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The Craft of Quilting and Patchwork

The Craft of Quilting and PatchworkQuilting and Patchwork Introduction

From being decorative crafts for practical products, quilting and patchwork are enjoying a revival in a new role as forms of textile art. Still influenced by traditional designs, contemporary quilts are fashioning the image of these very accessible forms of needlecraft.

Origins of Quilting

Quilting in particular has been used in many societies for centuries to provide furnishings and dress wear for both civil and military purposes. The layers of wadding offered warmth in cold climates and gave added protection to soldiers. Quiltings decorative effect added to its popularity and paintings from the 1500’s in Britain show that in wealthy families luxurious fabrics were richly stitched this way.  

The perishable nature of fabric means that few examples of either patchwork or quilting exist dating from before the early 19th century. This makes it difficult to trace their history. Examples from the wealth of quilts which were made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, show how the makers in different countries and communities developed their own individual styles and patterns. Quilts often reveal the beliefs and social and economic influences which were part of the needleworkers life.

Within the library of traditional patterns inherited by quilters of today are many patterns which have more than one name. The reason for this is that craftspeople, living in many different countries worldwide, independently developed the same solution to a problem.

Basic techniques of Patchwork

Patchwork -  Patchwork is the technique of joining small pieces of different coloured fabrics to make a design. In many traditional designs, the same shape is used throughout the quilt. The stunning effects which can be achieved are brought about by the makers use of colour and the texture of the fabrics.

In traditional patchwork, a pattern is usually worked out in a small block of patches. The block is then repeated, perhaps with a variation in colours and fabric. When all the blocks are completed they are joined up. Many modern designers still work on the block principle, but the pattern may vary within the blocks.  

Quilting – The function of quilting is to hold three layers of fabric together; the top, the wadding and the backing. As with patchwork, there are many techniques used to do this. The small running stitches commonly used to pattern the surface create linear grooves, making the surface undulate, adding rhythm and movement to the otherwise flat top layer.  

When combined with patchwork, quilting can be used to accentuate the lines of the joins. Alternatively, the stitching can be used to carve shapes across the patching, creating an extra dimension to the patch worked surface.  

Designer quilters have two things in common: a love of fabric and of the way it can be manipulated with stitches. They work by hand or machine, mainly with silks and cottons. The quilts can be for walls or for garments, not necessarily for beds.  

Although many designers quilters have an artistic background, they will also have studied traditional methods of the craft before developing individual approaches. Precision and attention to detail form a necessary basis for success, but once the techniques are mastered, anything goes!  

Large quilts take up a lot of space, so designers usually work alone in a studio, often exploring a theme through a series of quilts. Commissions for original work are welcome; the clients input will sometimes spark off new ideas.  

The professional is often looking for ways to speed up production. Sometimes a partnership will be formed between a patchworker and a quilter, or machine quilting will be used instead of the time consuming hand method.  

And like all textile people, patchworkers tend to collect fabric. A piece may not be used for months or even years, but one day it will be just right for a design. An important part of designing original quilts is sifting through these fabric collections, selecting colours and gaining inspiration.  

The next step is to settle down and work on drawing up the design. The beauty of patchwork is that you do not need to know how to draw – a ruler and compass will see you through. Every designer develops their own way of working, but there are certain stages which all have to go through.  

The design is usually sketched and coloured in rough and is then worked up in more detail on squared paper. Intuition and experience sharpens the eye, enabling it to recognize when a pattern is going to work and when it isn’t.  

One designer begins by designing the quilt in miniature, drawing up a few pages of 3inch squares or rectangles, depending on the shape of the finished quilt. This way, she does not have to stop for one precious moment to rule up more squares when ideas are flooding in thick and fast.  

The small drawing is then enlarged to about an 8inch square. A grid is drawn over this so that the drawing can be accurately enlarged to full size. The shape is measured out and a grid added. This provides an accurate guide showing where the lines should be drawn. All the pieces are numbered on both designs, and grainlines and balance marks are added to help when piecing the bits together.  

Colour scheme – A firm plan of the colours and fabric to be used is usually worked out beforehand, but this again is flexible once the practical work begins. Some designers will dye or even paint the fabrics to ensure they have the precise colour they want to work with.  

Most quilt makers have a wall of their workshop covered with insulation board, painted white. The full size design is pinned up on this and covered with fabrics, folded and pined roughly to size. This helps the selection of the colours.  

Cutting and Patching – Templates are the cut and placed on the wrong side of the fabric. Care must be taken to make sure that the pattern is not reversed. The grains are checked and transferred with a pencil. After drawing the outline the fabric is cut out leaving about 6mm seam allowances all around.  

All the pieces are then pinned on the board and adjusted as necessary. Bit by bit the pieces are tacked in place then stitched together by hand or using a machine. A constant check is made to make sure that the design is working. Any pieces which seem wrong are repatched in new fabrics. The whole is worked, pressed and checked at every stage.  

Arranging the layers – The whole quilt is then put up with the top complete, but flat. The next step is to tack it to the wadding and backing fabric. For this the quilt has to be spread out on a firm, even surface. The backing is taped down to keep it flat while the wadding is positioned; the top layer is placed over this. A line of pins, top to bottom, side to side, keeps the three layers from slipping. Before these layers can be tacked in place, the outline of the pattern to be quilted is marked on the top. The quilt is then tacked with fairly close stitches from the centre outwards in both directions, smoothing any wrinkles out towards the sides.  

The quilt has now taken on a new dimension, appearing softer and richer. A final check is made before putting it on to the quilting frame.

There are several types of frames available, but basically the quilt will be rolled round two runners and held at the sides with tapes to keep them fairly rigid. A group of quilters can work around a large frame.  

Hand quilting is a long process. The stitches should be small and even, back and front. Quilters develop their own way of stitching but it is invariably hard on the hands and neck.  

Quilting can also be done using a sewing machine, but this is not an easy option as the quilts are quite bulky. It is particularly difficult to gain a smooth, even finish on curves or bends. Good machine quilting is therefore a highly prized skill.  

Finally the quilt is removed from the frame, and the tacking taken out. All that remains is to square up the quilt, bind the edges and attach a hanging sleeve and rod for displaying. 

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