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How to Hand Quilt

How to hand quilt

This tutorial is an extract from Sarah’s Fielke’s new book Old Quilts, New Life which sees her replicate, and then modernise 9 quilts from the American Folk Art Museum.  Read on to learn how to hand quilt. 

Quilting can be fairly rudimentary, with its main purpose being to hold together the layers of the quilt, or it can be decorative and sometimes extremely elaborate. Machine-quilting is quick, but nothing beats hand-quilting for sheer heirloom beauty and a soft hand to the finished quilt.

Designs for hand-quilting, or elaborate designs for machine-quilting, are generally marked on the quilt top before the quilt’s layers are sandwiched together. On pale fabrics, the marking is done lightly in pencil or chalk pencil; on dark fabrics, a special quilter’s silver pencil or chalk pencil is used. Pencil lines can be erased later. Be very light and cautious with your marking, because even pencil can be difficult to remove.

Free-flowing lines can be drawn on, but if you intend to quilt straight lines or a cross-hatched design masking tape can be used to mark out the lines on the quilt top. Such tape comes in various widths, from 1⁄4 in. (6 mm) upward.

If you intend to outline-quilt by machine, you may be able to sew straight-enough lines by eye; if not, you will need to mark the quilt top first, or use your machine foot as a guide.

Hand-quilting tutorial

Quilting by hand produces a softer line than machine-quilting and will add to the lovingly handmade quality of a quilt. Most of the quilts in this book are quilted using Aurifil Mako’ Ne 12 weight cotton or perle cotton, since these are often easier for beginners to work with and stand out vividly against the fabric’s surface. However, traditional waxed quilting thread can be used if you prefer.

To hand quilt, the fabric needs to be held in a frame (also known as a quilting hoop). Freestanding frames are available, but hand-held ones are cheaper, more portable, and just as effective. One edge of a handheld frame can be rested against a table or bench to free up both hands.

Hand-quilting, like machine-quilting, should commence in the center of the quilt and proceed outward. Place the plain (inner) ring of the frame under the center of the quilt. Position the other ring, with the screw, over the top of the quilt to align with the inner ring. Tighten the screw so that the fabric in the frame becomes firm, but not drum-tight.

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For traditional quilting, choose the smallest needle that you feel comfortable with. (These needles are known as “betweens.”) For quilting with perle cotton or 12 weight cotton, use a good-quality crewel embroidery needle (I use a no. 9).

1. Thread the needle with about 18 in. (46 cm) of thread. Knot the end of the thread with a one-loop knot and take the needle down through the quilt top into the batting, a short distance from where you want to start quilting. Tug the thread slightly so that the knot pulls through the fabric into the batting, making the starting point invisible.

Sarah Fielke hand quilting tutorial

2. With your dominant hand above the quilt and the other beneath, insert the needle through all three layers at a time with the middle or index finger of your dominant hand (use a metal thimble to make this easier) until you can feel the tip of the needle resting on your finger at the back.

How to hand quilt

3. Without pushing the needle through, rock it back to the top of the quilt and use your underneath finger to push the tip up. Put your upper thumb down in front of the needle tip while pushing up from the back, as shown. This will make a small “hill” in the fabric.

Beginner's guide to hand quilting

4. Push the needle through the fabric. This makes one stitch. To take several stitches at once, push the needle along to the required stitch length, then dip the tip into the fabric and repeat the above technique. Gently pull the stitches to indent the stitch line evenly. You should always quilt toward yourself, as this reduces hand and shoulder strain, so turn the quilt in the required direction.

TIP –  You can protect your underneath finger using a stick-on plastic shield such as a Thimble-It. Or you could use a leather thimble, although this does make it more difficult to feel how far the needle has come through, and thus more difficult to keep your stitches neat and even.

Find out more about Old Quilts, New Life click the cover image below.

Old Quilts, New Life by Sarah Fielke is published by CICO Books (£14.99)

Learn how to hand quilt
Photography by Sue Stubbs © CICO Books