patchwork turtle pillow . a tutorial (sort of)


As an avid thrifter and toy maker I have no small obsession with finding new ways to use cast-off textiles. I am particularly partial to any piece of fabric that has the touch of heirloom craft; embroidered hankies, table runners, hand-knit sweaters… One of my favorites is antique quilt tops. A quilt top is simply the top layer of the quilt sandwich before the batting and the backing have been sewn on.
When I was little my mother inherited several quilt tops that had been pieced together by her grandmother. Night after night she patiently quilted them with careful stitches, bound their edges with bright bindings and at last covered our beds with them. I kept mine with me through college and it came along when I moved cross-country to live in the boroughs of New York City in my early 20’s. Nine years later I still had a small, threadbare scrap of quilt that made the move with me back to the Midwest.img_0355A few years ago I spotted this patchwork apron in a thrift shop and although I have never found a use for delicate aprons around my kitchen I bought it on account of the colors and the beautiful fabric. I was sure I could find something to use it for…

One of the patterns that lives in my rambling stash is Simplicity 9740. When I found it I fell in love with the little patchwork turtle depicted on the cover. I discovered upon reading the instructions that it was only a patchwork print on the turtle’s shell !! which was a fairly common fabric motif back when the pattern was published in 1971. I stumbled upon both the apron and the pattern again the other day in a fit of sorting and it finally occurred to me to put the two together into what I am calling the Quilt Top Turtle!

This is not a tutorial in the most complete sense but I will provide you will all the info you need to track down the materials and make your own Quilt Top Turtle.


You Will Need
A copy of Simplicity 9740 or Simplicity 7367 ~ There are tons of copies of this pattern available on the internet. A quick google search should give you several to choose from. I used 9740 for my turtle pattern but from what I can tell 7367 is just an earlier printing (1967) with many of the same patterns.
5/8 yard of cotton fabric
A section of quilt top or patchwork ~ Quilt tops and vintage items made from quilt patches abound on Etsy and Ebay and they are nowhere near the price of an antique quilt. If you have been itching try your hand at quilt piecing you could even make your own quilt top to use or if you’ve ever started a quilt project that is now gathering dust in a closet because you forgot in your zeal to be the next Folk Fibers what a crap ton of work making an actual quilt is this is the perfect opportunity to get some use out of it!
 Two buttons for eyes (optional)

 First, prepare your fabric with a wash and pressing. When ironing your quilt top pieces spray them lightly with a little fabric starch. I swear by the one made by The Laundress. It gives just the right amount of structure to the fabric without making it at all stiff and it smells amazing! The starching just helps ease out all the bumpiness in the fabric caused by the seams between each patch. Having it really nice and flat will mean that your cutting will be more accurate and your construction process will proceed more smoothly. Once your patchwork is flat as a pancake lay out your pattern so that the patches line up symmetrically across the shape of the turtle in a pattern that pleases you. Don’t worry about the grainline since all of the patches in the quilt top will have the grain going every which way. When it is all cut up give each piece another quick press with the iron.

Once you’ve got the quilt top pieces taken care of, move on to cutting your fabric for the rest of the turtle according to the pattern directions. Essentially you are making two layers for the top of the turtle, the quilt top which will be visible and an underlining of cotton for strength and stability since antique fabric is not to be trusted alone in toy making on account of its fragile nature.

{Why use an old quilt at all then?? you ask. Because quilts are special fabrics. Often they contain scraps of cloth that bring back special memories; a dress your mother wore as a child, a print from a favorite skirt or one of Dad’s work shirts. Even if the patchwork you use doesn’t come from your own family’s fiber history an old quilt’s beauty is hard to match. And even as you mend it and patch it, as you will no doubt have need of doing as this turtle gets put through his paces, the patches will only add to the specialness and unique quality of the toy.} 

 Follow the pattern’s directions for construction. When sewing the pieces together sandwich them as shown below (left) with the underlining against the wrong side of the quilt top and the quilt top and whatever fabric you are using for the bottom of the turtle with right sides facing. (I choose to use the same fabric for both the underlining and the turtle’s underside, mainly so that as the underlining becomes visible in patches over time I wasn’t going to be looking at plain muslin. Now when the little holes appear I can just stitch around them and let the pink peek through. Alternately, I also saved the remnants of my apron to use as future patches since my patchwork apron was pretty threadbare to begin with.) 
Once the pieces are sewn you will grade the seams, trimming down the seam allowance on the underlining to at least 1/4″, 1/8″ if your quilt top is in good condition and the fabric is relatively strong and has a tight weave (grading the underlining – shown left).

If you find yourself, as I did, getting a bit frustrated because all of your pieces don’t match up EXACTLY, blame those pesky grainlines in your quilt top and not yourself. Simply repeat this phase to yourself while sewing the offending pieces, “I am making a pillow that is shaped like a turtle” and take a deep breath and have a good laugh.
Continue following the directions provided as you notch and turn the pattern pieces. The only adjustment I made to the construction process was not to put in the zipper on the underside of the turtle’s body or sew a removable pillow insert. I simply left an opening in the seam on the turtle’s belly, stuffed the body and stitched it up with a simple ladder stitch. The pattern was originally intended to be a bag that holds your little one’s pj’s as well as a pillow. I hate zippers and avoid them whenever possible but if you love the idea of this being a pajama bag as well as a pillow toy, by all means, follow the directions exactly.

Because I was making this turtle for my 5 1/2 month old daughter I omitted the button eyes that the pattern calls for and opted to arrange the pattern of patchwork on the face so that the darker patches gave a similar effect without the little choking hazards. Alternately, you could sew down little circles of felt for the eyes instead of buttons.

Our turtle was a big hit as a belly prop as Faye is taking every opportunity to practice sitting up all on her own!

This turtle is the first project in what I intend to be a monthly series called Lakeside Monthly Make which will run under the #lakesidemonthlymake hashtag on Instagram if you want to follow along. Each month a new project will be profiled here; from vintage patterns like this one to natural dyeing projects you can do at home, tutorials for sewing your own heirloom toys and even some projects for the not so little! I am so excited to be starting this series and I hope you will join in with any or all of the Monthy Makes!

Happy sewing everyone!

xo, e.

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