Ask anyone to describe ‘Handquilting’ and some of the words that will be used are ‘difficult’ or ‘must be small stitches’ or ‘the stitches should be the same back and front’. To some extent all of these may be true if you are entering big competitions but for most of us we are sewing because we enjoy it and the best way to improve is just to start quilting!
Quilting is one of the most basic sewing stitches - a running stitch, it just happens to go through three (or more) layers. Your stitches can be any size – the most important thing is to try to get them even. You may find that your ‘default’ stitch size is quite large and that’s fine equally if you automatically do small stitches then that’s fine too. The best tip for getting even stitches on the back is – don’t look at the back! This is something that comes with practice so start with some cushions and you won’t see the stitching on the back! If you want to make a quilt use a patterned fabric for the backing and your stitches won’t show!
So to start quilting
Choose your pattern - they are available in magazines, books and as ready to use patterns such as those from Sandie Lush. Don’t choose anything too complicated to begin with. If you need to trace your pattern from a book or magazine use a pencil and either greaseproof or freezer paper then go over the pattern with a permanent ‘Sharpie’ type pen so that you will be able to see it easily through your fabric.
Select your fabric I suggest using a fine quilters calico (American Muslin) for your first projects. It is inexpensive, lovely to sew and gives good results. Any lightweight cotton can be used but avoid tightly woven materials such as Batiks. Use a similar weight fabric for the backing although Butter muslin can be used for backing a cushion front.
Marking there are many specialist markers available but an ordinary propelling pencil gives a fine line (use lightly so that it removes easily). A soft watercolour pencil in a colour near to the thread will mark very easily. Before marking out a whole project, test that the colour will wash out on a piece of scrap fabric. For dark fabrics a slither of dried soap also works well. Sewline quilter’s propelling pencil have a range of coloured leads which mark easily.Whatever you use you may have to re-mark as you go on large projects.
Marking the pattern onto your fabric Tape your pattern onto a flat surface using masking tape on each corner, then tape your fabric on top matching the centre points. If you are using a light coloured fabric you will be able to see the pattern through the fabric. If you can’t then try taping the pattern to the window or make a light box using a piece of Perspex (or your sewing machine extension table!) on top of baked bean tins with a light underneath. Trace the pattern with your chosen marker using a ruler for the straight lines.
Wadding - At first, try using Hobbs Polydown, this is a very even polyester wadding, not too puffy but with enough loft to show your quilting patterns. Once you are confident with your quilting try using other types such as wool.
Needles – There are many different quilting needles available and it is a good idea to try different sizes and makes to find your favourite – you don’t even have to actually use quilting needles, Jacquie Harvey, who has won many prizes for her handquilting uses a longer Embroidery needle size 10 or a Sharps 9 or 10. John James Big Eye quilting needles only come in small sizes but are easy to thread! Piecemakers Betweens/Quilting are finer and, for their size they have slightly larger eyes, travel through fabrics well.
Threads – Try and use a thread at least two shades darker than your fabric and also slightly thicker than that used for piecing, this will make your pattern more visible - after all, you’re spending a lot of time quilting so you need to see the result! Guterman silk is really lovely and soft and glides through the material and has a good range of colours. Mettler cotton quilting thread is also nice and soft but doesn’t have the sheen of silk. Mettler ‘silk-finish’ cottons have a large range of colours including variegated and are lovely to use. Aurifill and Guterman Sulky are also nice to use and if you can get hold of reels of the old ‘Sylko 40’ this works well. It is really a matter of personal choice and which provides the best colour for your project.
So now you have everything ready it’s time to start the quilting!
First, having traced your pattern onto your fabric, layer up your backing, wadding and top as normal and tack in a 3-4” grid over the whole piece. With your chosen thread, tie a knot near the end and insert needle about ½” away from starting point but not all the way through - just into the wadding - bring the needle out again at starting point and pull the knot through until it ‘pops’ through the top layer and is buried in the wadding. It is best to start in the middle of your piece and with a straight rather than curved line if possible.
Quilt using a running stitch trying to put the needle through the work vertically and swinging it over to come back up as vertically as possible – you may only manage one or two stitches at a time – don’t worry about the length of the stitch, just try to get them fairly even. Don’t look at the back!
Finish off with a knot ‘popping’ this into the wadding to bury it, bring the needle out along the sewing line and cut off the thread – the end of the thread will disappear into the wadding. You can also make a small backstitch at the start and end of stitching if you wish to make the ends more secure.
Finally, don’t forget, there is no right and wrong way to quilt. Experiment and decide what you are happy with and remember – you are quilting to enjoy it!