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!
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:
cotton flannel (NOT pre-washed)
cotton or cotton/poly batting (you could also just use more flannel)
sewing machine (unless you are extremely industrious and are willing to sew by hand)
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
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.