How to hand quilt (+ little quilts to practice on)

Garden Path quilt detail from Fat-Quarter QuiltingSome quilters swear by hand quilting; others shy away from it. But both kinds of quilters never miss the chance to marvel at another quilter’s hand-quilting stitches. Whether they’re big or small, faultless or flawed, accurate and exact or carefree and a bit crazy, there’s something about hand-quilting stitches that give a quilt a comfy, cozy feel like no machine stitches can.

It’s surprising, but many of today’s quilters have never tried hand-quilting techniques. For beginners, it can be intimidating to consider taking thousands of teeny-tiny stitches until, years later, you finally finish an entire bed-sized quilt. But guess what? There’s an app for that. It’s called nurturing an “app”reciation for hand quilting by starting with little quilts instead.

Today we’re sharing a tutorial on how to quilt by hand for beginners, along with ideas for lots of lovely little quilts to practice on (all from books on sale this week). The how-to-hand-quilt tutorial comes from two of quilting’s true trailblazers, Joan Hanson and Mary Hickey. In fact, they’re two of the first designers to publish books with Martingale. They were publishing books when nearly ALL quilts were hand quilted, so they know a thing or two about the technique!

Not sure you’re ready to give hand quilting a try? Listen to what our own resident hand quilters, Virginia and Cathy, have to say about why they love quilting by hand.

Virginia says: “Hand quilting is the creative process that I feel adds the finishing touch to any quilting endeavor. Being a hand quilter is not about the speed with which a project is completed but about the process that gets you there. It’s admittedly slower than machine quilting, but with practice one can quilt at a good pace and still enjoy, as I do, the quiet tranquility that hand quilting offers.”

Virginia's Portland Roses quilt
Virginia’s “Portland Roses” quilt. You can read more about it here.

From Cathy: “I love everything about hand quilting. I love the look of hand quilting; I love imagining my ancestors stitching away by candlelight; I love spending time with friends sharing joys, sorrows, and connections as we stitch. But most of all I love the sense of peace and contentment that comes over me when I sit down to stitch.

My house has always been a very active house—friends in and out, kids involved in sports and other community activities. My home is the center of extended-family gatherings, and even now with the kids grown and gone, the chaos continues. When I sit down to hand stitch, I’m in my own little world. A calmness comes over me. The world around me recedes and I can easily see the progress towards my goal, the growing number of stitches in my project giving me a sense of accomplishment. I work on stitching a little each day, thinking in terms of finishing a block or a row, and before I know it, a project is done.”

Cathy's Halloween quilt in progress
Cathy’s Halloween quilt in progress

Thanks for your beautiful tributes to hand quilting, Virginia and Cathy.

If you’re looking for ways to slow down and savor your time spent quilting, try hand quilting. Here’s the tutorial from Joan and Mary.

How to Quilt by Hand for Beginners
from The Joy of Quilting by Joan Hanson and Mary Hickey

Hand quilting is simply a short running stitch that goes through all three layers of the quilt. It’s traditional, beautiful, and pleasant to do.

Hand quilting vs. machine quilting

Thimbles make quilting stitches easierYou can hand quilt on a frame, on a hoop, on a tabletop, or on your lap. Use 100% cotton thread marked “Quilting” on the top of the spool. It is thicker and less likely to tangle. Beginners usually prefer to use a #7 or larger needle. As you become more familiar with hand quilting, you will find that a smaller (#8, #10, or #12) needle will enable you to take smaller stitches. Use a thimble with a rim around the top to help push the needle through the layers. For a more comfortably fitting thimble, gently bend the opening to form it into an oval so it will match the shape of your finger.

1. Cut the thread 24″ long and tie a small knot. Starting about 1″ from where you want the quilting to begin, insert the needle through the top and batting only. Gently tug on the knot until it pops through the quilt top and is caught in the batting.

Gently pop knot into batting

2. Insert the needle and push it straight down through all the layers. Then rock the needle up and down through all layers, “loading” three or four stitches on the needle. Push the needle with a thimble on your middle finger; then pull the needle through, aiming toward yourself as you work. Place your other hand under the quilt and use your thumbnail to make sure the needle has penetrated all three layers with each stitch.

Load stitches onto the needle

3. To end a line of quilting, make a small knot close to the quilt top and then take one stitch through the top and batting only. Pull the knot through the fabric into the batting. Clip the thread near the surface of the quilt.

How to end a line of quilting

When hand quilting thicker fabrics, such as wool or shirting flannel, be kind to yourself and plan to sew with larger stitches, which is called utility quilting. A thicker thread will give a decorative appearance to the quilting. Try using a pearl cotton or rayon.

Find dozens more quilting techniques in The Joy of Quilting—a comprehensive, go-to classic for more than 18 years. You can also watch this hand-quilting video produced by our friends at Quilty.

Now that you’ve got a grasp on the hand-quilting technique, are you ready to give it a try on a little quilt? Choose your favorite style from the four books below, all packed with little quilts. Hang, spread, drape, tuck, or give away your little quilts—and get a little hand-quilting practice in!

Country comforts: Little Quilts All through the House by Alice Berg, Sylvia Johnson, and Mary Ellen Von Holt

Projects from Little Quilts All through the House
“Sunbonnet Sue Sampler” and “I Love Flags”

Projects from Little Quilts All through the House
“Harvest Stars” and “Here’s to the Bears”

Tiny traditions: Fat-Quarter Quilting – 21 Terrific 16″ x 20″ Projects by Lori Smith

Projects from Fat-Quarter Quilting
“Simply Charming” and “Dresden Plate Delight”

Projects from Fat-Quarter Quilting
“Square Dance” and “Pinwheels in My Garden”

Decorating DIY: House Party – Coordinated Quilts and Pillows by Sue Hunt

Projects from House Party
“Snowflakes” and “Umbrellas”

Projects from House Party
“Spring Baskets” and “Fall Walk in the Park”

Marvelous Minis: Paper-Pieced Mini Quilts by Wendy Vosters

Projects from Paper-Pieced Mini Quilts
“Houses” and “Purple Dream”

Projects from Paper-Pieced Mini Quilts
“Geese in the Air” and “Christmas Joy”

How do you prefer to finish your quilts—or are you addicted to UFOs? Share your quilting story in the comments!

31 Comments (leave a comment)

  • If I could find the time and energy, I would hand quilt all of my quilts and quilty projects. Now that my diagnosis is stage 4 terminal lung and bone cancer, I’m attempting to learn and use straight line machine quilting so get the top finished. Even so, my preference is to hand quilt. Thanks for the chance to enter to win this giveaway of another wonderful Martingale book. I do so like your books!

    —MarciaW on June 17, 2013
  • I love to hand quilt, and little quilts are one way to begin. I didn’t know that so my first quilt ever was a larger than king-sized bed quilt that I handquilted. It took a lot of time to handquilt, and my late father named it Sea Sick. The rows were wavy and looking at it made him feel sea sick, so that’s the name!

    —MarciaW on June 17, 2013
  • I love to hand quilt.When I was a little girl I used to watch my aunt and the ladies in her church group quilt during the summer time in the basement of their little country church. I always imagined one day I would like to do that, too. They had so much fun and the quilts were always so beautiful…those tiny little stitches, evenly spaced perfectly lined up where they wanted them to go. If I win, I would like to give the book to Marcia W., please.

    —Pamela Zajicek on June 17, 2013
  • I started out my quilting journey by hand quilting. Somewhere along the way I realized I could get quilts out the door quicker by machine quilting. Now it has come full circle and I have a hand-pieced top I want to hand quilt. I think there’s room for both.

    —Janice on June 17, 2013
  • Good luck, Marcia. I have sometimes combined hand and machine quilting in the same project and you might want to do this, too. I mostly machine quilted but used hand quilting in featured spots on the quilt. I have used metallic or bright colored threads in the hand quilted spots, depending on the quilt. Like Pamela, give my book to Marcia if I should win.

    —SharonS on June 17, 2013
  • Thank you for the tribute and the information on handquilting. I’m part of a Facebook hand quilting group that is approaching 700 members, and other than hand quilting, the thing we seem to have in common is that we thought we were part of a vanishing breed. I find a sense of peace when hand quilting that makes my troubles less consuming. Marcia—my thoughts and prayers are with you. Should my name be drawn, please give my book to Marcia. I think we would all love to think of her with the book.Blessings.

    Joana on June 17, 2013
  • I hand quilted the very first quilt that I ever made. Looking at it now, the stitches seem so big, but it is one of my favorite quilts. I love the drape of hand quilted quilts and enjoy the quiet rhythm of stitching by hand. I have a few quilts that I have hand quilted using the "big stitch" method with perle cotton.

    —Lu Ann on June 17, 2013
  • For me, hand-quilting is the reward for finishing the quilt top. I love the relaxation of it, how I can let my mind drift or chat to family and friends while I’m doing it.

    In the beginning, I made a quilt that I machine-quilted. I remember how terrified I was of stitching too quickly and how disappointed I was when the needle jumped out of the ditch and ran across the block for a few stitches. I also remember how stiff my shoulders became from my self-induced tension.

    When I tried hand-quilting I knew I would never machine quilt again. No matter how quickly I needed the quilt.

    And, for those of you who think hand-quilting takes years and years? It really doesn’t. I once made 5 quilts, all single bed size, for my nephews and nieces as Christmas gifts. I started in September that same year and got them all done in time!!

    —Kayt on June 17, 2013
  • A delightful collection of quilts; Portland Roses is stunning. I did some hand quilting many years ago in a class. As hard as I was trying, the teacher gently commented I was doing a very nice running stitch. I gave up on it. But, I would like to give it another go all these years later. I think I can master it now with some patience and perseverance. My UFOs are calling.

    —Jusa on June 17, 2013
  • I love to hand quilt but do not have alot of time since I work full time and take care of my husband. My husband has a serious health condition hand quilting allows me to sit with my husband and quilt at the same time. I do alot with wool and hand quilting is perfect for wool. I would love to have this book.

    —DarlaA on June 18, 2013
  • I have a wall hanging (needle turned applique) that I haven’t quilted because I feel it should be hand quilted and I haven’t tried it yet.

    —Linda on June 18, 2013
  • I’m not addicted to UFO’s although I have several. In quilting, I’ve used a long arm, DSM, and hand quilting. My favorite method is quilt by check, when I pay a long armer to finish my work of art. However, my endeavers of hand quilting have been mostly, following the dots on pre-printed fabric where I do my greatest work. My biggest problem, without the dots, is trying to get my hand stitches to all be the same. For the most part, they all are, but then my hands decided to go bigger. I’ve tried Tiger Tape, but that doesn’t always pan out correctly either. No matter, when I finish piecing a top, I now, do my best to FINISH my quilt, including the binding and label.

    Like the others before me: If I should win, plese send my book to Marcia.

    Marcia, don’t give up, I’m a twice survivor of cancer and know, from experience, our road to recovery is slow and painful. My sincere prayers are with you…..

    and Martingale, no what comments are written, I think, you should send a copy of this book to Marcia. Trust me, it would be a big boost to a fighting spirit.

    Keep smiling,

    Lynnita Shipman on June 18, 2013
  • I enjoy hand-quiltng. It is relaxing. I don’t have a lot of room to do it, though, so I only get out my quilting frame when I have a lot of time to quilt. Right now I don’t have a project that far along, so won’t do any hand-quilting any time soon. A small project, though, wouldn’t require the big frame, so maybe I’ll get busy with a wallhanging or pillow cover, or something small like that.
    I like the look of a hand-quilted quilt. I like the look of all the old-fashioned quilting techniques. I hand-pieced a quilt many years ago, and then hand-quilted it. It took forever, but I love the way it looks.

    —Jan Schwietert on June 19, 2013
  • I love the softness that hand quilt brings. I would hand quilt every quilt, but I also love to make quilt tops with the sewing machine. When my hands started aching from hand sewing and the quilts tops grew,I knew it was time to machine quilt. Now I can not stop buying fabric and making quilt. Most quilts I make really are not worth hand sewing or the pain in my hands at night. But,I would go back to hand sewing if I really could have more of my mess clean up.

    —Linda Christianson on June 19, 2013
  • Marcia, may God’s spirit be with you everyday. I too have wanted to start a quit, but need to take extra special care of my sister-in-law who has battled two cancers that keep spreading. She found out last Friday that the chemos are not working and there is nothing further the doctors can do. Please add her to your prayers. Martingales, please let Marcia enjoy this book if I win, she deserves it. As for me I will pray for Marcia and my sister-in-law until the day comes that I lose my best friend to the Lord. Cb

    —Cindy B. on June 21, 2013
  • I never thought about hand quilting until recently. I have nerve damage in my hand so I have always by machine. I would like to learn and hand quilt on a limited basis.

    —Kerstin on June 22, 2013
  • I’m always impressed with the "hand-quilteds" in the shows–I used to do a lot of handwork and still want to, but my getting older eyes, special lights, etc, still make me set it aside. I love a book for ideas and little tips and wishes, and the quilts shown here could be fun–probably a minature for me.

    —Carol on June 24, 2013
  • Me encanta todo lo relacionado con el patchwork y su página me parece excelente, me podrían decir en donde puedo encontrar sus almacenes en Washinton para comprar directamente sus libros y allí tendría los mismos precios. Gracías. (Translation: I love everything about the quilt and I think it’s great page, I could tell where I can find their stores in Washington to directly purchase their books and there would have the same prices. Thanks.)


    —-*DIANA GUTIERREZ Z. on June 28, 2013
  • I love your blog. I print quilt blocks. I would love for you to do an article on my website. I have no clue about quilting. My grandmother used to win blue ribbons every year at our state fair. She tried to get me interested but I was into other things. I do admire all you quilters out there who do such beautiful work! Now, I would love to learn but do not have time.

    Tonya Steele on October 1, 2013
  • Hand quilting/ hand sewing is therapeutic for me. When I began quilting 30+ years ago, that’s what I thought everyone did, and most did! I even rescued old forgotten quilts from someone who didn’t get to finish them. So, I tried my best to continue on, hand stitching the quilts for someone that I didn’t even know. Just as a tribute to them. Now, I send my quilts out to be machined sewn, but I am looking forward to something small that I can do.
    I love the appliqued quilt on your homepage. Is there a book that has it?

    —Jacquie on June 19, 2014
  • I am very interested inthis book. I started quilting two years ago but as I got pregnant K could not sit to the machine. It somehow was a bad feeling. And now I don’t have much time to quilt and I thought hand quilting would be ideal for me now.

    —Timtirim on October 22, 2014
  • I hand quilted my first babysize quilts but I didn’t have much knowledhe so for my first big quilt I opted for machine quilting. I’ve decided to do a simple hand quilting on my next big one because it’s a traditional design, and these hints will surely be useful to me.

    —Inger Martinson on October 23, 2014
  • I want to start hand quilting with big needle quilting for a period quilt. I’ve practiced on small pieces only so far with wool batting. Google thing I wanted big needle quilting because I don’t see how you can do anything else with wool batting.

    —Pam Hancock on October 22, 2015
  • I’m trying to figure out how to hand quilt a wall hanging. It is a panel, has flowers on the bottom and 2 large white birds (don’t know the names – are asian). Someone said not to outline the birds, which makes sense, but have no idea what design I could use.

    —Erna Froese on September 5, 2016
  • I have been trying to teach myself to quilt and I have been having so much trouble finding a website with information for beginners. This page, with the pictures has done more to help me than anything else. I’ve now bookmarked the site!

    So glad we could help, Becky! Thanks for your comment! –Jenny

    —Becky Novak on January 13, 2017
  • Have always machine quilted,but decided to try my hand at hand quilting as I am finding it too difficult to do on my machine.I would like to know what to do when I come to the end of my thread, would be much appreciated.

    Hi Lou, thanks for your question! Here’s a tip on ending your hand-quilting thread from author Laurie Simpson:

    "To end your quilting thread, place the needle next to the point where the quilting thread comes out of the quilt. Wrap the thread around the needle three times. Insert the needle back into the quilt top and batting (but not the backing), one stitch-length away. Bring the needle up approximately 1/2″ away and gently tug on the quilting thread until the knot you made is buried in the quilt batting. Clip the thread."

    Hope this helps! –Jenny

    —Lou M Wilson on April 7, 2017
  • I am new to Quilting. I took a beginning quilting class and thought I would end up with a finished quilt, but instead the class ended with a finished Quilt top, and no instruction on how to quilt it. I was told most people send their tops off to long arm quilters to have them quilted, not what I wanted to do; so I am trying to teach myself to quilt. I like the traditional hand quilted look, but do not have room for a quilt frame, can I start in a Hoop? If so what size is the best? Someone said you could machine stitch in the ditch, and them do hand quilting in the larger open areas. Is that a good place to start? Any direction would be appreciated.

    Thanks, Patty

    Hi Patty, thanks for your question! There is a book that will answer all of your hand-quilting questions called Loving Stitches by Jeanna Kimball. Unfortunately it is no longer in print, but you can get it on from third-party sellers here. I hope this helps, and good luck finishing your first quilt! –Jenny

    —Patty Patterson on October 10, 2017
  • I started quilting about 30 years ago but put it aside as life got busy with family. In 2016 I was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer and took up hand quilting while taking chemo. I’m addicted now.I started small with baby quilts but now I’m working on a queensize quilt. Hand quilting is very therapeutic, creative and best of all it kept me from getting neuropathy in my hands from chemo. None of my quilts are perfect, but they are beautiful and made with love.

    —Deb Martin on December 15, 2017
  • I’m so hooked on hand stitching I have just "sandwiched" together a queen size WHOLECLOTH quilt to work on while I sew together a queen size wedding ring quilt. I wanted to concentrate on my sewing technique (especially with curves) but needed an ongoing handwork project. if you love hand quilting I suggest you check out WHOLECLOTH quilts. The prettiest quilt’s I have ever seen.

    —Nina Sudak on March 23, 2018
  • I am going to try hand quilting! This has been very helpful information and has made me more excited to start! Thank you!!

    —Margo on May 23, 2020
  • I love how you mention that everybody whos into quilts loves admiring hand-stitched work. I’ve always loved the home look that comes with hand quilting and I love seeing people put themselves into artwork like this. I’ve been thinking about buying some handstitched quilts to add to my guest rooms to make them feel more comfortable and inviting.

    Jessie Holloway on August 24, 2022

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