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

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