Thursday, February 18, 2010

Promise Stitch

About a year and a half ago, I became curious about the Promise stitch , after finding next to nothing but "kits"-- I asked for comments.  The responses still didn't give me a clear picture, and gradually, I forgot about it. 

Tuesday, I received an email from Carol Jo with the best information I've been able to discover.  I asked if I could share, and Carol Jo graciously agreed.

  I was just looking at your blog and thought I would share some information w/ you about Promise stitch.
   First of all the reason you can't find any information about Promise stitch is because even though it is an old art handed down from woman to woman (in the beginning it was really the men that did the quilting) It was not called promise stitch, they just called it "quilting in the way". I've learned about promise stitch from a lady who really is the only lady that knows the stories, patterns etc. from way back when. She learned it as a little girl.  It became known as promise stitch when she was asked to speak at a guild and talked about the promises you have to make. One of the ladies asked her if she could learn more about promise stitch and from that time on it was referred to promise stitch. Which was in the late 80's early 90's I can't remember the exact date.
     There are hundreds of patterns that we use in Promise stitch but not every pattern is a promise stitch pattern. We have a log cabin pattern but it's nothing like the traditional log cabin.
  You probably learned what you know about promise stitch from The gals at Mountain Patchworks, or from their Pattern Line. Though they do have some very beautiful patterns they are not true promise stitch patterns.
  It did originate in the Appalachian Mtns
   A few things about promise stitch.........
   *Everything is done by hand, no machine.
  *No pins what so ever and we
  *never mark our seams.
You are supposed to learn what a quarter inch looks like and my quarter inch is mine and yours is yours. One gal has a tiny quarter inch and her name is April.........from that time on any tiny quarter inch was called an "April quarter"
  *all fabric is pre-washed and dried but NEVER ironed
  our batting is flannel (not the back of the quilt) and it is never pre-washed.  Once your quilt is quilted it's washed and when the flannel shrinks it gives everything that wonderful antique look that we call "shadow kiss" The more shadow kiss the better. Over quilting will take away the shadow kiss. We do have some quilts w/ no batting or binding. Those are called summer spreads. The double stitch or Promise Stitch is what keeps the seams from raveling.
  *Promise Stitch quilts are never bound. Each outside edge is turned under 1/4" and stitched together w/ what's called a railroad stitch. I've heard it called a ladder stitch elsewhere. We will finish our top, layer our top, batting and back and baste it in a spider web pattern in a thread that shows up well. Then we will go ahead and Railroad stitch our edges. Once the railroad stitch is finished we will quilt a running stitch 1/4" in from the outside edge. Now our quilts are very easy to take w/ us to quilt w/ out things getting messed up. They are quilted on the opposite side of the ditch from where we did the promise stitch and then the borders are either quilted in what we call "mashed potatoes" which is like a serpentine back and forth and looks like a potato masher. the other is called chicken trot and is like the machine stitched stipple.
   *When we cut our fabrics we use a rotary cutter blade w/ a pinking edge or we use pinking shears. This helps keep them from unraveling while we are working on our quilts.
  *Don't pinning allowed, if a real promise stitcher sees you using pins she will steal them from you.
 *We use the same thread for pcing as we do quilting and we dress our thread w/ a homemade goats milk soap. Once you have used the soap to dress your thread you will never go back to things like thread heaven or use that awful coated hand quilting thread.
  Seams are not "pressed" towards the dark necessarily. (never pressed w/ an iron of course just finger pressed and then promise stitched down) Your first patch (pc of fabric) is called home. When you start stitching all seams go away from home. then next row the seams go towards home.
  example 9 patch:
  home is patch 1 in row one,
so seam goes to right as your looking at the top of your patches.
  patch one in row two the seams go towards, then in row three the seams go away.
  When you do your promise stitch you do catch the mtns of the seam on the back. But if you are doing what we call Press patching (this is where the block is pc'd on a pc of flannel like foundation pc'ing) then all blocks are pc'd togeather and no more batting is added. Instead of promise stitching through the seam you stitch just to the outside of it so it "floats" between the flannel and your top patch. So not so many layers to stitch through.
   Our quilts have lots of other hand work be it critters or applique'. We do our applique' a little bit different. It's called back steps applique' because instead of like needle turn where you go forward w/ each stitch you go back a lil then forward a lil.  After your needle comes out, you go back in a little bit behind where it came out then point it forwards and come out ahead of where it last came out. This method gives your applique' a lot more dimension and softness.
  Promise stitch quilts are always signed on the front in thread, Promise stitch pillows on the back w/ thread.
   Hope you've found this information helpful and interesting. let me know if you have any questions.
Carol Jo
In reply, to my asking if I could share the information on my blog and if she had a blog:
I don't have a blog but yes you may share the information, that's what promise stitch is all about. I can't remember if  mentioned the 3 promises as the note to you was also to someone else who has a blog and they had already posted what the three promises are.
1. Always use the double stitch
2. Everything is by hand, no machines allowed for a promise quilt
3. Share.......Share your knowledge, share your fabric, share your love.
Carol Jo
Isn't that wonderful information about a treasured tradition?  Thanks so much, Carol Jo, for sharing!  Wouldn't you love to see some of the genuine Promise patterns and how they differ from the traditional patterns with which we are familiar?


  1. Wow, that is wonderful info. Makes me want to go to TN & find a bee so I can crawl under the frame and listen to the stories.

  2. Wanda - I'd love to that as well. To hear the stories and see a Promise quilt in progress!

  3. Yes,very interesting !!Thanks for sharing this information with us !!

  4. betty - I was so glad to get a better explanation of the process!

  5. I would love to join you under the quilt frame so I can actually see how it all comes together ..... is there backing fabric as well as the flannel ..... and I had a smile that you can use a rotary cutter with a wavy blade but not a sewing machine!

    Judy B

  6. That was really interesting info. I love to read about quilt history. Are you going to make a quilt using this method? Lynne

  7. JudyB - Wouldn't that be the ideal way to learn? I liked the idea of the summer quilts with no batting, but even using flannel as batting would be lighter weight.

    Quilts&Cats - I might try something small...very small! Then maybe progress to a baby quilt. Right now, I just need to begin something; I'm not getting any sewing done at the moment. :\

  8. This is very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I had never even heard of Promise stitching before reading your blog.

  9. MamaSpark - It is difficult to find information about the Promise stitch, which is why I'm so grateful to Carol Jo for sharing!

  10. THanks for sharing this beautiful history! So now I'm intrigued- what does a promise stitch log cabin look like-how is it different?
    cathryn in corvallis, OR

  11. Anon. -- finding pictures is really a bit difficult. I haven't had much luck finding much other than commercial kits!

  12. Hi:
    I found your blog (and very glad I did)from a Hand Quilting page on Facebook. I was wondering about the goats milk soap bar and treating your threads to a real treat. Can you tell me if the soap leaves stains, or marks if the quilt piece was washed? Really interested in this and hoping things will be better than what I have been using.
    Thanks so much,
    Vicki R

  13. What a wonderful gift she shared with all of us. I couldn't stop and I actually had a tear in my eyes, wondering what it would be like to live back then. I would like to know what type of Goats Milk Soap was suggested. I went to the recommended page, and there are so many to choose from. Does it matter scented or unscented? Again thank you so much.

  14. There is a group in the Bitterroot valley, Hamilton Montana. If you look at Facebook Promise Stitch or stitchers I think they have a page. Love the explanation here. Very accurate.

  15. This is wonderful! None close, but four hours away so am trying to work out how to get it going here. Thank you and thanks Carol.


Good to hear from you!