By Susie Haigh,
Textile Accessory Designer, podnip
an Instructor at The Stitchery
Cushions are something we do a lot at The Stitchery: on our Introduction to Sewing Workshops and Sewing for Beginners course. They are a really satisfying first project; but also one that, as an experienced sewer, I never get tired of doing.
Can you have too many cushions? My husband, Jack would probably say yes….we may be near to a critical cushion overload in our flat. But that’s when you start making them to sell or give as presents…!
Although cushions are pretty simple, our Sewalong will be done over a few weeks, giving everyone plenty of time to work at their own pace. If you are a complete beginner, you don’t have to add any appliqué; you can simply choose some wonderful fabric and concentrate on getting the zipper and construction just right.
Once you’re feeling more confident, cushions provide a great template for you to try out new techniques and embellishment. For example putting in a zip, sewing a buttonhole, making piping, appliqué, patchwork and embroidery. I’m going to give you some tips on machine appliqué in this Sewalong, as this is a form of embellishment that has lots of scope for creativity.
This is what our Sewalong schedule looks like:
- Today – choosing and cutting your fabric
- Friday 28th November - appliqué top tips
- Friday 5th December – putting in the zip without tears and cursing
- Friday 12th December – final steps, cushion reveal and round up
- Monday 15th December - deadline for competition entries
- Wednesday 17th December - winner announced!
It would be lovely to hear your thoughts as we travel on our merry sewalong together, so please feel free to ask questions or simply let me know how you’re getting on in the comments section.
Or if you prefer you can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org .
We would also love to see your finished cushions, so please submit photos of them to the email above. And if you do, a fantastic swag bag of sewing goodies could be yours for the taking. All images should be submitted by Noon on Monday 15th December, and the winner will be announced on Wednesday 17th December. Good luck!
(Sorry to our delightful overseas readers - hello! - but I'm afraid this Sewalong competition is only open to UK entrants.)
So, Why A Cushion Sewalong?
I don’t think it matters whether you’ve done tons of sewing or you’re just starting out – cushions are one of the most brilliant things to make! Sometimes you see a fabric you love and you don’t necessarily need it for any particular project…but you just really really want to have that print in your life somewhere. A cushion is the answer; your collection of cushions is like a little gallery of favourite textiles.
I think cushions are the sewing equivalent of a new lipstick...they say in a recession sales of lipsticks rise because they are an affordable, feel-good purchase. I can’t say I’m a lipstick wearing lady, or any kind of lady really … but a cushion works the same magic for me. A splash of colour, a pleasing print, a square of joy sitting on your sofa, ready to greet you when you’re weary or fed-up.
The Lowdown on Fabric
Fabric is constructed in two ways: woven or knit. Woven fabrics are made on a loom from warp threads that run top to bottom and weft threads that interweave from right to left. Knit fabrics are made from yarn that is looped together; like a tiny version of what you do when you knit with needles. Woven fabrics are more stable and have less stretch. Knit fabrics are often used to make clothes as they have natural stretch. The Cotton Jersey used to make t-shirts is a good example.
Okay, so you don’t want your cushion to stretch as presumably you’re not planning to wear it. So a woven fabric is what we’re looking for.
Fabric can be made from different fibres: wool, cotton, silk and linen are all natural fibres. Polyester and nylon are examples of synthetic fibres. You’ll find blends too. The Dandelion cushions below are made from a fabric that is 94% cotton and 6% nylon.
If you’re going to be sewing lots of appliqué shapes to your cushion, then definitely choose something with a decent weight. Having a thicker, heavier ‘canvas’ gives you a firmer base to work with and will take the dense satin stitches without puckering.
Cotton is great to work with, especially if you are a beginner. There are lots of cotton fabrics to choose from and it’s easy to handle and sew.
Next lets think about the weight of the fabric. A cotton voile will feel very different to a cotton canvas. One is light and floaty; designed for dressmaking. The other is heavier and more rigid; it won’t drape or flow as much, but will retain shapes more easily and be more durable. So feel the fabric and choose something that isn’t too thin, silky or sheer.
Buying Your Fabric
In most fabric shops the fabrics are split into Quilting, Dressmaking and Interiors / Home Decor. This is a helpful way to get a sense of the different qualities. But don’t feel too bound by the rules. I have a lovely skirt make out of upholstery weight brushed cotton and, equally, I’ve used denim fabric, found in the dressmaking section, to make cushions.
The interior fabrics department is a good place to start looking for cushion fabric though, as generally they will be heavier weight and designed for cushions, curtains and upholstery.
Check out the quilting prints too – these medium weight cottons are a kind of half-way-house between light dressmaking cotton and heavier home décor fabric, and work well for many projects, not just quilts. The big advantage of them is that you get lots and lots of lovely patterns.
And on that note, the last thing to think about is pattern and texture. Do you want something with a sheen like a lustrous damask or with texture like Harris tweed? A pattern or a plain? During this Sewalong we'll be having a look at appliqué, so you might want to choose a plain fabric to use as a neutral backdrop for your design. Or maybe you’re thinking about a print or a colour to go with a particular sofa or room in your house.
You can mix things up by choosing a plain fabric for the front and a pattern for the back or vice-versa. If you’re a beginner, I recommend that you stick to cotton and avoid difficult fabrics such as velvet or anything too slippery. If you plan to make the front and the back from different fabrics, try to choose two that are similar in fibre and weight. This will make life much easier when you are putting in the zip and seaming your cushion together.
I’m going to make my cushion in this turquoise upholstery weight cotton with an appliqué design of triangles in different shades of blue and green. You can see in the picture below I've gathered together some scraps for my appliqué and bought a matching zip. I’ll make a second cushion from the brown and pink duck fabric… It’s a quilting cotton I've had in my stash for some time. I’ve washed them both at 40°c in the machine.
List of Supplies
For a 40cm / 16”cushion pad you will need:
- Half a Metre of Fabric - This should be cut into to squares measuring 41.5cm x 41.5cm (16.5" x 16.5”)
- One 35 cm / 14” zip. It should be a regular zip not a concealed or invisible zip. A smaller zip will work, as long as you can squeeze your cushion pad through. So if you have a 10" zip in your stash that matches your fabric perfectly just go ahead and use it.
- Thread - choose a good quality thread such as Gutermann or Mettler. I like Mettler Seralon which is a good all round polyester thread, suitable for construction and embroidery. Gutermann's polyester Sew All thread is similar and equally good quality. Non-branded cheap threads tend to create more fluff and won't form such neat stitches.
- Applique Fabric Scraps - If you're going to do some Applique on your cushion you'll need some scraps. More on that below.
If you are planning to do some machine appliqué, you're going to need some extra scraps of fabric to create your design. Appliqué pieces are added to your base fabric before you start sewing your cushion together, so that's what we'll be looking at next week.
If you're not the type to hoard fabric scraps, one place you can always look is your own wardrobe or drawers. Here you may find some old bits and bobs that, let's face it, are never actually going to get worn again.
Or, if you've decided to purchase fabric for appliqué, you might want to take a look in the Quilting section at 'fat quarters'. These are pre-cut rectangles of fabric, normally about 9" x 22”. They are intended for quilting, but they work well for appliqué and craft projects too. You can buy them as single fat quarters or in packs, with a stack of various designs.
Wash Your Fabric!
Remember to wash your fabric before you start sewing, removing any shrinkage. If it’s a cotton you should be able to pop it in your washing machine; if you’re not sure, then hand wash it in cool water.
The key is to treat the cushion in the same way once you’ve sewn it – so if you only hand-washed it, then that’s the way to wash it afterwards. If you don’t plan on ever washing your finished cushion…well you don’t need to bother! The Dandelion print fabric above was dry clean only…. So I just went ahead started sewing. Of course, if I did ever want to wash the finished cushion covers, I would have to dry clean them, but I’ve managed so far by spot cleaning marks with a damp cloth
Once your fabric is washed, you need to iron it to remove all the creases. Next we're going to fold the fabric, bringing together the woven edges. These are known as the 'selvedges', and run parallel to the grainline of the fabric. With many fabrics, like the one we're using here, the selvedge is a distinctive white band of woven fabric. This is not always the case, but often.
By carefully lining up the selvedges you will be able to cut the two pieces of your cushion in one go, and you will have a straight edge to use as your guiding line. You may find, when you bring your selvedges together, that your 'raw edges' don't line up with each other. This is okay; they've probably been cut roughly with scissors. The main thing is that your selvedge are aligned.
Marking Out Your Pattern Piece
I think cutting out your fabric pieces can be the most daunting part of a project; it can just feel unwieldy and awkward. In dressmaking you’re often working with printed pattern pieces. But when it come to cushions, you just have a set of measurements, and it can be hard to know where to start.
My advice is to use squared paper. You can cut out your own templates, then line them up on your fabric. Each small square is 1cm, so it’s easy to mark out the size of your cushion. If you're going to use this method, I recommend a square of 42cm x 42cm, rather than the 41.5cm mentioned above. It's easier to cut along the red lines than to try and cut between them.
Once you have your template cut out, place it on the fabric, using the selvedge as a straight guide. Your template should be positioned just to the inside of the selvedge, as you don’t want this white woven band of fabric to be visible in your project! You can now pin your template to the fabric, making sure to pin nice and close to the edge of the pattern piece. Alternatively, you can draw around the template using tailor's chalk or a temporary fabric marker. I recommend using a ruler for this!
Quilting Ruler Option
If you don't want to use squared paper, the other option is to use a quilting ruler to draw out you cushion square. After fabric shears, sewing machine and pins, this is probably my next ‘must have’ bit of sewing kit. I could NOT do without my quilting ruler!
I start by establishing a straight line along the top, using the selvedge as a guide. So line up one end of the ruler with the selvedge and the long part of the ruler across the top. Draw a line.
Then use that line to measure the left side of your square, drawing in another straight line at right angles to the first. Each time you draw a new line, position one of the straight lines on your ruler over the last line you drew. This way everything should stay square.
As a side note, If you’re thinking about buying a quilting ruler, add a cutting mat and a rotary cutter to your shopping list. You need a ruler and a mat to use a rotary cutter. But once you have them, this nifty trio of tricks will do wonders for your fabric preparation! They make cutting fabric of all shapes and sizes so much easier. The mat shown in this photo is fairly small, but my advice is to get the biggest size you can afford; the bigger the better! All in, these three bits of kit will be about £50 - £70, but they are certainly well used in my sewing room. Put them on your Christmas wish list….
Right, you’ve marked a square on your fabric and you’re ready to cut. Double check the measurements one last time before you bring out the fabric shears. It’s reeeeally easy to misjudge and make a perfect square that is one inch too small; so check, check, then check again. Then cut. Then reward yourself with a cup of tea.
When you’re cutting, rest the shears on the table top; don’t lift your fabric up. It's often a good idea to put a few pins through both layers of your fabric before you start cutting, just to stop them sliding apart. Keep one hand on the inside of the cutting line, holding the fabric flat and the two pieces together, and the other moving the shears in firm long strokes. For the best cut, look at the tip of the shears and point it along the line, rather than focussing on the base of the sheers where the cut is actually happening. Trust me, it works.
And, of course, sharp shears make for easy, accurate cutting. Invest in a decent pair and keep them just for fabric. Do NOT let anyone use them for any of the following: opening a Tetra pack of orange juice, chopping up egg boxes to make a crocodile, or snipping the plastic ties off a cardboard box. I despair. Keep them hidden!
Our fabric should all be cut out, so time for the fun to start. Go and make yourself a well earned G&T and meet me back here promptly next Friday for some light hearted appliqué chat.
If you’re stuck or lost or just want to chat, post your queries below and I’ll be happy to help.
Happy Friday, enjoy the weekend!