A history of patchwork
Patchwork and quilting have been used for practical and decorative purposes for a few centuries. There are few surviving samples from before the 18th Century, though some evidence suggests it may date back to ancient Egypt. One of the earliest known examples dates from 1718, a Silk Patchwork Coverlet which now forms part of the Quilters Guild Collection in the UK. Quilting techniques spread to Europe and other parts of the world during The Crusades and gained popularity in many different cultures.
Technological developments led to growth in the use of quilting techniques during the late 18th and early 19th Century. In 1856 the first synthetic dye was produced. Previously cotton had been the most popular fabric for patchwork and quilting, but the advent of synthetic dye meant bright silks and velvets became popular. Patchwork blankets, table coverings, cushions and tea cosies became a common sight in Victorian England.
The Wholecloth quilt had its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th Century. It became a popular traditional craft particularly in Wales and on the Scottish Border as a craft passed down the generations. Different local areas had their own distinctive style and motif, with other types of needlework such as appliqué and embroidery incorporated.
In the mid-20th Century, interest waned as other manufacturing techniques took over. But patchwork and quilting saw a revival in the 1960s and 70s, and in 1979 the Quilters Guild was formed.
Tools of the patchwork trade
Patchworking and quilting require some specialist tools, depending on how you want the finished item to look. Some crafters and upcyclers favour ragged seams and a rustic homemade look which can be made with basic everyday tools. But traditionally, there are specialist tools that are used to ensure accuracy and precision.
Clear Quilters Ruler — These can be purchased in a range of different sizes and make the measuring and cutting of squares or triangles of fabric more accurate and easy than using an ordinary ruler.
Rotary Cutter — The most accurate tool for cutting straight lines in fabric, theyre used in a similar way to a pizza cutter, sliding through fabric easily and precisely.
Cutting Mat — A good clean cutting mat can be used as an excellent surface to plan and measure on, alongside cutting pieces to size.
Fabric Scissors — Those who favour ragged seams often cut squares and shapes with just scissors, avoiding the need for rulers and rotary cutters. Great to have these handy regardless.
Seam Ripper — You may need one of these for unpicking stitches if you make any errors or if you are picking apart an item of clothing to upcycle.
Sewing Machine — It is possible to hand sew patchwork, but as straight forward repetitive work, a good sewing machine is advised.
Steam Iron — A good quality steam iron and board, are important tools for accurate patchworking. Patchwork pieces need to be flat and smooth for cutting and joining and seams must be ironed to form a nesting effect on the back of your patchwork.
Pins — You will need to use sewing pins at various stages to pin pieces together and sew accurately.
Materials used in patchwork
The choice of thread is crucial and should complement the fabric being used in the patchwork project. A wide range of thread options are available, including those made from cotton, silk, and synthetic materials.
Patchwork projects offer a versatile canvas for creativity, allowing the use of a wide range of fabrics such as cotton, silk, velvet, and synthetic materials. This technique can also be an eco-friendly way of repurposing fabric scraps or old clothing.
Muslin is a popular choice for providing a backing layer in patchwork projects. It helps conceal seams and adds an extra layer of protection to the finished piece.
Batting is a layer of soft, fluffy material that is added between the patchwork top and the backing fabric. It provides warmth and softness to the finished item and can be made from various materials such as cotton, wool, or synthetic fibres.
Techniques of patchwork
The basic technique for patchwork and quilting is to cut up even squares and sew these together. Accuracy and good maths are key here in ensuring sizes match and seams line up. You need to account for a seam allowance for each patch, which is usually about ¼ inch each side (so an extra 1” of fabric for each square in total). There are several YouTube tutorials available to help get you get the hang of things.
Planning — Do plenty of planning in advance. Lay your pieces out to work out a colour scheme or pattern and measure everything carefully to ensure it will fit together in the way you want it to. This will be slightly different depending on what you are making. A small blanket or throw may be the easiest to learn first as this is one continuous piece with minimal room for error.
Speed Joining — Speed joining, also known as chain piecing, is a time-saving method used when sewing or seaming lots of small pieces of fabric. The technique involves continually sewing pieces of fabric together without removing from the sewing machine in order to save having to keep setting up for each square. These pieces can then be separated with scissors as needed.
Pinning — If you are pinning bits of the fabric together before you sew, ensure the pinheads face right so you can remove them quickly and safely as you sew.
Wholecloth Quilt — If you are making a wholecloth quilt you need to consider the patchwork, the backing and also any filling you may use, such as wool.
Tips and tricks of patchwork
When ironing seams ensure the seam allowance is ironed to the side in the direction of the darkest colour. This ensures dark seams wont show through behind pale fabrics.
A good quality steam iron is essential to accurate patchworking. Iron on a high heat with using the steam setting. Iron each scrap at the start and through each stage. Keep ironing as you go along building a work pattern of press-and-join-and-press-and-join for clean lines and accuracy.
Trim stray threads as you go along to ensure these arent caught in new seams.
Make sure seams are intersecting in the right places as you layer the squares of fabric together.
Ideas and inspiration for patchwork
Once you have practised basic skills in patchworking, you can quickly start to elaborate and let your imagination go. You may want to combine other needlework into the piece including embroidery or using appliqué—a form of ornamental needlework in which small pieces of fabric are sewn to a larger one to make an image or pattern.
You may want to look to historical patchworking and quilting for inspiration. These techniques have been used in many different cultures across the world for centuries and have often been used to tell stories or record historical and political moments in time, using appliqué or embroidery to create images on the fabric. Patchworking is also very flexible to different styles and tastes, from minimal geometric block shapes to clashes of pattern and colour.
These days, patchworking is often used by upcyclers as a way to recycle old clothes or use up scraps of fabric. Some upcyclers favour a very ragged, rustic handmade look, with uneven fabric scraps patched together in random patterns without the need for careful measuring and planning.
Patchworking can be used to make all sorts of clothes, accessories and household items, such as coats, bags, furniture covers, tea cosies and baby blankets, as well as the more traditional quilts.