Monday, March 8, 2021

The Big Stitch Story, #1

Big Stitch quilting is exactly what its label reads: quilting stitches that are purposefully larger than average quilting where you try to make tiny stitches. In addition, Big Stitch is often done in heavier thread that is a contrasting color. But where did Big Stitch come from? Who named it and brought the technique forward as a 'real' species of stitching? Sit back and read the Big Stitch story as I've been able to reconstruct it. Because the subject of Big Stitching is deep, I've divided the blog into two postings. The first is today's and the second is March 20-National Quilting Day. 


Early Sampler quilt by Laury

In the 1960s textile artists like Jean Ray Laury, who worked in felt early on, set the stage for later Big Stitch enthusiasts. One of her earlier quilts shows how she used Big Stitch in her work to embellish applique motifs.

Jean Dubois published Wool Quilts in 1985 and some individual quilt artists, such as Roberta Horton and Judy Hopkins, were starting to emulate the aesthetic of old-timey scrap quilts and occasionally used thicker thread and larger stitches in their work. But the Quilter’s Newsletter magazine article on Big Stitch in 1995, written by Jo Glover (Walters) really got the ball rolling. 

Jo is a self-taught artist who had studied and worked in England. She made wool quilts and had been inspired by old Welsh wool quilts. Jo determined that her own hand quilting could be both big and beautiful. She coined the term Big Stitch and it stuck. She advised using #8 perle cotton and a larger quilting needle and keeping the tension light as you quilted. 

Jo advised that you choose simple and open designs to Big Stitch and to not be afraid to superimposed curved quilting designs over a pieced block.


The highest hurdle in the acceptance of Big Stitch was quilters’ own prejudices and Jo challenged that too. When she entered a show sponsored by the National Quilting Association, the judges came smack up against Big Stitch in Jo's quilts for the first time. After a huddled conference, the judges decided in Jo’s favor. 

Their verdict: when the stitching was deliberately large and bold and added to the quilt’s overall beauty, Big Stitch would be accepted as a quilt stitch technique even in competition.  

After learning Big Stitch from Jo, Billie Lauder wrote a small book on the subject. Then Jo was a guest artist on the TV program Simply Quilts and Big Stitch was off to a great start in the quilting world.

Part of Jo's defense of larger-size stitches argued that even some antique quilts displayed these stitches. And she was right. Big Stitch had even deeper roots than the work of 20th century artists.

American Southern Quilts

Southern rural scrap quilts often show larger-than-average quilting stitches. Traditional old-timey Appalachian quilters, who quilt laying down large hand stitches, have told me that they’re proud they can hand-quilt a quilt in days rather than weeks. So at least some of the history of Big Stitch can be traced to poverty and plain living where fancy stitching and fine handwork had no place and you needed to get that quilt done!

Note: in the 1890s, crazy quilting, a craft where showing your stitches was almost a national mania, may have contributed to the show-n-tell style of Big Stitch quilting.

Early 20th Century Quilt Writers

By the 1920s, quilting had made it into print. Quilt authors, while they loved to talk about fine tiny stitches in older quilts, also realized that their readership might not have the skill to produce noteworthy work. The point was to encourage their readers to quilt at whatever level. 

Ruby Short McKim, author and newspaper writer (who later ran McKim Studios mail order business) wrote the best-selling book on quilting titled One Hundred and One Patchwork Patterns in 1931.

Ms. McKim wrote sympathetically, "-it is difficult to take small, even stitches, through three thicknesses, especially as one of these is a rather heavy cotton." Ms. McKim encouraged, inadvertently, a Big Stitch quilting style through her writing. 

McKim's support of larger quilt stitching was also implied when she appeared in public. When she and her husband Arthur set up a display of her book 101 Patchwork Patterns in a department store for a book signing event, sample quilts which McKim had commissioned formed a colorful backdrop. Rather than tiny almost-invisible quilting stitches, McKim’s sample quilts (made on her orders) often displayed stitches in contrasting colored thread and a tad larger-than-average stitch size. The quilting showed purposefully. To the viewer encountering quilts for the first time, McKim’s quilts were stitched just right.

In The Big Stitch Story #2 (March 20) I'll discuss other influences on Big Stitch Quilting and its revival today.