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What better way to spend those chilly months than snuggled up under a warm, handmade quilt? But if you've never created a quilt before, where on earth do you begin? Firstly, let's start with the basics.
In essence, quilting is the process of sewing multiple layers of material together to form a thicker, warmer structure. A quilt is divided into three layers: the Quilt Top, the Wadding and the Backing. Quilters often like to use a 'quilt sandwich' analogy when describing this combination – as a sandwich is divided into three main layers, so is a quilt in a similar sense. The Quilt Top features the main design of the quilt, while the Wadding is used as padding and the Backing is usually cotton fabric to help hold the Wadding in.
To stitch the quilt layers together, there are several common stitches used for both functionality and decoration – the most common being a basic running stitch. Generally speaking, creating a quilt involves a variety of other techniques alongside sewing the layers together. The Quilt Top can be created from bespoke patchwork patterns or different forms of applique, and embroidery can be added as embellishment. On many quilts, a combination of these techniques is used.
Quilting can either be completed by hand or with a machine. Hand quilting is the method of stitching with a needle and thread by hand, sewing a running stitch throughout the quilt layers to attach them together. A stab stitch is commonly used in this process, in which the quilter pushes the needle in through the fabric on the right side, then pulls it back up through the wrong side of the fabric to secure the stitch. Alternatively, you could use a rocking stitch – putting one hand on top of the quilt to feed the needle down, with the other hand underneath the fabric to push the needle back up.
Machine quilting, on the other hand, is a somewhat quicker process in which a quilter uses a sewing machine to stitch the quilt layers together. Once the Quilt Top, Wadding and Backing are pinned together on a flat surface, the quilter sews across the sandwich, thus securely attaching the layers together. This stitching can be done in straight rows aligned to the seams, or in complementary patterns to suit the Quilt Top design.
Whereas quilting is used to form the structure of a quilt, patchwork is the process of sewing fabric pieces together to create a block (usually square) or a strip design. Once you've made several blocks or a series of strips, you then stitch them together to create a larger design which forms your Quilt Top – the upper layer of your quilt sandwich. Alternatively, a single shape can be used and repeated in an Overall pattern until the Quilt Top is the desired size.
Fundamentally, patchwork quilts consist of many fabric pieces of differing patterns, colours and textures, combined together in a variegated style – but with an underlying theme. Often each piece is precisely measured and cut using an acrylic template and rotary cutter, thus making them easier to piece together. Popular ways to create patchwork pieces are by making Patchwork Blocks, Overall designs, and Strip Piecing.
Patchwork blocks are squares that consist of repeated patterns and shapes, but of differing colours. The blocks can be any size, although many patterns are created in 12" squares. Each block is made up of patches – in essence, they are a grid of squares. A four-patch grid features four squares in the gridded arrangement, whilst a nine-patch grid contains nine squares in the grid. The size of the grid doesn't change, however the patches within the grid can be divided up. When you've decided upon your grid size, you can then create patterns and designs within that structure. Once your blocks are constructed, they're then stitched together to form a larger arrangement.
Overall patchwork designs consist of specifically shaped, incremental geometric pieces that are sewn together with a larger design or ultimate pattern in mind. Often featuring a variety of different coloured pieces, these shapes can be placed at random or following a regimented order to create spectacular colour progressions or effects. Examples of overall patchwork designs include Clamshell, Starburst and Hexagon.
The strip piecing technique involves sewing multiple fabric strips together lengthwise to form a strip set. Typical strip sets consist of three long fabric strips of the same pattern, but of differing colours. The long strip set is cut into individual segments to ensure each patch is completely identical. Working with strip piecing means you don't need to work with smaller, fiddly pieces and can instead quickly produce repeated patterns.