Learn to Quilt: Basic Skills

This  post is part of my Learn to Quilt series. You can find all related posts {here}.

VMQ-Learn-To-Quilt_250x250Welcome to Lesson 1 of learning to quilt! We already covered the reasons why you should start quilting. Let me tell you how. Baby steps! At this point, we are just talking about this stuff, In later lessons, I will show you step by step how put this information into action and actually make a quilt.

To become a quilter, you will need to know a few basic skills:

1. Basic sewing machine operation | Threading the needle, winding a bobbin, changing feet, cleaning out the lint. You can probably learn all of those things from your machine manual, YouTube, or at a basic sewing class in your town. (in Dallas, I recommend Urban Spools).  These steps vary by machine but I’ll show you the one that I didn’t learn until I got my second sewing machine. No lie…How to Thread the Needle (with an auto threader). I always thought my first machine didn’t have a needle threader but when I went to test new machines, the sales lady demonstrated the needle threader and I realized…”duh. That’s what that thing is.”

2. Sewing a straight line | At it’s most basic, quilting is easier than any other type of sewing. It’s is all straight lines (except when it’s curved lines, but we will get to that much later). Seriously. There is only one trick to sewing straight lines…use your presser foot as a guide.

3. Using a rotary cutter | Sharp and dangerous, rotary cutters are the James Bond of the craft world. I used to work in a corporate environment where every meeting started with a safety minute. Think that way when working with the rotary cutter. They are sharp and they will slice your fingertip off like nobody’s business. And then you’ll bleed all over your pretty fabric and that will be a tragedy. Olfa has a section on their website dedicated to safety and I recommend you read it. My personal rules of rotary cutting are:

  • Always cover the blade with the built-in cover when I’m not cutting. Even if I just set it down for a second, it is second nature to me to cover the blade. This is a MUST when you have little ones at home. Imagine this scenario – you are cutting fabric and get distracted by {fill in the blank}. Your cutting surface is covered with fabrics hanging over the edge where little hands can reach them. Little one pulls the fabric and the open rotary blade on himself. Don’t let this happen at your house.
  • Never cut towards yourself. Always cut away from your body. This may seem awkward at first, but it’s important. A woman my sister worked with was cutting design board stuff with an x-acto blade and stabbed herself in the stomach with it. Embarrassing, yes, but more importantly, painful and pretty bad for your health (She was fine, FYI.)
  • Replace your blade when it stops cutting well. Rotary blades are expensive but working with damaged ones causes you to cut in an unsafe manner. You’ll find yourself using excess pressure to cut through your fabric and that’s a recipe for disaster.


4. Maintaining an accurate scant 1/4″ seam (that sounds intimidating with scant and a fraction thrown in there, but it’s not difficult.)  | All patchwork is pieced (sewn together) with a 1/4″ seam, but you will sometimes read patterns that specify a scant 1/4″ and that is what you should strive for. in all of your piecing. So what’s the difference? All modern sewing machines have markings on them indicating various seams allowances (5/8″, 1/2″ etc). The photo below shows two pieces of patchwork I pieced on my machine:


For the top set, I used my regular foot and lined the edges up with the 1/4″ mark on my machine, For the bottom set, I used my 1/4″ foot and lined the edges up with the edge of the foot. That slight difference you see between the two seams is what will make a world of difference when piecing an entire quilt top.  That fraction of a difference will add up with each seam you piece in your quilt. If you don’t’ start with scant 1/4″ seams, you will have a tough time getting your points to match and your quilt blocks will always be undersized. So my first piece of advice to a potential quilter is this: buy a 1/4″ foot for your machine.

5. Pressing Seams |  This is not the same as forcing wrinkles out of khaki pants. Crank your iron up to the highest setting and press from the top of the seam, not the back. Use starch if desired (I do desire and use lots of starch). Press the light fabrics towards the darker fabrics. That’s the general rule of quilting + pressing. Sometimes you will probably have to break this rule but make it your habit to press light to dark.

6. Squaring Up | Squaring up means you take your pieced block and use a rotary cutter and a ruler to trim it down to the correct size. This can be a tedious step, but don’t skip it because you will see a huge difference in your finished project if you don’t square up.

Questions? Fire away in the comments.

See you Thursday for Lesson 2 | Learn to Quilt: Quilting Definitions & Resources


7 thoughts on “Learn to Quilt: Basic Skills

  1. Deborah says:

    Thanks for the first lesson. I am still trying to get used to the scant 1/4 inch seams. I sewed for many years with a 5/8 inch seam, so it’s hard to break that habit. I wanted to ask if you ever heard of using aluminum foil to sharpen blades. I’ve never tried it. I just read it somewhere. When you say “Press from the top of the seam” does that mean on the right side of the fabric? I didn’t quite understand that part.

    • Lisa says:

      Hi Deborah! Yes, I mean press from the right side of the fabric. I will show pressing in some detailed photos when we get to the actual sewing lessons. I haven’t heard of using aluminum foil but I’ve used the store-bought sharpeners. I think it’s easier to just buy a new blade! It only buys you a little extra time before you have the same nicks and cutting problems again.

  2. Lisabeth says:

    You always press from the right side? I have been pressing from the wrong side first for some reason, then doing the front. Can you explain why this is important?

    • Lisa says:

      Hi Lisabeth! Thanks for stopping by. I always press from the right side because I have more control over the seam. I use my iron to press the fabric in the direction I want it to go (gently, of course). I think from the right side is better because it doesn’t create those tiny folds you tend to get when pressing from the back. Pressing from the front makes the seam flatter and more accurate in my experience.

  3. Stephani says:

    Hi Lisa,
    I have an old machine with lots of different feet. I always assumed that the edge of my foot was a 1/4 inch seam, but how can I be sure it is a 1/4″ foot?

    • Lisa says:

      Get out your seam guide and measure some practice seams. You want a proper scant 1/4″ for quilting to measure just a hair less than a true 1/4″.

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