Quilter's Schoolhouse

Refer to your personal "classroom" of tools, tips, and techniques for help with your quilting projects.

Before you begin any quilting project, collect the tools and materials you'll need in one easy-to-access place. Below is a list of general supplies, and our free diagrams. (Downloading requires Adobe Acrobat software.)

Quilter's Schoolhouse diagrams

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  • Acrylic ruler: For making perfectly straight cuts with a rotary cutter, choose a ruler of thick, clear plastic. Many sizes are available. A 6 x 24-inch ruler marked in 1/4-inch increments with 30 degree, 45 degree, and 60 degree angles is a good first purchase.
  • Rotary cutter and mat: These tools have revolutionized quilting because a rotary cutter's round blade cuts strips, squares, triangles, and diamonds more quickly, efficiently, and accurately than scissors. A rotary cutter should always be used with a mat designed specifically for it. In addition to protecting the table, the mat helps keep the fabric from shifting while you cut.
  • Scissors: You'll need one pair for fabric and another for paper and plastic.
  • Pencils and other marking tools: Marks made with special fabric markers are easier to remove after sewing and quilting.
  • Template plastic: This slightly frosted plastic comes in sheets.


  • Iron and ironing board: Pressing the seams ensures accurate piecing.
  • Sewing machine: Any machine with well-adjusted tension will produce pucker-free patchwork seams.
  • Thread: Use 100 percent cotton thread in your machine.


  • Fusible web: Instead of a traditional basting method, secure cutout shapes to the background of an applique block with this iron-on adhesive.
  • Needles: For hand applique, most quilters like fine quilting needles.

Hand Quilting

  • Frame or hoop: You'll get smaller, more even stitches if you stretch your quilt as you stitch. A frame supports the quilt's weight, ensures even tension, and frees both your hands for stitching. However, once set up, it cannot be disassembled until the quilting is complete. Hoops are more portable and less expensive. Quilting hoops are deeper than embroidery hoops to accommodate the thickness of quilt layers.
  • Needles: A "between" or quilting needle is short with a small eye. Common sizes are 8, 9, and 10; size 8 is best for beginners.
  • Thread: Quilting thread, including the preferred 100 percent cotton variety, is stronger than sewing thread.
  • Thimble: This finger cover relieves the pressure required to push a needle through several layers of fabric and batting.

Machine Quilting

  • Darning foot: You may find this sewing machine attachment, also called a hopper foot, in your machine's accessory kit. If not, have the model and brand of your machine available when you go to purchase one. It is used for free-motion stitching.
  • Safety pins: They hold the layers together during quilting.
  • Table or other large work surface that's level with your machine bed: Your quilt will need the support.
  • Thread: Use 100 percent cotton quilting thread, cotton-wrapped polyester quilting thread, or very fine nylon monofilament thread.
  • Walking foot: This sewing-machine accessory helps keep long, straight quilting lines smooth and pucker-free.

Select a First Project

Choosing a project is the first step in successful quilting. Here are some tips for picking a first project.

  • Find a friendly place: A store where the employees are knowledgeable about quilting is the best place to start. Chances are, the employees will relish initiating a new quilter.
  • Start small: A wall hanging or pillow takes less time to complete.
  • Take a class: Most quilting shops offer classes to learn good skills from the start.
  • Buy a kit: If selecting four or five fabrics from the hundreds of bolts in the store overwhelms you, a kit that includes all the fabrics may be the answer.
  • Be square: Pieced projects made up of squares, rectangles, and right triangles are among the easiest. Or look for an applique project with simple shapes or one that uses fusible web.
  • Love it: Encourage yourself to finish by choosing a design you're eager to finish and display or give as a gift.

Choose Your Fabrics

The best fabric for quiltmaking is 100 percent cotton because it minimizes seam distortion, presses crisply, and is easy to quilt. Our instructions specify quantities for 44/45-inch-wide fabrics unless otherwise noted. Our projects call for a little extra yardage to allow for minor errors and slight shrinkage.

Prewashing fabric offers quilters certainty as its main advantage. Today's fabrics resist bleeding and shrinking, but some of both can occur in some fabrics -- an unpleasant prospect once you've assembled the quilt. Some quilters find prewashed fabric easier to quilt. If you choose to prewash your fabric, press it well before cutting.

Other quilters prefer the crispness of unwashed fabric for machine piecing. And, if you use fabrics with the same fiber content throughout the quilt, then any shrinkage that occurs in its first washing should be uniform. Some quilters find this small amount of shrinkage desirable, since it gives the quilt a slightly puckered, antique look.

We recommend you prewash a scrap of each fabric to test it for shrinkage and bleeding. If you choose to prewash a fabric, unfold it to a single layer. Wash it in warm water to allow the fabric to shrink and/or bleed. If the fabric bleeds, rinse it until the water runs clear. Don't use any fabric in your quilt if it hasn't stopped bleeding. Hang fabric to dry, or tumble it in the dryer until slightly damp.

Cutting Bias Strips

Strips for curved applique pattern pieces and for binding curved edges should be cut on the bias (diagonally across the grain of a woven fabric), which runs at a 45 degree angle to the selvage and has the most stretch. To cut bias strips, begin with a fabric square or rectangle; use a large acrylic ruler to square up the left edge. Make a cut at a 45 degree angle to the left edge (see Bias Strip Diagram). Handle the diagonal edges carefully to avoid distorting the bias. To cut a strip, measure the desired width from the 45 degree cut edge; cut parallel to the 45 degree edge. Cut enough strips to total the length needed.


A template is a pattern made from extra-sturdy material so you can trace around it many times without wearing away the edges. Acrylic templates for many common shapes are available at quilt shops. Or, you can make your own by duplicating printed patterns on plastic.

To make permanent templates, we recommend using easy-to-cut template plastic, available at crafts supply stores. This material lasts indefinitely, and its transparency allows you to trace the pattern directly onto its surface.

To make a template, lay the plastic over a printed pattern. Trace the pattern onto the plastic using a ruler and a permanent marker. This will ensure straight lines, accurate corners, and permanency. For hand piecing and applique, make templates the exact size of the finished pieces, without seam allowances, by tracing the patterns' dashed lines. For machine piecing, make templates with the seam allowances included.

For easy reference, mark each template with its letter designation, grain line if noted, and block name. Verify the template's size by placing it over the printed pattern. Templates must be accurate or the error, however small, will compound many times as you assemble a quilt. To check the accuracy of your templates, make a test block before cutting the fabric pieces for an entire quilt.

To trace the templates, mark on fabric, use a pencil, white dressmaker's pencil, chalk, or a special fabric marker that makes a thin, accurate line. Do not use a ballpoint or ink pen; it may bleed if washed. Test all marking tools on a fabric scrap before using them.

To trace pieces that will be used for hand piecing or applique, place templates facedown on the wrong side of the fabric and trace; position the templates at least 1/2-inch apart (see Diagram 1). The lines drawn on the fabric are the sewing lines. Mark cutting lines, or estimate by eye a seam allowance around each piece as you cut out the pieces. For hand piecing, add a 1/4-inch seam allowance when cutting out the pieces; for hand applique, add a 3/16-inch seam allowance.

Templates used to make pieces for machine piecing have seam allowances included so you can use common lines for efficient cutting. Place templates facedown on the wrong side of the fabric and trace; do not leave spaces between templates (see Diagram 2). Using a rotary cutter and ruler, cut precisely on the drawn (cutting) lines.

Plan for Cutting

Project instructions list pieces in the order they should be cut to make the best use of your fabrics. Always consider the fabric grain before cutting. The arrow on a pattern piece indicates which direction the fabric grain should run. One or more straight sides of the pattern piece should follow the fabric's lengthwise or crosswise grain.

The lengthwise grain, parallel to the selvage (the tightly finished edge), has the least amount of stretch. Crosswise grain, perpendicular to the selvage, has a little more give. The edge of any pattern piece that will be on the outside of a block or quilt should always be cut on the lengthwise grain. (Do not use the selvage of a woven fabric in a quilt. When washed, it may shrink more than the rest of the fabric.)

In projects larger than 42-inches in length or width, we specify that the border strips be cut the width (crosswise grain) of the fabric and pieced to use the least amount of fabric. If you'd prefer to cut the border strips on the lengthwise grain and not piece them, you'll need to refigure the yardage.

Cut and piece the backing fabric to measure at least 3-inches bigger on all sides than the quilt top. Press all seam allowances open. With wrong sides together, layer the quilt top and backing fabric with the batting in between; baste. Quilt as desired.

The binding for most quilts is cut on the straight grain of the fabric. If your quilt has curved edges, cut the strips on the bias. The cutting instructions for projects in this issue specify the number of binding strips or a total length needed to finish the quilt. The instructions also specify enough width for a French-fold, or double-layer, binding because it's easier to apply and adds durability.

Join the strips with diagonal seams (see Diagram 6) to make one continuous binding strip. Trim the excess fabric, leaving 1/4-inch seam allowances. Press the seam allowances open. With the wrong side inside, fold under 1-inch at one end of the binding strip (see Diagram 7); press. Fold the strip in half lengthwise (see Diagram 8); press.

Beginning in the center of one side, place the binding strip against the right side of the quilt top, aligning the binding strip's raw edges with the quilt top's raw edge (see Diagram 9). Sew through all layers, stopping 1/4-inch from the corner. Backstitch, then clip the threads.

Remove the quilt from under the sewing-machine presser foot. Fold the binding strip upward (see Diagram 10), creating a diagonal fold, and finger-press.

Holding the diagonal fold in place with your finger, bring the binding strip down in line with the next edge, making a horizontal fold that aligns with the quilt edge (see Diagram 11).

Start sewing again at the quilt edge, stitching through all layers. Sew around the quilt, turning each corner in the same manner.

When you return to the starting point, encase the binding strip raw edge inside the folded end (see Diagram 12). Finish sewing to the starting point (see Diagram 13). Trim the batting and backing fabric even with the quilt top edges.

Turn the binding over the quilt edge. Hand-stitch the binding to the backing fabric, making sure to cover any machine stitching.

To make mitered corners on the back, hand-stitch up to a corner; fold a miter in the binding. Take a stitch or two in the fold to secure it. Then stitch the binding in place up to the next corner. Finish each corner in the same manner.


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