Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The first quilting lesson

Yesterday I started what I hope will become a really rewarding experience: I had my first day with a student who wants to learn how to make quilts. Molly has a sewing machine and has used it for small gift projects and home dec, so we don’t have to learn how to thread the needle. But she has not made quilts.

How to start! ? !

My personal prejudice is that too many teachers of beginning quilting pile it on with too much detail and too many rules. I like to get people sewing, so they can get hooked on the joy of creation before they are turned off by the frustration of "not getting it right.” I thought it might be fun to chronicle Molly’s learning and see what she makes.

We talked about what she wanted to make – a baby quilt – and what pattern/approach she would like. I gave her a choice of three traditional quilting concepts: nine-patch, rail fence, and log cabin. She decided on log cabin.

I think all of those three concepts have much to recommend them to beginners. They’re all so firmly grounded in the traditions of quilting that anybody drawn to the quilt format will feel comfortable. But they all lend themselves to a low-rules approach to construction and design. With any of those three concepts you can make a very traditional feeling quilt, or a very contemporary, edgy one.

First we chose fabrics. I have a stash of fabrics, largely traditional calico small prints, that I have outgrown as my own quilts have become contemporary and abstract. They’re all folded neatly in a “library” so it’s easy to choose a palette.

Molly was happy to find a lot of earth tones, and I was happy to divest them – those of us who lived through the 70s (and bought lots of fabric) are usually not thrilled to remember those glory days of brown.  She chose about a dozen fabrics, making sure to have a wide range of values, with a couple of light-lights to perk up the mediums and darks.  If you have chosen a good palette, you don't have to make a lot of subsequent decisions, just grab whichever strip is on top of the pile or seems to be the right length to match the piece you're sewing it to.

We decided to make nine blocks, so we cut nine three-inch squares for the log cabin centers. Then we cut a bunch of strips in varying widths. Molly sewed a strip to each of the centers, chain-piecing the whole set before cutting them apart and pressing.  Then she added a second strip to each block.  She took everything home and for our next meeting will have nine blocks ready to trim and sew together. We decided there would be no rules: you don’t have to sew strips in a particular order or in a particular color plan or keep the center square exactly in the center of the block.

Two strips sewed to each center square.

There are only two things that I tell beginning piecers to worry about: sewing a straight seam and pressing VERY CAREFULLY.

We talk about how it’s important to start with straight edges on your pieces (thank you, rotary cutters), and to align the two pieces of fabric carefully before you take them to the sewing machine. Don’t watch the needle as you stitch, but rather watch the cut edge of the fabric and concentrate on guiding it past your chosen landmark, about a quarter-inch to the right of the needle. The landmark can be a line on your stitch plate, or a place on the presser foot itself, or the edge of the feed dog plate, or a mark you have drawn in ink on your machine bed – whatever seems good for you.

Molly is using the edge of her sewing machine foot as the landmark. It’s not exactly a quarter-inch, but so what? As long as she always uses the same landmark, her seams will be straight and uniform. If she decides later in her quilting career that she needs to construct quilt blocks with great precision, she’ll be able to do so because she will know exactly how wide her seams are.

And we talk about pressing – how you start on the back of the work by gently guiding the seam to the correct direction, then flip the piece over and do serious pressing from the front. How you set the iron down behind the seam and use its flat edge as a bulldozer to push the fullness ahead of you, to make sure the seam is completely open before you add pressure.

All the other details can wait. And maybe we’ll never get to them! I am constantly surprised and thrilled that you can make beautiful quilts without templates, without a lot of measuring, without a lot of advance planning, without a lot of worrying. If you don’t have to worry about bureaucratic details, you can keep your mind clear to think about the colors, the design, the beauty, the art.


  1. Molly has an excellent teacher. I'm sure she will be totally hooked.!

  2. I think I found it. Let me know if this comes through.

  3. Hurrah! A woman after my own heart. Great teaching approach!