Hand Pieced Quilt Part 1: Top Assembly

As usual I have a lot of different projects going at once, some of which may or may not ever get finished. Of these, my current favorite to work on is my hand pieced quilt.

I started this project a few months ago after impulse purchasing some beautiful hand-dyed fabrics at LinaZ’s, a local fabric shop. I just couldn’t resist the moody vibe the colors were giving me. And now that I’m finishing up the piecing stage I though it would be a perfect time to share this project here on the blog.

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Why Hand Piece a Quilt?

Ever since I’d finished reading Louisa Sonstroem’s book Hand Sewing Clothes: A Guide, I’d been wanting to do a fully hand sewn project, but I hadn’t found the right project. I figured that hand piecing a quilt would allow me to practice my hand sewing skills without the added stresses (curved seams, fitting issues) that garment sewing can bring.

I was also looking for something that I could do in the evenings while relaxing in front of the TV or with an audio book. Machine piecing was just too loud for that, and also would have needed to be done only in my sewing room. All the items I needed for my hand pieced quilt fit in a little rope basket.

Most important, I really did not care how long this project took. I was making the quilt mostly for the enjoyment of the process. So, if it took me months to complete, that wasn’t actually a problem.

Materials and Pattern

Giant Hunter’s Star quilt pattern. Image courtesy of HopefulHomemaker on Etsy.

I went into the fabric store without a plan (not the best life choice). Because the hand-dyed fabrics I found were quilt weight cotton, it was a pretty easy decision to make them into a quilt. So, I went with 1/2 yard of each of four different varieties. I immediately knew I wanted to pair them with a not-quite-white solid, at about a 50/50 ratio. After looking around, I also bought 2 yards of Kona Cotton in Oyster, a very light beige/ off-white.

While I briefly considered doing an improvisational style quilt and skipping the pattern altogether, in the end I rejected that idea. It took some searching, but I ended up finding this Giant Hunter’s Star pattern. It required exactly the amount of fabric I had already purchased and looked very beginner friendly.

For thread, I used an off-white polyester that was already in my stash. While I’m moving away from all things polyester for environmental reasons, I still have several spools in my stash that I’m trying to use up. I also used beeswax I bought at my farmer’s market (similar here) to wax my thread.

Tools for Cutting and Sewing

I used very few tools in this process. For marking my pieces I used a chaco liner in white on the dark colors and a black Frixon pen for the light. A standard 2″ x 18″ clear plastic dressmaker’s ruler did all the measuring and my trusty 10″ Gingher shears did all the cutting. While a rotery cutter and a quilter’s ruler might have been faster, I generally prefer to work with what I have on hand.

Once I started sewing I set up a small basket with all my supplies. There was always a pair of threadinips like these on hand. I keep several pairs around at all times, so that I have a pair to leave with every project. I kept a handful of glass head pins around, mostly for matching seams during the later stages. One of my vintage thimbles was always included too.

At the start, I also tried out a couple of different needles. I thought at the start that I wanted something very long and didn’t pay too much attention to width. I quickly realized that the hand-dyed fabric was really tightly woven, which made it really hard to get a thick needle through. So, I switched to shorter, narrower needle, which I think was a size 9 between similar to these. I was still able to load up a good number of stitches but it was much easier to manipulate and move through the fabric.

White cord sewing basket with partially pieced quilt, a spool of thread, a hunk of beeswax, and black thread snips.
My sewing basket with thread, beeswax, snips and other supplies. The quilt was about 85% complete at this point, so it’s a little neater than when everything was still in lots of little pieces.

The Cutting Process

Cutting using dressmaking tools was a bit more fiddly than using quilt-specific tools. I’ve seen how quickly quilters can get perfectly sized pieces using a quilting ruler and a rotary cutter/mat. I’d guess that I spent about twice as long cutting out pieces using marking pens and shears.

However, at the start of this project I didn’t know if or how much I’d like quilt making. So it definitely made sense to not bother with specialized tools. Honestly, I encourage you to use what you have on hand if you’re attempting a project like this for the first time.

I also think that my choice of quilt pattern helped a lot here. The directions for cutting were well written and the pattern made pretty efficient use of fabric. The pieces are also on the large side, so even though the quilt will end up 68″ square the number of pieces was actually pretty minimal.

A hand holding large silver sewing sheers cutting a piece of green and pink hand dyed fabric. Short stacks of additional pieces, marking tools, and a ruler are also on the white table.
Action shot of cutting out the pieces for the quilt.

Stitches and Threading

As I write this, I’m 90% of the way done sewing my top together. I’ve got a few long seams left and a little pressing and then it will be time to move on to the quilting phase.

For this whole project I used a single thread running stitch to sew. The individual seams in this project won’t be under a lot of pressure, plus they’ll be reinforced by the quilting process. So, a strong seam didn’t seem necessary. The running stitch is also very fast to sew, because you can load up multiple stitches on the needle each time. I usually did about 1″ of stitches for each pull.

I lazy-waxed my thread before starting each new seam. By that I mean, I pulled my thread through my beeswax but didn’t bother to press the wax in first. This can sometimes make the thread a little too sticky, but I definitely prefer lazy-waxed to unwaxed thread.

When deciding how much thread to cut, I discovered that the best way to do it was to choose a thread length that matched the size of the section to be sewn. You want a thread just long enough to sew the section, plus a bit extra for starting the seam and ending the seam. I just roughly measured this out by holding the thread near the seam to be sewn and adding a bit on. It’s easy to get the hang of once you do it a few times.

Hand Sewing the Quilt Top Together

Maintaining an even seam allowance can be a bit of a challenge. I didn’t bother to mark my sewing lines at all, which might have helped, but I was also ok with a rougher look for this quilt. However, when I did start to go off track it was really easy to pull back a few stitches and try again.

Keeping a consistent stitch length was a little harder. With the running stitch, I find I have a little less control of each individual stitch than with something like a backstitch. This is because I’m folding the fabric as I’m sewing it, rather than placing the needle straight in.

As for sewing speed, I found that I could sew a little over a yard of running stitch during each 45ish minute TV show. The pace was a bit slower at the start, when working on the smaller pieces because there was a lot of starting and stopping seams. I also developed better muscle memory over the course of the project, which helped me make fewer errors.

If I finish piecing this week, as I expect to, it will have taken me about five weeks from cutting to completion. I wasn’t working on it everyday and I wasn’t rushing, so that seems like decent progress to me!

The blocks of a hand-pieced quilt in the Hunter's Star pattern laid out on the floor.
Arranging the blocks so that I could decide on the final placements before sewing them together.

What’s Next: Hand Quilting

Once I sew my last seams, it will be time to move on to the quilting phase. I’m still trying to decide what batting to use and how exactly I want to do the quilting. I’ve got my backing (more of the Knona Oyster) but I’ve still got to decide on my binding.

Would you ever sew a quilt entirely by hand? Let me know in the comments!