Learning from the past

I have hand quilted many vintage and antique quilt tops.  I have close to 300 old tops in my collection.  I have looked at and worked on a lot of quilts.  These old quilts can teach us much.    Today I am working on hand quilting this top that I made.


I realize that my perspective has been influenced by all the old tops I work on.    As I work at hand quilting this one I see that some of my seams aren’t meeting up perfectly.  Click on the picture blow to enlarge it and you can see that some of the seams don’t line up perfectly…I circled them in yellow.

bad points

Perfectionists and quilt police might need to cover their ears now.   It doesn’t bother me at all!   It is not perfect and I am totally OK with that.  All of the antique tops I have worked on have many imperfections and I don’t think it detracts from them at all.

Look at how uneven the borders are on this


They are irregular in width and quilt wavy the quilt is not square and I still think it looks great.

Quilt makers in the past didn’t have a million specialty rulers, rotary cutters, die cutters, computer programs, fancy machines, detailed patterns, and shelves full of quilting books.   They had a basic machine (or just a needle and thread) and cardboard templates, scissors, and a pencil.   They made beautiful quilts!  Beautiful but NOT perfect.   I am not saying that we should not try to be accurate, or that we shouldn’t use new technology, what I am saying is that sometimes it is a good idea to look at the big picture.   The world isn’t going to end if all your points don’t match.  The quilt police are not coming to your house to arrest you if one side of your quilt is 1/2′ longer than the other.  If you ran out of fabric and had to piece 2 chunks together to make one it will not make it less beautiful.

Look at this antique top


I think it will make a great quilt, but it is not perfect…..look at the piecing


chopped of points and 2 fabrics joined to make one square, and it still works.

here is one I quilted a few years ago


if you look closer you can see the imperfections in the piecing


Each block was made by a different person and they are all different so none of them line up correctly.   This does not make it a failed quilt….it makes it unique.

That is a pretty extreme example of points not matching and those I make aren’t that off, but it illustrates the point.   If it isn’t perfect it is not a disaster.

So do your best and use all the techniques you have learned but if a point gets cut off or a seam doesn’t line up perfectly don’t lose sleep over it, our quilting past is full of imperfect quilts and they are no less beautiful or treasured because of it.

Happy Quilting



76 thoughts on “Learning from the past

  1. chris says:

    So true Tim! I am always inspired by my grandmothers – they wouldn’t run to the quilt shop if they ran out of fabric, they would improvise, “make do”, and it was beautiful. Same with not always ripping out an imperfect seam – they had lots of other work to do! Thanks Tim.

  2. What a wonderful post! Secretly I often think that totally perfect quilts are in danger of being a bit sterile. A lot of the antique ones are so charming! I am no good at machine piecing, but this gives me courage to try again, thank you.

  3. Kate says:

    Interesting. The quilt I finished recently seemed while I was stitching to be horribly made, poorly pieced and obviously learner quilted. Then I had to stand back and take the pictures. That little bit of distance allowed me to love the colors and design that came out of my head. It’s all about perspective!

  4. Christi says:

    Every time I use a rotary cutter I think back to the ladies with scissors cutting by candlelight in their cold houses….. I feel so lucky.

  5. Carolyn says:

    Tim, when I think of what my grandmother had available I am totally amazed at what she did. Lighting would be at the top of the list of my needs yet she had only a gas lamp. With all that we have I expect a quality performance from myself.

  6. Jan Marriott says:

    Could not agree more. I sell vintage quilts and tops and it makes me laugh when would be buyers come to my stall with their magnifying glasses!!
    I’m not too sure that the quilt police would not be knocking at my door.
    BTW, been reading and enjoying your blog for some time.

  7. Naomi says:

    Love your attitude. It’s good to see what has gone into someone’s work, and perfection can hide that. Leaves are among my favorite inspirations – and none of them are perfect – they each have grace and individuality, even the ones that are partially broken by bugs or weather. Thanks.

  8. Julie Porter says:

    Quilts and life ‘if it isn’t perfect it is not a disaster’ ‘still beautiful, sometimes more so ‘ .

  9. Lorij says:

    Hi Tim,
    I totally agree with you. My grandmother made beautiful quilts. Some time she used flour sacks and other times bought fabric. They were all awesome! She unlike me could follow a pattern and she made a few of her own that others copied. Me, I just do what the Lord puts into my head. Although they may not be perfect I’ve never had one given back and folk still ask to have one made. Your line of thought is right on point. Perfect quilt makers must not realize that when you cover up with it the body doesn’t care how it is made, it just wants to be warm😊. The examples you’ve displayed are wonderful. Quilt police arrest yourselves! and leave other folk alone.
    Blessings, Lorij

  10. Rhoda says:

    I like the bit about the quilt police! I’m making one right now that I have a hunch won’t line up, so I’m glad to see some examples of how it can still work and look fine 🙂

  11. katechiconi says:

    Wise words. I’ve always gone by the theory that finished is better than perfect. I want a quilt, not inhuman perfection.

  12. Ginney says:

    This is a great post Tim. I agree completely. I have a couple friends who are never happy with any of their work because they pick out each little problem and dwell on it instead of looking at the beautiful color and swirl of the design and the fact that it is a finished product!

  13. Wanda says:

    OK Tim, I need some quick advice…I purchased a quilt top from eBay. It was hand foundation pieced (newspaper). The newspaper is over a hundred years old. I want to hand quilt, but I need to fix some of the bubbles in it. If I replace some of the squares have I ruined the value? I hope this makes sense.

    • timquilts says:

      I am not sure without seeing it….but in general quilt tops are much more valuable as a finished quilt….and replacing pieces and fixing does not cause a problem…..if it is a very unusual design, or has very rare fabrics, or specific historical significance that might be different….but in general no problem.

  14. Hi Tim. Totally agree! A great post! Thank you.

  15. Liz K says:

    You are so right. At my county quilt documentation (PA), we discovered so many imperfections but none detracted from the appearance of the whole quilt. We did a presentation about this to our guild and I think it made most people realize that perfection is not the goal. Just do your best and enjoy the process!

  16. To be honest, I see very few quilts that are pieced perfectly. Part of me knew that if I was going to get in to quilting, I had to let go of my perfectionist tendencies. Thanks for putting this so eloquently.

  17. Ann says:

    Agreed! I tell my friends that if you want a perfect blanket, go get one made in a factory. Quilts- like us- are beautiful in their imperfections.

  18. Tim – I am so happy to read this. I feel the same way. I recently did some sewing machine piecing rather than hand piecing and was a little disappointed that the work was too perfect. I’m making a hand made quilt and I am very happy for it to look handmade. Having said that, it was good I learned precision machine piecing over 30 years ago so everything went together well, but as far as worrying about perfect points and intersections, I tell people don’t worry about it and don’t take it apart and re-sew. I love my imperfect vintage quilts.

  19. Marilyn Schambach says:

    When one looks at a quilt, it is not usually the perfect corners and points we see, it’s the whole quilt. That is a different story entirely.

  20. Marilyn Schambach says:

    Engineers are precise; artists can be messy!

  21. Rebecca says:

    So I guess this proves that with all my new, fancy, fandangled equipment, at heart I am an old fashioned quilter! My cut off points and missed matched seams are proof! Thanks for a great reminder that it is why we quilt, not how we quilt, that matters.

  22. Nancy says:

    Thanks Tim for sharing this. Beauty is rarely about perfection, but about perception. Imagining the people who made old quilt tops, the joy and fun, sorrow or pain behind their quilts connects us. We can enjoy the color, fabrics and design. My favorite quilt was repaired with an old housecoat, and I love seeing the buttonholes! It reminds me how lucky I am to afford to buy new fabric for my quilts.

  23. nursek456 says:

    I really like this post! I am a new quilter and haven’t done anything too fancy. But I always feel sad when I am ironing after sewing blocks together and seeing that the corners aren’t aligned. I also am always looking at what the next tool is I could buy and I like your point that the quilters of the past didn’t have all the misc tools and it doesn’t take away from their amazing quilts…if anything it adds charm. Thank you for the post. I love your work!

    • Deb says:

      I come from a long line of quilters. From great great grandmothers on down. We are from the coal mining hills of Southwest Va. One of the poorest areas in the US. Our grandmothers didn’t have fine fabrics to sew in their quilt. It was feed sacks, old shirts, aprons, dresses and anything else that could be used in a quilt. The quilts were never beautiful because the corners matched or points were streight. They were beautiful because they were made from our hearts and kept us warm with the love that went into these quilts. I loved your post on this Tim.

      • timquilts says:

        thank you Deb…beautifully stated…. “They were beautiful because they were made from our hearts and kept us warm with the love that went into these quilts.” that really sums it up perfectly

  24. kemosabaycampground says:

    My grandmother made hers with cardboard templates and scissors. Hers were mostly hand pieced and all hand quilted. She even wore a bonnet like the ladies in your picture when she went out to garden. Her quilts were pretty darn perfect. Mine are pretty accurate but when they aren’t I don’t care. Once they are on the bed you can’t tell and they still work the same.

  25. Sandra B says:

    What a great post! Thanks for reminding us that a lopped off point, or an occasional seam that doesn’t match exactly doesn’t take away from the finished quilt. I saw a quilt in a magazine recently that was made of pinwheel blocks in navy and white, with white alternating blocks. It was a beautiful quilt..the simplicity of the blocks only added to the beauty of it. As I was looking at it more closely, I noticed that one pinwheel was backwards. If I hadn’t been trying to see the quilting more closely, I wouldn’t have noticed it! And the accompanying article noted that back during the period the quilt had been made, this was most likely deliberate…the backwards pinwheel…that the feeling was that we are not perfect, so the imperfection was “built in”… In my own quilts, I don’t have to worry about putting in a deliberate mistake!! Thanks again for helping us to put all this in perspective!

  26. Neame says:

    Tim, very thoughtful post. Along those same lines, the Navaho weavers always make an intentional “mistake” on the theory that humans are not perfect and so neither is their work and it is prideful to attempt it. Humility is a virtue (and virtue is it’s own….).
    Thanks, Neame

  27. Stefanie says:

    I wanna post of Teddy talking to the quilt police. I would love to know what he has to say. I can just see the look on his face. Now would he bark?

    But yes, well said.

  28. barbara shier says:

    Good points Tim! Nice to hear this perspective and see such lovely examples where things weren’t just perfect!

  29. Catherine Silling says:

    I enjoy your blog posts and photos so much. thank you for sharing your quilts with us all. the “new” quilt is lovely, and who cares if a couple points don’t match up. I don’t drive myself crazy over that either. sometimes no matter how carefully you arrange things and pin it, it somehow gets shoved out of line in the sewing seams together part. oh well, one person in a hundred would notice so, oh well. I love to quilt, maybe I should say I love to piece quilts. the quilting part isn’t my best part.

  30. Dear Tim, Well done on putting this in a way that everyone can understand. As a devoted Hand Quilter I want my quilts to reflect that. I don’t want to achieve a level of exactness that would take all the emotion out of my quilts and make them look and feel as if they were made by a robot.They get picked up, and put down somewhere else, taken in and out of the hoops. Reflect the good and the bad quilting days, summer and winter light and all the other little unseen things that make them Hand Made. So good on you for coming out and saying this. I can only imagine how much love is reflected in all your work as it comes through in your words.

  31. Connie Johnson says:

    My thoughts exactly ! I used to feel so disappointed when my efforts were less than I expected. Quilting humbles you. These “errors” add much charm and we sense the humanity of each quilter . An African saying …” A beautiful thing is never perfect.”

  32. myrosesindecember says:

    Beautiful quilts – as always. I sent an email to your comcast email addy. Please take a peek when you have a minute. Thank you and Merry Christmas.

  33. myrosesindecember says:

    I should have read the article before I sent the comment. These old tops are wonderful and maybe I needed the lesson that they do not have to be perfect. I once participated in a round robin for am Amish Jewel Box and it has yet to be quilted because I could not decide whether or not to remake some of the rows. I hesitated because two of the contributors have since passed on and are quilting in Heaven now. After reading your post, I think I am okay with leaving it as it is. Thank you.

  34. Karin Peirce says:

    It’s a beauty, and I always like the way the slight off balance bits make the blocks dance…it really is terrific !

  35. Connie Blankley says:

    Our group of ladies range in age from 48-84. We sit at a big frame like in the picture, only we have legs on our frames. There are about 13 of us and we keep 2 frames loaded. We call quilting our ‘therapy’ and, indeed, it is.


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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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