Quilt Police-Free Zone

When we’re kids we learn a lot of rules: look both ways before crossing the street; don’t hit your brother; say “please” and “thank you”; wash your hands after using the toilet. As we get older, rules pile on higher, but some of them are laws: cross the street at the corner with the light; don’t steal candy at the drugstore; don’t burn rubbish in town.

By the time we become quilters, we’re used to following rules and laws. And for most of us, we’ve learned that getting along with others is easier when we don’t rock the boat. We go along to get along. Sometimes other people (those quilt police) try to tell us what to do and not do. It can be easy to assume they are right, and that we need to obey.

It’s worth examining whether or not the laws and rules make sense, both in real life and in quilting.

There are some quilting “rules” I follow pretty strictly.

Melanie’s Top Rules for Her OWN Quilting Realm 
1. Prewash fabric and press it before cutting. I know some quilters don’t bother with prewashing, and if they’re happy with that, it’s okay by me. For me, I prewash for multiple reasons. First, quilting cotton shrinks about 3% when washed and dried. That’s about one inch for each yard. Second, I don’t like having the sizing chemicals in the fabrics when I work with them, due to sensitivity. Third, some fabrics do bleed when washed. I’d rather have that happen before building the quilt than after. I press the fabric because my cutting is more accurate, which is important to me.

2. Keep fingers away from the rotary cutter blade edge. This is a rule borne of personal experience. ‘Nuff said!

3. Never be mean to another quilter about their work. Thoughtful criticism is fine when requested. Meanness never is.

4. There are no secrets. If someone else wants to know how to do something, share the process.

Um… I can’t think of many others. In my view, pretty much everything else is just a guideline, or perhaps good advice. Pressing seams to the dark side? Yeah, sometimes. And sometimes to the light, and sometimes open. Always have a quarter-inch seam allowance? That’s a really good idea, but in fact circumstances don’t always call for that. Always use a 2.5″ double-fold binding cut on the bias? That’s just crazy talk!

Quilt police have no room in our work. While others may have much to teach us, we need to think through our processes and evaluate our art on our own terms.

What rules did you learn about quilting? What’s the silliest quilting rule you ever learned? Do you still follow the rules? Why or why not?

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41 thoughts on “Quilt Police-Free Zone

  1. KerryCan

    The only guideline I find myself using consistently is “WWMD?”–What would Mama do? My mamas (grandmothers) were not quilters but they were practical, sensible, kind, frugal women. When I find myself obsessing over craft-related decisions, I ask WWMD? I am usually instantly reassured that I know what direction is right for me!

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      That’s great. When I get stuck on design, I often ask WWCD? What would my sister Cathie do? She has a little freer style than I do, so wondering what she would do helps me free up my own thinking and be less rigid. It helps! Thanks.

      Reply
  2. Cathy Coyer

    For those that hate the twisted mess that comes out of the washing machine, try setting the machine on ‘gentle’ instead of ‘regular’. After all, we don’t wash these fabrics because they’re dirty.
    It will make a big difference in your tangles

    Reply
  3. snarkyquilter

    I think we’d be better off softening rules to general guidelines, to which there will always be situational exceptions. (Except for no bullying.) Many rules began as ways to help make better quilts, such as cutting binding and backing on the lengthwise grain to prevent stretching. Of course, if you have a curved edge you want your binding to stretch, so use bias binding. As Robbie Fanning (a 1980s quilting book author) used to say, there’s so-and-so’s way, and then there’s your way.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Ah, I like that phrase. There’s always more to learn. But a lot of what I currently do is because I’ve thought about how and why I do it. That doesn’t make it right for everyone, which is okay by me. Thanks.

      Reply
  4. Cjh

    I agree that most of the quilt “rules” can be adopted or ignored as one wishes. My own rules, or guidelines:
    1. No solids, lots of prints of eclectic styles.
    2. Square is better.
    3. Work on tons of projects at once.
    4. Buy large pieces of what I like, and someday I might use it up.

    The silliest rule I’ve heard is don’t use black in quilts. A harsh solid black won’t work in my quilts, but soft or graphic black prints often do.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I challenge you to make a quilt using actual black. 🙂 But I know what you mean. I don’t use a lot of black, generally, and when I do, it is usually with some pattern.

      Another challenge: a quilt with some solids. Can you do it?

      Reply
  5. tinaor

    I know there are ‘rules’ and some are necessary to follow or you don’t quite get the effect you were aiming for. However, I recently read somewhere that ‘a badly finished project is better then an unfinished project’ so I’m thinking if I am struggling with getting something ‘just right’ I might just go for it and keep my fingers crossed that no one may notice my little errors. I also know ‘practice makes perfect’ so if you make a wiggly quilt once then hopefully the next one will be a little less wiggly!

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, a lot of the rules are very good advice, but not ones that anyone needs to get angry about. 🙂 And I agree, for almost every project, it’s better to finish, even if imperfectly. Thanks!

      Reply
  6. Cindy

    I think you pretty much hit the highlights. Most important is to treat other quilters as you wold want. I have heard some pretty unkind comments uttered at quilt shows. I seldom prewash my fabrics. I hate the way they come out of the washing machine all twisted up and tangled with unraveled thread all snarled around it. Then there’s the huge amount of pressing that needs to be done because of the wrinkles. I like the sizing and thankfully don’t have any issues with it.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Ah, yes, the quilt show comments. You never know who is listening, so best to follow the OLD rule — if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Thanks for commenting.

      Reply
      1. Lisa Yarost

        The quilt show comments are fun for me. I like to go “incognito” to hear people comment on my quilts. Some of them are funny (That quilt is so BROWN. How could she look at that fabric for so long?), and some are downright hilarious (See, now why didn’t THIS quilt win a ribbon?)-said about my quilt that looked lovely on the front, but was a hot mess on the back.

        It’s kind of like being Huckleberry Finn, attending your own funeral. You should be prepared to hear whatever people have to say.

        Reply
        1. Melanie McNeil Post author

          When we had our house built, it was a “parade” home. You know, the local builders’ association has a showcase of their work, so people can parade through and see what the different builders can do. Our house was already for us to move into, the colors we’d picked, etc. It was very funny to listen to people criticize, especially the color of green that is through most of the main floor. A lot of “oh my goodness!” types of comments, and mostly not in a good way. But here we are 15 years later and I still love the color. So there. 🙂

          Reply
  7. Barb Gorges

    On my second quilt ever, a red and white Monkey Wrench, I hand quilted with white thread on the white parts and red on the red parts. The judge at the fair (my first time entering any fair) gave me only a red ribbon because she said quilting thread should be all the same color in one quilt. It turns out she was a needlework generalist, judging all the needlework categories. Later she became one of my quilting students and we laughed about her early ideas about quilting rules.

    Reply
  8. peggycooperquilts

    The silliest quilting rule I’ve heard is: Never quilt with fabric unless it comes from a ‘quality’ quilt shop. I love using good fabrics but I have bought fabric at quilt shops that fall apart, colors run, and stretches out of shape….and it wasn’t on sale fabric.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Agree! I’ve bought very good fabric at chain stores and discount stores, as well as at quilt shops. And I’ve bought some disappointing pieces at quilt shops, too. It’s one of the reasons I almost always shop in person rather than on line. I want to see it and feel it. That doesn’t give a guarantee, but I feel more sure of it than I could from afar. Thanks for commenting today.

      Reply
  9. MARY D

    There are lots of fabrics I use that I do not prewash and there are some I do prewash. I use to prewash a lot but cutting loose the accumulated strings & tangles and the wrinkles oh my.

    In recent memory I cannot remember many unwashed reds that I have used that have not bled. Is this even possible for reds not to bleed? And I’m always concerned about unwashed batiks bleeding. I will sometimes hand wash pieces I plan to use.

    As for kindness I say always. As for there only being one right way to do a quilting technique that all should follow, I say through exploring and pushing established boundaries will we only learn new things. Yes I have seen some questionable techniques used but my attitude is if they are not for me, let this quilter explore their boundaries and I will do what works for me.

    i believe as makers/creators we are all free to do how we please with the items we create. I’m formally trained in clothing design and I purposely mix colors, textures, patterns, fabrics etc. in all of the items I make or wear in my everyday wardrobe. I truly feel free to be me…. no quilt police allowed.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I think that’s a great attitude. We each get to decide how we want to participate.

      I have had reds not bleed, but not very many I think. Usually the color catcher will turn at least a bit pink, which gives the best evidence ever for continuing to use them.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Reply
  10. knitnkwilt

    Well, I faithfully prewash. I want all my scraps to end up prewashed. However, I don’t use a dryer. Wonder if that undoes the benefit ??? Two rules promoted in one quilt guild: do not use white; do not use yellow. Needless to say I use both. I think the yellow rule came about because yellow can be so dominant. Probably it was first to be cautious using yellow and that drifted into prohibition.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      If you don’t use the dryer, you may have less shrinkage. I don’t know about setting the colors with or without the dryer.

      No yellow or white, huh? Now that you mention it, I’ve heard that, too. I’ve made at least a couple of quilts based on yellow. It didn’t hurt! 🙂

      Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Absolutely! Except that also goes for poking myself with pins and needles. That part doesn’t phase me much, since it happens so often. But the bleeding on quilts, definitely against the rules!

      Reply
  11. Lori Brewer-Quiltingneeds.com

    I am hit or miss on the washing. I think it depends. I do love steam when I am ironing though. I totally agree withe the “never be mean part”. We are a group of people at all different skill levels that always need encouragement from each other. You would think that goes without saying.

    Reply
  12. Edith

    My pre-washing is haphazard. I went through a phase of it and got really sick of the ironing. Also I like the crinkly-ness when you don’t pre-wash on quilt you are going to use. I was advised not to pre-wash for one block wonders. I quilt alone a lot so I haven’t had too much quilt police feedback. In a slightly opposing view, how do you feel when you see a technique presented on television so incorrectly you are yelling at the screen? I understand wanting younger people to participate and doing things the way you want, but isn’t there also room for learning the ‘right’ ways to do something because it makes things much easier and less frustrating. If the presenter had known just a bit more information about the process, it is really much easier than what she showed. Isn’t there room to learn from older, people with experience and knowledge in the modern quilt movement?
    I’m not a perfect quilter and there are lots of places I make mistakes but I like to keep expanding my knowledge. On my last quilt I designed it myself and used paper piecing, foundation paper piecing (ala Ruth MacDowell) and looked up things for setting triangles in books. Most of that was learned in classes, books, internet and TV from older, experienced quilters.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Good question — how do you feel when you see a technique presented on television so incorrectly you are yelling at the screen? Well, it’s hard and makes me shake my head. There is a well-known modern quilter who blogged showing people how to do binding. She said she did it her way because she couldn’t figure out how to do it a more standard way. But her way wasn’t easier (I think, for most people,) and it looked bad. So how is that a win? And why did she choose to teach that skill? Also I had a very minor disagreement with someone in facebook the other day who claimed fabric doesn’t shrink in the wash. It does. Or perhaps it’s in the dryer. But if it is washed and dried, it shrinks. Why be dogmatic about a topic like that? (I should ask the woman in my mirror, too!)

      Experienced quilters have much to teach us, that’s for sure. And new quilters can help us sees things with fresh eyes. We all have more to gain when we work together. Thanks.

      Reply
  13. Chela's Colchas y Mas

    I tend to break the pre-wash rule. I wash before I give the quilt away and I use color catchers.
    What is the rule on using steam or no-steam for pressing seams? I used to steam, but now I don’t.
    I think there are really no rules for quilting that can’t be adjusted. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Steam! Yeah, people don’t always get that what works for themselves doesn’t mean it’s required of everyone else. I use steam. But if other people don’t, that’s none of my business. Thanks.

      Reply
  14. katechiconi

    I ignore the bias-cut binding rule. I like binding cut on the straight grain, I find it more robust and longer lasting. Also, I like it 2.25″ wide, for a narrower finish. And – gasp – I never prewash. I have never, ever had fabric bleed on me in all the years I’ve been quilting, and any shrinkage has been unnoticeable or insignificant. I wash the quilts before I give them away, and if I have any concerns, I add a handful of colour-catchers to the wash. Ok, I’m off to lock the doors before the QPs start battering on them to drag me away….

    Reply
  15. piecefulwendy

    Whether I pre-wash fabrics depends, for me. It depends on whether it’s a gift or not. It depends on whether it will be a quilt that will need to be washed from time to time (like a lap quilt) or not (like a wall hanging). Batiks really should be pre-washed, because they are so prone to running. Reds too. I still cringe when I think of one quilt that I gave away with red fabric in it. Halfway into the making, I realized I hadn’t washed it. Argh.

    Reply

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