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An Introduction to Quilting

It wasn’t all that long ago when people took great pride in making, rather than buying what was needed for the family. Before the days of convenience-in-a-bag available for the masses, among mom’s many jobs was to stitch by hand everything her family wore on their backs. And when it came time to make a new cover for the bed, she called on her sisters, aunts, and mother to come together and create something that was not just of impeccable quality but infused with love, poignant stories, and lively conversation. These treasures kept the family warm and cozy as they hunkered down during those long months of beating cold.

Imagine four or five (or more) woman, each taking a section, having arrived with the tools and pieces of material needed (nothing new, all recycled), with no concern for whether her square matched the rest or even the one adjacent it. As they talked, they sewed. If you are a fan of this country’s history, you can even picture in your mind’s eye several women dressed in Brunswick, hair tucked neatly under a cap, maybe even sitting in a rocking chair, stitching away.

Indeed, ask most folks how old quilting is and many will tell you that the early settlers from Europe brought the craft with them. Unsure whether its roots started in the Netherlands, Germany, England, or France, most agree that sometime before or during the Renaissance the art of quilt making began.

Would it surprise you to know that quilting dates back to Ancient Egypt? If you’re a history buff, it might not. This certainly surprised me, as I had assumed it originated in China or India, and was perhaps no more than 2,000 years old. So I did some digging. I came upon a book written by Averil Colby, entitled Quilting. In it, she wrote of a “carved ivory figure of a Pharaoh of the Egyptian First Dynasty, wearing a quilted mantle, circa 3400 B.C.” Indeed this presupposes that the craft is quite old, but also that the first quilts were adorned rather than slept under.

Quilting: As Popular Today As It Ever Was

Query your friends, and it might surprise you how many are curious about the centuries-old art. Perhaps not as popular as NASCAR, baseball, and even voting off singers on American Idol, it still has maintained a steady stream of devotees for literally thousands of years. Not only in the U.S., but also in China, India, Japan, throughout Europe, and West Africa, the idea stitching together layers of fabric for clothing or bedspreads is as popular today as it ever was.

Quilting has come almost full circle in its popularity. The craft of quilt making continued through the Great Depression as a means of practicality. The notion of the average family being able to afford to buy an already-made quilt or an equally warm down comforter from Land’s End or L.L. Bean just wasn’t an option. Of course what followed was the unprecedented economic boom after World War II, and what was once unattainable was almost commonplace. Not only did most families have the money to buy that expensive pre-made quilt or down comforter, but most (with both mom and dad working full time) didn’t have the time needed to devote to making a quilt. It’s time-consuming to make something that can last through three or four generations (if cared for correctly). But, almost full circle, as more Americans are accepting the fact that our way of life is coming apart at the seams, quilting has had a resurgence of popularity in the last ten years.

If Quilting Interests You

If quilting is something that you’d like to try your hand at, you will need a few things:

  • Tools
  • Some friends with quilting knowledge and good conversation
  • Patience
  • A sense of humor and the ability to laugh at yourself as you learn

People look at quilts and assume it’s as easy as layering material and sewing it together. Many people also think tiling a floor is just as easy, until they try it. Quilting is a craft and a skill and one that you won’t easily get the first, second or even third time you attempt it. It’s not what you’d call simple. Maybe in the beginning, your friends and family will be willing to take your first “masterpieces” as expressions of love and not mastery.

For one person to make a quilt (I can tell you from experience) can take weeks or months (depending how much time can be devoted to it). But gather together a group, and long before the first signs of Old Man Winter, you can be sleeping under a quilt that is warm, cozy, beautiful, and will outlive you. In all honesty, even with the right tools, you will want to work with someone who knows what she is doing. It really is an art and rarely do people just “pick it up.”

The Tools Needed

Some beginner tools can include:

  • A rotary cutter
  • A sewing machine (must be able to do ¼ inch seams)
  • Rotary mat
  • Rotary ruler
  • Iron and ironing board (the heavier and wider the better—not a cheap plastic one)
  • 100% pure cotton thread
  • Two pair of scissors—one for cutting your fabric, and the other cutting patterns, plastic, etc.
  • Fabric—cotton is always better than man-made
  • Seam ripper, pins, a pin cushion, and needles
  • Cotton quilting thread (if sewing by hand only)
  • Design wall

Quilt-Making Tips

Most of these items can be found at a fabric store or a crafts store. I prefer to find what I need online either through eBay or a bartering site. The exception to this is the rotary cutter. You will want to try them out for size and grip. The mat protects the surface beneath the cutter and keeps your cutter’s blades sharp. The ruler will help you with grip and to ensure accuracy when cutting your fabric pieces. When you are a novice, be content at first to learn the rotary cut, which is the easiest to learn.

Not everyone likes the idea of using a sewing machine. This is a personal choice, and it won’t affect the quality of your quilt. My mom was a purist who hated the sewing machine until she had three kids and realized its incredible ability to save time and make cool patterns. If you are planning to sew by hand, using a heavy cotton quilting thread will keep your quilts together for many years.

When you’re just starting out, remember KISS—keep it simple sweetie! Don’t go for the fancy textiles or think you’re going to achieve the fanciest stitching. Be content with pieces of cotton, and high-quality, tightly woven cotton at that. By all means go for colors, patterns, and like the most famous quilts, don’t be bothered going with uniformity. Part of what makes quilts so unique and works of art is that each square is different. Maybe at first you’ll want to go for uniformity, but this is an opportunity to stretch your imagination and tap into your creativity. Of course, this will have to go with not just your sheets and pillows but also as the other furniture in your room and the color of your walls.

In order to press your blocks correctly, you’ll need an iron and ironing board. As I mentioned earlier, don’t pick up some $20 ironing board on sale. You want a heavy one, as its weight allows the heat do what it’s supposed to do.

It’s all a matter of personal style whether to use colored or plain-Jane thread. For practicality, use beige thread, but if you love bursts of color, use reds, blues, greens, or get wild with the hues. The colors are not of any major importance, but you just want to make sure you are using cotton and not polyester.

As you are making your quilt and sewing squares together, a design wall allow you to press the squares to it, which from a distance, gives you the ability judge how things are going. Your arms are but only so long. This is where the seam cutter will come in handy. It’s not uncommon to get several squares together and dislike how one fits with the others. Maybe it can be used with a future quilt instead.

Don’t expect the perfect quilt the first time. Give yourself a lot of room to grow. This is something that takes time to master – I am by no means there, but it’s very enjoyable and it’s fun. As I suggested earlier, work with a more experienced quilter at first. Get her guidance on how to press your blocks, where to thread and not to, and ironing techniques. She might even have tips that she’s tried that work well for her.

In a future article, I can share with you how to properly care for your quilt. There are many that were made so well, they continue to hang in museums for 200, 300, or more years after they were created. (My mother-in-law has one that is over 100 years old and still in pristine condition). At the very minimum, your quilt, if made and cared for correctly, should be with you through your lifetime and for a couple of future generations.

©2011 Off the Grid News

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