The Holy Trifecta of Quilting

As of the date I am actually writing this blog, there are fourteen more weeks left in 2019.  It’s been a good year and we’ve covered a lot of ground with this year’s theme, “Quilt with Passion.”  For this blog (and maybe for the next one, depending on the length), I want to discuss what’s been called The Holy Trifecta of Quilting – accurate cutting, pressing, and sewing. 

It’s no secret that for me the least favorite thing about quilting is cutting the fabric.  Even before my knees started giving me issues about standing for long periods of time, I really wasn’t too fond of cutting all that material.  I would much rather be at my sewing machine or hand stitching the applique.  I learned pretty quickly that if I had the right tools and had the fabric ready to rock and roll, the cutting went along smoothly and easily.   Some of these concepts I’ve written about ad nauseum, and I’m not going to go into detail again.  I will point out two fellow quilters that have wonderful videos up about cutting accurately – Leah Day and Bonnie Hunter.  If you need better visuals, I really recommend you jump over to their sites (after reading my blog, of course) and spend a few minutes looking at those.

Let’s talk about the tools first.  The first item to consider is a rotary cutter.  I would like to encourage you to do some research before purchasing one and realize that you may need more than one cutter.  That rotary cutter will essentially become an extension of your hand and arm.  Make sure it’s a comfortable fit.  Determine what kind of fabric cutter you are –do you want to cut multiple fabrics at one time or not? If you’re the type of quilter that likes to cut multiple layers of fabric with one fell swoop, a large (60 mm or bigger) cutter is exactly what you need. 

Martelli 60 mm Rotary Cutter. I love the handles on the Martelli Cutters.

Typically, I encourage my students to own at least two cutters – a small one and a medium-sized one (45 mm).  Why two? It all has to do with accuracy.

Personally, I do not like to cut more than four layers of fabric at a time.  The more layers you stack on top of each other, the more they wiggle and shift out of place.  Even if you pin the layers together, the pressure that must be exerted in order to get the rotary blade to penetrate all that fabric will cause some shifting.  This means that the patches you cut will be off a bit.  Some may be crooked or not the correct size.  Since accurate cutting is the first step of the Holy Trifecta of Quilting, you’re already diminishing your accuracy.  I would rather spend more time cutting – even if I don’t like to – in order to keep everything the correct size.  So, if I’m only cutting four layers of material at the maximum, a medium-sized rotary cutter is just what I need.

My 45 mm (medium) Martelli Cutter

The small rotary cutter will be needed for trimming and paper piecing.  This is smaller cutting work, and with that I find that a smaller rotary cutter allows for more control.  You can see around it and it handles better in those tiny, tight places. 

My smallest rotary cutters

Regardless of the cutter you decide on, make sure to change the blade regularly.  Just as you change your needle after eight hours of sewing (or at least you should, unless you’re using titanium needles), be sure to change your rotary cutter’s blade regularly.  When it begins to skip as you cut, it’s time.  Don’t think bearing down harder will really help in the long run.  All that will do is make your hand and arm sore as well as make deep grooves in your mat.  And I’m not a big fan of the rotary blade sharpeners.  Maybe I’m using it wrong or maybe I’m too picky, but I just don’t think they really get the blades sharp enough.  I would rather just replace my blade and keep on cutting.

There are a few “rules” to keep in mind as you begin to cut.  First, always cut away from your body.  Hold the ruler correctly – I went over this in a previous blog.

Close the blade when you’re through cutting.  It’s easy to forget that last rule, especially if you’re the only person that goes into your quilting space.  You just kind of automatically think that no one will get hurt.  However, that’s not true.  Sometimes that someone could be you!  I can attest to this from personal experience.  One day I was cutting out borders and didn’t close my blade as I moved away from my cutting table.  It was a hot summer day and I had on shorts.  I bumped the cutter as I moved the fabric and the rotary cutter skipped down my bare leg.  I didn’t think I would ever get the bleeding stopped.  Thank goodness the blood didn’t get on my border fabric, though!

Fold your fabric and make sure the grain is aligned. 

You want a perfect 90-degree angle.  If you prewash your fabric, be sure to press and starch it before you begin cutting.  Starched fabric cuts easier.  If you don’t prewash, and the fabric is wrinkled, press it.  Smooth fabric cuts more accurately, and that’s what we’re after – accuracy.  As you’re cutting your strips, after every couple of cuts, open the strips up.  You want your strips to look like the strip at the top

Not not the strip on the bottom

If you get that funny bump in where the fabric is folded, your material has gotten off grain.  Square up the edge, refold the fabric, and continue.  This tends to happen more frequently with multiple layers of fabric – which is why I recommend not cutting any more than four layers at a time. 

The other two cutting tools needed are rulers and a cutting mat.  I have two cutting mats – a small-ish one I can take to classes and retreats and a large one that I keep on my cutting table.  A self-healing mat is the best kind to have. 

Eventually all mats will develop grooves from cutting and will need replacing, but a self-healing one does have a longer life span.  Rulers are a personal choice, but one that spans the entire width of a cutting mat is needed. 

With this length you can make sure the bottom and top of the ruler are lined up with the correct measurement and you’re cutting straight.  I also really like this ruler to have a lip on one end so you can lock it against the edge of your cutting mat.  Between this and holding the ruler correctly, you’re seriously reduced the chances of the ruler sliding out of place. 

I’ve mentioned in a previous blog that it’s important to use the same mat and ruler throughout the cutting process.  The picture below shows why:

Three different measuring tools from three different manufacturers.  See how much they’re off from each other?  I know some quilting instructors promote turning your cutting mat over and using only the ruler as your measuring tool.  I’ve always found this a little awkward myself.  I do measure my ruler against my mat and if the inch marks line up, I’m good to go. 

The next step in the Holy Trifecta of Quilting is accurate sewing.  In 2018 I wrote several blogs about the ¼-inch seam, and how it isn’t the holy grail of quilting.  What matters is that the block comes out the size needed.  Sometimes this may mean taking more than the standard ¼-inch seam and sometimes it means taking less (as in the scant ¼-inch seam).  This is why it’s important to always make a test block before you begin piecing the actual quilt.  If the test block comes out the size needed per the pattern’s directions, you’re good to go.  If it doesn’t you will need to play with your seam allowances a bit.  That said, the ¼-inch seam is the one most commonly used for quilts.  There are now ¼-inch quilters feet, scant ¼-inch feet, and seam guides that can help you keep a consistent seam allowance.  Most modern sewing machines have the ability to move the needle to the left or right to adjust for the correct seam allowance. 

To see if you need any adjustment to get a perfect ¼-inch seam allowance, run this little test:  Cut three 1-1/2” x 4” strips of fabric. Sew the strips together lengthwise with a 1/4” seam allowance. Press the seam allowances towards the center strip. The center strip should now measure exactly 1-inch.

If it does not you will need to adjust your seam guide or needle and retest again. Be patient; it will pay off in the end!  And the longer you quilt, the easier keeping that consistent ¼-inch will become.  Like most other things in life, practicing the ¼-inch seam makes it perfect.

The last step in the Trifecta is pressing.  I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go into a great deal of detail with this.  The primary thing to remember is the difference between pressing and ironing.  Ironing is the back and forth motion used to get the wrinkles out of clothing.  Pressing is an up and down motion used by quilters.  Instead of sliding the iron back and forth over the fabric, it should be lifted up and down.  This keeps you from stretching the bias of the material or the block.  If you’re like me and you pre-wash and dry your fabric before you make your first cut, you will probably want to put some starch back in your fabric (this makes the cutting more accurate).  Spray the starch on the wrong side of the fabric and press it in.  Unless I’m using specialty fabrics in my quilt that require a cooler temperature, I always use a cotton setting on my iron. 

At this point, let me add that there are a few personal quirks about pressing.  Some quilters swear by the starch alternative Best Press.  For myself, I don’t find it works as well as regular spray starch.  I do have it and I have used it, but I always find myself returning to my can of starch.  And as much as I love shopping at the Dollar Tree, I have found that starch purchased in that establishment (and other similar ones), have a higher water content than the can purchased at a grocery or drug store.  Recently my friend, Hope, told me about this product:

It’s used where there are lots of points coming together (like in a pinwheel block), It does help the fabric lay down and “behave” pretty well. 

The use of steam also varies from quilter to quilter.  Some use it, some don’t.  As long as you’re pressing and not ironing, I personally don’t think it matters a great deal.  However, if you use steam and you iron your fabric, it’s easier to stretch the bias.  I don’t use water in my iron for one reason and one reason only:  It cuts down on the life of the iron.  I’m hard enough on my irons in normal use without adding insult to injury.  I keep a spray bottle of water near my iron and if I feel a block needs some steam to remove the wrinkles, I just spritz it with that and let the hot iron produce the steam. 

Be sure to press each seam in a unit before joining it to another unit.  It’s easy to want to skip this step and just keep sewing, but this careful pressing will allow the units to be easily sewn together and the seams to line up.  To cut down on running back and forth to your ironing board, set up a small pressing station near your sewing machine.  I picked this overlarge dinner tray up at a yard sale. 

It’s big enough to hold my round Martelli cutting mat (my very favorite cutting surface), and a wool pressing mat (which if you don’t have one, they are sincerely worth every penny).  I keep it to the side of Big Red so all I have to do is turn around and press. 

If you don’t have room in your sewing area to have this, remember there are alternative pressing tools:

These work great for small seams and with paper piecing.  And if you have fake nails like I do, those also work well.  Just run your nail down the seam and it will lay down nicely. 

Paying careful attention to small details like the Holy Trifecta of Quilting is what makes a great quilt.  It’s easy for me to get all caught up in the pretty fabric and pretty pattern and want to rush ahead.  However, slowing down to make sure I’ve done the basic steps correctly will ensure that the final product will be as lovely as I want it to be. 

Until next week, Quilt with Passion!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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