small change and the art of slow quilting

design, experiences, quilting, sewing

Dear Readers: We decided to repost this post from exactly 5 years ago now that more people are interested in “slow quilting.”


I love this quilt. I love that I had the nerve to quilt it by hand and I love the idea that it might get quilters to rethink their assumptions about hand quilting. My fingers are crossed and I really want to hear your reaction to it.

Neither Bill nor I buy into the notion that hand quilting is inherently better than machine quilting. Nor do we accept the idea that hand quilting is by nature old-fashioned and that tons and tons of threads all over a quilt makes it modern. The problem is that most of the people who hand quilt replicate 19th century patterns and machine quilters sometimes gravitate toward more contemporary quilting patterns. As a result, the chasm between the two camps gets wider and wider.

So when Bill and I began auditioning designs for Quilts Made Modern from all of our sketchbooks and computer files, we agreed that we wanted to show a modern version of hand quilting. We feel that the difference between the two is a matter of which is the better method to achieve the look you’re after. And let’s be real and do the math: Nancy Crow’s quilts may be hand quilted and sell well, but they cost upwards of $50,000. I don’t even want to know how much we’d have to charge for the eight months I spent working on Small Change, the quilt pictured above.

We developed this quilting pattern in 1996, shortly after we married and long before we ever imagined that we would start a business. Needless to say, this was before we had a 14-foot-long industrial quilting machine in our studio. Anyway, we have since fallen in love with Cherrywood Fabrics and thought that we should try out this pattern with contrasting thread in the same design with Cherrywoods.

Although it seemed as though I had a lot of time when I started, I had to work on it for at least two hours every night to make the deadline for photography. I literally timed myself on each block and calculated the time I would need for the entire piece because there are some things that you just can’t rush. I took it everywhere. I worked on it in airports, at the homes of family members and friends and it felt as though I’d never finish it. There is, however, something wonderful about having a project that is portable. I usually knit when I am visiting with friends or waiting for flights, but it was nice to have the quilt to work on over those long months.

Small Change is quilted with wool batting so I found the loft too high to do the traditional rocking stitch. Although poking with one hand and pulling with the other is slower than the rocking stitch, I do find it easier to get more consistent stitches. The concentric circle pattern is also easier to do with a poking and pull stitch as opposed to a rocking stitch I think, which is easier for gentle curves or straight lines. I used what we call a Big Stitch, longer than the traditional eight stitches to the inch, partly because of the loftier batting and partly because I wanted an easier going feel to the quilt. I think that I’m just not a teeny stitch kinda girl. Although some purists think that bigger stitching is sloppy, I can live with that and my hands can definitely live with it.

We find it far easier to baste the quilt on our long-arm machine before beginning the hand quilting, although basting on the floor works fine if you don’t have a long arm.  I use two thimbles when I hand quilt to protect my fingers. If you’ve never hand quilted before, you might want to start on a small project first to get the hang of it. I like hand quilting with solids and low-contrast prints. If there’s a lot of pattern in the fabric, you’ll never see the stitches.

As always, I machine washed it and dried it before the photoshoot and my stitches were just fine. What wasn’t fine was when the US Postal service lost this quilt and all of the others for this book for 19 days on the way to C&T when they were sent by registered mail. “Well you got insurance on them don’t you?” asked the unconcerned woman I spoke to at the post office. “There’s no amount of money that you could pay me to cover a quilt that I spent eight months quilting,” I replied. I can’t even count how many conversations we had with the post office, the postal inspector and various workers from Chicago to California. Eventually they turned up and  I now look at that quilt a year later and choose instead to remember all of the lovely conversations with friends and love ones I had while working on it. That quilt is another chapter in my life.

28 thoughts on “small change and the art of slow quilting

  1. I LOVE this quilt. Let me count the ways. The fabric,the design the quilting are all wonderful. Yes, I like handquilting, but I wouldn’t want to handquilt any project that is very big.

  2. I love to hand quilt, although I don’t do nearly as much of it as I used to. I’m not very creative about it either. But now I feel quite challenged to approach my hand quilting differently next time I have a new project. Thank you!

    And, indeed, it’s a beautiful quilt. Can’t wait to buy the book.

  3. 8 months – that is what keeps me from venturing into hand quilting a large quilt. :o)

    BTW Your stitches are so not “big stitches.” IMHO Big stitches are like sashiko – where you see the stitches… Which is o.k. & I hope to hand quilt in the sashiko style a current quilt that looks not unlike this one – my squares are bigger & my quilt is a charm quilt – Japanese Woven Taupes.

    All of the quilts that I have seen that are made with cherrywood fabrics are lovely, this one included.

  4. I love it! I agree that a portable project is nice and if you didn’t have a time to have it done by it would be a bit more relaxing. I do love how modern it looks..such a nice texture to the circles in the squares. I might have to add this one to my list. I can’t wait to get my hands on your new book!

  5. Wow! Absolutely gorgeous is right! Are your fingers still sore a year later? (Having self-diagnosed Adult ADD, I might be able to do four of those squares and make a potholder!)’Bless your heart, too, for suffering through 19 days of lost quilts. (I get a sinking feeling just thinking about it.) Congratulations on what promises to be an inspiring book!

  6. Hi! I love what you have done with the quilt. Simple and lovely. I think that’s the thing about handquilting though – to get a good job done, it takes forever to finish. Do you think it would still look as nice if you’d quilted a small square within a bigger square? It takes longer to handquilt circles – i’ve handquilted both circles and squares, so i kinda know.
    I still love what you have done!!

  7. I love having a handwork project available to work on while I watch TV. I start fidgeting and biting my nails if I don’t have a handwork project available. Often the work is binding or sewing on a sleeve. Sometimes it is hand piecing. Less often these days it is hand quilting. I am not against hand quilting and am sure I will hand quilt another quilt some day; I just have so much of the other projects to do that I can’t face a hand quilting project (remember: you said 8 months for 2 hours a day!), but someday I will make the perfect quilt for hand quilting. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  8. I took a long break from quilting about 10 year, busy with life. I was really shocked last year when I started looking at blogs, going to quilting shops, if you talk about shock!!

    I was happy to see how many quilters are out there wow. Machine qulting has definetly helped the quilting market, the faster you quilt the more quilts you make. I can see that.

    I see cyber quilting bees, but I do not see much of hand quilting done, very few.

    I love hand quilting, that is all I do. It tried machine quilting about 20 years ago with walking feet etc, and it stressed me out. The machines nowadays are incredible. I might tried down the line. (When I update my machine)

    Yes, it takes time to hand quilt, but life is busy enough. Today, it seems that one goes from one project onto another, like a race, more is not better.

    Sorry I did not mean to rambler for ever in this post. But it has been a really cultural shock, the fabrics, blogs, shows, amazing, maybe in one year I will be in a different place and have different opinion.

    For now I hand quilt.

    Beatiful quilts, I just finished an old quilt (old project, yeap 15 years old) with circles. It was a small project. I am planing to hand quilt a wedding quilt for my daughter also with circles.

  9. Love the simple patchwork and graphic quilting on this one. I’m working on my first serious hand quilting efforts. Interestingly, on circles as well. And stabbing it all the way!

  10. Thank you for the signed copy of the book. It is so beautiful. Your should be proud. And thank you so much for using Cherrywood Hand Dyed Fabrics in some of the quilts. Your style fits with our fabrics quite nicely and I hope we can continue our relationship in creating beauty in the world.

  11. I found this blog while searching on google “modern hand quilting” and I am so happy this turned up. I am a beginning machine quilter and prefer modern/art quilting to traditional. I would love to attempt a first hand-quilting project but I am so turned off to the traditional stencils and other things I see in my local craft/quilt store. Seeing what you did in this quilt has really inspired me.

    My heart dropped reading about your postal service debaucle. I am so glad you got the quilt back! I have shipped 3 quilts as gifts to relatives and never thought for a second that losing the entire quilt would be a possible outcome of that choice. I would have been crying on the phone to whatever US Postal Service employee you talked to… you are so right that there is not an amount of money to replace the time, love, and energy of such a project.

    Thanks for the blog and inspiration!

  12. Hi Weeks,
    I have just finished reading your wonderful post about slow quilting, which I found think by googling slow quilting. Yesterday I made some decisions about my quilt making. I have just completed the quilting, by hand of a small wall hanging. I enjoyed it so much that it made me seriously rethink the whole machine quilting and machine piecing parts that I have started to do since I first learned to use the sewing machine. Although I so love the fmq and longhand machine look of machine quilting and the machines. I have decided that for me it is not the right thing. I’ve decided that I want to spend my quilting time designing and hand quilting and piecing, so that this takes out the stress part, that machine quilting is for me at this moment. So you can imagine how nice it was to hear about you hand quilting this lovely modern quilt, and seeing the amazing result of combining modern design principles with the traditonal quilting method. I appreciate the details you put in about how your stitches differ from traditional ways as I am just learning to hand quilt. I would love to show others that you can slow quilt and make something beautiful and manageable and modern, despite the fact that I am mainly a traditional quilter. After reading this I saw your work that you do with your studio and business. You (and your husband) are trully an inspiration. Thank you for sharing.
    I have now decided to follow what you are up to, as before when I came across craft nectar, months ago, I thought it was a craft website and probably dismissed it. Now I true understand it is a CRAFT blog and that makes all the differenece.
    Thanks for your work,

  13. I came across a picture of your quilt while getting inspiration on pinterest.Ive recently finished a quilt for my daughter for her forthcoming wedding,I did it on the machine but bought the needles and thread and thimbles to have a go at hand quilting but chickened out and did it on the machine.But after reading about how you felt doing this hand quilting I now wish Id given it a go.So,the next one will be hand quilted after Ive done a bit of practice,thanks for the inspiration!

  14. Your quilt looks lovely and I appreciate your comments about hand quilting. I love the look of machine quilting….so many beautiful patterns used in so many quilts. They add beauty to the finished work. However, I find that machine quilting makes for reletively stiff quilts and while that is fine for wall hangings and art pieces, I still love the softness that hand quilting lends to the finished bed quilt.

  15. I love your article. I am a handquilter trying to do traditional and modern quilts. I find that one thing I would like to know is how to incorporate my traditional fabric into modern quilts. I have been a quilter for a long time so I have lots of fabric in my stash. I really to see the attraction to modern quilts. Although I will always be a hand quilter only, I would like to venture into the modern quilt world. Thank you for your modern quilts and ideas. You are wonderful!!!

    1. If you look at issues of Modern Quilts Illustrated, you’ll see lots of examples of where we’ve combined traditional and modern fabrics together in the same quilt. Ignore the genre of the fabric and focus on color and scale. We’ve done lots of hand quilting and hand applique on modern quilts. Handwork can be adapted to any style.

  16. I love this quilt and that you big stitch quilted it. Slow stitching brings with it so much more than sewing something together . It is wonderful that the quilt will always bring those memories back and keep them alive. Thank you for sharing them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s