Okay, we’re going to get down and dirty with this post. When do you square up your quilt? Before you quilt it or hand it off to the quilt artist? Before you put on your borders? At the very end – just before you attach the binding?
Before Loretta the Long Arm came into my life, I squared up twice. The first time was right before I put the borders on. The second time was after the top was quilted and I was ready to bind it. But working with a long arm, even though it’s only been slightly over a year since Loretta stitched her way into my heart, has changed the way I view piecing completely. Prior to undertaking my own long arming, I would square up the top before I put on the borders. If the long arm artist couldn’t get my top to lay down on the frame without much trouble, then it was the artist’s issue, not mine.
Boy did I ever have an arrogant “quilter-with-a-checkbook” attitude. And I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. I want to go back and apologize to every long arm artist that ever had an issue with my quilts.
I have learned, through working with my own long arm, talking with other long arm artists, and long discussions with a NACQJ (National Association of Certified Quilt Judges) judge, that quilters ideally should square up after every step in the piecing process.
I know what you’re thinking, because that’s exactly what I thought.
- It takes too long.
- If you square it up at the end, that should take care of any issues.
- Won’t it just “quilt out” if you’re a little off?
The idea in our 2018 Year of Quilting with Excellence is to make our best work become a habit and not an exception – like when we’re working on a quilt that will be show-bound. Part of this means re-examining the basics and making sure we’re hitting the mark with those. And one of those basics is squaring up.
So, let me tell you a little secret about me. I really, really dislike squaring up. I’m a short person (I’m 5’4” on a good day) and handling a large quilt top is difficult for me. And if I have to perform the squaring up on the floor, my knees vehemently protest. I’ve learned that if I square up in small bits, when it is time to make sure the top is square, I don’t have so many issues. And nothing is more discouraging than getting to the very end of a quilting project and discovering that top is so un-square that you may never get the thing squared up enough to quilt it well.
Let’s take this process from the top, and that first step is your fabric. Because whether you’re purchasing fabric for your project, or have dug through your stash to get it, or a mixture of both, the fabric and its condition is important, not so much in making sure your fabric is squared up, but in keeping your blocks looking squared. As mentioned in a previous blog (Don’t Go Against the Grain, published September 17, 2017), fabric has a lengthwise grain, a cross-wise grain, and a bias.
Most quilt patterns call for the pieces to be cut on the crosswise grain (the borders being the exception – those work best cut on the length-wise grain). Referring to that blog I wrote not too long ago, the easiest way to make sure the fabric is truly on the crosswise grain is simply to snip into one of the selvages of the fabric and then tear the material completely across the crosswise grain to the other selvage. Then refold the fabric, with the selvages matching at the top and the torn sides matching on the right-hand side, and press. Now the material is on grain.
Why is this important? If your fabric isn’t on-grain, eventually the blocks will droop (especially if the quilt is a wall hanging), even if the blocks had been squared up in each step of the process.
So, make sure your material is on-grain. That’s step one. Let’s look at step two – and this is taking into consideration that you’re constructing pieced blocks and not appliqued ones. Appliqued blocks will be given their own blog.
The best quilting patterns, in my opinion, are the ones that give you the measurements of each completed component. For instance, let’s pretend we are making this block:
It’s 10-inches square, unfinished. If you’ve quilted for any length of time, your mind has immediately broken this block into four components:
What would be really helpful is to know what each of these sections should measure as you are constructing them. That way we would know what each four-patch should measure and what each half-square triangle should measure and if they’re off any, we can fix that issue immediately before putting the blocks together. In this case, each four-patch should measure 5 ¼-inches before you sew them together in the block. So, as you get busy making all those four patches for your quilt blocks, you should stop and measure them to make sure they’re 5 ¼-inches square. Same thing with all of those half-square triangles. No matter which method is used to construct them, after they’re made, measure them. They should all be 5 ¼-inch square. If they’re too small, you may have to toss some of them and start over. If they’re only off a little, your seam allowance or thread may be the culprit.
If they’re not exactly 5 ¼-inch square (and let’s face it, how many of any of our blocks are perfect?), the best-case scenario is that they’re a little big, because it’s always easier to make blocks smaller than bigger. You can always take away, but it’s hard to add. So, how do you accurately trim down a block? There are a few different ways, but here’s how I handle it.
- If you’re like me and you’ve quilted a while, chances are you’ve amassed quite a few rulers. As a matter of fact, you may have one that’s exactly the size needed. But if you don’t that’s okay. Pick the one that’s closest to the size of the block. It doesn’t have to be exact, but the ruler does have to be the same size or larger than the block component.
- Place the block component on the cutting mat and center the ruler over it. Line up the horizontal and vertical seams of the component with the lines on the ruler. Make sure the 45-degree line runs diagonally from corner to corner. If you’re using a ruler that’s not the same size as your block component, that’s fine. Just start with one corner of the block, trim as little as needed, then use the trimmed sides to reset your ruler and square up the other corners.
- That’s all there is to it. With all the block components the correct size, the quilt block should come together easily and be the correct size. However, you still must square up the entire block when it’s completed. This is done in the same manner you squared up the block components.
Because I squared up each component of this block, I didn’t have to square up the completed block at all — it was on the money.
However, I do have a little trick you may want to use if your blocks are a smidgen too small.
- Take a sheet of freezer paper and draw a square the same size as your unfinished quilt block should be. Cut the square of freezer paper along this line.
- On the dull side of the freezer paper, draw a line ¼-inch from each edge. This will show you where you seam allowance will fall.
- Draw a horizontal line and a vertical line in the center of the square. Then draw a diagonal line from each corner, making an X in your square.
- Position this freezer paper pattern over your quilt block, shiny side down. Make sure the horizontal and vertical lines are centered and the diagonal lines are running corner to corner. If the edges of the fabric fall outside that ¼-inch seam allowance, you’re good to go. Press the freezer paper to the wrong side of the quilt block and use the drawn ¼-inch seam allowance as your stitching guide. After the quilt is finished, you can remove the freezer paper.
- Make sure you don’t use a Frixion Pen for this. Oy-vey. Ask me how I know.
Once your quilt center is complete, the next step is to plan your borders. And the following applies whether or not your borders are pieced, appliqued, or plain strips of fabric. The first step in making the borders is not the construction of the borders themselves but making sure your quilt center is square.
- Press the quilt center.
- Lay out the center on a flat, level surface. Take a tape measurer and measure the quilt center lengthwise in three places – several inches in from both the right and left side and once in the middle. In an ideal world, these measurements will be the same. However, since we don’t live in an ideal world, all three of these measurements may vary a bit. Take the average of these three measurements. That average is the length you will need to make the left and right borders.
- Repeat the same process horizontally for the quilt center. The average of these three measurements will be the length you need to make your top and bottom borders.
- When you construct your borders, decide which is going on first, left and right or top and bottom. For the ones that are sewed on first, remember to add the width of the border to the second set of border units to be sewn on. For instance, I always sew my left and right borders on first. Let’s say the length of my left and right border units is 90 inches long and 8 inches wide. When I sew those on, I’ve increased my quilt center’s width a total of 16 inches (let’s don’t consider seam allowances at this point). So, if my quilt’s horizontal measurement averages out to be 70 inches wide, I’d need to add 16 inches to that to make sure that my top and bottom border measurements are long enough (70 inches + 8 inches on the left and + 8 inches on the right). My top and bottom border should be 86-inches long to completely cover my quilt center and the left and right borders.
And I know what some of you are asking right now – Why can’t I just cut the borders whatever length I know is more than I need and then just whack the excess off? The border process – cutting on the lengthwise grain to the exact measurement that you need – helps to square up the center and stabilize it. That, in turn, will make it easier to quilt whether it’s quilted on a domestic sewing machine, mid-arm, or long arm. It will lay nice and flat and look wonderful. If you cut the borders out to a longer length and then cut off the extra once the border is sewn on, you risk the possibility of the entire quilt not being square. However, if you’ve squared the quilt up each step of the way, the borders are really a pretty painless process.
If you haven’t…well, then be prepared for a lot of pinning and easing fabric in or pulling it to see if it will stretch a little
So now the center is square, and the borders are on and it’s quilted. We’re good, right?
Nope. One more squaring up to do.
The last step is putting the binding on and you have to square up the corners. Typically, once the quilt is quilted, there is excess backing and batting around the top and those must be trimmed off before the binding is sewn on. It’s very important to make sure that those corners are 90 degrees. I use a large, square ruler to help me do this.
- Lay your quilt top out on a flat surface.
- Use a square ruler in the corners. I often lay another longer ruler beside of it, so I won’t have to move my rulers so much before I rotary cut the excess.
- Trim off the excess batting and backing and then bind.
The last step is really simple and at that point it’s easy to get in a hurry and not be careful. However, I’ve seen quilt judges lay a piece of paper in the corner of the quilt to make sure that it’s a true 90-degree angle. If your quilt is show-bound, don’t be slack in this area.
And there you have it. Square up at each step and your quilt will be easy to quilt, look divine, and hang beautifully. Not to mention garner high ratings with judges, if that’s where it’s headed.
It’s truly hip to be square….and Quilt with Excellence!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam