In earlier generations quilters used cardboard patterns, simple scissors, needle & thread, and scrap fabric. Many quilts were made from the good portion of used clothing and filled with newspapers or straw as batting was not readily available.
Since many of the early quilts were made as quickly as possible because they were needed for bed coverings. The early quilters didn't really have time to make them in a planned organized way so the first quilts in America tended to have a very scrappy look.
Today we have an amazingly large supply of all kinds of patterns, books, cutting implements, and designer fabrics available for our purchase. You should be able to purchase the supplies you need to begin a small project with a very small investment. You will add books, patterns, fabric, and tools as you realize you enjoy quilting more.
Basic tools you will need to quilt -- If you wish to make your first quilt with simple inexpensive materials, you will only need a simple pattern, cardboard -- such as an empty cereal box or template plastic, needle & thread, sewing shears, and a few small pieces of fabric. All of these items will be available at your local quilt shop, a chain fabric store or in the fabric and craft department of a "super store". Some of the items will already be on hand at home.
If you wish to purchase rotary cutting equipment, purchase at least an 18" x 24" mat, a 45mm rotary cutter, and a 6" x 24" ruler. These items are basic to rotary cutting. You can always add other tools later as you need. Some quilt stores will show you how to use this equipment and allow you to use their class room to cut your first project.
If you have a sewing machine and would like to learn to machine piece and machine quilt from the beginning you would want to find a reference book that teaches machine quilting. Obviously machine quilting is faster than hand piecing but whatever method you choose depends on your circumstances.
Check your local quilt shop for basic quilting classes. Most full service quilt stores have classes for beginners. Look in the local newspaper for an announcement of a local quilt guild. Guilds regularly hold workshops or classes and as a member you will receive their newsletters with notice of times and dates. And check your local high school for adult education enrichment classes. Most of these classes are available for a reasonable fee. If you take a class or workshop you will have a live teacher and other students to interact with. Taking a class is probably the best way to learn to quilt. If you know someone who quilts you might ask her if she is willing to teach you or can tell you where to learn.
An alternative to classes would be to go to the library and check out quilting books and read them. Don't simply look at the pictures, actually read the instructions that are available in almost every book. Many magazines and books have quilt patterns rated as easy, intermediate, and advanced. Be sure to choose a pattern labeled easy. You will find simple patterns and techniques that you can incorporate into your first quilt.
There are simple basic rules you will need to follow to make a successful quilt.
1. Choose a simple basic pattern
2. Cut accurately
3. Stitch an accurate 1/4" seam allowance
4. Press carefully
5. Layer top, batting, and backing without puckers
6. Machine quilt three layers together
7. Apply binding
All these techniques are available in a good beginning quilting book or online.
Start with a small project such as a table runner, place mat, wall quilt or baby quilt. Many quilters want to start with a large bed quilt for their first project. Resist this temptation as you really need to have a little experience before you tackle a larger quilt. Don't try to make a king size bed quilt for your first project!
The Basics Of Quilting
Pattern and fabric selection -- choose a project that has simple lines such as a rail fence, trip around the world or another pattern that uses squares and rectangles. For your project you would want to use no more than three to six fabrics. Choose a "smashing print" -- such as a large floral, juvenile, seasonal, or geometric -- according to your taste. Look at the selvage. Higher quality fabrics usually have small numbered circles printed at the selvage. These circles denote the colors used in the prints and the order the colors were printed. Use these colors as a guideline to choose coordinating fabrics. Or if the circles are not available on the selvage, simply choose fabrics that coordinate with a portion of the print within the fabric.
Remember to choose different values of fabric. Value is determined by lightness or darkness of color. For instance choose a light blue, a medium blue and a dark blue. Or you may choose a dark "smashing" print, a medium coordinating color and a light such as a pastel or a white or cream. Choose different types of prints, such as a large print, a small print, and a solid look print. This will give your quilt visual interest.
Cutting -- Traditionally quilters cut templates from cardboard or template plastic. They then traced around the template on the fabric with a pencil and cut the fabric with scissors or shears. Rotary cutting has taken the place of templates in most of our cutting and is a real timesaver. Remember when using a rotary cutter that you must have a cutting mat and acrylic ruler. If you purchase your rotary cutting supplies at a full service quilt shop they will show you how to correctly use them. The rotary cutter blades are very sharp so be sure to use them safely.
Machine piecing -- the main thing to remember when machine piecing is the 1/4" seam allowance. Measure and mark your 1/4" seam allowance. Don't trust the edge of the foot or the markings on the throat plate to be an exact quarter inch. Place a small ruler under your machine pressure foot. Turn the hand wheel to put the needle down on the quarter inch mark. Place several layers of masking tape, sticky notes, or a strip of foot care pad to give you a place to line your fabric pieces against. If your machine has a movable needle position you might find that moving your needle position one or two steps to the right will give you an accurate seam allowance using the pressure foot or throat plate.
It is usually recommended to press seam allowances toward the dark fabric, but with machine piecing this is not always possible or necessary. When piecing four squares into a four-patch it is sometimes better to press one seam allowance in one direction and the other in the opposite direction. Then when you are stitching across the seam the bulk is distributed evenly.
Layering -- a quilt is a "sandwich" of quilt top -- what you pieced -- a backing and an inner layer of batting. For machine quilting choose a flat batting either of polyester or cotton. Most machine quilters use safety pins to baste the layers together before quilting but an alternative would be basting spray or fusible batting. When using pins to baste -- be sure to remove them as you quilt so they don't interfere with stitching.
Quilting -- Machine quilting is simply stitching through all three layers. Straight lines are easily stitched using an even-feed foot available at your sewing machine dealer. If you wish to free motion quilt you will need a darning or free-motion foot. Some machines have one supplied in the accessory box. If not you can obtain one from your sewing machine dealer.
Binding -- Binding is made with straight strips of fabric usually cut on the cross grain -- from selvage to selvage. Then they are pieced together on the diagonal to obtain the desired length. Binding is then machine stitched to the edge of the quilt using a 1/4" seam allowance. Then turn it to the back and hand stitch. Binding can also be machine stitched in both steps.
Be sure to sign and date your quilt and save your first quilt for comparison. Several quilts later you will be able to notice the difference in your technique and workmanship.
Rotary cutting, machine piecing, and quilting are not hard to do. By all means don't feel intimidated by quilting techniques. Begin with a simple project in a basic quilting class or using a beginning quilting book. Follow the steps carefully and be as accurate as possible and you will achieve pleasing results. Remember it is your first quilt. Just as it would take time to learn to roller skate or play the oboe it will also take some time and practice to become proficient in quilting. Even though some quilting patterns and procedures promise "instant gratification", remember any thing you attempt to do you should do it to the best of your ability.