Best Tips For Newer Quilters

Em’s baby quilt, before being rebuilt and enlarged. December 2003. This was the first quilt I ever made.

When I made my first quilt fourteen years ago, there weren’t many online resources for quilters. There were no blogs, only a few message boards, and a small handful of sites that, at the time, weren’t interactive with reader comments. But those few websites provided me with a vast amount of help as I learned to quilt.

I thought it would be fun to offer some “best” tips for quilters, especially tips that could help newer quilters. AND I’d like YOU to join in! In comments below, give a recommendation or two (or ten!) of things you wish you’d known as a new quilter. Or if you’re moved to write your own blog post with tips, give us the link in comments.

Here are a few of mine, in no particular order:

1. Have some basic equipment that will make your efforts easier, like a sharp rotary cutter with mat and rulers, a sewing machine that will make a good-quality stitch, and an iron. These don’t need to be fancy.

2. Buying is often a substitute for making. Either one is okay (assuming you can afford it!) but they are not the same thing. Decide which is more important to you.

3. Learn to make a decent 1/4″ seam allowance. If you do, it will save you lots of hassle, including trimming blocks, making parts fit, and making your quilt look the way it should. Here are some tips on improving your seam allowance.

4. Don’t get hung up on particular designers for your fabric choices. Your quilts will have a more timeless quality if you mix and match designers and lines.

5. When choosing color palettes, audition a broad range of colors including some you think couldn’t work. Unless you’re deliberately using a muted color scheme, err on the side of too bold rather than too meek.

6. The same idea works with value contrast: unless you’re deliberately going for a “low-volume” (low value contrast) look, have a range of value from very dark to very light. This means your purchases need to include that range.

7. If possible, take some classes in person. A good teacher can make your learning curve easier.

8. Work on improvement, but ignore the quilt police! If you like it, that’s the most important criteria.

9. If you get stuck within a project, ask for help. Often the solution is pretty simple if you only know what it is.

10. Starting projects is exciting, but finishing is deeply rewarding. Make sure you finish some of your projects so you understand the benefits of both.

Alrighty, now, it’s your turn! What advice do you have for less-experienced quilters?ย 


37 thoughts on “Best Tips For Newer Quilters

  1. Katie

    As a new quilter, I definitely need to work on the finishing of my projects. I finished my first quilt top, which is about a full-bed sized,but I need to get the darn thing quilted and bound! I also have a table-topper in the same predicament, and yet I’ve started the top of another quilt.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Starting things is fun. And for me, if I don’t know quite what to do about the next task (my skills aren’t quite that far,) it’s REALLY easy to put it off. But usually I find that it isn’t as bad as I anticipated, and the next time to do it, it’s even easier! Thanks for reading and commenting today.

  2. KerryCan

    Your tips are great, Melanie–very sensible but not necessarily easy or obvious. The advice I would add for a new quilter is to lighten up–there’s no one right answer about which fabric to choose or which method so just choose and enjoy your choice. It’s supposed to be fun, and perfection is a myth. Oh, and I’d advise to try some nice slow hand sewing!

  3. snarkyquilter

    I suggest some videos for beginners. I just looked at one by Shabby Fabrics that seemed a good starting point for all the stuff that comes before actually sewing. As to quilt guilds, if there’s more than one in your area, visit all of them and see which is the best fit for you. You may like a modern guild or a traditional one, or even an art quilt one. My other advice is, buy the best equipment you can reasonably afford. A good used sewing machine will work better for you than a cheap new one. Often, sewing machine stores will have used, reconditioned machines for sale.

  4. Shasta

    These are great tips. I think my biggest lesson is that some quilts are easier to make than others. My first one was a difficult one, which worked out fine, but it was very discouraging and I took a long break before I started quilting again. Also some quilts look easy but are hard to make and others look hard but are really easy to make. It helps to ask an experienced person to help distinguish the two.

    Build up your skill level, and don’t expect perfection. You are learning and it is normal to make mistakes.

    Ask questions! You won’t get answers unless you ask.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      This: ” Also some quilts look easy but are hard to make and others look hard but are really easy to make. It helps to ask an experienced person to help distinguish the two.” This is SO TRUE! What a great idea to ask about that in particular. Thanks.

  5. Pat

    I took a class from Sally Collins years ago (she is a brilliant quilter). One of her tips that is so easy but makes a huge difference is to not let go of your fabric until the entire seam has gone through the needle…use a seam ripper or something to hold onto it. No more swerves at the end of a seam! She actually measures every seam she sews and is the most meticulous quilter I’ve ever met (and I’ve been fortunate to take many classes with the best quilters in the US). If you are interested in accurate piecing, buy one of her books.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh my, that level of attention is really hard to maintain. I do try to manage my seam clear until the end, but I don’t measure them all. I check sizing when I begin making a set of units or blocks. If the first ones are going okay, I just keep doing that. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks.

  6. Cjh

    Good tips, for any quilter, not just a beginner. A tip I would give is to visit a few stores and look at fabrics without buying a thing. Learn how cotton quilting fabrics vary in texture, weight, and price before choosing your first fabrics. If you want to start out from scratch with a budget, make something small with a small fabric purchase, maybe using a pattern or book to tell how much you need. Then prepare your fabric by washing and pressing and straightening the cut edge to be on grain. If you want, pick up a few small pieces of different qualities so you have experience with them. Knowing your fabrics and how they will perform is a good basis for getting the end results you desire.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Great point. One thing that we often hear is the virtues of quilt shop fabric as compared to chain store fabric. I’ve had great pieces from both and awful pieces from both. It’s good to learn which weights, naps, and grains work easily. (Shot cottons — SO beautiful! and just not fun to sew with, in my experience!)

  7. snarkyquilter

    My advice for a beginning quilter depends on whether they’ve ever sewn before. If they have, then they already know some of the vocabulary. If not, then learning to use a sewing machine would be the first step. A machine (you can get a perfectly fine one for less than $600 and good used ones can be a bargain) bought from a sewing machine/vac store often comes with lessons in using it Take them. I don’t recommend the cheapest new sewing machines as they often are under powered. Next, I suggest a course, in person or online, in the very basics of quilting. I found one series on YouTube called Shabby Fabrics that starts from ground zero (what’s a block, what’s a fat quarter, etc.) You can also find beginning quilting classes on Craftsy, though they’ll cost about $20 on sale. If you have a local quilt shop they may offer beginning classes. If you have a Joann’s store nearby, use coupons to buy the basic equipment (rotary cutter, cutting mat, rulers.) Again, don’t buy the cheapest available, as quality tools will make quilting more pleasant. Here’s where a buddy quilter can really help out, but you can find product reviews online. Quilt guilds can help you learn about quilting resources, plus teach you the language. If there’s more than one in your area, try them all out to find the right fit for you. Finally, use the methods that work for you. There are many ways to accomplish the same task and it can be confusing to get seemingly conflicting advice.

  8. norma

    Join a group- a good one will be welcoming, offer advice and help with real basics like rotary cutting.
    And make a small project first so’s not to get discouraged

  9. tierneycreates

    I enjoyed this post and reading the comments. For me when I was a new quilter – embracing the accurate 1/4 seam and having a seasoned quilter to guide me were most helpful!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’m a big fan of the 1/4″ seam for quilts that depend on construction. Even Gwen Marston extols its virtues, so construction is not a style-dependent concept! Thanks, Tierney.

  10. zippyquilts

    It is very helpful to join a guild, where you’ll learn and get great ideas from other quilters. Just heed Melanie’s advice to ignore the quilt police–every guild has at least one, but don’t let that ruin the experience.

  11. Paula Hedges

    To all newbies, quilters have their own vocabulary, so I suggest a small notebook kept close by to jot down the new words and what they mean. It won’t take long to learn the words or short version (i.e. WOF, RST,HST). Take advantage of education pages on some supplier websites. There is a wealth of information available. You Tube can be overwhelming at first, but soon you will find some demonstrators’ whose style you like, others not so much. Remember, this is suppose to be a fun activity – not perfect, not a race, not something you master overnight. And, there are no quilt police! Oh, one thing more, you will be your own worse critic – something I am still trying to learn not to do after 30+ years of quilting!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I had to look up RST! And yes, perfectionism is not helpful to new quilters. It’s like little kids playing soccer — really they just want to be outside playing with other kids. They learn a sense of the rules and skills, but if a coach wants them to stick with it, the coach won’t get too hung up on that to start!

  12. piecefulwendy

    Find a veteran quilter, even better if it’s a good friend, and ask to quilt with her/him. Then ask questions, no matter how dumb you think they are. Join a quilt group, and don’t be afraid to show your work. Most quilters are very encouraging and excited that another person has joined their numbers! Just have fun; let quilting be more creative play than a quest for perfection.

  13. Kerry

    Definitely go on a course. But if you don’t “click” with the tutor you need not continue – find somewhere else until you are happy. Join a group. They are a mine of information and very eager to share – especially if you are a newbie. I’ve only just done this recently and oh my golly gosh how I’ve learnt! Do a quilt along – it does get you used to different techniques and practice at all manner of angles. Finding the right ruler for you helps. I like Creative Grids for the non-slip firmness. Although that said – sometimes there are really nice ruler tools that need something like Invisigrip or True Grips put on underneath. Sometimes it’s trial and error here. I’ve found that sometimes the “no waste” rulers can be a little unforgiving to newbies so for the time being I like to cut a little larger and trim down. That quarter inch seam – which seems to start off pretty good until I add more patches and then it gets thrown off a fair bit – still learning how to sort that out on that front. Still not sure to iron seams open or to the dark side – not always dark side either!
    Press the iron, don’t wiggle it and although I like pressing at the front, I only do a little bit at first to make sure the fabric isn’t making a sneaky fold and then flip it to squash those seams (or as Eleanor Burns says – smoosh it into submission) – don’t smoosh on the front because the fabric goes icky and shiny. I don’t use steam but I have been using sizing – which definitely helps – I am going to test starch next. I also have a very heavy iron – my preference – it does the job for me!
    Then for colour running tests – Rob Appell’s Youtube video does a test. I prewash but sometimes fabrics can be not exactly energy/water efficient to stop the colour running – even with all the other alternatives. I’m about to test Synthrapol and Retayne. This video is helpful – only just found that:

    The rest I’m still learning so any (and I mean any – doesn’t hurt to try alternatives) tips gratefully received!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Really good advice about clicking with your teacher. Some teachers are great and can work with a wide variety of new quilters. Others have a narrower range. Thanks.

  14. thimblesandteapots

    I would advise anyone who’d like to quilt to find a tutorial that shows you how to cut fabric accurately using your rotary cutter etc. I really didn’t know how to cut my fabric properly! I also like the tip about ironing seams one way for one row and the opposite way for the next row so that seams for patchwork fit together and squares/corners are more accurate ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Ruth Kennedy

    Join a Guild ( group) either in person or on-line….one of the really rewarding aspects of my quilting life is the friendships I have made !!

  16. katechiconi

    I’d say: Start a blog and follow others. Look at what others are producing and work out what it is you like or dislike about what they make. Ask for advice and listen to your instincts when reading the reply. If you think you really don’t want to do as the advisors suggest, that’s good, that’s your own personal taste and opinions emerging. Don’t get stuck on patterns, always making exactly what someone else has made, in the same colours. Experiment with colours, layouts and proportions that feel right to you. Have FUN! Don’t sweat the small stuff, it’s only fabric.


Thanks for your comments. I don't check them often. Please email me if you have questions.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.