Black History Month: inspired to stitch

This Youngish Quilters Black History Month project uses recycled materials.  It is inspired by the workwear quilts made by African American women in the past, and recognises that many of today’s quilters are re-using fabrics for different reasons.

We started the month looking at the Quilters of Gee’s Bend.  Materials for quilt making there were scarce and so women used whatever they had available to keep their families warm, including old work clothes. The Souls Grown Deep Foundation , which is dedicated to promoting the work of African American artists from the South, has a whole section on their website about quilts made from work clothes.  They explain:

The tradition of the patchwork quilt was born of scarcity and resourcefulness, arising in times and places where the shortages of cloth called for the inventive salvaging of fabric scraps and remnants. In Gee’s Bend, this recycling practice became the founding ethos for generations of quiltmakers who have transformed otherwise useless material into marvels of textile art. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the majority of quilts from the area were made from worn-out work clothes, a palette of old shirts, overalls, aprons and dress bottoms whose stains, tears, and faded denim patches provide a tangible record of lives marked by seasons of hard labor in the fields of the rural South.

Many of us who make quilts today do so as a hobby – we cannot imagine the poverty that these families lived in. We can often buy whatever fabric we want. However, many people – and young people particularly – are increasingly concerned about the ‘throw-away’, disposable culture that they see around them and how this impacts on our world. Reusing and recycling practices are increasingly promoted because of environmental concerns and some quilt makers are choosing to use recycled materials because of this.  Today’s project uses old denim jeans to make a new piece of art, inspired by the workwear quilts made by African American women in Gee’s Bend

Below are project guidelines rather than a strict set of instructions – this is ‘improvised’ style patchwork and we hope you are inspired to create your own piece using recycled fabrics.

The project

Project inspiration

I used this photograph from the book Unconventional & unexpected.  American Quilts below the radar by Roderick Kiracofe to inspire my piece. The maker of this quilt is unknown but it was found in Louisiana and is thought to have been made between 1930 and 1960. It is made of denim work clothes and is tied with string.


Tying is a form of quilting – it holds the layers together and can look very decorative as you see all the knots on the top of the quilt.  Buttons can also be stitched on to tie a quilt.

I thought this quilt was really beautiful – the limited colour palette is so striking.  I have several pairs of jeans that have worn in different places so I don’t wear them any more but there is still lots of usable fabric in them so I haven’t thrown them away.  I found two pairs in contrasting denim and used them to make my own piece.

What you’ll need:


  • some old/recycled fabrics (I’m using worn denim jeans – I suggest you check with an adult before cutting up your clothes!)
  • wadding
  • backing
  • embroidery threads

How to make it:

Cut out the usable fabric from the materials you are recycling.  I cut away the hems, seams and worn pieces from my jeans but kept the pockets.


I used two pairs of jeans to get some colour variation in my fabrics.


Decide on the size you want your finished piece to be (I aimed for 18″ square for a cushion). Stitch pieces of denim together in columns to the desired size.


This is a form of ‘improvised’ piecing – which means creating the pattern as you go along.  I chose to cut my denim into smaller squares and rectangles before stitching it together.  It is up to you how much you plan your design or whether you ‘go with the flow’. If you are using a thick fabric don’t cut your pieces too small though as the seams tend to be very bulky.

Each time you stitch a column press your seams – because of the bulk of denim I pressed my seams open.

Straighten the edges of your columns so you can sew them together.


Keep stitching fabrics together until your piece reaches the size you want it to be.


As well as using dark and light denim, I decided to include a pocket on my piece.  There may be interesting features in your recycled fabrics that you can use to add detail to your design.

Once your patchwork top is finished, square it up and layer with wadding and backing.  Pin, tack or glue-baste your layers together.


Using chalk or another temporary marker, draw a grid on the front of your quilt.  I drew my lines 2″ apart.  This is to guide you when you tie your quilt.


I tied my quilt with cotton embroidery threads.  You will need a needle with a  large eye which your thread will go through. It also needs to be sharp enough to go through the layers – particularly if you have used denim or another thick fabric for the top.


Thread your needle with a length of thread.  You don’t need a knot at the other end.  Start from the middle of your quilt and work out to the edges.  Start stitching from the front – stitch through to the back of the quilt leaving a 2″ tail of thread on top. Come up about 1/8″ away.


Go back down through the layers and up again to stitch one stitch.  Cut the other end of the thread – again to leave a tail of about 2″.  Tie these two ends together in a double knot and trim the tails to about 1″. You’ve made your first tie.


Work across the quilt to tie it using your grid as a guide.


I have used a variegated thread but you could use just one colour – or different threads if you prefer.

Keep tying until your whole piece is done. You can then rub off the chalk grid.


You can then finish your piece into whatever item you wish.  I’m going to make mine into a cushion but you could make a mat, or a wall-hanging – or go big and make a whole quilt.

As always – if you’ve been inspired to stitch by something you’ve seen here on Youngish Quilters please do send us a photograph – we love to see what you’ve made.

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