Quilting 101: Basic Steps

The purpose of this post is to serve as a general guide to quilting; it is not for a specific quilt and allows for immense amounts of personalization. All of my methods have been taught to me by an amazing seamstress, they do not cut corners, and they guarantee the same result every time.

*Disclaimer: I deliberately chose these fabric colors, binding, and thread so they would stand out from each other for the purposes of this post. In normal circumstances, I would not have this thread and binding with these fabrics.*

Below I have outlined the steps that are necessary and offer tips that I have found to be particularly useful. I use the term “step” loosely; I mean to describe this process in phases.

The most important advice I can give is this: never skip pinning.

Step 1: Pick a pattern, find fabric, and cut

There are hundreds of patterns and variations of patterns for quilt tops on the internet or printed in books and magazines. You could even make your own! Tip: choose a pattern you truly love – you will hit a point in the process where you want to burn or otherwise destroy the quilt, and if you are not absolutely committed to what you are doing, you may follow through.

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Once you have decided on a pattern, you will need to decide on fabrics unless it is a pattern that has a fabric pack available for purchase. Take your time with picking fabrics; visit multiple stores, take pictures of fabrics you like at each store to compare, mix, and match. Figure out how much of each fabric will be needed, and always get cuts that are slightly more than that.

Always double, triple, and quadruple check measurements before you cut. Especially with bigger projects and cuts, you get one shot at cutting. Fabric is expensive, and it would be awful to have to go buy another large cut because of a negligent first cut. I have had my share of scares (thankfully none have actually been wrong) and it is something I do everything in my power to not repeat.

Step 2: Assemble the quilt top

Once all the pieces have been cut, they must be sewn together (that is a no-brainer, I know). No matter how small the pieces are, pin them together. Sure, it may seem unnecessary and time consuming, but you know what’s more time consuming? Having to seam rip and resew what has just been sewn because it didn’t line up properly (that is also a fast-track to the aforementioned desire to burn everything). Having to rip a seam out also increases the chances of something happening to the fabric and a need to re-cut or get more fabric entirely (which can be tricky depending on the fabric).

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The example I have been using on these quilting posts is a simple block pattern done with fabric I found in my fabric drawer. Seams always have to be pressed; in this case, each row is pressed so the seams will be interlocking when sewn together (the bottom row seams were all pressed to the left, the next row of seams were pressed to the right, then the left, and the top seams were to the right), and the connecting seams are pressed open.

Step 3: Prepare batting and backing

Backing should be purchased at the same time as the fabric for the top to ensure it coordinates. The batting I use for all my quilts (in varying sizes) is found at JoAnn Fabrics.

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They offer a variety of sizes, this just happened to be the bag I could find most readily.

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At this point, you should have three components readily accessible: the completed top of the quilt, backing (in some cases this is two cuts of the same fabric sewn together), and batting. Make sure everything has been rid of wrinkles or there will be issues when it comes to quilting. The quilt top and the backing can be ironed, but I do not recommend this for the batting. To remove the wrinkles from the batting, I lay it over a table and run an iron a few inches above the material using the steam feature, while periodically pausing to straighten it.

Step 4: Assemble the 3 layers

This step requires a lot of space and ventilation. I usually do this in my garage with a boatload of heavy duty plastic, tape or weighted objects, and tables (and clamps) if the size of the project necessitates it. Quilt Basting Spray (pictured below) is one of the single greatest inventions, and it will make this step far less frustrating. This step is a lot easier with two people wrangling the fabric. Assembly can be accomplished in whatever order makes the most sense to you.

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There may be a more efficient way to do this, but the following paragraphs are a description of what I have found to be easiest – bottom to top.

My designated helper (a.k.a. mom) and I lay the backing face down as flat as possible on the plastic and secure the corners with masking tape or weighted objects. The backing should be larger than the top by a minimum of 6″ and possibly larger than the batting. We then (somewhat haphazardly) lay the batting over the backing. In a relatively organized manner, we fold or roll back approximately half of the batting. Start spraying the exposed backing with the basting spray in approximately 1′-2′ widths from person to person working from the middle towards the top or bottom edge. After each section is sprayed, unfold a corresponding amount of batting and “adhere” it to the backing using your hands to smooth any resulting wrinkles (I say “adhere” because while the spray holds the project together, it is very forgiving and can be readjusted as much as necessary). Once the first half is done, fold or roll back the other half and repeat.

Once both halves are adhered, I like to remove the tape or weights from the corners of the backing and flip the whole thing over to make sure no fabric bubbles have been created. If they have, you can pull the backing and batting apart as much as is necessary to flatten the area. Once everything is flat, flip it back over so the batting is on top and replace the tape or weights on the backing. I recommend taping or weighing down the corners of the batting if they extend beyond the backing, just in case.

Laying down the top requires a little more attention to alignment. I find this easiest to accomplish by folding the quilt top in half so the top and bottom edges are buddies. My helper (hi mom!) and I then take the short edges and hold them at either side of the previously laid backing and batting and lay the quilt top so it is centered on the backing (especially in the case of a seam). This is where the backing being larger than the top and batting comes in handy. As with the backing/batting, adhere the quilt top in sections from middle to the edges.

Once the top is adhered, sporadically pin all three layers together throughout the quilt. This helps to not only ensure that you stab yourself no fewer than a half a dozen times in the coming step, but that the quilting process (if done without a long arm machine) does not move any of the layers around; the adhesive can only do so much.

After pinning, use fabric shears to cut the batting and backing layers so they are around 3″ larger than the quilt top.

Step 4: Quilting

There is a lot of flexibility with this step. Some people choose to just stitch in the ditch created by each seam, some (like my example below) sew a wave-like pattern over each seam. Long arm machines are useful for more intricate designs, and some people choose to pay those who have long arm machines to take care of the quilting for them. The quilting step can be accomplished other ways, too. All of these are equally valid ways to quilt, and are truly at the discretion of the quilter.

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Once the sewing is finished, pins can be removed, and the edges need to be squared up.

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The middle and right “quilts” are cut for bias tape binding. Note that all 3 layers are now essentially the same size as the quilt top. The “quilt” on the left is cut for a binding job that is accomplished using the backing, which I discuss briefly in Two Types of Quilt Binding.

Step 5: Binding

I prefer to bind using bias tape. My goal as a quilter is to not make bias tape again, but I know someday a project will come along that will force me to do it, which will be fine, but inconvenient because of the literal day I will have to spend pressing it.

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The specifics of this step are outlined in Quilt Binding with Bias Tape.

Step 6: Admire the finished product!

Congratulations! You have reached the end of your project!

Quilt making is a very involved project, and I thoroughly believe that the finished product is worth it. This is a structured process that allows for enormous amounts of flexibility as far as time commitment, color, size, and level of detail.

Quilt Binding with Bias Tape

While I am sure this is not new or innovative information, the binding job on a quilt can complete or ruin the project. As such, I think it is important that everyone has access to instructions to properly complete binding using bias tape. Regardless of whether or not the second side is machine or hand sewn, the beginning “steps” are the same.

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Above is everything besides the machine and thread that is necessary for binding a quilt. At this point, the quilting is done and the edges have been lined up. I pre-measured and cut the lengths of bias tape so it would be easier to work with than a single 3 yard length for an 8.5″ x 8.5″ mini-quilt.

*Disclaimer: I deliberately chose these fabric colors, binding, and thread so they would stand out from each other for the purposes of this post. In normal circumstances, I would not have this thread and binding with these fabrics.*

Step 1: Pin bias tape to the back side of the quilt

I have seen an alarming number of tutorials skip pinning or pin incorrectly. Yes, you will likely stab yourself 10 times in the course of sewing with pins, but there will be no question about the quality of the finished product (and honestly, is it truly a labor of love if you don’t contribute blood, sweat, and tears?). Another common issue I see is when the “first” side is the quilt top. I am firmly in the camp that the proper “first” side for attaching binding is the back of the quilt.

In this step, pin one edge of the opened bias tape starting in the middle of one of the quilt sides to the left towards the first corner. This will make sewing the binding easier.

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When you reach the first corner, a few extra maneuvers will be needed so proper mitering can be accomplished.

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Fold the bias tape up to create a 45 degree angle.

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Then fold straight down.

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Then pin each side of the fold. A triangle of fabric should be free-standing once pinning is done.

Continue pinning down each edge, completing the corners as you did the first until you reach the free edge from the start.

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Once you get to the free edge, you have to decide how much overlap to have between the two ends. For a clean edge where the ends meet, fold the second end back into itself and envelops the first end. Pin the junction.

Step 2: Machine sew the first side

To attach the binding to the first side, I machine sew a presser foot distance from the edge of the bias tape. This will result in the sewn line to lie within the fold of the tape (which very well could be slightly inside the edge of the quilt top, batting, and backing).

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I always make the first side that is sewn the one that has the ends of the bias tape on it, and I choose to start sewing somewhere in between the previously determined first end and the first corner. At each corner, backstitching will be necessary.

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In part why I choose to finish the side with the bias tape ends first and last is so that it can be as tight of a fit as possible. This also helps ensure that there is no excess fabric to bunch around the edges.

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Step 3: Fold over and pin the bias tape to the front side

The goal of this step should be fairly self explanatory. This is also the step where the mitering on the corners is established. Thankfully this is an easy look to achieve.

Start folding the bias tape over to encapsulate the free edges of the 3 layers on any edge. I like to begin near the corner of the edge with the junction. Pin as you go. At the corner keeping the present side down will form a triangle of fold-over on the next side, fold the triangle down towards the quilt.

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Pin the corner or close to the corner. Once the corner is complete, continue along the edges and repeat the corners as above.

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Here is where the two bias tape finishes diverge. 

Machine Sewing Step 4: Sew the bias tape to the front

Beginning on the edge with the junction of the bias tape ends, begin to sew close to the inside edge of the bias tape.

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At the corner, pivot. With the needle down in the corner, raise the presser foot and rotate the quilt 90 degrees. Lower the presser foot and continue to sew.

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Once you make it around to the starting point, you are done!

Hand Sewing Step 4: Sew the bias tape to the front

Recommendation: get comfy because this will not be a “quick” finish (now might be a good time to re-start your favorite TV series). Pictured below is everything you will need to accomplish hand sewn binding.

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Working with maximum 2′ lengths of thread at a time; any more than that will get knotted or caught on the pins and it will make the process more frustrating.

As with every other step, I recommend starting on the edge with the junction between it and the first corner. Make a knot at the end of the thread and anchor the line approximately where you want to start sewing.

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The first move from here should be in the quilt top, followed by the edge of the binding. Stitches made on the quilt top should be as close as is reasonable to the seam created by sewing the bias tape to the back. Stitches on the bias tape should be along the folded edge. For best results, the start of one stitch and the end of the next on the quilt top or the bias tape edge should line up, as shown below. Make sure you only go through the first fabric layer and some of the batting, not all the way through. Stitches should be approximately 1/4″ wide.

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At the corner, make a small stitch in what will be the corner on the quilt top followed by a small stitch at the corner edge of the next side’s bias tape (pictured below). From here you will make stitches along the new side.

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Keep truckin’ on until you have used most of the thread presently on the needle. At a logical place along the edge, create a couple of knots in the same part of the edge that the original anchor was made. I also like to run the needle and thread through a small adjacent hidden area to further anchor the line.

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As with the first length of thread, anchor the new one and make the first new stitch on the quilt top. Continue in this manner until you reach the starting side.

Once the junction is reached on the quilt top, you will want to pay attention to the stitch sizes. This is so that you can ensure that an edge stitch will be needed at the junction.

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Once you return to the starting point, things get a little tight. You will want to make knots in the same edge area as mentioned before, but before tightening the knot, you will want to make sure that the stitches leading up to it have been pulled taught.

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Make a few more knots (harder than the first), and then do your best to snake (or baste, whatever description makes more sense to you) the tail of the thread under the edge (pictured below).

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Clip the loose thread ends, and you are home free!

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Look at that beautiful job you did!

 

Both finishes using bias tape are lovely and clean. The corners are beautiful, and the bias tape provides a polished look. Below I have included closeup looks and visual comparisons of hand sewing vs. machine sewing.

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Both quilt fronts; left is hand sewn, right is machine sewn
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Both quilt backs; again the left is hand sewn, the right is machine sewn

Two Types of Quilt Binding

I have been using bias tape to bind quilts since I started quilting in 2010. However, I recently learned that there is a second way (which is considered an “easy” way, or a quilting “hack”) to bind a quilt: essentially folding the overhang from the backing to cover the front.

I have seen a number of tutorials on both types of binding, and I do not believe that there is enough analysis of each provided. Each of these methods has shortcomings and benefits. Each also has its own variations. Below I will outline each of the methods and offer my input on what makes each worth using.

*Disclaimer: I deliberately chose these fabric colors, binding, and thread so they would stand out from each other for the purposes of this post. In normal circumstances, I would not have this thread and binding with these fabrics.*

Bias Tape Method

I have made bias tape once, and it is a very time consuming task. Instead of making bias tape, I buy it in 3-yard packages where the bias tape comes already double folded. Bias tape is first attached to one side about a quarter of an inch from the edge (using a machine). In my opinion, mitering is the only appropriate way to finish the corners in any circumstance. There are two ways to attach the binding to the second side (my second side is always the front): machine sewing and hand sewing.

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Finished machine sewn quilt front
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Finished hand sewn quilt front

Machine sewing is much faster, and the finish has a visible seam at the edge of the binding. I prefer to use this method on quilts that are larger and/or will be washed more frequently. Hand sewing takes much longer and has invisible seams. For my previous post So, what does a quilt cost? the binding time is approximate for machine sewing. I will also be posting step-by-step directions for both bias tape finishes.

Backing Method

I came across this method recently when I was helping a friend finish four quilts. In this case, the backing is folded over the front and machine sewn. There are two ways those who use the backing to bind finish the corners: square and mitered. The major downside to binding this way is that the corner finish only appears on one side.

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In my opinion, the squared finish (pictured above) looks unfinished and lazy.

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The mitered corners (above) look nice, but this detail only shows on the front side because of the way the initial attachment is accomplished (technically, skipped entirely).

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It is also worth noting that the quilting ends will be visible on the backside of quilts that have been finished using this method of binding.

For those of you who want to know how to do this, a tutorial I came across that I found the most useful for a mitered finish was on Cluck Cluck Sew.

Overall Thoughts

If the backing coordinates well with the top of the quilt, and if the quilting was done cleanly, using the backing to bind the quilt is a good option. As far as I am concerned, the only acceptable way to finish corners is mitering. Despite the ease of using the backing as binding, I know that I will continue to use bias tape for binding my own quilts.

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So, what does a quilt cost?

If you know me, you know I’ve been making quilts since I was 16. I love it, but there are a few reasons I don’t do it more often:

  • It’s an emotional roller coaster.
  • It’s physically painful.
  • I not only have to find the time, I have to find the space.
  • It’s expensive.

I can be a bit of a perfectionist at times, and inevitably there is at least one point while assembling the top where it doesn’t line up quite the way I want (read: need) it to (for my sanity and happiness) and I go through a phase where I question the whole project. Then comes the fact that I stab myself with pins pretty severely during the actual “quilting” process (keep in mind, I don’t do any fancy designs, but in the future I would like to have one of those deserves a whole room to itself long arm quilting table contraptions). I have drawn blood from various points on my hands, with the occasional arm and leg getting itself mixed in there, and many choice profanities have accompanied these stabbings. Along with this, I spend hours bent over a table, on the floor folding (and re-folding) before sewing rows, and can barely use my hands anymore (if I do all the quilting in one sitting) from feeding all the fabric through the machine (the poor feeders can only do so much, regardless of the machine you’re on). By the time I am done, I am physically and mentally exhausted, and more than deserving of a massage appointment.

Most of the quilts I make end up being at least the size of a full comforter (minimum about 78″ x 86″); my last two projects, t-shirt quilts, we’re all within the queen range (minimum about 86″ x 86″).

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One of the two quilts I did most recently which ended up being about 87″ x 87″

Most people don’t have open areas in their homes to accommodate this, and I have been known to lay out and tape down heavy-duty plastic in our two-car garage for assembly of the backing, batting, and top piece which averages an hour on its own (laying everything so it’s even/straight which often takes longer than desired even with two people, pinning throughout, cutting edges so it all is the same size, and starting to fold it so it can fit in the machine to start quilting).

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Lastly, I said it was expensive. So, how much does it all cost? That varies slightly with design, fabric used (all fabrics are NOT created or priced equal), size, and whether or not it is a t-shirt quilt, etc. As an example, let’s look at one of the t-shirt quilts I did recently (pictured above)…

Materials (calculated from receipts):

  • Sashing: $22.46
  • Muslin to back t-shirts (some skip this step, but it ensures the integrity of the shirt over time): $13.50
  • Spray Adhesive (per can): $15.99
  • Thread: $5.99
  • Backing: $57.70
  • Batting: $52.75
  • Binding: $6.87

Materials total: $175.26 before tax, with no coupons

*Note – this does not include cost of rotary blades, mats, tables, electricity, fabric scissors, the actual sewing machine, needles, etc.* 

It is also noteworthy that the cost of fabric on t-shirt quilts is probably an underestimate of the cost of a traditional quilt because a lot of the top is composed of old shirts and not fabric bought specifically for the project.

Now let’s look at labor (approximate, and can vary greatly):

  • Time spent planning/measuring (and re-measuring/calculating…you get 1 shot at it) before cutting: honestly, days. For these purposes we will just say 6 hours
  • Time spent cutting: about 3 hours
  • Time spent putting shirt pieces on muslin: about 1 hour
  • Time spent pinning and sewing the top together: at least 8 hours
  • Time to assemble: about 1 hour
  • Time quilting: at least 6 hours
  • Time for binding (highly variable based on whether bought or made, coupled with whether hand or machine sewn; this case is bought/machine): about 10 hours

That is a grand total of 35 hours. Now assuming your time is worth $10 an hour, you would pay yourself about $350 for this quilt.

All of that put together (cost of materials + cost of labor) would make the price of this quilt $525.26.

 

DISCLAIMER: The purpose of this is to inform the general public. When I make quilts for people, they tend to be because of a special occasion (commemoration of a family member who had tons of t-shirts that were meaningful to other members of the family following their death, as a gift for a wedding, that kind of thing), and it is because I have offered. Although I don’t mind doing that every once in awhile, gifting quilts is not sustainable financially, and I feel that this is the best way to explain that.