Rag quilts are rustic, shabby chic, fluffy, soft, heirlooms, and so much more. They are as flexible in style as your imagination but they all start with the same basic steps. Their seams are exposed and frayed on the front of the quilt and the back is smooth. They are constructed and quilted in small pieces so there is no need for a long arm quilting machine or other specialty sewing machines. This tutorial will show you how to make a rag quilt whether you have made another type of quilt before or are completely new to sewing.
Step One in Making a Rag Quilt – Select Your Fabric Type
The first step in making a rag quilt is to decide on a fabric type. Rag quilts can be made with flannel, cotton, or any other fabric that frays well. You can even mix fabric types as long as you chose fabrics that shrink at about the same rate. For example, some people use cotton top with a flannel backing fabric. The final choice of fabric is a personal choice and a personal preference. There is not only one “right fabric” for a rag quilt. Batting can also be used as the middle fabric, as can flannel or cotton. Again, the choice is up to you. The fabric used in this how to is quilting cotton for all three layers.
Step Two in Making a Rag Quilt – Decide on a Pattern
The next step in making a rag quilt is to pick a pattern. Many rag quilts are nothing more than squares of several colors scattered in a random or checkerboard pattern. However, rag quilts can be made with traditional quilt patterns or any other pattern your imagination can come up with. We have several patterns here on Hubadub that you can use as well. The pattern you chose will determine the size of the squares you cut from your fabric. The pattern in this tutorial is simply a random scatter (put the pieces where you want them) checkerboard pattern.
Free to Make Rag Quilt Patterns
Vintage Style Cross Rag Quilt Pattern
Team Spirit Rag Quilt Pattern (Rag Applique)
3 Hour Baby Rag Quilt Pattern
Halloween Rag Quilt Pattern – Jack O’Lantern Face
Halloween Rag Quilt Pattern – Witch Hats and Bats Applique
Step Three in Making a Rag Quilt – Purchase & Cut Your Fabric
Once you know what type of fabric and the pattern, you can purchase and cut your fabric. Amount will depend on size of the finished quilt and the size of the squares you will be using. Fairfield has a nice chart of squares needed based on finished size and size of the square. They published this in conjunction with a Project Linus charity post. If you are looking for a charity to donate quilts to, consider Project Linus.
The rag quilt in this tutorial used 6″ squares with 1/2″ seams. There are 11 rows of 9 squares. It took approximately 3 yards of backing fabric, 3 yards of center fabric, and 1/2 yard each of 2 different front fabrics, nearly 3/4 yard of the white and pale pink front fabric, and 1/4 yard of the butterfly fabric. You could also use 1/2 yard of 6 different fabrics for easier figuring. Whatever project you chose, you will likely be cutting piles of squares.
To cut your fabric, most use a straight edge and rotary cutter on a cutting mat. Take your time when cutting. While rag quilting hides many mistakes, the straighter your cuts, the easier your quilt will go together when sewing. Your top and bottom fabric squares will be matching sizes. If you are using fabric for the middle then they will be equal size as well. In the example quilt here I used 6″ squares for all three layers and later sewed them with 1/2″ seams so 5″ was showing in the finished quilt.
If you are using batting, you will need to cut the batting squares a little smaller so they don’t show in the rag later on. Just subtract 2 times your seam allowance to get the batting measurement. For example, if you have 10″ squares with a 1″ seam allowance you will cut 8″ batting squares.
Step Four in Making a Rag Quilt – Make the Sandwiches
Now that you have piles and piles and piles of squares, you need to assemble the sandwiches. The stack of a top fabric, middle fabric (batting), and backing (bottom) fabric is called a quilt sandwich. Remember that a rag quilt has exposed seams so your fabrics will be sewn wrong sides together. So backing fabric faces down, center fabric (or batting) will only show in the seam, and the top fabric faces up.
Step Five in Making a Rag Quilt – Quilt the Sandwiches
Next step in making a rag quilt is securing the center of your quilt. If you are using batting this is important to keep the batting from shifting when the quilt is washed. Most batting calls for stitching at least every 6″ or so. In the example quilt I’m using fabric that will be sewn in the seams so it will be secure but adding stitching keeps with the look of a quilt. Most rag quilts (as in this example) use a large X stitch pattern but you can sew any pattern you like on the square, even use an embroidery machine for intricate details.
Step Six in Making a Rag Quilt – Sew the Sandwiches Together
Once all the sandwiches are quilted, you need to assemble them into the full quilt. To start, place two quilted sandwiches back to back (remember you want the seams to show) and sew down one edge with your desired seam allowance (I used 1/2″ for the example quilt).
Remember, your seam allowances should all be on the front of the quilt as you join squares.
Step Seven in Making a Rag Quilt – Begin Creating Rows or Blocks of Sandwiches
When sewing together sets of squares it is very important to match up the edges of the seams. This will keep your quilt straight. Rag quilting will hide a lot of errors here but the closer you get, the better it will look overall. Note that the front will look crooked before it is clipped no matter how well you align your seams. Check seam alignment on the back of the quilt.
When aligning the seam rows, fold the seams to opposite sides. This reduces the bulk under your presser foot and reduces how much your needle has to penetrate at one time.
Your pattern may call for doing this in blocks or sewing by row. Either method works fine, it is just a matter of personal preference in most cases. For the example quilt I sewed all the blocks together in sets of two, then sewed the sets of two together to make blocks of four. Then I sewed those together, and so on, making ever larger shapes. This reduced the number long rows I needed to wrangle under my machine.
When sewing groups/rows of squares together, SLOW DOWN as you sew over the folded seams. Even with the reduced bulk due to folding, it is much thicker than the rest of what you are sewing. Slowing down considerably reduces the chance of a broken needle or other mishap.
Step Eight in Making a Rag Quilt – Sewing Large Groups of Squares
As you join larger groups of squares/rows together, it is very helpful to always keep the smaller group on the top of the stack when sewing. For example, if you are sewing a single row to a group of already joined rows, keep the single row on top. This will help you keep the seams aligned and make it easier for you to control the fabric. If the smaller piece is underneath the larger, it can bunch up and get pulled under the needle in places you didn’t intend to sew.
Step Nine in Making a Rag Quilt – Sew the Outside Edge
There is one more seam to be sewn after you have completely finished assembling the quilt. Once all the squares/groups/rows are sewn together, you need to sew a seam around the outside of the quilt. This takes the place of traditional quilt binding in a rag quilt (you could bind it but most people just sew another seam and rag that as well). Remember that you will need to secure the start and end of this seam by backstitching, unlike the rest of the seams in the quilt.
Step Ten in Making a Rag Quilt – Clip the Seams
Now all of the exposed seams need to be clipped. Spring loaded blunt tipped scissors are worth the investment ($16 to $40 depending on the model) here. Clip about halfway to 3/4 of the way through the exposed seam about 1/4″ to 1/2″ apart. Do NOT clip all the way to the sewing thread of the seam!!! Clipping turns your exposed seam into a fringe that will allow it to rag when washed.
Step Eleven in Making a Rag Quilt – Wash & Dry
Lint, lint, lint. When you wash and dry a rag quilt there is lint everywhere. It’s just the way it is. You do NOT have to go to a laundromat if your plumbing is up to code and you take a few precautions. First, wash the quilt with several CLEAN white towels. The towels will catch many of the strings/lint and usually catch any color bleed from the fabric. On that note, do NOT use detergent the first time you wash a quilt. Use cold water and 2 cups of vinegar in the machine. The vinegar softens the fabric a little (helps the fraying) AND seems to help set colors so they don’t run later.
Before drying the quilt, shake it (and the towels) out (do this outside or be prepared to sweep/vacuum a while). Then, set your dryer for 10 minutes and dry the quilt with those same towels. After 10 minutes, clean the lint trap. Set the dryer for 15 minutes and clean the lint trap after that cycle. Repeat the 15 minute cycle dry until the lint trap is less than half full when you clean it. Then you can finish drying the quilt if it isn’t already dry by that point. If the quilt seems to be dry before the lint filter stops being filled, just change the setting on the dryer to air only instead of baking it with more heat. After it is completely dry, you’ll need to shake out the quilt (and the towels) again as there will still be lots of string caught on the fabric.