Katrina Hampton’s latest patchwork quilt, a warm mix of golds, reds, and greens, adorns her living room sofa. The busy fabric, which is described as having ‘Christmas colours’, is a wise choice for a throw that is the favourite sleeping spot of her two adorable cats Cookie and Peanut. Their previous snoozing ground, a calico patchwork quilt, was lighter in colour and was beginning to show the grime that comes in on the feet and coats of rural felines! Not that the marks didn’t come out with some home laundering, says Katrina, who has been patchworking since she was a teen, and is adamant that quilts are there to be used.

“They’ve got to go through a wash and come out the other end in one piece!”

Her down-to-earth approach is in keeping with quilting’s humble origins which she says are all about thrift.

“Quilts were originally designed to use up fabric leftovers. Not so many scraps of sewing fabric but pieces that were salvaged from worn-out clothes. Families often recognised their own clothing in a quilt their mother or sister had made. My mother once recognised a quilt she was unpacking as mine because I had made it from patches taken from my own old skirts.”

The same traditional thrift extended to the inner quilt layer which might be made from an old woolen rug or blanket, while the backing could come from a discarded sheet. Although Dacron is now the filler-of-choice (or bamboo, wool, or cotton) Katrina still likes to use the old items in the quilts she makes today.

But scraps aside, part of the enjoyment of quilting is the endless search for desirable fabric. Katrina, who has taught school in a number of different countries, has Cambodian silk and bright Nairobi pieces of cotton tucked away for a rainy day.

“Choosing fabrics takes time so I like to do it in the holidays when I’m away from the classroom. Part of the fun of going to a new place is browsing the material shops.”

Because patchwork is a country craft that hails from many different cultures, the range of patterns is endless but many Kiwis seek out the traditional USA designs to stitch. The ‘Log Cabin’ pattern is one of these, and features in the first quilt Katrina made. When I gasp at its intricacy she is quick to point out that not all patterns are as complicated as they at first seem.

“You don’t necessarily make one square at a time and stitch them all together. Sometimes you’ll make a long runner and cut it up into square patches. What can look like triangles may once have square until they were snipped in half. There are lots of shortcuts once you know what they are.”

Some of those shortcuts include cutting through several layers of fabric at once using a ‘roller cutter’, and machine- rather than hand-stitching the binding of a quilt. Such tricks-of-the-trade are often gleaned at quilting symposiums which are held at various venues around the country and, fortunately for Katrina, usually during school holidays.

“They’re great gatherings with master classes, tutorials, demonstrations of new techniques, exhibitions, materials for sale, and speakers.”

Katrina also meets up with like-minded craftspeople at her local patchwork club but it was not from others – or even family – that she first learned to quilt. She taught herself!

“I’m not particularly mathematical so I do have to take care with measuring and cutting. And if I’m not in the mood for sewing, I have to take extra care!”

The piecing together of patterns and the concentration required are almost meditative and Katrina says quilting can be a helpful way to de-stress from the busyness of a full-on job.

“It’s a real help if you can have a room devoted to quilting, with the ironing board permanently set up, as it means you don’t have to pack and unpack each time you begin. You just pick up from where you left off.”

Although a room is desirable, Katrina says a top-notch sewing machine is not.

“It can be a $200 machine or a $1000 one. It doesn’t matter as long as the feed dogs can be lowered and the machine has a ‘walking foot’ [a foot which evenly feeds all three layers of the quilt through the sewing machine during the quilting process].”

If patchwork is your pleasure and you don’t have a machine for the quilting process [the sewing together of the front, inner and backing of a quilt], the item can be sent away for commercial quilting.

When it comes down to it, a sewing machine isn’t a necessity, either, as Katrina has shown by completing hand-stitching a quilt. It proved the perfect craft activity to take to the home of friends with whom she was staying.

“I was spending a few days with them, and during that time, there were some rugby games they wanted to watch on TV. I don’t mind watching rugby but I’d rather quilt, and a machine would have been a noisy background. But with a hand-stitched quilting project, I just threw the piece over my knee and quietly worked on it while we watched the game!”

Quilts are often imbued with meaning and made for special occasions. They may be given to mark births, weddings, and farewells, and they can be made by more than one set of hands.

“Friendship quilts are sewn by several people. The first begins the piece and then passes it to another to ‘do a round’ and then on it goes until it is finished. On its completion, a quilt like this can then be given by a group of friends to a person who is special to them all.”

Katrina has just completed a quilt of significance for a child’s single bed, and will shortly send it away to its new home. Part of a nationwide project, it is destined to be the permanent possession of a New Zealand foster child who, while perhaps moving ‘home’ several times in their young life, will always take the quilt with them to help them feel secure in their new family setting.

Having stitched many quilts over the years, and having frequently packed them away while abroad, Katrina knows how to best care for pieces that, well conserved, can go on to be family heirlooms for generations to come.

“Quilts are always better rolled than folded. Place a sheet on the patchworked side and roll toward the sheet. Whether you roll or fold, store away from direct sunlight. This will avoid fading and the deterioration of the fabric.”

While it is tempting to think of patchwork and quilting as locked into the realm of the past, one has only to browse through the pages of the NZ Quilter magazine to realise that quilting is an evolving art.

Modern technologies are as much a feature as the traditional with ‘heat-treated’ fabrics in use along with digitally printed fabrics featuring photos of family members. Multi-disciplinary techniques also abound including 3-D quilting and patchwork which includes panels of cross-stitch, knitting, ribbon weaving, and tapestry.

It seems there is no end to what constitutes a quilt or the patterns it can display, or to Katrina’s experimentation with the craft. None of which matters to her cats – who just want a soft, cosy quilt to curl up on!

Keen on quilting? Look for inspiration at:

  • Your local patchwork group (contact Citizens’ Advice for contact information)
  • Classes (often run through craft and sewing supply shops)
  • Regional quilting organisations such as Otago Quilters
  • YouTube demonstrations from beginner’s guides to tips for the experienced.
  • Exhibitions