Rag quilts – how I completed my first one, four years later

Four years ago, I decided I’d make my then, soon-to-be born niece, a rag quilt from all of the scraps of my childhood. I did not have a sewing machine at a time so, I cut up all of the squares for the front, the insert cushion, and the fleece backing. I pinned each together, laid them out in a pattern I liked, and then, bagged them in plastic bags by row.

I read a tutorial at the time that said to sew an ‘X’ through each set of squares – the rag, the padding, and the backing. I made it through half a row and then, did not touch it for another four years. I managed to move the bags through three moves and a new sewing machine.

But, this year, I decided to finish the projects I had started. The first project – my rag quilt.

In opening the bags, I realized several things:

1. I made the squares too small
2. I cut the padding to large
3. I should not have used felt for a backing if I wanted it to “rag up”

Despite these realizations, I decided to go ahead with the project, knowing what to do differently in the future.

I cut my squares 3 inches by 3 inches. In most tutorials I’ve read, they cut them at least 6 inches by 6 inches. This leaves you ample room for mistakes and it allows you less square sewing. I also cut my padding the the same width and length as the rags and the backing. Don’t do this. Cut your padding squares so they are about an inch shorter on both the width and the length. If you don’t, they will be part of the fray and it’s not as clean that way. I also used a real soft black felt for the back. While this feels nice, it misses the rag quilt feel. So, if you’re wanting the traditional look, use flannel or a cotton fabric.

Since I found a variety of tutorials written by master “sewers,” I thought I’d write one from the perspective of a first-time sewer and a first-time rag quilt maker.

So, how do you start?

  1. Pick out some large pieces of fabric – old shirts, family scraps, etc. – that you can cut into squares.
  2. Buy quilt backing.
  3. Pick out some large pieces of fabric that you can use as backing. Remember – if you use fleece, it will not fray, so pick a fabric that will fray. It can all be one solid color (I chose black) or they can be multiple colors. 
Once you have picked out your fabric, it’s time to do some cutting. Decide upon the size of your quilt. I scoped Pinterest for sizing charts. I also discovered that it’s best to keep each square about 6 inches by 6 inches. 
I am not a perfectionist when it comes to sewing so I pinned the three layers together – rag on top, followed by batting, and then the backing. I realized later that I had to cut the fabric more even so I cut it without a ruler. Not best practice, but with the backing, all stuck together so it cut evenly. Be sure you have a quality pair of sewing scissors on hand.

Next, it’s time to sew an X through the four corners of the three-layer square. I’ve read various accounts on how to do this, but decided to sew it all the way through the end. Since mine layers were very thick, I had some problems with the sewing machine. This is another reason to really consider your layers. Fleece proved to be a little too thick. However, I made it work. Also, check the quality of thread. I bought thread that said it was for machine embroidery, but it got tangled repeatedly in the bobbin. In fact, it got so tangled, it doubled or tripled the time it would take to work on this quilt. Thread is very important.

Repeat sewing the Xs for all squares. After I sewed a row of squares, I laid them on a bed in the order I wanted them to appear. You can choose to have a definite pattern or scatter them. I scattered them. Continue laying them row-by-row on a flat surface in an undisturbed area until you have all of the rows. Then, grab one row at a time (I stacked each square on top of the other in the same order so I could sew them together more easily).

It’s time to sew together the rows. Grab your furthest square to the left and the square to its right. Keep the left square face up and place the right square on its back, underneath of the left square. Then, sew along the right edge – top to bottom. I used about a 1/2 inch allowance, but that is up to you. Whatever you choose, be sure to use the same allowance throughout your quilt.

When you have sewed the first two squares together, you will continue to sew the remaining squares together in that row. After you have finished sewing the row together, place the completed row back with the others. Then, grab the next row and repeat until you have reached the end of your rows. Your squares will begin to look like this.

Once you have sewn together all of the squares, it’s time to sew the rows together. Grab the first two rows and pin them together. It’s very important to line square for square. I discovered that some of my squares were not the same size (due to my lack of precision) so, I still pinned them as if they were and scrunched the larger ones to fit the smaller ones. Just as you placed the top square over the flipped second square, you’ll do the same with the rows. Place the top row right-side up and the second row upside down (back to back) and sew along the bottom/right edge. Before you start sewing, open up the the flaps so they are pinned down as you sew. You want to sew over the flattened flaps.

Your masterpiece will start to look more finished at this point and, luckily, you are almost done!

Now, for the final steps! It’s time to sew around the border of the quilt. Use the same allowance as you did for the other sections. I did 1/2 inches for each other piece so I left 1/2 inch allowance around the rest of the quilt.

Once you are done sewing your border, it’s time to cut! Use a good pair of sewing scissors and cut every flap you can find. My hand was sore after this, but it was worth it. The smaller the distance between your cuts, the more the fray at the end. Sadly, since I used fleece, mine did not really fray. Though, it still has a nice effect.

Then, it’s time to wash and dry your quilt. This will give it that rag look with frayed edges. I washed the quilt on a gentle cycle with no fabric softener and only a little bit of detergent. I also washed it with three towels. this will ensure the towels absorb the frays and threads that are made. After the wash cycle, I put it in the dryer with the same towels to further absorb the threads.

And, now for your finished product.

I’m excited to make many more now that I know to not use fleece and to cut larger squares and…use better thread!

You can check out some of my other products at fenneworks.com. Enjoy!

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