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MY HOBBY: Patchwork in progress: She never thought she'd have the patience for quilting but from Helen Zaltzman's first stitch, she was hooked: PHOTOGRAPHY Felix Clay

May 10, 2014

Throughout my life I've enjoyed sewing, embroidery, applique, painting, making the world's first (and only?) giant inflatable Boggle set - but for my first three decades I shunned patchwork. I thought I was too impatient to start a project that usually involves carefully cutting dainty cloth patches, tacking them to fragments of paper, joining those in an orderly pattern to form a block and ironing at every juncture. Then repeating this tedious process dozens of times until there are enough blocks for a quilt.

Despite all my rational objections, I was still drawn to patchwork. There's social history in the stitches: before home entertainment, women used to gather together to finish off quilts. In 19th-century America, a woman was expected to complete 13 quilts before her wedding - 12 for everyday use, and one intricate bridal quilt that had to be flawless, as any wonky stitches augured bad luck for the marriage. Over the years, the patterns earned evocative names: Delectable Mountains, Drunkard's Path, Goose in the Pond, Crazy Ann. I decided my Desert Island Discs luxury would be piles of cotton prints, so that I can finally crack patchwork as I await rescue or death, whichever comes first.

Two other things increased my love of patches. The first was a visit to the De Young museum in San Francisco to see an exhibition of Amish quilts. Famous for austerity, these people had a sideline in vibrant patchwork, recycling offcuts into graphic abstract compositions that prefigured Mark Rothko or Frank Stella by decades.

The second was my Pre-Wedding Madness. With one month to go, there were endless decisions. For starters, I had 35 metres of hired tables that required covers. For the same price as damask tablecloths, I discovered, you can buy yards of bright cottons, African wax prints, sari fabric and remnants. So I opted for those instead. And because handicrafts never fail to improve my mood, it felt like a good time to take up patchwork. On a grand scale.

With the deadline looming, I supersized the patterns. Patchwork is pretty quick when your smallest piece is a foot square, and giant designs are also a good way for beginners to learn, as big pieces are far less fiddly to sew.

Machine sewing is quicker, but hand sewing is soothing and cheap: you don't need much to start, beyond a few online tutorials or charity shop craft books, sharp scissors and a lot of pins. Use non-slippery fabrics of similar weights, woven not jersey (jersey wriggles and stretches), and wash them beforehand, so they don't ruin your finished piece by shrinking at different rates.

While learning, stick to right-angled shapes, which are much easier to cut and align. I enjoy clashing colours and prints - when enough are forced together, they create a noisy harmony.

After the wedding, I gave the tablecloths to friends, and carried on making patchwork for them - I love constructing the pieces, but I don't need to keep them afterwards. It tickles me to transform my old pyjamas and my husband's boxer shorts into my friends' bedcovers, tablecloths, picnic blankets or cushions. The more I do, the more ideas I have - the potential is as limitless as the combinations of colours and shapes.

Helen podcasts, writes and makes idiosyncratic patchwork for her friends. Find out more about all these things at


Hip to be square

Three creative patchwork blogs

01. For bright designs and quirky ideas

02 For large-scale, stunning quilts


03. For reviews of the best new

quilting books

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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