What Makes a Good Quilt

Hands down, the best quilt is a finished quilt. But just finishing isn’t always satisfying. Do you want to enter a quilt show? Do you want to emulate a quilt you’ve seen over on pinterest or instagram? The devil is in the detail and anyone can do it with a little patience and a whole lot of practice. But what are the details? And how do you go about getting the look you want? Let’s dig down into what makes a good quilt and how to achieve the look you’re after.



But! Before we delve in, I need to mention that a good quilt doesn’t need everything I list below. There are many types of quilts–there is a whole category of quilting called ‘whole cloth quilting’ where you literally quilt over unpieced fabric (i.e. whole cloth). You can also do applique. Here’s what I look for in the traditional-style quilts I make.



How points makes a good quilt

Piecing is the most visible part of a traditionally pieced quilt. You can see it at a distance even when the quilting fades into the fabric. So, what makes one quilt’s piecing better than another? First and foremost, it’s the points.



When you sew two or more seams together you create ‘points’ or areas where different fabrics come together. Perfect points or what I like to call ‘pointy points’  (which I am ever in pursuit of), are when you get two seams that line up perfectly.



pressing seams: intersection
An almost, but not quite point


This isn’t as easy as it sounds for a beginner or even for more experienced quilters (cough cough, me), because we’re not machines. We’re not perfect. No one sews a perfect scant 1/4″ seam 100% of the time. And fabric shifts as you sew.



You can try to overcome this with learning how your machine sews, trying out different sewing feet (like a walking foot or 1/4″ foot), using pins to hold your points in place, and different pressing techniques (such as pressing to the side). But most importantly, it comes with a lot time practicing and seam ripping–lots of seam ripping. Make sure you have one of those handy fellas ready to go.



How seams make a good quilt

Points are an easy thing to notice, but seams are deeper level of detail. And there are two things I like to consider when I look at seams: smoothness and straightness.



Smooth seams

A smooth seam has been consistently pressed either open or to the side. This not only prevents any little ‘bumps’ behind your seams where the seam allowance shifts from one side to the other, but it also creates a consistent look across your quilt. The direction you press  subtly changes the look of your seam. If you’re not consistent, it can create a small effect across your quilt. See this recent blog post where I talked about pressing open vs to the side.



The best way to get consistently smooth seams is to press. But just pressing doesn’t always keep you seam allowance set down. I’ve tried a wool pressing mat, which was a nice addition next to my sewing machine but didn’t change how creased my seam was, and steam. Steam has been a great help in getting seams that stay (mostly) flat, but it can also bring about other troubles such as warping.


Straight seams

Traditional piecing is made with straight and diagonal seams (which are still straight). The goal is to achieve straight, crisp seams, but warping is an ever present enemy.


Warping is when fabric is stretched or tugged out of shape–permanently. I’m sure you’ve seen it. Your lovely rectangle piece or block becomes something more abstract. It may not match up with it’s seam-mate anymore and can make your finished seams more snake-like than ruler-straight.


As I mentioned, steam can cause this, but it can also be because of ironing rather than pressing. When you iron you move the hot iron back and forth across the fabric. When you press, you literally just press the iron against the fabric, then lift it and press it to another area. You’re preventing that slight dragging motion from ironing from tugging the fabric out of shape.


Another important thing to consider is the kind of fabric you’re using. Thin, cheap quilting fabric will distort and warp worse than nicer fabrics (such as Kona or Bella solids). I ran into this problem when I was making my Sparkle and Shine: Baby Unicorn quilt for my nieces first birthday. I was on a tight deadline and only had time to get fabric from JoAnn. Some of the colors I wanted were only in the cheapest fabrics.



What makes a good quilt: seams
(some) of the errors from my Sparkle and Shine quilt are highlighted


I thought that, because I was an experienced quilter, I could manage the fabric. I did to a degree–well, at least I managed to sew all the blocks together. But I still had major warping issues. If that quilt had more than 4 blocks, I don’t know if I would have been able to salvage it.


You are working with a pliable material, some level of warping is expected. But it’s important to prevent the warping from getting worse. You can do this by measuring and trimming your blocks to size which will keep the quilt’s pieces a consistent size with straight edges.


How quilting makes a good quilt

Quilting is that last little flourish that adds your mark to the quilt pattern. No matter the quilt design you choose, there are a couple things that can show great quilting.


First, is smooth, controlled designs. People who are newer to quilting (and me still…), have a tendency to start and stop or jerk the quilt around as they tug. This can make add sharp points here and there that break up the smooth flow of the quilting. With practice and muscle memory, you’ll be able to glide the quilt through your machine for an even design. And you’ll learn to hide your starts and stops in the seams.


And second, is an even stitch length. The stitch length is how long you stitch is–and they should all be the same length. If you’re anything like me, you may just be trying to make sure your free motion stitches stay small enough so you can’t slip a finger through them. Yeah, those are massive stitches, and those big kahunas usually happen when you machine misses a stitch or two or three. Going slow, moving the quilt with an even speed, and using a good quality needle and thread can help you get better results. But there is a dirty secret:


Perfect quilting is nearly impossible to achieve on a standard domestic machine. There are sewing machines specifically made for quilting with specialized computers that will regulate your stitch length so that no matter how fast you drag your quilt through the machine, you get an even stitch every time. There are even gorgeous long arm machines that you pull around the quilt which offers a more natural movement like drawing. It sounds great, but they come with a thousands of dollars price tag. Maybe one day over a distant rainbow…



What makes a good quilt: quilting
Here you can see some of my stitches. There are very small at the start (inside) of the rose and even out a bit as I quilt further out

How to make your quilt good

No quilt is going to be perfect. You will make mistakes. Or maybe you’ve just made 100 4×4 squares and you’re just over the points not matching anymore. I think its fun to use these details as a guide to perfect my own work. I try to challenge myself with every quilt, either learning a new skill or trying a new technique that will help get a more ‘perfect’ design. Don’t let imperfection inhibit creativity, but understand what you are capable of doing and strive for it. Because we can all do it!


Sew on!

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