Postage Stamp Quilt Project

From the book, Color From the Heart
by Gai Perry

Once upon a time in America, way before how-to books and design classes were available, women somehow managed to make quilts of remarkable beauty and color. Because it was necessary to use tiny leftover scraps and secondhand fabrics, they unknowingly employed two important rules for successfully combining unrelated fabric prints:

Rule #1: Most fabrics will blend in a pleasing manner if the size of the individual pattern pieces are small (2″ or less).

Rule #2: It is easier to combine 50 different fabrics in a quilt than it is to choose 5 fabrics that look perfect together.

I have a romantic vision of one of my ancestors sitting by a fire on a cold winter evening. She has a basket of calico squares in her lap and as she tells a bedtime story to her children, she picks up the squares (one at a time) and sews them together. She doesn’t agonize over the arrangement of colors; she just methodically stitches the squares into rows, and the rows gradually turn into a dazzling Postage Stamp quilt.

Select 40 different fabrics. (At most, you will need only enough to cut 3 or 4 squares 2″ x 2″ from each fabric, so look through your scrap collection before going shopping.) Concentrate on prints, but you can also add a few solids. Choose fabrics that are personally appealing and avoid trying to coordinate a color scheme. What you want to end up with is a nice, chaotic jumble of colors and patterns. The assortment should include the following:

  • Small, medium, and large prints
  • Light, medium, and dark values
  • A variety of fabric patterns (stripes, plaids, florals, textures, etc.)
  • Include at least 1 yellow and 1 gold print. Also include a bright red and a dark red, and 2 turquoise fabrics.

You will need a half yard of an outer border fabric and an eighth yard of an inner border fabric, but wait until the main body of the quilt is complete before making your selections.

Cut 3 squares 2″ x 2″ from each of the 40 fabrics for a total of 120 squares. Put all the squares in a lunch-size paper bag and shake it to mix the fabrics.

Stand in front of your design board and without looking, reach into your bag, take out 1 square, and place it on the upper left-hand corner of the design board. Working from left to right, repeat this process until you have 10 squares across the top row. Place the squares, just touching, so no white flannel shows through.

Following the same procedure, add 11 more rows (10 squares across) for a total of 12 rows.

You must practice rigid self-control and put the squares up just as they come out of the bag. No peeking!

If you try rearranging the squares at this point, you will defeat the purpose of the exercise. The only reason to exchange a square is when the same fabric appears next to itself.

When all 120 squares are positioned on your design board, stand a few feet away—or use a reducing glass—to critique your Postage Stamp quilt.

Ask the following questions about your design:

  • Is there a pleasing balance of colors? Sometimes several closely related hues will be grouped together and you will have to decide whether they make the quilt look awkward-interesting or awkward-unbalanced. Look for happy accidents like colors or prints that, until now, you would never dream of putting together–and surprisingly, they look good!
  • Have you noticed how the red, yellow, and turquoise squares make your quilt sparkle and look lively? Do you think you need to add a few more of them?
  • Can you detect a theme to your quilt? Does it look like folk art? Is it traditional, contemporary, or ethnic? Sometimes the style of your quilt will be a candid reflection of your taste in fabrics.
  • Do you think you can make the quilt look better?

If you answered yes to the last question, now is the time to make some changes. Do a little rearranging or add some new squares of fabric and delete others. I caution you not to make any more changes than necessary. If you do, the spontaneous charm of the quilt will be lost. Let your intuition tell you when the quilt “feels right.”

When you are pleased with the arrangement of squares, it’s time to sew your Postage Stamp quilt.

1. Start by sewing the bottom row of squares together using a 1/4″ seam allowance. Press all the seam allowances in this first row toward the left.

2. Sew the squares together in the row directly above the bottom row and this time, press all the seam allowances to the right.

3. Working toward the top of the quilt, continue sewing rows of squares together and alternate the pressing direction of the seam allowances from row to row.

4. When all the squares are sewn into rows, join the rows. (Note: Pinning at each seam allowance juncture will produce nicely aligned squares and perhaps save some ripping out and resewing.) Press all these seam allowances either up or down. Pressing them in a single direction will make the quilt top lay flatter.

Look at your quilt and decide which 2 colors you want to emphasize. A general rule of thumb would be to choose a light color fabric (print or solid) for the inner border and a darker or brighter print for the outer border.

1. Cut the inner border strips 1 1/4″ wide.

2. Cut the outer border strips 3 1/2″ wide.

3. Attach the borders.

Once the quilt top is assembled, it’s ready for quilting. Refer to your reference of choice for quilting and finishing instructions. Finished size, roughly 23″ x 26″.

Happy Quilting!

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  1. Posted October 18, 2012 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    It’s always nice to uncover a new blog this terrific! I will be back for sure!

  2. Posted April 14, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    This is really interesting, You are a very skilled blogger.

    I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your excellent post.
    Also, I’ve shared your website in my social networks!

  3. Blog Admin
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    The original is 23″ x 26″.

  4. Susan
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    What are finished dimensions of postage stamp quilt?

  5. Barbara Yon
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Our small town’s art group will start painting quilt squares on a board and we need free quilt squares to transfer to our boards. Please help with some suggestions.
    Thank you

  6. Danielle Dews
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Bonnie, are you on Facebook? That would be a great place to post your pic. I can’t wait to see it!

  7. Bonnie Ouellette
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Can we post photos of our finished postage stamp quilts?

  8. Dawn
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    This is a great project. I used it to teach the girls in our church how to quilt. They didn’t have the money to buy fabric. This worked great to teach them the basics. Thank you.

  9. Posted October 4, 2009 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I lerned something from your comments. Thank you!

  10. TrueNorth
    Posted August 21, 2009 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    As for the two inch squares, there is fusible grid for two inch squares on the market that works real well, if hand quilting, do not use because is heavier, but if machine quilting or tying, it works great. You can purchase at most local quilt stores, Joann fabrics, or on the internet. I find this helps even when making 1″ postage stamp quilts. yes, I do not throw away anything if can help it.

  11. Evelyn
    Posted August 2, 2009 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    hi I am trying to make a scrappy postage stamp quilt but it will be as big as twin bed or for a cover for rull bed am using all kinds of colors and fabric and just sewing them like you set without trying to match color hope it turns out good

  12. Virginia
    Posted May 14, 2009 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    For the hankies you can drape loose ones you don’t want to cut up over curtain rod in your bedroom so you can enjoy them whenever you wake up or make the bed. Mine are all sizes and pretty got purple flowes on them. Hanky-panky crazy quilts by Cindy Brick are adorable. Got one made as a dress with a fabric or paper top and a few folds after you fold them corner to opposing corner. They are darling on mini wire hangers. Ties make good covers for your cell phone. You do have to take them apart so they lay flat.

  13. Posted October 29, 2008 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Rule 1 and Rule 2 are the simplest way to explain to new quilters how to mix fabrics.
    Sometimes so much time is spent trying to match fabrics perfectly, when they are going to be used in small pieces and/or there are lots of them.

  14. Carolyn Aune
    Posted October 29, 2008 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    To answer Gerrye’s question about the Postage Stamp project, Step 1 of the Sewing Instructions refers to sewing the individual squares into a horizontal row of squares. To begin the row, place square 2 on top of square 1 right sides together and stitch along the right side using a 1/4″ seam allowance. Open the squares up and place square 3 on top of square 2 and sew them together. Continue in this way until you have finished the first row. Be sure to press all the seams in one direction.

    Then go on to step 2 and continue until all the squares have been sewn into horizontal rows. The trick is to press the seams of each row in the opposite direction of the previous one. That will help all your seams to fit together better when you sew the rows together (step 4). To sew the rows together, place the second row on top of the first row, pin them together, and then stitch using a 1/4″ seam. Continue adding the rows until you have a completed quilt center.

    Once you get started with cutting and sewing the squares you will see how easy this is! Have fun playing with the colors and fabrics.

    If you are brand new to quilting, may I suggest Alex Anderson’s book, Start Quilting with Alex Anderson. It has a lot of quick and easy quilt projects that teach you the basics of quilting .

  15. Posted October 29, 2008 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi Gerrye. A crazy quilt comes to mind when I think of using vintage handkerchiefs or pieces of old ties. If you only have enough for a smaller project, a pillow cover or a framed piece of art would work. If the pieces are delicate, they might best be used as embellishments on top of other fabrics. You could also add some iron-on stabilizer/interfacing on the back to give the pieces more substance. My husband’s great-great-great-great grandmother made a quilt entirely pieced of small diamonds that look to be from old ties.
    have fun with it!

  16. Gerrye Williams
    Posted October 28, 2008 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    also, i want to make a quilt using all my old mom’s old hankerchiefs and dads old ties – any suggestions!

  17. Gerrye Williams
    Posted October 28, 2008 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Ok – if you sew the rows together, how to you join the sides of each of the pieces? Nothing really (that i have read) tells you how to join all the pieces together! I guess i really feel like a dummy when it comes to quilting, but i so want to learn – don’t know anyone who quilts locally…..

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