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Beginner Quilting Basics: An Interview with Beth Cullen

Are you ready for a new year? Is it time to explore some new interests and hobbies? I’m so glad you’re here to listen in on my interview with Beth Cullen. Beth is a local quilter and the founder of SNICU Mini Quilt Days, a charity that teaches quilting as participants sew quilts to donate to the University of Iowa Hospital. In this interview, Beth answers so many questions about where to start, where to find help, and how quilting works that it is the perfect guide to beginner quilting basics.

Besides being a quilting enthusiast and an excellent teacher, Beth shares my passion for connecting women with creative expression. The quilting experience can be an individual exploration of design, creativity and art. But for the woman who wants to continue to learn, connect, encourage and support others, there is a whole community that the quilting world opens for her.

This interview first posted in February of 2021 on my previous website, Life Over Lunch.

The Quilting Experience

Penny: Beth, could you please introduce yourself to our readers at Life Over Lunch?

Beth: My name is Beth Cullen. I have three kids, 21, 19 and 17. I work at the hospital as a physical therapist, and I’ve been quilting since maybe ‘94. So I’ve done it a very long time, and my quilting has gone through different stages just like life goes through different stages.

Penny: So you said ‘94. So that would have been before your kids were born…

Beth: Yes. My mom was never a very crafty person, but in college my aunt and cousin got me into cross stitch so most of my college career, I cross stitched. And then I went to graduate school and landed my first job at the hospital. I had a co-worker there who was a quilter, and I was very excited to learn what she does. She’s the one who really walked me through my first quilt, and then we quilted together for years. I got a core group of friends who quilt through a quilting guild in Iowa City, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Penny: Quilting is one of those things that a lot of times turns into a community event, but at the same time you could totally just be at your home quilting by yourself.

Beth: It’s definitely both.

Who Can Quilt?

Penny: Do you find that there’s a certain type of person that does quilting? Or does it require a certain skill set or personality?

Beth: I think I see in my group that there are a lot of different personalities. I think the biggest thing for me is just the need to create.

Penny: Yes.

Beth: Sometimes women, we have a strong desire to create, and that can come out in many ways – gardening, cross stitching, scrapbooking, quilting for me. I like fabric – I go in the fabric store, and I touch almost every single bolt of fabric. I like the texture of it; I LOVE the colors of it. It’s a way of expressing love for me so if I make a quilt for someone, I spend a lot of time thinking about that person when I make it, and it’s an extension of what I feel for that person.

Penny: Oh, that’s awesome!

Beth: Anything you make for someone is that way, but most definitely when I make a quilt I spend quite a bit of time thinking about that person and hoping they’ll enjoy it. I think about things they like and whatever the occasion is.

Made to Create

Penny: Maybe Rebekah would disagree with me, but I think creating is something that is important. God is the Creator, and I think He likes to see us follow in His footsteps. Just like when your kids create something and you are amazed, I think God gets happy about us creating too.

Beth: I agree! I think I’ve always recognized that to be able to create something is very much something that I need in my life.

Penny: Right!

Beth: So I think other women have that same thing. The medium you create in can be very different..

Penny: Yes!

Beth: And how you create can be very different. So I would agree with you. And I’ve met men in quilting…

Penny: And there are women who don’t really feel the need to create anything…

Beth: Right, right!

Basic Quilting Basics 1: Where to Begin

Penny: So if someone wanted to get started, they had never ever done any quilting at all, what would be your recommendation for what they should do? What are the first steps? 

Beth: That’s a really good question. My personal experience is that I had a fellow quilter walk me through each and every step. That was very beneficial for me. If you don’t have that, really going to your local quilt store, you will find the support that you need. Obviously, the first thing you need is a pattern, either asking someone you know so you get a very simple pattern or asking a quilt store for a very simple pattern. That’s important. And then picking the fabrics, to me is the fun part, that’s what I like to do, and have all those colors and stuff like that.

So I think having someone to walk alongside you is helpful. I’m sure there’s probably many blogs and stuff that can help you, YouTube, that way is helpful, but I think finding someone is better.  Anyone who creates, if they have a passion for it, to be able to share that passion with someone is always a joy. You’re not going to inconvenience a quilter or be a burden to a quilter. I get great satisfaction out of teaching someone something I love so if someone came to me, I’d be like, “Yeah, sure! Here’s a couple patterns, which do you think you like?” And I will go to the quilt store, and we’ll pick some fabric, and I might say, “Hey, you might want to look at this or try this…” Which people do for me now when I’m in a fabric store, I might take recommendations for colors that match or anything like that.

Penny: Oh, yeah…

Basic Quilting Basics 2: Materials

Beth: So picking a good pattern, finding your fabric, having a sewing machine (obviously), but quilting is very much just a straight stitch, not anything really fancy when you’re making the top. You just need to be able to put two pieces of fabric together, keep them aligned and just sew an even strip.

Penny: Okay, okay. 

Beth: And then for cutting the fabric, having a cutting mat, a rotary cutter and a ruler is most helpful. Some quilt shops will have pre-cut quilts…

Penny: Oh!

Beth: which could make it easier for you.

Cake Layers and Jellyrolls

Penny: What are those little packages called?

Beth: There are things called Jellyrolls that come in strips. There are also Cake Layers. There’s a lot of pre-cut things you can start with and sew them together, and they’re usually coordinated fabric lines so you don’t have to worry about that that way. I will tell you, my friend took me to the quilt store, and I picked up all this fabric I loved, and I sewed it together and it looked hideous. I never finished that one.

Penny: (laughs)

Beth: I finally threw it away cuz…I love each piece of fabric, it just didn’t go together. So then my next project, I went with very solid colors just to kinda get the basics for it.

Penny: Well that would be great! If your creativity comes out in assembling the colors then you might want to pick your own…

Beth: Right…

Penny: But if you’re challenged by that, just go ahead and get some squares that are already cut out!

Beth: Yes, all cut up and all put together in a line, and it’s coordinated.

Basic Quilting Basics 3: How it all goes together


Beth: So those things are definitely at a quilt store. You can get help that way. And then you sew it together, and then you have this top. Then the next step is to quilt it. So you take the top and then batting, I’m kind of a 100% cotton batting person, you can buy that in packages in certain dimensions, or you can buy it on a roll and purchase so much. 


Then you need some type of fabric on the back – it’s called your backing fabric – which can be about anything. I usually look for stuff on clearance, or that I have saved up. Or sometimes I’ll pick a color scheme, like I know they like blue, then I’ll put blue on the back or whatever I can find. But I usually go a little bit cheaper on the backing fabric.

Looking for a bargain

Penny: I’m like a cheapskate, and I’m always trying to jimmy-rig things together. So projects like this, I would probably go to Goodwill and look for a king size sheet. Does that work?

Beth: It does work. It’s not going to wear quite the same…

Penny: Oh!

Beth: But I think if you’re just starting with something, then I think it would work. I know sometimes on my charity stuff, I sometimes use stuff I wouldn’t normally use on a regular quilt just because of the financial burden of it. But having the same cotton, or kind of the same weight will make that quilt wear a little more evenly versus if you have a heavier fabric, or a fabric of different content. Some of the stuff I have is not cotton fabric, but I usually do prefer some of the same cotton fabric. You can sometimes find yardage at Goodwill or other thrift stores and it might just be basic brown, and I’ll use that. I don’t really care that it’s decorative or whatever.

Penny learns about backing fabric!

Penny: So I know fabric only comes 45 or 60 inches wide if I’m buying it by bolt at a regular store…

Beth: Well, fabric will come 120 inches wide also.

Penny: Really!

Beth: Yes, and it’s called backing fabric. So if you go to a quilt store, you can get 120 and 108 inches wide fabric.

Penny: Oh!

Beth: It costs a little bit more, but you’re not piecing it together.

Penny: Yes! Okay!

Beth: There have been calculations that, yes, it costs more per yard, but if you piece it together you’re going to end up spending more anyway. And I think that realm in quilting has really expanded with a lot more varieties. It used to just be like brown or grey, and now there’s just some really beautiful back fabric that you can get. Or you can use muslin too. Muslin’s a really cheap fabric you can get at JoAnn’s, it comes like 108” in the back.

Penny: Okay.

Beth: So then you just have to buy your shortest dimension because one hundred and eight really covers quilts that way.

Basic Quilting Basics 4: Starting Small

Penny: Now is it beneficial to start with a smaller quilt?

Beth: Yes! I definitely recommend starting with a baby quilt or a lap quilt, something smaller just to learn the basics. That way you can get a handle on whether you really like it or whether it’s something you really want to do. It’s just easier to maneuver a small quilt too. And you’re not investing as much in materials either.

Basic Quilting Basics 5: Machine Stitching Basics*

Penny: When you’re stitching all your three layers together, is that just straight lines?

Beth: I have a special foot called a “walking foot”, and it basically uses the feed dog on the bottom of the sewing machine and the walking foot works with it to push the fabric through because it’s such a thicker layer. And I could do just straight lines with that.

Penny: Okay.

Beth: There’s another technique called “Free Motion Quilting” where I put on a different foot and I drop the feed dog, and it allows me to do whatever I want on the quilt. So most of my charity stuff is just straight line quilting because I just want it done. On my personal stuff I almost always do Free Motion Quilting.

Penny: This is so educational! I’m learning so much!

Quilt Tying**

Beth: And the other thing is you can just tie a quilt. You can lay it out, and you can just tie it using cross stitch thread or any type of cotton material. You can use yarn, but usually that has a polyester in it. It just takes a big area and a needle, and it’s a lot of through and then tie, tie, tie. I’ve tied quilts, and I’d say they don’t wear quite as well as if you machine quilt it. You get a lot more shifting. But with a smaller quilt, you can machine stitch it very easily.

Penny: That’s true.

Beth: And you can start with any sewing machine. I don’t know if they have walking feet for a basic sewing machine. You sometimes can do it with a regular foot, it’s just probably not as easy.

Penny: And if that was really frustrating you, you could tie it.

Basic Quilting Basics 6: Binding Edges***

Beth: Right. And you have to bind it. On the edges you have these three layers that are together and that’s a special technique. Once again, you could YouTube it or whatever, but you sew it on one side, and then most quilters will pull it over and hand sew it on the back side.

Penny: Gotcha!

Beth: Probably the only time that you have to hand sew. You don’t have to, I have a technique on my charity quilts that I do it all on my machine, but I don’t like it as well.

Penny: It would be harder to catch all those layers of fabric.

Beth: I don’t like it as well so all the quilts I make, I hand bind. And that’s a great thing to do when you’re watching TV, it just gives you that excuse, “Oh, I’ll just kind of watch TV and hand bind my quilt.”

Penny: Yeah.

Beth: And that’s more of a relaxing thing for me.

What is binding?

Penny: And I would suppose that the binding folds kind of like double-sided bias tape?

Beth: Yes, that’s it exactly. You typically make your own. I typically make a 2 ½ inch strip…

Penny: And you wouldn’t do it on a bias because that would just eat up all your fabric…

Beth: Right. Exactly right.

Penny: Because that would be crazy!

Beth: And if you do a scallop edge, then yes, you would need the bias way. But most quilts are square so you don’t need the bias. You can just cut 2 ½ inch strips, or 2 ¼ inch, everyone has their own different width that they do. Connect them all together, iron them in half, then you sew it on one side, and then you flip it over and hand sew it on the other side. Then you’re enclosing those edges of your three layers that way.

Penny: One thing I like about quilts, I like any sewing project that doesn’t have exposed seams. Which when I sew clothing, it’s like, “Do I want to take the time and finish these edges?” 

Beth: Right.

Penny: But you don’t have to worry about that with quilting.

Local Quilting Groups

Beth: Right. Everything’s inside. Most places have quilting programs. Like Iowa City has an Iowa City Quilt Guild that meets once a month, and they have programs. I’m not sure with Covid what’s going on, but usually you can find that in your area. Or sometimes, even quilt shops will have beginning quilting classes for you where you buy the fabric there and they’ll give you the free class. Or you pay for the class and they give you 20% off what you buy there. So there’s a lot of ways out there to learn how to quilt, and most of them are smaller projects. But those are things quilt shops want to teach you because they enjoy it and then they hopefully get you as a customer.

Penny: I know that some local libraries probably have visitors come in that will teach classes on quilting.

Beth: And even books at the library. So there’s a lot of options to get into quilting. I’ve done stamping, I’ve done cross stitch, I’ve done all that stuff, but quilting is kind of the one I’ve always gone back to.

Penny: Right, right! I think everyone finds their niche by trying different creative outlets.

Beth: Uhm, hmm. 

Penny: So tell me about your quilting group.

About SNICU Mini Quilt Days

The beauty of Hospice Care Quilts

Beth: So I work in an Intensive Care Unit at the University Hospital, and in that unit, we get a lot of the stroke patients. So people have Grandma who was fine one day, and now she has a lot of deficits, and people can make the decision that we pursue all medical treatments, or they can do what we call “comfort care” where Grandma is going to pass on. And the problem in our area is it happens very quickly. It’s very sudden. It’s not like a cancer floor where you kind of know it’s coming or whatever. Usually these are decisions that happen very quickly, they’re very traumatic, and they’re hard decisions to make whichever way you go.

So a nurse’s mom started making quilts. So when a family decides that they want to let Grandma pass peacefully then there was a place that we went to to get a quilt, and we would present it to the family just as a way of saying, “We understand how difficult this is. We want to recognize that we know this is a different time.” And the quilt goes on the patient’s bed.

It’s also a nice way for staff…if I’m walking by, and I see that quilt on a patient’s bed then I kind of know what’s going on so if there’s crying family members, you go get a Kleenex or a chair. You just kind of have a sense of what’s going on. Or say a prayer for that family as you’re walking, cuz you kind of know what’s going on there. You get a visual cue. But I wouldn’t know if I didn’t have that quilt out there.

Penny: Right.

Organizing Volunteers

Beth: So we had been making quilts. This lady had been doing it, with Covid it’s been harder for her. Her goal was to make a lot of quilts, and she has a network that she had doing them, and she’s made over three hundred quilts. She brings them in in bagfuls. So last year, I went to where I wanted to teach the nurses to quilt. My focus was different. The nurses enjoyed cutting fabric, but they were never sewing them, and a couple really wanted to do that. So now, a couple times a year, I bring the nurses into my house, and we sew a very basic quilting pattern. And some people have never sewn before and some have never quilted, and I found it very rewarding.

Penny: Uhm, hmm.

Beth: So this first year we put together twenty-five quilts that we donated. And I probably had fifteen people that came to my house at different times and did different things and learned different techniques. One nurse in particular, she says, “I always feel so accomplished when I leave on my days off !” And so it’s just been kind of a new project for me, and it’s been very rewarding. To have a way to focus on something other than myself, and then just bring people into it that way.

Join the next SNICU Mini Quilt Day

Penny: So is your group just for nurses?

Beth: I started with nurses. My idea now is (I’m a physical therapist) to take that idea to my department, and since we work Monday through Friday say, “Hey, on a Saturday do people want to come to my house and work on this project with me?” So bringing another department in and working on it is my idea. So I’m open to including people however because, really, we are always out of quilts. We never have enough quilts. It is very much a turnover thing, we cannot keep up with the demand.

Penny: Okay. So if other people were interested they could email us at our blog website (no longer available) and I could pass that along to you? This email is no longer available. If you’d like to connect with Beth Cullen and find out more about SNICU Mini Quilt Days, please contact me using my contact form below.

Beth: I’d be very grateful… I’d be happy to pick a day and say, “This is the day we’re going to do it.” It’s all kind of limited by number of machines because I want everybody that’s there to be able to sew. That’s important to me because that’s why people come.

Penny: Yeah.

Beth: So I have sewing machines, sometimes people have their sewing machine that they haven’t pulled out, go ahead and bring it. I have kits, I have fabric cut, you’re ready to go ahead and sew and start that whole process that way. So yeah, I’d be happy to have a crew of people to be able to help in this. I just started with nurses because that seemed like a logical place. A safe place for me to start. 

Perfection not required

Penny: Yeah, that’s fun! Do you think there’s anything else that would be important for people that are just starting out?

Beth: I think you have to recognize that every piece…I told you I threw away my very first quilt because it was very ugly…it’s a learning process.

Penny: Yes

Beth: And in fact, last year I was doing a quilt for someone, and I put it together, and I looked at it like, “Yeah. It looks like an Easter bunny just threw up. It’s not really what I wanted.” So understand that you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. I’ve been doing this for twenty-some years, and I still looked at that quilt and said, “Yep, that’s not going to fit that person.” I thought that would be it, but that wasn’t what I wanted. And that’s okay. It will go to a charity or something like that, but just give yourself grace. Just like with anything, there are going to be times when you hit it right on the head, and there’s gonna be times when you miss, and that’s okay.

Quilting Friendships

And it’s camaraderie, my friends help me quilt. I’m very much a rule follower. If the pattern says this, I do it. I have a friend of mine who basically uses every pattern as a launching point. She makes very creative things, and she says to me, “Hey, you could do this.” And I say, “Yes, I can!” But I just don’t think that way so I really enjoy that process of bouncing ideas off each other.

Penny: Yeah!

Beth: And I found some life-long friends. I have friends who we have traveled and quilted together for the last twenty-one years. And we’ve raised our kids together, we’re now where our kids are getting engaged. It’s just been a real blessing in my life. And it all started through quilting.

Watch and Learn and Be Inspired

Penny: Watching you put together the top of that quilt yesterday made me feel more empowered to be able to do this! You know! I think I’ve tried quilting. I think where I got hung up was all those three layers going through my machine. And knowing to start small because I probably did something large.

Beth: A queen-sized quilt! No you don’t want to do a queen-sized quilt! A pattern is also important.

Penny: That’s true. There’s a wide variety in how difficult those can be. 

Beth: And like I said, if you find a quilter and they’re passionate about it, they’re more than happy to share with you. Don’t hesitate.There’s nothing that gives us more joy than to share our passion with someone. 

Penny: Okay! Thanks, Beth! I learned so many things! That’s so fun!

Beth: Hopefully others will too!

Penny: For sure!

Here are a few YouTube links explaining Beth’s steps:

*Explore walking foot and free motion quiliting in 10 Fast and Easy Quilting Designs.

**How to Hand Tie Quilts

***How to Bind a Quilt

If you’d like to find out more about SNICU Mini Quilt Days, please contact me using the form below:

And I’d love to know if you found this post on beginner quilting basics helpful! I learned so much from Beth and I hope you did as well. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Well here’s to a new year in 2023! May it be filled with beauty and creative adventures!

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