How to make a quilt

IdeasTap Magazine, February 2015. Original article.

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How to make a quilt

A quilt may look complicated but it isn’t actually that hard to make. Just follow our step-by-step explanations, and you can turn your favourite pieces of fabric into a memory-filled showpiece.

The best thing about making a quilt is that you can use fabric from old clothes, curtains, table cloths – whatever you have sitting around. How about a quilt made from all your old T-shirts from university? I raided my mother’s closets for fabric for my little quilt, meaning each patch represents a little story in my family. Or maybe you could make a quilt for a friend whose child has outgrown their baby clothes?

It’s surprisingly easy to make a quilt, even if you’re not all that crafty. It requires a little patience as you measure out each patch and sew them together, but isn’t there something almost meditative about making something with your hands? Whether it’s sewing, baking or gardening, these sorts of tasks will let your mind rest a little, and tap into an age-old custom to make something solid. Back in the day, people would quilt in part because it was a way to use up fabric scraps too small to use for anything else, but nowadays it takes on a new function. Rather than hoarding boxes of old clothes, a quilt can be a great way to keep hold of bits of fabric to trigger memories.

Materials needed:
Scrap fabric pieces, plus one large piece for the back
Measuring tape or ruler
Scissors, pencil, pins
Sewing machine

1. Collect lots of pieces of scrap fabric. Make sure they are clean, and iron if wrinkly – this makes it much easier to measure the patches and sew them together.

2. Using a measuring tape or ruler, measure out each square into the size you want them, and cut out the patches. My squares were 8 centimetres in length and width, but for a full-size quilt I would double it. Then, using the ruler and a pencil, mark off each patch on the back, indicating where the seam should go. This will be about one centimetre in from the edge, on every side. This is a little time-consuming, but if you want clean corners you need to be exact.

3. Lay out all the patches on a flat surface and arrange into a design you like. Then it’s time to start sewing. Starting with the bottom row, sew each individual patch together to make a long row. [Photo 3 / 4] The pencil marks on the back of the patches will show you where to sew. At all times, make sure to sew on the backs of the patches, keeping the “good” sides of each patch facing each other – that way they will all face the same way once you’re done.

4. Once you have a row of patches, iron to lie flat and set it aside while you sew the rest of the strips. Then, get a big piece of fabric that’s large enough to cover the whole back of your quilt. You’ll want to make sure there’s plenty of slack around the sides, as the patchwork can go a little crooked as you work, especially if not all the patches are made from the same type of material. If you’re careful with the measurements, this won’t show much in the final piece – quilting is forgiving that way!

5. Starting from the bottom of the quilt, take the first strip and place it on the backing, face up. Then take the second strip and place it on top of the first strip, face down. Then sew the strips so they’re stuck – both to each other as well as the backing material. [Photo 5 / 6] Keep going until you’ve sewed down all the strips. If you want a cosier quilt, you can add a layer of wadding between the backing material and the patches.

6. At this point you can make your patchwork into anything you want – I made a cushion from mine as it was quite small. But it’s even simpler to make a wall-hanging or bedspread: just fold the backing material over to hide the raw edges of the patches, and sew it in place. Then step back and admire your handiwork.

Knit, purl, catharsis

Flamingo Magazine, Future Craft issue, March 2013.

knitpurlKnit, purl, catharsis
In my garden I can hear the distant sounds of traffic, night and day like a constant hum. This is London, where only a few stars are still visible in the light-polluted sky, hanging over a metropolis of grit and push. I feel it surrounding me, like a promise that it’s all within reach.

At a distance, the London creature sounds just the same as the whitewater river where I grew up. I spent so much time wanting to get out of that place, to leave the village where everyone was the same and nothing ever happened. One winter, when I was 19, I found myself back there after my first ever journey outward had come to an end, and I slept all day and stayed up all night in jetlagged sadness. My heart was still out there, across the ocean, where life was happening and where I still wanted to be, but instead I had to come back to the village where the river now slept under a sheet of ice and snow. I wondered if any of it had ever happened, that brief moment of life in the city, and I was terrified that maybe I’d dreamed it up.

I don’t remember much from that winter except for one thing: I made a quilt. Unable to sleep at night I skulked around until I found pieces of fabric in my mother’s cupboards, each reminiscent of a different time: a floral blouse, my childhood curtain, a doll’s dress, some worn-out sheets. I started cutting, measuring the pieces into careful squares, before I started sewing, making strips, adjusting each row using a ruler to get clean corners. When I ran out of patches I went to my grandma’s house, looking for more fabric with another set of memories: an old cushion, grandpa’s worn-out shirt, a threadbare flannel nightdress. I kept making rows of patches and when I had enough, I sewed them together into a blanket. I wanted it to be finished so I could cover myself in these feelings, these stories from a time when I was small enough for the village to be big enough for me. And I never wanted it to be finished because I needed this task; it was my crutch as I staggered through the winter, bewildered by clocks and maps and no longer believing my own memories.

Now that craft has changed from a chore to a hobby, there is something quite liberating about this activity. Whether it be quilting, sewing, brewing or baking, there is amazingly simple and refreshing about letting the brain rest while doing something with our hands. Picking up the knitting needles to make my own socks to go inside my winter boots becomes a meditation, a gesture of order because here is something I can control entirely. A friend found a cookbook in a drawer last year and ended up making something from it almost every night for months, deciphering hand-scrawled recipes of boiled puddings and obscure cuts of meat. It became the thing she did instead of dating, which had gone from uninspiring to upsetting fast. Another friend once knitted a massive jumper during a bout of extreme sadness that couldn’t be explained by life just being a bit rubbish anymore. The counting of the complex pattern created something else to focus on, something other to do than wonder where her life had gone. She found the jumper again recently, folded up neatly in the bottom of a drawer, but instead of it being a symbol of her illness it seemed to carry a promise that it gets better.

I thought about my quilt earlier this autumn, when I went with my friend Peter up to the blackthorns that grown along the brook behind his house. Peter had just split up with his girlfriend, who’d taken the toaster and the soft furnishings and left the man to live with a bare-walled flat and a nagging question about the point of committing, if this is all it’s worth. Our bucket filled with sloes as Peter explained how he wasn’t planning to make jam, nor gin, with them, but how he wanted to harvest the wild yeast living on the fruits to make beer. Brewing equipment had taken over his living room, replacing the girl, and one day the beer will be ready for drinking. And someday, maybe a little later, Peter will be ready to make another promise.

In my London garden, the soft rustle of traffic sounds just like the whitewater river I grew up by, but only if I close my eyes. I came to the city because this is where I want to be. Inside, on the wall over my bed, my quilt hangs as proof of the things that pass.