Thoughts (of the rambling sort) on International Women's Day
Book Review: The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Design Tips for Rag Quilts (along with a bunch of other rambling ideas about quilting)

One of my reactions to my mom’s enormous fabric stash was the desire to finish more of my quilting projects and to share online more of what I make. The process of making something is, for me, just as fun as the actual finished object, and sharing online helps me feel like I am a part of a larger conversation. It’s a way of taking the solitary act of making out to the larger world.

(I also realized: I have many thoughts about quilting and creativity and emotional health and a happy life, and I almost never blog anymore, which probably applies to, what, 97.35% of all bloggers. But the new impulse isn’t really “blog more” but “write more,” meaning: my mother’s material horde is inspiring me to share my writing in different ways. But, I digress.)

Yesterday there was a baby shower for one of my neighbor’s daughters, so I made a baby quilt. My go-to baby quilt is a rag patchwork quilt. Baby rag quilt patchwork
I know: rag quilts are great projects for beginning quilters, right? But I’ve been quilting for a long time (ever since I was pregnant with Kaleb), so why am I still making them?

  1. Rag quilts come together really quickly. The piecing and the quilting are combined into one step! Plus, you don’t have to put together the top, the batting, and the quilt back, which is my least-favorite part of the quilting process. You can actually make an entire rag quilt without even pinning, if you’re so inclined.
  2. I love working with flannel. It’s just so soft.
  3. They are versatile. I don’t think I’d attempt intricate triangles as a rag quilt, but you totally could. I’ve made rag quilts with strips, patchwork, improv, log cabin blocks. After typing that sentence, I want to try some half-square triangles in a rag quilt.
  4. Precision is not essential. I’m not sure if it’s my personality or my sewing machine, but I struggle to be completely precise. In a rag quilt, it doesn’t matter as much, because the fluffy fringe the seam creates when you wash it hides imprecision.

There are a million tutorials for how to make a rag quilt, so I’m just going to give a brief summary of the process. 1. Cut the fabric (strips, squares, whatever your pattern choice is). Cut at least TWO of each necessary shape, one for the front and one for the back. If I want the quilt to be warmer, I cut THREE of each shape: the front, the back, and then a middle “batting” piece that is almost always white flannel. Other quilters I know use a batting square for the second layer, but I’ve never made one like that. 2. Assemble the pieces into mini quilt sandwiches: back, middle (if you’re using it), front.  3. Sew the pieces by putting the BACK sides together (not the fronts, as with usual quilt tops), so the seam is on the top. Assemble into rows and then sew the rows together, always with the backs together. 4. Snip the seams. I use a pair of scissors designed to snip rag quilt seams (there are many) and since I make rag quilts often, these we definitely a good purchase for me. 5. Wash and dry the quilt. This is where the magic of the rag quilt happens. The snipped seams fluff together and create a beautiful texture.

Baby rag quilt folded

Whenever I am making a quilt, I think of a conversation I had with a friend. She said that she wanted to start quilting, but the thought of making a mistake kept her from ever making anything. It is a little bit scary when you first start, because fabric is expensive. But my quilting philosophy goes along these two lines: 1. Fabric is a flexible medium. It’s OK if it isn’t EXACT. In fact, I think the idiosyncrasies of each quilter’s different skills and knowledge add to each quilt’s beauty and uniqueness. 2. Expensive or not, it’s still just fabric. If you mess up, you might be able to fix it by changing something in the pattern or adapting that square in some way. Worst possible outcome is you have another scrap to add to your future scrap quilt. (Because, yes: collect your scraps!)

While I was making this weekend’s quilt, I thought of that conversation, but I also thought of the following tips, which are really pretty random. (I’m realizing that this post is turning into its own kind of scrappy quilt.)

Mixing fabrics. Part of my own quilting esthetic is that I love scrappy quilts. I love figuring out how to combine pieces that at first might not seem to go together. Here’s the secret: pick one thing that is the same, and then everything else can be different. Usually for me, this is color. You can have stars, stripes, hearts, flowers, frogs, dogs, and elephants all in one quilt if the colors are all the same. By “the same” I mean: a color scheme. Repetition of color unifies the disparate patterns. I like to have three colors in my color scheme. The quilt I made for yesterday’s shower was blue, green, and yellow. There are pieces of each color, and then there are other pieces that have two of each color (so, for example, a blue background with green frogs). As you select for color, make sure the tones match—for example, if you’re using pinks, try to only use all cool pink tones.

Consider your neutrals. Fabrics are either white or off-white. If you use a unified neutral, the quilt will feel balanced. Neither one is better than the other, but stick with your choice. Also consider the stronger neutrals, which are grey and brown. Grey goes with white, brown goes with off-white.

Toss in a few surprises. It might seem chaotic at first…but there really is a method to the scrappy madness. If I have fabric that repeats, I try to not put the same fabric in the same row or column. I try to spread out similar colors. And I always add one or two fabrics that break the rules slightly. In this quilt, I added a few darker squares. The tones of the dark blue squares are the same as the lighter ones, but the tint is just more intense. I also think that sea-themed piece (third row, fourth column) is a surprise because it adds just a titch of pink.

Rag-quilt-specific ideas. Use a 5/8” seam; it’s just big enough to make the ragged part fluffy without being too big. (Make sure to take this into consideration when planning how much fabric you buy.) Sew the seam intersections (where four seams meet in the corners of the squares) open or closed, it doesn’t really matter, but just be consistent. (I sew all of mine open.) Snip the corner intersections at a 90 degree angle and the rest of the seams at 45. Part of the backing will show around each square, so think of it as a sort of outline of the pattern, and choose your color accordingly. If you use a dark backing with lighter patterns on the front, wash the backing fabric first so there is less chance of the dye bleeding through. Always wash your rag quilts (any quilt, actually) with a Color Catcher the first time you wash it, just in case. When you are drying the quilt for the first time, stop the dryer often and clean out the lint trap; that first washing makes a lot of lint that’s full of little threads. Despite what I said about loving to work with flannel, it is 100% awesome to combine both flannel and regular quilting cottons in your rag quilts; it adds some different textures and besides, not every print I love is available in flannel. If you want to spend extra time, you can bind a rag quilt with double-fold French binding like you might bind a regular quilt. Or you can also just bind it by sewing a 5/8” seam around the edge and then snipping that seam as well.

Mass production. One of the keys to having a really scrappy quilt is having a lot of different fabrics. But even if you just buy fat quarters, you’ll end up with enough squares for more than one quilt. So, embrace that and do your cutting with the idea of making more than one project. Right now I have a box of 6” squares ready to make into future rag quilts, and each time I make a new quilt, I cut a few 6” squares to add to it. For this quilt, I wanted to try 7.5” squares (because one of my recent, from-my-mother acquisitions is a 7.5” ruler), so I bought a bunch of 8” strips of flannel, gathered some other larger scraps, and started cutting. I now have enough 7.5” squares to make several baby-boy quilts, and with all the cutting already done, they will come together really quickly.

Until next time, happy quilting! (Or reading or scrapbooking or running or bowling or whatever else you love to do.)


Kristy Johnson

Thank you for your input. Very helpful!

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