Monday, February 24, 2014

Quilting 101

In my personal history, 2013 will go down as The Year of The Quilt.

Through quilting, I met many new people and started feeling right at home in this new town that we've moved to. Through quilting, I got over my fear of the sewing machine, learned a few new skills and got the chance to do a bit of volunteer work.

As a tribute to my new-found love for quilting, I put together this brief essay for anyone who is curious about this world of quilting. If you have wondered why so many people are fascinated with what are essentially blankets, read on.

What is a Quilt?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a quilt as "A bed coverlet of two layers of cloth filled with padding (as down or batting) held in place by ties or stitched designs".

True, true. In general, a quilt has three layers:

1. Quilt top: The fabric on top of the quilt, typically a woven fabric like cotton.

2. Batting: Middle layer. This is the fluffy filling in the quilt.

3. Backing: The fabric at the back of the quilt, and just like the front, it is typically a woven fabric like cotton.

These layers trap air and act as insulation, giving you that warm, snug-as-a-bug feeling when you wrap yourself in a quilt on a cold winter night.

The Pretty Face of  a Quilt

The quilt top is often decorative and colorful- what most people picture immediately when they think of a quilt. Two common techniques used to create a quilt top are piecing and applique.

Piecing: This is when pieces of fabric are sewn together into all kinds of interesting patterns like zig zag and jigsaw puzzle and simple stripes.

The first quilt I made was fabrics cut into large rectangles and pieced together in the simplest way in a brick pattern.

Pieced quilts are often based on traditional quilt blocks. These are geometric designs that look like rangoli; some examples of traditional quilt blocks are bear paw, maple leaf, school house, flower basket -and others have fanciful names, like a block with circular, swaying curves appropriately called drunkard's path.

My quilting teacher told me about a conversation she had with her husband. He asked, "So you buy all the fabric, then cut it into tiny-tiny pieces, and then spend months sewing the pieces back together?" Her response: "Yes".

Applique is another method for decorating the quilt top. Here, shapes of fabric are cut out and sewn on top of a larger fabric (similar to how one would do collage on paper). Some examples of applique: a colorful tree, US map and vegetable patch.

And then there is the combination of piecing and applique like this darling rainbow quilt where the colored strips are pieced and the clouds are appliqued on top. Or chubby chicks, a combination of pieced pinwheel blocks and appliqued chick blocks.

With panel quilts you start out with a printed panel, that is, the quilt top comes already decorated. The town quilt I made was a panel quilt where the town came pre-printed on the fabric.

The Quilt Comes Together

Once the quilt top is ready, you choose another fabric for the backing (something matching or complementary to the front) and then make a quilt sandwich with the top, batting and backing. Three different layers- how do you secure them together? 

The three layers are sewn together with needle and thread by hand or with a sewing machine- and this process is called quilting.

I used to think quilting was just a mundane but necessary step after the all-important work of making a pretty quilt top. Not so- quilting can be the star of the show. Take a look at this quilt. The front is just a plain brown fabric with a red heart appliqued on it. But the clever quilting makes it looks like initials carved on a tree trunk. And in this quilt, the quilting is done in swirls which give the look of curly wool on the sheep. Here's one where the quilting looks like rain.

One of my favorite forms of quilting is the kantha quilting of Eastern India and Bangladesh, where a simple hand-embroidered running stitch and a few old sarees are the basis of quilt making.

As an alternative to quilting, the three layers can also be tied together with bits of thread at regular intervals for a more informal quilt.

Binding is the final step, where you use strips of fabric to give the quilt a frame. The three layers are now together and you need to seal them in and give the quilt a finished look. Note to self: stripes and polka dots make very cute binding!

Fifty Shades of Quilts

Quilts are indeed works of art, often being one of a kind creations. Sometimes they are classified as traditional and modern. I don't know the exact definitions of these categories. It might be one of those "you know it when you see it" things.

Traditional quilts are often based on repeating patterns of traditional quilt blocks. Here are some examples of what I would call traditional, time-honored designs: Grandmother's flower garden, double wedding ring quilt, sampler quilt.

Modern quilts tend to be minimalist, abstract and improvised, fresh and simple. They often use color in incredible ways, like in this quilt. Here are some examples of what I could call modern quilts: tree quilt, landscape quilt, big love, wee animal quilt, modern sampler.

Quilts made for children are some of my favorite quilts for showcasing themes in imaginative ways. Just look at this solar system quilt and this batman quilt. The subject of quilts are diverse and whimsical and quilters pay homage to just about everything from flip-flops, baskets to books. Some people gather up their old T-shirts and convert them to a T shirt quilt- here's one that is a collection of souvenir T shirts from beach vacations.

Not everyone has to commit to making bed-sized quilts either. There are many ways to enjoy quilting on a smaller scale. One can make smaller quilts for babies and children, or to use as throws in the living room. Mug rugs are the tiniest and sweetest quilts- designed to hold a mug and a snack and to cheer up the dullest cubicle. Pillows are another way to use techniques of piecing and applique on a small scale. The principles of quilting can be used for cute little projects like ornaments and to make pretty and functional gifts, like e-reader covers and this fabric baskets.

Sometimes quilt blocks are not made in fabric at all- they are painted on the sides of barns and buildings and are called barn quilts.

As for me, I'm so in love with textile art that it is featured in almost every room in my home. Fabrics add color and texture to a home and are usually very affordable.

Ocean life quilt in Lila's playroom/ our family room,
made by my mother and sister

In our hallway is this panel of pipli work from Orissa,
an intricate hand-stitched piece of folk art
Quilts are functional art. There are many things I like to do- knitting, cooking/baking, reading, even sewing- but quilting is what forces me to think of composition and color and...arty stuff. I look at the world with more observant eyes, looking for beauty and inspiration for my next quilting project.

Too little time, too many quilts. There are far too many items on my quilting bucket list, but thinking of the immediate future- what's next on my quilting agenda? I want to make a quilted pet portrait of Duncan, and I'm participating in the Vice Versa block of the month club where we make 2 blocks every month and the goal is to have a finished quilt by the end of this year.

If you're eager for more quilty fun...

...browse some quilting eye candy online. There are dozens of beautiful quilt blogs out there, and if you have a couple of hundred hours to kill, you could search for "quilts" on Pinterest. this book- America's glorious quilts by Dennis Duke. It has hundreds of gorgeous photographs illustrating the history of quilting in the United States.

...find a quilt show near you. Many areas in the US have quilt guilds- a guild is a group of artists who get together to promote the craft, host workshops and lectures etc. Most quilt guilds host a show for the public every year or two to showcase their best work. Do a web search for a show near you and mark your calendar. As lovely as it is to see pictures of quilts, seeing them in person will take your breath away.


  1. So glad you’re loving quilting! I made baby quilts for the longest time and just recently gave away my first quilt -- actually hand-quilted, the rest I machine quilted because I wanted people to USE them for their babies, not to pack them away and somehow machine quilting made that permittable -- a very cool black/white/red part strip/part appliqué quilt. I loved-loved-loved strip quilting, the patterns that you can achieve still boggles my mind! Can’t wait to see what your artistry produces!

    1. Strip quilting really is so easy and fun- I've made a couple with our volunteer group and hope to make many more! I remember you mentioning that you learned to quilt from your mom.

  2. Nupur you make me want to try my hand at decorative quilting, I've done basic quilts before mostly for babies in the family. Loved all the quilts in this post. I've been following you on this. Keep going!

    1. Thanks Anjali! It is so much fun to make a special quilt for a baby. I've been following one or two really talented quilters in Mumbai- quilting enthusiasm is everywhere.

  3. Hi Nupur,
    I am a sewing newbie and devour books/blogs on sewing. I remember a part of 2010 when I was on a quilt-overdrive. hehe. I didnt eventually make a quilt though, as I received couple of handmade ones from family and didnt have the need for more.

    But reading this post flushed my memory. The purl bee's veggie patch quilt is just so darling (love that site).

    Here are some quilt books I'd bookmarked then:
    1. Quilts, Baby!: 20 Cuddly Designs to Piece, Patch & Embroider - Linda Kopp
    2. Modern Minimal: 20 Bold & Graphic Quilts - Alissa Haight Carlton
    3. Incredible Quilts for Kids of All Ages - Jean Ray Laury

    And in case you hadn't seen these before, some fabulous quilt blogs:

    And I share your experience in thinking that the quilt top makes the quilt only to realize how the stitches can stand on their own.

    Love your blog.. Keep up the great work you are doing.


    1. I love purl bee as well- they are very generous to post so many tutorials. Thanks for the resources. I will look at them all! Good luck with your sewing and quilting :)

  4. Thank you Nupur. I do own a sewing machine but never dared to go the quilting way. I want to start with a cover for my tablet. The binding is what gives me shivers. But I think its high time I start.

    1. Sapna- a small project like a tablet cover is simply perfect to dip your toes into quilting. Not much different from sewing, only you add layers to make a nice thick cover! Binding is not very difficult, in fact I enjoy putting on the binding, it is easier to do with bigger projects though. Too fiddly for something like a tablet cover. This tutorial looks good with no binding

    2. Thanks Nupur. I do love a tutorial with photos.

  5. Hi Nupur, you are so versatile, and inspire everyone, thanks:) I don't have a sewing machine yet, but hoping to buy one hopefully by end of year:) this post is just perfect for beginner like me who needs to learn the ABC of quilting, thanks again

    1. I hope you enjoy buying and learning to use a sewing machine- hopefully you won't be like me (I kept my machine in the closet unused for a year or two before finally learning to use it!!)

  6. Shubha from SydneyFebruary 24, 2014 4:51 PM

    Nupur, if I have not said it before, I'm saying it now. You are "wonder woman", your blog, your recipes and your quilting, I am a big fan. I cannot thread a needle so I have shied away from anything to do with needlework. In 2012, when we visited US, we went to Amish County and I saw some gorgeous quilts. I bought some little ones ( doily size) to give away as souvenirs. We will be in PA again in June this year and I might make a trip to the "quilt" place again to see if there are new ones there! Thanks Nupur! Warm wishes - Shubha

    1. Shubha- If I was wonder woman, the world wouldn't be such a hot mess :D so alas no superpowers here. I do however love the crafty stuff. The Amish community is well known for their distinctive quilts and what a great idea to support quilters by buying handmade gifts. Hugs to you!

  7. So fascinating! Thanks, Nupur for the post. I think I would love to quilt but it's probably not going to happen in this lifetime. I live near some Amish colonies and they do make lovely art. I actually was admiring some quilts hung at my workplace. I will have to send you a picture. Love the quilts you show here.
    I have been binging on the House of Cards. Lost a whole weekend of my life which I could have used for something more productive and creative. Sigh...R

    1. I'd love to see the pictures of quilts at your workplace! Quilts really make a stark workplace seem warmer and friendlier. I have one hanging by my desk (made by the boss' wife) and I love it.

      House of Cards- I've been thinking of watching it but politics gives me heartburn so I don't know :)

    2. That's why I didn't watch it for a year! But it's very addictive once you start. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are something else! It does need some suspension of belief and sometimes it's quite shocking, but it's screen "crack". :-)

  8. Hi Nupur:

    Belated blog anniversary wishes. Wanted to comment earlier but didn't want to do so at work - and never got a chance to get online at home - but here we are now:-) I love your blog as the old song goes "I love you just the way you are don't change the color of your hair!"...Keep writing ...I may may not always comment but will always read...

    1. Anu- you made me laugh so hard :) Thanks for this nice note and for your support!!

  9. Nupur, I loved the quits you've shown and linked. Thanks for putting this together, it was very interesting and informative. I would have been totally thrilled at Lila's age to have a ocean quilt like that!

    - Priti

    1. I'm glad you liked this! Lila loves all her quilts and likes to name all the creatures on this ocean quilt.

  10. Your quilts are beautiful Nupur. I was not very much interested in quilting when I learnt sewing last year, but as much as I see them on TV and read about them, I am more interested in making one. I will try my hand at them one of these days.
    What kind of batting do you normally use? I wanted one for a blanket that I made few months ago and I felt lost!.

    1. Shilpa- it is not so different from sewing other things, you're just sewing a rectangle for a blanket top, that's all. I tend to use Quilter's 80/20 batting which is 80% cotton and 20% polyester.

  11. such beautiful quilts Nupur! Love the one from Orissa and the fish one. Just gorgeous.

    1. Thanks Mandira! I love looking at those quilts every day.

  12. Thank you for the detailed introduction to quilting which should be very helpful to anybody attempting to start on a quilt and the links to all those lovely quilts. I am inspired to finish up my half done quilt, I thought it would be a good idea to do freeform quilting - not a good idea for somebody like me who has a basic machine and starting on her first quilt! This post is inspiring enough to make me want to finish it up!

    1. I kind of know what you mean about the freeform quilting- I've tried it and it takes a bit of practice for sure. My initial efforts look frightful. Having said that, I sure hope you finish your quilt using straight line quilting (which is so much easier) or stitching in the ditch or even tying it. There's a saying that goes "done is good" as in don't worry about perfection, just get it done the best you can :)

    2. You are right, better to have done something than done nothing at all. What you said inspired me to take the quilt out last night and start unpicking the freeform quilting stitches which are 1/4th over the quilt. Because the stitch length was 0 and my stitching wasnt that good to start with, its taking long. But I will get this done and use straight line quilting and be done with it. Thanks for the encouragement!

    3. I bet taking out those tiny stitches is tedious. Sounds like a mindless TV show or movie would be the right pairing to get this done! Since I started sewing, I spend lots of quality time with my seam ripper, that's for sure.

      When you're done, I'd love to see a pic of your quilt if you'd like to share one :)

  13. Hi Nupur !
    I have been reading ur blog since few years, but this is my first comment..
    That you definitely excel at what u put up here, goes without saying..
    But most importantly u do it for the right reasons, which is a rarity today..
    There are many who become either crowd-pleasers and pretentious or just preachy and bullies..
    On the other hand there are people you meet who are so comfortable with themselves that they just let u be..
    And it results in a relationship that brings out the best in both..
    Your blog is like that.. stay blessed :)

    1. Manasi- you're being too kind. Thanks for reading my blog- I appreciate it!


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