An introduction to quilting
This ancient craft was widely used in medieval and early modern times for clothing as well as bedding and has recently enjoyed a resurgence beginning about thirty-five years ago. Quilts are now made as much for walls as for beds because some of the newer fibres and techniques are not as resilient as traditional materials and do not stand up to washing and constant use as well. That said many quilters do still make quilts for everyday use.
A quilt is defined as three layers of fabric sandwiched together – a top, usually in a patchwork design, a layer of wadding for warmth and a backing. The layers are held together by stitching – a quilting stitch is a small running stitch, but there are other ways to attach the layers, including by cross stitch, by tying threads through, or by machining. The backing material is stretched out, the wadding placed on top and then the top added and secured before quilting.
Many people consider typical “English” patchwork to be worked over papers, a technique where templates are cut from suitable paper and the fabric is literally sewn to them. This keeps the fabric more stable and the paper is simply removed when the section or ‘block’ is finished. Hexagons are the most common shape for templates as they tessellate easily. Template sizes vary from very small and intricate to much larger but smaller will take much longer and can be discouraging for a beginner. You can make hexagons from firm paper using a compass – as many of us did to decorate school books. Sheets of hexagons, both even and elongated, can also be downloaded from online sites, ready to cut up. In addition, you can buy ready cut papers, but these do tend to work out expensive for anything bigger than a cushion.
Many native English quilts are “Wholecloth” – one piece of fabric, with a design made entirely from the stitching on the surface. Synonymous with County Durham, this technique is also found among Welsh quilts. The museums at Beamish and St Fagans both have good collections and Sandie Lush and Ferret also make stunning modern examples.
In the nineteenth century ‘Crazy’ quilts were popular among the wealthier sections of society. These allowed a lady to show off the silks and velvets used in her clothes as well as her skills as a needlewoman as they invariably carried a large amount of, frequently beautiful, embroidery on the pieces and along the joins. Of course, they were also evidence that she did not spend time doing household chores as they were extremely labour intensive.
In contrast, “American” quilts are deemed to be those based on a block design. This is a sweeping generalisation as this style of quilting was equally used in the UK. However, the blocks – section of quilt created from a combination of smaller shapes, notably squares and triangles, to form a pattern – are popular all over the world. They have wonderful names, recalling different aspects of life in earlier times and there are literally hundreds of them.
A quilt created with a selection of these blocks is called a sampler quilt and this will be many people’s first experience of quilting as they can be used to experiment with the patterns and learn different techniques while making one quilt.
A good starting point would be to find blocks that make up into 12 inch (30cm) squares. These will go together with sashing – a thinner strip of fabric – separating them. I use 2.5 – 3-inch usually, depending on the quilt. Simple ones are Churn Dash, Hole in the Barn Door, Railfence (from strips of fabric), or “four-patch” (four squares) or “nine-patch” (nine squares) joined to make a whole square. School maths really does serve a purpose. A lot of blocks using triangles are in the form of stars, such as Variable Star and Ohio Star (a great favourite with everyone). This is probably the most common place to start in quilting and is “real” patchwork.
Generally quilters work in cotton. It is easy to handle; for baby’s and children’s quilts it washes well and dries easily without noticeable shrinkage. Most people prefer cotton to polycotton blends as these fray more easily and are harder on your hands. Heavier weight fabrics like tweeds or cords are bulky. Where you buy your fabric will depend on what you like and the depth of your purse. It is possible to make delightful quilts with recycled (upcycled) shirts, using the fronts and backs rather than the sleeves which get more wear. There are a good array of shops and some market stalls which sell patchwork fabric – too many to list – and plenty of online sites. Patterns are available for every taste, pretty to bizarre and nursery to sophisticated. Try to buy enough for a whole project at one time, or take your fabric to match up when you shop as inconsistent colour can ruin careful work.
In the modern world gizmos and gadgets seem to be essential to the status of a craft. It is possible to spend large sums of money on tools that make life easier, but it is not necessary at the beginning. A really useful tool is a rotary cutter which requires a specifically designed board and plastic see-through ruler to go with it. This saves huge amounts of time and ensures greater accuracy in cutting. Other tools that I wouldn’t be without are two feet for my sewing machine; a quarter inch foot for sewing the pieces together and a walking foot for quilting by machine. Buy the right thread for the fabric – cotton with cotton, not polyester.
There are plenty of books on “how to” as well as numerous web sites and Youtube demonstrations. Local libraries can still be good starting places for these and the more popular craft magazines often carry basic instructions somewhere towards the back of each copy. Your local newsagent will have a selection.
For those of you who would like to learn more The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles has a useful website. They have a regional organisation which holds regular meetings with guest speakers or demonstrations or hands on projects to do. They also have a Young Quilters section with projects suitable for young stitchers. The Guild is open to anyone with an interest in patchwork and quilting; it does not demand that members reach a certain standard before joining; some members have an interest in quilt history and make very few quilts themselves. Regional days are priced so that Guild members pay a more favourable rate than non-members. The Guild’s magazine, The Quilter, is not a “how to” magazine, but gives information about the Guild and the Quilt Museum in York.
Angela Rodda is co co-ordinator or region 7 (Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire) of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles
Most recent Crafts articles
- Paracord weaving: make a survival bracelet 17th January, 2015
- Picture tutorial: Make a PVC pipe bow 03rd January, 2015
- Shake it up – handmade coconut shell maracas 05th November, 2014
- Craft Project: Handmade Bamboo Flute 30th October, 2014
- Craft project: DIY bottle cap tambourine 21st October, 2014
- Project: Making a CD drop spindle 24th April, 2014