Simplifying Difficult Quilt Blocks

See this block?

Dear Jane H2

This is a block from the Dear Jane Quilt (if you don’t know what that is go here https://benningtonmuseum.org/library/walloomsack/volume-11/stickle-jane-the-stickle-quilt-in-war-time-1863.pdf).  Admittedly Dear Jane is not a beginner quilt.  While there are some pretty simple blocks in the quilt (thank goodness), most of the blocks are challenging.  And then there are few like the one above that are just plain hard.  In the traditional Dear Jane blocks, the unfinished size is 4 ½-inches, which complicates the construction process even more – small blocks, small seams, small workspace.

In short, this block was my nemesis.  There may have been a sizeable contribution to the family swear jar due to this block.  I worked and re-worked the block at least four times before I was satisfied with the results.  When I began Dear Jane, I wasn’t a novice quilter.  At this point, I had quilted almost 25 years.  And while I readily admit I didn’t quilt as much then as I do now, I had serious needle-and-thread experience under my belt. 

So, the entire process got me thinking…there are a lot of lovely quilts out there I want to make, but most of them are fairly challenging.  While I enjoy less complicated blocks, one of my quilting goals is to come away from a project having learned something new, and that’s what harder blocks offer.  But since I tend to do most of my quilting at night after a long day at work, I don’t want anything that completely taps out my mental resources by 9 p.m.  With these thoughts in mind, I began to come up with my strategies for simplifying the construction process of difficult quilt blocks. 

With any quilt – easy or hard, small or large – you need a plan of action.  And sometimes your plan of action may be different from the pattern’s directions.  This is why I always recommend everyone read the directions thoroughly before they cut one inch of fabric.  Take the directions, sit down with a cup or glass of your favorite beverage, and allow yourself to read through them completely and slowly.  Mark them up with a pencil and highlighter.  In particular, look for these items:

  1. Familiar Units

Look for readily identifiable block units such as Four-patches, Nine-patches, Half-Square Triangles, Flying Geese, and Quarter-Square Triangles.  This is an important step for a couple of reasons.  First, it makes a complicated quilt block less scary.  Seeing something familiar you know you can make and make well takes the intimidation out of the process.  Second, if this block unit is one you frequently make, chances are you know your favorite construction process – which may not be the one used in the pattern’s directions.  If the two are different, you could possibly need to re-estimate the yardage requirements.  This is another reason to read the pattern through before purchasing or cutting the fabric. 

  •  Clearness and Conciseness

As a former science teacher, I’m a stickler for clearness and conciseness because I taught chemistry.  And teaching chemistry meant having labs.  And having chemistry labs meant those lab directions had to be crystal clear – or else you could run into trouble.  As you read the pattern directions, underline or highlight the parts you don’t understand, but don’t dwell on them too much until you read all of the directions through.  As you move through the pattern, the parts which aren’t too clear may become more understandable as you read the rest of the directions.  I ran into this issue when I made my first Judy Niemeyer quilt.  Judy has very detailed cutting and “bagging” directions.  I understood the directions, but I pondered at the detail, until I began actual construction.  Suddenly all that preparation made perfect sense as I could grab a bag of fabric pieces and the papers and just sew to my heart’s content. 

However, if the directions still aren’t understandable, I strongly advise you to Google the pattern.  Quite often, especially if the designer has an active web page, they will post clarifications and corrections on the site.  You may also find other quilters who have made the pattern and written about their construction process (this is how I survived my first Dear Jane Quilt).  Or you may find out that other quilters have attempted this pattern and decided the time and effort wasn’t worth it – which is also good to know before you purchase fabric and cut it up. 

The next step is to see if there’s any way you can simplify the difficult parts of construction. Determine if there’s an easier way to make those tricky units.  If there are Y-seams involved and you dislike those, could you re-draw the block and make half-square triangles do that work?  If there are partial seams, can you do a quick block re-graph and eliminate those?  Remember the pattern directions aren’t the 10 Commandments of Quilting.  They’re suggestions.  Good suggestions, but just like a GPS, there’s more than one way to get from point A to point B. 

Once you’ve read the directions and determined what you can simplify, you still may question the feasibility of making a bed quilt out of the pattern.  You may wonder if the time, effort, and expense are worth it.  If you’ve reached this point, I strongly suggest you make one block out of scrap fabric, constructing it the way you’ve now planned out.  If your plan of action works, then dive in and make that quilt!  If it “sort of” works or doesn’t go as planned at all, it’s time to re-group.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  1.  Would construction be easier if I make the blocks larger?

If you’re one of my regular readers, you certainly know how to do enlarge blocks  by now, with or without quilting software.  If you’ve missed by blogs on graphing, look through my June and July 2020 posts for more information.  By making some difficult blocks bigger, sometimes the tricky construction process becomes easier.  For me, if I have to make Y-seams, the larger seam area makes it easier to be accurate.  Same thing with partial seams.  Even enlarging some smaller blocks by as little as an inch can ease construction headaches. 

  • Can I make my fabric choices do part of the work for me?

In some quilts, this is an obvious decision.  See this sweet little quilt? 

I’ve made two of these as Christmas gifts for my grand girls.  If you think I took the time to applique Minnie and Mickey and the Eiffel Tower, not to mention those pointy stars, you’re sadly mistaken.  The middle of the quilt is a panel. Panels can be great time savers and can work just as well, if not better, than a traditional quilting method.  And remember the Fish Quilt I’ve made for the hubs as part of his Christmas?  The fish are also from a panel.  Panels are a great way of working the focal point of the quilt without investing lots of time and fabric in teeny, tiny applique pieces.  Just make sure you don’t simply sew lots of plain border strips around the panel to make the quilt as large as you need it to be.  Throw in some great piecing to set that panel off and dazzle your viewers.

The ombre print family is another way to make the fabric take the brunt of the work.  For instance, take a look at this fabric:

Gray Ombre Fabric

It’s a nice print, but if used correctly, it becomes a stellar background choice and adds lots of character to a quilt without a lot of work:

Sometimes this idea can be so brilliantly executed that the viewer is none the wiser that you took this step.  The very best example of this is a Double-Wedding Ring quilt my friend Gail made.  She found a striped fabric that she used for all those curved ring pieces and it looked exactly as if she had taken tons of time to piece each ring.  Think outside the box with your material choice and see if you can make the fabric do at least part of the work in a complicated piecing or applique project.

  •  Would applique work better for part of the project instead of traditional piecing?  I will be upfront at this point and tell you that if you don’t like to applique, don’t even think about this suggestion.  It would only complicate matters even more.

But if you don’t mind applique (or are hopelessly addicted to it like I am), this may be an option.  With this suggestion, I’m thinking about blocks such as this:

And this:

These are blocks with lots of bias and lots of curves, which can be difficult to piece without stretching the bias totally out of shape.  Applique may be an easier and better way to handle the bias.

If you’ve read through the directions and exercised your construction options and still aren’t sure about committing to the project, make a few blocks out of scrap fabric.  In other words, take the pattern for a test drive before handing out the cash for a down payment (the fabric).  Be sure to use the construction methods you’ve decided on.  At this point, you will probably decide if the changes you’ve made will work for the entire quilt top.  And if you decide a bed-sized quilt would just be too much of a headache, but you still love the pattern, try a wall handing or throw quilt.  That would be the best of both worlds – you have the quilt pattern you love in a size that won’t drive you nuts.

And last but not least, count the expense the complexity may cost you.  If you’ve made construction changes and are happy with those outcomes, go for it.  But if you’re not, and you plan on making the quilt as the pattern directs you, be sure it’s worth your time, patience, and cash.  And sometimes the time and patience exact a higher cost than any fabric.  Be aware you may have to put the quilt in “time out” for a few days at a time just to clear your quilting mind.  Have something easy waiting in the wings you can work on while you’re taking a few days off from the harder quilt.  One of my favorite coping mechanisms is asking a quilting friend to make the same quilt with me.  It’s really good to have another quilter to bounce ideas off of, not to mention it’s a lot of fun.

Complex blocks and quilts are worth the time and effort.  Both can teach you a lot if you let them.  Just be aware there are coping mechanisms which can be used to make the progress easier.  Don’t be afraid to utilize them.

Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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