I’m not going to lie, hand quilting my hand-pieced quilt took longer than I thought it would. I mean, I knew it was going to be a significant project but I defiantly thought I’d be able to crank it out faster than I did. But, as always, I learned a lot along the way!
I finished the top assembly mid-October 2021 and didn’t complete the project until July of 2022. Now, to be fair, I wasn’t exclusively working on the quilt all that time. I really only started seriously putting in time everyday for about the last two months. But still, it was quite an undertaking.
In this post, I’m covering the materials, tools, and process I used to take my hand-pieced quilt from just a top to a useable quilt. I’ve also got a whole blog post about making the quilt top if you want to learn more about that!
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I used Kona Cotton in Oyster for my backing. I wanted to keep things simple and I’d used this same fabric in my quilt top too. I had some scraps of my hand dyed fabrics leftover from the quilt top, so I used those for the binding. There ended up being just barely enough once I pieced them all together. I used a simple running stitch for that too.
I chose Hobbs Tuscany wool in request (lightest) weight batting. My one previous attempt at hand quilting had involved a heavy cotton batting and had gone poorly. That sort of stable cotton is great for machine quilting, but is far to thick for small-stitch hand quilting. The wool batting was recommended by Andi Perejda in her Craftsy class Hand Quilting: Heirloom Design & Technique, so I decided to give it a try.
For the hand quilting and attaching the binding, I used a 100% cotton thread from coats and clark. I mostly chose it because it was in my stash already and had a similar weight to thread I’d seen marketed as quilting thread. I think the color I used was “camel” but it might have been khaki. The important thing was that it was a bit darker than my solid oyster colored Kona, but not so light that it stood out against my hand dyed fabrics. I also used some of my favorite Italian hand basting thread to hold the layers together while I worked.
For tools, I had a pair of thread snips, my trusty vintage thimble, and an assortment of needles. I used the largest needle I had for the hand basting. The same size needle I’d used for piecing worked to do most of the hand quilting and attaching the binding.
My finished quilt top was much wider than the Kona cotton fabric I had bought for the backing. And as far as I can tell, the oyster color I love doesn’t seem to come in the extra wide width. So, I pieced it together in two sections using a running stitch.
When sewing, I took the occasional backstitch (every 2-3″) for added security. Usually, I just added this backstitch on to my needle before starting a new set of running stitches.
Getting the length of the seam right was a little tricky. With machine sewn seams, you can go overly long then trim them and it doesn’t matter. On a quilt backing, the seam would be re-secured when the binding was attached. But hand sewn seams need to be solidly secured at both ends. I solved this problem by making my seam a little short and slip-stitching the last little bit no either side after basting the quilt in place and trimming my backing.
To keep the layers from moving about while I worked, I hand basted them together using large diagonal stitches. I also learned this method from Perejda’s Craftsy class. It was much faster than pinning, and easier on my hands! The basting thread felt much more secure to me than safety pins because the basting thread has a bit of texture to it, minimizing slippage. Plus, I loved not having to deal with those awkward pins everywhere!
The Hand-Quilting Process
It took me a few tries to find a needle I loved. I approached the process in a very unscientific manner by grabbing a bunch from my stash and trying them out until I found a couple that felt right. A few times during the process I switched to one a little bigger or smaller for no other reason than it felt right.
Surprisingly, I didn’t end up using a quilting hoop. I had borrowed one from my mother for this project, but found it more of a hindrance than a help. Taking off the hoop made it easier to use a running stitch and the running stitch made it easier to maintain quality. Putting 4-8 stitches on my needle at one time gave me straighter stitch lines and more regular stitches. I was worried that not using a hoop might cause some problems with shifting on the backing of the quilt, but it didn’t seem to make any significant difference.
One of the biggest issues I ran into while quilting was that the oyster Kona and the hand-dyed fabric I used were woven differently. The Kona was a delight to sew through. The warp and weft were perfectly balanced and the weave of the fabric wasn’t too tight, so it had a small amount of give. My needle slid in and out easily, which lead to minimal hand strain.
On the other hand, the hand-dyed fabric was a pain to sew. The fabric was unbalanced, meaning that the warp and weft yarns were different sizes. And it was very tightly woven. Visually, this made a lovely looking fabric, great for capturing the visual texture in the dye process. Practically, this made it difficult to sew. I had to push a lot harder and take up fewer stitches on my needle each time. I had noticed this a bit during the piecing process, but it really made a difference while hand quilting.
I bought all my fabric in a quilting store in the quilting fabric section, so I hadn’t thought to look for differences in weave quality. However, I certainly will be studying the weave of any fabric before I buy it to hand quilt in the future.
Binding the Quilt
I pieced my binding together from scraps of the hand-dyed fabric I used in the body of the quilt. The pattern I used leaves just enough fabric over to do this. I used a simple running stitch to attach the pieces together, then finger pressed the seams flat.
To attach the binding to the quilt, I used the same running stitch I’d used in many other parts of the quilt, taking backstitches every so often. The added layer of fabric made getting the needle through a bit awkward, but nothing insermountable.
After turning the binding to cover the raw edge, I secured it with a basic hem stitch. I found it easiest to work in sections. I would pin about 12 inches of binding in place, sew it, then pin the next section, etc. This was enough to keep the binding in place while I worked and meant I didn’t have to worry about being poked by pins while I worked.
Finishing The Quilt
Once everything was sewn, I pulled out my basting threads. This was a quick process, as the thread I used is designed to break easily. At this point, it still had a slightly unfinished look, even though all the hard work was done.
Running the quilt through the washer and dryer was the last thing I did. The main reason for this wash was to remove the blue marking pen I’d used to guide my quilting. Well, that and all the cat fur that had accumulated as I worked. But washing the quilt had the added benefit of relaxing the fabric and thread a bit. Once it came out of the dryer it suddenly looked like a finished object, instead of an in-progress project.
Using the Quilt
So far, the quilt is holding up nicely! Since I finished it, I haven’t been babying it at all. For a while, in the heat of summer, it was folded up on a chest at the foot of my bed. It got crawled over by my niece and nephew, laid on by the cats, and rolled up to use as a support when I was doing yoga. Now that the weathers turned, I used it on my bed every night. It’s been washed at least once more (cat fur!) and still looks new.
I’m also a big fan of the wool batting now that I’m using the quilt daily. It’s light and just warm enough. I like to layer my bedding, and it functions great in that capacity.
As a whole, I loved working on this project. I did find the piecing part a bit more enjoyable than the quilting part. This was mostly because at that stage the project was less bulky. This was less of a strain on my hands and much more portable. While I’ll defiantly do a hand quilting project again, I think my next quilt will be something with lots of little pieces for the top but that I can try hand-tying instead of quilting. I’ve got my eye on this Homage Grandmother’s Garden, which would let me try out English Paper Piecing (though it may be a while before it get to it!).
The other thing I’m really pleased with is that this entire project was done without a sewing machine. I know that the cost and learning curve involved in using a sewing machine can be a real barrier to people who want to learn to sew, so the more examples of hand sewing out there the better!
Are you thinking of hand sewing a quilt? Let me know in the comments or over on Instagram!