Category Archives: sweater quilt

Turn of the century projects

The 21st century, that is….

I’ve been busy dividing my time between several fairly old projects, ones that I started back in the late 1990s/early 2000s when I was brand new to quilting. The guilt about having so many UFOs in the closet, combined with the realization that I have fewer days ahead of me than behind, has spurred me into action.

First, though, here’s the sweater quilt, although it probably doesn’t fit the legal definition of a quilt since there is no batting—just a top and a flannel back.

I’m hand stitching the two layers together and it’s now more than two-thirds finished. My poor little paper pounce pattern is looking so abused, I hope it holds out so I don’t have to make another one.

Because the two layers are so bulky, my hands can only push the needle in and out for so long before they need a rest. I’m averaging about four rows a week, factoring in both hand fatigue and the monotonous nature of a running stitch.

I’m fortunate enough to have a sewing space where I can leave the sweater quilt draped on the cutting table, so it’s ready to work on whenever I am. Sometimes I’ll add a few stitches if I’m just walking by on my way to doing something else. Those little bits of stitching are adding up to a whole lot!

In February, I pulled out an unfinished Aunt Grace Christmas top I had made around the turn of the century—gosh, it feels weird to say that! I don’t remember the exact year, but Eric, now 23, must’ve been around six or seven at the time. I quilted it, made the binding and stitched it to the quilt. I still have to hand sew the binding to the back, but it’s almost done—yay!

Matching those tiny stripes took an entire evening, but I would have lost sleep had they not been.

Continuing with a variety of tasks to avoid boredom, I also decided to quilt a fall themed wall hanging I had made, again, around the turn of the century. To avoid cutting into a bed-sized batt for a twinky little 32 x 32 piece, I spliced together three batting scraps the old fashioned way, with curved piecing and a herringbone stitch.

It was a pain, but supposedly, the curves help to better disguise the splicing as opposed to the break line or ridge that could appear if done with a single, straight cut.

Lately, I’ve been machine quilting a single maple leaf motif to the rail fence blocks in a medium sized wall hanging begun in the early 2000s.

Here’s the layout:

The amount of quilting I’ve planned for this one seems disproportionate to its size, but I’m not sure where I would eliminate any, so I push on.

The border is all sized and ready to go, but I cannot figure out how to quilt the tree blocks, despite having more than a decade to figure it out. In the meantime, I’m open to suggestions.

That’s all for now. I’d better get back to it.


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A sashiko needle

I’ve been MIA for awhile due to a hectic schedule last week—a good thing because it distracted me from thinking too much about Eric’s deployment on Saturday.

Monday—Return from New York, unpack, laundry, in bed before 9:00!

Tuesday—Quilt group all day and jazz band concert at school in the evening.

Wednesday—College tour with Ross.

Thursday—Make John’s birthday cake, a half-day commitment.

Friday—Lunch with a band mom followed by errands galore.

Saturday—Band party.

While in New York, I visited a nice quilt shop in northern Syracuse and came across this package of needles:

sashiko needles

They’re used for a form of Japanese embroidery called sashiko. I wondered if they would work better than the darning needle for quilting my sweater quilt, and they do!

The shaft on the sashiko needle is more slender and about one-quarter inch longer than the shaft on the darning needle, making it easier to ply through the layers and load more stitches onto it.

Left: darning needle, about 2½" long. Right: sashiko needle, about 2¾" long.

Left: darning needle, about 2½” long. Right: sashiko needle, about 2¾” long.

This needle puts much less stress on my fingers and hands, allowing me to quilt more than one row per day.


Here are some photos taken during my early morning walk on Monday:

morning walk1

morning walk2

I’d really like some fabric in those colors!

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Sweater quilt: basting, stencil preparation and design transfer

After piecing the flannel backing for my sweater quilt, I hand basted the two layers together in a simple grid using some leftover 40-weight cotton quilting thread. I kept the basting stitches fairly close together to minimize stretching, about three inches apart.


After playing with different stencils in Electric Quilt, I finally decided to quilt the top with gentle, wavy lines:

sweater quilt stenciled 

I made a paper stencil by sizing the quilt motif in Electric Quilt, printing the sections and then splicing them together with the aid of a light table. Next, I removed both the top and bobbin thread from the sewing machine and inserted a size 90/14 needle to perforate the wavy lines on the paper stencil pattern.


The plan was to pounce blue chalk through the holes in the paper stencil.

pounce pad

Next, I matched the center line on the paper stencil with the center of the quilt, which I marked with green basting pins on the right and left sides of the top.


I pounced a small section and lifted the paper to see if the lines were visible and they were not. The perforation was too small.

John went to the basement and retrieved this tool from his soldering kit,

soldering tool

and over the next few days I intermittently achieved a high state of boredom by using the pointy end to enlarge the holes I’d made with the sewing machine needle.


That seemed to do the trick, as I now had visible lines, although achieving them required more of a slamming action than a pouncing one.

first quilting stitches

I also found it helpful to use heavy books and map weights to keep the paper stencil in position while slamming the powder through the holes.

anchoring pattern

With an engineer in the house, it’s easy to locate the heavy books–they’re all the ones I’ll never understand.

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Sweater quilt: finding the right quilting thread

There was no question in my mind that my sweater quilt should be hand quilted. The challenge would be finding an appropriate thread to do the job. Regular hand quilting thread (30-weight cotton) would not bear up under the weight of the quilt, so I dug through my drawer of needlepoint and cross stitch supplies and found two sizes of perle cotton:

Size 3 is on top. Size 5 is on the bottom.

Size 3 is on top. Size 5 is on the bottom.

I decided to use #5 perle cotton in a medium gray or pale blue/gray color. The only question was where to get it? The big box retailers had some, but color selection was limited plus they only carried one brand: DMC. Another national chain carried a brand I had never heard of, so I was skeptical about using it.

I needed choices. Lots of choices.

One quilting friend who has done a lot of redwork suggested a little shop about 25 miles south of where we live, so I made the trek down there. After looking through every drawer of perle cotton,

Now we're talkin'!

Now we’re talkin’!

I un-enthusiastically purchased one skein of this gray:


Turns out, my instincts about the color were correct. John thought it looked too silvery, and I agreed, so it was back to square one. I located a needlepoint shop three miles beyond the one I’d been to the week before, so I added some more miles to the car because when you’re on a mission, you’re on a mission.

My jaw dropped when I stepped inside the door. Skeins, spools and cards of fibers exploded from wall-mounted pegboards, racks and inside drawers. Complete immersion. I was on my own little Treasure Island; if I couldn’t find something here, it didn’t exist.

One rack of about 10 or 15!

One rack of about 10 or 15!

It took one hour and 45 minutes to comb through the inventory of fibers carried by this fabulous small business: cotton, wool, silk, rayon, linen, flax, cotton/wool, cotton/silk, cotton/rayon, wool/silk, solids, variegateds, overdyeds, metallics—boom! Yeah, that was my brain exploding. 

This shop carried two brands of perle cotton in four sizes: #3, #5, #8 and #12. I finally settled on this medium gray, size #5, from Anchor.

seven skeins

Annlee recommended a darning needle for quilting.

darning needles

The eye would be large enough to pass the perle cotton through without damaging it, while the shaft would be strong enough to ply through the bulk and long enough to load more than a couple stitches at a time.

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Sweater quilt: expanded layout, batting and backing decisions

I’m continuing with the sweater quilt today.

After cutting all my patches, there was still plenty of sweater material left so I went back to Electric Quilt and added 10 inches to both the length and width of the quilt.

The design grew to 60" x 70".

The design grew to 60″ x 70″.

The two patches at the top right do not measure 10″ x 10″ or 10″ x 15″ because I made a mistake while cutting the one on top by forgetting to include the seam allowance. Note to self: stop being stupid.

For the bottom row, I lacked enough material for one of the patches, so it was cut smaller and the one next to it was cut bigger to make up the difference. In the end, I think that helped to retain the random look I wanted, so it all worked out.

I also wanted to share with you a photo of  my machine after sewing a row together:

Hopefully, this reinforces the reason I offered earlier to use the vacuum cleaner frequently!

Hopefully, this reinforces the reason I offered earlier to use the vacuum cleaner frequently!

Once all the patches were sewn together, it was time to think about finishing. I was surprised to discover that some blogger/sewers considered their quilt done at this stage; I wanted mine to look finished.

By now, the top was fairly heavy so batting was out of the question. In addition to avoiding all the extra weight batting would add, I didn’t want a finished article that would make you feel like you were being roasted at 350 degrees.

For the backing, fleece was definitely out, as was regular quilter’s cotton, which left flannel—until one friend suggested using a homespun.

After trips to several quilt shops in search of a homespun, I ended up purchasing a very masculine, medium gray flannel with a herringbone pattern—not my first choice, but unfortunately, a suitable homespun was not in my backyard.

flannel back

Next time: layering and basting.

For what it’s worth, here’s my take on all the rain we’ve had recently:

Complaints about all the rain we’re getting here in Colorado are increasing, and while so many residents have a legitimate reason to complain, the rest of us should be thankful for a few positives:

  • no more wildfires
  • lowered pollen count from 11/12 to 5/12
  • relief from the blistering temperatures we had as recently as a week ago
  • an elevated water table

Sometimes a slight adjustment in perspective can make a bad situation seem a little better.

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Sweater quilt: sewing

Q:  What kind of needle works best for making a sweater quilt?

A:  Choose a size 80/12

ball point needle.

ball point needles

Q:  What kind of thread should I use?

A:  I used 50-weight, 3-ply,

100 percent cotton thread in matching colors.

Load a bobbin with every color if you are matching.

Load a bobbin with every color if you are matching.

Q:  What presser foot is suitable for stitching sweater patches?

A:  Use the foot recommended

for the type of stretch stitch you’ve selected. For the stretch overlock stitch I chose, the manual indicated the reverse pattern foot, which is the standard, all-purpose foot that came with the machine.

This presser foot was both good and bad. Good because it covered most of the seam allowance, keeping it flat and relatively under control, but it offered poor visibility.

This presser foot was both good and bad. Good because it covered most of the seam allowance, keeping it flat and relatively under control, but it offered poor visibility.

Q:  Did you make adjustments to the default settings on the stretch stitch you chose?

A:  Yes.

I reduced the width a bit and increased the length. Decide your preference by sewing on scraps, not your patches. Mining for stitches in sweater knits is not fun.

stitch settings

Q:  What tension adjustments are necessary for sewing on sweater knits?

A:  I had to make adjustments

in both top and bobbin tension.

Because tension settings differ from one machine to the next, load different colors in the top and bobbin and run tests on sweater scraps. Make notes as you go. Record your tension settings in a safe place; if you switch to another project before you finish sewing your sweaters, you will not have to repeat the test.

Q:  Anything else?

A: Yes!

The other machine adjustment noted in the manual that I missed until about halfway through sewing was to reduce the presser foot pressure. This helps prevent the fabric from stretching as it feeds. On my machine the adjustment is made with a dial located on the left side.

pressure dial

Also, remember to install your standard throat plate—the one designated for zigzag and decorative stitches.

zigzag throat plate

Q: What’s the procedure for sewing the patches together?

A:  Draw a chalk line ½”

from the raw edge of the patch that will be overlapped.


Align the raw edge of the unmarked patch with the drawn line


and pin:


Stitch slowly and carefully. For this example, I used brown thread on top and blue in the bobbin.


Here is the finished seam:


When you’ve completed the stretch stitch, it’s time to secure the seam allowance on the reverse side of your patchwork unit. Install your straight stitch throat plate

straight stitch throat plate

and walking foot. Switch your thread colors; what was in the bobbin now goes on top and vice versa. Increase the stitch length to about 3.5 mm. Flip the unit over and stitch as closely as possible to the raw edge of the patch.

walking foot

Q: Why did you use a straight stitch to secure the seam allowance on the wrong side of the patchwork unit?

A:  I said before that a straight

stitch does not work well on stretchy fabrics but I decided to use it opposite the stretch overlock stitch for a couple of reasons, the first one being aesthetic. I just didn’t care for the way dual stretch overlock seams looked (see photo below), nor did I like how two of them positioned so closely together bulked up the seam.

stretch overlock both sides

Also, the straight stitching was within ¼” to ⅜” of the stretch stitch. With the two being that close together, I felt the stretch stitch was already performing the bulk of the heavy lifting in supporting the seam, so the straight stitching would be safe to use opposite it.

stretch and straight stitch

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Sweater quilt: which stitch?

Q:  What’s the best way to sew the sweater patches together?

A:  Most sweater quilt bloggers sewed their patches right sides together.

Some abutted the edges, piecing them together with a zigzag stitch. A handful of others put wrong sides together as you would if making a rag quilt (seam allowances exposed on the front side).

None of these felt right to me. In addition to not being a fan of the rag quilt look, zigzagging seemed not the sturdiest of construction techniques. Sewing with right sides together raised concern about taming the bulk of those seams and keeping them flat inside the quilt when it was finished.

Then I stumbled across a website that featured a hand dyed felted wool project where the pieces were overlapped ½” and sewn with a straight stitch and a walking foot.

Overlapping the pieces made sense but the straight stitch didn’t. A straight stitch is not recommended for stretchy material, which my sweaters still were, despite the abuse they took in hot wash/high heat dry cycles. Sewing with a straight stitch on stretchy knits results in popped and broken stitches.

Regarding the online sample, I think a straight stitch was possible because the felted wool they used was much denser than the wool in my sweaters, keeping the likelihood of the patches stretching much, if at all, to a minimum.

Internet sources confirmed my suspicion about not using a straight stitch on stretchy fabrics, as did my sewing machine manual; in fact, the manual displayed plenty of stretch stitch options.

stretch stitch options

Great, but now my brain was having a mini-stroke as I wondered WHICH ONE?

Time to test drive the stitch options on my machine and publicly humiliate myself as I reveal the damage from that test drive. Go ahead and laugh, but know that most of these are first attempts:

zigzag stitch

zigzag stitch

This was by far the easiest stitch (no pins!) although keeping the stitch’s width centered over the joint proved to be a bit of a challenge. Even so, I felt it would become way more difficult as the quilt top grew in size, plus I didn’t care for the look of it.

super stretch stitch

super stretch stitch

This stitch was super secure, but as you can see, I felt the need to increase both its length and width. I could not imagine trying to rip out a mistake using this stitch. Pressing seams open or to one side proved difficult as well—that seam allowance was just going to sit there like a rock on the inside of the quilt.

vari-overlock stitch

vari-overlock stitch

I had to do this one twice and you’re seeing the good one, which isn’t saying much. I had dyslexia on this one during my first attempt as I could not figure out which way to orient it through the machine: overlapped piece on the right or left? Once I figured it out and got into the rhythm of the stitch, I decided that this stitch belongs on the wrong side of a project.

double overlock stitch

double overlock stitch

I’ve used this stitch before to enclose raw seam edges on my kids’ pajamas and Halloween costumes. Like the vari-overlock stitch, it was more difficult to guide through the machine with bulky, shifty sweater knits. Like the vari-overlock, this one does not belong on the front of a quilt.

Jersey stitch

Jersey stitch

This little loop stitch was fun, but destined to be an underside stitch as well.

The winner: stretch overlock stitch

The winner: stretch overlock stitch

I finally decided to use the stretch overlock stitch because one of the examples pictured in the manual showed the use of that stitch with overlapped pieces. I also liked that it resembled the buttonhole stitch and thought it would look nice on the front of the quilt.


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Sweater quilt: cutting the patches and whether to stabilize

Q:  Do you have any advice on how best to cut your sweater patches? 

A:  Yes!

First, save the largest pieces of your sweater (generally the front or back) for the largest patches in your quilt. Cut what you can from the sleeves first, then the front and back.

Second, add 1″ to your cutting dimensions. For example, my design called for 10″ squares, so I cut them 11″ x 11″. 

Third, Controlling the stretch of the sweater while cutting is much easier if you use a ruler that covers most of the sweater piece, be it a sleeve, front or back. This is the reason for the 20″ ruler, which you could use to cut all the patches; however, the smaller 9″ square ruler, for example, was easier to handle when cutting the 6″ x 6″ squares (5″ x 5″ finished size). That’s why it’s listed as optional on the supply list.

Some sewers used a sheet of paper or a piece of cardboard as a template to cut their patches, but the ruler provides much greater accuracy than either of those items. You will have fewer sewing headaches caused by distorted patches if you use a ruler.

Fourth, when you position the ruler on your sweater piece, remember to include your seam allowance!

  • Cut along the top and right sides of the ruler.

cutting 10 inch square

  • Rotate the cutting mat 180 degrees or walk to the opposite side of your cutting table.
  • Do not pick up the sweater to turn it!
  • Gently lift the ruler off the sweater piece and align the correct ruler marks along the edges you just cut.
  • Cut along the remaining two sides to get your patch, remembering to include your seam allowance. (There is a reason I keep saying this. Can you guess why?) 

If you pick up the sweater piece after cutting the first two sides, it will stretch and you will NEVER be able to accurately align your ruler lines on those edges in order to make the next two cuts.

single square

Handle the ruler, not the sweater!

Here is my stack of 10″ squares:

I cut fifteen 10" squares (one from each sweater).

I cut fifteen 10″ squares (one from each sweater).

The last item on the supply list I furnished the other day was a vacuum cleaner with a crevice tool attachment. Once you cut the first sweater, you will understand the need for it.  You will (frequently!) want to capture all the fuzz shed from cutting the sweaters. If you don’t, it will accumulate on your mat and cutting table, fall to the floor, stick to your clothes, clog up your rotary cutter and spread to the other sweaters!

After cutting just one square, my mat looked like this:

Be diligent about vacuuming the fuzzies!

Be diligent about vacuuming the fuzzies!

Here are my six 15″ x 10″ rectangles:


Q:  If the sweater pieces are so difficult to handle, why not stabilize them before cutting the patches?

A:  One sewer did this and was

quite pleased with the ease of handling her patches. She used a spray adhesive to affix a piece of scrap cotton to the wrong sides of sleeves, fronts and backs before cutting her patches.

I considered this, but felt that over time, the cotton backing would separate from the sweater patches and then twist, roll and bunch up inside the layers if the project wasn’t heavily quilted. If I quilted my project as planned, the quilting stitches would hold the cotton in place; however, the extra fabric would also bulk up an already bulky seam allowance, which was something I didn’t want to have to manage, so I decided not to stabilize. Chalk it up to my low-risk approach toward the treatment of fabric and needlework.

Q:What about incorporating the ribbing around the sleeves and bottom into the patches?

A: If it moves you to do so,

go for it; it’s entirely up to you.


You just need to be mindful of the difference in how the patch will behave as you sew over the ribbed area versus the non-ribbed area. For this reason, I chose not to include this portion of my mom’s sweaters in my patches.

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Sweater quilt: supplies and prep

Today I continue with information about making a quilt from old sweaters. If you’re just joining me and would like to catch up, the sweater quilt series began August 26. Click here to start at the beginning.

Q:  What supplies do I need to prepare the sweaters for sewing?

A:  Just the basics:

  • 20″ square quilter’s ruler
  • Optional (but nice to have): 9″ and 12″ or 15″ square quilter’s ruler
Clockwise from top left: 20" square, 15" square, 9" square and 12" square.

Clockwise from top left: 20″ square, 15″ square, 9″ square and 12″ square.

You could cut all your squares and rectangles with the 20″ square ruler if that’s all you have, but it’s much easier to cut the smaller shapes with a smaller ruler.

  • 35″ x 23″ cutting mat
  • rotary cutter
  • sharp pair of scissors
  • vacuum cleaner with crevice tool attachment—yes, I’m serious. Park it next to your cutting table and plug it in.

sweater quilt supplies2

Q:  My sweaters are washed, my supplies are ready, what’s next?

A:  Turn the sweater inside out,

find a side seam and with your scissors, carefully cut along the seam line.

cut side seam

Take your time; do not hurry. If you confine your cutting to the seam line, the edges will ravel less.

Cut along the opposite side seam,

side seams cut

and then the sleeve and shoulder seams. You will end up with oddly shaped pieces.

Front (left) and back.

Front (left) and back.

Here is the front and back of a different sweater:

front and back2 

Here are the sleeves:

sleeves cut

Sleeves won’t always be the same shape. Just follow the seam lines, whatever they may be.

sleeves cut2

One source said to discard the sleeves, but I ignored that advice and cut smaller pieces from them, saving the front and back for the larger squares and rectangles.

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Sweater quilt: designing

One thing I neglected to mention yesterday was that I rejected one of the sweaters in my inventory: a super stretchy cable knit:

cable sweater

I felt it would give me a world of trouble if I was to incorporate it into the quilt, so I ended up using 15 sweaters total.

Q: How do you figure out the design?

A: It’s whatever you want it to be!

Factors that go into designing your sweater quilt include

  • the number of sweaters you have
  • the look you’re after
  • how simple or complex you want the design to be
  • how you want the colors distributed across the top

For my design, I knew after viewing tons of online photos that I did not want a traditional setting with standard rows and columns. I also didn’t want to be sewing a boatload of stretchy little squares together. Instead, I put together a mosaic design starting with 10″ squares and adding squares and rectangles with dimensions in multiples of five. Ten inches just seemed like a good compromise between 8″ or 9″ and 12″, like  Goldilocks: not too big, not too small, juuuuust right!

The other thing I did was to keep the size on the smallish side, knowing that a mosaic of squares and rectangles could be enlarged without too much fuss.

Here is the design:

Size is 50" x 60". I omitted the color for now so you can get a good look at the design.

Size is 50″ x 60″. I omitted the color for now so you can get a good look at the design.

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