Patchwork – A First Try (Part One)

When I was a small child, life was a great deal less affluent than it is today.  People repaired instead of replaced, they made do with what they had and they recycled, before anyone had ever heard the term …..  not because they thought it was environmentally responsible, but because it helped them to get by.

One recycling method that was very popular back then, was to reuse fabric scraps; offcuts left over from sewing projects or salvaged from garments that were outgrown or worn out.  I remember wonderful quilts that were produced from countless little pieces of left over cloth of all kinds.  The individual elements were often mismatched both in texture and decoration but the quilts always seemed to somehow bring all those elements together to create an item that was both interesting and functional.

It’s a very different world today.  Quilting is a popular pastime and there seem to be lots of websites and resources available.  Nowadays, people make quilts from totally new fabric, often with the design already created and the pieces pre-cut.    Other quilts are created from strips of cloth called jelly rolls, again, often pre prepared with the final design already dyed into the fabric.  Some of the designs are amazingly complex and the end results can be visually stunning.  To me though, these modern quilts aren’t a patch on those from yesteryear.

I decided that it might be fun to try my hand at making a quilt of some sort, using a pile of discarded shirts rescued from my workshop, where they were waiting to do service as rags.  I have to confess, I know nothing of modern quilting and my experience with sewing is limited to a few clothing repairs and alterations, and the production of a large number of grocery tote bags, fishing tackle bags and other odd bits and pieces.  Having developed a love affair with older style sewing machines, my sewing aspirations are slowly expanding.  I thought this project would be a good one to try, as it requires a certain degree of accuracy and lots of straight sewing.  I haven’t studied up on how to do this and the techniques that I’m trying are evolving as I go.  But I thought it might be worthwhile to share this project.  It might just inspire you to have a go and you never know, my approach to some aspects of this might be useful to others.  So without further ado, here ’tis.  My first patchwork project.

PLEASE NOTE ….. I use a scalpel to cut out my cloth shapes.  Other people use circular cloth cutters, scissors or other devices.  If a device will cut cloth, it will EASILY cut human flesh.  Used inappropriately or carelessly, any of these devices can cause serious injury very quickly.  Using a scalpel requires careful and constant concentration to avoid the possibility of injury.

The very first thing that is needed (apart from a heap of suitable cloth and  a sewing machine) is some templates.  I started out with some cardboard templates and I would trace around them onto the cloth and then cut the shape out with scissors.  This was tedious and time consuming and the cardboard templates were fragile and inclined to crumple at the corners.  From there, I progressed to metal templates   and I abandoned the scissors in favor of a wooden cutting board and a scalpel.   This was a great improvement.  I was able to cut out my shapes directly, without marking them onto the cloth.  However, the fabric was inclined to slip under the template, the scalpel blunted rapidly, requiring constant sharpening and there was significant damage to the cutting board.  Worst of all, so much downward force was required to keep the fabric from moving under the template, that my aging hands were aching severely after a couple of hours.

I have refined this further, dumping the wooden cutting board for a nylon one and tweaking the templates.  They now have non-slip matting attached to their undersides.  This has improved the whole process out of sight.  Now I can produce an indefinite number of identical pieces, in a fraction of the time that it originally took.  The nylon cutting surface doesn’t blunt my scalpel at all and I need only a fraction of the effort to hold the fabric securely under the template.

I will describe the process of producing the templates but it does involve a little bit of basic metal work …. perhaps a job for your local handy person.  For material, I sourced the sheet metal from a discarded computer case.  It is thick enough to provide the necessary stability while still being thin enough to be cut with a simple hand tool.

DSCF0937In this photo, you can see the metal template (without anything to prevent slippage of the fabric),  the wooden cutting board and a medical scalpel.  You can see a square of material beneath the template, which has just been cut from a discarded shirt.

This method was reasonably fast but not very efficient.




Marking out a triangular template.  Two square templates already cut using the nibbling tool visible toward centre of photo. The original cardboard templates are at upper left.




DSCF0925Cutting out the triangle template with the nibblers.  This hand-tool is remarkably simple and does an extremely accurate job, if handled carefully.  On the downside, it is very hard work, extremely slow and causes blisters!  Compared with most methods of cutting light sheet metal though, it’s the duck’s guts!


DSCF0928In this photo, I have added non-slip mat (available at your local Reject Shop, Shiploads, Cunningham’s or other variety store (or the local dime store, for our US friends).  I stuck the mat on with double sided tape.  The addition of the mat made a world of difference to the efficiency of the whole operation by reducing the effort needed to hold the cloth in place.



Underside of templates, having trimmed the non-slip mat ( using the scalpel, just like the mat was a piece of cloth under the template).



Below, trimming cloth, using nylon cutting board, template and scalpel.


DSCF0941Very quick and efficient now.  The only remaining improvement is to treat myself to a larger, better quality cutting board.  This is a $2 cheapy from a variety store.  It is thin and not quite flat, having  a raised section around the edge.  My largest square template barely fits.  But it’s wonderful in every other way.  Can use the scalpel for hours between sharpenings now.

Obviously, your templates can be whatever size and shape you fancy.  You need to allow an adequate seam allowance in addition to the finished size that you want your shape to be.  I wanted 8 1/2 inch squares, so made my large square template 9″ square …. allowing a 1/4 inch seam allowance all round.  I also made a smaller 1/4 square sized template and a triangle that produces a half square.  I am thinking I could have also made a 1/2 square (rectangle-shaped) one.  Some pieces of cloth are large enough to equal two joined quarters and I don’t have a template for that situation.

You aren’t limited to simply cutting out these sizes from whole pieces of cloth,  Interesting effects can be had by sewing several small scraps together until you have a large enough piece to cut with one or another of the templates.  This way, you can make use of quite tiny pieces of fabric.  Here are a few pics of squares that I have prepared, using my templates and also by sewing small fragments together as described above.

DSCF0944In this photo, you can see that both the triangle on the left and the quarter squares on the right have been made by joining multiple small pieces of fabric.  You can use up quite small scraps this way and it creates interesting effects.



DSCF0943 DSCF0942

And finally, for this first part of my patchwork project, my first two rows of squares, sewn together.  In my next article, I will talk about planning a suitable layout for your squares, to achieve a pleasing visual result.  It doesn’t matter how much you might plan a layout in your head, or how carefully you try to randomize your squares, expecting an even result.  There is just no substitute for laying out your design on the floor before you start sewing things together.


I hope you have found this article interesting and I would welcome any questions you might have.  Suggestions on how to do this better or more efficiently would be very welcome.

Bye for now,

Andrew.  2015-01-18

** For Part 2 of this article, please see:


                                     A LITTLE HELP PLEASE

If you find anything on my website that you feel is interesting, amusing or thought-provoking, please consider sharing it on your social media site or emailing it to a friend. Links are provided at the bottom of each post to facilitate this.  Your help in getting my work out into the world will be very much appreciated.

Thank you, Andrew.


1 thought on “Patchwork – A First Try (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Patchwork - A First Try (Part Two) -

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please Do the Math      

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.