Heirloom Sewing Techniques for Today’s Quilter

What do quilts, LED lights, and heirloom sewing techniques have in common? Art quilter and Quilting Daily forum moderator Cheryl Sleboda (aka Muppin)!

cheryl sleboda
Cheryl Sleboda

Cheryl is perhaps best known for embellishing her quilts and other fiber art (like artist trading cards) with LED lights–a technique that’s pretty “out there” even for an art quilter. So when we heard her latest projects featured traditional sewing techniques like smocking, pleating, gathers, and so on, we had to ask: How did that happen?

Cheryl: Well, it has happened literally! One of my first heavily fabric manipulated pieces was supposed to be this juxtaposition of old and new. So that piece has both heirloom techniques in it, and LED lights. But in the sense that they are both from me, I’m drawn to both sides of the spectrum. I love to see where we have come from by looking at vintage books on sewing techniques and making them new, and cutting edge technology by putting lights into my artwork. I certainly don’t mind being known for both!

QD: How did you learn smocking and what triggered your interest in it?


art quilt from sewing tutorial video with cheryl sleboda
Art quilt by Cheryl Sleboda featuring heirloom sewing techniques.


I was really drawn to the beautiful effect when it’s all done. I learned from very old books that had one photo of a diagram and a written sewing tutorial. These books range in age from the late 1800’s through 1940, and they all assumed you know how to sew, so much of the directions were hard to read! Once I figured it out, I wanted to make it easy for myself the next time. I always get asked how I made those parts. People usually think I spent a lot of time weaving strips of fabric, but when I show them that it’s just a series of tucks on the back, it’s a huge, pleasant surprise.

QD: What takes these techniques from precious children’s clothing to cutting-edge art quilting?

CS: Smocking doesn’t have to be just for clothing, although that’s where all of it started. You can replace a block in any type of quilt with a piece of manipulated fabric for visual interest, whether you are a modern, traditional, or art quilter. As art quilters we tend to want to add volume to our work, by adding embellishments and other surface design techniques. These are just more techniques in that arsenal for quilters to use. All of the techniques in garment and heirloom sewing are usable to bring a different dimension to your work, and I love that.

QD: Are there fabrics that work best?

CS: I stick to commercial and hand-dyed cottons for my work, but velvet and silk both manipulate beautifully! The new “shot” cottons are really cool when manipulated. They get that bit of iridescence to them and that’s a neat effect.

QD: What kind of tools and skills do you need?


basketweave quilt stitch by cheryl sleboda
Cheryl Sleboda shows how to sew a quilt with heirloom
sewing techniques like this basketweave pattern.


The best part of this kind of sewing is that you don’t need anything fancy to get started. You more than likely have everything you need already: needles, thread, fabric, a pencil, and a ruler. I developed the Heirloom Smocking Template to make marking a design go a lot faster so you can get to the fun part, which is sewing, of course! It’s great for beginners, you just need to know how to knot a thread and take a few stay stitches. It’s a great small hand project for travel. I use a machine for some of the techniques, but you can always do what our great grandmothers did and sew by hand, too.

QD: Is smocking difficult? What are some tips for success?

CS: Oh, no, it’s not difficult at all. One of the best parts is that the effect looks difficult, but it’s so easy to do! One of the easiest ways to be successful is to start with using my Heirloom Smocking Template. The directions are so simple, and you’ll get a few designs for smocking variations to get you started, and the template will save you oodles of time.

Cheryl demonstrates smocking, pleating, tucking, and more on her new Quilting Arts Workshop video: Heirloom Sewing Techniques for Today’s Quilter. The video includes her templates and all the instructions you need for learning how to sew a quilt with these heirloom methods.

P.S. Have you ever used dimensional sewing techniques in your quilting? What advice do you have for others? Leave your comment below.

Other topics you may enjoy:


Embellishing, Quilting Daily Blog, Quilting for Beginners, Quilting Techniques, Sewing Techniques

3 thoughts on “Heirloom Sewing Techniques for Today’s Quilter

  1. My grandmother started me down this smocking path and, as a girl, I made many pillows in the basketweave pattern. Now, I’m into fabric manipulation big-time and always searching for origami-like designs. NEED MORE!

  2. I learnt to smock at school and it was great fun.
    A friend of my Mothers had a little machine that she threaded the fabric through and it picked up the dots, so you only had to pull up the dots and then smock. There were so many different patterns to use, like knitting.