Like Jewels in a Treasure Chest

[Note: I wrote this post a couple of years ago, before starting Catbird Quilt Studio. The audience for that post was primarily non-quilters.]

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a quilt, perhaps one from your past, perhaps one you are making yourself, perhaps a dream quilt. I see colors spilling forth, like jewels toppling from a treasure chest, tumbling onto the sand, glimmering, gleaming in the sun. I see leaves cartwheeling from trees in fall, nestling on the ground in patterns of dark green, plum, scarlet, gold. I see stark contrasts of blood red on snow. I see muted browns and double pinks, plaids and paisleys and calicoes.

I am a quilter. Often when I say this, people will respond by saying, “My grandmother was a quilter. I’m glad to know people still do that.” Yes, people still do that. According to Quilters Newsletter and the Quilting in America 2010™ survey, the total number of quilters in the U.S. now exceeds 21 million, and the total size of the quilting industry (annual sales of fabric and supplies, machines, publications, etc.) exceeds $3.58 billion. (The link is dodgy so may not work for you.) Statistically, the typical quilter is female, 62 years old, and affluent. This largely coincides with the quilters I know, though I know many younger (including myself), and I know many with a relatively meager household income.

It’s hard to explain what quilting is, what it means, to someone who hasn’t held a quilt in their own hands. Traditionally, a quilt is coverlet for a bed, made of two layers of fabric with a soft filling between them, and stitched through all three layers to keep the filling from shifting. In addition, quilted fabrics have been used for centuries to make warm clothing, and they still are. Besides bedding and clothing, these days quilts include small pieces to use as wall-hangings, tablecloths, placemats, lap rugs, and couch throws. Some people even make post card-sized pieces and send them through the mail!

Though a quilt can be made from as little as two pieces of fabric stitched in layers, most quilts are made by taking large pieces of fabric, cutting them into little pieces, and sewing the little pieces back together to make large pieces of fabric.

I wanted to share a recent project of mine. The finished quilt is a gift for a friend, and it measures about 52” x 68”. The fabrics are 100% cotton, which is typical. The batting (filling between layers) is polyester with a low loft. The dollar value of materials used was approximately $50. I don’t track the amount of time involved with making a quilt, but it includes plan/design, shopping and prepping fabrics, cutting, sewing, quilting, and finishing with a binding. For this quilt, I’d estimate more than 40 hours of time. So if you wanted to buy a quilt like this from me, no, I wouldn’t charge you $50. I’d charge you several hundred dollars. Few people are willing to spend so much for a quilt that wouldn’t even cover their bed.

The first step in my process was design. Sometimes I use quilt design software called Electric Quilt 7. With it I can try different colors, blocks, and settings, determine the finished size of the quilt, and even calculate the yardage required for each fabric. Here is a picture of the quilt as designed.


I’d purchased fabrics earlier in the year in very strong colors, with the intention of broadening my color palette. They were just the right thing for this project. With fabrics chosen and a design, I started sewing blocks. Here are two I made that are left over. One is right-side-up and the other is upside-down, so you can see the stitching.



After I made a number of blocks I took another picture. I didn’t have a specific plan when making them, but chose from colors randomly, usually trying for good color contrast between the star and its background. Some stars are “fancy” with extra piecing in the centers, or with differently colored points, or varying backgrounds. Others are plain. In addition to the star blocks, I made alternate blocks from just two fabrics in turquoise and purple.

Once I finished making blocks, I assembled them into the center of the quilt top and then added borders. You can see from the design above that I planned a narrow green border. When I tried the green, I decided it needed a stronger color. A rosy orange color seemed to be just the right thing.

With the top done, I needed to quilt it. I have a long-arm quilting machine, with which I can quilt pieces big enough for a king-sized bed. The quilt layers are stretched on the frame, and the machine itself moves, allowing 360 degree motion by the needle. The needle moves rather than the fabric layers.


Here is a link to a cool demo on how the needle brings the top thread and bottom thread together, to create a stitch.


After I finished quilting, I removed it from the frame and trimmed the extra backing fabric and extra batting away.


The last step was to bind the edges. On most quilts, this is the only stitching I do by hand.


It is done except for writing and applying a label. Quilt historians advocate labeling, including the name and town of the maker, the name of the recipient, any special occasion, and the date made and/or given. Once I have labeled it, I will mail it to my friend. She is not expecting it, which makes it the best possible kind of gift.


Have you ever made a quilt? What do you enjoy about creating things yourself?


10 thoughts on “Like Jewels in a Treasure Chest

  1. FreeFormQuilts

    Reblogged this on Free Form Quilts and commented:
    Catbird has it right. Many quilters undercharge for their work and many people do not value time and effort. Catbird spells out why she would charge several hundred for a baby size quilt. I completely agree with her. People have asked me to make quilts for hire for them. I tell them what it would cost and what I expect to make per hour for designing, cutting, and assembling it. All of them have backed out. I am OK with that. I’d rather spend that time and effort on a friend anyway and have the quilt with someone who would care for it with the same intensity it took for me to make it.

  2. denmck

    Great post. I like the background of the industry you’ve provided. Since I just learned to quilt a couple of years ago, machine piecing and quilting was what I learned and what I enjoy! For hand work I stick to crocheting.

  3. treadlemusic

    I can so remember when I needed a post like that to introduce me to a longarm!!! Hand quilting is what I learned about (back in ’75!!!!! Yikes!!!!!) Fast forward…….today I’m so thankful for the machine quilting that’s done today. My hands/wrists wouldn’t take me through a whole quilt now!!!!!! Great post and lovely, thoughtful quilt!!! Hugs………………………….

    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      I’ve done VERY little hand-quilting. I’m glad people still enjoy it, but no, I don’t think I can do it. Just stitching a binding is hard on me now.

      Thanks for taking a look. I thought it was a decent review of the process through it — and NO, I won’t sell you my quilt for $50. 😉

  4. Thread crazy

    Good post Melanie. You provided a lot of beneficial information, especially for those who are new to quilting or those interested in quilting. I so like the colors in the quilt, bright and colorful.


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