Hand stitched quilts are heirlooms to be treasured through the generations, and learning to make them keeps alive this time honoured tradition. Of course, there are certain skills you’ll need to practise, and new equipment you may need to get used to, especially if you don’t usually do much sewing by hand. If you’re ready to take on the challenge of creating your first hand sewn quilt, first take a look at these tips and tricks!
Hand sewing a quilt is a big endeavour! It’s best to start with something small, like a table runner, wall hanging, or other decorative item so you don’t find yourself overcommitted from the start. The size of the piece you’re working on will determine certain factors about your equipment, like how large your stitches should be (and therefore how large a needle you’ll use), and what size hoop you’ll require if you decide to use one.
Piecing your quilt
The first step to making your quilt is piecing the top layer. This can be done either by machine or by hand. Many sewists prefer to do complex piecework on a machine simply for speed, but for a fully vintage aesthetic, you can certainly create traditional quilt blocks using nothing but a needle and thread. Whatever method you choose, be sure to press your seam allowances flat as you go so that they don’t cause unnecessary bulk in your finished quilt.
Preparing the layers
Once your pieced top layer is ready, it’s time to create your “quilt sandwich.” Typically, this involves the top layer, a layer of batting—which can be made of a variety of fibres including wool and synthetic materials—and a backing layer, usually made of a solid piece of fabric. It’s important that this layered construction not shift while you’re working, as this can lead to rumples in your finished project. There are a number of ways to secure your layers. Basting spray is a light adhesive used to gently stick the layers together. This works well for small projects, but can be unreliable with larger quilts. Another option is to use extra long straight pins, known as quilting pins, or large safety pins to secure your layers. A third option is to baste the layers together with multiple rows of long basting stitches, which can be pulled out as you quilt. The right method for you will depend on your personal preference and the needs of the project at hand. Try a few and see what works best for you!
Using a quilt hoop
Another tool that helps keep your work from shifting is a hoop or frame. Unlike in embroidery, where you want the work to stay taut, the quilt frame provides just enough tension to keep the layers together while you manipulate them. Some quilters forego the hoop altogether, preferring to work on a tabletop or using a free-standing quilt frame to support the weight of the fabric and keep things steady while you work.
Choosing your needle & thread
A sturdy needle and thread is important, but remember—the thicker your thread, the larger your needle will have to be, and the larger your needle is, the larger your stitches will have to be. If you envision using very small stitches in your quilting, you’ll need to use a finer weight thread. Typically, 100% cotton quilting thread will do the job nicely. Pearl (or perle) cotton is a bit heavier, so if you’re looking to make noticeable stitches part of your design, it’s an excellent choice.
Quilting needles are quite small and may take some getting used to. Start with a larger quilting needle at first, decreasing the size as you get more comfortable with the motion of hand quilting and how the needle and thread behave in your material.
Using a thimble
Traditionally, hand-sewing a quilt calls for using a thimble. Some quilters even use two—one on each hand. The primary thimble is worn on the middle finger of the right hand (assuming you’re a right-handed sewist—switch hands if your left is dominant). This allows you to grip your needle with your forefinger and thumb, and provide driving force with the thimble on your middle finger. Remember, you’ve got lots of seam allowances to stitch through, plus your batting and backing, and you want to keep your stitches as small and even as possible. As awkward as the thimble may be at first, you’ll come to thank it later! For sewists who opt to wear a second thimble, most choose a softer material, like leather, to wear on the forefinger of the left hand. This allows you the feel the needle as it comes through the backing without running the risk of repeatedly nicking yourself as you sew.
Mark your pattern
When hand sewing a quilt, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Take the time to mark out the pattern you plan to follow as you quilt with your preferred method. Some quilters use tape, others tailors’ chalk, and still others use marking pens or pencils. Whatever you use, be sure to test it on scraps of your fabric first!
Hiding your knots
One thing that’s certain about hand quilting—you’re going to get a lot of practise with threading your needle and knotting your thread. Don’t work with a length of thread longer than about 24 inches, as this makes it more likely to tangle. Use a quilter’s knot to put a small knot at the very end of your thread. When you draw your needle through the quilt sandwich, give it a gentle tug to pull the knot through one layer of fabric (either your backing or your pieced top) to bury the knot out of sight in the batting.
Honing your stitches
Getting the motion right for hand sewing a quilt takes a lot of practise, but if there’s one thing a handmade quilt offers, it’s opportunity to practise! Make 2-5 stitches at a time, stacking them on your needle before using your thimble-protected middle finger to drive your needle through all that fabric. The motion is more like rocking the needle back and forth through the fabric than the usual drawn out single stitches you may be used to hand sewing. Try to keep your stitches evenly spaced, all the same size, and with a nice even tension.
Got the basics down? Try your hand at crazy quilting, a technique that showcases not only your piecing and quilting skills, but also hand-stitched embroidery and other embellishment.