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patchwork quilting

Patchwork Quilting 101

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

If you’ve ever admired a beautiful hand-crafted quilt, chances are it’s the decorative quilt top that caught your attention. The good news is, even beginners can create their own eye-catching quilt tops with patchwork—the process of joining blocks of fabric together then stitching those blocks into rows. Read on for our complete guide to patchwork quilting.

What's the difference between patchwork and quilting?

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between quilting and patchwork. Quilting is the process of stitching layers of a quilt (the top, batting, and backing) together. However, the quilt top is usually sewn together from a variety of fabrics, and that part of the process is called patchwork or piecing. Appliqué is another technique used to create a multicolored quilt top and embroidery is sometimes used as well.

Is it hard to learn patchwork?

Not at all! Because piecing a quilt is based on small separate units, primarily straight lines, and stable woven cotton fabric, patchwork may be one of the easiest sewing techniques for beginners to learn. If you love math and geometry, you can incorporate that into your patchwork, but there are many patterns available that take the math out of the process, too.

You'll need to approach patchwork with an attitude of precision (unless you're opting for playful, improvisational piecing techniques). Cut the pieces accurately to the size given in the pattern, sew precise seams at a consistent width from the edge of the fabric, and be sure to press your piecework carefully as you go.

Patchwork quilting is a straightforward process, and that’s what makes it easy. Start with a small project like a table runner or wall quilt, and choose a block with fewer seams for your first try. You'll quickly master the basics.

What supplies and equipment do I need to patchwork quilt?

Patchwork quilting originated with the desire to use leftover scraps of worn garments to fashion new projects economically, so you can start with whatever fabric pieces you have on hand. However, some basic materials will make your introduction to patchwork even easier:

  • Fabric: The best fabric for learning patchwork is 100% cotton broadcloth or calico, often called quilter's cotton. It may be a solid color or printed. For your first block, look for fabric without geometric repeats: no stripes, checks, or plaids.
  • Thread: Many quilters swear by 100% cotton thread for piecing, but modern polyester all-purpose threads are also a good choice. Choose an all-purpose weight or finer thread so that the thread bulk doesn't become an issue in your accuracy. Stay away from waxed hand-quilting threads; they are meant to be used for hand quilting and are too bulky for piecing. In addition, the waxy coating may cause problems for your machine. As for thread color, a beige or gray thread will blend into most fabrics, so you can use just one thread color for all of your piecing. Choose white thread for the lightest colors, or black thread for a dark quilt top.
  • Needles: For piecing, use a sharp-pointed needle in size 11 or 12. Specialty quilting needles are available for the quilting part of the process, but aren't needed for piecing.
  • Rotary cutter, ruler, and mat: This tool combo revolutionized the quilting world in the late 20th century. It eliminates the need for making templates from paper or cardboard and increases the accuracy and speed of cutting. Choose a 45mm cutter to start, and a mat at least 12" x 18". You need only one or two rulers in the beginning; 8 1/2" x 12" and 12" x 12" are two basic sizes that will allow you to cut most patches. Specialty rulers are everywhere, and you may choose to build a collection, but rectangular and square rulers are versatile enough for most patterns.
  • Scissors: You can make an entire quilt without lifting a pair of scissors, but it's very helpful to have a small pair of thread snips near your sewing machine. When you graduate to curved piecing or appliqué, scissors will be an important part of your toolbox, but even then a 28mm rotary cutter might be your choice.
  • Pins: You'll want straight pins for holding patches together temporarily as you sew. You may also use safety pins later, to baste the layers of your quilt together for quilting.
  • 1/4" quilting foot: You may be able to gauge a 1/4" seam allowance accurately with your all-purpose presser foot, but the 1/4" foot makes it much easier.
  • Iron and ironing surface: Many quilters choose to keep a small iron and pressing mat beside their machines so that they can press each seam without constantly getting up to walk to the ironing board.
  • Other tools: There are a few other tools that are nice to have on hand for some piecing projects: marking tools, especially a removable marker or chalk; regular pencils; spray starch or a substitute; a wooden iron for pressing seam allowances without using a hot iron.

How do I make a patchwork quilt?

Start with a simple rotary-cut quilt. The block pattern is called 4-patch, and it uses just two colors of fabric, a light and a dark.

You can wash your fabric beforehand or not; either way, the important thing is to be consistent with all the materials in your quilt. Prewashing prevents most color bleeds by removing excess dye before the fabrics are sewn together, which may be a priority if you use solid colors that are very dark. On the other hand, if all of your quilt materials are cotton, some makers prefer to sew first and then let everything shrink together when the finished quilt is laundered, yielding a softly wrinkled, antique appearance.

  1. Press and fold the fabric, matching the selvages. Depending on the size of your cutting mat, you may need to fold a second time, bringing the selvages to meet the first fold. It's important to keep the folds straight and accurate.
  2. Follow the pattern you've chosen to cut out all of the pieces for your quilt top. For our quilt, we'll cut a strip across the fabric width (from fold to selvages). First, use the rotary cutter and ruler to trim the end of the folded fabric so that it is a straight line perpendicular (at a 90° angle) to the selvages. Lay the 3 1/2" line of your ruler on this cut end and use the rotary cutter to slice a strip 3 1/2" wide. (NOTE: If you're right handed, use your left hand to hold the ruler steady and your right hand to roll the cutter along the ruler's right edge, moving the cutter away from your body. For lefties, flip the left and right references.)
  3. Turn the strip a quarter-turn. Use the rotary cutter to trim off the selvages and then slice the strip every 3 1/2" to make square patches. A single strip will yield eleven 3 1/2"-square patches; cut more strips as needed. Repeat the cutting process with the second fabric.
  4. At the machine, sew a dark square to a light square along one edge, with right sides together. Use a 1/4" seam allowance, and be accurate and consistent about its width. Some quilters also set their machines to a slightly shorter stitch, about 2.0mm, to help lock in the seams without backstitching. Also remember to keep the same color square on top as you sew each of your pairs together.
  5. Traditionally, the seams used for piecing are not backstitched because they will be crossed by other seams. This allows you to "chain piece" by feeding successive pairs of squares under the presser foot without stopping to clip the threads. After a line of patches is sewn, go back and snip the thread chains between blocks.
  6. Take your pieced units to the ironing board and press the seam allowances toward the dark fabric. Press carefully, without stretching the fabric. Be sure the seams open completely, without forming a crease parallel to the stitching. Each pieced unit should measure 3 1/2" x 6 1/2" at this point.
  7. Go back to the sewing machine and align two pieced units, right sides together, alternating the colors. That is, match the light fabric on the top unit to the dark fabric on the bottom unit. Match the seamlines at the center. Because both seam allowances are pressed toward the dark fabric, they will "nest" together at the center, distributing the seam allowances' bulk. Sew two units together to make a 4-patch block.
  8. Press the block's center seam allowances to one side. The blocks should measure 6 1/2" x 6 1/2" at this point.
  9. When you have made all of the blocks needed for your quilt, arrange them as you like. Think of the blocks as a grid of horizontal rows and vertical columns.
  10. Sew the blocks in the top row together and press the seam allowances to one side. Repeat for the remaining rows. Finally, sew the rows together to make the quilt top, pressing all the seam allowances in one direction. The completed blocks will measure 6" x 6" between seams. The blocks along the edges may appear larger because the outer-edge seam allowances are still visible.
  11. To prepare for quilting, lay out your backing fabric, face down, keeping it smooth and wrinkle free. If possible, tape its edges to your work surface so that the backing is taut but not stretched. Smooth the batting onto the backing without stretching it. Be aware that the backing and batting are usually a bit larger on all sides than the quilt top to allow for some fabric take-up when quilting.
  12. Center the completed quilt top, right side up, on the batting and backing. Baste the layers together. Stitch through all of the layers to quilt your project and then trim the backing and batting to match the quilt top. Bind the raw edges, and voila—you’ve completed your first patchwork quilt.
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