How to make a ribbon quilt

13 October 2006 Comments

When I was trying to decide what to do with my old horse show ribbons, I saw some quilts a professional makes. I liked the idea of quilts quite a bit, and she is a beautiful sewer, no doubt about it–but I couldn’t really afford the cost of having someone else make the quilt for me. I wondered if I could do it and decided the only way to find out was… to do it. (View the finished quilts)

Pattern Selection

If you aren’t planning to use all your ribbons, you need to measure them (length and width) and determine your total fabric “area” for each color. Then look through pattern books and sites, and find a quilt that will work with your colors/available fabric amounts. If you sew regularly, you might consider getting a program like Electric Quilt, which lets you design your own quilts–it would be easier to test out the different patterns with your available colors.

I was planning to use all my ribbons, including the championship and year-ends, so I just cut off all the rosettes and started laying out designs on the floor. I wanted to use all the printed parts of the ribbons and wasn’t worried about the rest, so I rearranged until I found a pattern I liked.

Prepping the Ribbons

Mine were very, very dusty and very, very creased, so I washed them in cool water with a very mild soap. Then I quickly ran the iron over them to get out the worst creases and left them to dry overnight. They turned out beautifully.

However, if the iron is too hot I found it would rub off the printing. If you don’t need to wash your ribbons, you might want to try ironing with a thin damp cloth between the iron and the ribbons–that might help with the rub-off that I was seeing (of course, my ribbons were also old; I’m sure that didn’t help).

Pay attention to any very crooked ribbons–those will be hard to sew and, if you can, you should put them in the “don’t use” pile.

Prepping the Machine

I bought new needles for the machine–as thin as I could get them. I didn’t want to make large holes, because ribbons tend to show the holes and not close over. Regular all-purpose thread worked great for me. I ran a couple of test ribbons (pink and purple unprinted pieces I wasn’t planning on using) and adjusted the tension. I forget which way I had to adjust, but it wasn’t on the default setting. Also, while I tested, I found out the ribbons slide a bit while I sew. I didn’t want to pin them (the visible hole issue), so I found I had to hold the ribbons fairly tight while sewing them–that’s probably why I had to make so many adjustments to the thread tension.

Take your time testing, because once you figure out what works to get a nice seam, the rest of the quilt is EASY.


My pattern was a modified Courthouse Steps, so I was sewing straight line after straight line. It went very quickly. Every now and then I squared up my blocks, to make sure everything was the same size and would line up correctly. Once I had all nine blocks done, I sewed three together for a row, and then sewed all three rows together. Like an idiot, I put one row on upside down, so I had to rip the seam and sew it back again. Moral of the story: remember you’re dealing with printed fabrics and it does matter which way things face.

Backing and Binding

I wanted to back the quilt so I could type out my results and put them on the quilt as well. I used a thin batting and a heavy cotton material; in the future, I’d go with a heavy muslin and no batting. I did end up pinning the backing and batting in place so that it wouldn’t shift while I was sewing it down–I just made sure the pins went through the seams so the holes wouldn’t show on the front of the quilt. Instead of binding, I sewed right-sides-together and then turned the quilt inside (or rightside…whichever you like) out. I hand-sewed the opening. I like the look, but you might prefer to sew regularly and bind the quilt.

I am not quilting down the batting. Instead, I’m going to sew some tabs on the quilt to hang some of the rosettes. I figure the tabs will work in the same way “tying” a quilt works–they’ll be enough to keep the batting in place, but I won’t have to worry about quilting down the whole thing.

Lessons Learned

In some ways, I find quilting ribbons easier than regular fabric–or, at least, there’s less cutting involved. It takes a little more time to make sure everything is staying lined up and square, but otherwise it was straightforward.

The biggest problem was the thread tension–it could be great for a while, and then it would suddenly slip and the back of the seam would be loops and snags.

The needles also broke two or three times. However, keep in mind that I was using very thin needles–they weren’t made for sewing through something as heavy as ribbons. Changing needles is easy, and it was worth buying extra needles so that I’d have smaller holes along the seams.

My seam allowances were TINY–as close to the edge of the ribbon as I could get them. That’s hard to maintain, and takes concentration. But any bigger, and you start to lose printed material on the front.

Despite my best intentions, the ribbons aren’t always perfectly straight in the front. Sometimes the ribbons were crooked, and to get them in the quilt I had to turn the ribbon slightly for the straight seam. I’ve been debating whether it would be better to trim all the ribbons straight before starting, or if that would cause problems because some wouldn’t be as wide as others. My crookedness problem I was able to correct each time I squared up the blocks.

Metallic thread is evil. I had considered using it because it would match the print on the ribbons, but it was IMPOSSIBLE to work with. I could not get the thread tension right, and it would snag and pull every time. I’m just glad I figured that out before I got to the “to quilt the top or not” stage–it would have been a disaster if I’d tried top quilting with metallic thread.

Despite the problems, I really enjoyed making the quilt. It took about three days to make and looks fantastic hanging on the wall. I was worried it was going to be too “hard” or something, but, really, it was a straightforward job. The hardest part was setting the thread tension and then going slowly enough to keep everything straight–everything else was much the same as regular quilting.

Tagged: Horse Shows, Horses, Ribbon Quilts


Donna Melton 17 January 2015

I am about yo do a ribbon quilt for my daughter’s birthday.  Did you press your seams once you sewed the ribbons right side together?  I’m a little worried about melting the ribbons.  Thank you for posting your experience for fellow quilters.

Sarah 18 January 2015

I did.

I didn’t have problems with the ribbons melting, but the printing on the ribbons was pretty sensitive to heat and wanted to rub off. As a result, I didn’t press the seams too thoroughly.

If your ribbons have multiple streamers and you are only going to use the middle one from each ribbon, you can use the outer streamers to practice with—both to get the machine set up right, and also so you can see how sensitive the ribbons are to the iron. If the outer streamers have printing along the edges, even better.

I obviously used some of my outer streamers in my quilts, but after I laid out the design I found I had plenty of spares to practice with for a bit to start.

Good luck! I had a lot of fun with it, and I was happy with the result—particularly given my relative lack of experience with quilting.

Rachel Harman 3 March 2015

I loved how you described everything. As an intermediate quilt myself I was looking for some good tips on how to go about this. One thing that might help you later on is that most metallic thread is actually used best when doing embroidery and not quilting. Hope you keep going with a few more ribbon quilts!

Lynn McClure 25 June 2015

I’m trying to learn how to make ribbon quilts.  I have a LOT of ribbons over my 40 years of showing dogs.  I’m finding that some that quilt ribbons sew their ribbons together, right sides together, forming a seam, and others just stitch ribbons onto the backing fabric using a decorative stitch. Which is better in your opinion?

Sheryl Harm 25 June 2015

I just put one together and used small seams to sew together my pattern.  I did some blocks with the ribbons diagonal and the other blocks with ribbons attached vertical. I attached the rows with a single row of ribbons for my sashing strips. I pressed all my seams to one side and used a pressing cloth, because the iron can get too hot and melt the ribbons. I sewed some of the strings attached to the ribbons in specific placed seams and these will hold the rosettes.  And I did add some photos in the design too. I am planning to put a backing on and sew a binding strip around it. And I will do some stitches in the ditch to secure the top to the backing.

I did not have any issues with the needle (standard) or tension.

Sarah 26 June 2015

Lynn, I used seams.

First, some of my ribbons were pretty old and not straight vertically. They also had some fraying edges. These things were easier for me to deal with by using the seam approach.

I’m also a mediocre sewer, and my lines are not 100% straight. If the thread were showing, any wobbles would have been magnified—especially if the thread were not the same color as the ribbon. But changing the thread color out all the time would have been tedious, especially since I was having tension problems with the machine.

It would take a better sewer than I am to use the decorative stitching approach, but with the right sewer/ribbons I think there’s a huge advantage to being able to show off the borders on the fancier ribbons.

Lynn McClure 2 August 2015

I bit the bullet and started piecing together a ribbon quilt last night.  So far it seems I can get the seasm straight.  I guess all these beautiful quilts made with horse ribbons are much larger because the ribbons are much larger.  I’ll be making squares until the cows come home to get enough to make a decent wall hanging, let alone a decorative quilt.  My ribbons are 2 by 8’s mostly AKC flats and some streamers.  grin

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