Remember those days when you first began to quilt? Remember the excitement you had looking over new patterns? The thrill of those first fabric safaris? The anticipation of those first cuts and stitches?
Remember all the mistakes we made?
Ahh…. Good times.
I look back at those time (and those quilts) with a great deal of fondness. When I signed up for my first block-of-the-month club, I had lots of sewing experience, but zero quilting knowledge. For a woman that made all her children’s clothes and most of her own, quilting threw me a learning curve or two. I thought that this week I would write about some of those early quilting mistakes I made. For those of you that have quilted for a while, I know you’ll roll your eyes at some of them (as you admit to yourself that you made those goofs, too). For those of you that are new to quilting or have only made a few quilts, I hope you realize that all of us quilters made most of the same mistakes you have.
- Don’t mix pre-washed fabrics and fabrics that have not been pre-washed.
This sounds like a minor thing. And I will admit quilting fabric has improved over the years to the point where crocking isn’t a real concern unless the fabric is really dark and shrinking (on a significant level) rarely happens. However, I still don’t think it’s a good idea to mix the two. I also admit that there are still (sometimes heated) debates about the benefits of pre-washing or not pre-washing your fabrics. But, if you’re like me and tend to wash and iron your fabric before you put it in a quilt, it’s a good idea to make sure all the fabric is prewashed. If you sew a piece of pre-washed fabric to a piece of non-washed fabric, the non-washed fabric can still shrink a bit when the quilt is laundered. This situation may lead to a slightly puckered appearance along the seam lines or applique pieces.
- The ¼-inch seam is pretty much the “standard” quilt seam allowance.
This was the hardest thing about quilting for me to conquer. I sewed clothes before I quilted and the standard seam allowance for most clothing patterns is 5/8-inch (or at least it was back when I made clothing – I have no clue if this still holds true). The ¼-inch seam just appeared to be too small. I worried about my seams raveling down to the thread and the quilt falling apart. But after quite a few of my first blocks came out really wonky and bulky, I quickly learned that I had to master that ¼-inch seam allowance. Today’s quilters have lots of tools to help with that – special quilters feet for their sewing machines, marking tools, seam guides, etc. Use whatever works for you to get a consistent ¼-inch seam. And be sure to recognize the difference between a scant ¼-inch seam and a full ¼-inch seam. A scant seam is just a thread or two shy of the full ¼-inch. Some patterns use the scant and some will use the full. Always make a test block to see what works. If the block comes out smaller than the quilt pattern indicates it needs to be, switch to the scant ¼-inch seam and try it again.
- Cut accurately.
As most quilts are cut out via rotary cutter, mat, and ruler, one of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to learn to use all three accurately. Let’s start with the rotary cutter. There are literally dozens of these made. Take the time to really research the different kinds of cutters to find the best one for you. Personally, my favorite is the Martelli brand. These are super ergonomic, and I can cut for hours without my hand hurting. For those left-handed quilters out there, they make cutters for you. The kind of cutter you pick depends mostly on the kind of quilter you are. If you’re an occasional quilter, almost any brand may do. If you’re a serious quilter, it depends on the type of quilts you make. If applique quilts are your passion, you’re only cutting background fabric, so a less expensive rotary cutter will work. If you’re a piecer or combination piecer/appliquer, plan on spending a little more for a good cutter. That thing is literally going to be an extension of your arm, so make sure it fits comfortably in your hand.
You’ll probably want a self-healing mat – one where any marks made by the rotary cutter will fade out. A rotary mat is a serious investment, but even the self-healing ones will need to be replaced from time to time. Again, my favorite brand is Martelli – I get the most bang for my buck with them. Their mats seem to last FOREVER.
Try out several rulers, too. For all- purpose cutting I use these three most of the time.
My longest and widest ruler has a lip on the end so I can set it firmly against my mat when I make a cut. This helps prevent any slippage.
I also use this one for smaller cuts.
I like Creative Grids rulers because they have the non-slip circles built into them, so they’re less inclined to slip. And this one technically isn’t a ruler, it’s a binding tool.
However, it’s exactly 2 ½-inches across which makes cutting all those 2 ½-inch strips and blocks a breeze. Out of all three of these – the cutting mats, rotary cutters, and rulers – rulers are the easiest things to throw down some serious money on. There seems to be a ruler made for almost any kind of block you want to cut out. My general rule of thumb is that if I can’t use a ruler for more than one kind of block, I don’t buy it. The ruler will be sitting in my ruler file most of the time and I consider that a waste of money.
Once you’ve settled on the mat, ruler, and rotary cutter that works best for you, be sure to at least use the same mat and ruler throughout the project to make sure all the cuts are consistent. You’d be surprised that there can be as much as a half inch difference between some brands. And this is how to hold a ruler as you cut:
The ring finger and pinkie stabilizes the ruler against the fabric, so it doesn’t slip. The middle finger, index finger, and thumb put pressure on the ruler to hold it in place. Also, as soon as the rotary cutter begins to skip and not cut through your fabric, change the blade. Additionally:
Always move the rotary cutter away from your body. And close the cutter when you’re through using it.
Only use the rotary cutter with a rotary mat. Any other type of surface will dull the blade quickly.
Crisp fabrics are easier to cut. So, if you pre-wash, use spray starch or sizing when you iron the fabric to give it a firmer hand.
Some quilt patterns will tell you to stack your fabric when you cut it. Just be aware that the more fabric layers there are, the less accurate the cutting becomes.
Square up the edge of the fabric before you make your first cut by cutting a small strip off the side so that the layers will be even.
- Press the correct way and press often.
Pressing the seams isn’t an optional step when it comes to quilting. Pressing helps the points and corners to match up as well as makes the block lie flat. If the blocks lie flat, then (hopefully) the quilt top will lie flat. And technically there are several tools that can be used to press your seams.
You can use one of these:
Simply run the slanted end over your seam to push it to one side.
You simply roll this over your seam to help it to lie flat.
I use either of these when I’m paper piecing. With paper piecing, you’re ironing each seam every time you add another piece. And while my small ironing station is near my sewing machine, it’s still time consuming to turn around and iron each seam. So, one of these pressing tools speeds things up and can stay right by Big Red or Marilyn as I stitch.
However, there comes a time when you have to use an iron. Using the steam setting is clearly a personal choice. Since keeping water in your iron tends to speed up the iron’s death cycle. I opt not to use keep water in the tank but have a spray bottle of water that I can use if a tough area needs a spritz or two of steam. And always use an up and down motion when pressing, instead sliding the iron back and forth – this movement can stretch the bias of the fabric and make your block all kinds of wonky.
- It’s not a race.
It’s really not about speed – although when a quilt pattern and fabric completely captivate your creativity, it’s easy to want to rush yourself through the process to see the pretty product. And if you’re sewing lots of straight seams, it’s even easier to sew fast. I’ve found that block-of-the-month clubs or group sews also make me want to push my pedal to the metal and rush through the process so I can keep up with everyone else.
Keep in mind that faster does not equal accuracy. Slower sewing generally means more accurate sewing. For me it all boils down to this: I hate ripping out what I’ve sewn. I would rather sew at a slower pace and be able to keep the seam I just sewed intact and accurate.
- If you’re new to quilting, don’t “go big or go home” and don’t go too complicated too soon.
If you’re new to quilting or haven’t made too many quilts, it’s easy to choose a bed quilt for your first quilty venture. I mean, quilts normally go on beds, so why not make a quilt you can sleep under?
First, making a bed quilt – even a twin-sized – is a serious commitment of time and money. It takes quite a bit of fabric to make a bed quilt. You can learn the same quilting lessons on a smaller quilt that you can on a larger one without the serious monetary investment. And if you decide that quilting really isn’t your “cup of tea” there has been no significant money spent. Make a couple of smaller quilts and if the quilting bug bites you hard, then go big or go home.
Same thing applies with the pattern choices. Find a pattern that identifies itself as a true beginner quilt, such as the Rail Fence. That one has lots of straight seams. Don’t try something like Storm at Sea even if you have lots of sewing experience in other areas. Start simple and work your way into the more difficult patterns.
- Practice, practice, practice.
Every good quilter was a beginner at some point. The way good quilters become excellent in their field is practice. Quilting is just like just about everything else in life – the more you do it, the better you get at it.
- Watch your stitch size.
I have found that (generally) the pre-set stitch length on most sewing machines is just a tad too big for piecing. Big Red is a Janome 7700 – which was advertised as a quilter’s sewing machine. Her stitch length is pre-set at 2.20.
When I am piecing, I lower this to about 2.0 or even 1.9 if I’m sewing small pieces together. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, with quilting, you don’t have to lock your beginning stitch or your ending stitch. The thread gets caught in the adjoining seams. However, a longer stitch length doesn’t lock the thread as securely as a small stitch length does. Second, a smaller stitch length ensures your block won’t be wonky. I’ve found a longer stitch length – even the pre-set on Big Red – tends to make my block feel kind of floppy (for lack of a better word).
And if you’re paper piecing, you’re going to need to set that stitch length even smaller. I go down to a 1.8 or even 1.5 when I’m paper piecing. The smaller stitch perforates the paper foundation and makes it easier to release. I have a future blog about paper piecing coming up, so stay tuned.
- Join a guild or some kind of quilt group – one that actually meets face-to-face.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and other internet groups. If you run into a problem and post on one of these, you’re going to get some solid answers in a short amount of time.
There is nothing like meeting face-to-face with a group of quilters. I have always been especially inspired by my groups’ show-and-tells. The work is stunning and the knowledge these quilters can pass along is invaluable. Don’t be afraid to go to a guild meeting or a bee – as a whole quilters are a very welcoming bunch and love to share. Most guilds have a Facebook page. If there’s a guild in your area (Google it to find out), see if they have a FB page or website so you can find out about meeting times and dues in advance. This quilty fellowship really helps sharpen you as a quilter – in my opinion, it’s invaluable. Don’t quilt in complete solitude. Get out there and meet some quilting friends!
- “True Up” after each step.
If you’re not sure what this means, it’s really simple: After making each unit for a block, make sure it’s the right size. Then as you finish a block, measure it to make sure the block is the right size. Then as you make the borders, make sure they’re the right size for the quilt center. I love quilt patterns that tell you what size each unit in the block should be. That goes such a long way in making sure your block ends up the right size. And while most quilt patterns will tell you how long the make the borders, be sure to measure the center in three places vertically. Take the average of these three measurements and cut your left and right borders that length. Sew those on. Then measure again horizontally in three places, take that average and make your top and bottom border. This procedure will square up that quilt top.
This takes some time, but it really pays off in the long run. Your quilt top will lie nice and flat. Your borders won’t be wavy. And it will be a dream to quilt.
- And finally, don’t worry about making mistakes.
I have never made a perfect quilt top. Every quilt I make has mistakes in it. And every goof up I’ve made has taught me something. That’s the great thing about quilting. You’re always learning and evolving into a better quilter.
Don’t let the fear of making a mistake stop you from trying something new. Keep moving with the quilt. Finished is way better than perfect and keep in mind that all quilters make mistakes.
We also learn clever ways to hide them.
I just received a disturbing Facebook update from the North Carolina Quilt Symposium. The 2019 Symposium is the last one we will have. The NCQS has fallen victim to the same scenario that a lot of our LQS’s have — they cannot compete with YouTube videos, internet classes, and on-line fabric and quilt sites.
Seriously people. Support your local LQS as well as your local quilt groups. We’re going to turn around one day and will have lost all of these. And our quilting culture will never be the same again.
However, I do see this as a wide-open opportunity for local quilt guilds and bees to step up in a LARGE way to fill this gap. Don’t let me down, fellow quilters.
Until next week, Quilt with Passion!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam