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Quilting Questions

I will be teaching hand quilting at the Studio this weekend. I love teaching this class because I only hand quilt my quilts and I love passing this skill along to others. In preparing for the class, I was reminded of the questions I am frequently asked about the topic. In an earlier blog, I talked about my favorite products but there were a few other areas I didn’t address. What color quilting thread should I use? Do I change the thread color when quilting over different fabrics or do I just use one? And then there is the most frequently asked question at the Studio concerning quilting: how should I quilt my quilt?


hand quilting class


Let’s start with the last question first. My absolute favorite way to quilt and what I use most often is outline quilting which is to quilt a little bit more than a quarter of an inch around every patch. Why “a little more” than a quarter of an inch? That’s because if I try to do exactly a quarter of an inch I would probably be hitting the bulk from the seam allowances which would make my job much more difficult. By quilting a little bit more than a quarter of an inch from the seam line, I will miss those extra layers of fabric. I eyeball the quarter-inch but, if you prefer, you can use a quarter-inch masking tape made for quilters as a guide.

When I get to the borders or in areas with large-scale prints, the design decision is easy.  I let the printed design on the fabric dictate my quilting design.

Now, concerning thread color and whether or not to change thread, I would have to give the very unpopular answer of “it depends.” First of all, I don’t like to use bright colors. I like the look of more muted thread colors. Here are the colors I use most: a grey-blue or teal being my favorite plus ecru, black and rust.


Hand Quilting Thread

I try to use the same thread throughout but I do sometimes change.  An easy decision is using black on black, tan on tan, etc.  When choosing a thread color, I tend to go a little darker than the fabric I will be stitching on.  I pick up the darker lines in the fabric.


Thread on Quilt

For more information, you can refer to my book, Quiltmaking by Hand.  But above all, remember that this is your quilt. There are so many possibilities. Experiment, try new colors and products and find what works best for you.

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Perfecting Hand Quilting Stitches

Periodically we get questions from some of you about various aspects of quilting and we try to answer those questions when we can.

The following came in some time back and I thought it would be a good issue to discuss:

Learning to do hand quilting any suggestions on how to practice my stitches?


Quilt Frame


First and foremost, the tools and materials you use really make a difference.


Use high quality apparel weight 100% cotton fabric. If the fabric is heavy, you will get larger stitches.


I like to use 100% cotton batting. One of my favorites is Quilters’ Dream Cotton. This batting comes in several weights. I like the lightest weight, Request. The thicker the batting, the larger the stitches and the thinner the batting, the easier it is to quilt and get small stitches.


Dream Batting



I use a between, size 11, for all my hand piecing and quilting. It is a sturdy needle and because it is so short it does not bend as readily. There are a number of needle companies and I have experimented with many of them. Unfortunately, as with everything else, many of the manufacturers are now having their needles made in China. Frankly, in my experience, the ones made in China are not the same high quality as those made in England and Japan. I would advise you to check the packaging. If it says “packed in England” and not “made in England,” the needles are probably made in China. My favorite needle of choice at the moment is the Colonial Needle Company, Super Glide, between, size 11. This needle is made in England and has a special coating that allows it to glide more smoothly through the fabric.


I like a pre-waxed thread made specifically for quilting. There are many brands and they now come in a wide range of colors. The one I use most is YLI quilting thread. It is a little more wiry than standard thread and produces a nice quilting stitch.


Tools on Quilt



I can’t quilt without a spoon. You may wonder what that is.  When quilting, you need a hand underneath the quilt frame to receive the tip of the needle and push it back up again. After a while your finger gets really sore. There are various devices to use under the frame that will guide the needle back up. Some thimbles have sharp ridges around the top for just this purpose. Aunt Becky’s Finger Saver is another device.

Once, I encountered a group of older women around a quilting frame. One of them was quilting up a storm and I asked what she used underneath. She proudly held up her thumb where she had a quarter taped. She was using that to guide the needle back up.

I have tried many different things, but my favorite is TJ’s Quick Quilter Spoon. It saves many sore fingers.


When quilting, sometimes if you have stacked four or five stitches on the needle it is difficult to grab the needle and pull it out. I use a small pair of pliers for this purpose. I just keep them on my quilting frame and grab them when needed.

Quilting Frame:

I have saved the most important for last. To get good even stitches you must use some type of frame or hoop.  It is the same as doing embroidery. Without a hoop, the work is either too loose or too tight. I can’t stress enough the importance of this.

My book, Quiltmaking by Hand, has a whole chapter on quilting, designs for quilting, how to put a quilt in a frame or hoop, and so much more. If you have an interest in hand quilting, this book would be useful for you.

And finally…Thimbles:

I never sew without a thimble. I have written two blogs about thimbles and recommend you read, “Put A Thimble on It” and “Thimbles, Part II – My Favorite Thimbles.”  These blogs cover how to choose a thimble and what my choice is.

Now to answer the question above, if you have the right fabric, batting, tools and some sort of frame, the best way to practice your quilting is to put a quilt in a hoop or frame and start quilting. The first stitches will probably not be to your satisfaction, but you will find that you will improve as you keep stitching.

I was very disappointed when I started quilting my first quilt. Here is a close up of how those first stitches looked and another several months later when I was achieving smaller and more even stitches.


First stitches, about 4 stitches per side
My first stitches, there were four stitches per side.
At the edge of the quilt.  After four months, my stitches were better - about seven per side.
At the edge of the quilt. After four months, my stitches were better – about seven per side.
By my third quilt, I felt very comfortable.
By my third quilt, I felt very comfortable.


I am happy to see the renewed interest in hand quilting and hope you will give it a try!


My current project.
My current project.


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Summer Stuff

We are in the middle of the Row by Row summer long shop hop. It has been such fun to meet the people from places far and wide who are participating. We had been anxiously anticipating a winner of the finished quilt made up of this years’ rows and were surprised that it was taking so long. But on Saturday we finally had a winner. Sheila Cooke of Burke, Virginia came in with her quilt that will hold lots of memories for her. She collected rows while she and her son drove to Colorado to visit her daughter and her quilt includes rows from Virginia, Maryland, Ohio and Colorado.


row by row winner

Speaking of shop hops, all of the shops involved in the Maryland/Virginia Quilters’ Quest shop hop have been busily preparing for our event in November. At our last meeting we traded fabric squares that participants will collect from each shop and now we are all designing and sewing our individual quilts that contain those fabrics. Everyone who comes to the Quest during our 10-day marathon will receive a free pattern for that shop’s quilt.




I have planned the design for our quilt and cut it out and have started sewing. On Sunday, I planned my day out. First I would go for a walk, read the paper and cut more pieces for our Quest quilt. Then while I watched the afternoon Washington Nationals baseball game I was going to sew some of the pieces together. After that, my plan was to make bread and butter pickles.

Well, the baseball game went into 18 innings. I kept sewing and sewing and sewing until almost all the pieces I cut were sewn. By the time the game was over it was time for dinner and there was no time to make pickles.


Sewing Accomplished


Early Monday morning I went to the garden to pick the cucumbers and was overwhelmed! The cucumbers liked the weekend rain we had and had virtually increased tenfold from what I had seen on Friday.  Fortunately, my onions were ready to harvest so I could use those for the pickles as well.






I spent Monday making not just one batch of pickles but several, and I gave out cucumbers to friends and neighbors. By the way, the recipe I use is one that came from my mother-in-law and is an old Farm Journal recipe from the 1930’s. See below if you want to try. They are delicious!



Bread and Butter Pickles
4 quarts thinly sliced pickling cucumbers (if I don’t have enough I use the long English style)
2 quarts thinly sliced onions
1/2 cup canning salt (I use kosher when I can’t find the canning)
1 quart 5% acid strength vinegar
4 cups sugar
2 tbsp. mustard seeds
1 tbsp. celery seeds
1 tbsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1/2 tsp. white pepper
Layer cucumber slices and salt in large pottery crock or bowl. Cover with ice cubes and let stand in refrigerator for three hours. Drain well.
Combine vinegar, sugar, mustard seed, celery seed, ginger, turmeric and pepper in large kettle and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes. Add cucumbers and onions and bring back to a full boil.
Pack into 8 sterilized pint jars, filling to within 1/4″ of the top. Wipe rims and add lids.
Process in boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
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Hand Piecing 101

It has been great to see how many people are turning to hand piecing and enjoying the process.

I received a photo from David S, who recently took my hand piecing class. David has only been quilting for a little more than a year, but he has completely embraced hand piecing and has finished many quilts already.

He sent me a photo of the pieced border of a quilt, Columbia, that he is currently working on. A pattern for it is in my book Quiltmaking by Hand.



Hand Piecing 101-3What struck me was how David was piecing the border. I realized that that was how I would have done it when I began quilting too. But that method requires all of the second set of triangles to have a set-in seam. Many people flinch when they hear that term. Obviously, it doesn’t phase David because he executes them brilliantly. When sewing by hand, set-in seams are very easy. Watch this video here.

But when sewing by hand, I like to have straight seams, if possible, and a continuous line of stitching without breaking the thread. While David was able to use a continuous thread, his method did require a lot of set-in seams. I turned to my book to see how I recommended sewing that border (see diagram 1) and realized I would do it differently today.  The method in the book has all straight line sewing , but  it involves starting and stopping after each seam.

Hand Piecing 101-2- Diagram 1Today, if I were doing that pieced border, I would sew units of one square and two triangles as shown in Diagram 2. Following the arrows, I would sew a triangle and square together up one side of the square, and in a continuous line without breaking the thread, pick up the next triangle and sew down the adjacent side of the square.

Hand Piecing 101-2- Diagram 2Then, with a continuous thread, I would sew the triangles together as shown in Diagram 3.

Hand Piecing 101-2- Diagram 3Here is a photo of David’s complete top. Hand Piecing 101-4Note on Columbia:

I originally designed Columbia for a beginners’ hand piecing “Mystery Quilt” class. Students were not shown a photo of the finished project. The class ran for several weeks and each week they were given a task. For instance, the first week they just sewed squares and triangles together and they had to complete “x” amount of them before the next class. Each lesson was another learning skill and they just kept making sections of the quilt. In the end we put all the sections together and they were amazed. Almost everyone in the class said if they had seen the photo of the finished project, they would have never taken the class because it looked too hard. They were all excited at how much they had learned just taking it one step at a time.

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My Two Favorite Pastimes

hand quilting
Ray of Light

I taught several classes at my shop last week and we were doing hand piecing as part of the lesson. There was a discussion about hand piecing and hand quilting and how pleasant and relaxing the handwork is. I was surprised at how many of those in the class said they loved to hand quilt.

For a long, long time, people have shied away from hand quilting and moved to machine quilting, either doing the machine work themselves or sending it to a long arm quilter. There are many beautiful machine quilted quilts out there. But I have always loved the relaxation of hand quilting and it seems that there is a trend back to it. More and more people simply like the process.

It also seems that more and more people like the “feel” of hand quilting. A machine quilted piece with a lot of detail gets very heavy and stiff from all the excess thread and is often better for display than for cozying up under on a cold winter’s night.

I have not done much hand quilting in the last few years, as I have been too busy designing fabric and quilts for those collections, but recently, in anticipation of baseball season, I put my Calliope quilt top in the frame. I forgot how much I look forward to sitting down and just taking a few stitches when I have a free moment.


Calliope quilting close up
A close up of the quilting on Calliope

Looking at the colors in my Calliope quilt, my choice of thread colors was an easy decision. I’m using grey, black and red YLI hand quilting thread. Besides thread, on the underneath side of the quilt, I use the TJ’s Quick Quilter Spoon to protect my fingers from getting pricked.

Olde World Star Quilting
Olde World Star

Being the avid baseball fan that I am, I look forward not only to the game each day but also to sitting at the frame while my beloved Washington Nationals play and getting in a couple of hours of stitching, enjoying two of my favorite pastimes…baseball and hand quilting.

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Sewing to Dots

Quiltmaking by HandIt has been exciting to see the recurrence of interest in hand piecing. At the turn of the century with everything geared to machine piecing I was determined to try and keep hand sewing alive into the new millennium. My Quiltmaking by Hand book was the result and I am happy to say it has even more popularity today than when it was published.

However, there are often questions people have and one appeared on Facebook recently that I thought would be a good subject to address in a blog post. Here is the question:

“Cosmos is my first ever hand piecing project, and I’m so enjoying it. I am looking for an answer I haven’t been able to find, either in your tips, videos or last year’s Craftsy BOM. I understand sewing dot to dot, but some template points don’t include dots and I’m wondering if in these cases I should sew to the fabric edge? E.g. Block 5 step a and b, or where the final edge of the block is.”

This is a very good question. First of all I’d like to address dots on the templates. Some fabric pieces are cut with templates, some are cut with measurements for rotary cutting. Some templates have dots, some do not. “Dots” are often placed at the intersection of seam allowances on templates. These are guides for sewing pieces together. The pieces should be pinned so that the dots meet when the pieces are sewn together.

Let’s take template “N” in the Cosmos block 5. The dotted line is the sewing line and you can see that a dot is placed where those lines meet. These dots should be transferred to the wrong side of the cut pieces to act as a guide for getting the pieces matched up for sewing.template nDots can be marked on the fabric in a few different ways:

  1. Use a 16th inch hole punch and punch out holes in the template at the dots. Then place the template on the cut piece and mark the dots with a mechanical chalk or lead pencil.
  2. Perfect piecerThe Perfect Piecer is a tool I developed to aid in marking onto the pieces. It has all the common angles used in piecing along with holes where the seam allowances intersect. Use it to transfer the dots to the cut piece.
  3. Using the Perfect Piecer or a ruler with ¼ inch marked on it, draw the quarter inch sewing line on the back side of the pieces.

The next question is, do you stop at the dots or sew through the dots to the edge of the fabric? What if there are no dots? The answer depends on the pieces you are sewing. If the pieces you are sewing result in an inward angle that will require a set-in seam, then you must start and stop at the the dots or, if there are no dots, at the place where the seam allowances intersect. My preference is to sew to the edge. Using block 5 from Cosmos is a good illustration and we can take it step by step.Block 5 CosmosIn Step a, there is no inward angle created when sewing the pieces together, so you can sew to the edge. In Steps b, c and d, once again there are no inward angles created, only outward angles, so you can sew to the edges.

However Step e is different. When the N/Nr pieces are sewn you must stop at the dots to leave the “y” seam for adding the Fabric 9 square. The same is true for Step f. You must stop at the dots in order to add the P patches in Step g.

Thank you to Coleen who sent us that question and, hopefully, like Coleen, many of you are giving hand piecing a try. If you are unfamiliar with Cosmos, it is our free block of the month. A new block pattern is available in our newsletter each month. You can sign up at

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Shop Hop Planning

snow 2 (1)We have had an amazingly warm November, December and January so far, but it looks like winter is finally going to catch up with us as weathermen are predicting a blizzard with up to two feet of snow this weekend. Many of you will be affected as well, so I hope you have a nice quilting project to keep you busy.

As it is the middle of winter, it is hard for many of you to imagine that we are already in the throws of planning for our two shop hop events this coming year. Row by Row has been a lot of fun and we have already signed up for 2016 and have designed our row. The theme this year is “Home Sweet Home.” Once we finish the row and send the image to the organizers, we will share it with you.

Row by Row 2016Many of you may be new to quilting and may not know what Row by Row is.  The event runs from June 21 through September 6. It is a very different shop hop with stores in all 50 states and parts of Canada taking part. Each shop designs a “row” quilt design that finishes 36” wide and up to 9” tall. All you have to do is go into one of the participating shops and collect a free pattern for that shop’s “row”. Then make a quilt with at least eight different rows from 2016 and be the first to bring it to one of the shops and win 25 fat quarters! People have planned their whole vacations to allow them a route that will take them to participating shops. We look forward to the event as it brings a lot of new faces from all over the US and Canada. Check it out and come see us this summer!

Quest logoJust this week we had the organizational meeting for our annual Quilters’ Quest shop hop. The ten participating shops (all in Maryland and Northern Virginia) meet once a month to plan the event. We have already started planning the shop hop fabric design, the Scavenger Hunt quilt and the Block of the Month quilt which will be free to Newsletter subscribers.

In addition to those projects, each year we plan a color scheme for the Quest. Each shop prepares a set of swatches made up of some of the colors and participants either buy the swatches or get them free with a purchase of a certain amount. The shops get together and trade so each one has a complete set (the same as what the participants will have). Then the fun begins. Each shop designs a quilt using the swatches and then writes a pattern for the design. The pattern is free to anyone coming into the shop during Quest. That is 10 quilt designs to choose from using the quest swatches.

Questers fun1

Questers fun2Many people enjoy the Quest by letting us do the driving and most shops already have the dates for their bus trips. We have many people from all over the US sign up for these buses, so we hope those of you from far away will want to join us for this great event. calliope Palette quilt final sm

Last year our quilt and free pattern was for Calliope. I was working on it when my granddaughter was visiting and she fell in love with it and asked if she could have it. How can I resist? I plan to baste it and put it in the frame so I have something to do during the upcoming blizzard. It has been a long time since I had a quilt in my frame and I am looking forward to getting started.

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Simple Lines….Dynamic Effects

We often get phone calls here at the Studio asking us for advice on how to quilt a just-finished top. That’s a tough one to answer. There are so many possibilities! Whether you are a beginner or an experienced quilter, sometimes the phrase “quilt as desired” can lead to frustration when not a single idea pops into your head.

These days, when in search of ideas, we often head to the internet and there are some awesome examples of quilting out there both by hand and machine. It can be a little intimidating. Sometimes, I think we overlook the beauty in simplicity.

Day Lilies

My quilt “Day Lilies” has the illusion of a lot of curves but it is all straight line quilting. More elaborate quilting was unnecessary and might have detracted from the quilt’s design. The same is true of my “Rhapsody” quilt.


My new table runner design, “Turning Point,” has a dramatic diamond design. Instead of following the exact lines of the piecing, machine quilter Su Gardner did triple lines of quilting perpendicular to the pattern. It has quite a striking effect, don’t you think?

Turning Point
Turning Point

Straight-line quilting is often what we start out with as new quilters. Grids and outline stitching are wonderful for beginners, no doubt, but their “unfussiness” may be just what you are looking for.

SLQ4One of our Australian customers, David S., made this “Amish Waves” quilt as a memorial to a friend he lost to cancer a few months ago. Using 50 of my Palette fabrics, the bold colors and geometric pattern along with straight-line stitching help recreate the Amish feel in this lovely quilt.

SLQ5When my staff member, Nancy, made this quilt many years ago, she was looking for the feel of an old scrap utility quilt. The big stitch in a simple grid pattern was a perfect fit.

SLQ6For hand quilting, if I am doing straight lines in open areas, I lay down masking tape. I use regular size and also quarter inch tape which is perfect for outline quilting.  Masking tape can also be used when machine quilting but don’t accidentally sew over it! Many machine quilters use their favorite marking tool, a hera marker or just “eyeball” it along with a walking foot on their machines.

So next time you read “quilt as desired” don’t overlook the basic straight line.

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How Stained Glass Star Was Created

SGS Composite copyMy Stained Glass Star quilt has served as the logo for the Studio for many years and continues to be one of our best-selling kits. It did not start out, though, to be an actual quilt. It came about in a rather interesting way.

In 1990, my son, Darren, had a business setting up websites.  He said that I needed a website and asked for two things: a credit card and a logo.  Well, it was (somewhat) easy to hand over a credit card but I didn’t have a logo. He told me that I did so many “neat shaded things” that I should do something like that to use as a logo on the website. So Stained Glass Star was created.

Our shop sample pieced by Diane Kirkhart and quilted by Su Gardner.
Our shop sample pieced by Diane Kirkhart and quilted by Su Gardner.

It was all digital at the time using scanned images of the fabrics.  Once the website was launched, hundreds of people were requesting a kit of the design. Of course, one did not exist so then I had to create one…quickly.  The kit has been going strong ever since the website went live way back when.

Recently, in honor of the 25th anniversary of my Palette collection, I have been updating the Studio’s Palette quilts. The first is my Stained Glass Star.  What do you think?

SGS Quilting copy
The intricate quilting as seen on the front and back of the quilt.



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Quilt As Desired

Jinny Quilting-wThese three words–quilt as desired–often leave a quiltmaker in a quandary as to what to do next. They’ve faithfully followed a pattern and now they are left with a quilt top and wishing for guidance. One of the most common questions we get is, “How do I quilt my quilt?” There is never one right answer to this question and there are so many possibilities.

Your first decision is whether to hand or machine quilt.  It is no secret that I do everything by hand and that includes the quilting. Today, I will address hand quilting and in a future blog I will let my staff talk about machine quilting.

If you have decided to hand quilt, you need to think about the look you want and the amount of quilting you want to do. If you are willing to take a little extra time, the result will be well worth it. Let me show you three of my quilts which include my favorite quilting designs.

Daylilies QuiltedDay Lilies is a tessellation quilt found in my book, Quiltmaking by Hand. Seven thin strips of fabric make up each flower petal. For most of the patches, I used my go-to style of quilting known as “outline quilting.” Outline quilting is often used for quilts that are made up of multiple pieces of patchwork because it emphasizes the shapes of the pieces. I usually quilt about ¼” from the seams in each of the pieces sewing just beyond the seam allowance so I don’t have to sew through the extra thickness of the seams. For the pieces which were just too skinny, I did one line of stitching up the middle.

Cathedral WindowDespite the popularity of Windows, I think few ever stop to look at the way this quilt was quilted. (Editor’s note: Click here to read the story behind Windows.) Elaborate quilting would have been lost on this quilt so, once again, I outline quilted each of the pieces, 1/4″ in from the seams.

closeup of windowsThe narrow border strip is actually made up of three different pieces—two narrow strips sewn to either side of a wider strip. I quilted right next to the seam line of each of the narrow strips. This is referred to as “quilting in the ditch.” I don’t use this method often but use it when I’ve incorporated very narrow strips—1/2” wide or less—of border prints in my quilts. The border pieces would have looked puffy without the extra quilting.

closeup of windows borderTo complete the quilting on Windows, I let the border print dictate the quilting design. For border prints and other areas that are filled with large-scale fabrics, your quilting can simply follow the fabric designs. This type of quilting emphasizes the fabric’s unique design and gives your quilt that one-of-a-kind look. In Olde World Star, below, you will find this type of quilting not only in the borders but also in the octagons which use mirror images of the border print fabric.

Olde World StarWith my Olde World Star quilt, in addition to following the fabric design and outline quilting, there are some significant open spaces of background. Areas such as this allow you to shine with your quilting.

closeup of olde world starThere are many designs, such as feathers, which can be used to fill in a background. In the image above, I used a scroll-like design and made it stand out with stippling, close, wavy rows of tiny stitches. Echo quilting was used around the appliquéd broderie perse flowers.

All over designs, simple cross hatching, the possibilities are endless. Whatever you choose to do with your completed quilt top, remember that a carefully thought out quilting pattern is an important component in the creation of a beautiful quilt.