A handmade quilt imparts great warmth, both literally and figuratively, and the emotional ties we feel to an heirloom that has taken hundreds of hours to complete cannot be computer generated or machine made. However, machines can copy traditional patterns and designs, which can makes discerning a handmade piece from a mass-produced one tricky. The more you know about the history of the style of quilt you're interested in, and about the art of quilting itself, the better equipped you'll be to determine whether you're getting your money's worth, but here are a few tips that will help get you started.
Find out the year
Find out the year the quilt was made. Industrial quilting machines have been widely used since the late 1970s. If you can verify that the quilt was made long before that era, there's a good chance it is handmade.
Become familiar with quilt block patterns and how they've changed over time. Are the colors of the quilt electric, and is the pattern large and geometric? Then you might have a modern quilt or you might have a quilt that was made in the 1970s, in which case you should inspect it closely. Does the quilt have a great deal of reds and velvets and in small areas there are rips here and there? You might have a crazy quilt from the Victorian era. Certain styles, because of their randomness, are very hard to reproduce by machine.
Look closely at the stitching
Look closely at the stitching, particularly at the stitch length and spacing. In older quilts this is not always easy to do because the fabric typically puffs up and covers the stitching as the batting shifts over time. Invest in a small magnifying glass so that you can examine the stitches and how evenly spaced they are. If the stitches are consistently evenly spaced all over the piece, then you know it's a machine-made quilt. Hand-stitching, even when done by a pro, will show some unevenness within the line.
Count the number
Count the number of stitches per inch. Some traditions — Amish quilting, for example — favor small stitches, with at least six stitches per inch. In these cases, if you see very long stitches, it might be the work of a machine.
Check for imperfections
Check for imperfections. A handmade quilt will not look "perfect," especially if it has been used for decades. A machine-made quilt, on the other hand, will be uniform. If a quilt has been made by a quilting circle, you'll be able to see a great variety of stitches throughout the piece, marking where each artist contributed.