Learn How to Make a Rag Quilt

  • 01 of 04

    What Are Rag Quilts and How Are They Made?

    How to Make a Rag Quilt
    Learn How to Make a Rag Qult. Janet Wickell

    Rag quilts are quilts that have exposed seam allowances on their fronts and finished, traditional seams on their backs.

    Rag quilts usually have three layers: a top, batting, and backing, but the quilts are assembled using a completely different method than we use to sew traditional quilts.

    What are the Best Fabrics for Rag Quilts?

    I use regular quilting cottons, flannels, homespuns and denims for rag quilts, and sometimes a combination of the four.

    • Flannel fabrics make soft, cuddly rag quilts.
    • Homespun fabrics fray wonderfully and their plaids and stripes provide a country look and feel.
    • Denim rag quilts are usually very heavy, while you're sewing them and when they're used as a cover. Reduce the load a bit by sewing with a lightweight denim, or by using denim for the front of the quilt and a lightweight flannel or regular quilting cotton on its back. You might even decide that two layers are plenty, and omit the batting.
    • Avoid polyester blend fabrics, because they don't fray as well as cottons.
    • No matter what I use for the quilt's front and back, I prefer flannel for its batting. Flannel fabric results in generous, soft frays on the front of the quilt. It isn't necessary to use expensive flannels for batting, but do consider how the color(s) you select will look when their threads become part of the quilt's frayed edges.

    Although flannel is my personal favorite for batting, other materials can be used.

    • Quilting cottons can be used as batting, but the frays won't be as lush as frays produced by flannel.
    • Some quilters use low-loft cotton batting in rag quilts. It takes longer to use that method and quilting is necessary to keep the fibers intact. See page 4 to learn how to use cotton batting in a rag quilt.
    • No quilting is necessary if you use flannel or another fabric for batting because both types of fabric remain stable in the finished quilt.

    Flannel Batting Tip: I've found that it is sometimes easier to align batting with the top and backing pieces if flannel batting is cut just a tiny bit smaller than the other pieces of a rag quilt. For instance, if a pattern says to cut all three layers into 10" x 10" squares, I cut flannel batting squares 9-7/8" x 9-7/8". Your results may differ, but that method makes it easier for me to align front and back pieces and then sew the sandwiches together more accurately.

    Continue to 2 of 4 below.
  • 02 of 04

    Use My Tutorial to Sew an Easy Rag Quilt

    Learn How to Make a Rag Quilt
    You can see two sides of a rag quilt in this photo. One is the front side of the quilt, with frayed edges. The side flipped over is the back, and has "normal" looking seams. © Janet Wickell

    A Quick Look at Making Rag Quilts

    • Rag quilts are sewn after each block (or portion of a block) is assembled into lots of little quilt sandwiches atop a batting and a backing.
    • A walking foot isn't a required when making rag quilts, but its built-in feed dogs do help keep the multiple layers of the sandwiches from shifting as they move through the sewing machine.

    Rag Quilt Seam Allowances

    Most rag quilts are sewn together with a 1/2-inch seam allowance -- try that width before experimenting with wider seams.

    How to Assemble a Rag Quilt Sandwich

    Rag quilt patterns contain specific assembly instructions, but understanding a few basic concepts makes it easier to become accustomed to the process. For this example, let's pretend our quilt is made from 10-inch squares of fabric.

    1. Position a 10" backing square right side down on a table.
    2. Center a flannel batting square of the same size, or just a bit smaller, on top of the backing. if you're using cotton batting, see page 4, since instructions differ.
    3. Place the 10" top square on top of the batting, right side up.
    4. Slide a few straight pins through the stack to hold fabrics together.
    5. Make additional 10-inch square sandwiches until you have enough to assemble the quilt.
    6. Arrange the stacks in rows as desired.

    Sew the Rag Quilt

    We'll sew sandwiches together side by side in horizontal rows.

    1. Gather the first two blocks in the first row. Place the stacks backing sides together, noting which edges should be connected. Sew along the aligned edges with a 1/2-inch seam allowance.
    2. Add the next block, again placing backing sides together. That might sound simple, but it can be difficult to break the traditional right sides together habit.
    3. Finish sewing the blocks in each row together. Attach rows to each other, placing rows backing sides together and matching seam intersections. I've found that frays look more balanced later if you do not press seams to one side before joining rows -- just flip the allowances open and match seam lines.

      When the quilt is complete, sew a seam (or two) around the entire quilt, 1/2-inch from each side. If you stop 1/2" from ends, backstitch at each angle of the corner.

    Continue to 3 of 4 below.
  • 03 of 04

    How to Clip Rag Quilt Seam Allowances

    Clip Rag Quilt Seam Allowances
    Clip straight into the seam allowances about every 1/4". © Janet Wickell

    Clip the Rag Quilt's Seam Allowance to Encourage Fraying

    After your rag quilt blocks are sewn together and your seam is sewn around the quilt's perimeter, it's time to clip the seam allowance to encourage fraying.

    Any sharp scissors will do, but spring loaded scissors that open automatically after each cut help keep your hands from becoming tired. Most types have handles that your fingers wrap around rather than fit into, eliminating the holes that can be irritating after lots of cutting. I use the Heritage snips shown above. They're available from many sources.

    If you use scissors with sharp tips, be extra careful not to clip into the seam allowance (the Heritage blunt tips make that less likely).

    Make perpendicular cuts about 1/4" (or a little more) apart along all exposed seam allowances. Do not cut too close to the seam lines.

    Be sure to clip carefully at the quilt's corners and seam intersections to avoid accidentally cutting away a chunk of fabric, which can happen when you're making perpendicular clips into adjoining areas.

    Wash the Rag Quilt

    I usually put a bit of soap in the wash, and use softener, because they both seem to help fray the edges of a rag quilt. Use plain water if you prefer.

    Some people recommend putting a filter on your washer drain to keep loose threads from building up in septic systems. My own personal opinion -- cottons disintegrate easily, and stray threads shouldn't be a problem unless you're making oodles of rag quilts.

    My front-loading washer's filter catches many of the threads, and more stick to the damp fabric, and are later caught by the clothes dryer.

    Inspect the quilt. Did you forget to clip any seams? Clip them now, before you dry the quilt (you'll likely need to wash it again to increase fraying). Remove when dry and clip away loose threads if necessary.

    Inspect the back of your quilt. Are all of the seams intact? If you accidentally clipped into one or two, fold back the frays and sew over the original seam, backstitching at the beginning and end of the new seam. For extra strength, make the repair a little longer than the original seam line.

    Wash and dry the quilt one or two more times if you'd like the frays to be softer and more noticeable. Check again for loose seams and make repairs if necessary.

    Continue to 4 of 4 below.
  • 04 of 04

    How to Make a Rag Quilt with Cotton Batting

    Cotton Batting Option for Your Rag Quilts

    Use traditional batting in rag quilts if you like, but follow our slightly different instructions. I recommend you use cotton batting and make sure it's a batting that doesn't require close quilting stitches.

    1. Cut batting pieces smaller than the top and backing pieces. For example, our 10-inch squares finish at 9-inches since we're using a 1/2" seam allowance on each side of each piece. Cut batting pieces that are about 8-1/2" square and center the batting between your top and backing pieces. The extra half-inch we're shaving off the square gives you a little more flexibility when centering the batting -- you don't want it to end up within the seam allowance, where it will eventually fray away and disappear.
    2. Secure each sandwich with straight pins and machine sew a diagonal seam from one corner of the square to the opposite corner, backstitching at each corner of the cotton batting.

    The "X" shape isn't mandatory -- it's simply a quick and easy shape to quilt -- other shapes can be used. Avoid placing too many quilting stitches within the seam allowances. Those areas should be as stitch-free as possible to encourage fraying.