How to make a rag quilt

This is still a food blog, I swear! To the uninterested, I’m sorry for the back-to-back sewing posts. I’m going to do the bread bag tutorial sometime in the next month or so because several people said they want to see it, but other than that, I promise this is not going to become the “i sew stuff” blog (maybe “i sew stuff badly”!). But I’ve had this post ready to go for a couple of weeks now and I’m sick of seeing it in there with “Draft” next to it, and as the quilt featured in it has now reached its faraway destination of Australia, I can finally publish it! Food next time, no excuses!

The post…

Okay, this is going to be an incredibly long post and there will be no food and only incidental kittens, so most of you can probably just quietly leave now and return soon for the good stuff. But since I did get some interest in a tutorial for making rag quilts, I photographed the steps when I made a baby quilt for Kylie’s new baby boy, Liam. Here we go:

Rag Quilt

Necessary items
cotton flannel (NOT pre-washed)
cotton or cotton/poly batting (you could also just use more flannel)
thread
sewing machine (unless you are extremely industrious and are willing to sew by hand)
scissors
size 16 sewing machine needle (you can try size 14, but I broke a couple 14s)
pins, quilt pins if you have them

Strongly recommended items
walking foot for sewing machine
rotary cutter and self-healing cutting mat
rag quilt snips
iron

About the fabric

The first thing you need to do is determine the size of the quilt you want to make and the size of the squares you wish to use. This will tell you how much fabric you need to buy. I have made two sizes of quilt: adult, which contained 8″ finished squares, 7 or 8 squares wide by 8 squares tall, plus a border on all or some sides, and crib, which contained 6″ finished squares, 5 squares wide by 8 squares tall, with a border. I’ll be working with the crib size in this tutorial, and I felt 6″ was good for that, but for the adult quilts, I liked the 8″ squares. The smaller your squares, the more sewing and snipping you have to do.

Once you figure out how many squares you will use and their sizes, you need to decide on the number of fabrics you will use. I used a different fabric for each square in each row, so, for example, for the 7-square wide quilt, 7 different fabrics. Then you can do some math and figure out how much of each fabric to buy. For an adult size quilt with finished squares no larger than 8″ (you’ll be cutting 9″ squares), you can just get a yard of each fabric and it will come out perfectly. I would just get a yard for most baby quilts too, although you will probably end up having leftover fabric.

Joann’s has a large selection of cotton flannel, although I can’t stand the place. Hancock’s also has a lot. Locally, I like G Street, although their flannel selection is not nearly as good as their regular cotton selection; it’s mostly kid stuff. My favorite source for flannel is actually Etsy, because the selection available is great, and most sellers send their fabrics out within a day or two, and honestly, I find it easier to have fabric arrive in my mailbox than I do waiting for it to be cut in a store. I’ve had great luck with this method.

Sometimes sellers on Etsy will offer pre-washed fabric. Do NOT buy pre-washed flannel for rag quilts and do NOT wash the fabric before cutting or sewing it. This is opposite of what you usually do; for most sewing you always wash the fabric first. Due to the nature of rag quilts, though, washing is your final step. The quilt won’t work as well if you use washed fabric.

About the batting

I prefer Quilter’s Dream Cotton batting, which comes in easy sizes like “double”, “crib”, “queen”, etc. I say I prefer this brand, although to be honest, it’s the only kind I’ve used. I really liked it though and have no desire to try anything else. When they were out of all-cotton, I bought a package of cotton-poly, but I haven’t used it yet. It’s just a little less soft and I’m sure it won’t be a problem. G Street Fabrics sells Quilter’s Dream. Other fabric stores may have other brands. I’m sure they are all pretty similar. Instead of actual batting, you could also use additional flannel, either one layer or two.

About the thread

Buy a good quality, like Coats & Clark. You need a lot for quilting (probably more than one spool), but you’ll be sewing through many layers at some points and you want something that won’t break. Buy a color or colors that go with your color scheme. I used “winter white” for most of my quilts, which goes with just about everything.

About the walking foot

A walking foot is a special sewing machine foot that has feed dogs on the bottom of it, so the fabric is being gripped and pushed through the needle area evenly from the top and bottom. This is important when you are trying to sew through several layers; it keeps the layers moving in tandem. It’s hard to sew a quilt sandwich without having the layers shift, causing puckers, unless you use a walking foot. I know from experience. Many machines come with a walking foot, but if yours does not have one, you can buy a universal walking foot for about $15-$20, which I think would be money well spent, even for a single rag quilt, as it will save you a lot of frustration.

About the rag quilt snips

Like the walking foot, I feel some of you may feel this is an investment you don’t care to make if only ever make a single rag quilt, and I can’t lie: it is a rather single-purpose tool. But the snipping part is a pain, I’ll be up front about that, and I can’t imagine doing it with regular scissors. The Friskars rag quilt snips are a good price on Amazon, and Joann’s sells them as well, and I know they often send out coupons, so maybe you can get them for even less that way.

About the rotary cutter and self-healing cutting mat

You can certainly cut your fabric and batting with regular fabric scissors. But a rotary cutter makes it much easier, and unlike the snips, you’ll find you use them often for other projects. I’m pretty terrible at sewing, so a lot of what I do is based on straight edges, and the rotary cutter is a huge help. These can be a bit pricey, especially if you get a larger mat, but you don’t want a mat that’s too small.

Okay, now that we’ve discussed the supplies, I think we’re ready to begin!

Once you’ve amassed all of your fabrics and batting, it’s time to cut them into squares. Your flannel squares should be cut 1″ larger all around than the final size, so if you are doing 8″ finished squares, you will be cutting 9″ squares out of the flannel. Your batting squares will be cut the same size as the finished square. I usually put a half-size, solid-color border, either on the top and bottom, or on all four sides of my quilts. These are rectangles; to size them take half of the finished square size and add an inch to get your height. The width is the same size you cut for the squares. So for a border rectangle for a quilt with 8″ finished squares, your border rectangle dimensions would be 9″ x 5″. For 6″ finished squares, they would be 7″ x 4″. I’ll show you this later. For now, lets start with our interior squares.

You need to cut two squares for each block: a front and a back. So if you are making a quilt with 8 rows of 8 squares each, and each square is a different fabric, you need to cut 16 squares of each fabric. If you are using regular scissors, just cut these squares. I’ll demonstrate doing it with a rotary cutter.

If your flannel is very wrinkled, iron it first. I don’t believe you need to be quite as fanatic about perfectly pressed flannel for rag quilts as you do for most sewing, but you definitely do not want heavy creases or big wrinkles.

Fold the fabric selvage to selvage (the selvages are the finished sides), ensuring it is wrinkle-free and smooth. Lay it on the mat so the selvages are on the left and line the folded fabric up so it is straight, using the grid on the mat. Use the rotary cutter and a ruler to cut the selvages off, and also trim the bottom to square it. (I couldn’t take photos of myself cutting, but this is a great tutorial with photos.)

Use the ruler and rotary cutter to cut strips from top to bottom, the width of your flannel squares. (Remember, that’s 1″ more than the finished square size.) If the grid on your mat is ruled (and most are), unless you start at “0”, make sure you are cutting at the right inch mark! If you butt your fabric up against the 1″ mark, you need to cut at the 10″ mark for a 9″ square.

Take one of your strips and put the newly-cut edge to the left again, and square it with the grid. Cut into squares.

You will end up with pairs of squares when you do this, and they will be lined up in the right direction, back to back, just like you need them. Since you are cutting two squares each time, you need to make the same number of squares as need for your quilt (not double, as you would if you were cutting one ply at a time). Make a nice stack.

If you are using a border, those pieces need to be cut in rectangles as described above, but the process is the same:

Next up is the batting. Open the package and unfold the batting a while before you use it, to help it lose any creases. Then cut it like you did the flannel, but make the squares the same size as your finished squares are to be, i.e., 8″ for an 8″ finished square quilt.

Don’t forget to cut batting for the border as well:

Next it’s time to assemble the quilt sandwiches. As I mentioned, if you used the rotary cutter method, you ended up with perfect sandwiches that just need batting stuffed between them, so this step is pretty easy. If you used regular scissors and didn’t cut from folded fabric, make sure the front and back of any fabric with a design that has an orientation match are lined up correctly.

Take the top piece off the sandwich and position a square of batting in the middle. It doesn’t need to be exact, so don’t measure it or anything, but just line it up evenly on all sides.

Then put the top back on. I pin the large squares; not in the center, but a bit above so I can sew them later without removing the pin. Really flannel doesn’t move around on batting, so honestly, the pinning is optional.

Sandwich all of the squares, including the border pieces if you are using them. (See, i didn’t bother pinning the border pieces; they just stay in place.)

Now it’s time to sew! If you’ve never used a walking foot before, consult your machine’s manual on how to install it, but I took this photo because the first time I tried to use one, I didn’t understand where the weird arm went. It grabs onto the screw that holds the needle in. Speaking of the needle, for quilting the sandwiches, you can use a standard size 11, but later I’m going to make you swap it out for a bigger one.

I mentioned in the post where I showed you the quilt I made my mom that I free-motion quilted the squares. I didn’t do that for Liam’s quilt because I didn’t want one of the first things the boy learns to focus on to be my horrible quilting. I can show you how I did my mom’s quilt in a later post if you’d like, but unless you already know how to do free motion quilting (which requires a different presser foot), just sew an X in each square, from corner to corner. This is the traditional, normal way to make rag quilt anyway.

For the border rectangles, just sew a straight line down the middle, lengthwise. Corner squares get an “L” as shown in the picture. Notice that for this quilt I used a decorative stitch, despite my owner’s manual telling me not to, because I don’t follow rules I don’t believe in. DON’T DO THIS. I’m pretty sure I broke my walking foot by using the decorative stitch. Fortunately, I had a backup from my old sewing machine, but using only the special walking foot stitch with the walking foot is now a rule I believe in. It’s also much more obvious when this fancy stitch doesn’t line up from square to square, so until you are an expert (which I am not), I suggest using a straight stitch in a color matching the fabric, with the goal of having the stitching blend in, not stand out.

Closeup of the corner square:

Now the fun part – laying out the design. You probably already have an idea how what you want it to look like, but what I do next is lay the whole quilt out on the floor and make sure I like the order of the squares. The kittens are a huge help with this step (ugh, actually the drive me crazy!!).

Once the quilt looks the way you want it to, it’s time to pin the rows together. When you pin, pin back side to back side, then open the fold open.

Make a chain of each row.

I then roll each row up – be sure to keep them in order!

Although I try to be fairly neat when I pin the squares together, when I’m ready to sew, I unroll two squares, then remove the pin and very carefully line the two pieces up so their edges exactly match.

Then sew together with a 1/2″ seam allowance – that is, so the needle is 1/2″ from the edge of the fabric.

Keep unrolling squares, carefully aligning, and sewing squares until the row is finished. Make sure every seam you stitch is on the same side as the others.

When you have sewn together every row, it’s time to switch your needle to a size 16, which is necessary for sewing rows together as you will be going through many layers in some parts. I was unable to use even a size 14 without it breaking. Size 16 works like a charm, however.

I sew the rows together starting at the bottom and going up. It’s really easy to get confused about orientation when you are pinning rows together, so go slow and check after pinning every time! Place the bottom row in front of you so the quilt top is facing down (that is, the seams are facing the ground), and the designs are oriented correctly as you are looking at them. Take the next row and place it on top of the first, but so that the quilt top (the side with the seams) is facing up and the design is facing away from you.

Pin together, about 2″ from the edge, once in each square. I line each square up, making sure the seams match exactly. If you didn’t cut or sew some of the squares perfectly, you can make small (very small; you do want to be careful with the cutting and sewing) adjustments by bunching one square up slightly to make it fit. Then open the quilt and look at the rows and make sure you pinned them correctly. DO THIS EVERY TIME! Like I said, it’s very easy to get disoriented, and I think it gets easier to get confused the more rows you do. Here I am checking that it’s pinned correctly.

When you are sure it’s pinned correctly, fold it back on itself to be sewn, and again, sew the rows together 1/2″ from the edge. It helps to pull your sewing table away from the wall if it’s against one, so the quilt has somewhere to go.

This starts out relatively easy but gets more challenging to maneuver the more rows you add! But it also gets more exciting because you’re almost done.

When all rows have been sewn, sew a line all around the entire border, 1/2″ from the edge. (Do this even if you didn’t use border rectangles.)

Lay the quilt out on the floor…and get comfortable; you’re going to be there a while.

Get your rag quilt snips if you have them.

Now start snipping all of the seams – all of them – about 1/4″ apart, being very careful not to snip the seam. Don’t do this all in one sitting; you’ll go crazy and your hand and back will be killing you. I usually take at least one meal break and/or try to get out of the house in the middle of it.

Personally, I hate this part, but at least I always have company.

Don’t forget to the do the edges too.

Now, grab a book you’ve been wanting to read and take the quilt to a laundromat. It needs to be washed and dried in commercial machines the first time because it will produce too much lint for home machines. Wash it in cold water (detergent is optional), then dry on medium or high heat. The next time it can be washed in a regular machine, and it should only become softer and more raggedy with each washing, so wash as often as you’d like, but always clean the lint trap afterwards. When I get mine home, I like to tug at each of the seams and make sure I didn’t snip any. I found a little hole in one of my quilts from snipping a seam, so I went and sewed it back together.

Whew! That’s it! Hopefully that helps someone out there. I think rag quilts are great for beginning quilters and others who aren’t great at or lack confidence in sewing – and all of those categories include me. They are fairly easy and don’t take so long you get sick of it or frustrated. (It generally takes me about a week to complete one, though if you were determined, you could do it in a weekend.) My final tip is this: make a practice quilt for yourself before making any for gifts, and be easy on yourself about the practice quilt. Expect to make mistakes. I made my practice quilt for Mark (which is the same as making it for me) before making any others, and I’m very glad I did, as I made a few mistakes. None of them were things he would notice, but I learned a lot from each of them and didn’t make them in subsequent quilts. When I finished the practice quilt, we had a very useful (if not entirely perfect) new blanket (which you can never have too many of), and I felt a lot more confident about my sewing skills. I wouldn’t have wanted to give the first one to anyone but my husband, but I went into my second quilt knowing I could make something I’d feel comfortable giving someone else. And even though I hate sewing in general, I actually had fun making these. So I think it’s a great project.

29 Comments »

  1. Anna Said,

    March 15, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

    I’t just beautifull!

  2. renae Said,

    March 17, 2011 @ 10:07 pm

    Anna, thank you!

  3. Kylie Said,

    March 16, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

    Beautiful, we love it. And so lovely and soft. A perfect baby present!

  4. Josiane Said,

    March 17, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    It’s truly a lovely gift!
    You know, I had never seen or heard about that kind of rag quilts. I agree with you: it does seem like a good sewing/quilting project for beginners.
    What I have seen here that I would call a rag quilt is a quilt made from the remaining good pieces of old clothes or various fabrics. In fact, I have one that’s been passed on to me from my mom, who I know had gotten it from hers, and I really should ask mom if it’s not older than that still. One thing for sure: it’s started showing its age… the quilt has become quite ragged!

  5. renae Said,

    March 17, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

    Josiane, your quilt must be fantastic! I would love to have something like that from my family! I do have a “crazy quilt” made by my great-grandmother, which I’m sure was made from her fabric scraps, but it’d be even cooler if it were made from old clothes. It is awesome, but it’s not at all raggedy, in fact, it’s sort of preternaturally neat. (My great-grandmother lived a long time, so the quilt may not really be that old.) We would call a quilt like that, made from fabric scraps or pieces of old clothes, a scrap quilt, but honestly, I’d never heard of a rag quilt of the sort I’ve made here until recently myself. I suspect they are well-known amongst quilters and no one else! (Though I suspect “real” quilters may look down upon rag quilts as being way too easy…)

  6. Stacy Said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    I am so excited to try this. Thanks for posting these instructions!!!

  7. Luciana Said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    I’ve wanted to start sewing something for years. I have books, access to machines, and I still get intimidated. This would be the perfect beginner’s project, especially now that I have a new nephew.

  8. Tanya Said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 10:50 pm

    I love the extra border you put on this baby rag quilt. When it comes to custom baby blankets each one I see seems to have its own personality and you did a nice job here.

  9. Phyllis Miller Said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

    Just Retired and now i can have fun; Thanks for all your knowledge. Any more i would love. Would this be possible with cotton? Had some scrapts given to me. Thanks for everything, PJM

  10. renae Said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

    Hi Phyllis, you have to use cotton flannel when making this type of quilt – regular cotton won’t fray the same way. Have fun!

  11. Linda Said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

    I’ve been looking for instructions for a rag quilt online. Your tutorial is the best I’ve found by a long shot. I especially appreciate the tips on cutting the sandwiches and needle size. Lots of time and frustration saved for sure. Thanks so much!

  12. renae Said,

    October 17, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    Thanks for the comment, Linda. I’m glad you found the tutorial helpful!

  13. amy mckee Said,

    October 17, 2011 @ 10:28 pm

    I found these in a specialty baby boutique in Ks. Thought they were so adorable and could make my own. Now i can after working through your instructions. Thank you so much for making it so clear 🙂

  14. Pola Kelly Said,

    November 26, 2011 @ 2:15 am

    Could you suggest a sewing machine for me to buy for rag quilts and for hemming blue jeans? I thank you.

  15. renae Said,

    November 26, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

    Pola Kelly, honestly I’m probably not the best person to give advice on sewing machines because I’m really not a sewer, other than the few projects I have posted in the blog. That said, I have a Brother CS6000i and for the little sewing that I do, I really like it. It’s what I have made all of my rag quilts on. I haven’t hemmed any jeans, but it would handle that easily. Just make sure you use a heavier needle when working with denim.

  16. Claire Said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 11:06 pm

    Why are you hating on Joann’s you got all those flannel prints from there. I just saw them all today. It may be pricey but that’s why you shop the sales and use the coupons (50% offo n a regular item)on the Joann’s app and the mailer. They have the best (biggest) fabric selection hands down.
    But i do have to give it to you nice quilt and I will be using your tutorial so good job for someone that doesnt care to sew!

  17. clara thibodeau Said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 6:52 pm

    i love this thanks

  18. Ronni McLaughlin Said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 8:08 pm

    My daughter and I are almost done making this rag quilt for her bff. Wish us luck! I measured a couple of the squares incorrectly, but otherwise we’re doing well with it. Thank you for posting this sewing project.

  19. Gail Said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

    I have one piece of flannel that has already been washed…will it matter much if I use it with the unwashed stuff?

  20. renae Said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

    Hi Gail,

    It won’t shrink as much as the other fabrics when you wash the blanket, but I think you’ll be okay.

  21. Patricia Said,

    September 9, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

    I needed a tutorial on adding a border to my rag quilt. Thank you for your excellent instructions. Now I can finish my first rag quilt, which is for a baby girl soon to be born.

  22. Vicki Said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 8:21 am

    What a great tutorial. I especially loved the border and the corner tips. Thanks~~

  23. Shannon Said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 1:05 pm

    Hello,
    Thank you very much for this informative tutorial AND all of your trial and error tips! I especially appreciate the one about not giving the first one you make away as a gift. I am so excited about this that I was going to go buy some flannel and begin to make my very first one as a gift! Since reading this, I am going to use the flannel I have at home waiting for me to make lounge pants and use that material as practice for my very first rag quilt. Sadly I’ve already washed it, as I take it straight to the washer when I bring it in the house, but that’s ok, it’s practice anyway!!! Thank you again, your instructions are superb!

  24. Cissy Said,

    April 27, 2015 @ 1:23 am

    Thank you for the up close pictures. I was wondering IF these can be done by hand sewing through it all…That is how I would like to try my first ever rag quilt.
    Thank you for information…

  25. Shirley Braun Said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 7:56 am

    Thank you so much for such a wonderful tutorial. I have been searching other tutorials on how to make a rag quilt. I have learned so much more from yours. Love the extra tips that you give. I love to sew and now retired so I will be doing so much more now. Love love the rag quilts. Have seen them in stores but had no idea how to make one. So thank you so much for teaching me how to make these. Best to you in what ever you do.

  26. renae Said,

    May 15, 2015 @ 8:40 am

    Thank you for your kind words, Shirley! I’m glad you found the tutorial useful.

  27. Leann Said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 11:34 am

    love this tutorial! What size are the corner squares on the border if the border blocks are 7×4?

    Thank you!

  28. renae Said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 12:03 pm

    Hi Leann, the corner squares would be 4×4 in that case. Good luck with your project!

  29. Trace Said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 11:27 pm

    This is lovely. When you joined your rows did you open your seams out or one forward and one back. I have been watching many tutorials and have seen both ways. I just finished a rag quilt today and my top squares were cotton, with two layers of flannel. It ruffled nicely. Wish i had seen yours before i made mine though as i really like your border.

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