Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sewing a postage stamp quilt

I’ve been working on a new postage stamp quilt for the last several weeks and it is finally approaching completion. People have asked me how I sew these quilts together, especially as they have gotten bigger and bigger (this new one is probably going to be about 100 x 70"). Answer: it’s all in the system, and it took me two or three quilts and a lot of trial and error before I figured it out.

I start by making a lot of little quilted rectangles, aka postage stamps, and then sewing them into columns. Each column has two rows of stitching, to prevent the column from twisting as I work. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to join the columns by rows of horizontal stitching.

Why is it so hard? Because until the horizontal stitching secures everything in place, the long columns of little stamps are prone to get caught on table edges, tangle with one another, get out of order, wedge themselves into crevices and snag on small parts of the sewing machine. I minimize the danger by putting each column into a zip lock bag, with only two or three stamps let out at a time. But the bags themselves like to get caught on table edges, tangle, etc.

The key to my system is to prepare a totally smooth, huge surface for the quilt and the bags to slide on, with as few opportunities as possible for them to get caught on, behind or between obstacles.

I need a staging area in front of my needle where two or three bags can sit in wait, rather than fall into my lap and put drag on the quilt. So I build up a shelf-like surface with my long plastic rulers. I shove a sheet of Plexiglas flush to the back of the sewing machine so nothing can fall behind it and get caught.

I set up a little table up to the left of the machine and a card table on the far side of the sewing machine to extend the work surface.  Finally I spread a long plastic tablecloth over the entire surface and secure it with clamps and blue painter’s tape. This way the quilt has plenty of room to slide around as I sew. The new surface isn’t entirely flat, but that’s OK because the tablecloth bridges the irregularities.

My zip lock bags are numbered starting with 1 for the right-hand column as you would look at it hanging on the wall, proceeding across to 63 at the left. The first horizontal stitching is the top row. I arrange the pieces so the top of the quilt is to my left.  My stitching starts on the top right stamp and proceeds across the top row from right (as you would look at it on the wall) to left.

In this picture I’ve already sewed about two feet of horizontal rows and am about to start across a new row. The finished part of the quilt is arranged to my left, and the unfinished part, in the zip lock bags, is closest to me.  Visible in this photo is the top right corner of the quilt. 

Here we go, stitching on column 1, heading for column 2.  I'll pull the column 2 stamps around, align them properly with column 1, leave about a half inch gap between the columns, and sew across space to get from one stamp to the next.

As I sew across the columns, I push the plastic bags to the right of the needle and the already-stitched bulk of the quilt to the left of the needle. The quilt piles up behind the machine. When I get all the way across the row, I shift the bulk of the quilt a little to the left so the plastic bags clear the sewing machine, and pull the whole pile back toward me, ready for the next row.

This is probably way more than you want to know about how to sew a postage stamp quilt, and I still have some things to tell you about this particular quilt, so I’ll stop here and resume the story in a later post.


  1. Great photos of your process. I love the results too! By the way....Looking at the images I felt I was seeing spots. Should I adjust my screen?

  2. Crikey - I'd never really thought about all the snagging before - but I totally get it now! Love the look, don't think I'll ever be trying to emulate it!

    thanks for sharing,


  3. this is fascinating! the "too much info" helps to keep me from thinking it is ever a good idea for me to emulate. :-)
    Sandy in the UK

  4. Ohhh thanks for the explaination - I have a bag of little postage stamp size scraps just waiting for a quilt - its on my list of things to do!! We'll see when it gets done!! Wow can't believe you've done a series of these!

  5. This is brilliant! Thanks for sharing. We quilters are very inventive....
    Do you use regular sewing thread to sew the rows together? I just wondered if it would be strong enough.

  6. Heather - yes, I use regular thread. On several of my earlier quilts I used Isacord (shiny polyester embroidery thread) in the needle and plain cotton in the bobbin. On this latest quilt I used up a bunch of old spools of Coats and Clark Dual Duty for both needle and bobbin. Have never had trouble with the thread breaking with either combination.

  7. That is amazing! When I saw your flag quilt at QN last year, I wondered how you did it. It still looks so labor intensive.
    BTW I enjoyed browsing your Soup Kitchen blog, too. I also love to make soup. I'll have to visit it again.

  8. Oh my word. I don't think I'd ever have the patience or organizational skills to do this! It does make for impressive quilts, though.