Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Quilt #1: Rag quilt tutorial for the sewing newbie

A few weeks ago, I posted about starting my very first quilt, a Thomas the Train rag quilt for my little engineer. I actually finished it in a week, but fatigue and the Easter holiday has kept me from posting about it...until now.

If you are seasoned seamstress, this tutorial is not for you. This was my first project and my sewing terminology is limited. I'm sure I made more mistakes than I'm even aware of, but my son loves it so I'm declaring it a huge success!

If you've never sewn a quilt before, and are looking for the newbie tutorial, this is for you! Here goes...

Step One: Choose your fabric. 

This happened sort of by accident for me. D and I were in Walmart and he saw the Thomas the Train fabric. He asked if I could make something with it. Challenge: accepted! We looked around a bit for fabric that would go well with it and found the yellow stripes. I had no idea what I was going to do, and since there was only a yard and a half left of the Thomas fabric, I bought a yard and a half of each. 

A few days later, I went into Joann with samples of those two fabrics and a coupon loaded on the app and found the red polka dots. It took forever to find a fourth fabric--I had four fabrics in my head, not that I had a reason for that number. But I love how the stripes pull it all together. Just fun, bright colors for my fun, bright boy.

Step 2: Select a Style

I knew I wanted to make a rag quilt, similar in style to the one my stepdad and his wife made for me years ago. I looked on Pinterest and found some direction from Crystalle Boutique, Kelly Edgerton, and Noting Grace

Step 3: Select a Pattern. 

There are a lot of different rag quilts out there, but I wanted to go easy on myself, so I opted for squares rather than strip (often from pre-cut fabric called jelly rolls), triangles, or any other shapes. I took photos of each fabric, cropped them to squares, and played with patterns on Powerpoint.

 I came up with a few options and my son voted for this one:

Step 4: Wash the fabric. 

I've read that this is optional. I washed mine to get rid of any chemicals that might have gotten on the fabric on its way from the factory to our house, especially since my little engineer would be snuggling with it.

Step 5: Cut squares of fabric.

Apparently there have been a lot of advances in sewing since my exposure to it in high school. For straight cuts like squares, I had two new best friends: a 6.5" square acrylic template and a rotary cutter. I already had a cutting mat  or I would have had a third best friend. 

I'm sure there is much to saw about how the fabric is cut but I didn't know anything about any of that. I just made sure my striped fabrics were cut in the same direction.

I counted out the squares on the template I created and cut out what I thought was enough squares of each fabric.

Step 6: Check your work by laying out the squares. 

When I laid out the squares, I realized that I wasn't completely happy with the template the way I originally made it. 
After looking at it awhile, I realized that I needed another red/stripe row. 

Satisfied with the new layout, I went back and updated the template (to the one shown in step 3). I had to cut out a few more squares and then I realized......I forgot about the back of the quilt! Oy vey!

Most quilts use a big piece of fabric (called backing) for the, um, back of the quilt. I didn't have anything that big, so I opted to put squares on the back, too. The smart person would just duplicate the same pattern on both sides. But alas, I wasn't that smart. When I updated the template, I made a different template for the back. 

I had to try a few things because I had limited quantities of each fabric. I only had one square left of the Thomas fabric because I used so much in front. If I had wanted to run to the store to find more, I would have used more on the back. 

When I laid it out, I realized I'd have to get 1/4 yard more of the striped and red fabrics anyway.

Here are the final totals for the number of squares I needed to cut from each fabric. 
Step 7: Pin front and back squares

I sewed only the front and back together, but if you want a warmer quilt, you could cut a smaller squares (about an inch smaller all around, in this case, a 5.5" square) of fleece or batting (that fluffy cotton stuff). I didn't know about that when I started or else I might have done that. 

This step took quite a bit of time for me because I needed to make sure I was pinning the fabric the right way and in the right direction. (Helpful hint: stripes are not a good first fabric!). Because it's a rag quilt, the squares were pinned with the "wrong" sides facing each other and the "right" sides facing out, like this:

Step 8: Organize squares in bags by row.

This might not be a necessary step for everyone, but it was for me. I assigned each row a letter. I marked small Ziploc bags A-L (one for each row) and put the squares for each row in its corresponding bag. 

I put all the bags in a bin so they would be easy to find...and easy to clean up since I'm working at the dinner table.

Step 9: Sew individual squares.

To sew the squares, I sewed at X across each square, leaving the edges open. I sewed all the squares in one row (placed in a baggie) at a time.

***Sidebar about my machine***
At this point, I should mention the sewing machine I was using. I bought this Sunbeam SB1800 Compact Sewing Machine from Big Lots for $30.

If I think of it as a $30 sewing lesson, it was worth the money. It introduced me to sewing and showed me that it was a hobby I would enjoy.

Beyond that, after my unpaper towels and bedsheet curtains, it started conking out. I don't actually know enough to explain the problem, but I spent more time ripping out seams than I did creating new ones. The bobbin thread rarely seemed to catch and the tension was often off. A lot of squares looked like this. (If you look carefully you can see all the holes where I had to rip out seams).

It's a good idea to have a "thread catcher"--a place to put the little threads you cut off along the way. I needed a thread plate for all the threads I was removing. 

I finally went across the street to our neighbor's house. Connie is about my mom's age and an avid seamstress. She came over and tried a bunch of things to adjust the tension and tweak my machine but even she was having trouble. Her final analysis, "So, when's your birthday?" She had declared my machine a lost cause.

Fortunately, I already knew that I was going to want to upgrade. I had hoped it would be later rather sooner, but I realized that since I was ripping out 3-4 seams for every one I kept, this project would take forever! Niels saw the problem and decided we should visit Joann right away to take advantage of their sewing machine sale. 

I had been eyeing the Singer Curvy. It had good reviews on Amazon, and the sales person at Joann told me that it was a great starter machine because it adjusted the tension automatically. I was sold!

Here you can see the difference between the two. 

There was a big difference between the foot pedals, too!

It took all of ten minutes to unpack the machine and get back to sewing. I love my new Curvy!

***end of sidebar***

Step 10: Attach squares into rows.

Okay, back to sewing. After you have X's sewn on each square in your row, it's time to sew them together into a row. Refer often to your template to make sure your squares are in the right order and direction. 

Place two squares on top of each other and sew them together. I lined up my fabric with the edge of my machine foot (1/2"). 

For the rag quilt, I lined up the squares so that when I opened up the two squares after sewing them together, the extra fabric from the seam was on the front side. This is the part that will be cut to make the "rag." Refer to your template often to make sure that you sewed the pieces together correctly. I had to redo a LOT of pieces because something was facing the wrong way!

The smooth side is the back of the rag quilt. Be sure to check the direction of the fabric on the backside, too. Again, I saw, stripes can make a new seamstress go mad! 

Continue with all the squares until you have the first row completed. Make sure to check it against the template, and make sure you've sewn all the seams so that rags are all on the front and the smooth seams are all on the back.

It took me a long time to get to this point because I was still on my first machine. But D was very supportive and that kept me going. 

When I finished a row, I rolled it up like this to prevent creases. Pardon all the long threads. I didn't clip them as I went, but I would definitely do that next time.

I put the rolled up row back in its corresponding bag, and the bag back in the bin.

Step 11: Complete the rest of the rows.

I've heard that some people intentionally make mistakes. That sounds like a good rationale to me, but I'll take it. In fact, this is my favorite square in the whole quilt. D came up to me while I was sewing on the old machine and put his hand on my arm and bumped me. He was excited because he could really see the quilt come together. In his enthusiasm, he said, "I really love you, Mommy." No way I could tear this out!

Once I switched to the new machine, the pieces came together quickly...until I realized I should have bought more thread when we bought the machine. 

Since I was forced to call it a night, I couldn't help but lay out the rows to get a peek at how the quilt was coming together. It was a good thing I did, because I caught yet another error. I laid out the whole thing again when I finished the last row.

Step 12: Attach the rows together.

To sew the rows together, refer to your template (are you sensing a pattern?) and match up the two back sides (that you want to be smooth together). You'll sew along the two front sides to create the rag edge.  

I pinned the rows along the seams, pushing the originally seams off to one side. 

As I sewed the rows together, I again used the machine foot as my guide and constantly checked the material to make sure that the two layers were lined up. 

This part of the project was the most fun for me because it came together very quickly.

Continue sewing rows together (and checking frequently for accuracy) until all the rows are sewn together. Don't look too closely or you'll see where my rows got a little skewed. The left side (where I started sewing) is much more even than the right. I'm not sure why that happened. 

Here is the back. You can see that these seams are all smooth. I put all the stripes in opposite directions so I wouldn't have to worry about lining them up, but they still caused me to rip out more than a few seams when I made mistakes. 

Step 13: Stitch a 1/2" seam around the entire quilt. This is so you can rag the edges. I may have been a little more generous in an effort to even out my uneven side. 

I was feeling very accomplished at this point. And determined to finish the sewing part, even though I didn't start pieces the rows together until after 10pm! I finished close to 1am, but it went so quickly! 

I really wanted to start clipping at this point, but since it was nearly 2am and we had company, I reluctantly folded up my work and called it a day.

It didn't take long for my son to find it in the morning!

Our guests couldn't believe how much I got done while they were sleeping. Especially because I was still working on squares when they went to bed!

Step 13: Cut the raw edges in 1/4" strips to create the ragged edge. 

You'll want to use a spring-loaded scissor for this step because it won't cramp up your hand. I used Fiskars 8.5" Rag Quilt Snip scissors. I bought them at Joann's with a coupon. The reviews on these are that they are the best ones around, but there are a few bum ones out there. The one I used worked great for the outside edge and then it started sticking. When I brought it back to Joann, they said I must have gotten a bum one and let me exchange it. I haven't had any issues with the second one.

The most important thing to remember when snipping is avoid cutting through the seam. Believe me. This will create a hole. Believe me. I spent a lot of time at the end fixing holes and re-sewing seams from my first machine.

I started snipping along the outside and did the three even edges, then moved to the rows. 

Step 14: Make adjustments as needed.

I had a bit of a problem at the end. This was my last edge, the one where the edges were all uneven. (Does anyone know why this happened, or more importantly, how to prevent it from happening next time?)

I did my best to even out the edges before snipping. 

Fortunately, rag quilts are pretty forgiving.

Step 15: Wash.

In addition to getting rid of any yucky chemicals that might have hung one after the first wash, washing the quilt helps the edges curl and give the quilt its distinctive look. 

It also pulls on the seams, which means I got to redo a lot of seams where my old machine wasn't working well. 

Step 16: Trim threads, sew up holes, finish this thing!

In addition to sewing up holes and re-sewing X's and basically re-doing everything I did on the first machine, there were a lot of threads to cut. Doing it again, I would cut them as I sewed each X and square and row. 

Step 17: Enjoy as your son thinks you are the most awesome mommy in the world. 

Step 17: Admire your work and start planning your next quilt!

Sneak peek: I'm already close to finished with my second quilt:

I'm sure I forgot a lot of things, so please ask questions in the comments and I'll update the post. I tend to be a bit photo happy, but hopefully anyone out there as new as me will not feel comfortable making a fun rag quilt like this one. 

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  1. What an amazing project! One of our daughter's little friends is crazy for Thomas the Train (or Tank Car as he was originally known in the UK). This is just gorgeous. I'll be he LOVES it.

    1. Thank you! He does! He has been nuts for Thomas since he was a year old. He promises me that he will love Thomas for always!

  2. Wow! What a fantastic job you did on this quilt! I love that you used PowerPoint to figure out the layout and I love your cutting square. I've never seen one of those. I need to modernize my sewing supplies as well.
    Thanks so much for linking up at the Real Family Fun link party! Hope to see you next week.

    1. I'm sure there's some nifty app out there for planning patterns, but good ol' Power Point works for me for now. Thanks for hosting the party!

  3. I love rag quilts - that was my first quilt to make ever! And I've got one ready to go in the wash... Thank you for linking up at the Pinterest Power Party!!


    1. They are kind of addicting, aren't they? Have your heard about Create.Craft.Love's quiltalong?

  4. Wow! This is quite an accomplishment, Jen! And I imagine that writing up this tutorial took you almost as long as it did to make the quilt, but as a newbie sewist myself, it's much appreciated. I loved hearing about your whole process from the highs to the lows to the highs. And I think it's wonderful that you kept the "mistake" caused by your son's enthusiasm and declaration of love. How could you not? Also, congrats on your new machine! It looks so dreamy. I've never made a quilt before, but it's definitely on my bucket list, and reading this post just boosts my gumption to give it a go all the more!

    Your son is clearly in love with his quilt, not to mention the seamstress who made it! Those photos are precious.

    1. Lauren, you always leave the sweetest comments! I'm glad you appreciate my long post. Niels read it and said, "Wow! That's a LONG post." But I told him that so many tutorials assume you know what you're doing. Since I don't, I took lots of pictures!

      I'm about to start another quilt with Create.Craft.Love. Since we are all going to make the same pattern, I'm thinking that I will learn a lot! Wanna quilt with me?

  5. Oh Jen! This quilt is just adorable and so well done!
    So happy I will be quilting along with you in the Create.Craft.Love quilt along!
    So nice to meet you...I am now a follower!
    Lisa H.

    1. It's going to be fun, isn't it! I'm looking forward to learning a lot! (Thanks for following!)

  6. This quilt is so much fun! I agree that the striped fabric is an awesome way to tie all your fabrics together. I've been toying with the idea of a quilt done in almost all primary colors, and now I definitely want to start looking for some fun fabrics.

    Thanks for the helpful tips in the tutorial too. I'd never thought of taking pictures of the fabrics and arranging them in Powerpoint. Brilliant! And, I also work from the dining room table, so I like the baggie organizing tip.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comments. And you totally made my night letting me know that my tips were helpful to you!


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