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

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