Ready to sew your first quilt but not sure where to start? We’ve put together our beginners guide to quilting to help you get started making beautiful quilts!
Let’s start with some sewing terms so you understand a quilter’s lingo. Read our quilting glossary for common quilting terms and everything a beginning quilter will want to know, conveniently organized in alphabetical order.
The basics of quilting are cutting up fabric, sewing it back together again, creating a sandwich of three layers, and then secured. Quilts can be utilitarian and functional to keep you warm. They also can be an opportunity to be creative and decorative.
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.
In this article, we’ll cover the basics you’ll need to begin to learn to quilt, some of the best quilt blocks for beginners, the basics of quilting and suggest some simple quilt blocks to get started.
Essential supplies for quilting
The right tools will make the project easier (and more fun!). Here are the quilting essentials.
You can sew a quilt all by hand. but it is quicker to sew together the quilt blocks with a sewing machine. You don’t need a fancy and expensive sewing machine to start, but you do want a reliable machine that sews even stitches. All it needs is to be able to sew a straight line. If you have a hand-me-down machine, take it to your local sewing machine store and have it serviced before you start. They can give you some basic instructions, too.
If your machine doesn’t have a 1/4-inch seam allowance foot, I’d recommend buying one. This makes it much easier for accurate seam allowances. Also, invest in a walking foot if you plan on doing some machine quilting.
Rotary cutter and blades
A rotary cutter makes it easier to cut your fabric into accurate pieces. Read our article all about rotary cutters. The key is to have a clean and sharp rotary blade to make cutting fabric quicker and easier.
Start with a basic 6-inch x 24-inch acrylic ruler. You don’t need to invest in all of the ruler sizes at once! This is a great basic to get started. For your second ruler, I’d invest in either a 12-1/2 x 12-1/2 square or a 6-1/2 x 6-1/2 square ruler.
A cutting mat is important to protect your tabletop when using your rotary cutter. I’d suggest the smallest size cutting mat to purchase is 18 x 24. With this size mat you can cut your fabric folded only in half width-wise and can easily cut different size strips.
You can buy threads in so many pretty colors! But, you don’t need to. For piecing quilt blocks I generally use a mid-tone grey thread. This works when you are using a lot of different prints or colors. If you are using only dark fabrics, I’d select a dark thread, like black. And, likewise, if you are using all very light fabrics, I’d use a light thread.
For both piecing and machine quilting, I like to use a 100% cotton thread. To begin, I’d purchase a nice mid-grey, black, white and a beige. That’s all you need to get started!
Sometimes pins are hard to use or distort the fabric. You’ll reach for Wonder Clips more often than you think. This is another time to buy quality. There are cheaper options on the market – but they don’t hold up. I tried.
You’ll want glass head pins. This way you can pin your pieces and iron on them and not melt them. 🙂 I learned the hard way to only invest in glass head pins.
I really like the 4-in-one tool by Alex Anderson that has a great seam ripper, stiletto, turner and presser. The seam ripper will be your best friend in making quilts. Un-sewing is done by everyone – even expert quilters. It’s part of the game.
Iron and ironing surface
You’ll want an iron that gets hot and has steam. Steam can be your friend to help fabrics lay flat. An ironing board is nice to have so that you can press small and big pieces. You may also want to invest in a small wool mat that you can have next to your sewing machine to press small things. This cordless iron is worth the investment. You can easily move it around from the ironing board to your wool mat.
Scissors and/or snips
You’ll want a small pair of scissors or snips to cut your threads. I like the Kai brand of scissors and snips. There are several other great brands like Fiskars and Ginghers.
Fabric marking tools
You’ll want removable marking tools to be able to mark on your fabrics. I like chalk and Frixion pens. Always test markings on a scrap of fabric before marking on your quilt block or top! You’ll want to be sure that the marker will easily come out.
Browse through more of our favorite supplies for quilting in our in-depth article.
Basic quilting techniques
There are so many different techniques to make a quilt come to life. Beginners generally are interested in learning this craft because they’ve seen a quilt or a quilt pattern they like. Each technique has its own charm and complexity. Explore different techniques and find the one(s) that you enjoy.
In this section, we’ll cover four techniques that are great for beginners: patchwork piecing, appliqué, English paper piecing and foundation paper piecing.
Patchwork piecing is the most common. It involves cutting fabrics and sewing them together to create quilt blocks. The blocks are then sewn together to create quilt tops. See below for a few suggestions of free quilt patterns that are patchwork pieced and perfect for beginners.
There are several ways to appliqué for a quilt block or top. The basics of appliqué are shapes or patterns attached to a background fabric to form a design or pattern. This can be done by sewing machine referred to as machine appliqué or by hand stitching referred to as hand appliqué.
Hand appliqué can be hand embroidered around the edge of the shape to add more visual interest or a method referred to as needle-turn appliqué where the shape is hand sewn onto the background and the stitching is not visible.
For machine appliqué you can pin or baste the shape to the background and then use a straight stitch or one of the built-in stitches on your sewing machine to secure the shape to the background. Another popular method for machine appliqué is to start by securing your shape to the background using a fusible web.
English paper piecing
English paper piecing is a popular technique that is perfect if you are on-the-go. It uses small pieces of fabric and is stitched by hand. Fabric pieces are basted around paper templates of different shapes that are then sewn together to create precise designs. Learn all about how to English paper piece. Check out this intricate quilt made with English paper piecing by Comfortably.Nerdy.
Foundation paper piecing
With foundation paper piecing the pattern is printed on paper with numbers and/or letters that guide you with how to place the fabric and exactly the sewing line to create the quilt block. With foundation paper piecing, you can create intricate designs. Learn how to foundation paper piece with our step-by-step directions.
Best quilt blocks for beginners
When you are starting your quilting journey it’s best to start with beginner-friendly quilt blocks so you can build your confidence. Here are some of our favorite simple blocks:
Four patch quilt block
You guessed it – there are four equal size squares to make a four patch quilt block. When made in two fabrics and then sewn together the quilt top has a diagonal design. It is a perfect place for beginners to start. Read our full directions on how to make a four patch quilt block
Nine patch quilt block
Just as the name says, this quilt block is made from nine (9) squares that are the same size. Read our full directions on how to make the nine patch quilt block. It’s a great block to start playing with different colors and combinations. It can be two color like our example to the right, or make the center square a different color.
Log cabin quilt block
With the log cabin quilt block you start with a center square and then sew strips of fabric around it counterclockwise. There are so many different ways to make this block. Check out our interview with Amy Pabst to see some of the variations she explored – all in miniature. I don’t recommend a beginner attempt the log cabin block in miniature as a first project! Read our full step-by-step directions, including more examples of log cabin quilts.
Rail fence quilt block
The rail fence quilt block is made from sewing strips of fabric together, cutting them into squares and then having fun putting them together rotating them 90-degrees to make the ‘fence’. Learn more about the rail fence quilt block with our tutorial.
The basics of quilting: steps to making a quilt
Excited to get started on your first quilt? Here are the basics of the quilt process:
Pick your quilt design or pattern
The first step is to determine what design or pattern you want to use. I’d recommend starting with a simple patchwork quilt so you can feel accomplished! Let the fabric do the work for your first quilt. Save the intricate designs for when you have more experience.
Pick one of the above patterns, or visit your local quilt shop and ask for help. There are so many different patterns. Find a pattern that has step-by-step instructions. Here are all of our free quilt patterns.
Select your quilt size
The next step is to determine the size for your quilt. I suggest starting with a simple project like a table runner size, wall hanging or lap quilt. Save the King size quilt for when you have made a few smaller one. Read our article on quilt sizes.
Select your quilt fabrics
Then it is time to select your quilt fabrics. One thing I like to tell new quilters is to spend the money to buy high quality fabrics and support your local quilt shop (sometimes referred to as LQS). You will put a lot of time and energy into making your project, you don’t want to be disappointed because the fabric doesn’t hold up. The best is 100% cotton fabric in either solids or prints – whatever you want! I find this to be the fun part – selecting the different fabrics! We have several articles on selecting fabrics.
You can purchase fabric off of the bolt where they will cut you exactly the amount you want. Or you can purchase fat quarters. A fat quarter is 18-inches by 22-inches and gives you a taste of the fabric.
If your quilt design uses strips of fabric, you can purchase a jelly roll that are long strips of fabric 2-1/2 inches wide by the width of fabric, generally 40 – 45 inches wide.
And, if you are using squares, you can purchase a charm pack of 5-1/2 inch squares at your local fabric store.
The benefit of buying the packs is the fabrics are all coordinated and you get a variety of fabrics. If you like to pick out your own colors and designs, buy your fabric in cuts off the bolt.
Pre-wash your fabrics
Take your fabric home and pre-wash and press your fabric before you get started. Some 100% cotton fabrics shrink. By washing and drying the fabrics first, that will all happen before you make your project. Also, if you have ever been to a fabric warehouse, you know the fabrics are treated to make sure that nothing decides to make the fabric lunch or dinner in the shipping and warehousing process.
Cut your fabrics
You are finally ready to cut your fabric! This is probably the most important step in quilting. Accurate cutting makes for nice quilts. If you make a cut that is off by 1/4-inch, if you sewed 4 of the strips together for a rail fence quilt block, you’d be off by an entire inch! You’ll want some basic tools. I recommend investing in a rotary cutter, cutting mat and quilter’s ruler. Follow the directions for your pattern and cut the necessary pieces. If you are cutting the same shape or strip from multiple fabrics, you can have multiple layers of fabric to cut them all at once. Read our article on how to use a rotary cutter for more tips on cutting your fabric.
The directions will tell you how many strips of fabric to cut. Line up a horizontal line on your ruler to the straight selvedge edge of the fabric. Next, line up the vertical line along the cut edge of the fabric at the measurement needed for your strip of fabric. Take your rotary cutter and cut the strip of fabric.
Sometimes a pattern calls for sub-cuts of the strips. This is when you take the strip of fabric and then cut it into smaller pieces.
Begin sewing your quilt
Now you are ready to turn on your sewing machine! Most quilts use a 1/4-inch seam allowance. If your machine has a special foot that helps you achieve accurate seam, put it on your machine. Just like cutting accurately is important, so is sewing with accurate seam allowances. Start sewing your pieces together, raw edges lined up, according to the directions.
Press your seams
As you sew, take the time to press seams. There are different thoughts on pressing but everyone agrees – press as you go. Read our article about pressing seams for quilting.
You might come across the term ‘finger press’. This is taking your small block, and using your finger to press the seam either open or to the side.
Make as many quilt blocks as you need for your project. I like to stack them up and watch the pile grow!
Once you have enough quilt block put together, it is time to assemble your quilt top. Take your blocks and arrange them in a pattern or design that you like.
You can lay them out on a table or floor, or put up a piece of flannel on a wall so that you can easily move them around and see what the design looks like from across the room. Many quilters have a semi-permanent design wall for viewing their quilts in progress. When you have a layout that you like, sew the blocks together.
Sandwich your quilt
Next is making the ‘quilt sandwich’.
Quilts are made with three (3) layers. You’ve got your top made. Now you need to cut a piece of batting about 1-2 inches bigger in all dimensions than your quilt top. Also, cut a piece of backing fabric 1-2 inches larger in all dimensions.
You’ll layer the quilt backing with the right side of the fabric on your table or surface. Lay the batting on top. Next layer the quilt top on top of the batting with the right side up. There will be excess batting around the quilt top.
You’ll want to secure these layers of your quilt. There are several ways to do this. The most popular are to use safety pins, hand baste or use basting glue. I prefer safety pins.
Quilt your quilt
Now you are ready to quilt your piece! This can be done by hand or on your home machine. If you quilt by machine, see if your sewing machine has a walking foot. This will make it easier. Read our article about Big Stitch Hand Quilting for a modern look.
You can lower your feed dogs and do free motion quilting to finish your quilt. Or use your walking foot for straight line quilting.
If quilting your quilt yourself seems daunting, you can find a long arm quilter in your area to finish your quilt.
Finish your quilt
Once the quilt is quilted, then it is time to add binding or face the quilt. Read our articles will full step-by-step directions for how to bind a quilt that adds a small border around the edge of your quilt and how to face a quilt that leaves the block edge as the edge of the quilt.
You have a finished quilt! Enjoy your first quilt!