Quilting Rules?

One of the Facebook quilting groups has been having a discussion about quilting rules.   The question is are there really rules and where did they come from and do we need to follow them.

Here are a few rules you might have heard (these aren’t necessarily rules I follow but are rules I have read or heard)

  1. always sew a 1/4 inch seam, or on some lists always sew a scant 1/4 inch seam (but how much less than 1/4 inch is a scant 1/4 inch)
  2. always press toward the dark fabric
  3. never press open a seam
  4. never press with steam, or on some lists always press with steam
  5. always prewash the fabric, or on some lists never prewash because the fabric is easier to work with when it still has the sizing in it.
  6. always use 100% cotton thread
  7. always pin before sewing
  8. always check for accuracy and square up your blocks
  9. always use matching thread
  10. never wash a quilt by machine
  11. always use bias cut binding
  12. always hand quilt in a hoop or frame
  13. basting is the most important step in hand quilting and should be done with thread
  14. you must use very small needles for hand quilting

There are many many more that I am sure you have heard.

I have often said that there are no quilt police and no rules but I have changed my mind.    I do have rules that I apply to MY quilts.    I do always prewash, I do use 1/4 inch seams, I do use steam to press, I do wash finished quilts, I always hand quilt in a hoop or frame, I always pin baste very sparely. I use whatever size needle is best for the thread and stitch I want.   MY rules for MY quilts are what I find work best for me.

So where do all the rules come from?    If I were to teach someone how to quilt I would teach them how I do it.  My rules would be what I teach.  I would naturally teach the way I do.   My practices , at least initially, would become the rules for the new quilter.    They get passed on and that quilter may add a few new rules and take away a few but the rules come from the experiences of the quilters.  They aren’t meant to be restrictive, they are meant to help!   I have made a lot of mistakes but once made I learn not to do it again and I add to my personal list of rules.

Here is an example:    I made a whole cloth quilt and I really do love it.    When I made the top I didn’t have an extra wide piece of fabric so I had to piece it.    I ran the seam right down the center and every time I look at the quilt that seam is the first thing I see.   It really detracts from the beauty of the quilt.   I should have followed the rule of not piecing a whole cloth top down the center.   Here is the quilt


That seam down the center does show.  I should have either bought an extra wide piece of fabric or pieced it as the “rules” tell me.


That way the seam would not be down the center and would not bother me as much.   (also it turns out that quilt judges do not care for center seams) I put a lot of work into it and I love it, but It could have been better if I had followed the rules.   New rule for my list….always use an extra wide fabric for whole cloth quilts.

Another example is my snowflake quilt.   I didn’t plan to ever enter the quilt in a show, I just wanted to give it try to see how it would work.   I used fabric I had on hand and I used batting I had on hand.   Unfortunately I didn’t have a wide enough piece of batting so I joined two pieces together.   I zig zag stitched them together with an edge joining foot and it looked great.    but when I started the very dense quilting I saw my error.   The seam in the batting shows.   Here it is

reindeer pad

do you see that thin line going through the center reindeer’s heads?    So there is a new rule for me.  Don’t piece the batting if the quilting is going to be very dense or the quilt will be entered in a show.

Those 2 rules are not meant to be off-putting to people, or to make me feel like I know everything.   They are rules that I hope will help others avoid my mistakes.

Now what about breaking the rules?

I spent many years teaching floral design both to college students and to professionals for the floral association.   Like quilting floral design is an art, but it also has rules.    In floral design there are rules for balance, proportion, scale, color harmony, rhythm, suitability, unity etc.    The rules are the building blocks that make a pleasing composition.    I always teach the students the rules.   After the rules are established and understood you can begin to break them in an informed way.   You need to know the rules to break them.  (some day I will do some posts all about floral design rules)  There are also some rules that should not ever be broken.   If I do not follow the proper care and handling rules the flowers will die and the customer will not be happy.

Many of the quilting rules are there to make for a more sturdy quilt ( I want my quilts to be used so being sturdy is always a concern for me) The rules are really about construction more than design.

The rules of quilting that many feel are oppressive or limiting are there to help make your job easier and keep you from making mistakes. The rules are the result of the experiences of generations of quilters.

Do I follow all the rules?  NO   But I am often sorry I didn’t.   The rules I follow for my own work are those that I have learned through experience. I honestly do not think that they hinder my creativity.   The quilt that I have been posting about the last few days might look like it doesn’t  really follow what might be considered traditional rules, but it does.


I am following all my rules.    The top is one piece, the batting is not pieced,  I am quilting in a hoop, I pin basted it, I will wash it when it is finished, and I don’t feel at all restricted.

Happy quilting


61 thoughts on “Quilting Rules?

  1. Jaydee Price says:

    I am glad to read there is someone else out there who reads “the rules” and then goes by what works for them and how they work and design. Good for you. Your work is beautiful.

  2. Mrs. Plum says:

    And interesting post on rules, Tim. In a way, rules are shortcuts to save us from ourselves. Someone else already figured out what worked for them, so it became a “rule.” I appreciate other people’s rules, as it sometimes saves me from a lot of disappointment/expense/disaster, but as you have done, I also have developed my own rules that I don’t break. And some that I might. When we stop asking “What if….?”, we’ve stopped growing as artists.

  3. Lindsay Pavel says:

    You present this very useful information in a way that is most conducive to remembering it; thank you. I feel better about all the errors I make when I hear that even you, once in a while, can make an error. The two you demonstrate actually make those quilts dearer and more valuable, in my opinion. First, because they were made by you, and second, because they sprang from motivations of practicality. Great post!

  4. Evelyne Letisse says:

    Thank you very much for your article on the rule, I am a french quilter and It is always the same questions for the rules, I said always I Teacher you the indispensable fondations and you make you practice by yourself. Your articles are very important for my own expérience, thank you again

  5. Elke Leditzky says:

    Dear Tim, thank you for the thoughts about quilting rules. Everything is said in your posting. Learning by doing and asking long-time-quilter to beware of error.
    Best wishes from Austria.

  6. Thanks for the well-written piece and the quote from Picasso. In addition to your example of its application to both quilting and floral design, I started to think of many other creative pursuits to which it applies, such as cooking and writing. Certain rules must be adhered to but others can be broken in an intentional way. Excellent food for thought. Thanks!

  7. bermudagirl says:

    Wow Tim, that non snow flake whole cloth is stunning. I have never seen it I think. You really should show your quilts more in shows and compete. You are truly a quilting genius. Despite the mistakes you have learned. I really enjoyed reading this as a fellow hand quilter and getting the chance to learn from your mistakes. I am going to print this out, so that I don’t forget about it and pin it in a few places on my Pinterest boards. I think all beginner hand quilters and quilters should read it. I hope one day you do write and post tutorials on floral arranging as that is something I have always been interested in and never ventured to doing it. Even though, as I learnt this weekend with a little spring time experiment, I guess I have learnt something from watching my mom, aunt and granny all making gorgeous arrangements. I wish you a great day and thanks for all those piecing whole cloth tips. One day I will make one. You have certainly inspired me with all your quilting and especially your snowflakes that you did this last winter.
    Have a great sunshiny spring day Tim and Teddy!

  8. Hi Tim- I mean no offense- but you’ve provided a perfect opportunity to express my different opinion… And I respect what you’re doing- but I have little respect for most quilt/craft rules. Why? Because quilter’s terms like ‘fussy cut’ offend my male sensibilities. The testosterone-laced words I use are intentional and precision. And I keep running into women who think their sewing machine has a gender- which makes me crazy.

    1: I’m a working artist. I make art. The only use I’m expecting you to get out of a piece of mine is that it hang on a wall for as long as it lives radiating beauty. I have occasionally hand-washed something after it was finished but I’d never machine wash anything. Why?

    2: Because I’m not making a quilt. I use quarter inch seams- sometimes. But my machine has a centimeter plate which I prefer over the 1/4″ plate- and much of my work is constructed from interlocking patterns that are cut off grain- on virtually every off-grain- and building them requires clipped pivoted seams- so I’ve found that a centimeter seam gives greater stability to all the off-grains as I unify them into a single pieced structural whole. And-

    3: I’m a (former) clothing designer- not a quilter. So I make art like I make clothes- and I press every seam open and always have and always will- because it’s a piece of art- not a quilt. And pressed open seams are the only way you can construct something that’s made entirely from clipped pivoted interlocking seams. And I think statements like ‘always press towards the dark color and never press open a seam’ are idiotic. And I use as much steam as is necessary.

    4: I always pre-wash cottons because I want the sizing gone- and I want to eliminate any shrinking risk- but I make art out of every kind of fabric- including some major industrial upholstery textiles- and it’s not practical to wash those as some are dry-clean only anyway- so I don’t. And in the same way- I use whatever thread I’ve got- some of it matches- some of it doesn’t- and I surface stitch with everything- crochet cotton- pearl cotton- linen- nylon- metallic- even acrylic- because my big surface stitch is part of what makes it my art.

    5: Then I read a statement like ‘always use a bias cut binding’ and I want to go postal. What a ridiculous statement. My bindings come in multiple widths. Some are a centimeter- most are 3 centimeters- some are intentionally wider than that. Some pieces have a wavy edge requiring a narrow binding. Some bindings are a stripe that I want going in a specific direction. So all rules that state- always do this or never do that- I find mind-numbing and think their originator and their perpetrators should be shot. Get a clue. Take the rules and shove them! I have a creative brain and can think for myself. And my surface stitching needle? It’s a 2 1/2″ craft needle.

    I learned to sew when I was 8. I was making my own clothes in high school. I took a college construction class so I could get into the flat-pattern design and tailoring classes- all of which I aced. I never learned quilt sewing rules so I think most of them are absurd. But if you’re going to USE something- I suppose different rules might apply- but not to me.

    You have a background in floral design. Mine is in visual merchandising- and I got published internationally doing that- a long time ago. But I was making textile and embroidered art in high school- as well as knotting and minor metal-work- and I was fascinated by patterns even earlier than that- so I turned into what I turned into- and it isn’t a quilter. But I think the biggest problem with quilters is how obnoxiously they hold onto their (female) traditions. Like rules are made to be broken- if you’re making art- traditions exist to be trashed.

    Thanks for writing. Your writing allowed me to express my very different artist’s opinion.

  9. Pat Beech says:

    As far as I’m concerned I love textile art and traditional patchwork/quilting. They are different but beautiful in their own right. I have not been doing patchwork for long and am always grateful for tips.
    We learn from other peoples mistakes too.Perhaps the word tips is better than rules.I love the antique quilts which have a wonderful charm about them even if they are not so called perfect. It does not matter if stiches are equal distance etc.At the end of the day who wants something that looks machine made.I think it is best to have an open mind and to experiment what and which way is best for one does not suit another.Happy sewing everyone whichever way you prefer to do and enjoy it.

  10. Carla says:

    I love belonging to fb groups or reading quilting blogs to hear tips and advice I prefer to call them that instead of rules. I agree, we can learn a lot when we receive some advice if we think about the why behind it. Doesn’t mean we always take the advice but like you said sometimes we regret that we didn’t listen. That is why I hate people putting down the quilt police, It is like disrespecting the elderly. If we are smart, we listen and we might learn something.

  11. Kate says:

    Hello Tim, thank you for this timely post, like you I think I’ve been following a similar path of learning through experimentation, and perhaps slowly coming round to the idea that some rules are just best followed. I’ve never taken a class and been quilting for 5 years, now making my own small patchwork art quilts on a tight budget, and it teaches me a lot about what you can get away with and what you can’t. Thanks for the piece about joining wadding – just yesterday I noticed a ridge appearing in a black section that is being heavily hand quilted – now I know what it is! I shan’t do this again, but if I’d missed your post I bet I wouldn’t have worked this out and repeated the mistake in the next piece, so I’m very grateful.

  12. Carolyn in Maine says:

    When I was a kid, I hated being told I couldn’t do something, UNLESS I was told WHY. All the rules you listed have very good reasons behind them. The only ones I ignore are #10 (I always wash my quilts in the machine, on gentle cycle – I construct my quilts TO LAST), and #9 (I always use a neutral thread for piecing – who has time to keep changing thread colours??) and #3 (sometimes I thread baste but mostly I pin baste). If my quilt will be used on a bed, I use bias binding (it wears much, much better than straight, which I learned to my sorrow from my first quilt), but if it’s going to hang on a wall, I use straight binding.
    As with most things in life, if you understand the WHY behind the “rules” it means you can make informed choices.

  13. Nancy says:

    A wonderful article, Tim!

  14. Louise Jackson, NS, Canada says:

    I like your story about rules. I do what I do with my quilts , and as long as I am happy with the finished results I am happy. I stretch them on a table or floor, pin baste or cotton baste, hoop or frame quilt them and hand bind them. Finished at last , looks good, happy person. Great story Tim….love your work.

  15. Laura in IA says:

    Very well written Tim. I believe I have the same philosophy. I like to call them tips instead of rules. That way you are explaining what works for you and why it works and others can take your tip and try it themselves. It is always good to have a reason for how you do it and judging is subjective anyway.

  16. Ranchwife in Nebraska says:

    Good post, Tim. Interesting comments as well. I suppose over the years there has developed an industry standard for those who show their quilts. Without a standard, there is no way to judge. I suppose they originated with quilters who all worked together on one quilt. There had to be a standard everyone followed so when they got together, the pieces would fit. Since we no longer tend to work in community, I suppose we have a little more leeway with which rules we ignore and which rules we adopt.

  17. chris says:

    Great post today! I agree with you wholeheartedly. We learn by our mistakes, try to make a beautiful quilt, but one that can be used and hold up to wear and washing. We have all made mistakes! Thank you for sharing a couple of yours. I do piece my batting from time to time, but I will think about it carefully the next time I do it. Thanks again.

  18. Marla says:

    Thanks for your well-written post. I agree that many basic construction advice comes from the learned experiences of quiltmakers. After years of traditional quilt making, I now experiment with all sorts of techniques, listen to what others discover and do what works best for me. I find that there are often many approaches that get great results, but there are some processes that I find more enjoyable than others. Isn’t it grand that we have so many choices!

  19. Barbara Polston says:

    You’ve expressed everything I’ve always wanted to say about quilting rules. Thanks for this meaningful discussion.

  20. lorieast says:

    You know I agree wholeheartedly, Tim. There are reasons for most of the rules. Know them, break them. It IS an individual’s choice, and choosing to ignore the traditions reaps consequences. Sometimes those consequences don’t matter, sometimes they do, but one can only use the possibilities if they know them.

  21. […] quilter Tim Latimer has taken this very issue on in his blog here. Tim and I have talked about this and we agree on this: There are reasons for the rules. Can you […]

  22. Christine Brooks says:

    Tim, I have a question about the quantity of Pearl cotton used for a quilt 90 inches square. Is there a rule of thumb for the amount needed?

    • timquilts says:

      my last quilt that size took 6 balls of size 8 perle cotton……the thing that differs is the density of the quilting…..I did a lot of quilting on it so it took a lot of thread……but I always order 6 just to be sure I have enough

  23. Im an embroiderer, and don’t really quilt, but I think the top one (pieced down the middle) would have looked better if it had been quarter pieced rather than halved, to make it more symetrical

  24. Rose in VT says:

    Wow, Tim. You’ve just written the best article I’ve ever read on those
    ‘quilting rules.’ And I’m sad you had to learn such hard lessons on two beautiful show quilts.
    I had a similar experience a few years ago when articles were being written about how to fold quilts to send off for shows. There were several stating to fold diagonally to avoid having a center fold when
    hanging. My latest hand quilted wholecloth went off to a show – and when I got there, it was hanging in all its glory, with the first diagonal
    fold VERY plain all the way across the quilt. My mistake was to try this with a wall quilt that was not heavy enough to pull the wrinkles out. It works fine for bed quilts probably, but these days I just fold very carefully so if any show, they won’t be distracting.

  25. Sandra B says:

    Bravo, Tim!! Great post! I have a profound respect for those “rules”, realizing that some of them exist possibly because a quilter sometime in the past had a disappointing or unexpected result, and decided to make a rule so that other quilters who followed him/her could learn from that experience. But…while I respect the “rules”, they allow me to make an informed decision, should I decide to not follow a rule. Sometimes, my not following a rule has resulted in my own disappointment….but I have learned that this is how I have grown as a quilter, and I hope that never stops! We all evolve in our personal quilting journeys, and I welcome all the knowledge gained through the shared experiences of others who share this love of quilting….Thanks again for a great post, and please continue to share your experiences with us!!

  26. Samantha Glorioso says:

    Great post! The “quilt police” thing makes me crazy too, most of the time. I think the thing about never pressing open a seem comes from before Quilters Dream batting came into being. Poly battings used to migrate thru an open seam, but the needle punch batting of Quilters Dream (not to plug this too much, but I love the stuff because of the “no scrim” feel of it to qult thru) never seems to migrate thru to the top of my quilts, even after many (machine!) washings, so I have started pressing seams open when there are a lot of them, as i find it easier to hand quilt thru them and they also seem to lay a little flatter for me. I also wanted to mention that I am a batting “saver” too, and there is a product out there that I use (the name of which escapes me right now) where you butt straight cut edges of your batting together and iron this stuff on them which then creates a flat batting join. I have used it a lot and it works very well, tho I am not sure how that much heavy quilting might have been to quilt thru as in the raindeer quilt. Also, I am not sure that would have saved the reindeer again, because I don’t know how the loft would have looked given the heavy quilting. I have only used it when the fabrics are more busy and the quilting is not so close, but it works well under those circumstances.
    I guess the rules aren’t what I object to as much, as the zeal with which some are imposed by seemingly self-righteous inforcers.

    • timquilts says:

      🙂 I find it lots easier to quilt over the seams when they aren’t pressed open, everyone is different……
      and the iron on to join batting is good for some but also very hard to hand quilt through and tends to cause flat spots. everyone is different. whatever works 🙂

  27. Ann fahl says:

    Do what works best for you. Your opening list of “rules” are good guidelines, but you must use common sense when deciding how best to solve a challenge.

  28. Matthew says:

    I agree with you but it can be a sensitive topic for some. Ebony on her blog stirred up quite a hornets nest a few years ago when she defended the quilt police.
    Not knowing why there are rules is usually what leads to an error. Sort of like not knowing the cooking rules.

  29. Lorij says:

    Well, I guess I’ll jump on the wagon too. I’m like you, the quilt police need to find another job. Some of the standard rules make sense but many don’t. It seems that these days a lot of folk make quilts just for shows and that’s just fine. But, there are those of us who still make them for sleeping beneath and, as long as its well made, and the maker and receiver are pleased the quilt police can go swimming. Even with the seam in your quilt it is still beautiful and the other one is gorgeous too. I’ll bet who ever judged them couldn’t do as well as you did! 😊 That’s just one woman’s opinion!!!!!

    • timquilts says:

      🙂 thanks…..mostly I don’t make quilts for anything but what they are ….quilts to use to keep warm…..but quilts for shows I have learned are different

  30. Julie says:

    You said you pin sparingly when you hand quilt? Do you rely on your frame to help?

    • timquilts says:

      Maybe one pin per block. I quilt in a hoop, the pins only need to hold the layers together until I get it in the hoop, once it is in the hoop any pins in the hooped area come out before I do any quilting . I do run my hand over the back to be sure there are no wrinkles and if needed i pull on the backing fabric to get rid of the wrinkle …


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