Another Confession: Tied Quilts.

posted in: Quilting 37
It just looks so comfy. Image: Wikipedia.
It just looks so comfy. (I could do without the cow skull, however.) Image: Wikipedia.


I confessed the other day that I am scared to go see my doctor. I don’t have my appointment, yet, but I do have about nine friends who emailed, texted, or called me to tell me they’d go with me when I do. And the virtual company I’ll have because of you — yes, you — means that when I report back after the checkup, I’m sure I’ll tell you that it wasn’t so bad after all. Thank you; I’ll keep you posted.

Now that that’s settled, I have another confession. This one is not so dramatic — or is it??  

Here we go:

I love tied quilts. I love tied quilts maybe-almost-kinda-just-a-little-bit-more-than quilted quilts.

Wait! Stop! Don’t throw me out of Quilting!

Here’s the thing: Every quilt is different. If you pay attention and think and cock your head just the right way when you look at a quilt, it will tell you what it needs when it comes to stitching the three layers together. Sometimes the quilt wants to be quilted with a gorgeous feather motif; sometimes it needs straight lines. Some quilts (like this one!) will say “Hand quilt me!” and some say, “Put me on the next UPS truck to the longarmer’s right now.” Other quilts are happy to be quilted on the domestic machine while you watch old episodes of Quilty with Mary Fons. What?!

And some quilts — though they don’t get a lot of press — want to be tied.

I hardly need to explain to the non-quilters out there what a tied quilt is, but just in case Mark is scratching his head, a quilt’s three layers (being the pieced top, the warm middle batting, and the backing fabric) need to be stitched together. Most of the time, this happens with the quilting of the quilt with thread and this is done in pretty patterns and stuff. A tied quilt is a quilt that isn’t quilted at all: It’s tied together with many little knots, basically, across the expanse of the quilt.

The tied quilt is not as sophisticated as the quilted quilt. I think that’s pretty much a fact. I mean, you can’t really add any design elements with tied knots; no lovely feather motifs are going to emerge. And you need very little skill to tie a quilt; if you can tie a knot, you can tie a quilt. So a quilter doesn’t get a lot of points for tying over quilting and in fact may get some snickers from her quilting friends, though I know none of you would ever, ever snicker at anyone’s quilt, ever, because you are kind and welcoming to all quilters everywhere, regardless of pattern, technique, or taste. Ahem.

But here’s the thing: Tied quilts are sometimes…softer. And they may be slightly warmer. Of course, there are many factors that go into the softness and warmth of a quilt, but it’s true that the heavier the quilting, the less warm or soft a quilt will be. A tied quilt has more space for trapping air in between the layers, and that will arguably make it warmer. And because there aren’t a bazillion tiny knots all over the quilt, that sucker’s gonna be soft. Well, as long as you’re not tying with electrical wire or something. (It’s usually embroidery floss or yarn, Mark.) And there’s also the intense, inexplicably satisfying textural thing that happens with all those little ties. Run your hands over all the little nubby ties and you’ll smile. You just will.

I’m tying a quilt right now. As in, I stopped working on it to write this and will return to my task when I’m done. I’m having so much fun. I love it. I mean, I love this tying process. I want to tie more quilts. This particular quilt on my floor right now is so charming with the ties, I can hardly stand it. It’s hitting three ‘C’s: cozy, comfy, and…country.

About a year ago, I heard a Chicago chef talking about her strategy for making the desserts that have made her world famous. She said, “It’s simple. If it’s delicious, it goes on the plate.”

This has become my approach to quiltmaking. If it’s delicious, it goes in the quilt. And I’m telling you, these ties are delicious. I’ll show you when I’m done.

Postscript: I have just realized I may have stoked the ire of longarmers everywhere! Longarmers, fear not: You will never lack for business. If a small tied-quilt trend begins in a small corner of the quilt world, it’s not going to be a problem, I promise. As long as quilters are making quilts, this is good for everyone. Please, please don’t be mad. I will forever need you in my life, believe me…

37 Responses

  1. Molly
    | Reply

    My mom makes tied quilts! Not with fancy block patterns or anything. Usually it’s just plain cut squares or at fanciest half square triangles. But she mixes fabric prints in the coolest ways that academically seem like they shouldn’t work but magically do! And I’ve always been not sure if that counts as being a quilter because they aren’t quilted? Now I know! Probably the most simple version of a quilt possible, but it counts! Thanks for the learning!
    (Long time reader, first time commenter, I saw you perform at my high school (Fremd) for our Writers Week something like 10(12?) years ago and you awed high-school-aged-me and my friends with your poetry, especially the improv poetry)

  2. Gramms
    | Reply

    My grandmother made me a tied quilt almost 60 years ago and I still feel the love she put into when I think about it. I have made each of my grandchildren a tied quilt and hope they feel the love in them.

  3. Angie
    | Reply

    I love tied quilts! They are so homey and comforting, like a hug from grandma! But i dont have a frame to do this, so do you have any pointers or suggestions on doing this without the big frame please? Thanks Mary, you are awesome!

    • Beverly Letsche
      | Reply

      Angie, I have never seen anyone use a frame to tie a quilt. Just lay it on a big table or the floor and tie!

      • Angie
        | Reply

        Really? In our guild we have a frame and we stretch the layers and clip it on the frame and then tie it

    • Marjo
      | Reply

      Our charity quilting group makes tied quilts all the time. We take some safety pins and put them around the quilt until you are pretty sure it’s not going to move around a lot. Then you don’t have to work on the floor, or with a frame, or a very large table. You can do it almost anywhere you can sit down. It helps to have the weight supported on some type of table so you aren’t always pulling it up from your legs and floor. Our small group gives away 200-250 each year and tying helps people who don’t sew have a chance to work on this project. Enjoy!

  4. Diane Rincon
    | Reply

    I understand and applaud you for coming clean. Yup. I tie some quilts too. A few years ago I needed, yes, needed, a warm, soft winter quilt, fast. (Bet you’ve never seen that many commas in one sentence!) It was cold, dark and I was living alone, something that does not usually bother me. So I made a reds and yellows all squares quilt, tied, and it makes happy! Now, please make that doctor appointment, please, please.

  5. Teagan
    | Reply

    I love tied quilts! They rank really high in snuggleability. As someone who loves patchwork, and can be intimidated by quilting, tying my first couple of quilts was a great option.

  6. Cara
    | Reply

    You know, densely quilted quilts are my least favorite for actually using. A tied quilt actually makes a lot of sense.

  7. Ivy
    | Reply

    I love tied quilts, too! I haven’t tied one myself yet, but it’s on my list of things to do 🙂

  8. Judy Mischke
    | Reply

    My mom made many tied quilts with squares of anything she had (EVEN DOUBLE KNITS!!) I am still using hers and she has been gone since 1995!

  9. Sharon
    | Reply

    If this is confession time, here is mine: I LOVE to watch old episodes of Quilty with Mary Fons. Especially while quilting. Sometimes I pick out my favorites to replay and other times I put in a DVD and “play all.” They are both comforting and inspiring at the same time. I only wish there were more of them.

    • Martha Steadman
      | Reply

      Too bad tied quilts are not judged. They are beautiful. My grandmother tiedsome quilts and taught me how to tie, Im over 70., put a tied quilt in a show was not judged at all. Too bad

  10. Mary Lynn
    | Reply

    Thank you for making me feel better about the first five quilts I made. I’m a fairly new quilter and I finally got brave enough to piece but didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do next. So I Googled “fastest easiest way to make a quilt” and that’s what I got. I figured it was better to finish them than to wait until someday when I knew what to do next. And I can report that when I visited my grandkids in California, their two tied quilts had been washed and dragged and rolled around on, and the ties held up just fine. And they loved them 🙂

  11. Cindy mizer
    | Reply

    I tied my first quilt. I was shown how to make a tied quilt when I was in college. One of the girls on my dorm floor was working on a tied quilt out on our 2nd floor mezzanine one night. The floor there was carpeted, so she pinned the edges to the carpet, instead of taping them. Then she proceeded to string up a long piece of yarn and start weaving in and out. I was fascinated by this and when I went home in the Spring, I made my own to bring back to college in the Fall. I know that we have had charity quilting get-togethers at church and we have frequently tied instead of hand quilting, mostly to get them done faster.
    As for my first tied quilt, I kept it for years and then my daughters adopted/fought over it. As of now, it is missing and I am almost completely certain that one of them has it and is afraid to admit it.

  12. Marianne Greenley
    | Reply

    I mom once tied a quilt and used buttons at each tie! Which, unfortunately takes away the snugly quality that a tied quilt provides … but it was actually looked very cool.

  13. Susan
    | Reply

    Loved your words….

    Just started doing tied quilts recently… the simplicity, the naievity, the real look of a handmade item that it gives a finished quilt

    And arnt those dinky little ties just so adorable


  14. Annette Holbrook
    | Reply

    Thanks for this… As a still kind of new quilter, I sometimes feel like I HAVE to quilt a quilt in order to be a real quilter. (Silly, huh?) In any case, it’s the honest truth. I love the ease of completing a tied quilt and I don’t mind the look of it at all. I’m going to allow myself to tie one of my next quilts! Do you have any favorite patterns that look great with ties?

    Thanks again! Annette

  15. Kelsey
    | Reply

    Working last night on a quilt and took out my quilting lines about 10 times. Nothing seemed to be working, and I considered tying. This is the push I needed!

  16. Jenny
    | Reply

    Tied quilts are the quilts of my childhood. I would always be asked at bedtime – knobs in or out. I would fall asleep holding the yarn. I struggle now to JUST tie a quilt and I have a couple tops I haven’t finished because they’re begging to be tied and I’ve been too snobby to do it. Today I will!!!

  17. Edwina
    | Reply

    I have a quilt to tie but I am not sure what kind of batting I should use. Any advice?

  18. Beverly Letsche
    | Reply

    I have tied many a quilt! I really don’t like a densely quilted one unless it is not intended for bed or cuddle use. I will say that I was baffled the first time I saw one tied with embroidery floss. All I had ever seen were yarn tied quilts. It looked very strange to me and took some getting used to.

  19. Linda
    | Reply

    Tied quilts hold a special memory for me. When I was litttle it was during the time of the polio and scarlet fever scare and mothers were told a child should rest every afternoon. I hated taking those naps. One day I had plans for special play but the dreaded afternoon nap disturbed my plans. I was so upset with my mother that as I lay on my bed instead of napping I decided to untie the knots on the quilt. That would show her for sure how silly the naps were. When she discovered how many I had untied before falling asleep she was not happy. There was further punishment and after that I never untied quilt knots and to this day have a greater appreciation of them.

  20. Kathryn Darnell
    | Reply

    Oh Mary, how you would laugh at this picture. My husband is a retired mechanical engineer and likes to help me with my quilting. I can hear you moan. Don’t know why but as precise as he is, he married a ‘beat to fit, paint to match’ kind of gal. Heaven help this crazy quilter. I have lots of grandkids who need baby quilts and friends whose children need some too. I tie all of those soft yummy quilts. Well, Bob sets up our quilt frame supported on chairs and “C” clamps. He wants to help so he crawls under the quilt, pulls the needle through the quilt and pokes it back up to me. It is a sight to behold OR to laugh hysterically. But they come out engineered to be squared, soft, cozy and comforting. It’s all in the love of quilting. Can’t wait to see your treasure.

    • Mary
      | Reply

      I… Have never heard a sweeter tale in my life. I am actually crying with joy. “He wants to help so he crawls under the quilt, pulls the needle through the quilt and pokes it back up to me.” Oh, my good heavenly days. Thank you, Kathryn.

    • Linda Duff
      | Reply

      Oh how sweet !!!!! What a guy!!

  21. Carol Hendrick
    | Reply

    Mary, I don’t have time this second to read all the comments, but is it true that tied quilts MIGHT not stand up as well to repeated washing? I am confused by this.. I heard from a Quilt Police type lady that they needed machine quilting to be strong, and so believed it. Then — it came up in a group I was in that was making quilts for a homeless ministry — and those girls were having none of it. We tied those quilts. In that phenomenal prize winning essay you published recently about quilts bound for kids in Africa – they also said that they TIED them to be MORE resistant to washing (or maybe they did both?). I’m getting ready to retire soon from a job that is sucking my soul out through every possible orifice, and intend to turn to quilting to restore the balance. I know enough as a rookie to just shut up and do what the Smart Girls say. But just very curious about why this is such a big deal. My grandma tied them too.

    • feature.Pam Martin
      | Reply

      I’ve tied several that were frequently washed (in quilt terms). There was absolutely no problem and when wear did occur, it was not related to the tying feature. Tie on!

  22. Judy Forkner
    | Reply

    I tied my 1st quilt. It did not hold up very well. It was a quilt for our bed, so was used nightly.

  23. Linda Duff
    | Reply

    My former Mother-in-law (one of my FAVORITE people — God rest her soul) was the epitome of frugal!! But not so with her giving! She would use scraps from her own clothing projects, buy inexpensive fabric (remember the frugal word?!) and scout garage sales for fabric and for sheets for the backs (frugal!) She made COUNTLESS donation quilts for Lutheran World Relief. She tied them all!! Even if she spent a bit extra on some fabric for a “good” quilt that she was making for a gift, she still tied it. When her son and I were planning our wedding, she contacted my Mom, unbeknownst to me, and got all kinds of scraps from Mom of fabric that I had used for 4-H projects, regular things sewn for me or my siblings, and yep, even fabric that my Mom had left from maternity shirts she had made for herself! I got 2 ‘crazy quilts’ from her, and have them to this day. (Yep, lasted WAY longer than the marriage!) They’re worn and frayed, but they aren’t going anywhere!
    Tied quilts most certainly give off an aura of ‘peaceful’ … they moosh around you in a cozy way, and comfort you when you need it most.
    And Miss Mary, I’m going to repeat the refrain from others … please schedule your appointment. We’re all saying prayers!
    Hope to see you when you get back home to Winterset!

  24. feature.Pam Martin
    | Reply

    I like making crazy quilt inspired pieces. However, I make them in 9″ to 12″ blocks, sewn together, and then tied at the intetsecting corners and in the center of each block. I feel like quilting would get lost in the business of the design. I love the ties and the memories of my grandmother’s quilts that they bring back to me.

  25. Jan C.
    | Reply

    I wanted a quilt to coordinate with my toddler’s Seseme Street motif room. So I took a character sheet, folded it in half over some polyester batting, and tied it with blue yarn. Hundreds of washings, three grandchildren, and 40 years later, it’s soft, still tied, and still used to lay on to watch TV. Tie Away!

  26. Irene
    | Reply

    I’ve enjoyed a variation of tying that uses a decorative stitch on my machine. It is a heart that is programmed in to do a lock stitch, then the heart, then a lock stitch. I lift the presser foot after the sequence finishes and then move to the next spot without cutting threads, so it goes fairly quickly if you have marked some guidelines. Of course I pin baste first. Clipping the threads front and back (very carefully) finishes the process. Other stitches could be used in the same way, as appropriate to the theme of your project.

  27. Barbara
    | Reply

    I tied a t-shirt quilt for my son, and I love the way it came out, comfy and cozy!

  28. Jenifer
    | Reply

    I tied my first quilt. It was a gift for my grandson and I wanted it to be perfect…it was not. The next quilt was for his sister a year later, I ‘straight’ line quilted it and I wanted it to be perfect…it was not. BUT, the lesson I learned is that my grandbabes both have a handmade, Grannie made quilt that was created with the bursting love my heart holds for them and THAT is the most important thing. Thanks for sharing Mary, you are loved by this newbie quilter!

  29. Sharon
    | Reply

    I enjoyed your shows, demonstrations, lessons and humor so much! Wishing you the best in your new endeavor, i do greatly miss you.

  30. Charlotte
    | Reply

    That’s so funny! When I saw the title ‘confession’, I thought you were going to confess to NOT liking tied quilts! But it’s totally the opposite. So here’s my confession: I don’t like tied quilts. They’re ok, I don’t hate them, but I don’t like the little saggy bits they get after hard use.

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