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

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