Gridding Quilt Blocks

In several of my past blogs, I’ve thrown out the phrase “grid out the block,” or something similar.  I honestly had not thought anything else about the term, and assumed (wrongly, as I soon learned), that most every quilter out there in my blogging universe knew what I was talking about.

Well, not everyone did.  I’ve gotten some emails, messages, and a few comments from folks who let me know they weren’t sure exactly what I meant, could I explain it, and did they have to use quilting software to make a grid.  I’m more than happy to explain it and no, no quilting software is needed.   I admit software such as Electric Quilt 8 makes the gridding, drawing, or re-drawing of a block easier than working with a pencil and paper, and the new technology does make it faster.  But when I began quilting in the early eighties, EQ didn’t exist.  As a matter of fact, I don’t remember hearing about it until around 2001 when I took a quilt class at Hancock Fabrics in Greensboro and the teacher mentioned EQ4.  However, computers and software aside, all you really need to grid out a block is paper, pencil, a ruler, and a good eraser.  And these were the tools I used when I started piecing in 1985. 

At this point let me step up on my quilting soap box for a few minutes.   When I began seriously quilting, I was 25 and the year was 1987.  Computers as we have them today, didn’t exist.  Even in an educational setting, I don’t remember entering grades into a computer until some point in the 1990’s.  As a result, I was taught by other quilters how to use a compass, protractor, ruler, and some basic math and geometry to draft my own quilt blocks.  These skills were used just as much as the lessons given on accurate piecing, hand sewing, and quilting.  Do I think the drafting lessons made us better quilters?   Not necessarily.  I’ve had quilting students who could out piece me by a mile in certain quilts.  But I do think we quilt veterans may have a leg up on younger quilters because we were taught to dissect a quilt block in order to make it larger, smaller, or change it to make it uniquely ours.  We didn’t necessarily need a pattern to make the quilt we wanted.  We could design it ourselves with a pencil, paper, and calculator.  We could estimate yardage.  All this takes more time than purchasing a quilt pattern, but it wasn’t long until we could forego a pattern altogether and make whatever we wanted.

I’ve taught quilting since around 2007.  It’s always been a desire of mine to have a class who wanted to go back to the nuts and bolts of quilting in the same manner I was taught.  And I’ve had absolutely zero takers.  It seems everyone wants to learn to make a certain quilt in a certain pattern in the same colorway as the pattern designer used.  The closest to the nuts and bolts I can get is to offer a class in a sampler quilt.  At least this allows me to hit basic skills in one quilt block and other skills in the next block.  I just think it’s terribly important for every quilter to look at a pattern or another quilt and know how they want to make it and be comfortable changing the design to suit them.  This is why I strongly encourage everyone to learn what technique works best for you – such as which is  the best way for you to make flying geese, half-square triangles, or 45-degree diamonds – and know how to re-estimate the yardage if you need to.  It would delight my soul if folks who read my blog became comfortable designing their own quilt and have the skill set to do so – with or without the quilting software.

I’ll get down off my quilting soapbox now and proceed with the gridding.

The first question I need to answer (per emails and messages) is what does it mean to grid out a block?

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs (especially the ones on estimating fabric yardage), the first step in both estimating yardage and altering a quilt block is determining what kind of numerical block it is.  Is it a four-patch?  A nine-patch?  A sixteen or thirty-two patch?  The best way to do this is to sketch the block out on a piece of paper.  This paper can be graph paper, plain copy paper, notebook paper, a napkin – to get to the basics the type of paper used doesn’t matter.  When you begin to alter the block, it does matter because you’ll want to draft the block out the exact size.  But for right now, let’s look at this block: 

Road to Oklahoma

This is a Road to Oklahoma block, and it’s 8-inches finished.  I will walk you through my process to decide what type of square it is. 

Step One:  The very first item I look for is a familiar block unit.  I do this for two reasons.  If I can find a familiar block unit, it means I’ve made that particular unit many times, and I already know my favorite way to make it.  Second, that familiar unit begins to give me an idea of what type of numerical block it may be.  With Road to Oklahoma, the very first unit that catches my eye are the four-patch units in the top right and bottom left corners.  Could this block be a variation of a four-patch?

Step Two:  Now I look at the adjacent units to see if they can be divided into a four patch:

The answer is yes.  Even though the blocks in this unit are not identical, (some are solid square of fabric, the others are half-square triangles) we still would consider them a four-patch and they would be constructed as such.

Step Three:  Can the patches in the four-patch units stand on their own?  In other words, when isolated like this:

Do they depend on the adjacent patch to complete it?  And the answer this time is no.  Even though each patch in the unit, and each unit in the block work together to make the block’s final appearance complete, each patch can stand alone.  This means that Road to Oklahoma is not a four-patch.  There are 16 individual patches in this block – four in each row and four along the side.  This makes Road to Oklahoma a 16-patch block.

This is a process.  And you may wonder why it’s important and even if it’s necessary.  Frankly, no, it’s not necessary if you want make quilts by  patterns for the rest of your quilting career. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.  However, if you come across a quilt pattern that you’d like to either shrink to make a wall hanging or enlarge to make a bed quilt, this process liberates you from guess work and puts the creative power squarely in your hands.  Plus, if you ever decide to make a miniature quilt – you would own that category in the next quilt show.  In short, gridding sets you free.

At this point, I draw the block out on paper with its actual finished dimensions.  This Road to Oklahoma block finishes at 8-inches.  Since there are four patches across and four patches down, this means that each patch unit will be 2-inches. 

Once you have a quilt block “on the grid” you’re free to explore the “what-would-it-look-like-if-I-changed-this?” part of the creative process.  Let me show you what I mean.  Once you’ve drawn your block out, you can cut the individual units apart and move them around to see how the block’s appearance changes.  For me, I find it helpful to color my block in the same hues as my fabric, so as I shift the units around, I can get a real feel for my color placement (is it effective?) and if my new layout really works.  Let me throw in this helpful hint – once I sketch my block out in pencil, I make several copies of it, just in case I need to change my colors. 

Original Road to Oklahoma
Variation One
Variation Two
Variation Three

Of course, if you have quilting software, these steps can be done with most of those programs.  You can graph the block out, color it in, print the results, cut the block apart, and then start moving units around.  And with some software programs, you can even move the blocks around on your computer screen so you don’t necessarily even have to print them out. 

Another great feature about gridding quilt blocks is it allows you to see if you can simplify complicated blocks.  I enjoy complicated blocks.  They stretch you as a quilt artist.  But if I’m making a queen-sized quilt that has 60 difficult blocks in it, I don’t want to “stretch” quite that much.  I will immediately look to see if there is some way I can make the piecing process a little easier.  For instance, let’s go back and look at an 8-pointed star block from earlier blogs.

Lemoyne Star

This is a lovely block, but let’s be honest.  Who wants to make a large quilt with all these set-in seams?  The larger the quilt block is, the easier it is to sew Y-seams and partial seams (at least it is for me), but seriously, do you want to sew hundreds of Y-seams?  Unless I was attempting to razzle-dazzle a quilt judge, I would grid the block out and see if I couldn’t make half-square triangles do the work of a set-in seam.  Let’s see if we can do it.

This is the traditional Lemoyne Star Block
This is the Lemoyne Star Block re-gridded into half-square triangle units.

This is a type of Lemoyne Star block, and when we grid it out into HST units, it does alter the appearance a bit, but I could live with that instead of sewing all those Y-seams.  It works for this block.   If we understand gridding, these alterations are easy to make and it’s just as simple to estimate the fabric yardage.  It looks very similar and it reduces the complexity of Y-seams. 

Gridding blocks out also allows you to enlarge or shrink a quilt block to suit your design.  Granted, if you have quilting software, this is super easy.  You simply change the block’s dimensions in the software, and it re-programs the entire block – from the actual size, to the templates, to the rotary cutting instructions — and sometimes it even figures the yardage, too.  Working  with a paper grid can do the same thing, but it is a little more work.  I’ll explain the way I do it, but as with a lot of techniques in quilting, there’s more than one way to do things.  This works for me, but let encourage you to explore other options if it doesn’t work for you. 

I begin with the measurements of the original block.  Let’s go back and use the first block we began to tinker with in this blog – Road to Oklahoma.  Remember the block finished at 8-inches, and it’s a 16-patch block (4 block unit across and 4 down).  This means each individual block unit finishes at 2-inches.  Technically, we can adjust the unit’s size to come up with the larger-sized block needed.  For instance, if we enlarge each block unit to 3-inches and there are four units across and down, then our finished block will measure 12-inches, finished (3-inches x 4 block units = 12).  We can even play with fractions, if desired.  If we made the finished size of each block unit 2 ½-inches, then the finished size of our Road to Oklahoma would be 10-inches (2 ½ x 4 = 10).  It’s a pretty simple procedure:  Take the desired finished block size and divide it by four.  For instance, if you want your block to finish at 9-inches, divide 9 by 4.  This equals 2 ¼-inches.  Each block unit will finish at 2 ¼-inches.  When we add ½-inch for the seam allowances, each unfinished block unit is 2 ¾-inches.

The same method holds true if you want to shrink your block.  Let’s say we want our finished block unit to be 1 ½-inches.  Simply multiply 1 ½ x 4 and we get 6-inches.  And that’s about as small as I would want my Road to Oklahoma to be if I were traditionally piecing it.  Six inches is about as small as I would use traditional piecing for any block.  If I wanted to go smaller than that, I’d paper piece it.  And we can use gridding for this technique – I’ll show you how in the next couple of paragraphs. 

Let’s go back to our Road to Oklahoma, but let’s shrink it to 4-inches, finished.  That means each block unit in the quilt block will be 1-inch finished.  Let’s draw that out.

Four inch Road to Oklahoma

This is awfully small for me to consider traditionally piecing.  I would automatically decide to paper piece just about any block less than 5-inches square. 

When you want to paper piece a block there are two aspects we must consider:

  1.  Do the block units lend themselves to paper piecing?  There are some patches that simply cannot be paper pieced – such as blocks with curved units.  Those are tricky.  Sometimes they can be paper pieced and sometimes they can’t.  But with Road to Oklahoma, these are plain squares of fabric and HSTs, so we’re good to go.  The answer to the first question is yes.
  2. Which is the easiest way to paper piece this block – rows or columns?  This kind of falls into the category of personal preference.  And my personal preference is the simplest route because usually that gives the best appearance with the least headache.  When we look at Road to Oklahoma, if we pieced in in rows, we would have one HST per row.  We would also have one HST per column.  I personally find it easier to  paper piece HSTs in columns, so I would opt to paper piece in vertical columns and then sew the columns together into the block.  Again, this is a personal preference.  You may like rows better and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. 
Paper Pieced Pattern for Road to Oklahoma

If I decide to paper piece my 4-inch block, I will grid out my columns and make sure I leave ¼-inch margin around them so I could paper piece.  Quilting software will give you the ¼-inch margin automatically.

Let me stop at this point and talk about how you may want to use a “type” of paper piecing even if you decide to use traditional piecing as your method of construction.  If I’m making a really complicated block – especially one that has a lot of bias – I use a hybrid method of paper piecing to make sure I’m accurate.  Keep in mind the final goal in making a block is accuracy both in piecing and in size.  Using Road to Oklahoma as a guide, let me show you what I mean and how the gridding/paper piecing is a great tool to pull out to guarantee both. 

First, I grid out the block, but I use freezer paper to do this.  If I have the type of freezer paper I can run through my printer, this makes it super-fast and super easy.  This is my freezer paper of choice:

I’ll make two freezer paper patterns.  The first is the final copy of the block – the one that is the same size as the finished quilt block.  I will cut this out, leaving a ¼-inch seam allowance around the block.   

The other copy will have each individual block unit with the ¼-inch seam allowance around it.  I will cut this copy apart into each of the individual units.  

 As I make each individual block unit, I will lightly press its freezer paper counterpoint unit on top of the fabric unit to make sure it’s sewn to true size. 

Needs a little trimming….

Then when all the units are pieced together, I’ll lightly press the complete gridded block of freezer paper on top of the fabric block to make sure it’s true to size. 

All that careful work leads to close perfection.

I know this sounds like a lot of work, and it is.  However, I only go through this process if I’m constructing blocks with a lot of bias involved, such as this: 

The freezer paper process, although it is time-consuming, assures me of complete accuracy.  And after I get several of the bias-laden blocks under my belt, I may only go through this process with ones that I feel may be really wonky. 

Gridding is a great tool to have in your quilting toolbox.  You won’t use it with every quilt or with every block, but it sure is helpful if you want to alter a block or make sure the block is accurate.  It’s also worth noting that not every quilt block will lend itself to gridding.  Blocks which have lot of curves are difficult, if not impossible to grid, like this one:

And some blocks with Y-seams or partial seams can’t be gridded out, like the Feathered Star. 

Some Feathered Stars you can alter and use all HSTs, and some you can’t.  Those are the types of blocks you must experiment with. 

Tuck this tool away and pull it out when bias units and blocks drive you crazy.  The process does take time, but it really helps!

Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


Let’s Get Small (with Apologies to Steve Martin)

Those of us of a certain age remember an awesome comedian, Steve Martin.

Nowadays he’s known more for his music – primarily bluegrass, emphasizing the banjo.  But years ago – you may remember —  when Saturday Night Live was really new and really funny – he was a comedian.  And he had a catch phrase – “Let’s get small.” 

I remember just the simple mention of that phrase in a classroom setting would send my friends and me into belly laughs, much to the confusion of most of our teachers.  We loved Steve Martin. 

However, as a quilter, getting small means other things.  Small blocks.  Small quilts.  And this blog concentrates on small quilts.  Small quilts are great things.  They can be made from leftover blocks or from small blocks.  I love small quilts for both of those reasons – I can use up leftover blocks and a small quilt means I’m finished quicker.  If I’m in a quilting funk, a small quilt is often the cure.  I can cut one out, sew it up, quilt it, and bind it quickly – often all in one weekend.  There’s nothing like feeling productive to get you out of a quilting slump. 

But then you’re left with a small quilt.   What do you do with it?  That’s what this blog will explore.  It’s not just enough to finish a small quilt and feel productive.  You must know how to use it so that it doesn’t just take up space on your sewing table.    

Current small quilt serving as a table topper on my kitchen table. It was constructed from four-patches left over from my Ester Aliu Bunny Quilt.

1,  Use it as a table topper.  This is my favorite way to use small quilts.  I keep seasonal table runners on my dining room table, but my kitchen table is smaller.  A small quilt is perfect for it.  Bonus:  My oldest granddaughter (who loves to sew) looks forward to seeing how I change them out.  It gives me the biggest thrill for her to ask about the colors and piecing. 

2.  Put it on the wall.  Like other great works of art, hang it on the wall.  I hang a small quilt the same way I do a larger one —  I put a sleeve on the back and then slide the sleeve on a rod.  This is not only better for the quilt, it’s easier the change them out when you want to display another small quilt.

3.  Use a small quilt stand.  I invested in one of these when my guild had a monthly small quilt challenge.  I made a small quilt for every month and now I use the stand to display them.  It resides on top of a low bookcase in my entry way.  This makes it super easy to change out the quilts.  A small quilt stand is unobtrusive, can fit just about anywhere, and requires little assembly.

4.  Make a potholder or trivet.  Sometimes you’ll have one quilt block that’s left over and you’re not quite sure what to do with it.  It may be too small for even a mini quilt, but you just can’t toss it in the trash.  If this is the case, make it into a potholder or trivet to set hot dishes on.  Just be sure to use some Insul-brite instead of batting.  Quilt and bind as usual.

5.  If it’s super-small, make it into a mug rug.  Really small blocks may be too tiny to even make into a potholder.  If this is the case, make it into a mug rug (coaster).  If you have several small blocks, make a set of coasters and tuck it into a gift bag with a mug and some hot chocolate mix for that last minute Christmas present.

6.  Use it in less obvious places.  I’ve taken left over blocks and personalized tote bags, jackets, and vests.  I’ve also taken larger left-over blocks and turned those into pillows – which is a great way to coordinate pillows with your quilt top. 

7.  Give them away.  I’ll be upfront here — most of us have either started a quilt and then decided the quilt pattern wasn’t a good match for us or have made a quilt and had several leftover blocks.  In either situation, we have a stack of quilt blocks we’re not sure what to do with.  We don’t want to necessarily toss them into the circular file (trash can), but we really don’t want to invest anymore time or resources in them.  There are too many of them to justify constructing a mini quilt, or we don’t want or need another wall hanging.  My go-to way of re-homing these is the free table at my guild’s monthly meetings.  Usually somebody takes these home with them, seeing beauty in the blocks where I saw only hours of monotonous work. 

If that’s not an option for you, consider making a throw quilt for someone.  Even if the blocks don’t necessarily match, if you use a gray or especially a white (because if you use enough white as the background eventually everything goes together), they will harmonize and make a nice quilt for a child, or a cancer patient, or someone else who needs a tangible reminder of your love.  If the blocks are different sizes, you may have to exercise some creative layout skills, but using those blocks and then giving the quilt away as a gift will make you feel good for days.

Remember this quilt? For sure, the border fabric helped pull the whole thing together, but the white used as a neutral made all the colors sing with harmony.

 And this brings me to my last point about small quilts.  They make great gifts.  I keep a few small quilts on hand to give as birthday presents or Christmas gifts.  I can tuck one of them in a gift bag along with a container of homemade cookies and a good bottle of wine.  This makes a unique gift that is truly from my heart to theirs.

Keep these thoughts in mind as your left-over block collection grows.  I find it helpful to store these in a box in my studio where it’s in plain sight.  Every week or so I go through them and decide if I have enough to make a charity quilt or something else.  It’s a win-win –it keeps them out of the landfill and allows me to make something pretty and useful out of them.

Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


Square-in-a-Square Blocks

Let’s talk about the Square-in-a-Square block.

This is what one looks like:

Traditional, classic Square-in-a-Square

If you’ve read my past blogs, you may remember we’ve talked about this block before.  You may also remember it has another name – for years it was called the Economy Block.  I’m not sure what quilters decided they were economizing with this block – was it fabric or time?  For sure, it’s a great way to use up scraps, but it also doesn’t take a lot of time to make, either.  You also may recall we used it as a connecting block in quilts.  Those triangles in the four corners make it an ideal block to join blocks together if you opt out of sashing. 

Square-in-a-Square blocks are used as connecting blocks. These SIAS blocks are Snowball Blocks.

The Square-in-a-Square is one of the most versatile quilt blocks to have tucked away in your quilting toolbox.  And it’s one of those blocks whose seeming simplicity can lull you into thinking it’s not nearly as fancy as an eight-pointed star and not nearly as difficult to make as a feathered star.  I’ll throw this in right here:  Appearances can be deceiving, and both of those aspects are never truer than when dealing with the Square-in-a-Square.  So, let’s break it down.

Jody Barrow’s Square in a Square System

If you take the time to Google Square-in-a-Square, one of the first names that pops up on the search is Jody Barrows.  She has a piecing system called Square-in-a-Square that is pretty phenomenal.  It branches out into other block units besides the Square-in-a-Square, such as flying geese.  I am not proficient in this method – I have the rulers and I’ve made few blocks using her system.  I am impressed enough to have her method on my Quilting Bucket List of goals to undertake.  If you’re curious, look her up on the internet.  She has lots of videos which explain her system (and it’s not hard to use), as well as the rulers, books, and patterns on her website.  And if you live in the Triad area of North Carolina, Gloria Stickney of Sew Fabulous is certified to teach this method.  Hopefully post-COVID, Gloria will offer classes again.  She really is a great teacher.

But if you’re unsure of just how much you want to embrace this block (no matter how versatile it is), you probably don’t want to invest in fancy rulers or books just yet.  You may want to construct this block using what you have on hand.  We’re looking at three methods today – the traditional method, paper piecing,  and my method.  Let’s start with the traditional method. 

When you examine the block, the first concept that should stand out is the center of the block.  There’s a lot of area there and we will talk about it a bit further down this blog.  But what should grasp your attention is the center holds great potential for either design work or fancy quilting.  The second thought floating through your head should concern the corners of the block.  They’re triangles.  And by now you know what triangles bring to the table – bias.  So right off the bat, we know care needs to be taken to protect the bias and to avoid exposing that bias until the last minute. 

The good news about the traditional construction is we don’t necessarily work with triangles in the corners – we can work with squares if the Square-in-Square block is a Snowball Block:

Snowball Block

We touched on this type of construction in earlier blogs dealing with linking blocks.  Instead of cutting out triangles and sewing them in the corners, we cut out squares and sew them on the diagonal.  This produces the small triangles in the corners and doesn’t expose the bias.  To learn how to construct a Snowball Block, please see my blog On-Point Planning, published May 6, 2020.

However, when we’re constructing the traditional Square-in-a-Square block, the corner triangles aren’t as small as the ones in the Snowball block.  All the sides of the center square are encased by them.  We can’t make these blocks in the same manner as we did the Snowball block. Bigger triangles mean more bias.  And more bias means the block can come out all kinds of wonky.  We can avoid the wonky by following a few simple guidelines.

  • Instead of cutting out triangles,  plan on rotary cutting squares and then cutting these on the diagonal at the very last minute.   By now it should be super-easy for you to determine what size to cut the squares.  Take the finished size of the center square and divide it by 1.414 then add 7/8-inch.  So, if we’re making a Square-in-a-Square block that has a 5-inch finished center, this is what the math looks like:

5 / 1.414 = 3.536068 or 3 ½-inches

3 ½ + 7/8 = 4 3/8 inches

We would cut two 4 3/8-inch squares and then cut them once on the diagonal.  We would need two squares of the corner fabric per Square-in-a-Square center block.

These measurements are exact.  They leave little wiggle room.  And since we know no matter how carefully we handle triangles, bias can still be stretched, it’s a good idea to make the Square-in-a-Square block a little bigger and then trim it to the unfinished size needed.  Instead of adding 7/8-inch, I add an entire inch.  So, my math would look like this:

5 / 1.414 = 3 ½-inches

3 1/2 + 1 = 4 ½-inches

I would cut my corner squares 4 ½-inches and then cut them once on the diagonal. 

  •  Before you cut the squares on the diagonal, give them a shot of spray starch, and press them with a hot iron.
  • Expose the bias at the last possible minute.  Cut the squares out and then cut only a few on the diagonal at a time.
  • If you have to stop sewing the triangles for any reason, store them flat and in a place where you don’t have to keep moving them.

Traditional Square-in-a-Square block construction is just like putting borders on a quilt.

You sew the left and right side on and press the seam toward the triangles.

Make sure the “ears” of the triangle hang off 1/4-inch from the square.
Sew the left and right triangles on and press towards the triangles.

Then add the top and bottom triangles and press those seams towards the triangles, too.

Untrimmed SIAS Unit

As you can see, no matter how carefully I handled the bias, the sides still aren’t exactly square.  But when I trim mine down to size

Trimmed, unfinished 7 1/2-inch SIAS

Most of the wonky dissipates, and the unfinished square should measure 7 ½-inches

To me, if my Square-in-a-Square blocks are small, they propose even more of a challenge.  I’m working with small pieces.  Small pieces make precision challenging.  Toss in the fact that we’re dealing with small, bias edges and the squares can go wonky in a heartbeat.  This is why, if my Square-in-a-Square blocks are less than 3-inches, I choose to paper piece them. 

Paper piecing pattern for a SIAS. This one came from my EQ8, but Google paper piecing SIAS patterns and hundreds will come up in any size your heart desires.

With small blocks, paper piecing offers the best of everything.  Precision is guaranteed.  The bias is protected.  And the blocks will be true-to-size.  The only drawback to any paper piecing is you’re trading fabric for preciseness.  Yes, you’ll use a bit more fabric than in traditional piecing, but your blocks are guaranteed to come out the right size every time with no wonkiness involved. 

The last method of construction I want to highlight is my method, which kind of a hybrid between traditional piecing and paper piecing.  Let’s go back to our finished 7-inch Square-in-a-Square block that has a 5-inch center we used above.    Working with these dimensions, for my process you’ll need:

One 7 ½-inch square of the center fabric (called the base fabric)

Two 4 ½-inchquares of the corner fabric, cut once in half on the diagonal to make four triangles

One 5-inch square of freezer paper.  The size of the square of freezer paper is roughly the size of the finished center square.

It’s hard to see the creases I’ve pressed in the base square, but they’re there!
  •  Create placement lines for the freezer paper by folding it in half, and then in half again in the other direction. For the base fabric, this can be done by either folding the base fabric in half twice and pressing to form vertical and horizontal placement lines or by marking the lines with a fabric marker on the wrong side of the fabric. 
  • Place the freezer paper square on the wrong side of the fabric, using the placements lines to center it.  Press in place. 
  • Place a corner triangle, right sides together, with the base square, making sure the triangle’s seam allowance is showing above the freezer paper and the corners extend evenly beyond the edges and pin.  A light box is a great tool to use with this step.  It really helps.  Getting this placement just right is the trickiest part.  The top point of the triangle should face the middle of the square.  If you use my method of cutting the triangles – where you add 1-inch as opposed to only 7/8-inch – the triangles are slightly oversized and there is some wiggle room.  Once the triangle is perfectly placed, make sure it’s pinned securely.
  • Flip the base fabric over so the wrong side of the base fabric is facing you and sew from this side, using the edges of the freezer paper as a seam guide. 
  • Repeat on the steps 3 and 4 in the piecing method for the rest of the base fabric, sewing the triangles on in the same order as we described in traditional piecing.  Be sure to press each triangle before adding the next, with the seam allowances pressed towards the triangle fabric. 
  • From the wrong side, trim all sides even with the base square.

At this point, you can remove the freezer paper.  The freezer paper square can be used several times before another one is needed.  You will also need to decide whether or not to trim the base fabric away from the corner triangles.  This is a personal decision.  If the fabrics used are thin, you may opt to keep the base fabric intact for added stability.  If the fabrics used have a firm weave, you may want trim the base away, as it will only add bulk.  This bulk may make the quilting process more difficult. 

Now that we’ve covered three different construction methods, let’s talk about why the Square-in-a-Square block is such a great quilting tool.  One of the reasons we’ve discussed before – it’s a great connector block.  It very effectively takes the place of sashing, and it really pulls all the fabrics used in the quilt together. 

The second reason Square-in-a-Square blocks are so great is that center diamond.  Whether you’re constructing small blocks or large ones, that middle area is an oasis for special consideration.  The quickest (and in my opinion) the easiest way to punch up that diamond is to use your focus fabric in that area.  This is a great way to pull all the colors in your quilt together and to avoid the trap of only using your focus fabric in your borders. 

If you’re using a large print in your quilt borders or your blocks, try fussy cutting that fabric for the center diamond.  This is also quite effective for making everything in your quilt look coordinated. 

The last two ideas for the Square-in-a-Square center area take a bit more time but are by far the most stellar use of that area:  piece the center or applique it.  Before you roll your eyes and decide that will take too long and it’s too much effort, let’s take a look at a few examples.

There are these pieced centers….

And here is one with an appliqued center…

Yes, these centers took a few more weeks days to complete, but that extra effort really makes a huge difference. 

The Square-in-a-Square block serves not only as a vehicle to pull your quilt top together, it also opens up lots of design options, depending on your fabric and your penchant for added details like piecing or applique.  If you own an embroidery machine or you enjoy hand embroidery, work that magic in the center diamond.  Let that area be a blank canvas for lots of ideas – including any mad quilting skills you may have.  Think of the Square-in-a-Square block as a diving board for your pool of creativity!

Until next week, Level up that Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


Quilters and Their Quilts

There are lots of jokes out there about quilters.  Most of these we come up with ourselves:

It started out as one trip to the fabric shop, and look what it turned into…

It’s all fun and games until the bobbin runs out.

Think of it as a house party with power tools.

You haven’t seen trouble until you use my fabric scissors to cut paper.

I laugh along with everyone else when anyone jokes around about us quilters.  Truthfully – for me it started out as an intellectual exercise.  My great-grandmother’s quilt, neatly folded on the bench at the foot of my bed.  How did she make it?  Why was it backed with a heavy blanket?  Could I make something like that? 

At first glance, quilting seems like an unreasonable hobby.  You buy yards of perfectly good fabric, proceed to cut it up into tiny pieces, and then sew them back together.  I questioned my own sanity the time I constructed 10-inch finished blocks with 60 pieces in them.  And we’re not mentioning Dear Jane at this point.  It wasn’t enough I made one quilt with 4 ½-inch blocks, now I’m working on my second one. Normally, my blogs are kind of “teachy.” I try to leave you with something you can carry into your next quilting adventure. This blog is a little different. With this blog, I want you to think about why you quilt and what made you start.

It’s a hobby, which like a lot of hobbies, was born out of necessity.  There’s opposing thoughts about exactly when quilting as we know it was conceived as an idea.  Some textile historians point to ancient Egyptians.  Others to the former Turkish empire.  At some juncture it hitched a ride to England (probably through the Crusaders, who may have thought it was just the perfect thing to wear under that cold armor), and it parked there for a while.  It was used in bed hangings, floor coverings, and petticoats. It also began its life in what traditionally comes to mind when someone mentions “quilts” – bedcoverings.  Eventually it followed the English settlers to America – not immediately, because the first settlers were too busy clearing land and building forts – but it came soon after. 

And we made it ours.  We took the English patterns, redesigned them (sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of creativity), and renamed them.  We’re still doing that.  Quilters of all races and nationalities do this all the time.  One of the best things about quilting is its fluidity.  It really is a hobby born of necessity (to keep folks warm), clothed in creativity, and (with many of us), bloomed into an obsession.  I am not joking when I say I would rather quilt than eat.  It marries utility with beauty – you’re making something useful and you can combine colors and patterns to make it pretty.

However, ask a dozen quilters why they quilt, and you’ll get a dozen answers.  I began to examine my own reasons after reading an article in Quiltfolk  magazine (which, if you’re not acquainted with this publication, do yourself a big favor and look through at an edition or two).  The article was titled Exquiste Objects, and reflects the thoughts of Eleanor Bingham Miller, a quilt historian and preservation advocate.  Her essay embraces why quilt preservation and recorded past are important.  We learn as much about the quilt maker as we do the quilt.  For a good deal of the time, we quilt makers are so involved in our art that we don’t pause to find out why quilts are and were made.  For sure, a lot of quilts are made for special occasions and to fulfill needs, but there’s more to them than that.  A lot more. 

A political statement.

A block from a Civil War Quilt. Quilters in the Union States made many of these quilts and “sold” spaces for people to add their signatures as a way to raise money for the Union troops.

 A sharing of pain or joy over an event or person. 

9/11 Tribute Wall Quilt

A silent, tangible means of support and solidarity in a soul-wrenching situation.

AIDS Quilt. Over 49,000 panels make up this quilt. I have one in this quilt, made in memory of a good friend I attended Elon University with.

And of course, a creative outlet.  While the pragmatics of quilting will always be there (something to keep you warm or make a room pretty), the concepts behind the quilt are often lost to time.  You recognize this when you attend a quilt show which has a display of antique quilts as part of the exhibit.  What’s the first thoughts that run through your mind?  How did they make this?  Why did they make this?  Why did they pick those fabrics?

And unfortunately, we may never know the answers to all of these questions about all of the quilts.  I do have a sneaky suspicion our foremothers quilted much for the same reasons we do.  I can’t prove it, but if the reasons I quilt are similar to theirs, then the art is more than a creative outlet or a means to an end of a need.

Quilting helps me piece my life back together just as much as it pieces patches into a uniform whole.  Piecing is different from mending.  When you mend something, you’ve only altered the original.  When you piece something, you create something new out of parts and pieces of something else.  Suddenly five collective yards of fabric become one united new item.  It takes time and patience, but the outcome is stunning.  This has become my mantra during troubled times.  Life has thrown me more than a few curveballs.  The process of quilting slows me down and helps me think and pray through the changing times and shifting landscapes of my life.  It has become as much of a constant as  prayer and the love of my family.  It’s a touchstone, a link to my past (strong women who made it through much tougher times than I’ll ever have), and an outlet  I can pour my frustrations into. 

I’ve seldom had anything in my life that completely restores my soul and mind like quilting does.  It centers me.  It’s magic gets me through the day until I can return to my studio in the evening and quilt until bedtime.  It’s beauty and math and complexity and simplicity combined into one artistic form.  It’s order and peace in the middle of what may look like (and sometimes is) chaos.  It’s the quilters themselves who have proven to be a surer sisterhood than blood and DNA.  It’s wisdom passed back and forth over beeswax, hand piecing, and applique. It’s raw materials made into something beautiful – much the same way our Creator does to us.

The majority of my blogs teach different quilting techniques or show case quilts or quilters.  But I think it’s important to know why you do something, especially if it’s an activity you repeat.  Quilting is no different.  

And sometimes those reflections serve to make you a more aware quilter – which can only be a good thing.

Next week’s blog will be more of a “how-to” that deals with Square-in-a-Square blocks.

Until next week, Level Up That Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


60-Degrees of Separation

What does this:

And this:

And these:

Have to do with this?

Hang with me on this blog and I’ll explain.  When we think about quilt blocks, generally we think about squares.  When we talk about units within those blocks, we also tend to think about squares, but add in half-square triangles, rectangles, and triangles (you know… the big triangle in a flying geese unit).  But there other types of block units.  When we constructed the Lemoyne Star block a few blogs ago, we were working with diamonds.  I taught you how to sew the units together, but threw out two different ways of cutting out the diamonds:  rotary cutting or templates.  Templates are wonderful things to have, and if you find yourself repeatedly cutting out the same non-square block unit, you may want to invest in a good set.  I make too many types of blocks to justify the investment.  I can count on one had the times I’ve made a Hunter’s Star or Lemoyne Star quilt and have fingers left over.  So, I learned how to cut the units out with a rotary cutter. 

At this point, let me drop in a little personal quilting philosophy:

I don’t – for the most part – buy specialty rulers. 

Quite frankly, I consider them a waste of money.  Unless it’s a specialty ruler I use nearly every day, such as Eleanor Burns Square Up Triangle Ruler or Creative Grids 60/90 ruler, I don’t purchase them.  The two I mentioned I feel are worth every red cent because I use them all the time.  I’ve gotten my money’s worth several times over out of each.  Specialty rulers, as a whole, are rulers geared for one purpose and one purpose only.  There are rulers out there specifically for the Lemoyne Star.  And for the Hunter’s Star.  But you know the only thing you can make with each?  A Lemoyne Star or a Hunter’s Star.  See why I consider them a waste of money?  Unless every other quilt you’re making is one of those designs, chances are good those rulers will sit in your studio and gather dust. 

I would much rather take the time to teach you how to use what you already have.  Chances are, even if your quilting supplies are limited, you have a ruler with these lines:

Or a cutting mat with these lines. 

If you have one or both, you’re golden.  You can cut angles all day long, and they’ll be accurate and beautiful.  But first, let’s go back to geometry class.

In geometry, we study angles.  And from this study of angles, we begin to understand triangles.  Tri- comes from Greek and Latin roots meaning “three.”  So, the word triangle literally means three angles.  In quilting, generally we use 60-, 90-, and 45-degree angles. There are some exceptions, but since in this blog we’re only working with diamonds and triangles, we’ll stick with these three angles.  Two of these angles you’ve already worked with – the 90-degree angle and the 45-degree angle.  Don’t believe me? 

This is a 90-degree angle.

This is a 45-degree angle.

Know what block unit has both of these?

That’s right, a half-square triangle.  You know how to cut these and you know how to draw these.  We will work a little more with those 45-degree angles in a bit, but for right now let’s move on to that 60-degree angle, which looks like this:

Wedged in between the completely vertical line on your ruler (the 90-degree angle), and the 45-degree angle, is the 60-degree angle. You’re probably wondering where these particular angles show up in quilts.  Take a look at this one:

This quilt is called A Thousand Pyramids or Sugarloaf.  Every triangle in this quilt is an equilateral triangle – a triangle in which all the sides measure exactly the same.  An equilateral triangle is also equiangular, meaning that all three of the inside angles have the same angle measurement, which for these triangles means 60-degrees.  There are specialty rulers which will allow you to cut these triangles out.  I inherited one from a friend who had to stop quilting due to some health issues.  This is the ruler, and here’s how you use it:

Cut a strip of fabric the height needed for the triangle the pattern requires.  With this example, we’re using 6-inch wide fabric.  Put the ruler on the fabric strip, using the markings on the ruler to make sure you have the right size.  In this instance, we’re making 6-inch tall triangles.  I want to make sure that six-inch mark on the base (lower part of the triangle) rests on the edge of the fabric. 

Then I use my rotary cutter and cut around the sides of the triangle.  Once I’ve cut out this triangle, I rotate it, matching the newly cut fabric edge with the edge of the ruler and cut the next triangle out with only one cut. 


If, at this point, you’re wondering about seam allowances, most specialty triangle rulers already have that built into them.  In other words, the 6-inch triangle I just cut out exactly on the six-inch markings on the ruler already has the ¼-inch seam allowances already built into the ruler. 

Truthfully, if you find yourself making a lot of equilateral triangles, you may want to invest in this ruler.  If I hadn’t received one as a gift, I most likely would have purchased one when I found it on sale or had a coupon.  One word of caution here, unless the ruler is from Creative Grids, some ruler grippers or Ruler Magic applied to the wrong side of the ruler is a good idea – it’s easy for the ruler to slip.  Creative Grid rulers have grippers built in them.

However, if you find yourself making 60-degree triangles only rarely, you may want to opt out of the specialty ruler purchase and learn how to use your rotary mat or ruler.  If I’m using this option, after I find the 60-degree line on my ruler, I mark it with a piece of masking tape or painter’s tape. 

This may sound silly, but if you look closely at any ruler you’re using, there are a several diagonal lines marked on them.  It’s easy to use the wrong line (ask me how I know…) and really mess up your cutting.  That visual indicator is a huge help, especially if you’re cutting late at night. 

Seriously.  Use the tape. 

The first step is cut your fabric strip the same width as the desired triangle.  Then cut off the selvages.  Fold the fabric in half, with the selvages to the left and the fold to your right.

Then line the 60-degree mark up with the bottom edge of your fabric and the left-hand side of the ruler should line up with the top of your fabric strip.  Now make the first cut with your rotary cutter.  

 At this point, move the scrap out of the way.  If you think you can use it somewhere in your quilt, lay it aside.  If you don’t, just file it away in the circular file (trashcan). 

Now turn your ruler so the 60-degree line is against the cut edge.  Make the next cut.  Continue this way until, turning your ruler, until you’ve cut all the triangles you can out of the strip of fabric. 

Using the angled lines on your cutting mat is similar, but in all honesty, this is my least favorite way of cutting out equilateral triangles.  You’ll see why in a minute.  The process begins the same – cut your strips of fabric the same width as the triangles needed.  Cut the selvages off and fold the fabric in half with the cut ends to your left and the fold to your right. 

Line the strip of fabric up with the 60-degree line and the corner of your cutting mat.

Make your first cut.

Then flip your fabric over.  Line the edge of the fabric up with the corner and the 60-degree mark and cut again.  This will give you your first set of triangles.  The issue I have with this method is the fabric flipping.  It’s easy to get the fabric uneven and then the triangles will come out wonky.  To me, it’s a whole lot easier simply to flip the ruler. 

I will also throw this in here:  If you have an Accuquilt cutter, Sizzix  or a ScanNCut, those can cut equilateral triangles out, too.  I know the Accuquilt has to have a die to make the cuts, and the ScanNCut has several triangles already programmed into it – you just adjust the size.  So, if you have one of these gadgets and you don’t care for any type of ruler cutting, this may be your ticket. 

Sewing these triangles together isn’t hard at all, but like a lot of things in quilting, there are few handy-dandy hacks that can make it so much easier.  This is how I do it and what works for me, but there are other methods out there.  If this technique doesn’t work for you, try others until you find a good fit. 

Step One – I lay my triangles out.  You will notice I cut the tops off of mine.  Many specialty rulers have the blunt top, so while your rotary cutting, you can just cut the tops of the triangles off.  If you’re not using a specialty ruler, simply measure down ¼-inch from the top of the triangle and cut.  This blunt end makes piecing easier and reduces bulk – which is always a good thing.  If the end is not blunted, you have to make sure the tip of the triangle hangs off ¼-inch from the triangle beneath it so everything lines up and comes out even when it’s sewn.  Just trust me…blunt the top of the triangle. 

Step Two – Alignment is the key to success.  Make sure the triangles are exactly on top of each other and the edges are even.  Sew a ¼-inch seam and press open.  Check to make sure your seam allowances are exact.  I realize that this sounds really exacting, but with these triangles, accuracy is everything.  It’s far better to realize any errors here and correct them.  If you wait until you get to the end of a row of triangles and things are off, it’s difficult to rip out stitches and keep the bias from stretching.  And if the bias makes you nervous, just remember to hit it with a shot of spray starch and a hot iron before sewing. 

Step Three – Repeat the steps in pairs.  If you have an odd number of triangles, leave one triangle solo. 

Step Four – Now we’ll sew two sets together.  Flip the right set over the left set.  Align the point of the third triangle with the dog ear created from sewing the first set together. Align the top right corner point of the second triangle with the dog ear created from sewing the second set together.  Sew, using a ¼-inch seam and press the seam open.  Check for accuracy.  Add the last triangle using the same method, and then repeat for the other row of triangles.

Step Five – Now we’ll sew two rows together. Like the Flying Geese Units, you want ¼-inch of margin from the tips of the triangles.  This will keep the points from being lopped off.  So, before you start pinning and sewing, look at both rows to make sure each triangle tip has at least ¼-inch margin.  Then pin the rows, right sides together, placing a pin exactly where the tips meet.  I find it easiest to place a pin through the triangle tip on one row and then bring the other row up to meet the first row and push the pin through the corresponding tip.  This way, both tips will meet perfectly.  Repeat this for all the tips, then sew the two rows together with a ¼-inch seam allowance.

Press the seam open on the back.

Now that we’ve mastered the 60-degree triangle, let’s take a look at more 45-degree angles.  Typically, when a quilter works with 45-degree angles, we’re dealing with triangles.  But remember those diamonds we sewed together on the Lemoyne Star block?  Those diamonds have 45-degree angles.  And again, if you find yourself making a lot of 45-degree diamonds, you may want to invest in a good set of templates.  But if you’re like me and those are only once-in-awhile projects, it’s just as easy to use the diagonal markings on your ruler or mat to make them.  We’re going over the steps to making successful 45-degree diamonds, but sometimes quilt patterns will call for 30-degree diamonds or 60-degree diamonds. It’s good to know that no matter what degree the pattern calls for the method used for cutting these out is the same no matter what the angle.  So, let’s get started. 

Step One – First determine how big your diamond needs to be.  For the sake of illustration, we’re working with 3-inch finished diamonds.  Unlike templates that will have the seam allowance built in, we need to add the seam allowance to the finished patch if we’re using a ruler and mat.  We need to add a ½-inch seam allowance to the 3-inch finished patch, making the unfinished diamond measure 3 ½-inches.  This means we need to cut a strip of fabric 3 ½-inches wide on the WOF. 


Step Two – I mark the 45-degree angle with a piece of masking tape or painter’s tape, just like I did when I was constructing the equilateral triangles.  Then I place the tape at the bottom of the strip of fabric and make my first cut.  This piece of fabric can be discarded unless you have plans for it.  But with that first cut, we’ve established the first angle of the diamond.  From the tip of the angle, measure down 3 ½-inches, and line the edge of the ruler with that measurement, keeping the 45-degree taped mark at the bottom of the strip of fabric.  Make the second cut, and you’ve got your first diamond.  Repeat until you’ve cut all your diamonds out. 


You use this process whether you’re making 45-, 60-, or 30-degree diamonds. 

We looked at how to join the diamonds in a Lemoyne Block, where the edges of the diamond are joined to other triangles or squares.   But let’s look at something like this:

Isn’t it lovely?  It’s a harlequin design and it’s perfectly beautiful.  So how do you sew the edges together?  I’ll explain it and then I’ll introduce you to one of the few specialty rulers I own – which can be used for more than just 45-degree (or any other the other degree) diamonds. 

Like the 60-degree triangles, the first thing I do is lay my diamonds out.  And at this point, let me throw in the standard disclaimers.  There is bias.  Handle it carefully.  Give it a shot of starch and press it with a hot iron before sewing.  Now let’s flip the diamonds, so that the right sides of the fabric are facing each other.  There is a trick to making them line up correctly so that they sew together perfectly.  You would think with all the straight edges and corners, you’d just line everything up and sew. However, if you do that, the seams will not line up in the front.

Instead, lay the diamonds out so one end of the pieces overhangs the other by ¼-inch.  You’ll need to see “dog ears” at the bottom and at the top. Once you have those, you can sew them together with  ¼-inch seam allowance and they’ll look perfect.

Here’s where I want to introduce one of the few specialty rulers I use.  It really isn’t a ruler, so much as it is a tool.  And it’s this:

Fons’ and Porter’s Triangle Trimmer.  Remember in the earlier part of the blog when we were working with 60-degree triangles and I told you to blunt the tips, so they piece together easier?  This is the tool I use to cut the tips off the triangles.  They’re super-easy to use.  Place the diagonal edge of the ruler along the diagonal edge of the diamonds and push it until the trimmer’s cut away corner is touching the two adjoining edges of fabric.  Then trim away the triangle ear that’s still visible.

Your diamonds will now have blunted ends and are super easy to sew  together.  Match the points and edges and carefully sew with an ¼-inch seam allowance.  You don’t have to worry about the ¼-inch overhang.

Once you’ve joined the diamonds together, now you have to sew the rows together.  And once again, you need to work with an overhang.  If you line the corners and edges up evenly, when you sew the rows together, the seams won’t match up.  I use a method similar to the one I used with the 60-degree triangles.

Working with one of the rows, push a seam through one of the seams in the diamond.  Pick up the second row and push that same pin through the corresponding seam in that second row.  Continue to match seams this way, pinning through one seam and then the corresponding seam of the second row.  When all the seams are pinned, I go back and add a few more pins to make sure everything matches.

Then I baste.  I lengthen my stitch length to about 3 on Big Red and baste the two rows together.  I do this for two reasons.  First, once I baste the rows together, I can open the piece out and make sure my seams match up – which is really the primary goal in sewing diamonds in rows.  Second, if the rows don’t match up, and adjustments have to be made, basting stitches are a lot easier on the bias to remove.  Once everything lines up nicely, sew using a regular stitch length, and then remove the basting stitches.  If the basting stitches don’t show, you may opt to leave them in, just to avoid handling the bias anymore than you have to. 

One more design option I want to throw in here before we leave triangles and diamonds behind us, and that is the strip of fabric you cut them out of.  In this blog, I’ve just mentioned the width the strip of fabric should be.  But you can make that strip out of other pieces of fabric.  You can join strips of fabric together to create the strip size you need.  This is a terrific way to pull all your colors together.  I’m thinking particularly of jelly roll strips.  The sky is literally the limit with this design choice.

Always think out-of-the-box as much as you can.  And don’t be afraid of triangles or diamonds.  They’re simply another patch and another tool you can stow away in your quilting toolbox to pull out and dazzle your quilts.  Handle the bias carefully and remember to match tips and seams as your constructing your rows. 

Until next week, level up your quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam