One Quilt…So Many Different Sizes of Blocks

Way back in January, I announced this year’s blog theme was “Level Up Your Quilting.”  We’re well past the half-way mark for 2020 and I wanted to refresh your memory about not only what the theme is but also what it means.

For 2020, I wanted to take what you knew and what we had discussed in the 2018 and 2019 blogs and build on those topics.  I was upfront when I told you a lot of this year’s blogs would not be for the beginning quilter, but would assume you knew the basics – such as how to sew ¼-inch seam on each of your sewing machines, how to accurately rotary cut fabric, etc.  And while I know 2020 has been a trial all unto itself, I really want to challenge everyone to push their quilting to the next level.  Take what you know and try something newer, harder, and more different than anything else you’ve ever done.  I wanted us to get out of our comfort quilting zones and take some risks.  This is why many times the topics may have seemed so different than what I usually write about.  In fact, I’m thinking some of you have thought them irrelevant – such as the blogs on graphing out your blocks.  However, remember I’m coming from the place as a former science teacher.  When you teach any subject, there has to be a foundation laid with each new discipline of study, so the student can build on the foundation and understand how new ideas and principles are built on the base knowledge of that subject. 

In other words, how hard would it be for you to make a quilt block if you didn’t know how to accurately cut out your units or sew a ¼-inch seam?  The ¼-inch quilt seam is one of the first concepts you’re taught when you learn to quilt.  If you don’t remember that, then your quilt blocks will turn out all kinds of wonky.

This week I want to talk about one of my very favorite advanced quilting techniques – how to make a quilt top out of all different sizes of blocks.  Now I’m not talking about blocks that may be slightly different in size.  We’ve all had those – no matter how carefully we cut and piece there always will be a block here and there that’s 1/8-inch to ½-inch off.  We know how to deal with those – check the seam allowances, press the seams open, or simply redo the entire block if we’ve cut the units the wrong size.  That’s not what I’m talking about.

This is the scenario:  Somehow or another you’ve got your hands on a pile of quilt blocks that range from 20-inches square to 7 ½-inches square.  Maybe you purchased them at an auction, estate sale, or antique shop.  Maybe they’re orphan blocks someone donated to your guild or bee. All the fabrics harmonize and everything in you wants to make a quilt top out of them. 

Or maybe this is the scenario:  You’ve got a fabric panel and want to make that into a quilt, but don’t want to simply throw plain borders around it until it’s as big as you need it to be. 

In either situation you’re faced with the quandary of a lot of fabric with no directions.  It’s all up to you and what you know.  So how do you ever start? 

Let’s start with one-picture panels.  Remember this panel?

I know I’ve shown it several times, but I loved it from the moment I saw it and I knew my Disney-loving grand darlings would love it as well.    Off-the-bolt, most solid panels are around 44 to 45 inches in length – which is the width of all fabric except quilt backing (most panels are printed vertically, so what we normally consider the width of fabric is the panel’s length). 

The width can vary, but the panels generally are rectangular.  The Mickey and Minnie panel was roughly 35-inches wide x 40-inches long, unfinished.  I was definitely working with a rectangular, one-picture panel.  And for me, the first step in working with a rectangular panel is to make is square.  Why square?  It makes the math so much easier for adding pieced borders because all four sides are the same length.  And if you can keep the measurements in easy, divisible increments of two, three, four, or five inches, it will go together quickly.  For the first round, I needed to add enough borders to make the width equal the length – five inches.  So, I added a 3-inch finished pieced border and then a 2-inch finished floater.  From that point on, all I had to do was add borders in various widths and styles until the quilt was a large as I wanted it to be.  Of course, there is always the option of adding plain fabric borders or no borders at all, but where’s the fun in that?

Now we’ll move to the second scenario.  Let’s say we have the following stack of quilt blocks with the finished measurements:

Sixteen 9-inch squares

Four rectangular blocks oriented horizontally: 18-inches wide x 9-inches high

Two rectangular blocks oriented vertically:  9-inches wide x 18 inches high

Two 18-inch squares

At first glance, it would be easy to think, “Hey, I can get three quilts from this if I buy additional fabric – one from the 9-inch squares, one from the rectangular blocks, and one from the two 18-inch squares.”  And you’d be right.  You could produce three small-ish quilts from this one set of blocks.  But what if you don’t want to?  What if all the blocks harmonize and you don’t want to separate them?  Or what if they’re antiques and you can’t bear to split the blocks up?  Or what if you simply don’t want to go through piecing and quilting three quilts?  Let’s walk through the process. 

Step One:  The first question to ask is “Are the finished blocks divisible by one common number?”  In this case we’re dealing with blocks which are all multiples of the number nine, so the answer is yes.  Why is this important?  It means the blocks can be sewn together into larger sections and then the sections can be put together into a quilt top.  If the blocks don’t have a common number, don’t worry.  We’ll deal with this scenario at the end of the blog. 

Step Two:  Next, I see if I can’t join a strip of the smaller sized blocks to one of the larger ones, either on the sides or the top or bottom.  In our case, I can.  I can join two of the 9-inch blocks to either the 18-inch square blocks or 18-inch x 9-inch rectangles.  I can join one of the 9-inch blocks to the 9-inch x 18-inch rectangle.  In the second step of this process we’re determining if we can join several blocks together to form a large block unit for the quilt.  These larger block units are easier to work with as we continue making our quilt top.  Instead of working with several blocks at a time, we will treat the large unit as one block in the construction process.

We also may want to make another design decision with our quilt.  We have lots of 9-inch blocks.  We may want to join several of those together before sewing them to one of the horizontally oriented rectangles or one of the 18-inch squares. 

I can’t stress how important it is to have an area you can lay out your blocks.  Whether it’s a design wall, a spare bed, or the floor, any surface that’s large enough to hold all your blocks is pretty crucial to your layout process.  It’s much easier to move your blocks around before they’re sewn together than having to spend hours of quality time with your seam ripper to unsew them.  I lay out my blocks several ways and use my cameral phone to take pictures of each lay out.  Then I set everything aside for a day or two and go back to the pictures.  A few days of “not stressing over the layout” allows me to return to the pictures and really see which layout works best.  Once I’m happily settled with one of the designs, I sew my blocks together into units and then join the units together to make the quilt top.  Afterwards, I make the decision about floaters, borders, and binding.

After moving some blocks around, EQ 8 and I came up with this layout.  As your eye travels over the sketch, you can see where I grouped blocks together and formed larger units and then put the units together to make the quilt top. 

As promised, let’s go back and look at a little more complicated scenario.  Let’s keep the 9-inch blocks, but let’s shrink the two large squares to 15-inches and change up the rectangles to four 6-inches high by 18-inches wide oriented horizontally and two 18-inches high and 6-inches wide oriented vertically.  As we begin to work our way through the math, we find that there is initially no common number in the blocks.  We know that 18 is divisible by 9 and 6, but none of these numbers play well with 15.  Likewise, 9 and 6 seem to have nothing in common. 

When I’m faced with situation, my first step is to determine if there is another number these block sizes share. And in this scenario, there is – 9, 6, and 18 are all multiples of 3.  Returning to our original layout:

We will need to add 3-inches of fabric in some form to make the blocks come together to form units.  This added 3-inches can be in 1-inch, 1 ½-inch, and even ½-inch increments if needed in order for the blocks to match up evenly.  These extra pieces of fabric were called coping strips years ago. Now we usually just say sashing, Whatever you want to call them, the strips can be used in lots of ways.  You could join the smaller blocks together like this and then put the coping strips around the unit, or you could divide the coping strips evenly between the blocks.

 The design is entirely up to the quilt maker and what he or she likes.  When I work with a quit top that has coping strips, I tend to pick a neutral color (usually gray works best for me – that’s my preference, though) which will tie all the blocks together.  If the blocks are primarily constructed of solid colored fabric, I will choose a print fabric I’ll use as part of the border for the strips.  And if the blocks are varied and use lots of different colors, my go-to color is white.  Why white?  Because when you add enough white to any scrap quilt, it serves as a great buffer and eventually all the blocks will play nicely together. 

Now let’s take another look at fabric panels. This same process works if you purchase a panel that has different sized prints on it, like this one:

Remember I ran into this situation with the Fish Almighty quilt I made Bill for Christmas.  I had four small fish pictures and one large one.  And in the case with this quilt, the size needed was really dictating the layout.  It basically became big enough to put on a bed.  The great thing about panels like this is your coping strips are borders and they can be pieced ones or simply floaters.  The goal is to get the panel pieces large enough to fit in with the blocks you’ve constructed to go with them.  In the case of a panel with several different sized prints, I design my layout first, then begin to make the borders.    

We’re really accustomed to quilts which have blocks marching across the top in rows or columns, whether or not the quilt is straight-set or on-point.  We’re used to seeing this kind of uniformity.  However, the seemingly random (but not really random) use of different-sized blocks visually shakes up a quilt.  It’s unique and really not that difficult to pull off.  It does take a bit more pre-planning than the “standard” quilt, you need somewhere to lay it out, and you gotta use a bit of math; but the payoff is a quilt which is visually stimulating and just plain fun to look at.   I’d like to encourage you to give it a try.  Grab some of your orphan blocks or plan a layout and make blocks of all sizes.  You have the tools to do this.  Push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

2 replies on “One Quilt…So Many Different Sizes of Blocks”

I am not a beginner quilter but you explain things in a manor that even beginners with a little experience can understand. There is such a wealth of information in all of your blogs and I have learned so much from them. Thanks for taking the time to blog!

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