how to make a quilt

How to Quilt – Quilting for Beginners

Estimated read time: 9 minutes

With their intricate and eye-catching designs, quilts can be objects of great beauty that represent a truly elevated art form. But while the term “quilting” is often used as a catch-all for all of the techniques used to make a quilt, technically the term refers to the stitches that hold the layers of a quilt—top, batting, and backing—together.

It's an essential part of the quilt-making process, as it keeps the layers from shifting as the quilt is used and cared for. The internal batting, traditionally a mat of loose fibers, is especially susceptible to lumps and gaps until it is stitched to the more stable outer layers.

The information below focuses on how to quilt in the most traditional sense of the word; however, if you want more comprehensive information on how to make a quilt, be sure to also check out our Patchwork and Quilting Guide, which will familiarize you with the additional techniques you’ll need to make your complete creation.

How hard is it to learn to quilt?

Making a quilt is like drawing or dancing—anyone can learn the basic techniques, but it requires practice to truly master the skills. As you learn how to quilt, be sure to try several of the methods below. If you don't have the equipment necessary, visit a machine dealer or quilting show to try out different techniques and see what feels right for you.

What materials do I need to start quilting?

Quilt making requires two layers of fabric and one layer of batting. The top layer may be plain fabric (a wholecloth quilt or a cheater print) or a pieced, appliquéd, or embroidered quilt top, and includes any borders you want around your quilt. The backing layer is a single piece of cotton, possibly made from two or three lengths of cloth joined to provide the necessary size.

Quilt batting is the unseen inner layer that provides loft and extra warmth. Battings are available in cotton, polyester, cotton/polyester blends, bamboo, wool, and silk. Most consider cotton the traditional material, although wool batting is popular in colder climates. Many modern battings contain some sort of binder that makes the batting easier to handle and more consistent in thickness, allowing the quilter to space stitches further apart (up to 8" to 10" rather than just 2" to 4"). Check the packaging of your batting for recommendations, or visit the manufacturer's website.

Choose high-quality batting without lumps or thin patches. For beginning quilting, it's best to start with a brand-name batting, even if the cost is higher. Well-made cotton/polyester blend battings are wonderful, as they combine the best features of the two fibers. Once you have learned the quilting technique, experiment with different brands, fiber content, and thicknesses of battings to find your favorite.

If you’re quilting by hand, choose a fine needle that slips through the quilt layers easily; a needle threader is a good investment if it's hard to see the needle's eye. You'll also want a thimble and possibly a quilting hoop. Machine quilting needles are available that will protect the quilting thread as it passes through the quilt's layers, helping you avoid thread breakage. A combination pack with sizes 11 and 14 is perfect.

Thread for quilting can range from standard sewing thread to fine silk. Consider how many stitches will be on the finished quilt, and choose a finer thread to keep the stitching from overwhelming the design of the quilt top. Pick a cotton or matte polyester thread to blend into the quilt fabrics, or a shiny rayon or metallic for pizazz. For hand quilting, you may choose a thicker thread such as waxed hand-quilting thread or pearl cotton combined with a larger stitch for a primitive look.

You may also want to invest in rulers, stencils, and marking tools, depending on the quilting method chosen. When it comes to the marking tools, be sure to test your marks first on scraps—all three layers—to ensure that the marks are removable. For tidying thread tails, a pair of snips is also essential.

How can I start to quilt step by step?

When the quilt top is completed, press it carefully. Keep the seam allowances as neat and flat as possible. Also press the quilt backing, and remove the batting from its packaging to allow creases to relax a bit. The backing and batting should be a little larger than the quilt top, usually at least 3" on all four edges for bed-size quilts. This allows for some inevitable shifting and shrinkage as the layers are quilted together.

If you're quilting on a multi-roller frame with a moveable machine (longarm quilting), you can stop here and go straight to mounting the three layers on your frame. Otherwise, follow this step-by-step process:

  1. Layer the quilt on a large table or the floor; this is called "making a quilt sandwich." Begin with the backing fabric, face down. If it's possible, tape the edges of the backing to your work surface. The fabric should be taut, without creases or wrinkles, but not stretched.
  2. Lay the batting on top of the backing. Smooth the batting into position from the center outward. Be careful not to stretch the batting.
  3. Finally, lay the quilt top, right side up, on the batting. Smooth it into place from the center outward. The edges of the quilt top should be parallel to the backing edges, with the top centered on the other layers.
  4. Baste your “quilt sandwich” together. The method you choose will depend on the project size, the type of quilting, and your personal preferences.

    • Hand basting: Use a long needle and a contrasting thread to take long stitches across the entire quilt sandwich vertically, horizontally, and in both diagonal directions. The rows of stitching should be 3" to 4" apart. The basting stitches are removed when the quilting is complete, so a contrasting thread will make seeing the basting stitches easier for removal. The layers can shift along the lines of stitching, like gathering a fabric on a thread, so this method is best for hand quilting that will not require constant repositioning of the quilt sandwich.

    • Safety pins: Fasten safety pins through all three quilt layers across the entire quilt top. The pins should be no more than 6" apart. Remove each pin as you come to it when quilting. This is a good method for machine quilting at a stationary machine.

    • Plastic ties: Like the plastic links used to hold tags to retail garments, these notions are inserted through the quilt layers with a small needle-nosed gun. They are positioned like safety pins for basting.

    • Basting spray: This method begins when the backing is prepared. Before adding the batting, spray the backing, following the manufacturer's instructions. When the batting is in place, spray its top surface before adding the quilt top. This method is good for small projects and for machine quilting, as it keeps the layers from shifting against each other when the sandwich is handled.

    • Fusible battings: These are like batting with basting spray included. They require an iron for activation. They are more expensive and may stiffen the quilt, and they are also hard to apply in projects larger than your ironing board, but can replace basting sprays, eliminating overspraying.
  5. When the layers are basted, the quilt sandwich is ready for quilting stitches.
  6. After quilting, trim the backing and batting even with the edges of the quilt top. Square the quilt corners if necessary. Bind the edges of the quilt and remove basting threads to complete your project.

What are the various methods of quilting?

There are a variety of quilting methods you can try:

  • Tying a quilt: This beginner-friendly method works best with a stable batting. Thread a crewel needle (large-eyed) with yarn or heavy thread. Take a stitch through the quilt sandwich, front to back and then back to front about 1/4" away. Tie the thread tails together securely and clip them about 1/2" from the knot. The ends will eventually fray and form small tufts. Place the ties 3" to 4" apart across the entire quilt top.
  • Quilting by hand: Thread a fine needle with your choice of threads. The quilt sandwich can be mounted in a hoop or simply held in hand. Rock the threaded needle into and out of the quilt sandwich, taking care to catch all three layers while keeping the stitches short. The running stitch used for quilting should show stitches of the same length on both the front and back of the quilt. Bury thread tails and knots inside the quilt layers before cutting the thread tails and allowing the ends to slip into the sandwich.
  • Machine-guided quilting: Any machine can quilt, although smaller machines may limit the size of quilting projects. Use an ordinary presser foot and your choice of thread, with a quilting needle or a sharp-pointed general-purpose needle. A walking foot is wonderful for machine-guided quilting, as it feeds the layers of the quilt sandwich under the needle at the same rate, keeping them together. It's possible to stitch some quilting motifs with this method, but pivoting a large quilt may be difficult; the best use of machine-guided quilting is for straight or gently curved lines across a large area.
  • Free-motion quilting: By lowering or covering the machine's feed dogs, the operator gains complete control of the quilt's movement under the needle: forward, backward, sideways, in curves, etc. Use a darning foot to get the best stitch formation. Free-motion work takes more practice than machine-guided quilting, but it’s a marvelous way to follow quilting designs or sketch as you go. There are two ways to quilt with free motion:

    • With a stationary machine: This method uses a regular domestic machine. The operator moves the fabric underneath the needle, as if moving a piece of paper under a fixed pencil to draw. Be sure you have plenty of space to the left and rear of your sewing machine so that the quilt can move smoothly as you work, supported on tables or a similar surface.

    • With a movable machine and frame: Some machines can be mounted on a trolley attached to a quilting frame. The frames are available in several sizes; smaller frames may use clamps like some embroidery hoops, while larger frames mount the entire width of a bed-size quilt on rollers. Each has advantages. The smaller hoops are perfect for wall or baby quilts, and even fit in apartment-sized spaces. The large frames eliminate basting the quilt and provide a very large working area. With either type of frame, the operator moves the machine by holding attached handles. The trolley allows the machine to glide freely in any direction. The motion is like holding and moving a pencil to draw, so it's easier for some quilters to master than quilting on a stationary machine.
  • Computer-guided quilting: Like digitized machine embroidery, this quilting method turns control over to the machine. It's perfect for identical repeats of the same design and for quilting small projects.

    • With a movable machine and frame: When controlling bands are attached to a trolley-mounted machine on a quilting frame, a computer can direct the movements of the machine over the entire quilting area. Software allows the operator to design an entire quilt and stitch it in sections that fit the quilting frame. It's a bit like digitized machine embroidery on a much bigger scale.
  • Using an embroidery hoop: If your machine stitches digitized embroidery designs, it can quilt as well. You'll need to plan your quilting in hoop-sized pieces, hooping and stitching each motif separately on your basted quilt. Look into quilt-as-you-go methods or piecing the quilt in sections to be joined after quilting. The results can be spectacular, especially when embroidery and quilting are combined in one project.