Hand quilting is an art form in itself. Beyond the beauty of the quilt top, if the quilting is done by hand, that elegance will by far outshine the lovely fabrics and intricate design. Not everyone has the time or patience for hand sewing an entire large quilt, but for small and special projects, it is a skill that just about anyone can pick up.
The Joy of Hand Quilting
Hand quilting simply means that the quilting that is used to hold the layers of your quilt together is stitched by hand instead of by machine. Quilts are made up of three layers: the top, the back and the batting. All those pieces are held together by some kind of binding along the side, as well as quilting that goes through all three layers.
The quilting is necessary so that the batting does not shift as you use and launder the quilt. So it started out as a completely utilitarian thing, but it had become much more than that.
In the old days before sewing machines, women would get together in gatherings called quilting bees to help with all that needed to be done on the quilt.
These gatherings tell us something about how long and tedious this type of quilting can be. Women didn't want to do it by themselves, and it took too long to do it alone.
Now that we have the option of machine quilting our quilt tops, those who hand quilt are respected as true artisans with immense stores of patience.
Mechanics of Hand Quilting
The technique is easy to learn but quite difficult to do consistently across a full quilt top. The basic stitch used is the running stitch, which makes even stitches on both the front and the back of the work.
Using the running stitch means there will be spaces in your stitching line. Many quilters backstitch to make a solid stitching line.
Quilting thread is usually made of cotton. Make sure you buy thread that is made for hand quilting, as it is stronger than the thread you would use in your sewing machine. There are also needles made especially for this type of quilting. Known as "betweens," these needles are commonly found in sizes 9, 10 and 12. The larger number means a shorter needle. Experiment to see which length of needle feels right to you.
When hand quilting, you don't want your knots to show through on the back of the quilt. Make a knot by threading the needle and wrapping the end where the knot should be around the needle a couple of times. Slide the loops off the needle; this will make a knot at the other end of the thread.
When you're read to begin, go into the quilt from the back. Pull the needle and thread through all three layers, then gently pull when you get to the knot so it will pull through the backing fabric but stay in the batting. The same procedure is used to make and bury a knot at the end of the thread.
Experienced quilters use a rocking motion to make their stitches even (this also makes the process a little faster). It requires a thimble and a lot of practice. While you are learning about this form of quilting, you might want to form each stitch one at a time so you can ensure they are of the same length. Yes, this will take a lot longer, but you will feel more comfortable.
Basic Hand Quilting
When you first start to work with hand stitching, you will probably want to quilt a small project. A pillow might be a good idea so you don't have to worry so much about how the back of your quilting looks. You can make a pillow-sized quilt top, quilt it by hand and then put on another piece of backing fabric to make a pillow.
You can also quilt coasters, tote bags, small quilts for your pets, or just about anything else you want.
The easiest way to hand stitch a quilt top is known as "stitch in the ditch." This simply means that you stitch on the same stitching lines that form the pattern in the quilt top. Alternatively, you can quilt a quarter of an inch from the stitching lines, but for your first hand quilting project it is easier if you don't have to worry about keeping your distance from the stitching line consistent.
Fancy Hand Quilting
When you get more experienced, you can quilt designs into your quilt top. Flowers, hearts and other similar designs are quite popular. These designs are usually drawn onto the quilt top with chalk or washable marker before being stitched. Always test your fabric to make sure whatever you use to mark the quilt will wash out!
This type of stitching makes beautiful quilts. It takes a long time to be good enough to stitch a full-sized quilt by hand with a fancy design such as this. If you practice your technique regularly, though, you will get better.
For another fancy technique that is much easier to learn, try crazy quilting. This process uses basic stitches like the blanket stitch, backstitch and running stitch, together with knots and other decorative techniques, to make flowers, feathers, spider webs, and all sorts of other fanciful creations.
You can combine traditional hand quilting with crazy quilting to make a very interesting and colorful quilt top.