Friday, November 16, 2012

Learning to Quilt - Tools to Get Started

This post was inspired by a couple of my friends who are learning to sew.  I know on occasion I get visitors to this blog who are new to sewing and quilting, so I thought they might benefit from this information as well! 

Here is a short list (and long explanations for those so motivated to read them) of what I recommend for my friend, and a little about why I use the particular items listed.

Sewing Machine - Of all of my sewing machines I use my Simplicity Quilter's Classic the most.  Of course you can hand sew, but in my opinion, I think machine piecing should come first, then hand piecing.  I know that is slightly backwards from the thinking of generations before me. 

My personal feeling is that it is much easier to piece by machine, so get a feel for that 1/4" seam and for what your piece work should look like on the sewing machine first.  I think learning this way will save you frustration later and you can achieve success quickly, motivating you to want to sew more!

What sewing machine you ask? 

Well that is completely your personal preference.  I use my Simplicity because I'm familiar with it, it was what I could afford when I was sewing machine shopping and it has the features that are important to me. 

Just know that, you do NOT need an expensive fancy machine to create amazing quilts.  I REPEAT, you do NOT need a fancy expensive machine to create beautiful and AMAZING quilts!  They are nice to have and can really make things easier - if you can afford it, by all means, go buy one!  But if you are like me, on a budget, buy the best that you can afford and know that in reality all that is completely needed to quilt with any sewing machine is the ability to zig zag, reverse, drop feed or cover feed, and a speed controlled foot pedal. 

An extension table is extremely useful to have and I would urge you to spend just a little more for a machine that has one, or that one can be purchased for at a later time if your goal ultimately is to quilt.  These are all pretty much standard features nowadays on any machine, aside from the extension table, and can be found pretty easily and affordable in most communities.

Scissors and Rotary Cutter - Those orange scissors I have there have been around for a very long time.  My Mother gave those to me about eleven years ago when my Husband and I moved in together!  They are still going strong too - I did drop them and crack the handle, hence the tape!  But it doesn't stop me from cutting with them!
You are going to want a good pair of fabric scissors.  Why?  Just try cutting fabric with your regular household scissors once.  It's not going to happen.  These are extra sharp scissors made for cutting fabric.  Many of us who have been sewing since a child had a Mother who would all but throw us out of the house if we dared to use her fabric scissors for cutting paper. 
Keep them sharp and use them for their intended purpose.  They are an inexpensive and necessary investment in your sewing and if you take care of them, will last you a very long time just as mine have!


You're also going to want a rotary cutter to quickly cut your fabrics. 
If you are worried about cutting your other hand as you go, there are protective gloves that can be found in just about any fabric store in the quilting section. 
I have cut the very tip of my finger off - so know yourself! 
The best advice I was ever given is to NEVER leave your blade OPEN when not using your rotary cutter.  I literally, close the blade and push up the protective safety doohickey (that's a technical term there) IMMEDIATELY after I've cut.  I'll probably regret that later when I get carpal tunnel, but it's much better than accidentally knocking an open blade on your foot when sewing in socks.  :) 
I believe some rotary cutters even close automatically when you're not pressing it down to cut.  The one I have is by Olfa, and just happened to be the most affordable and available rotary cutter to me when I was shopping for one.  I have also used the Fiscars brand rotary cutter.
Just a note about those little red nippers on the far right of the above picture.  I LOVE those. 
They are by Fons and Porter and I bought them at Jo Ann Fabrics on clearance years ago- so I don't know if they still carry them.  I'm sure you could find another brand...they are MY FAVORITE tiny clippers ever.  I don't use my stork scissors any longer, with these I can cut very close to my work and they are VERY sharp so I can even clip very small sections of fabric with them and have a lot of control. 
I use them when binding, hand quilting, cutting my free motion quilting threads, for name it.  You don't need these immediately, but I REALLY love mine and think anyone who gets into sewing could benefit from them.  They are great!
Thread - To start I recommended my friend use 100% cotton thread made for machine quilting.  I use it both for piecing and for quilting.  Later on you can play with different threads, but this is pretty much the standard.  I believe "they" say you should use like fibers together - so cotton with cotton (or another natural fiber like silk). 
Thread weight does matter, and usually cotton comes in 40 or 50 weight.  Look at the bottom or top of your spool for fiber content and weight - often times the application (embroidery, quilting, applique, etc.) will be labeled there as well.
I have heard in the past it was said that polyester would break the cotton fibers of your fabric because it is stronger than cotton.  I think that has pretty much dissolved as being a myth nowadays though.  Most long arm quilters I have come into contact with use poly or a poly cotton blend when quilting - and I have yet to hear a disaster story where polyester thread was used on a cotton pieced quilt.  Polyester thread give a different effect and look when quilting than cotton so I would say, try out the cotton first because it is easy to find and use, and get a feel for it.  Then play and see what you like better later on.  I use both poly and cotton on different projects for different effects.  I'm still dipping my toes into the thread waters myself - there is a lot of room for fun and creativity.
As for brands, when I started quilting I used Coats & Clark machine quilting thread because it was easy to find, but discovered that I had a lot of issues with it in my sewing machine.  I tend to have better luck with Essential Threads (from - it is really affordable and they often have sales where you can stock up.  It can be a linty thread, so clean out your bobbin area often.
Later on down the line you may find you have a personal preference for another brand of thread (King Tut cotton thread by Superior Threads is my current favorite), but to start I would use what is affordable and easily available to you.
OH - for piecing, I almost forgot to mention...I use two color threads most of the time.  I use a light gray for light colored fabrics and a deeper taupe/tan color for dark fabrics.  If I have a lot of black or white I will then use black or white for piecing - for example if I'm piecing a baby quilt with white and baby pink fabrics.  I pick a color and buy, maybe, ten spools of that color for piecing for the year and just prewind bobbins to go with them.  That way I'm never running to the store to buy "piecing" thread and I can just grab for that thread without much thought.

Sewing Machine Feet - The ONE sewing machine foot I CANNOT live without is my quarter inch foot. 

See the small metal foot in the picture below?  Sometimes they will be clear and I personally like the metal one better.  It is invaluable to your sewing.  A must in my opinion.  You will still want to measure where your needle falls to where the "true" quarter inch is - I will show how to do that in another post - but once you know where that magic 1/4" spot is you are set.  I don't even really take this foot off for regular sewing unless I have to!

The attachment next to the quarter inch foot is called a darning foot.  This is used for free motion quilting.  You may find these with a small metal circle instead of a clear plastic one.  (See how I broke my foot for the better in my last post!)  Sometimes they are square, round, oblong - they may have red guide marks or may not have any at all. 

If you ever plan to free motion quilt you'll have to have one of these darning attachments.  Some machines come with them, some do not, but they are pretty inexpensive and easy to find.

The last foot in the picture up there is a walking foot.  This is really optional and I would not say it is NOT necessary to have right away. 
What it is, is basically a feed for the top of your fabric.  When using a walking foot you have those little feed dogs pushing your fabric through on the bottom and with the attachment feed pulling fabric through on the top too. 
Some higher end machines have a built in walking foot that you simply activate when you need to and so you do not have to have a separate attachment.  Some people really like this foot for piecing, binding, or even quilting. 
All I can say is, when the time comes, try it.  I personally detest mine and rarely use it.  Lol*  There HAVE been instances when it has come in handy, but I almost never use it for quilts.  I wanted to include it though, because as I said, some quilters swear by their walking foot.  Try it out, and you be the judge.  :)
Needles - I could devote an entire post to needles alone because there is a lot to know about them.  
Understanding needles is great knowledge to have, and it will really help the quality of your work, but for now I'm going to just focus on what I use.  I use these these needles because I can afford them, I can easily find them, and they get the job done for me. 
I love to share so when and if I find something that works better - you'll be the first to know about it!  :)
For my friend I recommended Schmetz 90/14 sharps.  They can be used for piecing and quilting both when using standard 40 or 50 wt. cotton thread.  They are affordable and you can even buy them at Walmart now.  On occasion, to save a few bucks, I have purchased the Singer universal needles shown in the picture below.  I ONLY use them for piecing, and find that I go through them like water.  I'd rather spend the extra few bucks for the Schmetz but sometimes I just don't have a choice. 

Seam Ripper - Another MUST.  No matter how amazing you are at sewing, at some point, you're going to "oops".  You are going to become great friends with this little guy, and may need to buy him a brother and a sister to help keep up with his hefty work load.


 Fabric - This is again personal preference.  The general rule of thumb for quilting is to stick with 100% cotton fabrics.  (There's a trend happening here with this cotton thing huh?  Lol*)  It's really easy to work with and easy to find.  The cool thing about quilting is you don't need a lot to get started.  For utility quilts I buy a lot from Walmart and Jo Ann's.  I like to support my local quilt shops when I can, and understand you're going to pay a little more but you're also going to get a quality product - not to mention all the knowledge of a passionate quilter!  I generally save those expensive fabrics for my best and most involved projects.  For items I intend to use a lot, I buy the best I can afford and what is easily available.  (See another trend happening here?)

I could go on forever here too.  Fabric comes on bolts, in precut packages, in jellyrolls, in fat quarters...lots of ways.  Quilters like variety!  Head to the quilting section of your local fabric store and see what your options are.  :)

A side note about fabric - as my good friend Miss Margaret and I were reminded recently when getting our fabric cut, sometimes you will see a line of color dots on the selvage of your fabric.  Those are there for manufacturing and production purposes but we can fully take advantage of that break down of colors to help choose the fabrics for our quilts!  Any color you see there is IN the fabric print and this can be really helpful if you struggle looking at a fabric and pulling out the colors in it.

Bobbins - I keep empty and prewound bobbins around always.  I'm not really going to say much about these other than I bought that nifty storage case at Walmart and it really helps keep me organized.  It is made by Singer and was found near the sewing machines.  I have also see blue circular bobbin organizers and I think those would be really great to have too!

Generally when quilting, I need 3 or 4 bobbins of one color to get through a small lap or bed quilt, so I will prewind the amount I think I will need so that I don't have to wind when I run out in the middle of a project.  I keep piecing thread bobbins prewound and ready to go all the time. 

That is all I have to say about that for now!  :)

Rulers - To start quilting you are going to need a couple of rulers.  You can get away with one to start, but when you can I think  it is best to have at least two.  A medium/small sized ruler and a large one.  You are going to want your large ruler for cutting large hunks of fabric and definitely for squaring up your quilt when you're finished.  You'll want a second ruler to help with that squaring up process, but also you want something small and easier to handle than the large ruler for measuring and cutting smaller pieces. 

Not a lot to say about that. 

Of what I have, I like the Omnigrid best - they are a little grippy on the bottom and I like the bright yellow highlighting.  Makes things much easier to see.  The Fiscars ruler came with my rotary cutting mat - it does the job but the marks are wearing.  I use it a lot though, and I've had it for about 7 years.  When I go back to rebuy, I will probably buy an Omnigrid in that size.  I think they are a little easier to read.  A ruler is a ruler to me and I don't have any great attachment to any one ruler or brand.

Cutting Mat - How did I forget to take a picture of that alone?  You'll need a rotary cutting mat to cut with your rotary cutter! 

You want a larger size at least as big as the one I'm using shown in the picture.  I believe the measuring table on it is 24 inches square - but don't quote me on that. 

You can usually find starter type kits that have the rotary cutter, mat, and large ruler all together at Walmart or Jo Ann fabrics, possibly your local quilt shop too. 

A quilt shop is going to be more familiar with different brands and may give you a more detailed recommendation than I can give here.

Pins - I'm not terribly picky about pins, other than to say that I like a very thin long pin for piecing, and a glass head if I can find it. 

Plastic flower head quilting pins are found just about anywhere you can find craft supplies, but I don't care for them only because the thick pin seems to shift my pieces.  The thinner pins are harder to find for me, you may have to special order them, but they cause less disruption and I get more accurate results with them. 

I also like the glass heads better than plastic because sometimes I want to iron while I still have pins in my fabric - and melting your plastic pins onto your $11 a yard fabric is no fun!!!

Right now I'm using discontinued Fons and Porter glass head pins from Jo Ann's but am in desperate need for more.  I have heard good things about Clover long pins - I will have to do a post!  Maybe I can ask around or someone online can give me a recommendation there.

I say, to start, get what you can find easily to start and experiment later.  You will never regret having extra pins around.

Safety Pins - Not a lot to say about these either!  If you are quilting your own quilt you'll want to baste your quilt sandwich (quilt top, batting, and quilt back) with safety pins.  I pin every two or three inches but I'm not obsessive about it.  DO not bust out your ruler for this unless you enjoy stressing yourself out.  :)  Once you sew a wrinkle in the back of your quilt from not basting close enough you'll never forget again!  :)

You can get safety pins anywhere - I prefer the larger ones because they are easier to take out without stabbing yourself.  You can find colored ones at some office supply stores and they are nice to help you see the pins!

Batting - Batting is another one I could go on and on about!  To start, for my friends beginning to sew, I would say they have three great affordable options.  For small projects I really like inexpensive quilter's fleece from Walmart.  It is only 45" wide off the bolt, and 100% polyester.  Liking polyester batting or not is totally a matter of personal preference.  The general consensus seems to be people either love it or hate it. 

The only thing I WOULDN'T use it for is anything intended for a child.  In a fire or high heat situation polyester melts, and just as a precaution, kind of like buying fire retardant pajamas, you may want to avoid polyester batting.  Anything for children I go with 100% cotton batting.

I like polyester fine for a wall hanging or table mat, but I generally don't use it for anything larger than those items.

For functional quilts I like Warm and White or Warm and Natural cotton batting.  It's inexpensive, easy to find in large sizes, and it feels great after quilting.

I generally use Warm and Natural for hand quilting because it has more give to it, and Warm and White for machine quilting.

My favorite batting is Hobbs 80/20 (80% cotton, and 20% polyester) but it is no longer available locally and unless I really want it for a project I just don't want to mess with ordering it.  I REALLY like this batting though, and have had great results hand quilting AND machine quilting with it.

One preference I have found for myself personally, is that I don't care for bagged batting.  I'd much rather buy off the bolt and buy a little more than I need.  Those leftover hunks often become gifts or experiments, and I don't like to throw away awkward unusable pieces.  To me it's like throwing away change that could be spent on thread or fat quarters!!!

**I think that's about it to start out!  If I forgot anything or anyone has something to add please comment to this post and keep all that great information together!  :)  Feel free to ask questions in the comments too!

1 comment:

Kimberly said...

Look at this post! What a great idea! I'll for sure pass it on to friends with questions, you've done such a great job of explaining everything for me, er um, I mean THEM.