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. 

However…

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. 

And above all…GOOGLE THE PATTERN BEFORE YOU BUY IT!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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