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.
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.
#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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
#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.