Your browser is outdated. Upgrade to a modern browser to better experience this site.

Quilting Basics

No matter what kind of quilts you choose to make, there are some basics you will need to know before you begin. You will need to have some basic tools, a few skills and the time and inclination to carry your quilt to completion. Using the methods and hints given in this section, you will be well on your way to making a quilt that will make your family proud.

Whether you are a real beginner (never sewn before) or a seasoned quilter (made 20 quilts already), a quilt from this series will call out for you to pick up your fabric and shears and get busy. It won't matter if you create every project by hand or if your sewing machine is your best friend; most quilt patterns can be adapted to either method. Have fun being creative as you begin quiltmaking.

  • Before purchasing tools or fabrics, take an inventory of what you have on hand.
  • Find a portable storage container for necessary items. Ideas include plastic storage containers, zippered bank bags, jewelry bags and more.
  • Survey friends and fellow quilters for recommendations. Try out their tools first.


One hundred percent cotton fabrics are recommended for most quilts. They are durable, crease easily, absorb moisture and generally wear well. Blends are not easily pressed; they do not fade as easily as cotton, but are harder to use in patchwork and are especially difficult in appliqué.

Scrap quilts combine fabrics of many types, depending on the quilt. Antique crazy quilts combined silk, wool and cotton. This combination requires special care and use because some fabrics are more fragile than others. It is best to combine same-fiber-content fabrics when making scrap quilts.

Select good-quality fabrics as they tend to be colorfast and are treated to help resist wrinkling and to resist soil.

Buying Fabrics

Some fabrics have a directional print. Using such fabrics in quilts sometimes requires the purchase of more fabric than recommended because special cutting is necessary.

The scale of a print fabric is important. If a print is too large and it has to be cut into very tiny pieces, the design will be lost. When purchasing fabrics, examine the print and consider how it will look when cut into small patches. Will the color be lost? Will the motifs disappear when cut?

Although each pattern has a list of materials needed to construct the quilt as shown, you may already have a stash of purchased fabric on hand. If you have been quilting for some time, you probably already purchase fabrics in favored amounts - 1/4 yard just to add it to your collection; 1 yard if you really want it, but don't have any idea what you will do with it; 3 yards if you know you will use it in a quilt; and 5 or 6 yards for use as a backing.

If you prefer to make scrap quilts, most shops sell quarter-yard pieces, fat quarters (18" x 22") or even fat eighths (9" x 18"). Some shops bundle selected fabrics in coordinated sets that work well together. These bundles can be used to make some very interesting quilts, but the fabrics included are usually in small pieces.


Although quilts in this series are photographed in certain colors and fabric quantities are based on these combinations, that doesn't mean you have to re-create them in the same way. Choose colors for your quilt using your own color preferences. Most scrap quilt designs depend more on contrast of values than carefully preplanned and coordinated colors to create the design.

If you are a beginner, look at photos of completed quilts. Your reaction to them will guide you in your color choices, using your favorites as guides.

Preparing the Fabric for Use

There are varied opinions among experienced quiltmakers about whether all fabrics should be washed before using. Some quilters wash, dry and iron fabrics as soon as they get them home. Others choose not to wash the fabrics at all. Which way is best?

There are two reasons to wash the fabric before using. The first is that it might shrink. Good-quality fabrics are preshrunk and don't shrink much when washed.

The second reason is to determine if the fabric is colorfast. Remember: Prewashing fabric will not guarantee that the dye in the fabric will not run the next time it is washed. Using the home remedy of vinegar or salt-water rinses will only prevent the fabric from running in that wash, not subsequent washes.

Rinsing fabric until the water runs clear only continues to pull dye from the fabric, dulling it. It does not guarantee that the fabric will not run again in the future.

Harsh detergents will draw more dye so try to use a mild soap made especially for quilts and old fabrics. Ask about these products at your local quilt shop.

Quilters who piece by machine don't like to prewash their fabrics. The stiffness in the fabric is considered a plus for machine piecing, and the little bit of shrinkage that occurs after the finished quilt is washed helps to hide the actual machine-quilting stitches.

If you decide not to prewash your fabric, test the colorfastness of the darkest fabric in your quilt against the lightest fabric in your quilt. Wash a small piece of both fabrics using the soap with which you intend to launder the quilt. Let one fabric piece dry on top of the other. If the darkest fabric doesn't run onto the lightest fabric, you can be confident about using them without prewashing. If it does run, you may want to reconsider use of the fabric.

Fabric Grain

Fabrics are woven with threads going in a crosswise and lengthwise direction. The threads cross at right angles - the more threads per inch, the stronger the fabric.

The crosswise threads, or grain, have a small amount of give to them; they will stretch a little. The lengthwise threads will not stretch at all. Cutting the fabric at a 45-degree angle to the crosswise and lengthwise threads produces a bias edge, which stretches a great deal when pulled (Figure 1).

Pay careful attention to the grain lines marked with arrows on the templates given with patterns, when marked. These arrows indicate that the piece should be placed on the lengthwise grain with the arrow running on one thread. Although it is not necessary to examine the fabric and find an exact thread to match, it is important to try to place the arrow with the lengthwise grain of the fabric (Figure 2).

Bias strips are used if stretch is needed, such as for binding curved edges, stems for flowers or some appliqué shapes.


For most piecing, good-quality cotton or cotton-covered polyester is the thread of choice. Inexpensive polyester threads are not recommended because they can actually cut the fibers of cotton fabrics.

Use the best quality thread you can find. Inferior cotton threads create a lot of lint, especially when machine-sewing. This lint gathers in the sewing machine's moving parts and creates problems. Avoid bargain threads. They are not usually durable in the finished product.

Choose thread colors that will match or blend with fabrics in your quilt. If using dark fabrics, a dark gray would be a good choice. If using light fabrics, off-white blends well. When making scrap quilts of many colored fabrics, choose a neutral thread, such as medium gray.

The threads should not be seen when pulling at seams. If using a light thread when sewing dark fabric patches, the thread will probably show when the seam is pulled. Test a sample seam to prevent this problem.

The same threads used for piecing can be used for quilting, but they need to be waxed to keep them from tangling when quilting. Quilting threads, made specifically for quilting, may be purchased in a variety of colors. Quilting thread reduces tangling and adds strength to quilting stitches.

For machine appliqué, rayon threads add luster to the stitches. For hand appliqué, use colors that match or blend with each piece to be appliquéd. This may mean changing threads often.

Do not use quilting thread for machine quilting unless the thread is labeled as machine-quilting thread.

Nylon monofilament thread is available in clear for light backgrounds and smoke for darker backgrounds. It is recommended by some for machine quilting.

Specialty threads such as metallics are sometimes used for quilting. Improvements have been made in these threads in recent years to prevent breakage when stitching. These threads work well for machine quilting and add luster to your finished project.


Batting is the material used to give a quilt loft or thickness and warmth. Warmth is determined by fiber thickness and type. For example, down feathers hold more air longer and are excellent insulators. Wool, silk and cotton are other good insulators. Our grandmothers used blankets, flannel or a purchased cotton or wool batting for their quilts. Polyester was not yet available. Today, quiltmakers are fortunate to have more choices.

Cotton battings are drapeable and fairly easy to quilt; they are also warm. Bearding, the migration of batt fibers to the outside layers of fabric, is not a problem. Cotton batting requires closer quilting lines (1/2" apart or closer) to prevent bunching and lumping, especially after laundering.

Cotton-blended batting combines the good qualities of cotton with the easy-care qualities of polyester. It is easy to work with and produces a thin-layered, warm quilt.

If you like to work with natural fibers, you may want to select wool or silk batting. However, both are much more expensive than cotton or polyester batting, and silk is not widely available. Wool is a joy to work with, soft and easy to handle. Silk batting requires special techniques, so be sure to learn about it before you decide to work with it.

Polyester batting is inexpensive, easy to quilt and care for and is non-allergenic. Because of the bonding and glazing process, quilting lines can be farther apart. Polyester does have a tendency to beard.

To choose the right batting, determine how you plan to use the quilt and your method of quilting. If a quilt will receive frequent use, such as a child's quilt, the batting should be sturdy and washable. Consider a different batting if you are making a wall hanging, which will probably never be laundered. Thinner batts are easier to quilt by hand. In machine quilting a thick batt is not a problem.

Batting can be purchased by the yard in different widths or by the package ranging in size from craft size (36" x 45") to king size (120" x 120"). The patterns in this series give the size of the finished quilt; purchase a batting size that can be cut a little larger than these measurements. The excess will be trimmed away prior to binding the quilt.

Return to the Table of Contents

Tools & Equipment

The required tools and equipment for quilting are few, but there are non-essentials that make work easier. The plethora of tools available can be confusing to the beginner. Owning all of them is not necessary. You will quickly discover the tools you can't live without.

Use your own best judgment and choose your equipment, tools and supplies wisely. Comfort, convenience and budget should determine your choices. Choose the best you can afford to allow you to work at your best. Absolute necessities include something with which to cut and something to sew your fabric pieces together. For handwork, a needle, some pins, thread and a pair of scissors are enough to get started. For machine-sewing, add a sewing machine to the list. Let's take a closer look at the basics and the extras that might make things easier for you.


Hand-sewing needles can be purchased in packages with all one size or in a variety of sizes. Needles are numbered 1 through 12 and categorized as sharps or betweens. Sharps are all-purpose needles used for appliqué and piecing. Betweens are used for quilting. The higher the number, the finer and shorter the needle. The recommended size range for quiltmaking is 7-12.

Many types of sewing-machine needles are available today. The size of the needle used is determined by the fabrics, threads and type of stitch being used. Your sewing machine manual will offer suggestions.

Generally, a size #80/12 needle is used for everyday sewing. A #90/14 is used for heavier fabrics and threads. Remember, when you are machine-quilting layers a larger needle (at least #90/14) will be required. Special machine-quilting needles may be purchased as well.

Shears or Scissors

Good, sharp scissors and shears are mandatory. Scissors handles are not bent and have two handle holes that are the same size. Shears have a smaller hole for thumb placement, a large hole for several fingers, and bent handles to allow them to slide easily while cutting along a flat surface. Generally, scissors are used for trimming small areas and cutting threads, while shears are used for large cutting jobs such as cutting patchwork pieces.

A good pair of paper-cutting scissors is a must for cutting templates out of cardboard and plastic. They, too, must be sharp and sturdy.


Pins are used to hold fabric layers together before sewing. There are several types available, but for quilting, long, thin straight pins are best. They don't leave a large hole and are easier to put in and out of fabric.

Safety Pins

No. 1 or 1" non-corrosive safety pins are used to hold fabric layers together for machine quilting or when pinning many appliqué motifs on a project.

All pins should be non-corrosive and thin enough for use on appropriate fabrics. If your pins are not rustproof, they may leave stains on your projects if left pinned for long periods of time, especially during humid times of the year.


Thimbles are useful for hand-sewing. New versions are available that will fit any finger on your hand. Thimbles save wear and tear on fingers and help to make quilting stitches go through all layers of fabric and batting.

Thimbles are available in gold, silver, metal, plastic, leather, glass and wood. Getting accustomed to using a thimble may seem difficult at first; persevere and you will find you won't be able to sew without one.

Bias Bars

Making narrow bias fabric strips can be tricky. Bias bars, also called Celtic bars, may be used to help make narrow bias strips for stems and other areas of appliqué work. These metal bars come in several widths.

Tools are also available for making bias binding strips. These tools allow precut fabric to pass through them and be pressed to size as it comes out.

Rotary-Cutting Supplies

A rotary cutter is a wonderful tool to use for cutting fabric strips. It may be used for cutting other shapes and patterns as well. Rotary cutters save cutting time and are easier on the person cutting. If cutting with shears hurts your hands, a rotary cutter can help. Some cutters have curved handles to make the cutting process less stressful on the hand and wrist.

Rotary cutters must be used on a specially designed cutting mat with a self-healing surface. This special surface allows the cutter to cut on it without leaving ridges that will interfere when the next cutting is done. Cutting on other surfaces will damage the cutter and the surface.

Cutting mats can be as small as 6" square or as large as a whole table. Small mats are perfect for use when attending a class where a cutting mat is necessary. Larger mats are best stored on a flat surface to prevent warping. Some of the very large mats are made to roll and will lie flat even after being rolled up for long periods of time. Never iron on your cutting mat; heat will warp it.

Some mats have printed horizontal and vertical measuring lines to help make quick measuring decisions. These grid lines also help align fabric perpendicular to the cutting tool.

Be very careful when using a rotary cutter so you don't cut your fingers. This type of cut can be very serious as the blade on the cutter is as sharp as a razor blade. Always cut away from your body and keep the holding hand firmly on the cutting guide, but away from the blade. Close the blade when finished with the cutter, even if only for a few minutes. Rotary cutters are dangerous when not used correctly or when placed in the wrong hands. Store your cutter where small children cannot reach it.


A wide assortment of plastic see-through rulers is available to quilters. These rulers are used most often with a rotary cutter and mat. Choosing the most useful ruler can be confusing. Ask advice from other quilters and your local shop.

If you constantly cut strips of the same width, consider buying metal strips cut to the width of the most common sizes you need. For example, if you like to make Log Cabin quilts using 1 1/2" strips, purchase a metal template in that size. When using this type of strip you eliminate the need to watch measurement lines on a see-through ruler, assuring accuracy when cutting.

When using a wide see-through ruler, it is easy to use the wrong guideline. If you are cutting many strips the same width, place a piece of masking tape on the ruler along the designated line as a guide.

Small stick-on pieces of sandpaper are available to place on the backs of see-through rulers to keep them from slipping off fabric when cutting. Metal strips with sandpaper backs are also available. Avoid using such strips on delicate fabric, however.


Our grandmothers used whatever they could find to make templates. Lightweight cardboard was the most commonly used material. Quilters today still use cardboard from many sources including cereal boxes, pieces found in new shirts, empty tissue boxes, etc.

Cardboard templates work well for a short time, but after use the edges wear and distort, making accuracy impossible. Plastic templates solve the distortion problem. Many varieties of plastic template material may be purchased - with or without graphed lines; rough on one side, smooth on the other; clear or opaque; non-melting for pressing appliqué shapes; large sheets and small page-size pieces.

Some quilters recycle plastic milk cartons, old X-ray film and other plastic items.

Precut plastic see-through templates are available for many popular patterns. They are extremely accurate and will never wear out, but unless you like a particular pattern and want to duplicate it many times, you may not want to invest in such a template set.

Whether you make homemade templates from recycled plastic or cardboard, or purchase pre-made sets, each template should be accurate and marked with the pattern name and piece number or letter to identify it.

Marking Tools

Marking tools are required for several different quiltmaking tasks. Marking around templates for cutting requires a sharp, very fine-point pencil. Either a constantly sharpened No. 2 lead pencil or a .5mm mechanical pencil is recommended for this job.

Some quilters don't care what they use to mark around their templates, especially if they are marking on the wrong side of the fabric. If pens are used, be careful when sewing with light-colored thread as the thread may pick up color from the ink during sewing.

When marking on the right side of the fabric, as for some appliqué techniques, use a pencil or marker that won't show when sewing is finished. Quilting designs are also marked on the finished top and should not be seen when the quilting is complete.

Early quilters used a pencil or the tip of a needle to mark designs on the quilt top, but today there are many available products. Popular marking choices include a silver drawing pencil or a white chalk pencil.

Wash-out markers are popular with some quilters, while others do not recommend them. The advantage to their use is that the color washes out when the quilting is complete. The disadvantage is that the chemicals may remain in the fabric after washing. This could cause damage to the fabric and/or discoloration at a later date.

Whatever method you choose for marking fabric for cutting and the quilt top for quilting, be sure your finished quilt shows no evidence of these marks.

Return to the Table of Contents

Quilting Extras

Basic sewing supplies such as a measuring tape, seam ripper, pincushion, colored pencils, markers, graph paper, eraser, tracing paper, light box and more are all tools used by quiltmakers. As you become more involved with quiltmaking, your collection of tools will grow and you will have favorites.

Frames & Hoops

Today, most hand quilters prefer the use of hoops to the confinement of large floor frames. Frames require a great deal of space, and in some households there just isn't room for them.

Plastic frames, wooden hoops in all shapes and sizes and full-size floor frames are available. The cost can be as little as $10 or as high as $500 or more for a fancy frame.

To find the best choice for you, ask others their preference. Try to borrow and use several types of hoops and frames before you make a purchase. Every quilter has a favorite way of doing things, and what works for one won't always work for another. Don't spend a lot of money for something you may never use. Experiment and make your purchase when you know what works best for you.

Sewing Machines

For machine-piecing, a sewing machine is only required to sew a forward straight stitch. A reverse stitch can be used, but is not necessary.

If you like machine appliqué, you will need a machine that can stitch a neat zigzag or satin stitch.

For machine-quilting, a straight-stitch machine will do the job, but some machines don't work as well as others for this task. An even-feed or walking foot will help keep layers together when stitching. An open darning foot may be used to do freehand quilting designs.

Whether you own the most up-to-date computerized machine or still use a treadle, it is most important to keep your machine in the best working order.

Discard and replace sewing-machine needles after about eight hours of cumulative sewing. At the same time, remove the bobbin and bobbin case (if applicable). Clean the lint from the tension mechanism, from the needle shaft above the removed needle, off the surface of the feed dogs, and around the removed bobbin case. Use the soft brush in your machine's attachment set to brush lint off the top of the feed dogs and the underside of the needle plate. Replace the bobbin case and the bobbin, and insert a new sewing-machine needle.

Some new machines are permanently lubricated and do not require oiling, but if you need to oil a machine, use only the sewing-machine oil recommended by your dealer for your machine. Do not substitute another lubricant. After oiling, wipe off all excess oil and sew on scraps to remove any excess oil before resuming sewing projects.

Get to know your sewing machine by reading its manual from beginning to end. Write notes in the margins of the manual for future reference.

Pressing Equipment

A good household iron is adequate for quiltmaking. There are many brands available with a wide range of prices. Some quiltmakers do not recommend steam pressing because it can stretch pieces out of shape.

If you have a sewing room and can leave your iron set up all the time, unplug it when not in use. Set it back and away from the edge of the ironing surface so it won't get knocked over by accident.

Take good care of your iron. Clean it often as residue may build up on the ironing surface, making it difficult to glide across fabrics smoothly.

If your iron has a Teflon surface it is easier to keep clean. Common sticking problems involve buildup from iron-on interfacings, fusibles and other meltable materials. Commercial solutions are available for cleaning irons. Abrasive cleaners will scratch its surface and fill the steam holes with debris. Read the instructions that come with your iron for recommended methods and cleaning products.

Water from your tap (whether it be from a well or from a city supply) contains chemicals and minerals that will build up inside and outside the holes on the surface of your iron. Use distilled or rain water. Most manufacturers do not recommend leaving water in irons for long periods of time as it may cause rusting. Rust could stain your projects and clothing when you iron.

Your Work Space

No matter where you work, if using a sewing machine it is essential for it to be located on a table or in a cabinet at a comfortable height.

Your sewing area should have an area to the left and in back of the machine so that excess fabric can lie on the surface around the machine and not drop to the floor during sewing. The weight of the fabric pulls on the needle as you sew and causes it to bend or break. This pressure on the needle can cause damage to the machine. It also causes irregular-sized stitches when sewing.

Good lighting is essential to healthy eyes. Strain from too much, too little or the wrong kind of light can damage your eyes.

A table at a comfortable height is a joy when cutting. For some, the ironing board is a good cutting surface for small projects. Its height is adjustable.

If possible, set up your iron and ironing board adjacent to your sewing area. Pressing seam allowances as you sew and simply turning to use the iron is an efficient way to work. Adjust the board to the right height for comfortable pressing while seated.

Many hand quilters like the portability of patchwork because they can join their families while watching television or take piecing with them to appointments and practices. In general, they can be sociable while accomplishing something satisfying.

Machine sewers sometimes don't want to feel isolated from their families and prefer to have a sewing area right in the middle of everything. Others prefer to be isolated without distractions. They like to be able to leave their work and find it undisturbed when they get back to it.

Whatever your preference in work areas, make comfort and good lighting your biggest concerns.

Return to the Table of Contents

Copyright © 1999-2006 House of White Birches.

[X] Close
Quilter's World Digital Order