Who’s ready to start the week with a brand new, bonus tutorial for the Beginner Quilt Series? That’s right! Monday’s looking up because I’m going to show you how to hand quilt like a pro! What in the world is that and why would I want to quilt by hand?
I’m glad you asked. Because its awesome, and lends the most gorgeous texture to you handmade quilts AND its more of a human touch which makes it even more special. Its also quite easy to learn, its really cheap therapy (seriously!), and it makes your quilt POP. We know from our last part in this series that quilting is the name for the stitching that holds your quilt layers together. It is what makes your quilt a quilt! The sky is the limit with quilting, and a quick Google search will show you that there are as many ways to quilt as there are to design the quilt top. If you can dream it, you can do it.
People have been hand quilting for a long, long time. Before there were sewing machines, people used their hands to guide needle and thread. Civilizations and people groups have done this in various ways for centuries. Chances are, if you were to visit an antique shop or an estate sale and you found a quilt, it may have been pieced together on a machine (though many I have seen have been sewn entirely by hand), but the quilting was likely done by hand either by a single stitcher or a group of them. The quilt would have likely been stretched onto a frame so it would remain flat, and a multitude of tiny stitches would meander across the whole quilt. Its really quite magnificent to imagine women (or men) gathering around together and stitching together a quilt each with their own “fingerprint” or stitching style.
My personal style is a nod to the past, with a modern spin. I don’t use any sort of frame. I started out with one, and quickly discovered I didn’t care for it. I also “stab” stitch- no rocking here! You see, I like the stitches on the front and back of the quilt to match as closely as possible, so I prefer this method which is not slow because it yields a neater finish, in my opinion. The “rocking” method leaves little dots of thread on the back side which I don’t care for. I’m not suggesting here that my way is the only way or even the “right” way. This is what I do, and its what I love and prefer. I do have reasons for it, and I suggest you try this and perhaps a few different ways to find what works for YOU.
You’ll need a few things, and only just a few to hand quilt. First, get some Perle cotton. Get something that blends with the colors in your quilt, or do what I did here and go for mega contrast. I’m going to show you how to make super neat stitches, so don’t fear stitches that stand out. You’ll want to get a size 8 thread, which can be easily sourced at a local craft store. I mostly use DMC or Anchor brands, and I get them on the little spools. I prefer that to the skeins.
Next you’ll need a good needle. I absolutely adore Richard Hemming large eye needles in size 4 and I use them for positively every quilting project and also for embroidery. They are super strong and sharp, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Finally, get some masking tape- I like 1″ wide Scotch masking tape. Its inexpensive and lasts a long time. When hand quilting, I use this to mark my lines instead of a Hera marker. It stays in place, and helps the stitches to stay perfectly straight. It doesn’t pull on your quilt or leave residue when removed either, so its perfect!
Let’s get started! You should already have your quilt basted with safety pins which we covered in our last post.
First go ahead and mark where you want to quilt. You probably don’t want to tape up your whole quilt. For instance, if you are quilting straight lines, you don’t need to put tape every few inches across the whole quilt. Just take it a line at a time, then you can move the tape to the next part. I’m outlining the sections of the quilt and working my way out. You should always start quilting in the center of your quilt, so I’m starting with the center square. If you are doing straight lines, you don’t need to start with the middle of the line, just begin with THE middle line and work your way out.
Now cut a piece of thread several inches longer than the section you are going to quilt. I’m just working with the center square so I cut a piece of thread a good 8″ longer than I needed. And yes, even when I am working on a long line, I always cut just one piece of thread because its faster, and I also don’t have to worry about little segments popping out of my quilt every 18″ or so. A lot of quilters recommend using a small piece of thread at a time, but I don’t, and you’ll see why that’s not necessary with my method.
Now thread your needle and tie a knot at the end of the thread by wrapping it 3 times and cinching it. (see a quick visual of that HERE.)
Find the place where you want to start and we will hide our knot. Insert your needle through the top and batting ONLY about one inch away from your starting point, and bring the needle out in the spot where you want to start stitching.
Insert your needle just above your knot like this (don’t pull it through).
With one hand, keep the fabric steading with your horizontal needle, and gently pull on the thread where you’ll begin stitching. This will pop the knot through the fabric and hide it within the quilt. You can now begin stitching.
If you are right handed, you’ll likely find it naturally comfortable to stitch from right to left. If you are left handed, you’ll probably prefer stitching left to right. Now we are going to use our tape as a guide. I like to stitch on the top side of the tape normally, but this time, I’m using the bottom side as my guide. I’m going to keep my needle perpendicular to my fabric every time I insert it. I keep my dominant (right) hand on top of my quilt, and I keep my left hand on the bottom at all times. I also like to get really comfortable on my couch or bed or a chair with my knees up and the quilt draped over them.
So I insert my needle straight down with my right hand, grab it with my left. I keep my stitches about 1/4″ long.
Then I make a stitch straight up from the bottom with my left hand and catch it with my right.
I’ll do this for several inches (say, four inches) and during this stretch, I won’t fully tighten the stitches. I’ll wait until I get a few inches in and then I’ll pull the thread taut. This makes the process go quickly. Now keep in mind, you will want to grab the thread with your non dominant hand to tighten while keeping the quilt straight with your dominant hand. Don’t pull from the needle because that’ll stress the thread and it’ll break with enough pressure. We aren’t going for a ton of pressure here. Just a gentle pull until that few inches of quilting is even.
Keep working until you are finished with that section, then we will hide the end of the thread in much the same way we did at the beginning. Wrap your thread around the needle three times to form a knot about the same distance away as your last stitch which may be on the underside of the quilt like mine. Just flip the quilt over and work from that side if you need to. My stitches are a little wobbly on the backside here- I was sitting on the ground and not comfortable. Get comfortable and you will make better stitches!
Insert the needle into the top layer (of whichever side you’re working on) and the batting ONLY and then pull it out about an inch away from that spot.
Again, insert your needle horizontally into your fabric just after the knot, and give the thread a quick but gentle tug to hide the knot within the quilt.
Clip your thread, and you are ready to tackle the next section! The process will get faster as your hands get familiar with the method. Quilting by hand is a lot like knitting or even riding a bike. I believe our bodies have muscle memory, and the more you practice hand quilting, the more natural the process will become. Just remember to enjoy the process as much as you are excited about the finished piece. Every moment you spend making the quilt is just as much a part of its story as the life it will have after it is completed. There is so much beauty in the stitches!
When I first started quilting, I made a goal that I would like to quilt a single quilt by hand by the time I was 80. Well, its been 10 years since I started my journey, and I have quilted more quilts by hand than I can count. I was so impatient in those early days, and I thought I needed to grow in patience before I started working with my hands, and I was surprised that working with my hands in this way actually taught me patience in a beautiful way. Its massively therapeutic, and on those days I want to pull out my hair and run away from kid chaos, I find so much calm in this exercise. I just want you to hear this: you can totally do this. You don’t need to “arrive” at some point in life to succeed. You start small right where you are, and you’ll grow. You CAN do this. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me in the comments below. I’ll be going LIVE on Facebook at 6pm EST to demonstrate this very method on video, and I’ll be happy to answer any questions there as well.
Finally, on Friday we will be wrapping up the Beginner Quilt Series with binding. This step might be tied for my most favorite part of the process. I don’t know! But I will tell you now you are going to need two things- first a thread that matches your binding fabric (not the backing), and some Straw Needles. I recommend these because they are strong and amazingly sharp. They are also the perfect length. I’ve used other brands that bend easily and make me want to pull my hair out. So these are what I use and it comes in a little pack of 16 which is amazing. They will last a long time.
I hope this tutorial has been helpful and will inspire you to try something new! I’ll be back here on Wednesday, and then again on Friday for the final part of the Beginner Quilt Series.
Please note: Amazon links are considered affiliate links which means if you choose to buy by clicking my link, and I hope you will, Amazon will give me a few cents of the sale. The price is the very same, but it does help support my blog and these free tutorials I write!