Piecing Lessons


After quilting a lot of Quilt Block of the Month Samplers this January, I have come to realize that there are several piecing tricks that the instructors and pattern creators NEVER tell (maybe they don't know them...maybe they forget to say it while teaching...I don't know). Thankfully, my neighbor taught me these tips when I was new to piecing and I would like to share them. It will make a stronger quilt top and ease some of your patchwork frustrations many of you have shared with me. This post is a work in progress. As I piece my next heirloom sampler, I will add photos of these tricks for illustration.

1. ALWAYS SQUARE EACH BLOCK INDIVIDUALLY. Wait! What? Square a block? What are you talking about? Crazy lady! Extra step? Ugh! I once thought that way too. Why, it will take more time?

The answer is simple, even with the most precise 1/4 inch foot and expensive sewing machines, your seam line will skew even by the tiniest thread. Also, fabric is caught up in the seam when it is pressed over, creating micro-differences in the width of the finished quilt block. The more pieces there are in this quilt block, and the more intricate the piecing--the more fabric shrink goes into these seams. I know your thinking--but don't the quilt makers calculate out the seam difference? Yes they do, but they cannot calculate in how much shrink occurs from pressing seams. This means that when you finish your quilt blocks, each one measured will truly have a different width. Seriously, on your next project measure your blocks--each one's size will differ.
While this completed block should measure 12 1/2" square, the top is measuring a scant 12 1/4".  It needs to be pressed again, then trimmed to 12 1/4" square--along with all of the other quilt blocks in the sampler.

To correctly square these blocks, measure each one individually and then trim the larger ones to fit the size of the smallest block. If you do this, your blocks will go into their setting perfectly. Just be advised that you may need to trim your borders a couple inches smaller. Any setting triangles will also need to be adjusted to this size which means a trim between 1/4 to 1/2 inch.

2. BORDERS! Wait! What? Trim my borders? To get perfect borders, measure the length of your patchwork and cut the borders to that length. If you just sew random lengths, you may stretch the edge of your patchwork and actually change the length of your borders. At least this is what the "professional" books tell you to do.

EASIER METHOD! This may sound crazy and cumbersome, but it works--REALLY WELL. Most people sew their borders onto their quilt top with the border on top and the patchwork on bottom. The feed dogs will pull the patchwork and skew it. This also creates blunted points in your patchwork because YOU CAN'T SEE IT! Instead, SEW IT UPSIDE DOWN! What? You're confusing me! No, seriously, put the borders against the feed dogs of your sewing machine. They won't stretch because there are no seams to separate and no bias edges to skew. Also this allows you to see your patchwork section which in turn allows you to watch for any points that appear and sew them properly.

3. PATCHWORK POINTS--Okay, so how to we watch for these patchwork points to ensure that they don't get the edges sewn off--or blunted. Wait! What? There is a way to avoid this? Yes, it is avoided by pressing the seam open so you can see the thread and always sewing the point on top of the piece you are adding to. Look for the intersection of the threads and sew the next seam so that the needle goes down in between the thread intersection. Voila! No more blunted points! Try it...you'll love it!
My finger is pointing to an intersection of two threads.  Try to get the needle down in this exact intersection to avoid blunting the point.

4. MOCK BINDING. Seriously, I do not fully understay why all the quilt shops, magazines and books tell you to bind a quilt with bias binding. The only "reason" I have found so far is that it is "tradition". If you know a better reason than "tradition", leave me a comment so we can tell everyone. Right now, I think it is so we buy more fabric....honest!

Mock binding looks fantastic and it is the method my mother taught me and it will save you HOURS of pressing and cutting. After all the quilting is completed, cut your batting flush with your quilt top, (you won't need to square it now because you've already done it while piecing following the tips above) then cut your backing one inch larger all the way around. I use my rotary cutter to do this. Fold your backing towards and touching your quilt top. You now have a 1/2 inch width left, fold this onto the quilt top and you now have a perfect 1/2 inch binding to sew down either by hand or machine.

To create mitered corners, after the backing has been folded in 1/2 inch, fold in the corner diagonally. Then, fold the remaining 1/2 inch of binding onto the top. Surprise! Perfectly mitered corner. Try it! You'll like it!

5. APPLIQUE.  Most people do a good job with their applique...just make sure you didn't miss any raw edges as you are doing your blanket stitch.  I mostly added this one because I took a neat photo!  :)

6. argh and "tucks" the extra fabric into the seam and quilts over it to "correct" the stretch. Can this be avoided?

AVOID THE STRETCH! How? Cut out triangles and not squares. What? Cut the setting triangle so that the longest edge of the triangle is on the straight of grain (even better if you cut it from the selvage fabric you just removed). This has the least amount of stretch in the fabirc, then cut the short sides of your triangle on the bias. This is the ONLY time I would sew patchwork on the bottom, next to the feed dogs, with the bias seam on top, to avoid the stretch. This will eliminate any stretch that create a rippled quilt top. Now your long-arm quilter goes "aaah" and your top turns out the way you envisioned it (without carefully placed tucks in your seam).

6. PRESS CENTER SEAMS TO GO IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS.  This allows the center seams to "nest" thus allowing the block to lie flat and reduce bulk in the center of the pieced block.  It reduces the amount of fabric there and the quilter breaks fewer needles!

Seams pressed in opposite directions.

Close-up of properly nested seams.  Simply pin this point and sew the seam!  It will align perfectly.