Sew You Wanna Quilt? – Choosing a Pattern (or Not) – Your First Project

Welcome to the fifth installment of the Sew You Wanna Quilt? Series

This post is designed to help you understand the mechanics of putting together a quilt and will discuss selecting your first project. Many people I talk to express a desire to make a quilt, but are afraid to start. I commonly hear this:

  • “I can’t sew.”
  • “I’m not creative.”
  • “It looks too hard.”
  • “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Trust me – anyone can sew. The skills for quilt construction are pretty straight forward. A project does not have to be hard to be beautiful. And with all the fantastic tutorials and patterns available, you don’t even have to be creative…someone else can tell you exactly how to do it. Hopefully, this post will tell you where to start.

Before you pick your first project, it is helpful to understand the basic construction of a quilt top. A quilt top is made up of blocks which are created with components such as squares, rectangles, and triangles. Blocks are joined together to create a row. Quilt blocks may be joined directly together, or may be joined by sashing (strips of fabric). Rows are joined together to create the quilt front. Quilters may then add borders (wide strips of fabric)…or not. Finishing the quilt will be covered in a future post.

It is helpful to think about quilt construction as geometry. The simplest quilts use squares, rectangles and triangles which are joined together to form patterns. Experienced quilters also use hexagons, circles, and other shapes. But, for our purposes, we’re going to stick with simple shapes.

Once a quilter understands how a quilt comes together, it is not necessary to purchase a pattern. Many of my early projects were designed by me without the use of a purchased or downloaded pattern. Here are some examples:

This quilt uses rectangular strips of fabric sewn together to make up each block. I then just turned every other block 90 degrees to create the split rail pattern. This quilt has two borders – a narrow white border, and a wider turquoise border.

This baby quilt uses simple squares of different fabric (those are the blocks) which are sewn together to form rows. I cut a strip of dancing girl fabric to run across the middle and used two borders.

For this baby quilt I again cut simple squares, then “framed” them with strips of fabric to create the block. I used sashing to join the blocks together to make the row. The little squares you see were stitched to the the sashing strips (these are called cornerstones). The border is just rectangles of fabric stitched together into a strip.

You can see how very simple the construction of each of these three quilts were – rectangles and squares. That’s it.

If you decide to piece a quilt without a formal pattern, this is what I suggest:

  • Sketch out your quilt on graph paper or simple white typing paper.
  • Decide how big your quilt will be (I usually pick a size for my blocks like 6″ or 8″ or 12″ and then figure out how many blocks I will make in each row…this will give you your width – if you are planning on a border or sashing, you also have to figure out the width of those strips and add them to the total width).
  • I draw a block with its components, and then figure out how big each component will be to make up the block – then I write that measurement right on my sketch and add a half inch to each one for cutting purposes.
  • Think of constructing all your blocks first, then joining them together.

Remember that when you stitch two pieces of fabric together, you are using a 1/4″ seam on each side of the fabric…this means that when you cut fabric, you need to allow for that 1/2″ of seam. SO, let’s say you are going to make a quilt which will be 40″ wide (finished). You decide it will have four 10″ blocks in each row. Because of the seam allowance, however, you need to add 1/2″ to your blocks. So each block must finish at 10.5 inches. This is really simple if you are just cutting a square of fabric for each block – each square will be cut 10.5 inches, so that when sewn together it will be equal to 10″.

I like to think of quilt patterns the way I think of recipes for cooking – they provide me with inspiration and some guidance, but I am free to tweak them or change them to meet my creative needs. I often see a quilt on line, break it down into its components, then play with it to create a unique quilt of the size I want. It sounds hard, but it is not really all that difficult.

That said, I know that many people will want the security of a pattern, so here are some links to free patterns and tutorials and quilt-alongs you can find on line:

On line Quilting Tutorials

Many quilt bloggers are incredibly generous. There are some who provide free quilting tutorials with patterns on their sites. I have included a sampling of some which I think are appropriate for beginners – but this is really just the tip of the iceberg.

Free Patterns

Free quilting patterns can be found everywhere on line. Many are PDF downloads. A lot of the manufacturers provide free patterns which are designed specifically for a collection of fabric.

Quilt Alongs

The blogs and Flickr are a great resource for inspiration and there is always a quilt-along going on somewhere. I’ve included links to some quilt-alongs which are currently happening, and others which are over, but the instructions and Flickr groups are still up and running.

Another option for your first project is to taking a class at your local quilt shop. The upside is you have someone at your elbow to help you each step of the way and camaraderie with other quilters. Also, many stores give class attendees a discount on the day of the class. The downside is you have to haul your stuff out to the store and it costs money to join a class.

Things to Consider when Choosing Your First Project

  • Pick something simple – look for a quilt that is primarily made up of squares, rectangles and triangles
  • Consider something less than a full sized quilt – lap quilts, baby quilts and table runners are all smaller projects which are easy to finish
  • If you have never sewn before or your sewing experience is limited, consider either an on-line tutorial, a quilt-along (which has the benefit of being able to see what other quilters are doing and to ask questions if you get stuck), or a class at your local shop. Personally, I prefer on line quilt-alongs because you can go at your own speed and sew from the comfort of your own home.

Sew You Wanna Quilt?

  • Visit the links above for tutorials and free patterns.
  • Visit a couple of Flickr quilt-along groups – join one if it “speaks” to you.
  • Blog hop (check out the blog links in the sidebars of some of the blogs I’ve listed above) and check out the blogger tutorials out there. Subscribe to your favorite blogs.
  • Check out the beginner quilting classes at your local quilt store.
  • Choose a project – if you have limited sewing experience, choose something smallish that is made up of primarily squares, rectangles, strips or triangles. Steer clear of circles, or curves for now. Decide what you will make and how big you will make it. Think about the fabrics you have looked at – does a particular fabric lend itself to your project more than another one? Remember, you do not need to do anything fancy. A simple charm quilt (squares stitched together) is beautiful.
  • Make a list of how much fabric you will need for your chosen project – then buy it. Don’t be scared. It is just fabric. Trust your sense of color and design – believe me, you have it even if you don’t know you do!

Previous articles in this series:

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  1. What a great post – the links are wonderful! And I love the quilt that uses the dancing girl strip in the middle!

  2. So lovely! I’m really enjoying these posts. Though I may never actually quilt, myself, they always give me hope that I MIGHT someday. ;O)

    • Wendy on August 28, 2011 at 07:30

    Thanks, Jill – I’m glad you’re enjoying the series!

    Pam: I love that you are enjoying these even if you don’t like to quilt! But, I hope I tempt you to try something – even if it is just something small!!

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