Quilting is the fastening together of two or more layers of fabric, with a layer of wadding or padding in between, either by stitching or knots. Quilting increases the lifespan of the patchwork or cloth and gives it added warmth and softness. The stitches hold the wadding firmly in place and prevent it from shifting, tearing or bunching during use. The lines of quilting stitches add texture and relief to the cloth and in the case of wholecloth quilting can be used imaginatively to create wonderful designs.
Below is the central detail from a wholecloth quilt commissioned by Claridge’s Hotel, for their refurbished Art Deco wing in the 1930s, which is now in The Quilters’ Guild Collection.
The quilt made by Welsh quilters working for the Rural Industries Bureau, which was established in 1928 to encourage and revive traditional crafts in recognised areas of poverty and hardship.
If you’re new to wholecloth or hand quilting you may have a few questions about what fabrics, needles, wadding you need and how to get started. We’ll try and give you a quick starting guide to the essentials below and if you’d like to have a try why not download the templates to make your own cushion designed by Debbie Evans inspired by our Claridges Quilt, you’ll find the link at the bottom of the article.
Dress weight pure cotton is the easiest and most delightful fabric for quilting (and patchwork) and ideally your backing fabric should be of the same quality as your top fabric. Sateens (a fabric with a glossy front and dull back often made from silk or man-made fibres) can create a stunning effect as the quilting is accentuated as the light plays on the fabric. It is wise to wash your fabric before starting to ensure it doesn’t shrink later in the wash.
Here you can see the effects of quilting different fabrics with (from left to right) blue taffeta, green sateen and red dressmaker’s cotton.
Wadding comes in all sorts of forms from wool to cotton to synthetics. Most commonly synthetic waddings are used as they are much easier to work with. Synthetic waddings are light and springy and wash very well without shrinking. Ask for a bonded wadding (which means it has been heat treated to stop the fibres working their way through the quilt fabric) and choose the thickness you desire – 2oz is the most commonly used. Old blankets can be used as wadding, which is a great way to recycle, they tend to give a rather flat appearance but as they are already woven they require less quilting to hold them in place. Carded wool was used in many old quilts, but takes a lot of preparation and quilting. Cotton wadding requires very careful handling and a lot of quilting to hold it in place to prevent it breaking up when cleaned, it provides a good weight but it is not advisable to wash it. Have a try and see which suits you best.
Quilting needles or ‘betweens’ are short needles used for hand quilting. Choose a size to suit yourself, a size 8 is commonly used. You’ll also need a thimble for the middle finger of your sewing hand, and an optional extra for the middle finger of your other hand.
The best threads for hand quilting are 100% cotton or cotton covered polyester. Match the threads with your fabric i.e. silk fabric requires silk thread. There are many different colours to choose from. You can use a matching or a contrasting thread depending on what emphasis you wish to give your design. Variegated threads are also on the market which can add a further dimension to your wholecloth. When quilting, running your thread over beeswax can help to stop the thread from snarling up.
You’ll need a sharp pair of small scissors, a fabric pencil or carbon paper and tracing wheel for marking out your design. A quilting frame is not essential, they tend to take up a lot of space but you can use a hoop (which looks like an embroidery hoop with a deeper rim) or a lap frame, or by draping on your knee (though you will need to tack your layers together more closely to hold everything in position).
How to mark out your design
There are various methods and techniques for doing this and a few are outlined below – but there is no right or wrong way.
First you need to prepare your fabric for the quilt top by ironing and laying out right side up on a smooth, hard, flat service. To help position the patterns accurately on plain fabric divide the fabric into quarters and diagonally with either tacking, creases or a light mark with a fabric pencil or chalk.
The first method is to make a template. These can be made from card, acetate or paper depending on how strong you need it to be. Trace, photocopy or hand draw the design and cut it out. Then place it on to the fabric and draw around the shape with a fabric marker of your choice (make sure it’s something that will wash out, and if in doubt test it first). You can then fill in any extra details by hand or you can make multiple templates of the same shape for different section if you prefer.
An alternative method is to place the design under your fabric and trace it on, many people use a light box for this technique, but you could make use of a window depending on the size of the design.
Other methods you can explore include using dressmakers carbon paper (not an indelible one!) or pricking the design and then making through each hole with a pencil. Alternatively be creative and go free hand or do as traditional Welsh quilters do and use household objects such as plates, irons and tea cups as the basis for your own design.
Here a dressmakers pencil is being used, and as the fabric is light the design can be traced directly through from the template drawing beneath.
Tacking the layers together
First lay out the backing fabric, wrong side up then the wadding and lastly the quilt top, right side up to make a fabric sandwich. Gently smooth out any wrinkles as you go from the centre outwards. To make sure the weave of the quilt top and backing are running parallel in a large quilt, mark the centre points of each edge of the backing with a pin before laying it out. Then fold the quilt top into quarters, right side inside, and lay it on the wadding in one corner. Match the folds to the pins and then carefully unfold it, matching to the pins as you go. Pin then tack the layers together without moving the sandwich from the centre out then finally all around the edge.
The quilting stitch is an evenly spaced running stitch which, whilst it does not need to be the same size should appear evenly on their respective sides of the work. The evenness and spacing of the stitches is of more importance than a minute stitch size. Work with one hand underneath the quilt to feel the needle coming down and to help it coming back up again. The needle should pass through the layers at a right angle. The sewing hand, wearing the thimble, controls the needle from the top of the quilt. Try to make each running stitch in one movement, not a stab stitch (there is a danger of the thread knotting on the back when stab stitching). With practice it is possible to take more than one stitch at a time and to develop a rhythm. Start at the middle of the quilt and work outwards. To fasten on, tie a small knot at the end of the thread and insert the needle into the wadding along the line to be quilted and bring it out at the start of a line, gently pull the knot through the fabric so it catches in the wadding. To finish off the process is very similar, tie a knot close to the quilting and again insert the needle into the fabric and pull the knot through into the wadding.
Claridges Inspired Quilted Cushion
The Claridges quilt is filled with motifs inspired by natures, from leaves, to flowers and swirls. The templates will produce a cushion between 15-16″ wide depending on your positioning. You can scale the templates up or down using a photocopier or rearrange them to invent your own design. Or you could do as the Welsh quilters did – use household objects as a basis for your own creations.
Download your templates via this link: Claridges Quilt templates and layout
This article is taken from our small guide to Welsh and Scottish wholecloth quilting traditions, Celtic Fringe which accompanied the exhibition of the same name at the Quilt Museum. Copies can be purchased from the Quilters’ Guild Shop with the full pattern for the Claridges Quilt and the Hawick Quilt (shown below).