Today I’m going to show you one of my proudest achievements of this year; my first finished quilt! You might remember I mentioned in the past year that I dug out scraps of an old quilt work in progress and started working on it in the summer. If you are a long (LONG) time follower of my online crafty endeavours you might even remember the birth of this idea half a decade ago (mind, I would be very impressed if you did!). For those of you that are new or don’t have an enlightened brain that makes you fondly remember every detail of the crafty pursuits of Random People on the Internet I’ll briefly talk about how this project came to be. I’ve always been charmed by quilts since seeing them in picture books as a child. For most of the time that has been a spectator’s interest, diving into the history of the craft and leafing through quilt books. Then I started making preparations for a quilt in early 2016 ( I told you the seed for this project was planted ages ago!).
I decided to go for a simple four patch scrap quilt because it suited my extreme beginner skills but apart from that I like its simple homely style – as if it belongs in a tiny folk’s toadstool cottage . Once I got the cutting supplies I was also able to cut fabric by and by. As any long time project, part of that time it also simply lay in a box – almost, but not quite forgotten – while I did other things. After my move to this apartment I found the box of cut out squares and I made it a goal to finish the quilt.
It helped that I kept notes of the original attempt at the project, even for a simple quilt like this. My block sizes are 14 by 14 cm (less big when sewn because seam allowance), because I preferred the look of smaller/mid size(?) blocks over bigger ones. I decided to make the whole thing bed sized so it needed to be quite big. I ended up going for a size of 16 by 16 small blocks, so the total amount of small blocks in this quilt is 256, which translates to 64 four-patch blocks.
I first cut out all the separate small blocks, after which I counted the amount of blocks I had of each fabric and then grouped them in shades. Because of the scrappy nature of this quilt I wasn’t really sure what I was going to end up with and the amounts of blocks I had of fabric could vary wildly. So there was one fabric I had cut 45 blocks from and another where I had barely 5 blocks. I initially had planned to add more one-off blocks but it didn’t work out that way for this quilt (the amount I had was too little and not in colours that suited this quilt) but it is something I like to revisit for another project later.
I’m pretty sure all the fabric used in this quilt is cotton. When I began to learn garment sewing in earnest that was the main staple I sewed things with and almost all my beginner projects were made with it. I also pre washed my fabrics, there is a debate among quilters whether to do this or not, I did it because as a garment sewist it felt super weird not to. The colour plan was never strict as it was meant to be a bit of a hodgepodge but it ended up with mid reds and blues dominating complemented by whites, greens and orange/ochre. I did try to make sure I had a balanced mix of prints sizes for interest and for the same reason I ended up adding two solids.
After cutting all the small blocks I started sewing them in four-patch blocks. Before I found the quilt pieces again last summer I had sewn together 16 four-patches which left 48 for me to still do. Once I actually set myself to do it the process went quite fast and I had it done in about a week of sewing here and there. After I had my 64 blocks I got them all out and laid them on the floor to see what I wanted the layout to be (my cats loved to help with this!). I didn’t have a strict method for this but what I did pay attention to was that no two blocks of the same kind were direct neighbours and I also tried to have a balanced distribution of some of the “rarer” blocks I had.
After I decided the final layout I proceeded to first sew the horizontal bars of four-patches together (there is probably a technical term for this, but I called them scarves). I piled the blocks in order they needed to be sewn for easier sewing and storage (though the odd mistake with this was definitely made and I had to throw things around for my no-neighbouring rule!). Once I had my 8 horizontal rows of four patches sewn I had to sew all of those together to form the finished quilt top. I pinned this quite liberally to ensure that all the squares would line up. These were some long seams but otherwise straightforward.
I used a cotton batting, a bit bigger than the quilt top. I pre-washed that too… in my shower. I’ll just leave you to image those scenes of attempting to hand wash a blanket sized batting in one’s shower. I then left it to dry on my balcony. It was a this point that I considered whether it might have been better if I had started with a smaller sized quilt!
I made the backing of another piece of quilting cotton that I had for a long time. It is not exactly the same as one of the red fabrics used for the top but it’s got the same brand in the selvedge and the maritime print is so similar that it definitely came from the same series. I brainstormed on different lay-outs for the backing that were both fabric efficient and had me end up with a large enough square. Eventually I settled on the cutting layout you can see drawn below. I think it echoes (but most definitely is not) an enlarged log cabin block. The sewing of this was a bit cumbersome but not undoable.
Now the only thing left to do before quilting the entire thing was making the sandwich, which is fastening the quilt top, batting and backing together so it doesn’t move around while you quilt. I used curved basting pins (and some regular safety pins) to do this. My partner helped me with this as it’s quite finicky to do and get right. We also shut out the cats for this bit (the disgrace! the mutiny! the meows of dissatisfaction!) as they love walking and sitting on the project and that would make basting it impossible.
One way to do this I read was to tape the layers on the floor one by one and then pin them. This did not work for me at all! I don’t know what kind of wonder tape they want you to use but it just kept shoving and moving. So I then thought to see if using weights worked, so out came the food tins (to use as weights) and that actually worked well! We then just started pinning it from the middle outward. We mostly used curved basting pins that work best for this, but also some regular safety pins as the needed amount for this quilt size is more than what I had of the specialised ones. The amount is still lower than what I read was advised but I decided to take that gamble and see how it panned out (this did not turn out to be a regrettable mistake).
When I got closer to a finished top I started thinking more seriously about how I wanted to quilt my quilt; either by hand or machine. I’ve always been most drawn in by hand quilted quilts and love its more visual interplay with the pieced patchwork vs the more subtle effect of a machine quilted quilt. I think the more obvious connection to the rich history, folk craft and folklore of the craft is also part of why it speaks to me on a different level than the more modern machine quilting. Both machine and hand quilting are of course highly skill full crafts, and it was hard for me to decide on which path to take for my first quilt.
I first leaned towards machine quilting more, since it’s faster and I’m more experienced with using a sewing machine than with hand sewing. However, the thought of machine quilting the middle of the cumbersomely large quilt was haunting my craft thoughts. I would need a walking foot to handle the thickness of the quilt sandwich and possibly would benefit from a wider extension table for my sewing machine, whereas with hand quilting I only needed thread and a thimble as I already had suitable needles. To be honest ultimately it was the daunting idea of moving the quilt through my machine that was the decisive factor for my choice to hand quilt.
After I finished the top and made the quilt sandwich the project lay untouched for the bulk of the summer. In the past years it’s been getting hotter each summer and I live in a small apartment that really knows how to heat up. The thought of hand quilting such a big quilt – while me being under said big quilt – in the heat of peak summer was about as appealing as it sounds. This did give me time to think about what quilt patterns I wanted to do and think about the detail such as what thread and colours I wanted to use.
Since I’m a beginner I didn’t bother with aiming for fancy intricate patterns but decided to stick with basic straight lines. That still gives you a variety of options and I made some sketches of different quilt patterns and made a decision based on that. I decided to stitch diagonal lines in the middle of each single square patch, using two colours for the stitch work; an off white and a dark burgundy red. It echoes the colours used in the quilt, so while adding visual interest shouldn’t overwhelm the patchwork. I alternated each both colours on each different diagonal line. I settled on using perle cotton 8 which is often used for big stitch quilting. While it’s a lot thinner than embroidery thread (and doesn’t split like embroidery thread does) you do use an embroidery needle for quilting (I used a size 7). This makes threading less of a pain and what’s nice for a beginner is that is naturally favours bigger stitch work and more visible stitching than using traditional hand quilt thread would.
Ok, so here comes the bit that you might not want to take as advise especially if you are particularly precise about these things: I did not actually mark the stitch lines. I tried some different methods first, including using fold lines and masking tape as markings, but wasn’t really happy with either of those methods (I blame my own inexperience). At this point I decided to just free stitch the lines… what can I say? The project had been going on for years so I wanted to just get one with it, and truthfully, summer heat doesn’t exactly make me a patient decision maker. If I were to make a quilt with more complicated stitch patterns I would not proceed this way, but I do not regret eyeballing it. It made for relaxed and intuitive stitching and I don’t mind the odd wonky stitch here and there. The actual hand quilting process process is pretty straightforward, I watched a couple of videos on hand quilting, which prepared me as well as I could be prepared I think (and taught me how to make a quilters knot!).
Once I started on the hand quilting process I was able to make good progress on it. I found myself really enjoying the process of slowly stitching on it. So much so that I worked a bit on it most everyday (hot weather permitting) until it was done. The stitch work is perfectly imperfect and suits my very first entirely me made scrappy wonky quilt. I’m so relieved to find that I actually really enjoyed hand quilting. I love the look of big stitches and hand quilting but it is also more work than anything you can do on a machine and I had it built up in my head so much both in terms of how much I would like the end result and how much work it would be, that I’m relieved at how it turned out. I’m actually really looking forward to do it again on a new project. This is definitely not what I expected to feel at the end of a project that took years of tugging but here we are.
After the task of getting the hand quilting over the finishing line I had almost forgotten that it is in fact not the end station of a quilt; making the binding. I don’t know why but I really dragged my tail about the next step, it felt much more intimidating to start than the hand quilting. Possibly I was feeling parting anxiety with a project that I had with me for such a long time? I machine stitched the binding after watching a video on how to those this. Making the binding itself was easy, it’s essentially the same as making bias band for garment sewing just on a much bigger scale. Same story for sewing the binding on which is basically the same principle as sewing on bias tape, although there is a particular extra technique for making mitered corners and hiding the ends of the bias strip. I made it from the same fabric as the back of the quilt, so it nicely echoes that element of the quilt.
I wish I could convey the love my cats have for this quilt. Given their love for anything padded -folded towels, blankets, knitting projects- I knew they would like it but this is another level. It started to take form during the early stages of the project when I was still sewing squares, which is not unusual – they like to ‘help’ with any kind of sewing (or crafting really), particularly when it happens on the floor. This multiplied when I started quilting it. They kept coming to lay on it while I was quilting and could often not be moved for literally the entire day. I had to either quilt around them or wait for them to get their fill of quilt-nap time. This ensured that the quilt was already cat hair ridden when it wasn’t even finished (inevitable in this household). Now whenever they see us get it out of the cabinet they instantly become super focussed on it, even come beg for it like they do when they see us with a particularly nice can of cat food or cat sweets.
It’s super heart-warming to see them love it so much and they are having a ball with it now that the the colder weather has returned and it’s out permanently. Even though this is my first quilt I really mean for this quilt to be used. It’s one of the reasons I’m glad that I made my first quilt such a scrappy (and slightly wonky) one. Had I meticulously worked on a precise complicated quilt pattern I would perhaps have more qualms about cat nails or whatever. If quilting takes off then I certainly want to make those complicated and more precious quilts too, but I hope I will never forget how nice workhorse quilts are.
I can hardly belief that after a process of years in the making I have now made and finished my first quilt! Some of these sun drenched photos and the greenery going strong on the balcony would have you believe these photos were taken in the mids of summer, at least they give that vibe to me, but it was in fact just a bit ago in October! I super love the end result, and the story and personal history this project caries. Starting it in my student apartment, gathering supplies spread over years, working on it spread over years and in different houses, washing the batting in my shower, hand quilting it while my cats took turns snoozing on the ends I wasn’t working on etc. Never mind the personal growth I have experienced in those years. If I were to make my first quilt now I would probably make a host of different decisions with changing taste and a higher confidence levels in my own skills. But looking back I wouldn’t change a thing, after all those years of getting fonder and fonder of my wonky blocks and all they represent.
Despite the fact that it took years to complete this quilt I enjoyed every part of it. I’ve grown so fond of the idea of having the project to work on over the years that it took a bit getting used to the emptiness of having it finished, like a bit of a crafty void in my life. I haven’t started anything new yet but I’m definitely up for doing more quilting in the future and experiment with more complicated blocks. I think the craft fits in well with a desire to use up more fabric scraps resulting from my garment sewing and in terms of that I think both crafts go hand in hand together really well. Who knows maybe I can combine the two and make some quilted garments at some point as well. In any case I’m really excited to walk a bit further on this path of quilting and explore what else there is to be found in the nooks and crannies of this rich craft!