Introduction: Quilting

About: Ex video game programmer, ex Google software engineer, ex character animator, currently working as a designer
This instructable details various quilting techniques. In order to cover different construction methods, I used photos from a couple of projects of varied styles. There are lots of ways to go about piecing together any concept and all techniques come in handy at one time or another.

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

The most important overall advice I could possibly give is Be Patient! Make a clear plan before you start, don't rush, never skip steps, and always take time to measure, pin, and iron. Take your time, relax, and with some love your project will come together.

Step 1: Concept Art

I love quilting, but I've never really been able to appreciate traditional patterns. Designs from quilt pattern books always seem to come off as boring and grandmotherly to me--they just aren't enough to inspire me to the weeks or months of effort that a serious project requires. To muster the patience and enthusiasm that will get you through the project you need a subject that really captures your interest.

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

If you're constructing a quilt using a pixellated or tiled technique, you don't necessarily need this step, but you will still need to calculate how big the pieces need to be to get to the final quilt size you're planning. However if you're trying to cut fabric pieces based on a concept sketch you will definitely need a to-scale paper pattern to help guide you.

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

Here are some tools you will need for almost any quilting project:

  • 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
  • Iron

Gather everything beforehand and keep it together. It's no fun to be interrupted by missing equipment when you're on a roll, plus if you get frustrated or impatient you might be tempted to cut corners in the process (fail to pin things up, settle for the wrong color of bobbin thread, etc.) Having the right equipment readily available makes the project easier, less stressful, and more precise.

Step 4: Fabric Preparation

Pick fabric colors and patterns that compliment your designs, then immediately wash, dry, and iron all of them. To avoid having to wonder whether a scrap from my fabric box has been processed yet, I wash all fabrics as soon as I get them home. It's just easier to be consistent.

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

A traditional method of quilting is to design a pattern from tiled geometric blocks. You can pick any pattern that pleases you, but the main question you have to answer is "Where can I cut this pattern to create repeating elements?" The idea is to make squares, strips, and repeating shapes that you can easily sew together with straight lines. Depending on what you're trying to do, this stage can be sort of like a puzzle. I spent a long time staring at hexagonal tilings before I came up with the cutting pattern used for the quilt in the images below.

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

The simplest case of the tiling approach is to make the entire top out of a regular grid of squares. This has the advantage of making the cutting of pieces very easy, but you often need a pretty high resolution grid to get a good looking quilt top. The best thing about pixelation as a piecing strategy is that patterns are easy to create digitally and there is a great wealth of pixelated artwork out there to help inspire you. For instance, there are some awesome quilts based on the pixels from 8 bit video game sprites--If you haven't ever searched the web for "Mario Quilt" you should take a minute do so now.

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

If you've got a concept that isn't well represented by pixels or geometric tiles, then the next technique you can try is what I call "angular piecing." The idea is to slowly build out shapes by attaching scraps together along straight edges. Swatches of concave color will be built by bisecting the area until you have convex shapes and straight edges to sew along. The key to this technique is to constantly trim the edges square; messy uneven scrap edges are hard to deal with. Once you've pieced scraps together into a larger block, working with a section made of multiple fabrics should feel almost no different than working with the initial scraps.

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

Applique is the most finicky and time consuming of all piecing techniques, but it's an essential tool if you want smooth curves. The idea is to carefully crease the fabric into a curve and hold it in place with pins and basting stitches. Then the hemmed fabric piece is laid on top of existing fabric and carefully stitched down. Because with applique fabric is being stitched over the existing fabric rather than against it, you end up with a slight ridge from the folded seam. There are hand stitching styles that make a nice hidden applique edge, but I've never had the patience to do anything but machine stitching.

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

Once the quilt top is all pieced together it's time to add the backing fabric and the batting, which is the stuffing material that goes inside of the quilt layers. First make sure you have a piece of fabric big enough to cover the entire back of the project. Sew fabric swaths together until you have a large enough sheet, then spread it out on your work surface right side down and smooth out any wrinkles.

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

Almost as important to the finished look as the fabric piecing is the decorative top stitching that holds the layers together. I am not great at precision stitching and also I don't have a longarm sewing machine, which is specialty sewing machine designed to give you space between the foot and the body so that you can rotate bulky layers, so I always think of the quilting step as an afterthought. However if you're good at it this step can be ever bit as artful as the piecing construction. The idea is to hold the layers of fabric together while also drawing decorative lines across the surface of the quilt.

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.

Step 11: Bind the Edges

Quilt binding is the fold of fabric that sandwiches the outer edge of the quilt to create a finished hem. You can either create your own binding strips or buy premade strips from fabric stores (that's what I do). Unroll the binding and fold it around the edge. First pin the binding in place, then add basting stitches and remove the pins (sound familiar?). Once the binding is attached with basting stitches very carefully machine sew the edge of the binding to the quilt, making sure that the stitches intersect the binding on both the top and bottom. At the corners fold the binding back on itself and carefully stitch down--the corners are the hardest part, but getting them to look right is really just a matter of care and patience.

Step 12: Remove Spare Threads

The final step of a quilting project is to remove all those temporary basting stitches. Cut the basting threads and then use tweezers to pull them out. Also cut off any hanging threads while you're at it. As soon as all the thread trimming is done, take a step back and admire your finished product!

Burning Questions: Round 6

First Prize in the
Burning Questions: Round 6