ve used the straight stitch, the zig-zag and the scalloped edge. Go tone-on-tone with your thread color for a subtle effect, or use contrasting colors for more pop.

In this piece, I used mainly vintage elements, so I went with a retro-inspired composition and color scheme as well. Continue until all your flat elements are sewn on. Leave off buttons or other 3-D items for now.

Step 5: Finish Painting Your Frame (if Desired) and Assemble Quilt

If you’re painting your frame, do the second coat now & set aside to dry.

Sandwich your batting between your decorated face fabric and your back fabric. Mark the borders of the batting with pins. Sew the four edges along the pin line, through the batting and both layers of fabric.

Next, do your overall stitching. It is completely up to you how you want to do this. You can do all horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines, or a mixture of these. You can use a wavy, free-form pattern like I did here. You can sew over all elements of the quilt or sew around certain elements like I did in this tiny piece (where I didn’t want to sew through the illustration of the little girl).

Remember, your overall stitching is mostly for added texture and decoration. You’re also making sure your piece has structure by sewing through all its layers, but you don’t need to do tons of sewing for that. So have fun with it! One of my favorite examples of this is in this mini quilt, where I mimicked trees and clouds with the overall stitching.

Once your overall stitching is done, add buttons and 3-D items by hand-sewing them on.

*TIP* Use buttons to cover up little mistakes, like folded corners. I did that here with a yellow button.

Step 6: Frame & Display Your Finished Piece!

Once all your sewing is done, put a couple pieces of masking tape on your cardboard insert and press the quilt on to it. Make sure your frame is dry (if you painted it) and put the quilt in the frame. Trim the excess fabric so that you can close up the frame. I was able to do mine in the frame itself this time, but you may want to mark it on the back with a pen, remove it, trim it and put it back into the frame for a more accurate edge.

Once the quilt is fitted and the frame closes, you’re done! Display and enjoy, or gift your finished piece to a lucky friend or family member.

I hope this Instructable will help dispel the myth that quilting is unapproachable and help you find a new way to use and enjoy your keepsakes and craft scraps. If you’ve enjoyed this tutorial, please take a moment to visit my blog:, and say hello! I’m making at least one new piece of art every day for a year and sharing the experience there. Swing by for daily inspiration and giggles. :) Thanks for reading! Happy sewing!

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