Introduction: How to Sew a Quilt! (quilting 101)

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Quilting is my biggest passion. I think it's probably hereditary. :D

I also think it's a skill that is useful beyond words... quilts are beautiful and functional and I consider them to be the greatest gift in the world. (Really, who wouldn't want a quilt?) They're family heirlooms, passed down through the generations until they fall apart. They're an amazing way to use up scrap fabric, and a cheap first sewing project.

Not to mention I find sewing/cutting them very therapeutic... lots of straight lines with no pressure. :)

In this instructable I'm going to take you through creating a basic queen size 9-patch patchwork quilt. These are my favorites because they are not complicated and can be completed in far less time than other quilt types.

I'll teach you about the tools needed for quilting, how to cut squares, choosing fabrics, batting, making a quilt sandwich, how to choose and attach backing, and assembling the quilt top among other things. It's also important to note that you can easily complete one of these in a couple weeks - I started this one on March 7th, and finished it on April 3rd - but that included lots of documentation and only working in good sunlight. ;)

I do hope this instructable is helpful for you and inspires you to quilt. We need more quilts in the world! :D

Step 1: Basic Quilting Definitions

Like most skills, quilting comes with its own lingo. I thought I'd add this here and give my own definitions of many of the words I'll be using in the instructable.

Backing: the bottom part of the quilt, typically made of one solid piece of fabric. Most times this fabric is white - I like to use sheets for this!

Batting: the cushy middle of a quilt - can be made from cotton, polyester or wool. Typically bought according to the size of the quilt you're making - found in rolls.

Bias-tape: strips of fabric used to bind the edges of a quilt.

Binding: the edging of a quilt - it encases the raw edges.

Blocks: a piece of fabric made from sewing 9 squares together.

Piecing: sewing together pieces of fabric to form the top layer of the quilt, typically done in blocks.

Quilt sandwich: what I call the three layers - top, batting, backing.

Quilt top: pieced fabric, typically put together in blocks. 

Quilting: sewing through multiple layers of fabric to create one thick layer - typically involves three parts: cloth top, batting middle, cloth bottom.

Seam allowance: the standard seam allowance for quilting is 1/4 inch.

Square: smaller pieces of fabric that are sewn together to make a larger, square piece of fabric. In this case, we will be sewing together 9 small blocks to make one large square. A quilt top is made up of these blocks sewn together.

Step 2: Quilting Tools.

These are some of the things you'll need:

  • rotary cutter and mat + sharp scissors
  • clear rulers (preferably 5x18 inches and a 4x4 inch one.)
  • bias tape maker or ready-made bias tape
  • clear nylon thread
  • white cotton thread (or a polyester/cotton mix)
  • 100% cotton fabric
  • long pins
  • an iron + ironing board
  • batting
  • seam ripper
  • something to use as a thread trash bin (I like mason jars)
  • walking foot for the machine (more explanation in step 22)

Step 3: A Good Setup.

In order to do all of this comfortably, it's best to have a biiiiiiig table. If you don't have one of those, you can pull out the ironing board and use it as a surface, use extra chairs, etc.

I like to be able to see all of my pre-cut squares when I'm working because I don't choose layouts before I start sewing, I just make it up as I go along. It's also important that you can lay your unsewn block layout next to the sewing machine, it'll keep you from getting confused.

At this point, it's also a good idea to make yourself a little trashcan - I use old mason jars for thread clippings. I keep it on the opposite side of my machine and drop them in whenever I cut something off. I also try to keep a test square of fabric (in case the tension on the machine goes funny), a seam ripper, and a good pair of scissors as close as possible. It'll make your life easier.

Step 4: Anatomy of a 9 Square Quilt.

The most typical 9 square quilt is queen size. This means that it is 6 blocks wide and 8 blocks long.

Each block is made up of nine squares of contrasting fabric - these squares are cut at 4x4inches. (So they will be 3.5x3.5 when sewn - meaning that the block made out of them will be 10.5 inches square.)

You can create many different designs using the 9 square method - it depends on colors and placement. You can make a scrap quilt that includes all kinds of fabric - these are my personal favorite. You can also use 2 colors throughout an entire quilt. Or you can stray away from patterned blocks altogether and create 8-bit characters, landscapes, and words.

Above are some examples of different quilt blocks.

Step 5: Fabric - What to Buy, How to Choose.

For the purposes of this quilt, the best fabric you can choose will be 100% cotton. Most craft, fabric and hobby stores have a section simply labeled "quilting cottons". If you're wanting to do a scrap quilt, I recommend digging through remnant bins and hunting around your house for clothes to deconstruct and cut into squares. I did very little shopping for this quilt - the fabrics are a mixture of my grandmother's and mine. :)

If you're wanting to use two colors or do something more spectacular, you'll need to do a little math to figure out how much fabric to buy... here are some figures to get you started!

Number of blocks and squares in a queen size quilt:

Blocks: 48 (10.5 in square sewn size)
Squares: 432 (3.5 in square sewn size)

If you're doing 2 colors, you'll need 216 of each color in the quilt.

Number of squares you can get out of ONE YARD of fabric (this is assuming you've trimmed off the selvedge ends and are left with fabric 40 inches wide):
90 squares (since your fabric will be 36x40 inches)

I figure you guys should be able to figure the rest out based on those - but if you need any additional help, don't be afraid to ask! :D

Oh! And here's an amazing chart from All People Quilt to help you figure out pretty much any size quilt you'll ever need to make.

Step 6: Choosing Batting.

Batting is very important in a quilt - the type you choose will alter the look, feel and warmth of your quilt.

There are three major types of batting:

  • cotton (bamboo also falls into this category)
  • polyester
  • wool

Cotton is my personal favorite - it lays flatter, sews easier and is really breathable. It washes well and makes for a very long lasting and low maintenance quilt.

Polyester is heavier and therefore warmer - but it has a tendency to bunch and also push its way through the quilt top over time. (it's better to use it on light colored quilts - on darker ones, you'll see little white fibers poking through!) It is cheaper than cotton in many cases.

Wool is very heavy and absorbs moisture. This is best for a quilt you'll use primarily in winter or while camping - wool can be kinda fussy when it comes to washing though... so read the package and be careful! Shrinkage is agonizing after all that work!

Batting comes in rolls in many sizes - from crib to king! It is very easy to get a size to suit your needs. :)

Step 7: Choosing Your Backing Fabric.

This is simple enough - buy a flat sheet of the same size! I really don't do anything else. :)

The best places to look are thrift stores or clearance racks in stores like Target. You don't want to spend more than $15 on it.

The color is also up to you - I almost always use white backing because it's traditional, but if you want the backing to match the quilt, go for it!

Step 8: Cutting Your Squares.

VERY IMPORTANT: If your fabric is really wrinkly, you'll want to iron it before hand for more exact cutting. Don't worry about pre-washing it - I've never done it and all my quilts have turned out just fine.

By rotary cutter:

I use a rotary cutter, a cutting mat, a clear 5x18in ruler and a clear 4x4in ruler for this. It's much quicker and easier on your hands when you're cutting a ton of fabric. Plus, if you have a new blade, you can easily cut through 4 layers of fabric at once. :)

The easiest way to do this is to cut a strip of fabric four inches long and then cut that into four inch squares. Only worry about straightening the left edge of the fabric - the uneven tops and bottoms of the fabric can be trimmed off when you cut the strip into squares.

By scissors:

If you don't have a rotary cutter, I find the easiest way to cut the squares is to draw a grid on the back of the fabric. Do the four inch strips, and then divide them into 4 inch squares. Then you can cut the fabric into pieces. You can use pinking shears if you like, but I tend to use regular dressmaker's shears because it goes quicker.


I typically cut a piece of fabric into squares and then count and stack those squares and move on to the next piece of fabric. I find that it's easier to cut everything I have into squares and then start thinking about what color combinations would look nice in a block.

As long as you can get a minimum of four squares out of any piece of fabric, you can use it in a block!

In the next step we'll talk about color combinations. :)

Step 9: Color & Pattern Combinations for Blocks.

Once you've cut a ton of squares, it's a good time to start thinking about what goes with what. :)

Keep in mind that every block has 4 of one color and 5 of another. Here are some ideas to get you going as far as color combinations go:

  • 2 contrasting solids (like yellow and purple, blue and orange, etc.)
  • one solid and one pattern
  • one pattern and one solid that matches one of the colors in the pattern
  • two distinct pattern (dots and stripes, two dots of different colors, florals and checks, etc.)

More than anything, I find it handy to make sure I have just about equal amount of solids and patterns when I go through my fabric stash.

Step 10: Assembling & Sewing the Squares Into a Block.

You'll sew the squares into three rows, and then sew the rows together. Placement is key here!

I will typically lay out the squares in the pattern I want on my work surface and then sew them. That way you have less chance of sewing the wrong bits together because you can see how the finished block looks.

Remember that you are using a 1/4 INCH SEAM ALLOWANCE. (Look at step 12 for ways to make this easy.) :D Also, I don't pin the squares together as I sew - feel free to do it at first, but trust me, it'll only slow you down!

Starting in the top row, take the first two squares and sew them right sides together. Then, sew the last squares right sides together with the middle square. You've completed a row! Do the other two this way. Once all the rows are done, finger press the seams open.

Then, sew the rows together in the same manner, making sure that the seams line up and lay flat. The key to pretty blocks is getting all the seams sewn flat. The back should look like the last picture if you've done this correctly. :D

The pictures will help you figure this out if you're having any problems.

Once the blocks are sewn, just stack em and keep sewing until you have 48!

(A note about ironing: I don't do it at this point. I just don't. It takes up too much time. See the next step to learn about finger-pressing.)

P.S. If you're interested in learning how to add a border to your quilt blocks, check out this instructable:

Step 11: Finger Pressing.

A really simple technique that'll speed up your quilting process and give you prettier blocks.

Once you've sewn a seam, simply flip the fabric to the backside, open the seam up, and rake the length of it with your thumbnail.

This will flatten your seams enough for neat sewing without having to grab the iron every minute or so.

Step 12: Tips for Getting an Even Seam Allowance.

There are many tools out there to help you make sure you're sewing at 1/4 inch. :)

There are quilting feet for every sewing machine - the right edge of the foot is 1/4 inch. You can also buy a magnetic sewing guide - but be warned, these will only work if you have a large metal surface around your presser foot. Some machines have very small throat plates.

The cheapest and easiest alternative is using a piece of masking tape. Just stick it on the sewing machine where the edge of the fabric should lie to get the right seam allowance, and BAM! While I'm lucky enough to have a 1/4 inch foot, I also use masking tape for extra sure-ness.

(I've also seen people use post-it notes if you don't have any masking tape lying around.)

(Also, you'll notice in picture 1 that 1/4 inch is labeled on my machine and not being used - that's because it's wrong. Measure from your needle out if you're unsure about the correct placement of the tape or other tools.)

Step 13: Deciding the Final Block Layout.

Iron all your blocks to get them extra flat.

Find a empty piece of floor and lay the blocks out. I don't put too much thought into this for patchwork quilts. Just as long as there aren't too many similar colors touching you're good to go!

Make sure that the final layout is 6 blocks wide and 8 blocks long. :)

Step 14: Pinning and Numbering Columns.

Once you have the layout decided, stack the columns in proper order and pin the blocks together and number the columns. This will help you with keeping them in order.

I always stack them from bottom to top.

Now you'll sew the columns together. :)

Step 15: Sewing the Quilt Top Together, Part 1.

You've got all your blocks and you're ready to go! We are over halfway done now! :D

Sew them together block by block to form columns - I typically leave my markers on the top blocks through this entire process so I don't get confused.

And, a helpful hint - once you're up to the 3-4 block in a column, it can get tricky to sew. To remedy all the pulling and fabric going everywhere, roll up what you've already sewn as shown in the last picture. :)

Step 16: Ironing.

At this point, it's helpful to iron again. You really just want to focus on where the blocks meet - make sure to get the seams nice and flat.

So detach your cat from the ironing board and get going. :)

(Yes, she does look worried. She was stuck.)

Step 17: Sewing the Quilt Top Together, Part 2.

Now you'll sew the columns together to make the quilt top!

This is the only time I'll pin while sewing the quilt top. Because you're dealing with a lot more fabric and it can shift like crazy, I pin every few squares, as shown in the second picture. :)

Start by laying column 1 on your work surface right side up. Lay column 2 on top of it, right side down. Line everything up as well as you can, and then pin.

To properly sew this, get the top corner secured in your machine, and pile the rest of the column into your lap. You don't want any of the fabric hanging off the table - it causes serious pulling and will make you sew very crookedly and puts extra pressure in your machine. So make sure you're not letting the sewn fabric pile up behind the machine and the fabric that's feeding through is supported well. If you feel any tugging, stop sewing and adjust the fabric. (Pictures 3 & 4)

Keep sewing on the additional columns until you're done, and remember that rolling comes in handy! (Picture 6)

Step 18: You Quilt Top Is Done!

Marvel in your awesomeness.

Step 19: Quilt Sandwich - Laying It Out.

Choose a large spot on your floor - hardwood or tile is better than carpet. Then clean your floor! This is very important, especially if you're using a white backing. Also make sure your feet are clean - you're going to be walking and crawling all over the quilt. :P

(Also, shoo all animals out of the room, otherwise picture 2 will happen.)

Iron your backing and lay it out - smooth it out so you have no creases or bumps.

On top of this, lay out your batting. Smooth it out as well, and make sure it's centered on your backing.

Now, lay your quilt top down. Make sure everything is centered and smooth it out.

The best way to smooth it out is to get down on your hands and knees, honestly. You can either go end-to-end or from the middle out. Do what works best for you - just be sure to be very thorough!

Once it's smoothed out it's time to pin it!

Step 20: Quilt Sandwich - Pinning and Trimming.

You want to pin through all three layers around the outside of the quilt.

Once the outside is pinned, trim all around the edges. I normally leave a couple inches on each side.
(And keep the excess fabric from the sheet - we're going to be using that to make the binding!)

Now, if you're really worried that you might have bumps - flip the quilt over and check out the back once it's pinned around the edges.

In this case, my sheet wasn't wanting to play nice (see the bumps on picture 3?), so I pinned and smoothed one more time. Once you're satisfied, flip it back over and pin like a madperson.

Seriously, pin all over. The more pins you have, the smoother it'll stay while sewing. As long as your pins are in the middle of squares, you'll be fine. :)

Step 21: Preparing for Quilting.

You will need to change out the thread for quilting. The spool (the thread at the top of your machine) will be clear nylon, and the thread loaded into the bobbin will be white cotton. (Or whatever color will match your backing.) Set your stitch length to the longest.

(Note that you can keep it white cotton on both - but I'm not a fan. Having clear nylon on top will disguise your stitches so you don't have to worry about clashing with the fabric colors.)

Once you have the thread loaded, it's always good to do a test run of stitches on a piece of scrap fabric - you might have to tweak your machine settings a bit.

In addition, it's also a good idea to change out your needle - you'll need a new sharp one since you'll be going through multiple layers!

The best set-up for quilting is putting your sewing machine at the very edge of a table so the quilt has somewhere to go as you sew it. The quilt that hasn't been through the machine yet will rest on your lap. Try your hardest to not let the quilt hang from the table - this can cause uneven stitches and make your sewing machine work much harder.

Step 22: The Walking Foot.

The best of all quilting accessories.

I highly, highly recommend using a walking foot for quilting. A walking foot looks a bit like something out of Star Wars, but it does wonders for keeping your fabrics in line. It works like the feed dogs under the needle that pull the fabric through - just on top! So you get extra flattening pulling power which helps prevent the stitches from getting strained and tiny, and keeps your fabric from puckering and ruching an insane amount!

I attempted to quilt half of the quilt using my regular presser foot (just so I could say, "Hey, it's okay, use a regular foot!") and the backing fabric had a field day, shifted something awful. So I'll be trimming the quilt a bit, not a big deal. :)

But just be warned... a walking foot will make your life easier. :D

Step 23: Quilting!

We're going to be doing this the easiest possible way because I'm assuming most people doing this will have an itty bitty sewing machine like me which makes it pretty hard to do more intricate stuff. :)

All we're going to be doing is sewing over the seam lines, which will create a nice puffy grid. (Also known as stitching in the ditch!)

You'll start sewing the quilt right side up, on the right side. You'll be sewing down the long side first. You don't have to backstitch for this, either, so don't worry about that.

I always sew straight down the first seam to begin with, and then you can sew the very edge of the quilt together if you like. Then you can go back to stitching in the ditch. Continue to do this for the next couple rows. Remove your pins after you sew the seam to the left of them.

By this time you'll notice you have quite a bit of fabric bunching up on the right against your sewing machine - the easiest way to combat this is to roll the quilt up on the right so you can keep sewing. You'll keep rolling it until you get halfway and then flip the quilt so you're sewing the other side. Continue sewing and rolling until you finish all the seams.

Then, turn the quilt so that you're sewing down the short side and repeat - sew and roll until the middle, and then flip and sew and roll again.

How easy was that? :)

Step 24: How the Quilt Should Look After Quilting...

Your finished quilt will essentially look like a puffy grid. This is easier to see on the back. Chances are you've got a lot of tiny puckers in the fabric and this is okay. It's my opinion that a patchwork quilt should LOOK like it was made at home. All those little puckers give it character!

At this point, if your backing fabric has shifted, or all the layers didn't line up in some way, just trim a little off the edges of the quilt. This happens, and once again, it's okay! (And plus, if you have a tiny little machine like me, or you don't use a walking foot, some shifting is almost guaranteed to occur!)

Also keep in mind that once you wash the quilt the first time the puckers will even out and it will look positively lovely since you didn't prewash the fabrics. :)

Step 25: Making the Binding, Part 1.

There are a two ways to do this - you can buy bias tape in store or you can use the excess from the sheet. I'm going to show you how to use the excess from the sheet because bias tape is expensive and I'm on a budget. :)

The first thing you need to do is to cut your sheet into strips. I am using a 2 inch bias tape maker, so I will be cutting my sheet into 3 3/4 inch strips, making sure to square off the ends of the strips.

(Note that I always cut straight strips. I might be using a bias tape maker, but I don't cut the fabric on the bias - I cut on the straight grain. I haven't had any issues with my binding wearing out because of this. I just wanted to clear that up because I had a question in the comments about it. :D)

Step 26: Making the Binding, Part 2.

You'll need to switch back to the standard presser foot for this.

Now we sew the strips together! Take two strips and lay them on your work surface as shown in the first picture and pin. Now take your ruler and draw a diagonal line. Cut away the excess fabric.

Sew along the line you drew and then press the seam flat.

Once it's pressed, cut off the bits hanging out!

Continue sewing your strips together until you've got enough to go all the way around your quilt + and additional foot or so. :D

Step 27: Making the Bias Tape, Part 3.

The final part!!! Hooray!

Get out your ironing board, iron, bias tape maker, and bring your gigantic strip of fabric... and kinda hang that off the end of the ironing board as seen in picture two.

Feed the fabric into the bias tape maker wrong side up (so that you can see the bottom of the seams) and push it in until you can see the fabric through the slot in the middle. Find find something tiny (I used a little crochet hook) to stick into the slot and drag the tape through. Once it's out you're good to go!

Hold the finished bias tape down and drag the bias tape maker in the opposite direction and iron the new bias tape that forms. Feed the bias tape off the opposite end of the ironing board from the fabric strip.

Make sure the seams feed through nice and flat and that your fabric doesn't bunch up in the bias tape maker and you should be fine!

Once you've fed it all through and ironed it nice and flat, fold the bias tape in half and iron it again!

Now you're finished! :D

Step 28: Make Sure Your Quilt Is Nice and Trimmed!

If you had any shifting or weirdness, now is the time to make things nice and square. Above are pictures of my quilt after I trimmed it. :)

Just make sure all your layers are even.

Step 29: Pinning the Binding to Your Quilt.

Includes the awesome fold for getting beautiful, easy corners. :D

What you need to do is unfold one edge of the bias tape so that you can see the raw edges. You'll line this raw edge up with the edge of your quilt.

Starting on one of the long sides of the quilt around the middle, pin the raw edge of the bias tape to the edge of the quilt, leaving a 6 inch tail of bias tape. Continue pinning every six inches or so until you reach the corner.

At the corner, extend the bias tape over the opposite edge. Then, fold it back so that it forms a triangle and goes to the left the original pinned strip. Now, fold the strip back over the triangle so that the folded edge lines up the with the raw edge and the strip can now continue down the shorter side of the quilt! (If you've done this correctly, you'll have a little triangle fold as shown in the last photo.

Do this for every corner, and keep pinning every six inches or so until you come around to your starting point. Once you reach your starting point, pin the bias tape about about 3 inches away from where you began and leave a tail of six inches or so. Cut the bias tape and you're ready to sew!

(Please note that my camera ate the photos, so I'm doing these pictures on the finished quilt. :P)

Step 30: Sewing the Binding, the Backside.

Use a regular foot for this! And make sure to take out your pins right before you get to them. Sewing over pins is not good. :)

We're going to be stitching the the crease as shown in the first picture. So stitch stitch stitch until you get a few inches away from the first corner. The corners are only slightly tricky.

When you get near the corner, stop sewing and take a pin. Remember the crazy fold we made? Run your finger along the crease line until you can feel the triangle fold underneath (picture 2) and mark that place with a pin (picture 3). This is where you will stop sewing. Sew to that point, backstitch, and remove the quilt from the machine. Picture 4 shows what it should look like. Now, flip over the triangle fold so it covers the stitches you just made. (Picture 5)

Now your crease line is in the right place to keep sewing! YAY!

So keep on going from the very beginning of this crease, and backstitch at the start. Continue these steps until you get to the end.

Sew to where you placed the last pin, and backstitch. Remove the quilt from the machine.

Now the last part! (Picture 7)

Fold over the bottom excess as shown in picture 8. Lay the top excess over it, lining up the raw edges, and pin. Now cut off the bottom excess. (Picture 9)

Beginning where you stopped sewing at the top, backstitch and sew to where you began sewing the in very beginning, backstitching again. Picture 10 shows what the finished seam looks like - nice and clean!

Now you're ready to flip the bias tape over!

Step 31: Flipping and Pinning the Binding.

First up - the beauty of mitered corners... you have to do virtually nothing to the back of the quilt. Check out the first picture - how awesome is that?

The biggest thing to focus on when pinning the binding to the front is to cover up the stitch lines from attaching the bias tape to the back. Make sure to pull it over that and then pin. You can see those stitch lines in picture 2. :)

For the rest of the corners, simply fold up one side, then fold over the other. (As shown in photos 2-6)

Photo 7 shows how to reign in where the two ends of the bias tape meet - just keep messing with it until the edges meet up and it all looks nice, and then pin!

Step 32: Sewing the Binding, the Front.

Switch out to your walking foot! :D

You'll be sewing the binding on in one continuous line! Start wherever you want, pretty close to the inside edge of the binding. You want a 1/4 inch seam allowance or less for this. Remember to backstitch at the beginning and take the pins out as you come to them.

When you get to the corners, leave the needle in the fabric, raise the presser foot, and swing the fabric around so you can keep on truckin'.

Make sure that you're keeping the bias tape in line... sometimes it likes to wander. Check it every so often because you want all those stitches covered!

As you come around to where you started sewing (picture 4) make sure to line up your stitch lines and backstitch.

You're done!!!

Step 33: More Photos of the Finished Quilt.

Additional photos of the finished quilt that I didn't include in the intro. Enjoy!
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