Making a Quilt: The How-To

Where do you begin? If you can draw and cut simple geometric shapes, and sew a straight line, you’re ready!

Getting Started

Do you need a sophisticated sewing machine, or computer-aided design? Well – both are options – but neither are necessary.

Start small. And if you don’t have a sewing machine, that’s no problem. Piecing and quilting by hand – at least once – will let you know if it’s for you. If you’re already comfortable with a sewing machine, then quilting by machine will be a breeze.

How to Make Your Quilt Top

You’ve got the materials. You’ve picked a pattern. You have colors in mind, and a rough size specified. What’s next? Here are the basic steps to making your first pieced top:

Quilt Top Checklist
() Pick fabrics.
() Choose yardage according to the instructions of your quilt shop, book, or pattern.
() Trace or draw your pattern onto the fabric.
() Cut carefully.  
() Lay out pieces to make sure they are pleasing to your eye.
() Use pencil or fabric marker to draw the line for a ¼” seam allowance.
() Pin or baste your pieces together.
() Always stitch with right sides of fabric facing each other!
() Stitch by hand or machine along the line you’ve drawn.
() For extra strength, stitch over your seams two or three times.
() Trim threads and any fraying edges.
() Press each stitched piece.
() Begin combining smaller pieces into larger units. You may do this in blocks, or strips. Press seams as you go.
() Add sashing to blocks if you like that look.
() Add one or more borders.
() Use appliqué or embroidery techniques if you choose, as you go along.
() You may sign your work in embroidery or other needlework, on a particular block or area of the quilt.
() If you are making a quilt as part of a group project, and everyone is making a block (a friendship or album quilt), sign your block in embroidery or other needlework.


Your top is done! Now press the entire top piece. You’re ready to do the backing next.



Mitering is a technique for finishing corners so they are tight and tidy right angles. For a step-by-step illustration of this technique, take a look at Mitering.

Be sure your backing fabric is complementary to the patterns and colors you’ve used on the top. Often, backing fabric is one of the selections found on the top layer. The backing typically has no pieced design, but for sizeable quilts, sometimes requires that several large strips of cloth be sewn together.  

If your backing is a patterned fabric, the quilting stitches will not show up as much as on a solid material. If you’re a beginner, choose a patterned back so mistakes won’t be noticeable. And as for those mistakes – that’s part of the beauty! It shows this is work done by the hand.

Geometric Crossed T Quilt
Red and Black Geometric Crossed T’s Design
Collection of Shelly Zegart
Geometric Cross T Quilt Closeup
Red and Black Geometric Crossed T’s Design
This example shows a beautiful geometric pieced top
which has been secured through tying,
rather than quilt stitching.
 Note the use of a subtly patterned backing
to complement the striking design of the top.

Securing Three Layers

Once your backing is made, you need to:

Securing the Layers Checklist
() Lay out each layer of your quilting sandwich: backing first, face down; batting in the middle; top, face up.
() Baste through all three layers.
() Basting is a very loose, large stitch, meant to hold fabric in place. The basting stitches are temporary, and will be removed when you are done.
() Basting your quilt may be done on a table, the floor, or any flat surface.
() When securing your three layers together, start from the center and work your way outward.
() In this way, if you are off a bit on putting all three layers together, it is easy to adjust with a bit of extra border or binding.
() Once your quilt is basted together, put it into a hoop or frame.
() Stretch the quilt inside the frame so it is secure and taut. But don’t overstretch so it looks pulled or misshapen!
() Some quilters finish edges before all the quilt stitching is done. Others do this as a last step.  
() Edges need to be carefully folded over using binding.
() Corners should be mitered.
() Pin, baste, and press as you go.
() You are now ready to mark your quilt for its stitching design!

Now you’re ready to quilt!

Quilting Process

Use sewing chalk or washable marking pencil to mark your quilt stitching design on your quilt top. Use your ruler or yardstick for straight lines.

How do you decide what that stitching pattern should be? A good rule of thumb for geometric pieces – follow the shapes you have. And remember - the quilt stitching serves two purposes. It needs to secure all three layers together, and to add another element of design.

So what does that mean?

In our Bear Claw example, it might mean a stitching pattern similar to what is illustrated here. Stitching inside the squares, inside the long rectangles, and inside and outside claw triangles will anchor the layers securely, and also highlight the geometric shapes.

Geometric Cross T Quilt Closeup
Bear Claw Block
An example of a quilt stitching pattern

Now make sure your quilt is secured in your hoop or frame, and start quilting! A quilting stitch is a small “running” stitch - a simple up and down with needle and thread as you move forward along your marked lines.

Easy, right? Really, the two toughest parts are keeping the quilt in its frame, and fatigue. Quilting by hand is hard on the fingers, and makes a thimble a necessity. Fingers and hand muscles will tire, but those who piece and quilt by hand love the feel of it, and go for long periods without noticing discomfort.

If you are quilting by machine, just make sure you keep all layers smooth for an even application of the stitching. through all three layers. Proceed slowly enough to stick to the lines you’ve marked.

Congratulations! You’ve done it!

Now let's turn to some of the supplies you'll need for quilting.

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