How to Make an Old-Fashioned Utility Quilt, by Jean P.

Quilters tend to be perfectionists.  However, quilts have been used to keep our poorly-furred bodies warm for centuries.  When you just need warmth, and not a perfectly crafted heirloom, a quilt is just the ticket.  Utility quilts can be made from discarded items around the home, as long as you have a needle and some thread.  A quilt is merely 3 layers, fabric/insulation/fabric, stitched together to keep you warmer.  In a perfect world we all have our Wiggy’s, but in a real-life situation, especially with the economy these days, that perfect scenario may just not be possible.  Also, remember that we will always be surrounded by folks who have not prepared as well as we have.  My grandmother told me that during the depression, she and her friends would frequently get together and make a quilt for a neighbor who was sick.  Knowing how to make a utility quilt is a good way to help out with a low budget. 

In the “old days,” quilts were highly valued, often being listed in the inventory of homes in early America and Europe.  In the days before abundant fossil fuels, people knew that the warmer they could stay at night, the less fuel they would require to heat their homes.  A few quilts on top of you, and a feather bed underneath, and you had luxury.  Also, the elder women, who could no longer work in the fields, could make simple quilts and contribute to the family welfare, especially if there were children around with good eyesight to thread the needles for them.

“Quilting” is actually the process of stitching the various layers together to make one thing.  Quilting is not creating the top of scraps, it is the part where you put the layers together and stitch them to hold them into a useable object.  For instance, the knights of old wore quilted doublets, garments fashioned together in layers to protect the upper body.  The “quilting” was the process of putting the layers together and stitching so that they stayed together, and the insulation stayed put.  People today tend to think of quilts being complicated affairs of designed colors blended into a beautiful top, but actually there are many beautiful quilts made from a solid piece of cloth, called whole-cloth quilts.

First thing you need is some kind of fabric for the top layer, or “top.”  When the word “quilt” is mentioned in conversation, someone invariably mentions denim, like the stuff jeans are made from.  Now, don’t get me wrong, denim quilts have been made, and they are rugged.  They are also heavy.  And when you want to stay warm, heavy is not what you want.  To properly insulate yourself from the cold, you need trapped air, and if the top layer of the quilt is of a heavy fabric, it squishes down the insulation and just doesn’t keep you as warm.  Lightweight is the key here.  Old t-shirts work fine, but the best choice would be a lightweight woven, similar to a man’s dress shirt fabric.  Old sheets work well.  Quilting perfectionists insist on cotton, but in a TEOTWAWKI situation, we would not be able to be that picky.  Fabric made from a partial percentage of polyester has the advantage of being extremely durable, but remember please that it melts in a fire.  If you do have cotton, try to rip a section of it to make sure it is not rotten.  Rotten cotton rips very easily.  Save that stuff for the insulation layer.

I tend to think of making a utility quilt top similar to construction of a butcher block.  First you need blocks of fabric to make strips, then you sew the strips together.  It is easy to see that the bigger the pieces of fabric you have, the less sewing you are going to have to do.  However, if we are reduced to making the best of what we have, there is no better way to use small pieces of fabric than to make a quilt top.  Take a shirt, for example.  “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” was my grandmother’s mantra.  When the elbows wore out of a shirt, or the cuffs, she made it into a short-sleeved shirt.  When the neck wore out, she would make it into a dish-drying towel by cutting and hemming a large piece of the back.  That left the buttons, and some smaller sections of the front.  These smaller pieces, she made into quilts.  Every scrap was used somewhere.  Smaller long strips she saved to tie up her tomato plants.  After she passed away, we found a box of fabric strips for this purpose up in the top of her closet.

So, say you have some pieces of fabric at least 8 inches tall, but of various widths.  Cut them into tall rectangles, each one 8 inches tall, and as wide as you have enough fabric to make them.  Sew these blocks together, right sides of the fabric together, keeping at least a 1/4 inch seam allowance.  If your seam allowance is bigger, you can trim it to 1/4 inch, to allow for easier quilting.  If you have access to an iron, you can press the seam allowance to one side.  For those of you who are sewing-challenged, here is a picture.

If you have access to a sewing machine, you can do the piecing on it.  However, many beautiful quilts were made using just a needle and thread, and I find that sewing by hand calms my spirit and relaxes my soul, as well as helps me pass long winter hours when I cannot garden.  One of the most complicated quilts I have ever seen is the one made by Jane Stickley of Vermont, in 1863, during the civil war.  I think that perhaps Jane wanted to make the quilt as complicated as possible to help her pass the maximum amount of time making it.  The entire thing is hand pieced.  You can see a picture and read about it here.

For your simple utility quilt, it is okay if one strip is, say 10 inches tall, and the next strip is only 4 inches tall.  As long as each strip is consistent all along the length, that is all that matters.  Your quilt top will not lay flat, however, if you do not keep the edges fairly square and straight.  On the quilting forum, linked below, there are quilters who are extremely careful about seams and flatness and cutting, and you can find help there if you are so inclined.  For our purposes here, finished is better than perfect.  I made my first quilt with a pair of scissors and a piece of cardboard for a straight edge, and it is still one of my daughter’s prized possessions.  Now, I use a rotary cutter, special clear plastic rulers, and a measured cutting surface, but fancy is not what we are aiming for here.

After you have your strips pieced together as wide as you want your finished quilt to be, you can sew the strips together, right sides together, along the long sides.  Keep up this process until your quilt is as long as you need for it to be.  Ironing between each strip is helpful to maintain flatness, and will show you where the problems are.  Most seamstresses have to rip out a seam every now and then, it happens to the best of us, so don’t get discouraged if it happens to you.  Do make sure all the seam allowances are on the underneath side of the fabric. Trim the whole thing straight.  I find that laying it out on the floor helps here, and I measure it and make sure it is square using the linoleum tile in my kitchen.

Second, you need some kind of insulation for the center layer.  Many things we have around our home will do, anything that traps air molecules.  I recently tore apart an old quilt from my grandmother’s house because I was curious as to what she used for the center layer.  Much to my surprise, she used whatever she had around the house.  There was part of an old, but tattered quilt in there, as well as part of an old blanket, part of an old towel, and one patch where it looks like she took some stuffing out of an old pillow and spread it around.  She just spread the stuff around making a layer of insulation.  You will need to be able to stitch through it, and it needs to be washable and free of bugs.  Other than that, pretty much anything goes.  Keep in mind that if you use loose insulation, say, hair you have brushed from your dog, you need more quilting to hold it in place.  If you use something that is already in a layer, like an old blanket, not much quilting is needed to stabilize it.

Third, you need a bottom layer.  An old patched sheet works well here, and actually cheaper sheets are better than expensive ones with a high thread count.  The higher the thread count, the more tightly woven it is, and it is a little harder to quilt through.  If you just have smaller pieces for the back, you can sew them together to make a bottom as big as you need, but it is more difficult to quilt through seams, because of the extra layers of fabric.  If you plan on tying your quilt, as described below, it is not a problem.  The bottom layer needs to be at least an inch wider and longer than the top layer, all the way around, so you can turn it up and make the edge.  Two inches would be even better.

As an aside here, my grandmother once told me that during the depression, it was not shameful to patch a sheet, but if you got to where you had to put patches on the patches, it meant you were poor.

To layer your quilt together, clear a spot on a clean floor as big as your bottom layer.  I prefer a hard floor, and not carpet, as in the basting process it is easier if your needle hits something hard and you don’t end up with a quilt sewn to a carpet in your living room.  Spread your bottom layer, or “backing,” out smooth, no wrinkles, with the right side of the fabric facing the floor.  Now, in present times there is a temporary fabric adhesive that quilters use for this next step, normally referred to as “505.”  They just spray a light coating onto the backing, lay down the insulation layer (batting), spray another light coating of adhesive, then lay down the top, and at that point they can quilt to their hearts content knowing that their layers are going to stay put until they get done.  However, in a TEOTWAWKI situation, I’m assuming that this product will not be available and we would have to revert to the “old way.” 

So, after you lay down the backing, you lay down your insulation layer, making sure you don’t have any empty spaces (they will be cold spots).  Then lay your top down, placing the side with the seam allowances facing the insulation.  Smooth out all the wrinkles.  You then take a needle and some long strands of thread, get on your hands and knees, and “baste” the layers together.  To baste, take one stitch through all 3 layers about every 3-4 inches in a running fashion down the quilt, and every row of this basting needs to be about 4 inches apart.  After the thing is actually quilted, these stitches will be taken out, so any kind of thread is fine here, even dental floss.  If the thread is too large, you will have trouble getting the threaded needle through the fabric.  So a finer thread will make your job easier.  It only needs to be strong enough to hold the layers together while you do the quilting.

The actual quilting of the layers is much easier if done in some sort of frame.  My aunt who taught me to quilt had a makeshift frame that worked quite well.  Her frame consisted of 2 1x2s that were covered in some old mattress fabric.  These have to be longer than the quilt is wide.  She pinned the end of the quilt to the fabric on the boards, but you could do just as well by stitching the quilt to the boards with some dental floss, or anything that would hold the quilt onto the boards.  Even staples would work in a pinch.  She rolled up each board from the end, rolling the board to the underside of the quilt, until she had about a 2 foot section of the center area of the quilt showing.  Then she used c-clamps to attach these boards to two more 1x2s that were only a couple of feet long, making a large rectangle.  At this point, the frame can be propped up on anything, sawhorses, backs of chairs, or hung from the ceiling.  I quilt alone, so I prefer to hang the frame from the ceiling at an angle so I don’t have to bend over my work.  In my grandmother’s house, she hung the frame from her living room ceiling, and it was on pulleys so that when not actually quilting, the room could be used normally.

If you can’t make a frame, the quilting can also be done in a large hoop, or merely in your lap.  It might not end up being quite as tidy, but would certainly make a serviceable quilt.

Now the quilting can be done in one of two ways.  The first method, and also quickest and easiest, and warmest, is to merely “tie” the quilt.  My grandmother tied all her utility quilts.  Tying uses a heavier thread, traditionally 6-strand embroidery thread, but any heavy thread will do in a pinch.  Every 3-4 inches, take the threaded needle and go straight down through all layers of fabric, holding one hand above the quilt and one hand below.  With the hand below, take the needle and come back up through the layers about 1/8 to 1/4 inch away from the initial stab.  Pull the thread so that you have two threads sticking out, then tie them in a good knot.  My grandmother always used a square knot.  Make sure here that you do not pull the thread tight to bunch it up.  You will be warmer if you do not compress the insulation.  Cut the thread so that you have about 1/2 to 1 inch ends sticking out above the knot.  Continue over the whole quilt, rolling the quilt from one long arm of the frame to the other as you progress by loosening and removing the clamps holding the frame together, and replacing them when you have it where you want to work.  Typically this process is done from the center of the quilt to one end, then from the center to the other end.

The second method of quilting, normally used on fancier quilts, uses a running stitch through all layers of fabric, with the rows of stitching being very close together (no farther than 2 inches apart, and sometimes as close as 1/4 inch apart).  If my grandmother was using carded cotton as the insulation layer (cotton straight from the field and home-carded into “batts”) she used this stitch on her quilts, because when the quilt was laundered the cotton would shift and create cold spots if not held into place.  Here is a link to a good explanation of a running stitch.

After the quilting part is finished, remove the quilt from the frame.  To finish off the edges, fold the bottom layer toward the top for 1/2 of the width, then fold the bottom layer again up and over the top, and stitch down using a slant hemming stitch, as shown on this page.  When you get to the corners of the quilt, you can fold the corners into miters if you want, but any corner will do for our purposes here.  The point is to cover all rough edges of fabric, to prevent excessive wear and raveling.

It is important to remember that I am not trying to teach you the quilting perfectionists’ method of quilting.  These instructions will merely make a serviceable quilt, not a family heirloom that is going to be worth any money to your grandchildren.  My grandmother made hundreds of these utility quilts, and when she died we found them on every bed in her home, covered in each case by a fancy bedspread or a fancier quilt on the top.  We also found one in the dog’s bed, one covering up an old car, and one insulating the storage shed window. 

If you want to create a thing of beauty and value, you can read more at The Quilting Board.   There are thousands of members who daily discuss the ins and outs of every aspect of quilting, from the perfect fabrics and color combinations to how many stitches per inch constitutes “good quilting.”  There are also discussions of machine, or “long-arm” quilting as well as different styles of hand quilting.  Here I just wanted the average person who doesn’t have any sewing experience to be able to stay warm if things deteriorate to the point where we no longer have access to factory-produced goods.

As a final word, please remember that anything that is produced for children’s bedding or sleepwear nowadays is required to be non-flammable or treated chemically to be non-flammable.  If you intend to make a covering for a child to sleep under, all of the ingredients of the quilt would have to be such treated materials.  Given the choice of flammability or freezing to death, I guess I would opt for my children to be warm, but it would be up to you.

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