Twisting the Traditional

Let’s talk modern quilts.  And let’s talk traditional blocks.  While at first glance those two may seem like mixing oil and water (there’s a bit of agreement, but then graduation and distinct separation), quilters can marry them off (quite happily, may I add), with a few twists. 

For years whenever anyone mentioned quilts and quilters, what came to mind was the traditional look:  Baltimore Album-type quilts or quilts that had the historically traditionally looking pieced blocks, such as churn dash, nine-patch, and stars.  And for years we quilters delivered on these preconceived images in our quilts.  Once in a while there would be a pattern designer that would shake things up a bit, but overall, we tended to stick with what we knew best.

Enter the Modern Quilt Movement.

In my opinion, nothing else has shaken up the quilt world more than the modern quilt movement and the internet.  I know that in the past there was some upheaval when we began quilting our tops on machines instead of by hand.  And I realize that Art Quilts also caused a stir when they were introduced.  But overall, I think the Modern Quilt Movement and the internet have done more to change the quilt arena than anything else in at least the last 50 years.  This is a good thing.  Modern quilting has introduced new colors, new designs, and a return to simplicity and negative space.  The internet has opened to the doors to products, patterns, and classes that we may not ever been exposed to otherwise.  But with this blog, I want to talk about Modern Quilting and how we all can embrace some, if not all, of its characteristics. 

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m more of a traditional quilt gal.  That’s the way I (along with everyone else) was taught in the early 1980’s.  A lot of us weren’t even introduced to rotary cutters until the 1990’s.  I still gravitate towards the traditional in both blocks and quilts.  A lot of us old farts are like that.  However, today I want to show you some ways we can take those traditional blocks and give them a modern twist. 

Modern Quilt Fabric

The first (and the easiest way) we can take a block and change it up is with our fabric choices.  The Modern Quilt movement has gifted us with some wonderful fabric.  The colors are bright and clear.  The prints are fanciful and current – while flowers still grace a lot of material, gone are the tiny, old fashioned renderings. You’ll find everything from bacon to butterflies on this fabric, all in a crisp modern palette. In addition, Pantone’s Color of the Year is predominate in a lot of it.   Gray and white are the workingng neutrals.  While designing the illustrations for this blog in EQ8, I surprised myself on just  much using a modern color scheme could change the way the block looked.  Take for instance this block, done in traditional fabrics.

Monkey Wrench in Traditional Colors

This is the monkey wrench block and one of my very favorites.  Now let’s take this sweet, little block and use some of the new fabrics:

Monkey Wrench in Modern Fabrics

Very different.  Set it on point, and it contrasts even more.

See how it can change the entire look of a quilt top?

Another way we can give our blocks a modern spin is to only use part of the block.  I call this block deconstruction, and it’s really a lot of fun.  For instance, take this block:

This is a great, traditional block used in the Double Wedding Ring Quilt. 

An entire Double Wedding Ring Quilt looks like this:

However, Victoria Findlay Wolfe took this pattern and put a Modern Quilt twist on it, and designed this:

It’s still a Double Wedding Ring.  But instead of using traditional fabrics, she went with a modern palette.  And then she substituted solids and her neutral in the rings where normally one would be piecing them with all kinds of material.  Instead, she pieced the rings’ inner centers and the outer “footballs.”  This gives a traditional quilt a completely different look.

While deconstructing a block is not difficult to do, it does take some pre-planning.  From what I can tell from just looking at Victoria Findlay Wolfe’s block, there still is a great deal of piecing going on, but neutrals are playing a larger role than normal in the piecing process.  So, let’s try this on another block. 

Let’s try this block: 

This is one of the antique mosaic blocks found in EQ8.  When you chose a block to deconstruct, you want to pick one that has several pieces of varying shapes – in other words a nine-patch or a four-patch will not make the same impression that a block like this would.  At this point, it may be a good idea to either sketch this block out or access it with a software program such as EQ8.  Either of these processes will allow you to play with color before cutting into your fabric.  For this first attempt, I will take all the colors and reduce them into a two-color palate – a bright and a neutral.  This immediately changes the look. 

Now let’s pull out some more of the print fabric and substitute with a neutral. 

This is even more of a dynamic change.

And just for fun, let’s add another color.

It’s still the same amount of piecing and the same traditional block, you’re just changing the number of fabrics used and the color placement. 

Keeping with the traditional block theme, another way you may want to twist those traditional blocks is to either blow them up or shrink them down.  Again, pictures are really telling the story with this blog, so let’s look at a Friendship Star Block:

I like Star Blocks.  They tend to lend themselves nicely to either traditional piecing or paper piecing.  They have a long history in quilting and there are numerous books and patterns written solely on Star Blocks.  When I’m making a quilt that uses one of these, my blocks tend not to be any larger than 10 ½-inches unfinished.  But look what happens if you enlarge one of these blocks to make up most (if not all) of your quilt top:

Completely different way of looking at a Star Block pattern.  And while in my opinion enlarging these patterns too much (like  a queen-sized quilt) does make them lose some of their beauty, for a wall hanging or cuddle quilt, this is a new way of looking at a traditional block.

Now let’s take this to the other extreme and shrink a traditional block.  I love shrinking Star Blocks as much as I do enlarging them.  When constructing a traditional quilt, I often use Star Blocks as cornerstones.  This causes your sashing to do wonderful things like this:

Likewise, I also will use a small nine-patch block made from the top’s scraps as cornerstones.  This helps pull all the colors in the quilt together.  And to be completely honest, the Star Blocks and the nine-patch block are used by a lot of quilters in this manner. 

However….let’s look at a block you may not of thought about shrinking – the log cabin block.  Before you blow a gasket about how difficult this could be (lots of small pieces, etc)., remember this block lends itself beautifully to paper piecing.  And with paper piecing, all small things are possible.  The point I want to make is that this isn’t a block most traditional quilters would think about shrinking much smaller than a 6-inch x 6-inch block.  But look what happens when you do:

These log cabin blocks are 4 1/2-inches square.

Talk about interesting cornerstones (for you traditionalists) or a way to spice up negative space (for you Modernists).

The point is, when you enlarge or shrink a traditional block, it gets a completely different look.  And thanks mostly to the Modern Quilt movement, we’ve seen how great this works.

Another way you a give your traditional blocks a twist is to alter the layout.  I make no bones that my favorite  way to layout blocks is on-point.  This is a personal preference, and it’s not that I don’t like regular horizontal and vertical rows, I just think an on-point layout is more interesting.  But if you do some research on Google images or Pinterest, you’ll discover that Modern Quilters don’t necessarily do either type of layout – at least at first glance.  Instead of blocks marching in rows or columns across the quilt top, there can be more breathing room between the blocks.  And in many cases, there aren’t as many “blocks” in these quilts, either.  There’s lots of “breathing” room between these blocks for the eye to rest.  So, there is at least one of the “traditional” layouts used (rows or on-point), but the setting squares, triangles, borders, etc. are in the same neutral used in the blocks.  This makes the blocks appear to float (an effect I absolutely love).  One word of caution here.  If you use the kind of layout, please note that your pieced blocks will need to shine.  But since there are fewer of them in this layout, you’ll have the time to make sure all the points match and that they’re perfectly square. 

Since we’re talking about negative space at this point, let’s park it here and discuss another aspect we can borrow from Modern Quilting to put a twist on traditional looks –the actual quilting process.  Most traditional quilts use one to three of these quilting components:  feathers, stippling or meandering (including micro), echo quilting, and some kind of ruler work, along with what I call “connecting units” (swirls, swags, and lines – both straight and curly).  Modern quilters use these, too, but they’ve changed them up a bit.  You’ll see more “matchstick” quilting:

I love this look and it’s easy to do on either a domestic or long arm. 

They’ll use simple quilting juxtaposed against geometric work.

There’s “pebbles” or “bubbles” and curved cross hatching.

And the technique I really love if I’m quilting on Big Red:  Straight line.

Straight Line Quilting has more space between the quilting rows than Match Stick Quilting

How much easier can it get?  Use some painter’s tape and just quilt. 

The best thing about these “new” quilting motifs is that they play well with everything traditional quilters like to use.  But they really do give a traditional quilt a unique, new look. 

The last characteristic I want to discuss is throwing the center of the block off.  Instead of placing it square and center as normal, make it off center.  And don’t play it slightly off-center (because then it just looks like you were sloppy in your construction) – throw it really off center.  This is different from what we discussed earlier – changing up the look of traditional blocks by replacing colored fabric elements with a neutral (see deconstructing a block as mentioned earlier in this blog). With this technique, you’re using all the elements in the way they were designed, but you’re playing with the block’s layout.  Not all blocks lend themselves to this change – they must have a dominate distinct center like this one:

Now look what happens when we move that center off kilter.

Completely different look.

The easiest block to use for this technique is the Log Cabin.  Since this block consists of strips of fabric that surround a center square, you can shift that center block to the right, left, up, or down and changes the block’s look

Now look how you can play with the layout!

This is an easy way to change up your quilt and unleashe the inner designer in you.

If you’re a traditional quilter like I am, let me challenge (and encourage) you to try some of these Modern Quilt techniques in your traditional blocks.  Start small – one thing a time.  Maybe begin with the fabric and then move to deconstructing the block.  I think you’ll be surprised at how much this alters the look of your quilt and how much fun these techniques are to try.

Until next week, Level up that Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


As Close to Perfect as You Can Get Four and Nine Patches

 We talked about half-square triangles a lot in last week’s blog.  This week we’re taking a look at the other two units in a lot of blocks:  Four-patches and nine patches.  Unlike triangles, we don’t’ have to worry about bias with these.  Strips are usually cut WOF and not sub-cut into any other unit that has an exposed bias.  And even though there is a numerical difference between a four-patch and a nine-patch, their construction is more alike than different.

Single Irish Chain Four Patches Surrounding Four Patch Stars
Jacob’s Ladder Block — it’s all four patches

Four-patches are often the first block unit (or in some cases, entire block) that beginning quilters tackle.  They’re easy to make and when set on point with setting triangles or in regular rows with sashing or plain blocks separating the two, they can be beautiful in their simplicity.  If color choices are carefully made, the units can serve as unifying connecting blocks or look like a chain winding its way across the quilt top (think simple Irish Chain or Jacob’s Ladder).  A four-patch looks just like it sounds:

Four Patch Unit

Four patches of fabric sewn together.  At first glance, it seems as if a quilter would simply cut four squares of the chosen fabrics and sew them together. 

In all honesty, that’s the most difficult and the most inaccurate way to make this block unit, unless you’re hand piecing it.  To make these units by machine, both four- and nine-patch units use the strip piecing method.  This technique lets you cut two strips of fabric, sew them together down the long side of the strip, slice the strip into the appropriate size, rotate one set of the blocks, and sew them together. 

Easy-peasy, right?

Yes, it is.  But since this year’s theme is “Level Up Your Quilting” I want to take the time to go over a few pointers that will make those four and nine-patches simply stellar, both in color choice and construction.  Nothing makes me feel better than having my points match perfectly and my colors sing.  So, let’s go over some basics and emphasize the steps that will help make your block unit come out as close to perfect as possible.

We’re looking at 2 ½-inch unfinished block units – that seems to be the size most widely used.  Most four-patch instructions will tell you to cut two strips of fabric (usually one light and one dark).  These strips are normally cut WOF and sewn together with an ¼-inch seam allowance.  I’d like to throw in a few pointers that I’ve found particularly helpful at this point. 

First, take the number of strips of each color needed and multiply that by the width of strip needed.  For the sake if illustration, since we’re working with 2 ½-inch strips with this blog, we’re using that measurement.  Let’s say we need to cut eight strips.  Multiply 8 by 2 ½ and you get 20.  Cut a 20-inch strip by WOF of each color needed.  Then we will sub-cut that into eight 2 ½-inch WOF strips.  Smaller chunks of fabric are easier to work with than the entire yardage.  It’s easier to handle and makes your cutting more accurate. 

Second, starch these chunks of fabric before sub-cutting.  This is especially important if you’re a pre-washer.  If you’re not a pre-washer, it’s still a good thing to add a little extra body to the material.  Spray the starch on the wrong side of the fabric and press it in.  This helps stabilize the fabric and makes it a little stiff, which makes the material easier to cut.

Third, cut the strips the appropriate width.  Be careful to fold the fabric with the crosswise and lengthwise grains perpendicular to each other at 90-degree angles.  After you cut a couple of strips, you may need to refold the fabric to keep those angles perfectly aligned – otherwise, your strips may have a hump in them. 

Make sure the Crosswise Grain and the Lengthwise Grain are Perpendicular Before Cutting

And you may find those ruler grippers we talked about a few blogs ago come in super-handy to keep your ruler in place while you make those long crosswise cuts. 

Fourth, after the strips are cut, then it’s time to sew them together.  In many ways, this is typical piecing.  You’ll sew the strips, right sides together, along the long side of the strips, using a ¼-inch seam allowance.  However, you may find it more accurate to sew shorter lengths of strips together.  I’ve found that when I sew two 45-inch strips together, for whatever reason, no matter how careful I am, my strips want to curve.  I discovered that if I cut the 45-inch strips in the middle to make two shorter 22 ½-inch strips, my four patches and nine patches come out much more accurate.

When you’re through sewing the strips together, you’ll have a unit that looks like this:

Four Patch Strip Unit

Press the long strip unit towards the darker fabric and then even up one of the ends of the strip unit and begin to sub-cut into units.  Since we’re using 2 ½-inches in this illustration, we would sub-cut the strip unit into 2 ½ units like this:

Four Patch Units

Now simply flip one of the units so the opposite colors are next to each other and sew into a four patch.  Since you’ve pressed towards the darker fabric and then flipped one of the units, the seams should nest nicely together.  To maintain accuracy, I do pin my units before sewing with a ¼-inch seam allowance. 

At this point, we need to reduce bulk on the backside of the units.  It would be really easy to break a needle when your quilting or have your machine stall out when it hits the point where all four seams come together.  Twirl the seams as shown below:

Then press the four-patch unit again.  I’ve found that a spray of this product:

Helps flatten those seam allowances up even more. 

Trim the unit (if needed), and you’re done with the four patches.

Four patches are extremely versatile.  If you’re making a block such as this

Using Regular Four Patch Units of HST Four Patch Units as the Center of a Star Block Can Pull All Your Colors Together AND Eliminate Scraps!

that has a large center square, you could always make that center into a four patch.  Four patches also make great cornerstones for sashing.  And if placed strategically in blocks, they can add real movement to a quilt, as they form a chain across the top. 

Standard Nine Patch Unit

Nine patches are similar in the construction process, but instead of working with two strips of fabric, you’re working with three.  Typically, one strip set will have two dark strips on the outside and a light in the middle and the other strip set will have a dark strip in the middle and two light strips on the outside.

Nine Patch Construction

There can be some variations on this pattern, so be sure to read the pattern’s directions carefully.

Construction of the three-strip set is similar to the four-patch set.

First, take the number of strips needed and multiply that by the width of the strip.  So, if we need 12 strips of one color and the strips are 2 ½- inches, that’s 30 inches.  Cut 30 inches from the yardage of that color.  Again, smaller pieces of fabric are much easier to work with than lots of yardage.

Second, starch the chunk of fabric.  Again, even if you’re not a pre-washer, that extra bit of body makes the material much easier to cut.

Third, cut the strips the appropriate width.  Be careful to cut accurately and to keep the crosswise and lengthwise grains perpendicular to each other.  Re-fold the fabric as necessary. 

Fourth, after the strips are cut, it’s time to sew.  Here’s where the construction of nine-patches really differs from four-patches.  When I’m ready to sew my strips, the first thing I do is organize them.  Some quilters look at this as an extra (and sometimes unnecessary) step, but I find it saves me time in the long run.  My very favorite strip organizer is this:

Bamboo Clothes Drying Rack

A clothes drying rack.  You can pick up one of these (if you don’t already have one) at Target, Walmart, and many hardware stores.  The rack gives you a lot of room to separate your darks and lights.  I position this next to my sewing machine so I can grab what I need and keep piecing.  I don’t necessarily do this with my four-patches – it depends on how many of those units I’m making and how many colors of fabric are involved.  If you don’t have room for a  clothes drying rack, try one of these:

Pants Hanger

Years ago, when I lived in a different house and my sewing room was a corner of my kitchen, I used a pants hanger.  It worked wonderfully. 

Once organized (or not), it’s time to sew.  Again, we’re using a ¼-inch seam, and again, I cut my 45-inch strips in half in the middle to make them shorter in length.  Just because we’re making nine-patches instead of four-patches doesn’t make the sewing process different.  It’s easier and more accurate to sew shorter strips together.  And here’s where the actual sewing process differs a bit – like with four-patches, you sew two strips together.  After this, you add the third strip, but sew it in the opposite direction than you did the first seam.  This will help keep things on-grain and keep your block from looking wonky.

At this point, let’s talk pressing.  Like with the four-patch strips, it’s important to press towards the darker fabric.  However, since we’re working with three strips of fabric instead of two, it’s up to each quilter to decide when pressing works best for them.  Some folks prefer to press after each strip is sewn (I do – I find it’s easier for me) and some like to wait until all three strips are sewn together and then press.  This is kind of an individual preference – neither way is inherently right or wrong. 

Once the strip sets are sewn together, now it’s time to cut them into units that are – for the sake of this example – 2 ½-inches wide.  Allow me to insert a personal observation at this point.   I realize that cutting fabric is not the most exciting activity in the quilting process.  As a matter of fact, I’ll be the first one to tell you, it’s the part I like the least.  However, it’s really super important to be accurate in this part, since it’s the first step in making sure your blocks (and thus your quilt) comes out beautifully square.  But since it’s not as interesting as sewing, it’s easy to want to rush through this process by stacking the strip units on top of each other and slicing your rotary cutter through all of them just to be done with the process.

Please.  Don’t.  Just don’t.

While you can stack a couple of layers of fabric on top of each other and accurately cut through those, you’re not dealing with seams.  With both the two strip sets and the three strip sets, you’re stacking fabric units that have the bulk of seam allowances.  These seams don’t allow the units to lie completely flat on top of each other.  This means they can wiggle out of place and your cutting wont’ be accurate.  Take a deep breath, put on some good music, and cut each strip set individually.  You may hate me now, but when your blocks come out perfectly accurate…you’ll thank me later. 

After all the cutting is complete, arrange your units as follows according to directions. One block will have more darks and the other block will have more lights.  Now it’s time to begin sewing.  Use an accurate ¼-inch seam allowance and chain piece them.  Since you’ve pressed towards the dark fabric, the seams should nest nicely – however, I still use pins for complete accuracy. 

Once complete, press the seams in one direction (these won’t twirl) and trim if necessary.  Then you’re done. 

Couple of added items at this point.  Again, like four-patches, nine-patches can add some serious movement to your quilt.  If used strategically, they can also form a chain across the quilt top or serve as attractive cornerstones.  As a matter of fact, nine-patches are one of my favorite cornerstones.  I make them from left-over fabric from my blocks and they serve to pull all the colors of my quilt together.  They can take the place of large squares of fabric in blocks, too. 

Quilt Block with Nine Patch as the Star’s Center

And they make wonderful quilt borders.

Nine Patch Set on Point for the Quilt Border — One of My Favorites!

Last item for consideration:  always make a few extra four- and nine-patches.  No matter how accurately you cut and sew, there always seem to be a few that come out wonky.  Instead of fussing with them, toss them in the circular file and move on.    

Yes, four- and nine-patches are easy units – often the first block units beginner quilters are taught.  But just because they’re simple, doesn’t mean they’re not beautiful and doesn’t mean they can’t be dynamic.  Accurate cutting, sewing, and careful color placement make them one of the most versatile block units we can use.

Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


Perfect HSTs (or As Close to Perfect as You can Get)

Quilt made from HSTs

There is no doubt that half-square triangles (HST), four-patches, and nine-patches are the basis for hundreds of quilt blocks.  Just a brief look through quilt patterns or Barabra Brackman’s Block Base proves just how many blocks use these elements.  However, constructing any of these three can be tricky.  Last week I urged everyone to learn one new skill this year and get better at three you already know.  From beginner quilters to the most experienced ones, we all deal with HSTs, nine-patches and four-patches most of  the time.  You may want to push yourself to make these better.  I don’t think you’ll regret it.  I want to take each of these and talk about the different ways to construct them and how we can work from the first cut onwards to make sure these elements are as perfect as we can get them. 

First let’s talk about HSTs.  Half-square triangles can be a little difficult because we’re dealing with bias, and bias is inherently the stretchiest of all cuts.  Cross grain is a bit stretchy, and length of grain is the most stable, but with HSTs, no matter how you cut them, one side of the triangle will be cut on the bias and if you’re not careful, you can stretch that side out of shape. If that happens, then the HST won’t work well when you sew them into your block.  This can cause your block to be off as much as a ½-inch sometimes.  The first action I take to begin to avoid this situation is to starch the fabric I’m using to cut my triangles from.  And I mean starch, not Best Press or sizing.  Depending on how firm of a weave my fabric has, I may even starch it twice.  The starch helps to stabilize the warp and weft, and this can help avoid stretching the bias.  I say help because it’s still possible to stretch the bias if the triangles are not handled carefully. 

The next thing I do is slow down my sewing.  When you’ve quilted for a while, it’s easy to fly through the basics.  If we’re sewing squares or rectangles together, this is fine.  But there’s that bias issue again with triangles.  The faster you sew, the easier it is to stretch that bias.  It’s also easier to make mistakes and not keep a consistent ¼-inch seam allowance.  Which means you will have to rip out your stitches – an action which can wreck even more havoc on your bias.  So slow down and be accurate. 

Leader used to begin stitiching

You may also find that your sewing machine may not want to cooperate as you feed that tiny triangle tip over your feed dogs to start stitching.  To get the sewing process started, they need something that will cover their entire area to get the feed dogs fully engaged.  The tips of most triangles are not big enough to do this.  I use a leader (I’ve also heard them called a mouse) to do this.  A leader is simply a piece of fabric big enough to fully cover the feed dog area.  I begin sewing on this and then chain stitch my triangles.  The leader engages the feed dogs so that they’re already moving and will grip the triangle fabric and feed it cleanly through the machine.  This will keep your triangle tips sharp and make the HSTs square. 

I also use a stiletto  to help guide my HSTs across the feed dogs.  When I lift the presser foot to guide my HST onto the feed dog deck, the sharp stiletto point helps keep everything lined up.  I also slightly overlap my triangle points.  This seems to keep the sewing going smoothly without fabric getting lodged down in the feed dogs and causing a complete mess.   And as I’m feeding my triangles through, I stop about one inch from the end of the triangle I’m presently sewing and line up my next one.  Again, this action seems to keep the chain sewing moving right along. 

Half-square triangles are wonderful quilt block elements for several reasons.  The first reason is they can be used for literally hundreds of shapes and effects.  The second reason is there are multiple ways of making them.  We’re hitting most of these processes with this blog, but whichever way you decide you like to make HSTs there are two additional ideas bear in mind.  First, as you cut your fabric out, control your ruler. Except for paper piecing, most of the HST processes begin by cutting WOF strips.  When cutting the long strips, it’s easy for your ruler to wiggle out of place a bit or slide just slightly off to one side.  These little things:

Ruler Grippers

Are worth the money.  These are ruler grips.  They are tiny circles or squares of a rubber or sandpaper material that help your long ruler stay in place as you run your rotary cutter against it.  Some of these grips stay flush with back of the ruler and some stick out a little, adding a bit of height to the ruler.  The choice is personal.  Or you could simply purchase my favorite brand of rule, Creative Grids

Creative Grids Ruler.

These rulers have the grips already build into their rulers.  The great thing about HSTs is they really require no specialty rules.  Sure, there are some out there, but you don’t have to purchase them unless you really want to.  You simply need a long, WOF ruler and a square ruler – which you will use to true-up your HSTs (more on this later). 

The second concept to remember is use caution when pressing HSTs.  Remember HSTs have major bias issues, and care must be given not to stretch the long edges.  So, ironing (sliding the iron back and forth over the HSTs, like you were ironing a shirt) should be avoided at all cost.  Pressing (using the iron in an up and down motion) is what should be done, and that should be done sparingly.  I finger press my HST first, and then just barely hit them with an iron.  As mentioned above, starch is your friend here.  Starch your fabric before you begin cutting (especially if you’re a pre-washer) and add another spray of starch with the final press.  The starch stabilizes the bias edges and prevents stretching.

Now let’s talk construction.  I realize some of you may have quilted for years and making HSTs is like second nature to you.  But paying attention to the little details in cutting and sewing raises them to the next level – and that’s what we want to do.  The first method we’re looking at is Straight of Grain Triangles. 

Straight of Grain Triangles

This method makes us cut individual triangles and sew them together.  If you try this method and really like it, you may decide you want to make all your HSTs this way, no matter how the pattern directs you to make them.  It’s easy to figure out just how wide to cut the WOF strip.  Take the finished size of the HST and add 7/8-inch to it. For instance, if the finished size of the HST is 3 inches, simply add 7/8 to that.  3 + 7/8 = 3 7/8 inches.  If the finished size of the HST is 2 ½, simply add 2 ½ + 7/8 = 3 3/8-inches.  Once the strips have been prepped, cut the strip into squares, and then cut the squares in half on the diagonal.  It’s just that easy.  However, remember you’ve exposed the bias, so handle the triangles carefully. 

However….let me throw this in right here.  The formula I just gave you – adding the 7/8-inch to the finished size of the HST to get your measurement – is exact.  There is no wiggle room.  If your ¼-inch seam is off any or the seam bobbles at the end or the beginning, you’ve just lost some of the precise measurement.  I have found it better to make the HSTs a little larger and then cut them down to the correct size.  Yes, you use a little more fabric, but like paper piecing, you’re trading fabric for accuracy.  If the HSTs are a little big and they’re cut down to the correct size, you’ve just increased your odds that all of the HSTs will come out just perfectly.  Here’s how you do this – it’s super easy – instead of adding 7/8-inch to the finished size, add a whole inch. So, if the finished size is 3-inches, add an inch to it and make the strips 4-inches wide and cut 4-inch squares.  If the finished size is 2 ½, add an inch and make the WOF strips 3 ½ inches side and cut the squares 3 ½ inches.  It not only is more accurate, the math is a lot easier, too. 

From this point, proceed just as we did above.  Match the pieces (right sides together) that need to be sewn into the HST, taking care to avoid stretching the long bias diagonal.  Using a leader and a stiletto, and chain feed them over the feed dogs, overlapping the ends slightly.  Cut the chain apart into individual units, finger press the seam to the dark fabric, and then lightly press with a hot, dry iron and a shot of stray starch.  Some people like to press the HSTs while their still held together in the chain.  I don’t do this because it’s too easy to pull the triangle by the thread-chain and stretch them out of shape. 

Trimming HSTs to required sized

Once pressed, it’s now time to cut them down to the correct size.  Here’s where a square ruler with a diagonal line comes in handy.  You simply line up the diagonal on the ruler with the diagonal seam on the HST, and with the correct block size on the side and bottom of the ruler.  Since the block has been made bigger than needed, you’ll split the difference in the extra that needs to be trimmed off all four sides.  It is vital that the ruler be held firmly in place so that the diagonal line on the ruler stays exactly on top of the diagonal seam in the HST.  Some quilters find it helpful to place a finger as close to the edge of the ruler in the corner as they can comfortably do.  Fabric grippers on the bottom of the ruler are also very helpful.  A little trick I learned a while back that helps me keep my diagonals lined up involves painter’s tape. 

Painter’s Tape is great for marking quilting rulers!

On the side of the ruler that touches the fabric, place a piece of painter’s tape along the diagonal line.  Then add several more pieces of tape on top of that to form a slight ridge.  The ridge will not only help you line up the diagonals, it also will kind of fit into the groove the diagonal seam makes and helps keep the ruler in place while you’re trimming.  A sharp rotary blade is also important.  A dull blade can literally drag your HST out of position and make trimming inaccurate.  Trim two sides then turn the HST unit around 180 degrees and trim the other two sides.  When you rotate the HST, make sure to keep matching the diagonals so the trimming is as close to perfect as possible.  Check each HST to make sure that the seam runs exactly to the cut corner.  If the seam is even a thread or two off the corner, you won’t get sharp 90 degree corners and that will make the HSTs difficult to piece as you’re assembling your blocks. 

If this kind of trimming makes you slightly antsy, then you may want to invest in this ruler:

OMG, I LOVE this ruler!!!!

I don’t normally endorse one-use rulers.  If I purchase a ruler, I like to use it for several techniques – not just one.  But this ruler by Eleanor Burns is the exception.  I was introduced to the ruler when I made this quilt:

My twin-sized Sunny Lanes. I also made a queen-sized.

This is Sunny Lanes  by Pat Speth/Charlene Thode.  I made two quilts by this pattern – a twin-size and a queen-size.  I cut hundreds of HSTs for these – literally hundreds and had enough left over to make this:

My Charity Quilt

A chemo quilt for someone at High Point’s Hayworth Caner Center for my guild’s charity quilt program. 

I took the workshop for Sunny Lanes with Augusta Cole and she recommended Eleanor’s ruler.  With this ruler, you cut the HSTs slightly bigger than required by the pattern, but you trim them before you press them open, which means you only make two trim cuts instead of four.  I found it’s highly accurate, easy, and quick – which means a great deal if you have a lot of HSTs to trim.  It doesn’t stretch the bias and keeps the corners sharp.  In other words – it’s worth every red cent. 

The next technique we’re looking at is the Sew and Slice method.  This is actually my favorite way to make medium-sized and large HSTs.  It’s similar to the Straight of Grain method in many ways, but it’s different in that you sew the triangles while they’re still squares and then cut them apart and trim.  I like because you don’t have to sew a bias edge, therefore,  you’ve significantly reduced your odds of stretching the long side of the triangle.  If it sounds confusing, it really isn’t. 

Step 1 — draw the diagonal line

First cut your strips the required width.  Then take one of the light-colored strips and put it right sides together with one of the other colored strips of fabric.  It’s a good thing to give these matched strips a quick press while their right sides together – this seems to help them stay together better.  Then cut the matched strips into squares. 

Step 2 – Sew 1/4 inch away from either side of the drawn line

Take the square pairs of fabric and on the light-colored fabric, draw a diagonal line from one corner to the other.  This is your cutting line – but don’t cut the squares apart now.  Take the squares to your sewing machine and sew a seam exactly ¼-inch away from the drawn line.  Do this on both the right and left side of the line, so you’ll have two sewn seams on either side of the drawn diagonal.  In order for this technique to work correctly, you need to be sure your presser foot is a true ¼-quilter’s foot.  Some quilter’s feet are true ¼-inch feet and others are a scant ¼-inch foot.  If you chose to use this technique, it is a good idea to make a couple of test samples to be sure that your HST comes out accurately. 

Step 3 — Cut the square on the drawn diagonal line

Once the seams are sewn, you can cut the square apart on the drawn diagonal line.  You’ll have two HSTs.  Finger-press the seam and then hit it with a hot iron and a shot of starch. 

If you’re unsure about your ¼-inch foot, there is this tool:

Quick Quarter

This is called a Quick Quarter and it comes in two lengths.  It’s an easy tool to use.  You line the slotted part of the ruler up with the corners of the square.   Using a sharp pencil (pencils seem to work best with this tool), draw a line in each of the slotted areas.  Then run your pencil down either side of the Quick Quarter to make a solid line.  You will stitch on the solid lines and cut on the dashed line.  The same recommendations for sewing Straight of Grain triangles apply here:  Use a leader and stiletto and overlap the corners slightly.  Even though you’re not sewing triangles per say, you’re engaging the feed dogs with only the corners of the square and those won’t cover the entire feed dog deck. 

Since the bias isn’t exposed until nearly the last minute, the chances of stretching it is lowered significantly with this technique.  However, care still must be taken.  These can be chain pieced, but cut the chain apart before pressing, and then finger press, followed by spray starch and a hot, dry iron.  And if you’re wondering if the Quick Quarter is a uni-tasker, it’s not.  I constantly grab mine for cutting small pieces of fabric that I need a straight edge for my rotary cutter.  Some of the Quick Quarters also come with inch-measurements marked on them, so it can double as a small ruler.

If you try this technique and really like it, you’ll want to use it all the time (I do as much as possible).  You’ll find that a lot of quilt pattern designers like this method and may include it in their directions.  But what if they don’t and you want to use the Stitch and Slice technique? The formula is pretty simple.  Take the finished size of the HST and add 7/8-inch (sound familiar?).  Of course, this formula will give you the precise unfinished size of the HST.  If you want to cut them down for complete accuracy, you’ll want to add a full inch to the finished size to allow for trimming.  Square rulers and the Eleanor Burn’s Half-Square Triangle Tool work great with this method. 

Marti Michell’s Perfect Patchwork Templates

The last two HST techniques we’re looking at are the Template Method and the Angle Ruler methods.  The Template Method is just that – templates are used to cut the triangles out and then the triangles are sewn into HSTs.  The great thing about triangle templates is that there are several different sets of acrylic templates in different sizes and different angles.  My favorite template-maker of all time is Marti Michell.  She not only has just about any template imaginable, her templates are also shaped so that you don’t have dog-ears to trim off.  Her templates are high-quality, last for years, and her customer service is stellar.  This method is similar to the other ways to make HSTs.  Cut two WOF strips the needed width.  Take the light strip of fabric and the dark strip of fabric, and iron them right sides together.  Place the template on the strips and cut them out.  There are two ways to do this.  You can use a small rotary cutter (the smaller size allows for more control) and cut them out, or you can take a pencil and draw around the templates and cut them triangles out with a pair of scissors.  I have found that a scant ¼-inch seam allowance works best with Marti Michell’s Perfect Patchwork Templates, but that is with my sewing machine.  Always make a test HST no matter what method you use to be sure the finished unit is the correct size.  Do this first, before cutting into the fabric you’re using for your quilt.  This may seem tedious, but it could save you serious time in the long run, not to mention having to purchase extra fabric because the HST units came out the wrong size.  The only downside to the Perfect Patchwork Templates is it’s difficult to make the units larger and then trim them down.  But then again, the PPTs are perfectly precise, so a seam allowance adjustment may be the only action needed to make the HSTs work perfectly in your block.

Easy Angle Ruler

The Angle Ruler Method requires some type of specialty ruler to cut out your triangles.  There should be no need to trim any of the units down when using one of these rulers.  Simply cut two WOF strips – one of the light fabric and one of the dark – and place them right sides together and press.  Usually the ruler will give instructions on how wide to cut the strips in order to make the correct size triangles, as well as how to line up the angle tool.  Once the angle is lined up correctly, cut along side it with a rotary cutter – again, I find the smaller rotary cutter allows for more control with this method.  Once the first cut is made, rotate the tool 180 degrees and make the second cut.  Then rotate again and cut.  Continue with this method until all of the triangles are cut.  With both the Perfect Patchwork Templates and the angle tool, I’ve found that some kind of fabric gripper placed on the wrong side helps to keep them from sliding out of place.  Like the templates, the angle tools generally leave a blunt tip on the corners, thus eliminating dog-ears.   My favorite angle ruler is this:

Creative Grids Triangle Ruler

This is a ruler by Creative Grids that allow you to make two kinds of triangles – the 90 degree kind needed for HSTs and the wide, fat kind needed for units like Flying Geese.  This tool is super-great because it allows you to make HSTs out of Jelly Roll strips and it already has the fabric grippers built in. 

I will be completely honest here and tell you that if I’m making HSTs that are less than 3-inches, I don’t use any of these methods.  Nope.  I paper piece those suckers.  I personally have found that the smaller the HSTs and their triangles, the more difficult they are to sew without stretching the bias (no matter how much I starch them).  The bias is easier to control with paper piecing, and you can make more than two HSTs at a time.   The paper piecing templates often come in sheets like this:

Paper Piecing HSTs

You cut out a piece of the light fabric and a piece of the dark fabric to fit the sheet, shorten the needle stitch on your sewing machine and follow the arrows in the direction they tell you to stitch.  Cut them apart according to the directions and you have a nice pile of HSTs that aren’t stretched and are the perfect size with no trimming involved.  There is a method you can use without the paper, but by the time you grid it out on your fabric, you can download the free paper piecing pattern from a number of websites and be done. 

Diagram of bias strip HST construction

There are a couple of more obscure methods to make HSTs.  With both of these you cut bias strips, sew those together, and then cut out the HSTs.  To me, these techniques just increase the chances of stretching the bias since so much of it is exposed during the entire construction process – the bias is literally sewn twice and handled at least four times.  I don’t care how much starch you use on the bias, I’m not crazy about the odds of the HSTs coming out perfectly.  I’d rather stick to the methods above. 

We will look at four-patches and nine-patches in the next blog.  This is enough information this week – probably more than you needed!

Until next week, Level Up that Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


True Quilters….?

I belong to several quilt groups, and one of these bees meets every Tuesday night, nearly without fail.  This group is the continuation of the Tuesday night Sit and Sew which met at Dragonfly Quilt Shop when it was open.   I love this group of women.  They can be brutally honest when you need them to be and unfailingly supportive when you need that.  This is also a great discussion group about everything from soup to nuts and of course, quilts.  The topic was raised a few weeks ago about “What Makes a True Quilter.”  One member of the group stated that she had heard you couldn’t call yourself a “True Quilter” unless you had made a Dear Jane quilt, Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt, and a Cathedral Windows quilt. 

Dear Jane
Cathedral Windows Quilt
Grandmother’s Flower Garden

This hit me kind of hard – I’ve made a Dear Jane (and am now gathering fabrics for my second one) and am in the middle of a Grandmother’s Flower Garden (by hand, may I add).  A Cathedral Windows Quilt is nowhere on my horizon.  But I consider myself a true quilter.  So, after much thought, to borrow a phrase from MASH’s Colonel Sherman Potter:

Making one, two, or all three of these quilts has nothing to do with me or anyone else titling themselves a “True Quilter.”  What does this even mean?  Does it mean you quilt eight hours a day?  Does it mean you only make challenging quilts?  Does it mean you quilt most of your quilts by hand?  Could someone….anyone… out there give a definitive answer on what it means to be a “True Quilter?”

I’ll wait….

Chances are there, if I waited long enough, I’d get as many different answers as there are quilters.  I do understand the reasoning behind the statement that any quilter who makes these three particular quilts has reached a certain level of proficiency that should be admired.  Those quilts – the Dear Jane, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, and Cathedral Window – require a fairly advanced set of sewing skills.  Yes, there are patterns out there that have certainly “dumbed down” these quilts, but if sewn from the original designs, these quilts are on the difficult end of quilt construction.  To reach this proficiency level, you either A) Are extremely talented or (more than likely) B) You’ve quilted a long time and have acquired a certain skill set.  There is also significant handwork involved with these quilts.  Dear Jane can be machine sewn, but there is applique and embroidery involved that should be done by hand.  Grandmother’s Flower Garden is hexagon after hexagon and was originally designed to be hand-sewn.  I’m hand-piecing mine.  I’ve seen GFG’s done by machine, but they’re not nearly as lovely or accurate as the ones done by hand.  Cathedral Windows is a toss-up.  I’ve seen lovely ones done completely by hand and equally beautiful ones done on machine.  And if you want to get really down and dirty, Cathedral Windows isn’t a “true quilt” anymore than it makes a quilter a “true quilter” – it has no middle layer.  That’s right.   Not one scrap of middle filler is involved and a quilt – by definition – has a top, middle, and back. 

Besides the skill level and handwork involved, the other reason construction of a Dear Jane, Cathedral Window, and a Grandmother’s Flower Garden seems particularly important is the amount of patience each of them requires. 

None of these quilts are weekend projects that could be started on a Friday night and be completed by Sunday bedtime.  These are project that need months – if not years – of steady commitment.  If a quilter can start and finish at least one of these quilts, it is a great achievement.

So, when we consider the skill level, handwork, and patience involved with these three quilts, it’s easy to see why some quilters believe those are the ticket to True Quilterhood.  However….let’s back off from these and reconsider that thought.  There are other quilt patterns that involve the same level of skill sets these quilts have.  What about Sue Garman’s Halo Medallion?  Or the Caswell Quilt?  Or Patchwork of the Crosses?  Would anyone out there call these quilts particularly easy?  I don’t think so.  These quilts involve time, advanced skills, and patience. 

I don’t think anyone can absolutely define what a True Quilter is.  I think it varies from quilter to quilter.  I do think that there are certain characteristics that “True Quilters” (whatever that is) have. 

We know it’s not just a hobby

Yes, it relieves stress and help us relax.  But it’s more than that.  Our sewing area is our happy place, filled with colorful chaos and creativity.  If we choose to make quilts for different organizations that need them, it’s a hobby that helps us give back to our community.  It’s a way for us to give a tangible gift to someone we love  — a gift  that is imbued with our prayers and thoughts.  It’s a place where we feel okay by ourselves or with a community of like-minded crafters.  It’s somewhere we know we can have a few minutes of fun at the end of a trying day.  Sometimes knowing I can go home and quilt is the only thing that gets me through my day.

We always strive to do our best work

I have mixed feelings about the word “strive.”  It sounds almost like a battle front – that the work is difficult and we’re exhausting ourselves just trying to get it done.  But it’s the best word for this characteristic.  Quilting certainly isn’t a battlefield at all.  It’s something we enjoy.  However, most quilters I know put their best effort into every quilt they make.  Our quilts are never perfect, but we work hard to get them as close to it as we can.  Many times this propensity carries over into other areas of our lives, and this cannot be a bad thing.

We want to learn new skills

The quilters I hang around with love learning new things.  Whether it’s a different way to use a ruler or a new quilting method or a class that teaches different skills – we’re all in.  And this is a good thing in so many, many ways.  The American Medical Association has told us that as we age, it’s just as important to keep our brains active as it is our body.  Learning new quilting skills not only keeps our brains churning, it also works both halves of our brain – the mathematical, logical side and the creative, word-driven side.  And this can ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s.

We want to learn how to make our acquired skills even better

Most of the time quilters won’t settle for mediocrity.  Whether it’s color choice or technique, we want to do it better.  We’re always looking for ways to make a better four-patch or pinwheel.  We want to make our hand quilting stitches smaller and our applique stitches invisible.  True quilters, in my opinion, won’t settle for the status quo.  We want to take what we know and push it one step closer to perfection.

In closing, let me add that part of this year’s theme of “Level Up” will take some of the basic concepts and push them just a little closer to perfect.  And some blogs will introduce techniques that you may not have heard of before or have heard of, but never tried.  I hope this series will encourage you to hone your skills and enthusiasm just a bit more.  However, let me also caution all quilters, everywhere:

  1.  Don’t judge yourself or other quilters.  This is so easy to do.  I quilt with some outstanding quilters.  It’s so easy for me to compare my work to theirs and condemn myself for coming up short.  And it’s just as easy to look at another quilter’s work and think about what you would have done differently or how you could have done better.  Don’t. Go. There.  Just don’t.  As I said in the first blog of this series, this is about your quilt journey – not anyone else’s.  Celebrate the variety in quilts and quilters.  Celebrate another quilter’s journey, but embrace your own.  You may never make any of the three quilts we’ve talked about in this blog, but you know what?  That’s okay.  They may never be part of your quilting journey.  And the fact that they’re not does not in any way take away anything from the quilts you’re making. 
  2. If you’re learning more, and working to make each quilt better, then you’re a true quilter.  Those three quilts – Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Cathedral Windows, and Dear Jane are just quilt patterns.  Yes, they are difficult, but so are a lot of other quilt patterns out there.  If you’re striving (there’s that word again) to make your quilts better and eagerly learn new concepts and techniques, don’t worry about what another quilter says.  You’re in the True Quilter Fellowship.
  3. If you love to share with other quilters, you’re an awesome person and an awesome quilter.  The one quality that strongly impressed me when I began to quilt was the willingness of other quilters to share with me anything they had – time, knowledge, fabric, tools, books (because I started quilting before the Internet Age).  Quilters are some of the most selfless folks I know.  They open their homes, their hearts, and their sewing space to others.  They listen and share and pray for you.  And I’ve seen this over the entire spectrum – from the very impressive quilt judges and designers to the newest member of a bee or guild.  Quilters are simply the best people.

In 2020, let’s push ourselves to learn one new skill and to become better with at least three we already do.  I’d like to ask you to share those with me along the way and if I have enough, at the end of the year, we can make a list.  Above all else, I want you to embrace your quilting journey.  Enjoy it.  Spread the love.  And just quilt.

Until next week, Level Up those Skills….

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam