Beginning quilters could be forgiven for thinking that only the most old-fashioned quilters use templates anymore. Considering that strip piecing and quick-piecing techniques are the order of the day for many modern patterns, it’s understandable. At a time in quilting’s history when at least one rotary cutter is assumed to be in every sewing room and time-saving techniques abound, templates carry an association with older, slower, and more complicated methods.
To be sure, there was a time not too long ago when template piecing was pretty much the only game in town, even for the most basic traditional blocks composed of easy geometric shapes. Talk to anyone who’s been quilting for more than three decades and you’ll probably hear stories about cutting templates from cereal boxes accompanied by chuckles and rolled eyes.
In addition to those homemade cardboard templates, quilters have had commercially made templates available to them for a lot longer than many might guess. Quilters Newsletter magazine, Quiltmaker’s “big sister” publication, was founded in 1969 essentially as a bonus that was included with Bonnie Leman’s Heirloom Plastics mail-order catalog. Bonnie had been designing plastic templates based on quilt block patterns she found in old newspapers and ladies magazines, and then advertising them mainly in the Midwest where traditional quilting was still done throughout the post-WWII years and into the 1960s.
The first issue of Quilters Newsletter in September 1969, billed as an “introductory sample issue,” included the Heirloom Plastics catalog in the back with this description:
“In colonial times, when paper was scarce, ladies who could afford it had their quilt patterns cut from metal by the local blacksmith. These metal templates would not wear out and could be passed on to neighbors, friends, and relatives. Heirloom Plastics was started with the idea that modern day quilters would like these long-lasting templates also, if they could be made available at reasonable prices. So, we are pleased to offer you the advantages of these traditional metal patterns in modern plastic. The plastic we use is thin so it will be lightweight, but it is stiff and firm. It is just flexible enough so that it can be cut without breaking or splitting. We believe our plastic patterns are a great improvement over ordinary paper patterns, and we think you will be very pleased with the advantages they offer you.”
By 1978, Quilters Newsletter ran ads for square metal templates in a variety of sizes sold by the Leman retail shop, Quilts & Other Comforts. And in an example of an early “quilting hack,” they also sold sheets of the plastic used for Shrinky Dinks crafts, saying it was ideal for making pattern templates. The advertising copy warned against heating this plastic “unless you want to make an interesting patchwork necklace.”
Then there was a 1980 Quilts & Other Comforts ad for Plastigraph, “a happy marriage between two items modern quiltmakers consider essential—graph paper and template plastic. It is 12-squares-to-the-inch graph printed on template plastic sheets 8½” x 11” … It saves a whole step in the template making procedure. You can trace any printed pattern directly onto the see-through Plastigraph.”
The Yours Truly Quilter’s Template system—including squares, diamonds and triangles made from “clear, molded plastic”—was advertised in another 1980 issue.
The move away from using templates to cut all simple geometric patches appears to have been gaining popularity in the late 1970s. Speed Quilts, published by Leslie W. Overstreet in 1979—the same year Olfa introduced its first rotary cutter—combined strip piecing with templates. A 1980 review in QN of The Quick Quiltmaking Handbook by Barbara Johannah called it “a good reference work … especially since it includes tips on using many tools of the trade that have just recently become popular.”
By the late 1980s, acrylic triangle rulers of the sort many of us have in our sewing rooms were being advertised, as were rotary cutters, mats and rulers.
Despite this shift toward faster techniques and new tools, Quilters Newsletter and Quiltmaker patterns were still mostly written for template piecing. A June 1987 “Tools of the Trade ” article in Quilters Newsletter included this paragraph toward the end:
Rotary Cutter: Fast and Sharp
While it is possible to make a quilt without one final cutting tool, many quiltmakers now consider a rotary cutter to be indispensable. Borders, binding, and strips for Seminole patchwork and other strip-piecing techniques can be cut much faster and more accurately than with previous ruler-and-scissors methods.
QN’s “How to Make a Quilt: Easy Lessons for Beginners” series in 1988 still focused on template piecing and made only passing mention to “modern” tools when discussing essential supplies—”Rotary cutter, cutting mat, and a sewing machine are also considered indispensable by many quilters.” The series included no description of rotary cutting techniques, only template piecing, though rotary cutting was beginning to show up in other tutorials regarding half-square triangles and the like.
During this same period, Judy Martin was including a photo of a rotary cutter in ads for her books and tools. Other books with titles like Template-Free Quiltmaking were promoting “a new way of thinking about quilts” with an emphasis on “accurate, fast, and easy cutting and piecing” thanks to rotary cutting directions. Ads for piecing templates had completely disappeared from the pages of QN, replaced by ones for Omnigrid and other new tools designed to speed up the cutting of patches.
By 1991, Quiltmaker was starting to include rotary cutting and strip-piecing instructions alongside template-piecing instructions for some patterns. By the end of the decade, rotary cutting had become the standard across the entire quilting world, and template-pieced blocks were the exception when no other technique could suffice.
These days, templates for piecing can often be used in conjunction with rotary cutters. If the templates themselves aren’t available in sturdy acrylic form, then there are techniques for using a rotary cutter and regular acrylic ruler to cut many template shapes quickly and accurately, with no need for scissors.
And if there are acrylic templates available for a template-pieced design, so much the better. With some patterns, in spite of all the quick techniques and new products that have been developed in recent decades, you just can’t beat the unique look and engaging design possible through templates. So for the newer quilters out there, don’t let the word “template” scare you off. If you see a pattern you love, rest assured the tools to make it are close at hand. And you have the quilters who came before you to thank.