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!

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