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Quilt to Last

From an olden days necessity to a modern-day source of therapy, creative expression, and community, quilting continues to bind Green Country residents of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels.

Jennifer Zehnder
Jennifer Zehnder
October 28, 2019

Growing up, there was always a sewing machine nearby, recalls LeeAnn Burgess of Stilwell, Oklahoma. But it wasn’t until her family matriarchs retired from their upholstery business and opened a quilting and fabric store that Burgess decided to try her hand at the craft.

“My mom [Lindy Mahaney] had been a hobby quilter for many years. Opening Front Porch Fabrics [in Stilwell] seemed like a natural transition. She wasn’t ready to retire, nor was my grandmother,” she explains.

Though Burgess hadn’t taken an interest in quilting previously, she decided she might need to know what her mother and grandmother were getting into, in case they needed help.

“I was hooked after making my first quilt,” she admits.

LeeAnn Burgess and Lindy Mahaney (Photo: Jennifer Zehnder)
LeeAnn Burgess and Lindy Mahaney (Photo: Jennifer Zehnder)

While many of the principles of quilting remain the same — patterning, selecting fabric, cutting, stitching, quilting, and binding — technology has given today’s quilters a leg up in the resource department. YouTube videos, quilting kits with pre-cut fabrics, computerized and free-motion longarm quilting machines, digitally printed fabrics, and a plethora of hand tools, books, and patterns have made quilting more accessible for those wanting to learn and those wanting to streamline the process.

“No doubt the computer world has greatly affected our industry, from designing fabrics to quilts,” Burgess shares. “I have a computer program that I use to design my blocks and quilts and even to illustrate the directions in my patterns.

“I think if my great-great-grandmother were alive today, she would marvel at the tools. Over the last 40 years, the rulers, cutting devices, and even pins have changed by leaps and bounds. She would be head-over-heels simply for the choice in cutting utensils — scissors are no longer your only choice.”

Quilting is uninterrupted creativity and together time for Tulsa, Oklahoma quilters Sandy Horn-Harwell and her daughter-in-law, Tricia Horn. Already a gifted seamstress, Horn-Harwell took up the art more than a decade ago. Since then, the founding member of a Maine quilting guild has used her talents for family gift giving and charity work, including quilts for veterans and enlisted military.

Horn’s entry into the quilting circle came via pre-cut quilting kits, where the fabric is cut into strips, and multiple patterns are already coordinated.

“This was a good way for me to learn how to alternate the light and dark patterns, try to keep seams straight as I sew, how to measure and cut, and how the machine works,” Horn explains.

Like many, the pair use sewing machines to piece their quilt tops. And, for the quilting portion — where the quilt top is sandwiched with batting and backing fabric — rather than hand quilt or use their small machines, they send their pieces to a commercial quilter to speed the process and provide an extra layer of expertise. While it adds to the overall cost of a quilt — anywhere from 0.2 cents per square foot and up — the duo thinks the investment is well worth it.

Burgess’ advice for quilting newbies? Learn how to sew a straight line and pace yourself.

“Unlike sewing clothing or other sewing projects, 90% of piecing a quilt top requires sewing in a straight line,” she says. “The trick for a beginner is not jumping into a more difficult pattern before you’re ready, or you’ll end up with what we call UFOs — Unfinished Objects.”

Even as an advanced quilter, there’s always something new to learn or a pattern to challenge yourself with, she notes.

“Quilting is art you can cuddle with. It requires skill, a few math skills, geometry, and patience,” says Burgess. “But it’s also a community — from giving handmade quilts to comfort those who lost a home to fire or flood, to congratulating a first-time mother and her newborn with a new blanket — there’s no greater joy than being able to unleash your creativity and create a work of art, usable art.”  

5 Tips to Tackling Your First Quilt

  1. Pattern: Choose a pattern; one with 3-5 fabrics.
  2. Size: Decide how large you want your quilt to be. Many patterns give instructions for optional sizing. This gives you an idea of how much fabric you need, and you can then select it.  
  3. Review: Always read the entire pattern before cutting into your fabric; that way, if you have questions, you can ask them before you are fully engaged in the project. There are no stupid questions in quilting. Patterns usually follow a specific formula — fabric requirements, cutting and sewing instructions, and finishing.
  4. Measure and Cut: Typically, after you’ve selected your fabric and read your pattern, you begin with the cutting instructions. Burgess likes only to cut enough to get started sewing, but most patterns instruct on how to cut out everything you will need for the whole quilt.
  5. Quilting: Once your quilt top is sewn entirely together, it’s time to decide how you want to quilt your project — by hand, by longarm, or if you’re going to attempt to quilt it on your home sewing machine.

There are no real “rules” to quilting, Burgess asserts, just some basic guidelines to follow. If you complete your quilt the way that works for you, that’s great! What matters is that it’s finished, and you had fun.

Must-Have Quilting Tools

  • Rotary cutter and mat.
  • A long ruler, typically 5 inches by 24 inches; you can cut out most patterns with this ruler.
  • A hot iron and a light starch; pressing your pieces well is half the battle of piecing a quilt.
  • A small pair of scissors to keep next to your machine.
  • A neutral color of thread; cream/ivory for lighter fabrics or a gray for dark/black fabrics.
  • A sewing machine you know how to work is the most important tool; you don’t have to have a fancy machine to quilt like a pro. A good straight stitch is all you need.