The good news is that it is possible to begin patchwork and quilting without buying any expensive equipment.
All you need to begin patchwork and appliqué are a few sewing tools. The basic essentials are scissors, needle, fabric and thread. When you have tried the craft and have decided that you’re hooked your next purchase is likely to be a rotary cutter, mat and ruler. Many of the other items mentioned below are for specific techniques and can be bought as you find you need them.
Quilters need sharp fabric cutting scissors, kept only for this purpose and small scissors for cutting threads.
Choose scissors which are comfortable to use and cut right up to their points.
Buy the best you can afford as these will be used all the time when sewing. Another pair of scissors are also useful for cutting cardboard or plastic for templates and paper.
These are inexpensive and well worth the small investment. Get into the habit of sharpening your scissors regularly, just as cooks would sharpen their knives.
Needles for hand sewing
Quilting or Betweens needles are used for hand quilting, so if you are not used to a short needle try working with them for your patchwork first. A mixed packet (sizes 5—10) allows you to find the most comfortable size for you. Longer needles can be used for tacking a quilt together. Try Sharps, which are longer than Betweens. Appliqué enthusiasts prefer fine Sharps for the appliqué. With hand sewing needles, the higher the number the smaller the size of the needle.
Needles for machine sewing
Universal needles in size 70-80 are fine for all piecing and appliqué. Quilting needles have a finer point and are useful for machine quilting, but are not essential.
When starting a new project or some machine quilting, always put a new needle in the machine. (When you have finished quilting with a needle it can be used for piecing.)
Dressmaking pins (0.60mm thick) are fine for patchwork. There are several variations of pin types - so experiment and see which you prefer. Large-headed pins are easy to see and have a longer shaft so are good when putting the layers of the quilt together.
Japanese flower pins are also are very fine and sharp - good for more delicate fabrics and are more convenient for machine piecing.
"Lills" are very short pins, only about l2mm long - useful for appliqué. Both pins and needles get blunt and bent in use and can damage fabric, so they need replacing from time to time. Plus quilters use a lot of pins, so buy plenty.
Pincushion and magnets
Keep pins close to hand with either of these storage options (much safer than popping in the arm of the sofa)! Magnetic pin cushions can be wiped over the carpet at the end of the day to pick up any stray pins. Fill home-made pincushions with sand to keep the points sharp.
These are used to tack layers together for machine quilting. You can buy curved pins which are easier to clip together than ordinary straight pins.
Use normal sewing thread for sewing the patches together, either by hand or machine. The best thread for quiltmaking is called a 50/3 thread (50 refers to the yarn count - its weight or diameter, and 3 means that it is a three ply yarn).
Ideally match the thread to the fabric, that is use a cotton thread with cotton fabric (or silk with silk) for example.
For traditional hand quilting it is best to use quilting thread. This is heavier in weight, more tightly spun than conventional sewing thread and has a waxed finish to prevent the thread tangling. It needs to be stronger as it is this thread which holds the three layers of the quilt together. For other types of hand stitching, such as sashiko and stipple quilting, you can buy sashiko or "top stitch" thread, both of which are thicker and create a more visible stitch. For machine quilting you can also use cotton or invisible (monofilament) thread. You will also need tacking cotton (usually white) for tacking the quilt layers.
When choosing thread colours, you can either use a neutral colour, such as a mid grey, which works with most fabric colours or you can use a colour to match the fabric colour - it is always better to use a slighter darker shade than a lighter one if you do not want the thread to show. To save money, buy neutral colours on 500m or l000m reels.
Thimbles are made from many materials - plastic, metal, wood or leather - and come in various sizes. Try several before finding one that feels comfortable.
There are sturdy plastic thimbles available for people with long fingernails and also a finger protector for the hand under the quilt — both good for people allergic to metal.
Leather thimbles have a metal insert and can have a slot for a fingernail, which is very soft and light. Another leather thimble type covers the whole finger like a fingerstall and has an elastic hack. Leather thimbles are particularly good for quilters with arthritic fingers who cannot comfortably wear conventional thimbles.
Whether you sew by hand or machine, you will need an iron to press your fabric and sewn seams. Whether you prefer a steam or flat iron, with or without a cord, is personal preference.
As an alternative to a fu11 size ironing board, a smaller, fold-out table top board can be useful to keep close at hand.
Thus should not be under estimated — for fine hand sewing, you need to shine light directly onto your work - so position an anglepoise lamp with a halogen bulb next to your sewing chair. For accurate colour matching (especially in the evening or on dull days) put a blue daylight bulb into a desk or ceiling lamp.
The simplest sewing machine will sew basic straight stitches needed for patchwork. More sophisticated models will also have suitable applique stitches, such as blanket stitch; some even do a mock hand quilting stitch. Computerised lettering on selected models would be useful for embroidered labels on the backs of quilts. You should select a sewing machine by deciding first what you need it to do and how much you want to spend. Its weight and a protective case or cover are also considerations if you are wanting to take it to classes regularly.
One of the most vital features is the ability to sew a 1/4in seam as this is standard in patchwork. Some machines have 1/4in feet attachments for quilters, or you can adjust the needle position to give you a 1/4in seam. A walking foot can he useful for straight line quilting — some machines have this built in. A darning foot is helpful for free machine quilting.
The best advice when buying a machine is to take your time assessing all the brands and models available. Talk to quilting friends and and road test their machines. Visit a quilt show where many of the major manufacturers will have all the models on display that you can try. Do not feel pressurised into buying a top of the range all—singing, all—dancing machine. Far better to buy a simpler model which you will be able to use easily from day one. Once you have tried out many of the patchwork techniques and maybe want to specialise, you can always trade your machine in for a different, or more complex model.
Rotary cutters have revolutionised the cutting of fabric for quilts. To use this equipment, you will need the set of cutter, mat and acrylic ruler. Never cut on any surface other than the self-healing mat made especially for the purpose. Decide if you will be working in imperial or metric measurements and buy your equipment accordingly. When buying, you can often save money by buying the equipment as a set. You should also check your local DIY shop as their mats are often cheaper than in quilt shops (although they may not sell the cutter and ruler).
Rotary cutters are made in four sizes: 28, 45, 60 and 65mm. They come in all shapes and sizes and there are several brands worth buying. Cutters may have straight handles which can be used by right and left-handers without alteration. New variations have a curved, ergonomic, handle which many quilters find more comfortable - an important consideration if you are to do a lot of rotary cutting. Such models may need re-assembling for left-handers.
All should have snap-on / snap-off guards on their blades. An alternative design has an automatic guard which retracts when you begin cutting - not so good if a small child got hold of it. If there are several brands from which you can choose, it is a good idea to also check the cost of replacement blades. In the UK, there are several companies offering re-sharpening of blades or replacement new-for-old blades at a discount.
Mats for rotary cutting come in many sizes and two thicknesses. Heavy duty mats, which are more expensive, may also be used with craft knives. Mats must be stored flat and away from light and heat, otherwise they will distort. They are often marked with imperial or metric gridlines (or both). These are useful for lining up fabrics on the board - you should however use the ruler for accurate measuring. If working at home, your mat should be almost as large as a fat quarter (24 x l7in). Buy the largest mat for which you have table and storage space available, This allows you to cut strips across the width of the fabric with just one fold. If you attend plenty of workshops, you may find it useful to purchase a smaller mat, measuring 18 x 12in.
A plastic ruler longer than 12th (30cm) is useful. Quilt rulers have plenty of lines printed on them, both running the length of the ruler and across its width. These make lining up and measuring much quicker. The lines should be fine and easily read. Rulers with both black, yellow or orange lines show up well on dark and light fabrics. Angles are useful too. 45° particularly but also 30° and 60°.
Eventually you may want to purchase extra ruler of different sizes.
The best advice is - do not buy any until you sure that you need it - far better to spend the money on fabric and thread when you are starting out.
First published in Patchwork Basics 2002
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