Kids are Quilting: 5 Things are Learned Teaching Kids to Quilt

By Tricia Patterson, Managing Editor, Quiltmaker, McCall’s Quilting and Quick Quilts

I returned to work this week after an awesome 10-day vacation with my granddaughters, Morgan (age 12) and Lily (age 8). As usual, I called them before they traveled to Colorado to get a list of things they wanted to do during their time with us. Morgan said to me, “Gramma, I’m ready to learn to quilt.” Oh, be still my heart. I’ve been waiting to hear those words. I immediately started to plan an approach to teaching the girls something I’ve had a passion for, and enjoyed, my whole adult life. I was so looking forward to the day I could spend time quilting with them. I know many quilters, grandmothers, mothers, fathers and brothers who want to share the heritage of quilting with young kids. I’d like to share with you what I learned from my experience teaching my kids.

#1. Set realistic goals.

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Lily and Morgan sew focused!

At the onset, I had a couple of goals for the girls. I wanted them to experience the artistic aspect of creating, learn the process involved with quilting and develop a beginner skillset for piecing a quilt top. I knew I didn’t want to focus on them making perfect seams. That can come later. I did want them to fully engage in the experience. Morgan already had some experience with using the sewing machine so I knew she would not need the handholding Lily would require learning how to sew. I set up my regular size travel machine for Morgan to use and I purchased a small beginner machine for Lily, one I thought would let her easily use basic sewing functions, as well as provide some safeguards for a beginner (like the curved front edge of presser foot to avoid a finger prick).

#2. Start at the beginning. Let the kids create their own quilt design.

I get a lot of satisfaction from designing quilts. I enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to construct a design and love to see my designs come to life. I wanted to share the same experience with the girls. So, I started by asking the girls to design their own quilt. I did give them some guidelines. Lily had to use 12” patches in her quilt, in whatever color layout she desired. I figured these large patches would be the easiest for her to piece. I guided Morgan to keep her design simple, with clean straight lines and a minimum of matching points. I gave them graph paper for them to start drawing their design. At one point, Morgan wanted to see how changing colors would affect her design, but she hesitated to take the time to hand draw multiple iterations. Morgan’s a very technology-savvy gal so I introduced her to Electric Quilt. I showed her a couple of the features for designing blocks and placing them into a quilt design. I admit, I was very impressed how quickly she picked up EQ and created a few different layouts all by herself before making a final decision on the one to make.

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Lily’s Quilt Design

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Morgan’s Sketch

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Morgan’s Design in Electric Quilt

#3. Let the kids pick out their own fabric.

We calculated yardage requirements (Morgan was excited that math is part of quilting.) and with designs in hand, we made a trip to the quilt shop. The girls have helped me select fabric before. They knew the process. I showed Lily where she would find all the colorful prints and tone-on-tones I knew she liked. Morgan had decided she want to stay with solids and tone-on-tones for her design. Then, they were on their own. They gathered fabric bolts, shared their designs with the shop keepers and identified the amounts of fabric they needed. I let them know I was there for consultation and would provide some advice, but other than that, the choice of fabrics was theirs to make.

#4. Keep sewing directions simple and safe and the techniques minimal.

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Lily at work

I’m with the group of learning theorists that say we best learn, particularly as an adult learner, when we are interested and learn as we need to know something. Generally, I kept this approach with teaching the girls quilting. I’m also a minimalist at heart. I shared the steps of the process with them as they needed to apply them. I described and demonstrated a procedure, let them practice and left them to it, checking occasionally to make sure they were on track. I did cut out Lily’s block patches, not ready for her to take on the risks of tackling the rotary cutter.

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One of Lily’s sample strips

As I mentioned, Lily had not sewn on a machine before so I knew I had to teach her how to use the machine, and make a straight ¼” stitch. My goal for her was consistency. So, we started with a folded piece of fabric and the direction to start the machine, sew to the end of the fabric and stop the machine. She made four samples. I told her she would be ready to sew her quilt’s patches together when she could sew 4 straight lines, getting as close to ¼” as she could. It was funny when after our breaks her first line of stitching was very crooked and she chose to practice a couple lines of stitching on her sample strips before going back to patch sewing.

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Lily used the bed to audition patch placement

Lily auditioned her fabric placement using the tried-and-true bed. She sewed her block patches together into rows and I re-sewed some of the jagged seams. And, I sewed the rows together because the amount of fabric in two rows was a bit of a challenge for her to manage. Morgan already had a little experience with using the rotary cutter so I reviewed safety precautions with her and demonstrated the technique for cutting her patches. We talked through the size and number of patches she needed to cut from her fabrics. I showed her how to make triangle-squares and turned her loose. As she came to the next steps of piecing her blocks together we talked about how she would join the blocks and then the rows. I showed her a method for perfectly matching seam intersections. I didn’t drive her to make sure all of them were absolutely perfect; rather relied on her natural desire to make them as perfect as possible. I introduced her to the seam ripper, a quilter’s best friend.

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Morgan *loved using the design wall

And, I also introduced her to the design wall. She loved it! It helped her organize her sewing. She could play with the layout to satisfaction. And, she could see the progress she was making.

Unfortunately, the girls had to return home before we could get to the quilting. They did finish their quilt tops. I gave them several books to look through so I could get an idea of the motif they would like for their quilt. They chose a direction for the quilting and I dropped the tops off at the long arm quilter yesterday. When I get them back the girls will be ready for their final lesson, hand sewing the binding to the back of the quilt. I can’t wait to see what they think about their efforts then—their first quilt completed.

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Morgan’s Quilt Top

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Lily’s Quilt Top

#5. Offer assistance, but let them do it on their own.

My biggest discoveries with the kids were that it was very important to let them make their own decisions with every step, to offer assistance not direction, share the construction concepts, tips about techniques but not to hover over them. They benefited from demonstrations and short practice. It’s important to create an environment that the kids own, with a consultation-oriented approach that encourages them to think about what they need to do next. And, let it be OK to make mistakes. Morgan and Lily’s first quilts aren’t perfect; but they are beautiful and I know they enjoyed the experience of making them. The quilts are their own to be proud of. That’s what counts for any quiltmaker. And, I can’t even begin to describe my great pleasure of quilting with them. We talk a lot about the next quilting generation at the Quiltmaker and McCall’s Quilting office. We ponder over how we can contribute to sharing our passion for quilting and incite new generations of quilters. It’s great fun for me to have something special I can do with my grandchildren. I’m excited, and honored, to pass on a bit of our quilting heritage by sharing with the next generation in our family.

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11 Responses to Kids are Quilting: 5 Things are Learned Teaching Kids to Quilt

  1. Elaine Theriault says:

    Those quilts are GORGEOUS. I see some budding quilt designers!

  2. Barb says:

    I am so excited! My (just turned 9) granddaughter will be coming this weekend to spend a week with me. I began teaching her how to sew when she was 7. Using scissors and a 6 1/2″ square, she selected the fabrics (from my huge stash), traced, and cut with scissors the fabrics for her first small quilt. This time, she wants to learn how to sew half-square triangles, and will design her own quilt. Besides visiting the zoo, butterfly houses, etc., we will hit some quilt shops, have lunches out, talking all about fabrics, quilts, etc. and have a grand week before she heads back to school. We are VERY close, and she treasures the times we spend together. She’s as dynamic as her mother, but it warms my heart that she is so interested in the art of quilting!

  3. Deb says:

    2 1/2 years ago my daughter asked me to make a quilt for her baby girl. I’d never made a quilt, but decided to give it a try. I immediately went out and found a pattern we both loved, then we chose the fabrics together. I guess I should have checked that pattern a little more closely. Definitely not for a beginner! So now I’m learning to quilt so my granddaughter will one day have her “own, made just for her” quilt. I’m going to have to size it up since Lacey’s getting bigger fast! Once summer is over and life on the farm a little less hectic I intend to get into quilting more intensely.But now my daughter is interested in learning too. Working on 3 generations here! Thanks for the tips!

  4. Kristy Wilkinson says:

    I love your granddaughters’ quilts. The older one’s design is very striking! Her choice of colors and her sense of design are really wonderful. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I am sure they will be back and want to do more next time. K-

  5. Agnes says:

    I gave my oldest granddaughter, Emma, 7, my Singer Sew Lite machine that my husband bought me when we were first married. I made her mother’s clothes with it when she was little. I took Emma with me on the Houston Area Shop Hop this year & she had so much fun! She just needs to learn to focus on what she’s doing a little better. She looked at me so funny when I told her the seam ripper is her best friend! I think she understands now. She does not like to rip out her stitches! I understand why you instructed them as you did. I wish I had read this before I began with Emma. I love having a sewing partner in my granddaughter. Two more to go! lol

  6. Pam says:

    I’ve wanted to teach my granddaughters to make quilts but we’ve not been together at one time long enough to make a quilt. My husband, who could barely turn on a sewing machine expressed an interest inlearning how to quilt. We bought a longarm last year and he expressed an interest in learning to use it but was intimidated by the machine. This summer we bought a charm pack he liked then he designed “his quilt” on the design bed( we don’t have room for a design wall). He learned how the needle worked, how to select his stitch and sew his quilt together, I was near by when he needed help. I helped him repair seams that were too narrow but other than that he made the top all by himself. He chose the quilting design then I quilted and bound it for him. He proudly showed our daughter his quilt. I’m proud that he wanted to make his own and understand the process more than just a consultant. He had just bought a quilt kit and told me he was excited about making another.

  7. N. Alexander says:

    Spectacular!!!

  8. Sharyn Mellors says:

    I learned to sew from my grandmother while she was visiting. (I couldn’t stop playing with my mom’s treadle machine so her goal was to show my how it worked the way it was intended to be used.) She was there just long enough to show me how fabric could be sewn together to make things, thread the needle and get my feet going on the treadle. No rules and no patterns. It was the greatest gift I ever got. My imagination was my guide and no project seemed out of reach I just needed to figure out the puzzle of putting it together. I am doing much the same with my granddaughter. Rules can come later or maybe never but always creativity comes first. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Tricia @ Quiltmaker says:

    Kathleen, it seems you have planted a seed. In just a few years your granddaughter will be in sewing room before you know it! Keep the faith!!

  10. Kathleen says:

    I enjoyed this post and the quilts the girls made are wonderful! I can only imagine how delighted you were to be able to guide them. I have two adult daughters and neither one have taken up sewing. Although I did not sew much while raising them. My youngest tried sewing for a bit. I know she can do it, but she needs to want to. However, I am trying to get her daughter, my first grandchild, interested in sewing. Whenever I get a chance to show this 2 1/2 year old something I made, I emphasize that I made it with my sewing machine. I haven’t showed her the sewing machine yet, but she has peeked in the open door to my sewing room. She’s too young to be in there yet, especially with the ironing board always set up. But some day!!

  11. Lori says:

    I love their quilts and the thought you put into making their first quilts fun!

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