Essential Tools for Beginning Quilters at Fabric Bias

Essential Tools for Beginning Quilters

Want to start quilting? When I started quilting in around 1990, I had no idea that it would take over my life like it has, so I wanted to buy as few expensive quilting supplies as possible to get started. Looking back, I’m not sure I bought the right things, but there wasn’t anyone around to tell me what the bare minimum really was. The goal is to strike the balance between usability, quality and expense. If you’re in that situation (or want to be in that situation, Heaven help you), here’s a list of essentials to get started:

  1. A sewing machine. If you don’t have one, maybe you can borrow one from a friend or relative. Do make sure that it has been serviced recently, and that you can set it to sew an accurate 1/4″ seam.
  2. A rotary cutter. When you choose a rotary cutter, try not to go for the cheapest thing just to get by. The medium 45mm size is the best choice and there are many choices available now that have ergonomic handles as well. If quilting doesn’t turn out to be your “thing,” rotary cutters are always handy to have around for paper trimming and other crafty tasks.
  3. A ruler for rotary cutting. There are so many different types and sizes of rulers around these days that it’s really hard to know which one to choose. I started with a 6″ x 12″ Omnigrid ruler and it’s still the size I use the most on a daily basis. That being said, if you don’t have much experience you have with fabrics and don’t know much about grainlines and such, you might consider purchasing the 6″ x 24″ size since it’s sometimes harder for beginners to cut strips perfectly with the 6″ x 12″ size since the fabric must be folded more times to fit the ruler. Omnigrid rulers are marked in yellow and black, and I’ve never really had any issues seeing the markings when cutting fabrics. Other choices abound, and when shopping, consider testing the visibility of different rulers against various fabrics.
  4. A mat to use with the rotary cutter and the ruler. Look for a “self-healing” mat made to work with rotary cutters. Choose a mat that’s bigger than your ruler, and keep in mind that when it’s time to cut borders for your quilt, a smaller mat may make the task more difficult. I started out with a 12″ x 18″ mat, and that was okay until I started making bigger quilts and then things got hairy and I decided to purchase a 24″ x 36″ mat. Gridlines on the mat are not necessary (in fact, I often recommend that beginners turn gridded mats over so that the gridlines are not there to confuse them) but most mats do come with one side marked with a grid. I’ve always used green mats and only ever had visibility issues when using a fabric that’s very similar in color to the mat. There’s nothing to be done about that really, because no matter what color your mat is, at some point you’ll be using a fabric that same color. Good lighting is the solution to that one.

  1. Pins. If you’ve done any sewing at all you may already have straight pins, but if not, look for good quality long pins with large heads to make them easier to see and use. Little tiny pins with glass heads are hard to see and harder to use, so don’t skimp. Sure, we’d all like to be able to piece quilt blocks without using pins, but the fact is they’re a necessary evil sometimes! You won’t need a huge number of pins, so just a small box will do.
  2. A seam ripper is another necessary evil! I use mine for much more than doing the frog stitch (Rippit, rippit!), I also use it to help thread the needle, pull the bobbin thread to the top of the quilt when machine quilting, and much more. Here’s another item where it won’t pay to skimp: purchase a good one with a smooth, narrow point, and a substantial handle that’s comfortable to hold so that when you do have to unsew, you can remove small machine stitches with ease. Some sewing machines come with a seam ripper, but in my experience most of these are fairly cheap with tiny little handles and thick points. My favorite seam ripper is made by Clover.
  3. A good iron. You probably already have an iron, but is it a good iron? Does it make good steam or does it spit water and gook out of it? Is the sole plate clean or has it been used for other crafts that may have left residues behind that can transfer onto your quilting fabric? If you’re going to spend your time and money on making a quilt, giving your current iron some TLC or buying a new one might be in order. I’ve never been a fan of lightweight irons; I prefer something that has some weight to it, and doesn’t have an auto shut off feature.
  4. Good scissors. Here’s that “good” qualification again. You probably already have scissors in the house, but are they good scissors that can cut through fabric without a pause or a snag? I’d really recommend purchasing fairly good scissors and hiding them from everyone else in the house. Fabric scissors should only be used on fabric and thread, because using them on paper or plastic can dull the blades prematurely. Store your good scissors carefully, and try not to drop them. Even a fall of 6″ to a table top can cause big nicks in the blades which will make cutting fabric a chore. You don’t have to spring for the $40 Gingher dressmaker shears right away (or ever); one of my favorite and best pairs of scissors is a pair I got in the mail for free about 20 years ago. I’ve just made sure that everyone in the house knows that using my scissors for anything but fabric is equivalent to a death sentence.
  5. Good quality thread. Quality thread = more pleasure and success. Sounds goofy, but it’s true. Many quilters (including me) subscribe to the theory that 100% cotton thread is best for cotton fabrics. Higher quality cotton thread will create less fuzz as it goes through the machine, so your machine stays cleaner, and you’ll experience less breakage.
  6. Good quality cotton quilting fabric. I can’t stress this enough. There is a difference between quilt shop quality and discount store quality fabric, and while the difference may not be apparent immediately, it will make itself felt at some point. Poor quality fabrics can bleed and crock onto other fabrics, and may not wear as well so all your hard work might not last as long. Yes, the quilt shop’s fabrics are more expensive, but if you’re going to spend time doing this quilting thing, you don’t want to be disappointed by poor quality fabrics!

    To curb the money-eating monster that fabric can be, look for fabrics on sale (but don’t curb your creativity to stay on the sale rack!), and if a pattern calls for a fat-quarter, check to see if it really needs a “fat” quarter. If none of the pieces you need are bigger than about 8″ square, you don’t really need a “fat-quarter” and you should have the shop staff cut a regular quarter yard piece off the bolt if it’s cheaper that way. Some shops markup the fat-quarter prices, or at least make them all the same price which can mean that you spend more for the same amount of fabric.

  7. Machine needles. Get a package of needles for your machine that are the right size for the thread and the fabric that you’re using for your project. A size 10 or 11 microtex (sharp) needle is great for piecing quilting fabrics with a 50 wt cotton thread. Use a new needle when you start your project, and keep the rest on hand, because you will need them. If you happen to hit a pin, the delicate tip of the needle will likely bend or develop a burr, which can snag fabric or thread as it sews.
  8. A nice, easy pattern! Ask for help at the quilt shop or from quilters you know. I know it’s tempting to dive in head first and make that ultra gorgeous quilt with all the super skinny points that have to match an all, but if you get in over your head, you may not finish! A finished project is what we want here, so try to choose a pattern that’s beginner friendly, with squares and rectangles and not too many points to match up as your first project. Some patterns even have a skill level designation to help with the selection process, and there are also some great beginner quilting books available.
  9. Chocolate and/or coffee! Every quilter needs fuel, it’s just part of the process!

Essential Tools for Beginning Quilters at Fabric Bias

I hope I didn’t miss anything truly essential, if I did leave me a comment!

13 thoughts on “Essential Tools for Beginning Quilters

  1. You don’t “need” a sewing machine, rotary cutter with mat & ruler…

    My first foray into quilting was English paper piecing…

    I have done applique without the above items as well…

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  2. Well, I suppose you’re right Amy, and I should have put a disclaimer on my post:

    This list of “essentials” applies if you’re like me, and can’t (or don’t want to) do much by hand.

    Hopefully, even beginner quilters who plan to do everything by hand will take away something useful from the list, however.

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  3. Wow. Thank you so much for this list! I just bought a sewing machine online (on hsn.com– it’s a Brother) anyways, I’m planning on starting off just making some curtains for the kids room, but I didn’t realize that I would need all of these things to make a quilt! 🙂 Once again, thank you very much for the list, I am going to bookmark your page and (if you don’t mind) copy this list and save it. I am counting down until my sewing machine gets here and I just can’t wait to get started. LOL.

    Sorry for such a long comment.

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  4. You’re very welcome Morgan, and no I don’t mind at all if you copy and save the list. And absolutely don’t worry about long comments! I’m glad this list is something you can use!

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  5. Now, if only I had talent, patience, and a sewing machine, Id be ready to quilt;) These sound like some ideas. Happy TT and thanks for stopping by.

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  6. Batting! It’s not a quilt without it. And too often, inexperienced quilters buy poor-quality batting or the wrong type. Good list, though.

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  7. Yes, Meg, you’re right, batting is sometimes a challenging choice, and definitely a must have for a beginner to finish their first quilt, but I think I must have decided that for the true beginner, chocolate and/or coffee was more important! Don’t ask me why…;)

    Maybe I’ll do a post in the near future about batting, and all the things I learned about it after buying my first one, which was junk!

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