Star-Crossed Blocks

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again

This morning, I went on a quest.  I went looking after a fact, a process that led me down the Google rabbit hole and didn’t let me back up for nearly three hours.  What was I looking for?  A number…an estimate…a guess of just how many quilt blocks have stars in them.  Know what I found?


Oh, I found star blocks aplenty, but as far as a firm number of exactly how many of these there are, no one was offering even an educated guess.  The closest I got to a figure was Pinterest – which had at the time of my search — 5,275 images of quilt blocks with stars on them.  Not satisfied with this, I opened my EQ 8 and searched for star quilt blocks.  This time I came up with 570 quilt blocks with stars in them. 

Annnndddd I found out that North Carolina has its own “official” star block!

North Carolina Star

Talk about being star-crossed.

Within the ranges of star blocks, there seemed to be just as many names for these blocks as there were blocks themselves.  And besides having a hard time pinning down numbers and names, the history behind star blocks is muddled.  One of the first ­printed mention of such a block is found in 1884 in Farms and Firesides Magazine.  And the article featured this star block:

This block has several different names, but it’s primarily known as the Sawtooth Star.  I imagine it was given this moniker because the starbursts around the center square reminds the viewer of the jagged teeth of a saw.  In this blog, I want to keep things as simple as I can, so I’m lumping star blocks into four different categories:

  1.  Sawtooth Stars/Variable Stars
  2. Feathered Stars
  3. Diamond Stars
  4. Set-in Stars

We’re not working with diamond stars or set-in stars right now.  I haven’t discussed the techniques used in those blocks yet.  We will get there, I promise, and those will come later.  We also will not touch on foundation pieced stars or stars made by English Paper Piecing.

Variable Star

Feathered Star

I lump Sawtooth Stars and Variable Stars (and to a degree, Feathered Stars) in the same category because of their construction elements.  While none of those star blocks look exactly alike, the construction process is similar – which is why I put them all in one category.  All of these blocks are comprised of squares, half-square triangles, and flying geese units.  With the Variable Star blocks, there is also the large square in the middle that you could design in a variety of ways (which is why I think it is called the Variable Star).  Sometimes you can even throw in a Quarter-Square Triangle unit. 

By now, if you’re  a regular reader of my blog, you can see what I’ve been leading up to over the past several weeks.  After spending some serious time learning about the construction of HSTs, FGUs, and QSTs, now it’s time to begin to put them to practice.  Let’s start by throwing some of the blocks in a grid. 

Gridded Sawtooth Block

When we put the Sawtooth Star in a grid, we can see that it’s really a star in a nine-patch setting.  It consists of flying geese, four small squares in each corner, and a large square in the middle. 

Gridded Variable Star

As grid out a Variable Star, we find out it’s a nine-patch, too, even though it may not look like it.  Four-patch units make up the corner squares and the middle square has been converted into its own nine-patch unit made up of a four-patches (to echo the corner squares), squares and rectangles.  Flying geese are used at the top, bottom, and sides.

Gridded Feather Star

Now let’s really kick it up a notch and look at a Feathered Star.  It’s is a little more complicated, but it’s one of my favorite blocks, especially when they’re set on-point.  At first glance, you may think it’s a nine-patch, but it isn’t. The diamonds at the tip of the star are set-in diamonds.  The large triangles on the sides and squares in the corners are also set-in.  What I want you to notice about a Feathered Star block is this:  It’s primarily made of half-square triangles, triangles, and squares – all techniques we’ve worked to perfect and  we know how to correctly handle the bias.    So while this complicated-looking block will have to wait until we work with set-in seams, I want you to be aware that as of this moment, you already successfully possess 90 percent of the skillset needed to correctly and confidently make this block.  Don’t be put off by its difficult looks.  Although I will be the first to admit when attempting this block, I would paper piece it because the half-square triangles are so small. 

Setting the Feathered Star aside, (that is another block for another day) because we know the Sawtooth Star and the Variable Star are nine-patches, we’ve just opened up a world of creativity.  By now you should know how to execute perfectly wonderful half-square, quarter-square, and flying geese units.  You know how to make four-patches and nine-patches.  You also should know your preferred technique to make these units. Theoretically, we should be able to take the either star block and make it look either traditional:

Or a little more exciting:

Because star blocks are used so often in quilt designs, it’s important not only to know how to make them well, it’s also essential to think about how color can completely change up your design look.  Take the Sawtooth Star Block for instance.

This is the traditional look:

If we picked modern quilt colors, we get this effect.

If we use a two-color scheme, it looks completely different.

And if we reversed the background color and the star color, we get another completely different vibe. 

Now let’s play with scrappy.

As you can see, color choice and placement can give a completely different look to a block.  When you’re considering fabric for these stars, just remember that “cool” colors (blues and greens) will look as if they’re receding into the background while warm colors (reds, yellows, and oranges)  will “pop” out from the background. 

Both of these quilts are Sizzle, a 2019 BOM from The Quilt Show. It was designed by Becky Goldsmith. The top quilt features predominately cool colors and the bottom one is primarily warm colors. Similar though the patterns are, note how differently the warm and cool colors not only affect the appearance, but also how you feel about each quilt.

So, in the future if you’re working with a star block like this:

You may want to use cool colors on the parts of the stars that appear further back and use a warmer color in the parts that appear closer to the viewer.  Just remember the rule about purples and lime greens – even though technically they fall in the cool spectrum, when placed next to a warm color, they tend to “heat up” a bit. 

Lastly, let’s consider how most effectively set star blocks.  Working with this block:

Let’s put it in a traditional horizontal row setting with sashing and cornerstones. 

This is a nice quilt.  But look what happens when you construct your sashing out of the same fabric as the background in the star blocks:

And look at what happens when you completely remove the sashing:

Can you see the secondary design?

To me, the appearance of the star blocks radically change in the last two quilt settings.  Now let’s do the same thing, but let’s set the blocks on point.


Sashing the same color as the background.

Sashing completely removed.

Can you see the secondary design on this one?

On-point setting for the star blocks with connector blocks.

On point setting with the star blocks used as the connector blocks. 

To wrap this blog up, it’s important to remember that quilting is like any other thing you want to learn – the more you do it, the better you become and in order to do the more advanced steps correctly, you first have to learn the beginning steps really well.  Over the past several blogs we’ve discussed how to make half-square triangles, quarter-square triangles, nine-patches, four-patches, and flying geese.  For most of these units, we’ve looked at several different techniques for each of them.  It’s important for you to find out which technique works for you.  On top of this, we’ve worked through the different mathematical formulas involved in estimating the yardage needed for these techniques. 

In other words, you should be well prepared to move onto the next few blogs about a few more advanced techniques – Y-seams and 60-degree angles. 

Stay tuned.

Until next week, Level Up That Quilting!

Sherri and Sam

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