Virtual Quilting Bee – Quilt-Making Technique Basics

Welcome to Part 3 of the Virtual Quilting Bee!

Today we’re going to discuss quilting tips and techniques as we prepare to sew our blocks. Next Friday will be our first quilt block tutorial designed by Sherri of A Quilting Life. Sherri is such a talented and experienced quilter – I can’t wait to see what she has up her sleeve!

Today I will share some quilting tips and basic techniques. As I’ve mentioned previously, if I have written more indepth about these topics, I will link to those posts, rather than re-hash everything again, but hopefully this will be a good reference point for lots of different quilting basics.
Working with Patterns
For more in-depth information on working with Quilt Patterns, refer to this post as part of the Beginning Quilting Series, but here are a few handy tips whether you’re working with a printed pattern or using an online tutorial:
·         Read all the way through the entire pattern before you do anything. It’s always good to get an idea of the ‘big picture’ before you start.
·         Check the experience level so you don’t get frustrated. Complex quilting takes practice. I would suggest starting with something simple at first – larger shapes, simple design, etc. just to get the hang of things before jumping into something more advanced. But that’s just me.

Preparing Fabric
To pre-wash or not to pre-wash? Growing up my mom pre-washed everything, but once I started working in a quilt shop about 9 years ago, we never pre-washed and didn’t worry because we were always using high-quality fabrics. There were a few occasions where something bled after everything was pieced, but those were very, very few and far between. Occasionally I’ll wash a solid red or black, or something from a manufacturer that I don’t trust, but that’s very rare. I wrote more here about my Pre-Washing experiences and Shout color catchers. But basically, if you’re using new, high-quality quilt-shop fabrics you don’t need to pre-wash. I actually prefer working with the fabric right off the bolt because it has the sizing still in it and it’s easier to cut accurately. 

Also, you do not need to pre-wash pre-cuts. Besides being a huge pain in the rear to re-shape and press, they are likely going to fray and you’re going to loose a lot of fabric real estate when they shrink slightly.

Cutting Fabric

Accurate and careful cutting can save so much frustration down the road, not to mention wasted fabric. Take the time to cut your pieces accurately. Here are a few tips, but for more detailed information and pictures, refer to the Cutting 101 post as part of the Beginning Quilting Series. 
·         Respect the rotary cutter. A good quality rotary cutter will make a big difference in your cutting. (I use Olfas.) Change the blade – don’t try to milk that blade to death, you’ll only get frustrated. I’m always amazed at the difference a new blade makes, and I always wonder why I waited so long to change it. (Watch for coupons and sales on blades so that you can buy them in bulk for a better price.) Also, be careful. Those suckers can draw some serious blood if you’re not careful.
·         Hold the ruler applying steady pressure with your left hand (make sure no fingers are hanging over the edge of the ruler) and use the rotary cutter like a pizza slicer – push it away from your body – with your right hand. (Opposite hands if your left-handed, obviously.)
·    Cutting multiple layers of fabric at a time is a great time saver, however I try not to cut more than 4 layers at once. The larger the blade, the more accurately it will cut through multiple layers. I generally use my medium-sized Olfa blade (pictured) for most projects, but I have a large blade that I LOVE for cutting lots of pieces at once. Use the mini blades for small projects like trimming or squaring up blocks.
·         Square up your fabric before you start cutting strips or pieces. It takes a minute more of your time, but makes a huge difference – especially when cutting pieces like long strips. Start by matching up your selvage edges – that may require re-pressing the center fold – so that you can use the straight edge of the selvage as a guide for squaring off the raw ends. (A lot more in depth explanation and photos found in the Cutting 101 post).
·         Use the ruler – not the grid on the cutting mat – as your guide for cutting.  The ruler is going to be more accurate, especially when cutting small pieces. 
·         When cutting strips, pieces, etc., place ruler over the top of fabric at the desired width/size your need to cut. You can use multiple rulers if you need more width, etc.
Piecing is the actual sewing the pieces of the block or quilt together. Go here for the Piecing post of the Beginning Quilting series.
·         The key is a consistent ¼” seam allowance!  Always keep the edges of your fabrics matched-up and against the edge of your presser-foot as you sew. It will feel tedious at first, but the more you do it, the more natural it will feel.
·         A SCANT ¼” seam allowance is best. Measure your seam allowance with your ruler.  Your seam should fall just inside the ¼” line of your ruler. This will help so much with accuracy with creating your quilt blocks.  Your piecing will just fit together better.  Many machines have a ¼” presser foot available. I just adjust my needle to the right one notch and it’s perfect with my regular foot. Go here for more details on and pictures of a Scant ¼”. I can’t emphasize this one enough – especially as we plan to make quilt blocks for this quilt along.
·         Chain piecing is a great method when you are sewing lots of little pieces together at once. Just feed them through the machine one right after the other without breaking the thread or raising the presser foot.  Then trim between the pieces when you’re ready to sew the next step. Saves time and thread. I will sometimes take the whole chain to the ironing board and press them open before I clip the threads.
·    Pinning can help a lot with keeping your pieces matched up accurately. I’m a rebel and often sew right over the pins (because I like to live on the edge). Clover makes really thin pins for quilt makers that are a dream. Invest in good pins – long with easily grip-able knobs at the top are the best. (Also, they’re easier to find when your drop them on the floor.)
Please note there is a difference between pressing and ironing. You definitely don’t want to iron your quilt piecing or blocks as it could stretch and misshape the fabric, but pressing makes a huge difference in a neat, crisp-looking block or quilt. Pressing is more careful and gentle, but using a lot of heat and sometimes some steam is a great asset.
·         I press seams to the side, unless it is a heavily pieced block where the seams create a lot of bulk, then I will occasionally press my seams open. Sometimes patterns give pressing directions, sometimes I just do my best to guess.
·       “Set the seam” –- this means to press over the seam first with seam still closed. I don’t know the science of “why” behind “setting the seam” but it really does make a difference.
·         Then open up blocks and press again from the top (front) to get a nice clean press. This way you can also make sure the seam is open all the way and nice and flat. 
·         To steam or not to steam?  I don’t always steam, just because I don’t like to keep water in my iron. (leaks, wrecks the iron after a while, etc.) but it’s an option if you have really small pieces and/or need something to lie really flat. Just be careful not to stretch or distort the fabric.
Square up blocks
Squaring up your quilt blocks means to measure and trim them so that they measure accurately and are all the same size. I get it – squaring-up can be tedious work- but it makes a HUGE difference in keeping things accurate and square. I like to piece my block portions like flying geese, half-square triangles, etc slightly large just so I have the room to square them up with nice, straight edges.

Just make sure that you square up evenly on all sides.  Those square rulers with the diagonal line are a big help for squaring up because you can use that line to find the diagonal center of the unit and keep the block from getting trimmed in-accurately.

For squaring up something with a point, like this flying-geese block, make sure you leave a 1/4″ seam allowance at the tip of the point. A Pineapple or Flying-geese ruler like this one will have a guide to help you maintain that 1/4″ at the point. Also note how I squared up evenly on all four sides so that the point remained centered.

Finally a little bit of advice before we start sewing next week:

Quilting theory according to Amy Smart

Finally- remember this is all about having FUN. Cutting and sewing accurately will minimize frustration down the road, so they are definitely worth practicing, but at the same time, don’t be obsessive about perfection. It can take all the fun right out of the experience. 
It’s not a race or a competition and there is no Quilting Gestapo that are going to come check every seam allowance or measure every quilt block or make sure you’ve followed the pattern perfectly. I’ve learned not to fret too much if a few star points get lost along the way while I’m doing something creative. Then again, I don’t usually enter any of my quilts in the State Fair – for the most part they’re for me or for friends and family who generally don’t quilt.

For me quilting is about playing with color and design and a creative outlet. Your purpose might be different than mine – just do what makes it a fun, creative experience for you. Play with different colors, don’t be afraid to stretch yourself a little, but make sure it’s still something you are enjoying along the way.

A little business:

I have set up a Virtual Quilting Bee Flickr group. There’s not much to see right now, but as we start having blocks to share, please feel free to upload your creations. One of my favorite parts of going to a quilting class is to see the variety of fabric choices people bring to the same project. It’s so inspiring! This Flickr group will be like our ‘classroom design wall’.

Thanks so much for participating. I really want this group to be as helpful as possible! Feel free to leave tips or links to other quilting techniques in the comments below. Also, if you have questions, I will leave my responses in the comments as well.

Happy weekend!

Virtual Quilting Bee: Quilting Supplies

As we kick off our Virtual Quilting Bee (click here to see the introduction post), today I’d like to talk a little bit about basic quilting supplies.

I’ve written a similar post as part of the Beginning Quilting Series. Since the Beginning Quilting series already exists (and I’ll probably refer to it from time to time) I’d like this quilting Bee to function as “the next step up” – moving on to more intermediate quilting skills.

Beginning Quilting Series

Today I’ll talk about basic quilting supplies, but give you a little more in-depth thought.  Now, here’s my first disclaimer: This is called “Quilting according to Amy Smart”. I do not pretend to be the most knowledgeable quilting guru out there. Far from it. So please don’t think of me as the be-all and end-all when it comes to quilting. I have made a few quilts over the years and so I’ll share what works for me. Please feel free to take it or leave it. I want you to do what works best for YOU.

Let’s talk supplies. Here is my original post about Basic Quilting Supplies for your review. Rather than rehash the same topic, I’m going to refer you there. This post talks about the basics of getting started: rotary cutter, mat, seam ripper, pins, scissors. I don’t have much more to add to those categories. I will expound and embellish on a few others below.

There are a TON of quilting tools, gadgets, and gizmos out there and many of them are really cool. Obviously people have been quilting for centuries without anything more than a pair of scissors and a needle and thread. That’s all you need really. Don’t get too overwhelmed by the number of tools available – especially if you’re just getting started.

I’ve been picking up quilting supplies here and there over the past 14 years. I now have a nice collection – many of which are great helps – but starting with the basics will be just fine. As with everything, watch for sales, check thrift shops, use coupons at places like JoAnn’s, etc. You can get really great deals on lots of your quilting notions by doing so.

I get asked about machines a lot, and I don’t feel super helpful. I don’t have a fancy machine. It’s probably almost as old as I am. It’s a Bernina Sport 801- all metal, heavy duty, and I love it! I don’t do a lot of fancy stuff with my machine. I just need it to sew a straight line, and it’s great for that. That said, I’m starting to look at upgrading and getting a new one. I’d like one with a bigger work surface and maybe a wider throat (more space between the knobs and the needle).

As with anything you don’t always need the fanciest of the fancy, but quality does make a difference. I personally would not buy a machine from Costco or Target and expect to have a great experience with it. But you can still find a decent machine at a good price. My mom bought a great little Janome from Hancock’s fabrics that is frequently on sale. There are some great tips and suggestions in the comments section of THIS POST.

Also, Melissa has written an excellent post about buying a machine here. I would echo everything she said. The main point being: find a good local dealer, if you’re looking to invest in a good machine for the long haul. They’ll be an invaluable resource.

I highly recommend good thread. Definitely 100% cotton for working with 100% cotton fabrics. I personally prefer 50 wt thread for piecing blocks. (Heavier weight like 40 -28 for quilting.) This thread is thin, but it helps your pieced seams lie flatter – especially when you’re working with small pieces.

[Thread “weights” tell how fine or thick the thread is. The higher the number the thinner it is. This post by Aurifil shows the differences between the various weights of cotton threads.)

I know it seams silly, but there is a difference in thread quality and you get what you pay for. I personally love Aurifil 50 wt. It’s not cheap, but I buy it by the cone so I get a lot for my money’s worth. (I use this thread stand for the cones with my regular machine.)

I also like DMC 50 wt but it’s been harder for me to find locally and I haven’t found it in bulk. Both keep my machine from getting as full of lint. I also recommend Gutterman which you can get on sale at JoAnn’s. It’s a slightly thicker weight, but it will work.

Colors: Most of the time I just use one basic color for all of my piecing – which is why the cones work so well for me. A good neutral cream or taupe blends with almost anything. I use colored threads in smaller spools for applique or binding.

If you have old, not-so-great quality thread, don’t get rid of it. It’s great for things like basting.

As mentioned in the Beginning Basics post, there are two rulers that I would invest in from the very beginning. A 6″ x 24″ long ruler so you can cut strips, etc. and a shorter 6″ x 12″ ruler for easy in cutting smaller pieces or squaring up blocks. I have gradually collected a few more that have become really useful to me: a 6 1/2″ square, and 8 1/2″ square a 12 1/2″ square. The square rulers are handy for cutting and for squaring up blocks.

Another ruler I use consistently has this marking on it for squaring off the top end of triangle or flying-geese blocks, leaving 1/4″ for seam allowance. Simplicity has an Easy Pineapple Ruler with this marking, which is also a 12.5″ square ruler. Mine is about 10 years old and I can’t find them anymore. I know Creative Grids used to make one too, but I couldn’t find it on their website. If someone knows of one, leave it in the comments and I’ll add it to the post.

From there, there are all kinds of nifty flying geese, and angled and hex and wedge shaped rulers out there. They really can help on specific projects. If they’re within your budget and you would use them frequently, I think they are totally worth the purchase.

I happen to prefer a really good iron. I got a Rowenta as a wedding present and it lasted for 10 years. I was so sad when it died but I didn’t have as much money to invest in a new one, so I tried some cheaper brands. You can read my iron saga that ensued. After going through a few other decent irons in a short amount of time, I invested another Rowenta. It was worth it to me.

Keep your eyes peeled for irons on a good sale or with a discount coupon. A few months after I bought one new, I saw a nice, newer model Rowenta Professional at the thrift store for $4.99. (I still keep the price tag on because it makes me feel happy.) I figured it was worth the gamble to see if it worked and it has worked like a dream for 3 years. Now I keep one in my laundry room and one in my sewing room. So check thrift shops! Department stores like Macy’s or Bed Bath & Beyond will carry fancy irons and sometimes have great coupons, so watch for those. Also places like Tuesday Morning or Big Lots will sometimes have random fancy irons at clearance prices.

I was recently given a fancy Oliso iron to play with by the Oliso company. It’s super posh and I love it, but I know they’re a bit pricey too.

I know some quilters who absolutely love vintage electric irons because they stay nice and hot (just remember to turn it off when you’re done) and have a nice pointy tip and the end. Watch for them at thrift stores and yard sales, but make sure they’re safe.

I am frequently asked about fabric quality. This post on fabric shopping advice has a lot more in depth information on where to buy fabric, the difference in quality, definition of a fat quarter, etc.

With the continued price increase for cotton, quality fabric costs are adding up! Here’s what I think. And again, these are just my own thoughts and experiences, so take them for what they’re worth and do what’s best for you. Basically you get what you pay for. The reason that some fabrics are more expensive is because they are generally higher quality (higher thread count, better dyes, etc). Decide for yourself whether it’s worth it to invest in quality that will last longer, or if it’s just a practice project does longevity really matter? Every person will have different thoughts. Do what you think is best.

But definitely get fabric that inspires you to create. It’s so much harder to feel creative when you don’t like your medium.

Don’t forget about watching for sales, coupons, etc. They can make a big difference. I usually only buy 1/2 yards to 1/4 yards or fat quarters because I like scrappy quilts with a lot of variety in them. I’ll wait and buy bigger pieces for backs, etc. when they are on clearance.

We will talk more about fabric, specifically choosing colors, amounts, etc next week.


Again, the Basic Sewing Supplies lists the basic notions such as pins, needles, seam rippers, etc. Here are a couple more that I’ve come to use frequently. I love the adhesive Needle Grip-It dots. I use them in place of a thimble when I’m binding or hand quilting sometimes. I also love the Pilot FriXion pens. The ink is eraseable when you iron over it. (The ink could return if the marked fabric gets cold again, just FYI, but I haven’t had any problems with it.) I use them for labeling rows or marking half-square triangles all the time.

There are a myriad of quilting books available and most of them will have a section with basic quilting skills. One of my recent favorite quilting and sewing reference books is Nancy Zieman’s The A to Z of Sewing. If you’re looking for a good, clear reference to have on hand, or as a gift for someone getting started, I recommend this one.

Alright friends, there’s some food for thought this week. If I’ve missed something you’d like covered or have question about quilting notions and supplies, please leave them in the comments. Also if you have tools or gadgets that you can’t live without, share them in the comments as well!

I have to say, your feedback in this series has already been amazing! It’s harder that I thought it would be to get to respond to all the comments individually, so please know that I’m so appreciative. And I’m going to start doing something that my husband has been trying to get me to do for years: I’m going to start responding and answering questions in the comments section as well, so watch for those.

One question that I’ve received a few times is fabric requirements and availability for this project. I’m working with a few online shops and will have all the information for you before our first block tutorial in March. Hang tight!

Thanks again for your feedback and contributions. I love being a part of this community. And feel free to take a button if you like!!

Virtual Quilting Bee
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Basic Quilting Supplies

This is part 1 in a 10 part Beginning Quilting Series.

I am excited to share some very beginner-level steps to making a quilt. We’re going to move slow and simply through the quilt-making process from beginning to end. There will be a 10 week series, dissecting how to make a simple patchwork quilt. We’ll start today by talking about basic supplies.

One look at the quilting aisle in any of the big fabric stores and it would be easy to feel overwhelmed.  You don’t need every tool on the market for a successful quilt-making experience, but there are a few that will make a significant difference.
  • Rotary Cutter –  this tool is like a pizza cutter for fabric. The blades are very sharp and cut fabric quickly and accurately. There are many different sizes.  I use the medium-sized cutter most and recommend this one for any beginners.
  • A Self-healing Cutting Mat – allows you to use the rotary cutter for cutting fabric.  A printed ruler-grid can also help with measuring fabric pieces. Mats come in many different sizes, but an 18″ x 24″ mat is a good size to start with.
  • Scissors – sharp sewing scissors are helpful however, most quilt projects are cut mostly with a rotary cutter so fancy, expensive scissors aren’t necessary.  Do try to keep a pair of scissors purely for cutting fabric/thread so they won’t dull as quickly cutting paper.
  • Seam Ripper – no shame here!  Even the best of quilters/seamstresses stand by their seam ripper. I have at least 4 located strategically throughout the house because I use them so often.
  • Fabric – we’ll talk about this more in the future, but 100% Cotton is best.
  • Thread – again, use 100% Cotton thread for quilting.  Some thread is better than others.  Cheaper thread will break easier and could create a lint farm in your machine.  I don’t buy the most expensive thread, but I don’t buy the cheapest either.  Because I use so much thread, I started buying in bulk – hence the big cone in the top of the picture. One neutral color works well on most piecing projects – cream, tan or gray.
  • Pins – I like the longer straight pins with plastic heads. They’re much easier to grab while working and to find when I drop them into the carpet. Safety pins (not pictured) also come in handy in the finishing stages later on.
  • Rulers – These are an important part of the quilting process.  They help cut pieces quickly and accurately. I suggest starting with a longer ruler 5″ or 6″ x 24″.  This allows you to cut efficiently across the width of the fabric.  I also recommend a smaller ruler (5″ or 6″ x 12″) to make it easier to cut smaller pieces.
Now, I know you are thinking that this is going to add up fast, and it definitely can.  I suggest using those 40-50% off coupons for the larger chain fabric or craft stores to get your supplies. That can save you a ton of money.  And remember that these tools are investments you will use over and over again.  (I have had my rulers for almost 10 years and have used them almost every day. I even use them for paper crafts – my rotary cutter too!)  If you’re not sure you want to invest in something until you know you enjoy the task they’re for, ask a friend if you can borrow theirs to try them first.

Finally, a word about irons and sewing machines. Neither of these need to be fancy or expensive. Almost any iron will do, but one with steam is an extra nice feature to have.  Some of my favorite irons are one’s that I’ve found at thrift stores for very cheap.
If you have a sewing machine that will sew a good, straight line, you are ready to go!  My machine is almost as old as I am and I love it.  If your machine is giving you trouble, take it in to get serviced. It’s like a car – a little maintenance  and some oil will keep it running well for a long time.
You can buy sewing machine needles specifically for quilting, but don’t have to. Most of the time I use Universals. Changing the needle regularly makes a big difference.  In fact, if your machine is skipping stitches or not sewing well, try changing the needle before you do anything else.  It’s often a simple, and cheap, solution.

This series was originally posted at  Make and Takes