Writing this year’s blog has been so much fun! I’ve gotten emails from readers who are asking questions about topics and that just thrills my soul! Keep them coming! If you have a question, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, but be sure to send me a message in the comment section of the blog so I know to be on the lookout for it, or search my spam file if it doesn’t show up in a timely manner.
After I posted the blog about gridding out quilt blocks, I had some readers throw me some questions about piecing blocks and how do I work through that process. So, this is what I will address today. Let me state up front, that each quilt block is a little different. How you approach constructing the same block under different circumstances will vary, and learning which approach works best takes time and experience. For instance, how I approach constructing some blocks out of batiks may be different than how I would with quilter’s cottons. Often how I press the block depends on the size of the block and how I plan to quilt it. Since I now quilt 99 percent of my own quilt tops, I try my best to reduce bulk as much as I can. How I decide to piece my quilt’s rows together gets thrown into the mix, too, as well as which sewing machine I’m using to piece.
This makes the following guidelines more generalizations than hard, fast rules. These are the steps I nearly always take as I piece quilt blocks. And hopefully, as you read through them, you’ll see why I have thoroughly discussed some techniques to nearly ad nauseum.
- I wash my fabric and dry it the same way I plan to dry my quilts. I get that many quilters don’t do this any longer, and truthfully, I have about beat this topic to death. And I realize that with Color Catchers, many quilters feel this step is unnecessary. However, I still do this for two reasons. The first reason is the most obvious – washing the fabric before starting the piecing process just about guarantees no crocking or bleeding when the quilt top is washed. It also guarantees no shrinking. The second reason isn’t quite as obvious – I like sewing with clean fabric. You never know how material is stored or how clean the manufacturing process is, especially if the fabric is made anywhere other than the good, ol’ United States of America.
- I starch all my fabric (pre-washed or not) before I cut it. And I use spray starch, not Best Press or anything like it. I do use Best Press for a few quilting techniques, but this is not one of them. Even if you’re using fabric straight off the bolt, I think you still need to starch it. Why? The starch adds stability and control. I really like to starch the fabric a couple of times, so that it almost takes on a paper-like feel. This adds a great deal of accuracy to the cutting process – the fabric won’t shift as much as it normally would. However, let me throw this fact in here – I don’t starch it before I store it, especially if I’m using traditional spray starch or sizing. The starch or starch-like products tend to attract bugs (think moths and silverfish). I pre-wash my fabric as soon as I bring it home, but I hold off starching it until I’m ready to cut out my quilt.
- I make sure my ¼-inch seam allowance is accurate. Despite the simplicity of this statement, this is often the hardest thing to get right. And it’s usually the culprit if your blocks turn out too small or too big. On top of that, every machine you own may be a little different, so what works on one machine may not work on the next. I’ve written about this topic in the blog: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2018/01/25/the-myth-of-the-quilting-holy-grail/. Check it out, and here’s a head’s up – the ¼-inch seam isn’t the holy grail of quilting.
- I use pins. Lots of them. All the time. I have never understood quilters who didn’t pin. They wear that as almost a badge of honor – “I don’t pin. I don’t have time. Besides, if you press your seam allowances the right way, you don’t need to pin.”
May I examine your seam intersections?
I pin at the beginning of a seam. I pin at the end of a seam. And in between. If you don’t have an integrated dual feed foot, the top piece will get pushed by the presser foot ahead of the bottom piece (think of snow and a snowplow). This will shift your fabric and cause the top and bottom seam not to line up correctly. Pinning the seam keeps everything even and matched up. And if by chance you’re chain piecing, you may want to lift the presser foot just a bit and position the top edge with each unit. Otherwise, the top fabric will scoot down at the very beginning, even though you pinned it
ask me how I know.
- Use strip piecing methods whenever you can. And with this technique, let me add, use the techniques that work best for you. These quick and easy(ier) techniques are not only more efficient, but also tend to be more accurate. This is why it’s so very, very important for you to discover which method works best for you when you make flying geese, four-patch units, nine-patch units, half-square triangles, etc. When you know which technique works best for you, it’s easy to analyze the pattern to see how to alter it to make it faster and more accurate for you.
- Make sure seam intersections are aligned and pin them well. I pin most intersections with a pin inserted at an angle.
- This way I catch both sides of the seam allowance and I can keep the pin longer before the sewing machine needle approaches it. If I have an intersection where there are diagonal seams that need to match, I use a setting pin and a pin on both sides of the seam allowance.
- I’ve also glue-basted difficult seams.
- As your seam allowance is approaching the needle, make sure it’s facing towards the needle.
If the seam allowance is facing away from the needle, chances are you’ll have a gap at that intersection. If the seam allowance is facing the needle, you’ll get a nice, snug intersection with no space because the presser foot is pushing the top seam allowance into the bottom seam allowance.
- Use that seam ripper. Don’t be in too much of a hurry or be too lazy to reach for the ripper. If there’s a big mistake go ahead and unsew it, then sew it back correctly. If I have some tiny mistakes, the rippage will depend on how much the blunders bother me. If I can leave the quilt block alone overnight and then pick it up the next day and the goof doesn’t trouble me or look nearly as bad as it did yesterday, I leave it in. Nothing is perfect – even the best-sewn quilt blocks.
- Trim each block unit to the exact size. To me, accurate cutting is even more important than the ¼-inch seam allowance. Cutting and trimming are the first steps in your blocks looking gorgeous. So, when you’re cutting out your fabric, starch it, take your time, and cut as accurately as possible. After you’ve sewn your block units, make sure they’re trimmed down to the required unfinished size. Check each of these units before sewing them into your block. If each block unit is the correct size, then the block will be the required size.
- Press carefully and thoroughly as you go along. Be sure to press (up and down movement) and not iron (back and forth movement). Steam is a personal decision – but if you use it, be careful if the block or block unit contains a lot of bias. Press seams open or to the side as you make them. The flatter the seam is, the better (no tiny tucks at the seam). This makes unit and block assembly trouble-free. It also makes the block look better and be much easier to quilt. Press each unit and then press the block when it’s assembled.
These are my top ten guidelines for accurate quilt blocks. While pretty basic, they all go a long way in making your quilt blocks look perfect and also make construction easier, too. And don’t save these for just the complicated quilt blocks in your life. Use them for all the quilt blocks you make.
Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam
4 replies on “How to Sew An Almost-Perfect Quilt Block”
Once again, I always learn something from reading your wonderful blog. I am a pre-washer of my fabric as well. Not only do I pre-wash but I presoak (using Dawn), sometimes for 3 days if needed to release all of the excess dye. Even with light colored neutrals it amazes me how dirty the water gets. Thanks for sharing your angled pinning technique-I’ll give it a try.
I use Dawn, too! Especially with darker fabrics and batiks. It is truly amazing how dirty “new” fabric can be.
Again, great advice. The one new to me was about the seam allowance facing the needle. Your explanation makes perfect sense, in light of my own experiences.
To me it almost seemed counter-intuitive, since I have to stop with my needle down and lift my presser foot sometimes to get it over the seam allowance, but it does work!