Hand Quilt Along: An Old-Fashioned Quilter

quilting-2581992_1920“You think you’ve got it bad?? When I was your age, we walked 5 miles to school. In blinding snow. And it was uphill . . . both ways!”

We’ve all heard this sort of harkening back to the olden days and how much easier the younger generation’s life is. And we’ve been annoyed by it.

Well, this is Hand Quilt Along Sunday and Kathy Reeves had this notion that maybe the hand quilters were busy doing other holiday-type things, with little time for quilting these past three weeks. She suggested we write, instead, about how we got our start in the world of quilt making.

For a lapsed hand quilter, such as I, this was a welcome invitation! 

And what I have to say to the newer, younger generation of quilters is:

You think you’ve got it bad?? When I started quilting there were no rotary cutters! There were no specialty quilt shops, no celebrity quilters with YouTube channels. No fancy, odd-shaped rulers and dandy cutting mats and twee kits for every conceivable quilty creation.

We had scissors. Cardboard templates. Fabric from JC Penneys. 

I made my first quilt wen I was about 17. I have no idea why I made it, really.

I come from a crafty family but no one quilted. I don’t remember ever seeing a quilt. Fine hand-crafted clothing, crocheted afghans, embroidered pillowcases abounded but no quilts . . . 

But, when I was 17 or 18 years old, I had a book and there was a black and white photo of a double Irish chain quilt. And I was smitten.

I went to Woolworth’s, the local 5 and 10 cent store, and bought fabric in three colors, off-white, pink, and a deep red that matched the ruby glassware my grandmother loved.

The book didn’t provide a pattern but I figured things out and used my mother’s old sewing machine and made that quilt, big enough for my double bed. I used a light blanket as batting and tied the corners instead of quilting it. 

And I loved that quilt to pieces. It is long gone but fondly remembered. I wish I had a photo to share!

I didn’t make another quilt for nearly 20 years and rotary cutters still hadn’t been invented, or at least they hadn’t made it to my small town. But I had a good book to guide me, the classic Quilts, Quilts, Quilts, by Diana McClun and Laura Nownes, and I bought somewhat better fabric. I learned to hand quilt and made two or three quilts, and then took another multi-year hiatus from quilting.

Then I retired and have had time to get back to quilting but, my, how that world has changed! New techniques, new tools, new, and expensive, machinery. New ways of teaching and learning, and tons of sources of information. In my quilt guild of about 180, only two or three of us quilt by hand, everyone knows the names of the fabric designers, and most of the quilts are made from instructions by famous quilters, or from kits.     

I felt, and still do, really, that quilting had left me behind. I feel as out of touch with modern quilting as my grandmothers would feel if they were alive and set down in our modern computer-driven, social media world. 

I could, of course, move into the modern. I could get the long-arm quilting machine and the fancy rulers and a big stash of expensive designer fabric.

I started my quilting life modestly and I think that’s where I’ll end it. I am drawn to what quilting used to be more than what it is now.

I will stick to the traditional patterns and come up with my own colors and ways of putting blocks together, using graph paper and colored pencils. I’ll sew with my reliable Singer Featherweight. I’ll come up with an idea and go find fabric rather than accumulating a huge stash. I’ll quilt by hand and finish, maybe, a couple more quilts in this lifetime. 

I’ll admire, stand in awe of, quilts by modern quilters . . . but to my own self be true.

But don’t try to take my rotary cutter away from me! You’d have to pry it from my cold, dead hands . . . 


This Hand Quilt Along is an opportunity for hand quilters and piecers to share and motivate one another. We post every three weeks, to show our progress and encourage one another.  If you have a hand quilting project and would like to join our group contact Kathy at the link below.

KathyLoriMargaretKerryEmmaTracyDebConnieSusan,  NanetteSassy , EdithSharonKarrin, and Gretchen

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82 thoughts on “Hand Quilt Along: An Old-Fashioned Quilter

  1. A lot of what you say resonates very strongly. I made my first quilt in my 20s. No one in my family had ever made a quilt and no one has made on since – that’s my job! I scored a big bag of scraps of beautiful wool challis (that frayed like crazy). I made my own English paper piecing templates, octagons with small squares in the corners. I cut the fabrics with scissors, and stitched the whole thing by hand. I backed it with flannel and used a blanket as batting. I still own it, and love it. I don’t do a lot of following along with celebrity quilters. I don’t buy lots of fabric, only enough for what I’m making. I own four basic rulers and two rotary cutters and the largest mat I can fit on my cutting table. I have one basic sewing machine. I design my own quilts. And that’s enough to keep me happy, creating and fulfilled. And yes, I’m with you on the rotary cutter!

    • English paper piecing with wool challis? Talk about a trial by fire! But all other quilting probably seemed very manageable after that experience. Our attitudes about quilting sound very compatible!

  2. From your heart to mine – love this post. I grew up shopping at Woolworth, but my Mom was the exceptional seamstress so I didn’t feel the draw. As a married adult, I’ve always had a sewing machine and made clothes and crafty things. I made my first quilt after I retired and have been working on it since. But, when I started I decided I didn’t have the desire, budget or the closet to support all the UFOs I was hearing about from all the online quilters. So, I’m boring – I do one project at a time from start to finish and then start another one. I usually use my own patterns which can get a person into trouble and allows for spending a lot of time with Jack the Ripper. 🙂 And, I buy fabric I like rather than which designer or store it comes from. My one quilting wish is that I lived closer to someone like you so I could learn to hand quilt even if it was a mug rug. I am in awe of those who hand quilt. Applause to you for your skills. 🙂

    • Wow–we approach quilting in such similar ways! It’s good to know that there are others who just follow their hearts and not the trends. I wish I lived close enough to get you started on hand quilting . . . I’d really like to encourage more of that. It is so satisfying . . .

  3. Always enjoy your posts! and loved reading about your beginnings with quilting. Your words rang true and brought quite a few smiles and ‘ah ha’ moments for me. In fact I just bought my first rotary cutter this month- I am back to scissors for now. As with all new things in life it takes getting use too

  4. Kerry – you have stated it so well. Although I was not lucky enough to start quilting until after I retired in 1999, I was drawn to it in 1976 but the career kept me from following it. I am a 200% traditional quilter and will not let it go and move to the Modern era! When I came into quilting the Kaffe Fasset and other artisans were invading our Traditional way. I stuck with the traditional and new I would never go Modern – no challenge there for me!
    Well written post and I enjoyed it all!

    Continue to be true to your preferences – it pays off as I see the Modern way may be going back to the past!!! Hugs

  5. Thank you for another great post! I have several quilts from my mother that I love and use on a regular basis during the winter months. Is it accurate (or am I simply mis-remembering something I read a long time ago in one of the Little House books?) that quilts used to be made from scraps of material from other things (like pants and shirts and dresses and aprons) which had become too worn — in places — to be used for their original purpose? That quilts were a beautiful, creative way to recycle/re-use somewhat precious fabric? If so, how oddly human that it has morphed into an activity using designer fabrics… Ye olde industrial revolution changed so many parts of our human lives — and now (according to the latest global reports) we have 12 years to make SIGNIFICANT and SUBSTANTIAL changes to how we interact with and consume — directly and indirectly — fossil fuels (which are what gave rise to the industrial revolution in the first place, right?) Maybe it’s time for more patchwork quilts using the fabrics we already have around the house and in our closets until the earth’s atmosphere has (hopefully) recovered some equilibrium?

    • No, I think you’re absolutely right, Will, that many quilts were made to re-use fabric scraps. That notion may be somewhat romanticized but I’ve seen many old quilts that were clearly made out of bits and pieces of random fabric, and the quilts are sometimes unlovely, but very practical. And, you’re right, it’s typically human that now we spend $15 a yard for designer fabrics . . . You are SO lucky to have quilts your mother made! I’d love to see you do a blog post about them and include some photos . . .

  6. I think there’s something satisfying, not just about making, but making something by hand or doing it in a particular way. It’s a bit like someone saying that it’s not the destination, but the journey.

    • My quilt making is 100% about the journey. Once a quilt is finished, I care not for it. I stick it in an armoire, with others I’ve made. That’s sort of sad for the quilts but it’s the making (not the made) that interest me!

  7. Another of the joys of living a long and crafty life is the many changes we have seen, our growth to fully embrace our crafts of choice our way and of course, the history of the makes……. And of course the knowledge that a project, any project, gets done when it gets done! ❤ xoxo

  8. Ah yes, when I started quilting there were no acrylic rulers or templates. I thought I was innovative for gluing sandpaper to my paper templates so they’d grip fabric better. Needless to say, I didn’t get many quilts made. I think you make quilts that have meaning to you, and that puts your heart and mind into your work.

    • I think the history of quilting has a lot to do with what draws me. Many quilters come to the craft because they like to sew and it’s a creative outlet. I think my connection is more to the women who preceded me . . .

  9. The only quilt I have ever made was way back when. It was completely irregular, a crazy quilt, made from left over scraps for other projects. I wonder if I still have it? My mum loved quilting, although she never made a quilt. She used paper templates and I remember helping her trace hexagons onto Christmas cards and then carefully cut them out. I still have one of her cushions, all hand sewn.

    • I hope you go looking for the quilt you made and find it, and then write a blog post about it! I think a completely improvised quilt, made entirely from scraps, would be fun and liberating to make.

  10. Oh you are so right on the rotary cutter! That’s one modern tool I have to have… although with these fancy accuquilt cutters coming out,maybe We’re still behind in time.😁 you my friend are not only handy with your hands, you are also handy with words .. delightful read!

    • I don’t know anything about accuquilt cutters–I guess I really am out of touch!! I think your quilting really honors the traditional ways. Thanks for your kindness and support!

  11. I made my first quilt while I was still in high school. I agree, there are a lot of modern day things that are pretty recent. My grandmother made quilts out anything she could. I believe my sister has one that was made from old winter coats. Great post.

  12. I love this post, it is so beautiful. I often feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of quilting “stuff” out there – there’s so much to buy, to admire, to want. When I started quilting, just a handful of years ago, it was like discovering a secret world! Very exciting. But…I didn’t start quilting to buy lots of stuff, you know? In fact, I’m like you – I don’t really know why I wanted to learn to quilt. I was drawn to it, somehow. And I still love it, but I am less and less interested in buying patterns and rulers and stacks of fabric. I just want to make what I see in my head. I don’t hand quilt those visions often, but I sure do like it!

    • Hi, Stacey! Thanks for your kind words! I just looked at your blog and it seems to me you need to be up on the latest advancements, since quilting is your business! I really do understand, though, the impulse to “make what I see in my head”, as you put it. I can honestly say, I have never made a quilt from a pattern, although I’ve used traditional patchwork blocks as a stepping off point. If I’m going to put all the time into a quilt, I want it to be 100% mine.

      • So true but it is nice to think of our lives measured by quilts than what I was confronted with a while back. I was looking at dishwashing machines. The young salesman said, ” This model is sturdy and reliable. It will last at least 30 years.” I looked at him, and to his consternation, l laughed. “How old do you think I am?” I asked. But the incident made me realise I probably have only one more dishwasher to go in my life. I’d rather I had a number of quilts in me. 😀

  13. I love your story – thank you for sharing. I didn’t start doing patchwork until my daughters started school and I joined a local group, so around 18 years ago. All the equipment – or a lot of it anyway – was around by then and you would never be able to separate me from my rotary cutter and large self healing mat. I use both for everything – patchwork, obviously, cutting round patterns for dressmaking and I use the old blades for cutting card and paper.
    I love piecing but remain a very ‘meh’ quilter and never really took to hand quilting when my eyes were really good so I don’t think there’s much hope for me now although I do think the ‘big stitch’ method can look quite good 😉

    • You’re so right about the many uses of the rotary cutter! I use mine all the time for weaving projects, too, to cut pieces apart and do nice, neat fringe. As far as quilting goes, I’m finding I like the hand quilting stage more than the pricing stage now. I may just start buying old quilt tops on eBay and turning them into finished quilts.

  14. Well, you made me smile with that opening. I even tried it, snow and all, which immediately drew a smile from my kids since my childhood took place in Jamaica.
    I am glad you have retained the more traditional ways of quilting. There’s something steadying about that.

    • You need to come with a Jamaica-specific version, like you slogged though knee-deep sand or walked miles with the sun beating down on your poor head! And I think I like quilting because, for me, it is steadying, period.

  15. Love this post, Kerry! I have made a few quilts in my life, each brother got one as a wedding gift. All tied, none quilted. The first brother got a traditional, cut each bit by hand with scissors quilt. The second brother had a shorter engagement, I was thrilled to discover Eleanor Burns. Never made a quilt in a day, but it was still faster. The next quilt I made was back to more traditional means, though I kept the rotary cutter! I have fabric for a quilt upstairs packed away for my retirement, but have otherwise resisted the urge to stash. It’s the only craft I haven’t stashed for!

    • I didn’t know you’d ever made quilts! I’ve never tried the Eleanor Burns approach–could NOT figure out how a quilt could be made that fast and was never that pressed for time. So . . . knitting, spinning, weaving, AND quilt making??

      • The quilt making is definitely not high on the list, but I have done it. Eleanor Burns method does work. But doing the whole thing in a day? It would be a very long day. I have managed a single wide tied quilt in a weekend, though.

  16. My maternal grandmother was the only crafty one in our family but she did not quilt, so I really can’t relate to much of this.

    But your mention of Woolworth’s brought back happy memories. There was one across from my grammar school and it had a lunch counter that I would frequent while waiting for the bus. Oh those lime rickys, root beer floats and hot fudge sundaes.

  17. Nice! I was thinking I would get my project out, but then I remembered the counted cross stitch Christmas project I should work on…
    I have a question, unrelated. You have jack looms, right? What sort of heddles do you have? Texsolv, wire or steel?

    • I haven’t touched my quilt in months. Soon . . .

      All my looms are jack-style. I have a mix of wire heddles and inserted eye heddles. I really prefer the latter but it’s such a chore to replace heddles, I haven’t switched all of them over. I have heard it said that using Texsolv can be problematic on a jack loom, since the weight of the heddles is needed to drop the frames back into place. Not sure if that’s always true, though!

  18. Ah yes, the rotary cutter! I personally like my cutting mat and acrylic ruler, I use them for sewing too. 🙂 This was such a great read, Kerry, it brought back many memories….fabric shopping at JC Penneys…making templates. Loved it!

    • I figured you would have some similar memories to mine, Kathy! My mother was a very good seamstress and we spent interminable hours at Penneys while she chose fabric for our clothes . . .

  19. I grew up next door to a quilter and she taught me as I helped her. I have quilted all my life on and off when I had time. Nothing that is quilt show quality but the family loves them.

  20. This post made me laugh because oh how much we’ve seen the world change in our time – and to think the previous generation saw even more! What hasn’t changed is my knowledge of rotary cutters – both then and now – zippo! …Oh – that was a lighter.

  21. Sewing and quilting are not my talents at all, but I am drawn to creativity as a loon is drawn to water. And you are most certainly creative. I am always inspired by such stories. It reminds me of how much good there is in people. Thank you for sharing.

  22. About three years ago I made my first quilt — a 9-patch on my lil’ ol’ Project Runway Brother machine and with old scissors. I saw a 9-patch pattern, went for it. I didn’t know there were “modern” or “traditional” quilt movements. Didn’t know any shortcuts or tips. I thought I’d NEVER make another until a co-worker told me about her quilt guild. …A whole other world out there! 😀

    • Oh yeah–a quilt guild will open up whole new horizons! In fact, with my old-fashioned ways, I feel a little out of touch with the guild here–they are all very into the modern conveniences and the machine quilting, etc. I’m a throwback!

  23. You are so amusing! We probably started at nearly the same time. The quilt I saw was a basket block, being hand-pieced by someone, and I was 17, too. I didn’t go home and make one then, but the idea stayed with me until I was in Okinawa where my husband was stationed. Fabric was inexpensive in the village black market, and beautiful stuff. I started a hexagon quilt … with no directions! LOL Nothing deterred me, though, and I found Ruby McKim’s book in a library back home.

    Today, I use most of the modern everything. I had a longarm business for about ten years, starting in the mid 1990’s. I make a lot of scrappy quilts, because I just can’t throw away that expensive fabric! It’s nice to know that in a disastrous time, I could piece together anything, as long as I had scissors, needle, thread, a straight edge, and a few bits of fabric.

    • You’ve run the gamut of quilting techniques! I had stopped out of quilting right when the whole longarm revolution happened and I had no idea! Coming back to the craft was a shock. But, you’re right, we have the basic skills that would let us get by, if times got tough. Plus, I’m a weaver so I could make the fabric and you could sew it up!

  24. Lovely post, Kerry! I love that you are bound to the old ways of quilting. So much of the handwork now has been upgraded ( all beautiful as well certainly) to using modern tools, nice to just keep things simple and to honor the past. And, oh geeze, Woolworths! I can remember shopping there as a kid and having lunch ( grilled cheese and canned tomato soup) at the lunch counter. Good ol’ Woolworths! Happy Holidays to you, Kerry!

    • You, of all people, would appreciate the old ways, I think, since you have chosen a life consistent with them! It’s funny–I’m not at all a Luddite in other areas of my life but I like to keep the quilting authentic. And now I want grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch . . .

  25. This post resonated with me so much. I made my first quilt in the 1970s when I lived in a cabin in Alaska without electricity. I pieced it by hand and then tied it together. I made a few more on MY Singer Featherweight over the years but never hand quilted any of them. Years went by and after retirement my quilting neighbor, who is a member of some local quilting groups and up-to-speed on the latest quilting trends, started talking quilts with me. It was as if she was speaking a foreign language–methods, tools, kits, fabrics, designers. I finally said, “I don’t have a clue what you are talking about.” Personally, the colors and designs in many modern quilts are really unappealing to me. And I just don’t get using kits. The only time I have used a pattern was for the baby quilts with fox and hedgehog faces that I made a few winters past. To me, the biggest delight in quilting is choosing the colors and picking out the fabrics myself. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to turn the most creative part over to someone else! I feel the same way about weaving kits–I have so many projects and designs in my head, I have no desire to spend my time on someone else’s vision.

    Enjoy your holidays.

    • It’s as if we are twins of different mothers, our thinking on this is so much the same! I hope you have time, this holiday season, to explore your own creative visions!

  26. I love your writing as much as your crafting and the beautiful way you weave the two together. (inadvertent pun). When I was in high school a neighbor gave me a large bag of scraps and I imagined myself making a quilt. I didn’t have any tools, so the “squares” I cut were uneven and the start of my quilt equally so. I abandoned it all together, and never got back to it. I love looking at quilts, admire the ability that goes into making one, and perhaps one day I’ll try again. As for hand work, I know how relaxing it is to mend by hand (except for sewing on buttons which I find tedious) so I can well understand how you would enjoy it. Great post.

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