How to Handle Your Curves

Today I want to talk about how to handle your curves.

And no, I’m not talking about these curves.

I’m talking about these curves.

That’s right.  Quilt blocks with curved units. 

Several quilt block units claim curvy fame – Clam Shells, Orange Peels, and Drunkard’s Path to name a few.  And if you toss in all the applique blocks which have curved pieces, the list would literally be endless.  But today I just want to discuss the quilt blocks which have curvy pieced units.  Curvy applique is another blog for another day.   I’m using the Drunkard’s Path to demonstrate the different ways to handle curves.  I choose this for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s a familiar block – even if you haven’t sewn it, you at least probably know what it looks like.  Second, the convex to concave ratio is steep – in other words, if you can successfully sew this curve, all the others will be easy-peasy.

However, before we get into construction, let’s take a dive into the history of this block.  We know this block best by the name Drunkard’s Path.  But it also is identified by Wonder of the World, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Solomon’s Puzzle, Endless Trail, Country Cousin, and Pumpkin Vine.  I had heard some of these names, but others were totally unfamiliar.  I threw them into my EQ 8 (which has Barbara Brackman’s Block Base on it – the old one, not the new one due out soon), and received no results for Country Cousin or Pumpkin vine.  Robbing Peter to Pay Paul was a star block which used half-square triangles.  All of which I guess goes to show how quickly block names can change and even go obsolete. 

This block which has so many names became primarily known as Drunkard’s Path during the Temperance Movement.  And it does kind of look like an inebriated trek home.  Drunkard’s Path and the T-Square (shown below – and it came to be known as the Temperance T Block during this era) were embraced by this movement. 

Both were used in quilts representing the anti-alcohol society.  Many of these quilts were blue and white, since those were the colors chosen to represent the Temperance Movement.  But just as many were not.  I think the ones made in red and white fabric are the most stunning – but then again, I really like red and white quilts. 

However, the block has an even earlier history than the Temperance Movement (which lasted roughly from 1820 to 1933 when the 21st amendment was nullified).  Archaeologists have found this block on the Roman ruins in Egypt.  So, the block is pretty old – or at least its concept is.

Drunkard’s Path works like this:  There’s a convex curve:

Which must be sewn to the concave curve.

And when they’re joined, this is what they look like:

They appear as if they snuggly and easily fit together.  But I’ll be the first quilter to tell you, those looks are deceiving, because you have to put them together like this:

To sew them.

And it’s trickier than it looks.  However, the purpose of this blog is to give you a few tricks of your own to successfully navigate this curving, winding path.  I will be honest with you – if you want to take a deep dive into quilting curves and never have tried it before, you may want to stick your toe in the water with a gentle curve.  Use the techniques given in this blog to work with curves which don’t have such a steep gradient before moving on to something like this:

Whenever I’m faced with blocks which are difficult or have lots of pieces, the first question I ask myself is “Can this thing be paper pieced?”  To me, if a complicated block can be broken down into units and paper pieced, I’ve accomplished two things.  First, I’ve upped my accuracy, as paper piecing is very accurate, and second, paper piecing makes difficult units easier to work with.  So, I searched EQ 8 for Drunkard’s Path blocks I could paper piece and had no luck.  On each block I received the information:  “This block has curved lines so it cannot be automatically numbered for paper piecing.” In other words, paper piecing these curves is not an option.  At least for EQ 8.  Could you possibly do it?  I have seen blog posts with instructions on how to paper piece these curves, but to me it’s no different than piecing it the regular way.  However, English Paper Piecing the Drunkard’s Path is a viable option – especially if the block is small. And there are several on-line quilt shops which can supply you with the laser-cut cardstock ready for use. 

The next question I ask myself with a block like Drunkard’s Path is “Can it be appliqued?”  The answer is yes.  As a matter of fact, one of the first quilts I made had a block made of red and white Drunkard Path units arranged to look like Cardinal birds.  I needle-turned every one of them and am still really pleased with the results.  The units came out the correct size and they all looked identical.  So, that was a huge win for me as a beginner quilter. 

But that was only one large block made from 12 Drunkard Path units.  If you’re constructing a quilt like this:

It’s a lot of blocks to applique.  Even though machine piecing this block is a slow process, it’s still faster than hand applique (although the speed would be about the same if machine appliqued).  There are two ways to machine piece these rascals – the traditional way and my way.  But before we begin construction, let me give you some general tips for each.

  1.  Starch every inch of your fabric.  Even if you haven’t prewashed your fabric and the finish is still on it, starch it.  And for the Drunkard Path block, I use real starch (such as Faultless or Niagara), not a starch substitute (such as Best Press).  This is important because both the concave and convex curves have lots of bias and the bias needs to be stabilized as much as possible.  Real starch does this so much better than a substitute.  I would really recommend starching the fabric twice.
  2. More than likely you will use templates.  With most  — if not all – Drunkard’s Path and other curvy blocks, templates will be used.  The quilter traces around the templates (usually made of cardstock or template plastic or acrylic).  Speed is not your friend here, accuracy is.  Trace slowly and be careful not to drag the marking tool across the fabric so that the fabric distorts, and the bias is possibly stretched.  If card stock is used, it saves time to go ahead and make several templates, so they can be replaced as needed.  My favorite curvy templates are made from acrylic.  Missouri Star Quilt Company has several Drunkard Path acrylic templates.  The Perfect Patchwork Company also has them, as well as the John Flynn Frame Company.  I’ve made several quilts which used the Drunkard’s Path block and for me, the acrylic templates were worth the money.
  3. Prepare to pin.  And pin some more.  I know some of don’t like to pin, but it’s almost impossible to have a pretty curvy block without the judicious use of pins.  You’ll pin a lot.  This is be explained a bit further down the blog.
  4. Speed is not your friend.  Straight seams can be sewn fairly quickly.  Curved seams cannot.  Sew slowly and make sure the raw edges stay aligned as you go along.  Some quilters do great with using their ¼-inch quilting foot.  Others swear by a walking foot for sewing curves.  Try both and see what works best for you.  Regardless, sew slowly to maintain your accuracy and stop frequently (with the needle down) to adjust the fabric so you don’t get pleats, tucks, and puckers.  If you do all of this and you still have issues, you may want to switch to a scant ¼-inch instead of the full one.  Sometimes the narrower seam allowance works better. 
  5. I find it easier to sew with the concave piece on top.  If you can’t remember which is concave and which is convex, think about it like this:

This is pie:

This is pie ala mode. 

This may not work for you.  If it doesn’t, switch the pieces so the pie is on top and try it.

  •  Even with all the precautions, you may still get puckers.  The tighter the curve, the more you’re apt to get puckers.  If this happens, try stopping frequently (with the needle down) and smooth the fabric out with your fingers.  I find using a stiletto is a big help. 

The first construction method we’ll try is the “traditional” method.  If you want to make one with me, I’m making a 6-inch finished Drunkard Path block.  That means I need to use at least 6 ½-inch unit pieces to allow for the seams.  However, any block with this much bias involved can turn out a little wonky.  I would cut the pieces at 6 ¾-inches and plan to trim them down. 

My first step is always prep several blocks at a time.  It’s a wonderful idea to cut all your pieces out at the same time, but since this block unit requires a great deal of pinning, you may find it helpful to pin a dozen or so block units and then sew them.  This seems to go faster than make a block, prep the next block, sew that block, prep the next block, etc.  It also helps you get a rhythm up sewing those curves. 

After your pieces are cut out, fold the pie shapes in half and press it so there’s a crease running down the middle of each piece of pie.

Next, fold the “ala mode” pieces in half:

And press them so there’s a crease in the middle of it.

Now match the two pieces, right sides together, so the creases line up and put a pin in them.

I’m throwing a personal preference for pins at this point.  When I machine piece any curvy block, I prefer using the glass head pins:

These are fine and sharp, and shorter than a lot of pins quilters use.  They don’t get in the way and are easy to remove before they reach the needle. Don’t sew over them.  This can damage your sewing machine needle. 

After you’ve pinned the middle, then you want to pin the ends of the ala mode piece to the ends of the pie like this:

Here’s where the tricky part comes in – now you want to pin the rest of the curves together, working out tiny tucks and wrinkles as you pin.  This process will require the judicious use of pins.  As a matter of fact, I think the more you pin the better the block will look, and the better the chances of it coming out perfect.

Take the unit to your machine and sew the seam slowly and carefully, removing the pins before you get to the machine’s needle.  I know this is a lot of stopping and starting, but this also gives you a chance to smooth out the fabric, keep the raw edges of the fabric aligned, and correct any mistakes.  I also find a stiletto is very helpful with this step, and remember to stop sewing with your needle in the down position. 

Once the two pieces are sewn together, they need to be pressed.  Even though the seam is sewn together, there still are bias edges involved and they can still be stretched if you’re not careful.  I press my edges toward the concave unit.  If your block doesn’t want to lie flat, try clipping the curves of the seam and pressing again.  Usually this will help the unit lie pretty flat.  After pressing, trim your block to the correct unfinished size. 

The traditional method of piecing a Drunkard’s Path works well for a two-piece block unit.  However, if you remember this year’s blog theme is Level Up Your Quilting – which means this year we’re pushing the boundaries with what we’re comfortable doing.  We’re taking what we know and expanding it to bigger and better quilting experiences.  So…what if you want to make a three-piece Drunkard’s Path with a pieced middle ring?  Sounds complicated, right?  It really isn’t.  It’s a few more steps, but the look is stellar.  Here’s how it goes….

When we look at the drawing, we know we want that center piece to be the star attraction.  Why?  Because if pieced carefully in the quilt, those center arcs can match up and create circles which add movement to our quilt.  So that middle ring must be made true to the unfinished template size.  The middle ring can be made of a single piece of fabric.  If this is your choice, I would suggest using a dominant color or a print which immediately draws your eye to it.  I would make the other two pieces – the pie and the ala mode – out of a neutral tone-on-tone or solid regardless of whether the middle ring is pieced or not. 

The first step is making sure all the fabric has a good starching and pressing – especially the middle ring fabric.  This particular piece has exposed bias on the inner and outer curve.  It’s important to stabilize it as much as possible.  If you’re piecing your middle ring, you’ll want to make sure all the fabric has some starch in it, and if you can paper piece it, so much the better.  The papers will add additional stability to the bias edges. I don’t remove the papers until I’m ready to sew, and if I can avoid it, I don’t remove them until after the entire quilt top is ready for quilting.  But if you struggle to join the middle ring to the two other pieces while the papers are on, go head and remove them, but starch the ring before sewing.   If you’re using a template to draw the ring onto fabric, don’t drag the pen or pencil across the fabric and stretch the bias.  I cut my middle ring pieces out with scissors (more accurate than a rotary cutter) and store them flat.  I don’t pick them up until I’m ready to sew and have been known to give them another shot of starch and a quick press with a hot iron before sewing. 

Now let’s talk about the pie and the ala mode piece. 

Here are my templates:

And here’s how big I cut each out of the fabric:

I increase the size of both templates by as much as two inches.  Why?  Well, it makes the middle ring fit easily onto the pie piece. I find the center of the pie and the center of the middle ring and pin those two together, but I don’t have to keep shifting and pinning to avoid puckers.  This helps keep the bias in both pieces from getting stretched.  I sew these two together, and then add the ala mode piece, finding the center and pinning the same way.

After it’s over, I trim the pie and the ala mode piece down to fit the middle ring.

This makes your Drunkard’s Path look impressively difficult.  Only you will know how easy it truly is. And that middle ring gives so much motion to your quilt.  Remember the Halo Medallion?

When you look at those circling geese, they’re the middle ring of a three-pieced Drunkard Path block.  

Yes, this Drunkard’s Path takes a little more time and a little more prep, but man, is it fun!

The last curvy unit I want to talk about is what I call the Curves of Deception.  This means the quilt looks as if it has curved pieces, but it doesn’t.  Thus, my name, The Curves of Deception.  This effect all has to do with color and fabric placement.  Take a look at this quilt on EQ 8:

This quilt consists of two blocks, with absolutely no curved pieces in either one:  The Monkey Wrench

and the Garden Path Star. 

The manner in which the half-square triangles of the Monkey Wrench lock into the white squares of the four-patch in the Garden Patch triangles makes the quilt look as if it has gently curving pieces when in reality no curves exist at all.  This isn’t an effect you can get with a lot of blocks but I have learned if the blocks have HSTs at the corners and they can be linked up with a four-patch, they have the possibility of this effect.  It’s a good idea to play with this on EQ 8 or graph paper before cutting out the quilt or even choosing fabric. 

There is absolutely no reason at all to dread curved piecing.  Like a lot of quilt techniques, it does take a bit of advanced planning and some prep work.  But it’s not as hard as it looks as long as you slow your sewing down and use pins.  And when you expand a block like Drunkard’s Path into a few more pieces, the look is dramatic and the skill set is easy.  You may want to start with a small curvy quilt to make sure you have the technique well in hand before you move onto a bed-sized one. 

Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam



A few blogs back when I wrote about hand sewing needles, I promised in the future I’d write one about thimbles.  I must confess I’ve had a love/hate relationship with thimbles for a long time, and it wasn’t until the last few years I made peace with using  one.  Now I generally reach for  it every time I pick up my hand sewing.  This week we’re taking a deep dive into the world of thimbles, their history, how to use one, and how to make sure you have one that fits. 

By definition, a thimble is a “small, pitted cup worn on the finger that protects it from being pricked or poked by the eye of a needle while sewing.”  The Old English word for thimble is pymel.  Pymel is derived from the Old English word puma – meaning “thumb.”  And while today we tend to picture using thimbles on the middle finger, they were and are also used on thumbs. 

Historically, the earliest thimbles closely followed the invention of what we recognize as “sewing.”  Thimbles have been found in England dating back to the 10th century and by the 14th century, they were in widespread use in nearly all households.  Most of these early thimbles were made of brass, although Queen Elizabeth I is rumored to have given one of her ladies-in-waiting a thimble inlaid with precious stones.  These brass thimbles were either made of cast brass or from hammered sheets.  Eventually the mass production of these brass thimbles moved to Nuremburg in the 15th century and then to Holland in the 17th

But by 1693, John Lofting – a Dutch thimble manufacturer – moved things back to England.  He began producing thimbles at Islington in London.  His company grew quickly, and he moved his mill to Buckinghamshire to take advantage of water-powered production, eventually making over two million thimbles per year.  Without getting into a lot of the manufacturing details, by the end of the 18th century he had changed production methods to produce thinner thimbles with a taller shape. In addition, by this time cheaper sources of silver were available and silver thimbles also became part of his production.  These silver thimbles were very popular and sold well.  Manufacturing speed also increased when a machine was invented to punch the small dimples in a thimble.  Before that, all of those dimples had to be put in by hand.  So, if you’re perusing antique shops for thimbles and you find one with irregular dimple patterns, chances are it was made before the 18th century. 

Thimbles weren’t manufactured in America until the 1830’s.  Ketcham and McDougall of New York were the first mass producer followed in 1839 by Simon Brothers in Philadelphia – who, by the way, are still making thimbles.  However, a gold thimble, circa 1850, is attributed to Paul Revere, Jr.  It has engraved script initials LD with a wrought domed top and it sold for a whopping $10,000.00 in 2014. 

While brass was the choice for mass thimble manufacturing, thimbles were and are made of other substances:  metal, leather, rubber, wood, glass, and china.  Those thimbles pre-dating mass production were made of whole bone, horn, ivory, Connemara marble, bog oak, and mother of pearl.  Occasionally they were adorned with diamonds, sapphires, or rubies.  Today, in addition to precious and semi-precious stones, thimbles are sometimes topped with cinnabar, agate, moonstone, or amber.  They’re enameled or may even use the Guilloche’ techniques advanced by Peter Carl Faberge’.

Yes, thimbles have come a long, long way since their humble beginnings.  And while at the end of this blog we will discuss collecting them and some other esoteric (but fascinating facts) about them, what I want to focus on is the here and now – what most utility thimbles are made of, how to use one, and most importantly how to make sure you have one that fits correctly.

Chances are if you have either purchased or been given a beginner’s sewing or quilting kit or have looked at thimbles in the notions aisle of a store, this is what usually comes to mind:

A very generic, one-size-fits-all, silver-colored thimble.  And I think the trouble begins here, because most folks assume this is the only thimble out there. If it doesn’t work, then it must be something wrong with them, not the thimble.  This is how I felt for years.  No matter how many of those silver thimbles I purchased, none of them worked for me.  They didn’t feel right and were awkward to use.  I asked my fellow quilters what kind of thimble they used, and learned today’s thimbles are made from leather, silver, gold, plastic, silicon, and pewter.  Determined to find something that worked, I dropped those metal thimbles into a drawer and began my quest to find the perfect thimble. 

After months of research and a handful of thimbles, I still found nothing which worked for me.  While my quilting buddies were hand sewing up a storm with their thimbles, I wasn’t.  It was only when I discovered thimbles came in different sizes and it had to fit correctly that I found the perfect one for me. 

Thimbles work like rings  — a fact not a lot of beginner sewing enthusiasts realize.  Most of us think the generic one-size-fits-all silver thimble is the only one available.  A thimble should fit comfortably on your finger, be snug enough it doesn’t fall off, but not so tight if feels as if it’s cutting off the circulation.  You should be able to put your thimble on your middle finger, then hang your hand down by your side and it does not fall off.  So, let’s talk about how to determine what size thimble you need. 

If you’re purchasing a thimble made in the United States, all you need is the ring size for your middle finger.  American-made thimbles use ring sizes for their measurement.  This makes it pretty easy if you’re purchasing a custom-made thimble.  For instance, if your ring size is seven, then you order a size seven thimble.  Thimbles sold in fabric stores, on-line, or big box stores often are simply labeled small, medium, and large.  These are harder to determine, because like clothing, some brands run small and some run big.  Read the package to see if there is any information indicating what ring size falls into these categories.  If your purchasing a thimble from another country, quite often these establishments will convert your US ring size into millimeters.  You also may notice that you wear two different sizes of thimbles – if your hands tend to swell at certain times (such as in the hot summer months), you may need a larger one for a while and then when the swelling goes down (like in the winter), you need a smaller one.

If you still have a hard time finding a thimble that fits, there are a couple different thimble constructions to keep in mind.  First, there are leather thimbles which  fit over your middle finger. 

These work great, and I’ve used one in all but the hottest of weather, when it just gets too uncomfortable temperature-wise.  There are also adjustable thimbles:

You can push the bendable rings to form-fit your finger.

And there are also these:

Which are called Thimble-It or Thimble Pads.  These are small, plastic disks which have adhesive on one side, so you can press it onto the area of your middle finger which receives the most abuse from the eye-end of your needle.  I love these things, and they can be used several times before the adhesive loses all its stickiness. 

For those of us who have long fingernails, especially the kind you buy at a nail salon, it’s even more difficult to find a thimble we can use.  I finally discovered open-topped thimbles.  These are my two cherished, silver, open-topped thimbles custom made for my right hand:

My SNS nail can slide right through the opening.  Tailor’s thimbles are also an option:

There is no top on these, and they fit snuggly over your fingertip, down to the first knuckle.  Please note that a thimble which stops at the first knuckle is a long thimble.  Personally, I like the extra length.  If you decide to custom order a thimble, you can request it be made long enough to reach your first finger joint.  The biggest difference between in using a tailor’s thimble and a “regular” thimble is remembering to push the needle with the side of your finger and not the fingertip.

Once you find one which works for you and fits well, it’s important to know how to sew with it.  And if you’ve hand sewn for a while without a thimble, it’ll really feel like you’ve slowed down to a snail’s pace until you get used to the process.  But in the long run, you’ll catch your rhythm and actually sew faster with a thimble than without it.  Keep in mind the thimble is there to allow you to use more of your hand while sewing – instead of pinching the needle between your finger and thumb and then pushing the needle through the fabric, the thimble takes the brunt of the work and allows the hand to relax so you can actually sew longer with a thimble than without it. 

To begin, I want you think about two things – how you hold a pencil and relaxing your fingers.  First, you hold the sewing needle between your thumb and index finger and allow the eye of the needle to rest in one of the dimples of your thimble.  The position of your hand should be the same as it is when you’re holding a pencil.  It will be slightly different because you’re holding a needle between your index finger and thumb, but the position of the middle finger should be the same as it is when you’re holding a pen or pencil.

Another perhaps-new idea to consider at this point is how to hold your work. Hand sewing in general works better if you keep your project flat on a table.  Most of us (me included) tend to hand sew with our work in our laps.  If you can position it on a flat surface, not only does this make working with a thimble easier, it also makes the entire process so much faster and you don’t manhandle your work so much. 

The type of stitch you take is also important.  Newbies want to take what I call a “stab stitch”  — you poke the needle in from the top, pull it out through the bottom, then insert it from the wrong side of the work back to the top.  This will result in uneven, unstable stitches.  A fine, running stitch works wonderful for hand piecing – just don’t make your stitches too big.  Give yourself time to get used to the process, but once you find a thimble which fits, and you get comfortable using it, the thimble will become one of your most cherished sewing tools. 

Lastly, I promised some fun facts about thimbles.  Some of these made me giggle and others are just fascinating.

  1.  Nearly 30 lots of Meissen porcelain thimbles were purchased for $189,813 on May 14, 2014.  A single Meissen thimble dated circa 1730 with a landscape scene sold for $20,000.
  2. The precursor to the thimble dates back nearly 10,000 years.
  3. French and English thimbles have size markings on the band of a thimble.  German thimbles have markings on the second row of indentions (knurlings) on the side of the band.  American and Norwegian thimbles have their sizes on the side of the band and sometime the cap.  Thimbles made in England and America during the 19th century have a domed cap, and thimbles made in the 20th century have a flat cap.
  4. Thimbles have served as advertising vehicles for lots of businesses and presidential campaigns — up to and including Jimmy Carter’s Presidential run.  This custom began in the 1920’s. 
  5. There is a museum in Creglingen, Germany devoted entirely to thimbles.  The Fingerhut Thimble Museum opened in 1982 with 800 exhibits.  Today it has over 4,000 thimbles from all over the world.
  6. A hand-forged brass thimble said to have belonged to Abraham Lincoln’s mother sold for $3,500 in 2008.
  7. The official term for a thimble collector is digitabulist. 
  8. In the game Monopoly, first created in 1904, the thimble was one of the eight traditional metal game pieces.  However this piece was replaced with newer versions of the game beginning in 2017 (boo….hiss….).
  9. Thimbles are given as gifts in Peter Pan, who thinks thimbles are kisses.
  10. In the 1992 version of Batman, Michelle Pfeiffer (who played Catwoman) used thimbles to create the base of her claw.
  11. The popular TV show and comic strip Popeye was originally called Thimble Theatre Starring Popeye.
  12. The character Elizabeth in the video game BioShock Infinite uses a thimble to cover her severed little finger.
  13. Video montages and series of clips are often called “thimble collections.”
  14. In the 2000 movie Chicken Run, Nick and Fletcher attempted to sell a couple of thimbles to Ginger as a “quality, hand crafted tea set.”
  15. During the World War I, silver thimbles were collected from “those who had nothing to give” by the British government and melted down to buy hospital equipment. 
  16. An old superstition says that if you are given three thimbles, you will never be married.
  17. In the 18th and 19th centuries, leaving a sandalwood thimble in a fabric store was common practice for keeping moths away.
  18. Thimbles were used to measure alcohol and gunpower, which brought about the phrase “just a thimbleful.”
  19. Prostitutes used thimble-knocking as a means of attracting customers —  they would tap on a window to announce their presence.
  20. Thimble-knocking also refers to the practice of Victorian schoolmistresses tapping on the heads of unruly students with thimbles.
  21. One of the first collectible thimbles was manufactured to commemorate the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.

Okay, now armed with more than just a thimbleful of knowledge, go find yourself a thimble which works for you.  And hey, if you’d rather wear that thimble on your index finger instead of your middle finger, go right ahead.  For some hand sewers, this works best for them.  A thimble is a wonderful tool which not only protects your fingertip, but also speeds up your work and makes hand piecing so much easier and accurate.  Thimbles, as a whole, are not expensive.  Give yourself permission to try several before deciding which one works best for you.

Until Next Week, Level Up Your Quilting,

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


If You Need a New Sewing Machine….

About this time last year, I wrote a blog about quilting gadgets and notions you may want to either gift another quilter or buy for yourself.  Since 2020 has brought about unprecedented “stay-at-home-ness,” I realize two things:  Those of you who have picked at the fringes of quilting want to dive in, and those of you who have already taken the deep dive into the art may have worn your faithful sewing machine completely out.  If you fall in either group, a new machine may be on your Christmas list and this blog addresses what to look for in a machine.  I don’t recommend particular brands of machines, but want to highlight the features I feel are important.  As you’re shopping for machines, you’ll have to weigh your budget against the features which are absolutely necessary for you and those which would simply be nice to have.  I’ve listed the features in no particular order, but have ranked them in my opinion of importance.  Please note, this blog concerns the domestic, stationary sewing machine, not mid-arms or long-arms.  That’s another blog for another day.

The Harp

For those of you who don’t know what this is, here’s a picture:

It’s roughly the area between the needle and the right side of the machine.  If you plan on constructing bed-size quilts, you want the harp to at least be standard-sized – roughly 7- to 9- inches.  This area allows you to comfortably piece blocks, and then have plenty of room to join the blocks into rows and sew the rows together.  Anything smaller than the standard harp size may make things a bit too crowded.  For those of you who want to quilt your quilts on a domestic machine, a larger harp (those 11-inches and above) may be worth the investment, as the larger space allows for more bulk and makes it easier to turn the quilt.  The machines with larger harps not only have more room from left to right, but also in height, which is important if you’re quilting a queen-size or larger quilt.  In addition, the larger harp allows you to turn your machine sideways and use a portable quilt frame such as this one from John Flynn

As a sort of makeshift mid-arm.  This can also be done with machines which have standard harps, but the extra room sure makes it easier.  You will pay more for the extra harp space.

Rank:  If you only plan to piece tops, a standard harp will do great.  If quilting those large tops are in your future, it should have careful consideration.

Needle-Down Function

How this function works varies from machine to machine, but as a whole, it means when you stop sewing, the needle remains in the down position, holding your fabric in place.  This is important if you must raise your presser foot and pivot.  Without this feature, your material can shift, and throw your block unit or applique off – even with the judicious use of pins. 

Rank:  Must have.

LED Lighting

Believe it or not, not all sewing machines come with lights.  I know this from personal experience.  A few years ago, I purchased a sewing machine for my oldest grand darling (and yes, it was a “real” sewing machine, not a toy).  When I got it home, unpacked it, and plugged it in, I was astonished the machine had no light.  None.  Moral of this story: Buyer beware.  Read the outside of the box to see what comes with the machine.

Let me also add this is not normal.  Nearly all sewing machines have some kind of lighting.   Newer machines come with LED lighting.  Most of us are  familiar with this type of light.  It’s brighter and clearer than standard bulbs. And when you’re sewing late at night, the LED lights are extremely helpful – even more so as your eyes age.  However, if the machine you purchase doesn’t come with this feature, don’t despair.  There are other wonderful lighting options such as Ott lights or LED light strips which attach to the machine’s harp, etc. 

Rank:  This is a work-around.  If the machine you can afford doesn’t have LED lights, you can purchase an alternative LED light source that’s extremely affordable.  I do imagine in the future, LED lighting will become a machine standard.

Automatic Needle Threader – This is now pretty standard on nearly all machines except the very basic ones.  After you’ve worked your way through the threading process, during one of the last steps, you’re able to have the machine thread the sewing machine needle for you.  This takes the guess work and squinting out of pushing the thread through a tiny eye. 

Two of my machines have the automatic needle threader.  Three do not, and neither does my long arm.  I have found this feature is the one which gives me the most issues and the one that tends to breakdown first.  I also find myself avoiding this feature and threading all the machines manually. 

Rank:  For me, this isn’t a deal breaker, since I don’t typically use this feature.  However, if you have really bad eyesight, you may want this option.

Top-Loading Bobbin

I’ll admit, this one’s a deal breaker for me, and it’s probably due to traumatic experiences in high school home economics class.  When I was in middle school, this class was mandatory for eighth graders.  In high school, juniors and senior had to take it.  Typically, it consisted of one semester of cooking and one semester of sewing.  And I swear the school purchased the cheapest sewing machines they could find and they all had front-loading bobbins.  The bobbins and bobbin cases were constantly giving us problems.  In fact, it was so bad, once I was through with the classes, I pretty much had sworn off sewing.  Push the clock forward several years and I had a daughter and wanted to sew for her.  My husband decided to buy a machine for me, and my biggest caveat was it could not use a bobbin case.  With my limited history in all things textiles, those had been nothing but a HUGE pain. 

I will also admit that bobbins and bobbin cases have come a long way.  I use one with my long arm and it really gives me no issues at all.  But all my other machines?  Except for the Featherweight, they’re all top-loading.  To me this type of bobbin is easier to use, easier to trouble shoot, and easier to  load. 

Rank:  For me, this is a must have. In fact, it’s a deal breaker.  I avoid purchasing machines which use a bobbin case. However, this is entirely a personal preference. 

Open-Threading System

I feel I must explain this one.  This part of the machine:

Is called a take up lever.  Some of these have a slot which you thread, and others have a hole.  You really want a slot.  It speeds up the threading process.  I also like machines which allow you to access the inside next to the thread take up lever. My Janome swings open on the left side so I can access the bulb and the lever.  Why is this important?  If your machine is not working correctly, the first trouble shooting process you undertake is making sure the machine is threaded correctly.  Having the slotted take up lever and being able to look on the inside of the machine just makes your life easier.  You really don’t appreciate these features until one of two things happen: 

  1.  Your thread keeps breaking and you have to determine why, or
  2. You’re working with raw-edge applique and you have lots of thread changes (because most of the time your thread should match the fabric with this applique process). 

Rank:  This is a must have for me – an avid machine applique artist.

Easy Needle Access and the Ability to Move the Needle to the Right or Left

It’s an inevitable fact the machine needle will break – even if you change the needle religiously.  There are two factors which should be considered about the needle mount – ease of access and security. In other words, the machine should be structured so not only is it easy and quick to change the needle,  but when a new needle is inserted, the mount securely tightens around the needle so it doesn’t fall out.  Most machines have this feature, and when a new needle is inserted, the needle clamp screw is tightened with a screwdriver.  This is a pretty standard item, but when you purchase a machine, I would ask the dealer if changing the needle is an easy process.  If you purchase the machine in a shop (verses on-line), I would ask for a demonstration.

I also think it’s important the sewing machine has the ability to move the needle.  Remember the ¼-inch seam is not the Holy Grail of Quilting.  It’s more important the block come out the correct unfinished size.  Most often, the standard ¼-inch seam will take care of this.  However, there are times when you need to make your seam larger or smaller to achieve the right unfinished size.  The ability to move the needle makes this not only easier, but also keeps all the seams a consistent width.

Rank:  Must. Have.

Various Ways to Stop the Needle

My Janome 7700 (affectionately known as Big Red) has three different methods I can use to stop my needle.  There’s a stop-and-go button I press with my finger which is right above the needle, the standard pedal, and a knee-lift.  Most of the time, I use the button – because most of the time, I’m piecing.  However…if you are actually quilting the quilt, it’s important to have the ability to stop sewing on a dime, no matter whether you’re straight-line quilting with a walking foot or free-motion quilting.  When you use the button there is a second or two delay because you must remove your hand from the quilt and press the button.  A couple of seconds doesn’t sound like a great deal of time, but it can mean a half-an-inch or more of quilting you didn’t want.  In contrast, as soon as you stop pressing the petal or knee lift, the needle stops immediately (and hopefully with the needle down). 

Rank:  If you plan on quilting any quilts on your domestic machine, you at least want the machine to have either the knee-lift or pedal option.  If the machine will only be used for piecing, any or all of these ways to stop the needle will be fine —  I wouldn’t pay extra for another option.  One will be plenty. 


Sewing machines – even the most basic ones – now come with an array of stitches.  I purchased two basic sewing machines for the grand darlings this year and they came with 32 stitch options.  And the more bucks you invest in a sewing machine, the more stitches it has.  I brought Big Red home in 2008, and she has over 250 stitches, plus can perform monogramming in four fonts. 

Now ask me if I’ve used all those stitches…go ahead…ask.


I purchased her for her large harp – not the stitches.  Out of all those stitches, I probably use about 25 pretty regularly.  I’ve dabbled with about 100 of them.  I’ve never used the monogram function because I have an embroidery machine.

Truth be told, a quilter needs only one stitch if he or she is just piecing and quilting– a straight stitch.  If you plan on machine applique, you’ll need a zigzag stitch (for finished-edge applique) and a blanket stitch (for raw-edge applique).  Those three stitches are really all you need to get started. 

What should be taken into consideration is the machine’s ability to control stitch length/width and sewing speed.  No matter if you only see piecing in your quilting future, the ability to lengthen or shorten stitch length is important.  It’s a function quilters use regularly.  Likewise, the ability to control speed is equally important.  There will be instances where you will need to sew slowly – curves, tiny seams, complicated piecing – and if your machine has a speed control function this really aids in accuracy because the machine controls the speed, not you.  If you want to sew faster, you must manually change the stitch speed. 

Rank:  Minimally, the machine needs a straight stitch and a zigzag stitch. It must have speed control and the ability to change stitch width and length.


The more money you spend on a machine, the more feet comes with it.  The day I walked out of the quilt shop with Big Red, I had a total of 15 feet in the storage compartment, in addition to the zigzag foot which was already on her.   Some of these feet I have used so much I’ve had to replace them.  Others have never seen the light of day.  So, with all those feet, which ones do quilters really need?

  1. The Standard Foot — This is the foot which is typically used to sew a garment seam or a straight line of stitches.  Chances are this foot was on the machine when you purchased it.  I use this foot anytime my seam needs to be larger than ¼-inch – for instance on the rare occasion I make bags.
  2.  Quilter’s Foot – This is the ¼-inch foot.  Generally, it has a phalange on the right side to help you keep the edges of your block units lined up, so you sew a consistent ¼-inch seam.  Keep in mind this is a full ¼-inch.  If you’re purchasing a sewing machine which has been designed with quilters in mind, this foot usually comes with the machine.
  3. Zigzag Foot – With Big Red, the standard foot is also the zigzag foot.  But this may not be the case with yours.  If not, make sure it comes with a zigzag foot under the circumstances you need to finish seam edges or you decide you want to try finished edge applique.
  4. Open-toe Foot – This foot is used for the blanket stitch.  If you see raw-edge applique in your future, you will want this foot.  It’s also used with other decorative stitches.
  5. Walking Foot – You all know how much I love this foot.  I’ve written an entire blog on just this one foot (  If you want great straight-line quilting (without rulers), easy paper piecing, or the ability to sew on binding without a lot of hassle, you want this foot.   With some machines, it’s part of the purchase.  If you’re paying major bucks for a machine and a walking foot isn’t included, I would insist that the dealer throw it in for free – they’re not that expensive.  Otherwise, generic walking feet can be purchased from a machine dealer or on-line – you just have to know if your machine has a high shank or a low shank – which should be in your manual. 
  6. Darning Foot – This is typically used for mending clothing, but quilters know it’s also used for free-motion quilting.  Even if you can’t see yourself quilting your quilts right now, at least be sure a darning foot is available for your machine (if it doesn’t come with it).  You never know when you’ll catch a wild hair to drop those feed dogs and free motion quilt. 

Those are the six feet I would recommend for any quilter’s sewing machine.  There are some optional ones I would suggest. 

Scant ¼-inch Foot  — Like the Quilter’s Foot, this produces a quarter-inch seam, but a scant one.  Some quilt patterns call for a scant seam, which is a thread or two less than a full ¼-inch seam.  Also like a Quilter’s foot, the Scant Foot will keep your seams a consistent size. 

Ruler Foot  — This is a fairly new foot to the domestic machine arena.  Typically found on long arms and mid arms, these now have been designed for either high or low shank domestic machines.  Quilting with rulers and other acrylic templates once were the sole domain of long and mid arms.  With the ruler foot for the domestic sewing machine, all sorts of quilting possibilities have opened up.  This may not be the first additional foot purchase you make for your machine, but if the free-motion quilting bug bites you hard, this foot is worth the investment – which is way less than $100.

Zipper Foot – This foot may come standard with your machine.  If not, you may opt to add it to your wish list if making bags are in your plans.  It’s just too hard to sew in a zipper without a zipper foot. 

No matter what, make sure all the feet you bring home accommodates all the stitches on your machine.  If one of those stitches require a “special foot at an additional cost,” ask that it be thrown in as part of the purchase.  It’s not fair you have to pay extra in order to use one of the stitches on your newly purchased machine.

Rank:  Standard foot, quilter’s foot (1/4-inch foot), zigzag foot, and open-toe foot are the minimum number of feet you need.  I would push to have the walking foot and darning foot thrown into the purchase price.  The other feet are great to have, but can wait to be purchased at a later date.

Dual Feed

I touched on this feature in my blog about the walking foot.  Dual feed is the machine’s ability to feed the fabric through the top and bottom at the same time – both fabric layers are fed evenly over the feed dogs.  This keeps the top fabric from crumpling or shifting. We know it works in tandem with the walking foot, however, it also works independently of the foot.  This means more accuracy in piecing – the pieces of fabric will start and stop evenly – and it makes lining up the seams much easier.  Dual feed also is a great help when sewing on borders.  This feature doesn’t come with all machines and honestly, I can’t find a price variance that makes sense.  I’ll play on my home court with this one:  Janome.  Some of the less expensive Janome machines have it and some of the more expensive ones don’t. 

Rank:  Must have.  This is one feature I don’t think you’ll regret having. 

The Ability to Lower the Feed Dogs

All those quilters out there who are piecers and appliquers, and have no desire or simmering compulsion to quilt their own quilts on a domestic machine can breeze over this part.  But for those of you who think quilting is a certainty or even a probability, let’s talk feed dogs for a second. 

If you read my blog about cleaning your machine ( you know what feed dogs are.  They are the are metal teeth-like ridges which emerge from a hole in the throat plate of a sewing machine. Feed dogs move as you sew, gently gripping the bottom fabric to help it pass through the sewing machine and produce a high-quality stitch.  If you’re quilting with a walking foot, you leave the feed dogs up.  If you want to free motion quilt, then most of the time you’ll drop the feed dogs.  This means they stay  beneath the throat plate and don’t grip the fabric at all while your free motioning.

There are a couple of items you should consider if you think you’ll drop your feed dogs in the future.  The first is the machine’s ability to handle it.  Some of the machines produced with garment sewers in mind don’t handle dropping the feed dogs well.  Eventually it will throw the timing off if you’re dropping them a lot.  And by a lot, I mean your free motioning several large quilts a year.  Machines which are advertised as Quilters’ Machines (those made with quilters in mind – and everything quilters do to a machine), generally don’t even hiccup if you drop the feed dogs 365 days a year.  They’re built to withstand it. 

The second item to consider is the ease of dropping those feed dogs.  It should be a quick and easy process.  With Big Red, it’s a button on the side of the machine.  With my Juki 2010Q, the button is on the front.  My point is you shouldn’t have to dissemble anything to be able to drop the feed dogs.  It also shouldn’t be an additional up-charge.

Rank:  If quilting your own quilts on your domestic machine is a certainty, make sure it can handle dropping the feed dogs and make sure it’s an easy process.  With some of the more inexpensive machines, you want to make sure the machine actually will let you drop the feed dogs at all.  For me, this is a deal breaker.  My machine must let me drop those dogs.

Thread Cones and Thread Cutters

Quilters use thread – and lots of it.  Because of this, it’s usually more economical in the long run to buy it in bulk, and sometimes this means purchasing cones of thread instead of the standard spools.  So, it’s a great thing if your machine can handle cones of thread fed from a cone stand like this:

Most machines can, but it’s a good idea to check with the dealer to make sure.

Another wonderful feature on some machines is an automatic thread cutter.  I never had one until I bought my Janome 7700.  And I quickly became spoiled to it.  I find there’s always that moment of aggravation when I’m sewing on a machine which doesn’t have an auto cutter and I actually have to pick up my own scissors and cut my own thread. 

Rank:   Both are must-haves.  Once you use an auto cutter, you’ll never go back to not wanting one.

Free Arm Capabilities

This means the sewing machine can do this:

And while this feature is primarily for garment making (think sleeves, cuffs, and other small, tight clothing areas), the free arm comes in handy if you want to make bags (which a lot of quilters like to do) or if you find yourself sewing tiny seams.  I use this feature when I make miniature quilts. 

Most, but not all, machines come with this feature.

Rank:  Not absolutely necessary if all you can see yourself making is quilts.  However, if you think you may dabble in clothing construction at all, you probably will want a free arm.  And  FYI, all of my machines have free arms – even my Featherweight 222.  Yes, I use this feature that much.

Bobbin Alarm

If you sewed for any length of time, you’ve played Bobbin Chicken.  It goes a little like this:  You’re nearly through with a seam and the thread in your bobbin is running dangerously low.  You try to finish the seam before the bobbin completely empties out.  On a good day, you win big – even if there’s less than an inch of thread left on the bobbin.

On a bad day, you think you’ve got a 5-foot border sewed on only to find your bobbin thread ran out four inches after you started the seam.

This is why, sewers of all types of projects, a bobbin alarm is important.  It lets you know when your bobbin thread is running low.  Some machines come with them. Big Red does not have one.  My next machine will.

Rank:  Must. Have.  And it needs to sound like an airhorn.

Extension Table

This is literally a tabletop which attaches to your machine and expands your sewing area:

If you’re sewing a large quilt or something equally as bulky, an extension table helps steady that extra bulk.  Many of the newer machines come with these tables, especially those made with quilters in mind – the table supports the quilt as you join the rows together to make the top.  If you’re quilting your quilt on your domestic, the extension table is invaluable, as it holds the bulk of the quilt sandwich and supports it. 

Rank:  I feel it’s a must have.  If you think only small quilts are in your future, you can get by without one, but even with those, an extension table is a big help.  How firm am I in this belief?  Every one of my machines have an extension table – even if I had to pay extra to get it.  If your sewing machine brand doesn’t have an extension table, sometimes you can find a generic one that works or if there’s someone in your life who’s good with tools, one can be made to fit your machine.  Google “make your own sewing machine extension table” and lots of sites will pop up.

I know this is a long blog, but there’s one more item I want to discuss and that’s where should you buy your machine.  If at all possible, purchase your machine from a local dealer.   This idea has more to it than simply supporting your local quilt shop or machine dealer.  It has to do with support, service, and education.  When you buy local, there’s a better chance if you have a question about the machine, you can pick the phone, call the shop, and get an answer pretty quickly (or send them an email or text). The usual scenario when you go into a shop to purchase a machine, no matter how much or how little you’re spending, they’ll let you test drive that machine and compare it to others.  If you’re trading an old machine in, they generally will give you at least what the trade-in is selling for on Ebay.  If it’s a complicated machine, they’ll walk you through the basic steps of threading, changing the needle, and programming the stitches before you take the machine home.    When you need your machine cleaned or it has other problems, you return the machine to the shop because the shop will have a tech who can perform cleaning and repairs.  And many times, the shop will offer free classes with your machine so you can really learn how to use all its features.  This type of purchase is a win-win.  It’s good for you and the shop owner.

I am also realistic enough to know we’ve lost a lot of quilt and machine shops even before this pandemic hit.  I stopped counting the ones which have closed for good because of COVID.  Buying a machine from a local store may not even be an option for you.  So let me offer this advice – no matter if you had to drive miles to purchase your machine, or you bought it on-line or from a big box store — find a good sewing machine technician in your area.  Ask local guilds or other quilting groups for recommendations. If the same name keeps popping up again and again with great reviews, add that person’s name to the contact list in your cell phone. 

Another option facing the sewing machine consumer is dual machines – machines which can sew and embroider.  Most of these machines are stellar – they do both equally well.  What has to be considered is the machine can’t do both at the same time.  An embroidery machine with a single needle can take quite a while to stitch out a pattern (I did a llama for my daughter that took five hours and 30 thread changes).  Time-wise, if you can make it work for you not to have access to the regular part of the sewing machine, and you have the budget for a dual machine, you may want to invest in one.  If you don’t want to tie up your primary sewing machine for a long time with an embroidery project, you may eventually want to invest in a separate machine which only embroiders – which is what I did. 

Hopefully, all of this information isn’t too overwhelming.  Everyone purchasing a sewing machine must weigh their budget against what features they absolutely must have and those they simply want.  Don’t buy the first machine that crosses your path.  Do some research.  Read some reviews.  Talk to some other quilters (in person or online).  Find the one which is the best fit for you.

Now for a little administrative change. As a blogger, I’m constantly looking for platforms to increase my readership. My blog is announced on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at this time. And many of you are my beloved friends on Facebook. However, in the past several months leading up to and through the political upheaval in the United States, Facebook has become a very unhappy, ugly place.

This makes me very sad, because Facebook is one way I keep up with my friends from all over the world and stay connected to relatives who live far away. However, for my own mental well-being, I have decided to limit my Facebook activity on my page to this blog only. Sherriquiltsalot will continue to be linked to my Facebook page, but for at least the immediate future, that will be the ONLY item showing up on my page. If you want to continue to see pictures of my quilts, please follow me on Instagram @sherrifields61. Yes, I know Instagram is owned by Facebook, but at least it’s a happier, more politically neutral space.

I’m also on MeWe as Sherri Fields. And as always, you can leave comments on my blog and I do respond.

Until next week, Level Up That Quilting,

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


What Kind of Quilter Are You?

We’ve dealt a lot with piecing and quilting techniques this year.  And in these blogs, I frequently mention quilt patterns and how you can change them up to suit your favorite quilting methods and sizes.  However, there is one factor I haven’t written about which needs to be taken into consideration when choosing a pattern:  your quilting skill level.

On the face of it, your quilting skill level seems kind of cut and dried.  If you just started quilting, then you’re a beginner.  If you’ve quilted for a few years, then you’re an intermediate.  And if you got lots of years under your belt, then you’re advanced, right?  Not exactly.  I sewed garments for years before I started quilting.  I had at least five solid years of sewing history and yet, I started my quilting career on the beginner’s level.  Why?  Well, piecing is different than garment sewing – the seam width is smaller, there rarely was pattern templates to use, rotary cutters and mats were employed instead of scissors – the list went on and on.  While I was more than comfortable using my sewing machine, I wasn’t as much at ease with quilting techniques. 

And also, to be truthful, there are some shades of gray between the different skill levels.  For instance, applique is usually considered to be an advanced technique, yet my first quilting instructor taught her beginners quilt class this skill in our first sampler quilt.  It was a simple applique design, but the concept was introduced.  What I’ve listed below are general quilt skill levels and what they entail.  If you’re a beginner quilter, but you’re pretty proficient with your sewing skills and pattern reading, then you’ll be able to advance much faster than someone who is new to both sewing and quilting.  However, l also want to add this – if you desire to learn and find out in the process you love quilting, you’ll also advance pretty quickly.  When someone is eager to learn and has passion for a particular field of study, concepts are grasped pretty quickly.  Conversely, if you took a beginner’s quilt class a hundred years ago and have only sporadically used the skill, I would still consider you a beginner.  This is due to the fact you haven’t consistently pushed your skill set to the next level. 

This kind of information is important to know when browsing through patterns and quilt magazines.  Most of the patterns indicate somewhere what skill level is involved.  Trying out an advanced pattern when you’re still hovering between the beginner and intermediate levels can suck the joy out of the process because it may be too hard.  And staying in the beginner’s territory when an intermediate quilt would be a fun challenge is just … well … boring.  So, let’s define the levels. 

Beginner Quilters – A beginner quilter has basic sewing skills and can sew together two pieces of fabric.  They can:

  1.  Sew two pieces of fabric together in a straight line (more or less…there are days when I can’t sew a straight line).
  2. Can follow a basic pattern and know what basic quilting terms are, such binding, blocks, borders, backing, wrong side of fabric, right side of fabric, wrong sides together, right sides together, pressing, and rotary cutter.
  3. Should be familiar with some of the quilting jargon, such as:  squaring up a block, bias, fat quarter, fabric grain, and raw edge.
  4. Can measure and cut fabric in straight lines with a mat, ruler, and rotary cutter.
  5. Not only knows how to use an iron, but also knows the difference between pressing and ironing.
  6. Is familiar with all the basic functions of his or her sewing machine:  how to thread it, how to wind a bobbin, vary stitch length and width, move the needle, sew both a straight stitch and a zig-zag stitch, and how to clean and oil the machine.

Intermediate Quilters – An intermediate quilter has completed some projects and is proficient in multiple quilting techniques, has taken classes (in person or on-line), and has been quilting for a few years.  These quilters have put in some serious time behind their machine and can move their skill level up quickly.  They can:

  1.  Sew amazingly straight lines.
  2. They either want to learn or already know how to sew other techniques such as curves, paper piecing, and applique.
  3. Are very familiar with quilting terms and jargon. 
  4. Have learned industry tips on how to measure and cut in the most efficient way, such as correctly cutting multiple layers of fabric at a time (for me the jury is still out on this one – I think cutting no more than two layers at a time yields much more accurate cutting).
  5. Have a repertoire of tips and tricks on such topics as how to sew straighter lines, press complicated seams, and how to efficiently piece their quilts so all the seams nest and line up.
  6. Have taken classes at their LQS, on-line, or at quilt shows to improve their skill set.
  7. Are becoming more comfortable combining color palettes and prints for their quilt and have ceased relying solely on kits or having someone else chose their fabrics.
  8. Are skillful at balancing different print scales within a quilt design.
  9. Knows a great deal about threads and needles.
  10. Have sewn different types of fabric – such as cotton, minky, denim, and corduroy.

Advanced Quilters – These folks have many years of sewing experience, have mastered many quilting techniques, may be designing their own patterns, and have taken classes from expert level instructors.  They can handle just about every quilt design thrown at them.  Advanced quilters:

  1.  Have sewn many, many years (probably more than they’ll admit to – or can remember!) and have tried every type of quilt block out there.
  2. Can now sew just about any quilting technique with precision, expertise, and near-perfection.
  3. Knows all the quilting jargon and terms.
  4. Discovers new tips and tricks and then shares them with the rest of their quilting community.
  5. Now takes only advanced classes with expert teachers (sometimes…sometimes I just take a class to be with other quilters or I really like the teacher).
  6. Has had years of experience combining color palettes and print scales.
  7. Knows how to work with all types of fabric.  Some even design patterns and quilt fabric for the industry.
  8. Completes at least some of his or her tops from start to finish – including the quilting.
  9. Is fluent in all characteristics of needles and threads. 

Now that we’ve defined the levels of quilters, how does this feed into choosing the correct pattern for your skill set?  Do the categories of patterns coincide with the categories of quilters?  The answer, for the most part, is yes.

Beginner patterns usually have very detailed, step-by-step instructions.  If the pattern is labeled “Beginner,” you can expect lots of pictures, graphics, and illustrations, too.  Most of the designs are very basic – uncomplicated blocks or strips.  They’re pretty much straight-line sewing, so you’re not going to find curves or other fancy techniques.  These patterns can vary on a theme, such as square-in-a-square, triangles, hexagons, chevrons, x’s, pinwheels, and basic log cabin blocks.  Even rag quilts, hearts, and spools are in this category. 

Intermediate patterns are written with the assumption the quilter has general quilting skills and has all the basics down pat.  So, intermediate patterns may not have lots of illustrations or detailed descriptions.  For instance, an intermediate pattern that requires you to make several sets of four-patches, may simply state “Make 48 four-patches from Color A and Color B.”  It won’t tell you how to make the four-patches, but assumes you know the best technique for you.  The designs get more complex and usually include smaller pieces, curves, and paper or foundation piecing for more complex shapes.  Many quilts will incorporate multiple techniques (such as piecing and applique). 

Many intermediate patterns require a more complex color palette.  Typically, they include designs like basket blocks, flying geese, Celtic squares or crosses, drunkard’s path, hundreds of star blocks, circles, more intricate paper piecing, English paper piecing, and applique.  Often, they will take a beginner’s quilt block and twist it to make it more complex and detailed.

The advanced patterns skip all the basics and jump right into the super-complex skill sets.  They may incorporate skills like applique to create a landscape, farm, or Santa’s sleigh.  The paper piecing in this level becomes really intricate and realistic.  Miniature quilts also fall into the advanced category – the scaled-down version of intermediate or beginning quilt techniques or any combination of them.  These patterns will also take basic units and break those down into intricate blocks within themselves.  For instance, you may be asked to make 24 large triangles for a quilt, and each triangle be comprised of 24 small triangles.  These quilts may include those with optical illusions, layered applique, collages, and mitered sashing or borders.  Advanced patterns are extremely detailed and time-consuming, but oh-so rewarding.  And beautiful.  The sky is the limit and it’s creativity at its best.

There are also patterns marked with the phrase “For All Skill Levels.”  These patterns are very similar to beginner quilt patterns – they’re the most basic quilt top to sew.  It assumes someone who has never quilted before can follow the pattern.  All Skill Level patterns usually use precut collections such as jelly rolls or charm packs.  Sometimes they’re as simple as putting two of these fabric pieces wrong sides together and sewing down one side.  I have mixed emotions about precut/preassembled fabric selections and will discuss them in an upcoming blog.  On one hand they’re great for beginners because all the fabric choices are made for you and they all harmonize.  Fabric manufacturers have usually gone to great lengths to make sure there are darks, lights, mediums, and a variety of print scales in the bundles.  A quilter can simply pick a preassembled pack which appeals to them and get busy – no fuss, no cutting, no hassle.  These quilts can be assembled in a few hours and for the beginning beginner, this is a good place to start. 


The longer you quilt, the more comfortable you need to become choosing your own fabrics.  This takes time and practice (and some miserable failures), but it truly widens your quilting world and allows you to cultivate a stash which works for you.  Do I use precuts?  Yes.  All the time? No. But when I need a quick quilt, this is one place I start. 

Now let’s talk about prices.  From past blogs, my readers know I’m anti-copy-the-pattern-and-share-it.  When you do that, you’re literally stealing money from pattern designers.  Quilt patterns – good quilt patterns – aren’t extremely expensive, with the caveat to paper piecing patterns that include everything printed out for you in the quantities needed (such as Judy Niemeyer’s).  Many of the precut bundles include a variety of free quilt patterns.  Most fabric manufacturers have free patterns on their website.  It only costs your time to browse and find one you like.  E-patterns, as a whole, are less expensive than printed one.  These require you to download the pattern and print it out using your own ink and paper.  It’s instant quilt pattern gratification – no waiting on snail-mail, as they’re usually available for immediate download.  Printed quilt patterns can vary from $5 to over $100, depending on the type of pattern and the designer.  Most printed quilt patterns fall within the $5-$25 range. 

As I’m finding my way to the end of this blog, there’s some miscellaneous pattern information I want to leave with you.  First of all, let’s address those patterns which are out of print.  I am definitely one of the quilters who believe if the pattern is available for purchase, you should do so in order to support the designer.  And from their website, if they have one.  Purchasing from third-party dealers (such as Amazon), cuts into their profit.  If we don’t support our designers, they may disappear, and I don’t want that to happen.  But…if you’ve searched and the pattern is out of print, not available directly from the designer, or the designer is deceased, I have no problem in asking a friend for a copy of the pattern.  However, exhaust all avenues before you get copier-happy.  I also have no qualms about borrowing the book or pattern from a friend (no copying involved – actually borrow the physical pattern).

Second, if you don’t take away anything else from this blog, take this:  Google the pattern before purchase.  Let me explain this one.  There are certain pattern designers I really, truly love.  I’ve used their patterns repeatedly and have been more than happy with the process.  My favorite designers are those who give you the unfinished size of each block unit as it’s made. This means that you’re able to check each unit to make sure its measurement is correct before you begin sewing the block together.  If the units’ sizes are correct, then the block should come out not only the correct size, but also square.  There are some pattern designers that consistently update the patterns on their website to alert you if a mistake has been made in the directions, or they’ve discovered an alternate way of constructing the quilt.  And if you take the time to Google the pattern and the designer, this information will appear, along with perhaps images of quilts which have been made by the pattern, and maybe even blogs like this one where quilters are recording tips and tricks as they make the quilt. 

However, if you Google the pattern and nothing comes up but pictures of the quilt made by the designer and the designer’s website or Facebook page, take a deep breath and allow yourself to have second thoughts about making that quilt.  This comes from a place of personal experience.  If you take the time the Google the quilt pattern, and nothing comes up but information from the designer, there’s probably a good reason for this – either the directions are poorly written, or the quilt is exceedingly complicated.  Or both. And as a result, few to no quilters have made this quilt other than the designer.

Last, no matter what stage quilter you are – beginner, intermediate, or advanced – it’s always good to have a few easy patterns tucked back somewhere you want to make.  You never know when you’re going to need a quick quilt for a baby shower, birthday, or holiday.  A sudden need for charity quilts may come up.  And personally, while making a complicated quilt, I need a “palate cleanser” – something I can work on which requires little to no thought.  It just allows me to have a mental break for a while before returning to that hand applique block with 3,000 tiny pieces….

Use this blog to take a good look at your skills and decide what kind of quilter you are.  If you’re halfway serious about your quilting, look for opportunities to keep growing until you reach the next level.  If you’re a beginning quilter, but you’ve been quilting for a year or so, try an intermediate pattern.  If it’s too hard, you can tuck it away for a few months until you’re ready for it.  If you’re an intermediate, try an advanced pattern. 


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam