A few years back, I offered to teach the women at our Home Skills Fellowship how to make a rag quilt. I hoped at least three or four women would be interested, but twenty showed up, and of those, half had never sat at a sewing machine before. But that wasn’t a problem with this particular project, because this rag quilt is the most forgiving quilt in the world. You can’t go wrong with this. In fact, sewing ignorance is actually a plus, because the hardest part for those who already know how to sew is remembering to expose your seams instead of hide them. But I’m getting ahead of myself there.
This is a quick quilt, and very easy. But at the end, you’re going to sit with a pair of scissors and snip what seems like an endless number of seams, so you don’t want to put this off until the last minute (if you’re planning this for a gift with a set deadline like … say … Christmas. I’ve heard that’s a bad idea. I … uh … wouldn’t have any firsthand knowledge about that.)
Aside from fabric color choice, you need to make a few decisions before you begin.
1. First, decide how big you want your squares to be. I have made these with 7″ squares, 6″ squares, and 5″ squares. All are beautiful, but for ease of sewing, I’m now making all my quilts with 6″ squares, because I have this rotary cutting ruler, and it happens to be exactly 6″ in width. That makes cutting a quick process:You can absolutely make this quilt without a rotary mat, ruler and cutter, but it will take you longer. If you think you’re going to make more than one of these quilts or have other sewing projects planned, it would be worth your while to invest in a set or borrow someone else’s.
Each square in the quilt will be sewed with a 1″ seam. You could go smaller, but after experimenting myself, I like the look of the 1″ seam best. For the purpose of this tutorial, we’ll assume a 6″ square with a 1″ seam. And what that means is that when the quilt is finished, each square will yield you 4″ in width and length. (That’s because you will “eat up” one inch on the left side and one inch on the right side as you sew it together with 1″ seams. Same with the top and bottom.)
With that measurement in mind, you now have to decide how wide and long you want your quilt. It would probably be best if you started with a baby quilt or lap quilt for your first project, just so you can get a good feel for it. I started out making lap quilts for my three sisters, and then I moved on to a bigger quilt for the back of our couch. That quilt was made of 7″ squares (yielding a 6″ square) and I used 11 down and 9 across for a total of 99 squares.
Once you know how big you want the finished quilt, work backward from there. Using our 6″ square as an example (which yields a 4″ square), if you wanted to do a nice-sized quilt for the back of your couch, you may want to sew 12 down and 10 across, for a total of 120 squares (as an example).
2. Decide on the colors you want for your quilt top and measure accordingly. If you want to do an alternating color like the one I made for my grandson, that’s pretty easy. Just figure the total size of your quilt and divide by two, then figure out how many squares you can get from a yard of flannel, which is generally 44″ wide. If you bring your measurements to the fabric store (and you go during a quiet time, as in NOT Black Friday), they’ll probably help you figure that out if you’re unsure. My motto is: buy more than you need. You can always use it for the next quilt.
If you go with a lot of different kinds of fabric, such as the quilt I show at the top, that makes it a little harder. I’ll be honest and tell you that I didn’t do any math for those. I just bought about two yards of each kind of fabric, and I had a TON left over, which is why I went on to make the quilt for the back of our couch. You may want to be more precise than I was. Just grab a calculator, go somewhere quiet, and think.
3. Decide on the color for your quilt back and measure accordingly. When this quilt is finished, it looks like the back is one big piece of fabric (the back of my couch-quilt is brown), but that’s not true. The back is cut into squares just like the front is. You could get all jiggy with it and use a bunch of different colors for the back as well, but do you want to do that to yourself for this first quilt? I didn’t think so. 🙂
For the front and back, if you’re buying 44″ flannel, you can generally get 35 6″ squares out of one yard of fabric. You have to allow for a little fudging on either end of the cut, because those aren’t always cut straight at the fabric store, but as a general rule, think 35 squares (6″ squares) per yard.
4. Decide on whether or not you want a filler in your squares. Typically, whenever you see a tutorial for rag quilts, you’re told to buy extra flannel (some also use quilt batting) to put inside your flannel front-and-back “sandwich,” which we’ll get to in a minute. Most of my quilts are made this way. But I’ve found that for smaller quilts, like those for a crib or a stroller, you can get by without this inner lining. It makes the finished quilt a little bit lighter in weight, which can be a good thing.
If you do want the lining (for warmth or weight), you’re going to buy any old flannel you want. You can use plain off-white flannel, quilting flannel, or just the cheapest, end-of-the-roll flannel you can find. You can also use up flannel from different projects if you’ve got it sitting around. It doesn’t matter, because this square won’t be seen. Cut this inner layer two inches smaller than your outer squares. So for our 6″ example, you’d cut an equal number of squares for the inner layer but make them all 4″.
(I’m going to show you pictures from two quilt projects. The blue/green combo does NOT have an inner lining, so that’s why you won’t see an “x” on those squares. The other pictures are from my couch quilt and they DO have an inner layer.)
5. Buy your flannel AND DO NOT WASH. I have to say that with some force because the first rule of sewing is usually “wash your fabric,” but this is not the case with this quilt. We want it to fray in the washing machine, so we don’t wash it beforehand. And isn’t that nice? You can just jump right to cutting and sewing. 🙂
6. Cut your squares. Don’t worry if they are not exactly right. As I said, this is the most forgiving quilt ever. So if you’re a tiny bit off here or there, don’t throw out the square. It will probably work just fine.
7. Make three piles (or two if you’re not using an inner layer). Put the squares for your quilt bottom in one pile, the squares for your inner layer in another, and the squares for the quilt top in another.
8. Start making sandwiches. Place one bottom piece on the bottom, right side down. If you’re not a sewer already, the “right” side is the pretty side. Sometimes you can’t tell one from the other, but sometimes it’s obvious. Certain flannels will have a whitish color on one side and the actual color on the other. So remember that with this quilt, the pretty side will show on the top and bottom when you’re done. On top of the bottom piece, lay one inner square (if using) and center it as best as you can. Lay a top piece on this, right side up (meaning the pretty side is looking at you. Pin those squares together at the corners. Your sandwich will look like this: (Note: since this was for Gage’s crib, this sandwich is just the front and back — no inner layer.)
9. Secure your sandwiches. If you’re not using the inner layer, you can skip this step. But if you have a 3-layer sandwich, you need to secure it. Starting about 1″ from one corner, sew to about 1″ from the opposite corner. Repeat on the two remaining corners to make an “X” across your sandwich. Here’s a square from my couch quilt: 10. Decide on your pattern. For Gage’s quilt, I used alternating squares of blue and green (and used the same green for the back). That’s a pretty easy pattern. But for the quilt I made for our couch, I had to think through the color scheme and lay the squares out on the floor over and over until I came up with a pattern I liked. I wanted more green in the quilt, so I made a pattern using green in the middle and as an outer square: 11. Start sewing. After you know your pattern and have all your quilt squares sandwiched, take two that you want to be next to each other and lay them with the backs together. I’m notorious for not pinning my squares together (and it works just fine), but if you want to pin these two together, do that now. It’s a little bit confusing because I used the same fabric on both the top and bottom of Gage’s quilt (and I’m sorry about that), but trust me: this is a picture of the two back pieces touching each other: Using a 1″ seam, sew these two squares together. Open and it will look like this: This is contrary to all sewing rules, because we have our seam on the top instead of the bottom. But this is what we want. Continue sewing squares together. I find it easiest to sew one row at a time.
When all the rows are sewn, take two rows, pin them together (matching corners and seams), and sew together. You can either sew these with all the seams open (like what you see above) and pinned accordingly, or closing the seams and moving one row to the left and one row to the right as you sew them together. It won’t matter in the end because you’re going to release those sewed-down seams by cutting through them at the end. (If this sounds confusing to you, just start sewing two rows and you’ll get to a point where you realize what I’m talking about.) When all your rows are sewn together, it will look like this: The last sewing you’ll do will be all around the edge of the quilt, leaving a 1″ seam allowance (which will get snipped).
12. Start snipping. This will be the most tedious part, but I suggest you tackle this while watching something on TV. Sunday afternoon football is good. You can use regular scissors to cut your quilt, but you will be me much less frustrated if you run down to the fabric store and buy a pair of rag quilt snip scissors. They might look like this: Or they may look like this: But either way, they’re going to be scissors that spring back after you make a cut. And they will make all the difference between you loving and hating this project. Having given you this spectacular tip, I won’t be surprised when you send me flowers. Had I left that out, I would expect a drive-by house-egging. And between the two, I super prefer flowers.
Now get comfortable and begin snipping your seams. You’re going to make 1/4″ cuts everywhere you find a seam. When you come to the place where the seams meet, do what you can to release the edges of the seam without cutting through the stitching. You’ll know what I mean when you get there. Be as careful as you can not to snip through the seams you’ve sewn. I am extremely careful every time I make one of these, and I ALWAYS cut through a few. But this is easy to repair later … all you do is hold the seam together and sew it back up from the front side.
Cut those same 1/4″ snips along the edge of the quilt too.
13. Wash your quilt. If you’re hoping to destroy your old washing machine so you have an excuse to get a new one, go ahead and use your own washing machine for this. But if you love your washing machine and want to keep it, I suggest you go down to the laundry mat and wash it there. Because this quilt is going to shed gobs and gobs of fiber. Before our old machine went belly up, I used that one. It had a weird white basket that hovered above the clothes when they washed, and it seemed like all the fibers ended up in that basket. Or maybe not, because as I said, the machine went belly up. You don’t think I … no. No, that couldn’t be.
The more you wash this quilt, the better the seams will ruffle.
One washing is fine if you’re in a hurry to give this as a gift, but two or three are better. You want to wash and dry each time. If you’re drying this at home, check your lint trap several times during the cycle, because there’s still going to be a lot of fiber in there even after washing.
And … that’s it! I hope you’ll try this. It could just make you fall in love with quilting.