When I started a chemo quilt (see above) for my mom, it was quilt No. 2 in my quilting career. An expert quilter I was/am not.
I made a lot of mistakes, which are the world’s greatest teachers. I have to be honest, though — there are many quilting tips for beginners that I wish I had known before I started stitching my mom’s quilt.
Following are 11 do’s and don’ts for fellow newbie quilters that I learned through experience. Meditate on these quilting tips for beginners before you dive into your next (or first!) quilt.
This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a commission at no additional cost to you.
1.) Don’t cut your batting and backing the same size as your front.
In the biggest rookie mistake of them all, I cut the backing the same size as the front. So when the quilt sandwich (front, batting, backing) inevitably shifted, batting was exposed (see above — GAAAHH, RAGE!!).
You MUST MUST MUST leave a few inches of batting and backing all around as you build your quilt sandwich. Stuff will shift, even if you’re the most careful and experienced quilter in the quiltingverse.
When your backing and batting are larger than the front, after you’re done quilting you can trim the three layers to the same size. No batting or backing will stick out because, after trimming, they’ll be the same size as the front.
A silver lining to this mistake is that now I understand why quilt backs often are simple. They’re going to shift, and you don’t want a design or piecing that draws attention to shifting.
2.) Do get quilting tips for beginners from an expert source.
I took my quilt to my local quilt shop and showed them what happened to my quilt sandwich. They gave me insight without judgment. I left confident that I could sew my way out of this one!
3.) Don’t be afraid to improvise.
Considering how my quilt sandwich shifted, the quilt shop experts suggested treating the binding as a facing. The binding would be narrow on the front and wide on the back (see above) to hide the spots where the sandwich shifted and the batting was exposed. The facing treatment meant I had to hand stitch the binding to the back of the quilt.
A lot of quilters hand stitch binding to quilt backs. But, if you plan to bind by machine by sewing the binding to the back by stitching in the ditch on the front, make sure your batting and backing are oversized so they can be trimmed down to match the quilt front after you’re done quilting. Learn from my mistake, people!
4.) Do be thoughtful about thread.
I used white, all-purpose Coats & Clark thread. And my quilt still got made, so I’m not saying it can’t be done.
I learned at Sew Pro convention that quilting thread is kind of a big deal. Like there are big-name quilters with their own lines of thread, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me, but I hadn’t given quilting thread a lot of thought.
My thread tip for beginning quilters is: Research thread type and brand BEFORE you start stitching. There could be a product out there that makes your quilt — and quilting experience — even better. Getting better/proper thread is on my to-do list for my next quilt.
5.) Don’t underquilt your quilt.
The peeps at the quilt shop also suggested that I quilt in the ditch in the rows along with the columns. They said the quilt top could bag over time with just the ditch stitching in the columns and the quilting on random blocks (see above).
Think about where quilting adds strength, and try to balance strength throughout the quilt.
6.) Do baste the living daylights out of your quilt sandwich.
I pin basted my mom’s chemo quilt. Next time, I’m going to try the spray basting technique from quilting author Christa Watson (I bought this book and think it’s great!). She’s a sit-down-machine quilter, and I asked her via Instagram how she keeps her quilt sandwich together as she maneuvers it under her sit-down machine.
She uses 505 Spray and Fix temporary fabric adhesive, and she directed me to her blog for a tutorial on how to spray baste a quilt. She’s pretty aggressive under the needle, so I have faith that this technique REALLY sticks the business together.
7.) Don’t get too ambitious.
Start small. First I made a baby/crib quilt. My second quilt, the chemo quilt, was a lap quilt — 60 by 72 inches. I’d like to do more lap quilts before I dipped into something big enough for a bed.
8.) Do make it your own.
Design your own quilt? YES. DO IT. Bust out the graph paper and go for it.
I wanted my quilt to be blue because that’s my mom’s favorite color. I decided on flying geese because I experimented with that quilt block this spring and enjoyed it.
I also like the hombre trend. To make an hombre quilt, I made a rectangle on graph paper the same size as my quilt design. Then I colored blue hombre stripes on the rectangle. To transfer the hombre effect to my quilt design, I laid the hombre rectangle under my quilt design and used colored pencils to fill in triangles (see above).
Making an hombre rectangle first helped me understand where the different blue geese should go on my quilt design
9.) Don’t break the bank on fabric (at first).
I made the quilt with Kona quilting cotton from Jo-Ann — nothing fancy. Is it the nicest, softest quilting cotton? No. But I’m a novice quilter, and I want to save fancy fabric (Tula Pink, I’m coming for ya!) for when I’m a more accomplished quilter.
I still can make rad designs with budget fabrics, and so can you.
(For the record, I do think it’s worth it for garment sewists to buy “better” — in a good-better-best framework — fabric. Better fabric, in garment sewing, can make the difference between a project you want to embrace and a project you want to burn. Speaking from experience.)
10.) Do put your name on it.
I turned the edges under and pressed, and I gave it more body with iron-on interfacing. The extra body made it easier to sew. For added interest, I stitched around the edges with navy thread.
For the text, I typed in Google Slides what I wanted the label to say and monkeyed a bit with the size. I printed the text on paper, slid it under the triangle label, and traced it with a permanent fabric marker. Tracing the text (vs. freehand writing) ensures even spacing while still giving the label a handmade feel.
11.) Don’t make your stitch length too short.
True confessions time: I don’t adjust my stitch length and width a lot. Yeah, I match my stitch type for the sewing situation, but once I make that selection, I usually just roll with it. (This is a bad sewing habit that I’m trying to break!)
This being the case, it took me a few clicks to realize that my stitch length for quilting should be longer than my stitch length for piecing. I felt like I was spinning my wheels with my walking foot with the short stitch length.
What worked for me was taking it up to the max length — 5 millimeters. The walking foot just couldn’t move the sandwich evenly with the short stitch length.
Over to you: What are your best quilting tips for beginners? What did you learn the hard way when you first started quilting? If you’re a newbie quilter, which of these do’s and don’ts most resonates with you? Please sound off in comments!
P.S. If you like this blue flying geese quilt, click here to read all about it: It’s a chemo quilt for my mom, who’s battling lung cancer. And here’s a blog post about how to calculate flying geese quilt blocks the easy way (crazy helpful!!).
P.P.S. If you’d like to read about some non-quilting projects, I’ve gotcha covered: