Wanna Try Patchwork Quilting? 4 Skills You Need to Know

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We get this question all the time: How is "patchwork" different from "quilting"? Aren't they the same thing? To the uninitiated, it can be a bit confusing, but it's not too complex once you know the basics.

In general, when we say "patchwork," we're talking about the first few steps of the quilting process — the cutting, piecing, pressing and squaring of the fabric that makes up the quilt top. There's more to come after that, but the patchwork always comes first.

Patchwork typically involves four simple steps, and once you've got 'em down, you're golden.

1. Cutting

Before you start sewing pieces of fabric together, you've got to chop 'em up! Most patterns will tell you exactly how many pieces to cut, to what size, and with what fabric.

What you'll need

  • A rotary cutter. These guys make more precise, straight cuts than fabric shears ever could.
  • A cutting mat, because you wouldn't want to run your rotary cutter right on your dining room table or kitchen counters.
  • Quilting rulers (which, fair warning, you'll probably start collecting) to help you measure your fabric and cut super-straight lines. Many quilting rulers have an extra ½" built in to them to account for seam allowances, so your 6½" square ruler will help you sew a finished 6" block.
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How to cut quilting fabric

Place your fabric on the cutting mat, then place a quilting ruler along the fabric. Line it up exactly where you want to cut and hold the ruler down with your non-dominant hand. Grab the rotary cutter with your dominant hand, position it along the edge of the ruler and push the rotary cutter away from you, putting pressure down into the mat.

2. Piecing

Once your pieces are all cut out, it's time to piece (that's quilting talk for "sew") them together.

What you'll need

  • A sewing machine (unless you're quilting by hand — kudos to you and your patience!).
  • If you have one, a ¼" presser foot, which helps you keep an even seam while you sew. It's not really required, but everyone and their sister uses them for piecing.

How to piece quilting fabric

Here's a number you'll want to remember: ¼". Piecing almost always requires ¼" seam allowance — it reduces bulk in your quilt top and makes for more accurate blocks.

Depending on your machine alignment, you may need to adjust your needle width to make sure that the seam is a perfect ¼" or just a hair under (called a scant ¼") to allow for the fold of the fabric when the seam is pressed.

Accuracy is important here! A seam even slightly too wide or too narrow can cause problems later when you're trying to line up blocks or rows of blocks.

3. Pressing

After piecing two shapes together, you'll want to press them. Don't skip this step! Pressing = accurate seams and a nice, flat quilt top.

Important: Quilters do not iron. They press. The difference, you ask? When ironing, you move your iron around on the fabric. Yeah, this is no big deal on blouses and slacks, but on quilting fabric, that movement will stretch out the unsewn fabric, which spells big problems down the road. Steam will do the same thing.

What you'll need

  • An iron, of course. You don't need anything fancy here!
  • Starch or a pressing spray, which stiffens up your fabric just enough to make it behave.

How to press quilt pieces

Use the tip of the iron to open the seam or press it to the side of the darker fabric. Then place your iron on the seam and hold it still. To move it to a different part of your pieced block, lift it up and place it in a new spot.

4. Square it up

Once the fabric is sewn, it's time to square it up! All that means is trimming the tiny strips of excess fabric that extend past the desired size of the block. 

Don't worry about this step too much while you're getting started. If you're only working with squares and rectangles, you can avoid this step completely if you cut carefully and piece accurately. But the more complex your blocks get, the more you'll need to fix 'em up after sewing.

What you'll need

  • It helps to have a square ruler that's at least as big as the size of your finished block.
  • If you have a larger ruler, use a bit of painter's tape to section off the extra part of the ruler and pretend that it's the right size.

How to square up quilt blocks

Place the center of the ruler in the center of the block, then use your rotary cutter to trim around the edges. If there's no fabric to trim, don't force it!

Repeat these steps enough times, and you'll have enough pieces for a whole quilt. (Plus, you'll be expert!)

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Wanna Try Patchwork Quilting? 4 Skills You Need to Know