Introduction: Rag Quilting Basics - Illustrated!

About: Geeky artist. MUST. MAKE. STUFF. More stuff at:

Rag quilting is fun, easy, and inexpensive, and the results are absolutely gorgeous. For years rag quilts were my go-to handmade baby gift. For me, one of the best parts about rag quilting is how little you actually have to plan. It’s more like soup, where if you know all the basics, you adjust your project to taste. This tutorial will show you HOW to make a rag quilt, not a specific quilt or pattern. The design and creativity are up to you!

Nerd Note: Illustrations were drawn in Adobe Sketch on an iPad Pro using an Apple pen.

Step 1:

Rag quilts are made by piecing together geometric shapes, usually squares or rectangles. They are easy because ultimately all the seams show. Also, the front and back are created at the same time, so there’s no actual quilting the quilt.

That being said, while these quilts are easy to sew, don’t confuse that with fast. Creating the rag, which I’ll go into later, takes a long time.

Step 2: Supplies and Tools

To know what you need, you first need to know what do you want to make.

Decide on a theme or color palette. Then decide how large you want your finished quilt. The size is less important. With these quilts, it’s easy to reduce or add squares as you work so you can adjust the size of the quilt on the fly. Just make sure to buy extra fabric if you think you might want to play with the size. More on fabric in the next steps.

The most important tool you’ll need for a successful rag quilt is a very sharp scissor. They make special scissors for rag quilting, but you don’t need them unless you plan on making a lot of quilts. Of course this project will go much faster with a sewing machine, though you can hand sew with needle & thread if you choose. It’s all just straight seams, so the sewing is easy either way.

You will also need a ruler.

A rotary cutter and cutting mat are optional but very helpful.

Step 3: Getting Started - Flannel

Flannel is the perfect fabric for rag quilting. I like to choose contrasting colors and a variety of patterns and solids. How much you need depends on the size of your quilt. I like to err on the side of caution, so I tend to buy more fabric then I will need.

Here is my general rule of thumb: After you’ve decided on a quilt size, figure out how many square inches it will be. (Just multiply length x width) Now add another 50%. This will be approximately how much total fabric you need for one side. Remember, you’ll be piecing together squares from multiple fabric cuts, so you need extra in case the number of squares don’t work out perfectly with the fabric with you have chosen. Then you will need to do the same thing for your fabric on the back of your quilt.

If you want a solid border around your quilt, purchase enough extra fabric to go around the length and the width without chopping those pieces into squares. You can always decide on the border at the end, and purchase your border fabric when you have your quilt done.

So, for a small 3‘ x 3‘ quilt, I make sure to have at least a yard and a half for the front and a yard and a half for the back of the quilt. I usually over-buy so that I have flexibility in my sizing and design. Flannel is cheap so the extra cost is negligible.

Note: Cheating is OK

You can buy precut squares of flannel if you want to skip the steps of choosing your own combinations and cutting out squares. I’ve never done this because I enjoy designing the pattern, but there’s no reason not to. Just make sure that you are getting flannel, and that you have enough for your entire quilt. This is a much more expensive option than buying yardage and cutting the fabric yourself.

Step 4: At the Fabric Store

Once I have the idea for my quilt, I like to go to the fabric store and begin by choosing one or two patterns that I love. I stick those bolts in my cart and use them to choose complementary solids or patterns.

Choose 4-6 different flannels for the front and one or two different flannels for the back. It’s also OK to make the front and the back the same, if you want. Personally, I like to contrast the front and the back, but this is part of your creative choice.

When first learning to make rag quilts, purchase equal amounts of each color or pattern for the front, adding up to at least the total you previously calculated. Do the same for the back fabrics.

Not sure? Buy extra.

You can pick and purchase border fabric now, or wait untill your quilt is sewn and then decide.

Step 5: Cut Squares

You can use any size squares for rag quilting. The standard square sizes for this project are 6”-10". My preference is generally 8”. Whatever size you choose there will be a 3/4” seam allowance, which will make your sewn panels smaller, so keep this in mind when picking a square size. At least for your first couple of quilts, all the squares should be the same size.

If you don’t have a quilt pattern in mind, the best thing to do is start by cutting an equal number of squares from each flannel pattern. You can cut squares with a scissor or a rotary cutter either on a ruled mat or by marking the fabric with something washable. You need to end up with a pile of same size squares for the quilt front and another pile for the back. You need the same total number of squares for the front and the back.

Step 6: The Fun, Fun, Fun Design Part

Take all the front squares and lay them out on a table until you have a design you like. Before you collect the pieces up again, either write the order on the backs, take pictures, make a diagram, or if the pattern is simple, jot down some notes.

Repeat for the back side, though things will go more smoothly if you keep the back simple. (if the back uses only one color or pattern of flannel, then you don’t need to lay anything out first.)

Step 7: Match Front to Back

Pick any two front squares that will end up side-by-side. I usually try to start with a corner piece and the next square over. Then find the back pieces that match up to the front in those spots. This is why a solid color on the back at first makes the project much easier!

Lay one front square on top of its matching back square with the wrong side of the fabrics facing. That means the color or pattern is on the outside front and back. Do the same with the 2nd set of squares.

Hint: If you think it will make it easier for you, you can match all the fronts and backs together before you start to sew. If you want to keep the pieces together you can either pin them or use a washable spray adhesive meant for fabric. I have used this method and it makes assembly very easy. Just remember to keep track of what goes where in your quilt pattern.

Step 8: Piece It Together

The part that makes rag quilting different from most other sewing, is that when you put pieces together you face the back sides together and your seam allowance ends up on the front of your fabric. So, now face the the quilt back squares together.

You should now have four squares in the following order:

Front fabric, back fabric, back fabric, front fabric

Step 9: Diagram: 8" Square With 3/4" Seam Allowance.

Step 10: Now You Can Sew

Sew one edge with a 3/4” seam allowance. I just use the markings on my sewing machine, but you can draw lines to follow if you prefer. Open as shown.

You now have your first two panels.


Step 11: Two by Two

You can sew the squares together in any order now, though my preference is to sew in pairs. I like to repeat the previous step with a front back pair of squares and another front back pair of squares that’s next to it so that I end up with a pile of doubles sewn down the middle.

If you choose this method, the one thing I recommend is to make sure you sew all your pairs either horizontal or vertical. This way you’ll be able to easily form rows from your pairs.

Step 12: Rows

Now start piecing your pairs together side-by-side with other pairs to form a row. Sew all the pieces together in one row until that row is complete. Set it aside and begin with the next row.

Continue until you have all the rows you need in one direction.

Step 13: Assemble the Rows

Take one row and the row next to it. Face the backs together and sew the rows together where they meet. Use a 3/4” seam allowance. Add each row to the next in the same manner until all the rows are sewn together.

Your blanket is now completely assembled and it’s time to do the rag!

Step 14: Rag Time!

Of your three-quarter inch seam allowance, you will cut 1/2” toward the seam (90° perpendicular to the seam) leaving a quarter inch uncut. Cut again next to the first cut, 1/4" apart. Go along the seam allowance making cuts every quarter inch to the end of the row. Cut every seam allowance this way.

Be very careful not to cut ANY seams!

If you do make a mistake and accidentally cut a seam, sew that up before you proceed.

Step 15: Cut, Cut, Cut

Yup, this takes a really long time.

Step 16: The Border

There is really no need for a standard blanket binding. Many rag quilts have rag edges around the entire outside and it looks great. If you do want a fabric binding, the directions are pretty standard. You can Google how to bind quilt/blanket edges. You can cut the rag either before or after attaching a the binding, however, you should not wash your quilt before the binding is attached.

For a rag quilt edges, here’s what you do:

You guessed it - Cut, cut, cut.

Make half inch long cuts every quarter of an inch all the way around the entire edge of the blanket. Make sure you don’t cut any of the seams.

Note: My photos show a quilt with a binding because I got lazy about making more tiny cuts. I have done rag edges and they come out great.

Step 17: Wash and Be Amazed

This is where you go from craft to magic.

Wash the quilt by itself on a normal cycle.

Dry on normal heat.

Check the rag edges. Are they good and bunched? If not, wash again. These blankets get better with washing. Depending on the flannel, I usually washed my blankets 3 times before giving or using. After the first wash or two, you can put the quilt in with other laundry.

Note: Be prepared to clean your lint trap well after the first washing!

Step 18: A Beautiful Rag Seam

Step 19: Snuggle

These blankets are beautiful, warm, and lasting. I have rag quilts I made 15 years ago that still look new.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. And the drawings!

Please let me know what you sew :-)

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