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Learn to Quilt: Top 10 Tips for Beginner Quilters

Updated: Mar 22

Tori McElwain for Quilting with Darla

If you are interested in learning how to quilt - I have 2 free beginner classes! Check them out, here!
Let's get into the tips!

1. Try Anything That Ignites Your Imagination!

Quilting is all about being creative! Do not be afraid to try new things. You can try new techniques like appliqué, free motion quilting, scrappy piecing, and even binding on very small projects like coasters or a little wall hanging. Don’t be afraid to dive in and try! Our brains learn so much when we make mistakes, just allow yourself to mess up and have fun!

2. Press Every Seam as You Go!

Pressing means literally to press down with an iron. Not down and out, just down. While you piece your quilt you will have so many seams! I used to be so impatient with pressing. I would skip this step until the very end. It took me so long to press all my seams! The quilt tops were always so heavy and hard to manipulate on the ironing board and my quilt was always wonky.

When you press your seams as you go, your blocks will be much more precise. Your piecing will be ten times better than if you choose to wait until the end. Pressing relaxes your thread into the fabric, trains the seams to lay a certain way (keeping them out of the way), smoothing out any wrinkles, and it helps keep your fabric in place for the next piece. Pressing as you go is a lot less time-consuming and labor-intensive when the blocks are small; and when it does get large, you will only have a couple of long seams to press rather than all of them.

You or your long-arm quilter will also thank you for having a nice flat top. It makes quilting a quilt so much easier when all the seams are lying flat!

Bonus Pro Tip:

When you press, use water or, even better, starch! Starch can be a little pricey. You can buy a bottle of starch and an empty spray bottle and fill the spray bottle with 50% water and 50% starch. It’s just as effective, less stinky (unless you like that smell, some do!), and you get twice as much solution. 

3. Trim Threads as You Go

Just like with pressing, your blocks will be so much neater! I don’t know if you’ve ever avoided trimming your threads before, but I have! Those little buggers like to tangle up as you sew, get caught in the bobbin, and wreak havoc on your tension. They even show up through the seam on the front of your quilt! Trimming as you go will help you avoid these frustrations.

4. Square Everything as You Go

I know the term “square” or “squaring” can be frustrating. Squaring means checking and trimming (if necessary) your block, row, or quilt so that you have straight edges, typically with corners meeting at a 90-degree angle; like a square. However, if your block is not a square, it is just referring to straightening the edges.

Squaring as you go means to square (or straighten the edges of) your bocks, then your rows, and then your top before and after borders. I can’t tell you enough what a difference this made in my quilting! This was another step I had tried to avoid. It was, and can still be, one of the most tedious parts of quilting for me, but 110% worth it! If you don’t square as you go, your quilt may be wonky and when it is quilted you will have tucks and waves.

5. Match Seams Not Edges

This is one of the hardest lessons I had to learn and now I want to share it with everyone I know! No person, book, pattern, or teacher told me this little tidbit! Maybe they thought I already knew…
Anywho, to reiterate, match your seams, not the edges of your fabric. Fabric likes to move and stretch, but at the seam, the fabric is much more stable. This will also help you make up for any cutting that may not have been precise. Check out the video below for more!

6. The Thread You Use Needs to be the Same Material as Your Fabric

Not a lot of people talk to beginners about threads. There are so many kinds! For a general rule of thumb, use thread that is the same material as your fabric. Most quilters use cotton fabric, so the cotton thread is great for piecing! All-purpose thread is good for piecing, too. Quilters thread is for quilting (the stitching that holds the top of your quilt, the middle of your quilt – or the batting – and the back of your quilt together), do not use quilters thread for piecing your quilt top together – it is too thick and used for hand quilting.
One of the most important reasons to use the same material thread as you use fabric is how it shrinks. Polyester doesn’t shrink, but cotton does. If you have thread-holding seams together that do not shrink like that fabric, you will be looking at some strained seams with some side effects that you won’t like. It’s like putting on your favorite pair of skinny jeans that fit nice and snug, then you head out to the movies and eat a big bag of popcorn…those jeans aren’t going to be very comfortable anymore!

Bonus Pro Tip:

If you have never bought thread before, I suggest buying an all-purpose thread of at least one of each of these colors: black, grey, and white. If you know what color your fabric will be, you can also get one of those. Thread color can show through the seam, so you need to make sure your thread can blend in. That should set you up pretty well. 

7. Invest in the Right Tools

The basic tools of the trade are going to make your quilting journey so much more enjoyable. Along with your sewing machine, here are my suggestions:
  • Cutting mat

  • Rotary cutter

  • Scissors

  • A 6 inch by 18 or 22 inch acrylic ruler

  • A seam ripper

  • Straight pins

  • An iron and ironing board

Quilting does not need to be an expensive hobby, but having a good set of basic tools will take you a long way! Again, use coupons!

8. Always Have Back up Needles and Rotary Blades

There is nothing more frustrating than breaking a needle mid-project when you’re in the zone and not having one ready to replace it! It also likes to happen right before your project is done and it's 9 pm and no one is open until 10 am the next day and you just want to finish! In all seriousness, grab a pack of needles whenever you start to run low, you will thank your past self!

Similarly, having backup rotary blades is also wonderful. There are times when I don’t get to quilt for weeks or months at a time and I go to start a project or restart a project and my rotary cutting is skipping. *face palm*

When it starts skipping, do not try and go over your cut again, more often than not, you will trim more than you need to. Instead, grab your scissors and trim those extra threads that are still hanging on. You can see (if you haven’t done this yet) how tedious this can be. So it’s wonderful to just spend 2 minutes changing the blade rather than twice as long trying to cut your fabric.

Can you also picture the effect that might have if you’re trimming blocks with a dull or notched blade? It’s better to have spare rotary blades than a wonky quilt that you worked so hard on.

9. Get a Good Quality Pair of Big and Little, Very Sharp Scissors

Sharp scissors are essential, but do not cut anything but fabric with them! Cutting paper will dull your scissors in just one cut. I have ruined 2 pairs of scissors thinking, “It’s just one cut” but that one cut left me with fraying edges or fraying threads and more frustration. A good pair of scissors can also be sharpened when they eventually dull as well.
Why big and little? Because you will be cutting small threads and clipping corners, making small precise snips and you want to be very careful to not catch your fabric. You’ll also be using them to trim batting or trim seams and it will exhaust your hands using little scissors. Plus, if you lose one, you’ll have a spare pair of scissors! So, if anyone asks (or you can just tell them, they only ask my son now) what you want for your birthday/Christmas/Mother’s Day/Father’s Day/Fun Friday etc., it’s a good pair of big and little scissors!

10. Master Squares and Triangles and You Can Make Anything.

I truly believe this. Almost everything in quilting (Appliqué is its own ball game), is a geometric shape, with some circles thrown in. If you can make a quilt top out of squares or half-square triangles where 85/100 points match, dude, you can make anything! Think about it. If you can line up a patchwork and half square triangles, you’ve mastered cutting, sewing a straight and continuous seam, pressing, matching seams, and trimming blocks!

Quilting is just like most adventures, once you have the basics down, you can do any pattern you set your mind to.

BONUS: Measure Twice, Cut Once!

Seriously, rulers are slippery and fabric likes to move! Measure twice, cut once.


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