How to Handle Your Curves

Today I want to talk about how to handle your curves.

And no, I’m not talking about these curves.

I’m talking about these curves.

That’s right.  Quilt blocks with curved units. 

Several quilt block units claim curvy fame – Clam Shells, Orange Peels, and Drunkard’s Path to name a few.  And if you toss in all the applique blocks which have curved pieces, the list would literally be endless.  But today I just want to discuss the quilt blocks which have curvy pieced units.  Curvy applique is another blog for another day.   I’m using the Drunkard’s Path to demonstrate the different ways to handle curves.  I choose this for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s a familiar block – even if you haven’t sewn it, you at least probably know what it looks like.  Second, the convex to concave ratio is steep – in other words, if you can successfully sew this curve, all the others will be easy-peasy.

However, before we get into construction, let’s take a dive into the history of this block.  We know this block best by the name Drunkard’s Path.  But it also is identified by Wonder of the World, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Solomon’s Puzzle, Endless Trail, Country Cousin, and Pumpkin Vine.  I had heard some of these names, but others were totally unfamiliar.  I threw them into my EQ 8 (which has Barbara Brackman’s Block Base on it – the old one, not the new one due out soon), and received no results for Country Cousin or Pumpkin vine.  Robbing Peter to Pay Paul was a star block which used half-square triangles.  All of which I guess goes to show how quickly block names can change and even go obsolete. 

This block which has so many names became primarily known as Drunkard’s Path during the Temperance Movement.  And it does kind of look like an inebriated trek home.  Drunkard’s Path and the T-Square (shown below – and it came to be known as the Temperance T Block during this era) were embraced by this movement. 

Both were used in quilts representing the anti-alcohol society.  Many of these quilts were blue and white, since those were the colors chosen to represent the Temperance Movement.  But just as many were not.  I think the ones made in red and white fabric are the most stunning – but then again, I really like red and white quilts. 

However, the block has an even earlier history than the Temperance Movement (which lasted roughly from 1820 to 1933 when the 21st amendment was nullified).  Archaeologists have found this block on the Roman ruins in Egypt.  So, the block is pretty old – or at least its concept is.

Drunkard’s Path works like this:  There’s a convex curve:

Which must be sewn to the concave curve.

And when they’re joined, this is what they look like:

They appear as if they snuggly and easily fit together.  But I’ll be the first quilter to tell you, those looks are deceiving, because you have to put them together like this:

To sew them.

And it’s trickier than it looks.  However, the purpose of this blog is to give you a few tricks of your own to successfully navigate this curving, winding path.  I will be honest with you – if you want to take a deep dive into quilting curves and never have tried it before, you may want to stick your toe in the water with a gentle curve.  Use the techniques given in this blog to work with curves which don’t have such a steep gradient before moving on to something like this:

Whenever I’m faced with blocks which are difficult or have lots of pieces, the first question I ask myself is “Can this thing be paper pieced?”  To me, if a complicated block can be broken down into units and paper pieced, I’ve accomplished two things.  First, I’ve upped my accuracy, as paper piecing is very accurate, and second, paper piecing makes difficult units easier to work with.  So, I searched EQ 8 for Drunkard’s Path blocks I could paper piece and had no luck.  On each block I received the information:  “This block has curved lines so it cannot be automatically numbered for paper piecing.” In other words, paper piecing these curves is not an option.  At least for EQ 8.  Could you possibly do it?  I have seen blog posts with instructions on how to paper piece these curves, but to me it’s no different than piecing it the regular way.  However, English Paper Piecing the Drunkard’s Path is a viable option – especially if the block is small. And there are several on-line quilt shops which can supply you with the laser-cut cardstock ready for use. 

The next question I ask myself with a block like Drunkard’s Path is “Can it be appliqued?”  The answer is yes.  As a matter of fact, one of the first quilts I made had a block made of red and white Drunkard Path units arranged to look like Cardinal birds.  I needle-turned every one of them and am still really pleased with the results.  The units came out the correct size and they all looked identical.  So, that was a huge win for me as a beginner quilter. 

But that was only one large block made from 12 Drunkard Path units.  If you’re constructing a quilt like this:

It’s a lot of blocks to applique.  Even though machine piecing this block is a slow process, it’s still faster than hand applique (although the speed would be about the same if machine appliqued).  There are two ways to machine piece these rascals – the traditional way and my way.  But before we begin construction, let me give you some general tips for each.

  1.  Starch every inch of your fabric.  Even if you haven’t prewashed your fabric and the finish is still on it, starch it.  And for the Drunkard Path block, I use real starch (such as Faultless or Niagara), not a starch substitute (such as Best Press).  This is important because both the concave and convex curves have lots of bias and the bias needs to be stabilized as much as possible.  Real starch does this so much better than a substitute.  I would really recommend starching the fabric twice.
  2. More than likely you will use templates.  With most  — if not all – Drunkard’s Path and other curvy blocks, templates will be used.  The quilter traces around the templates (usually made of cardstock or template plastic or acrylic).  Speed is not your friend here, accuracy is.  Trace slowly and be careful not to drag the marking tool across the fabric so that the fabric distorts, and the bias is possibly stretched.  If card stock is used, it saves time to go ahead and make several templates, so they can be replaced as needed.  My favorite curvy templates are made from acrylic.  Missouri Star Quilt Company has several Drunkard Path acrylic templates.  The Perfect Patchwork Company also has them, as well as the John Flynn Frame Company.  I’ve made several quilts which used the Drunkard’s Path block and for me, the acrylic templates were worth the money.
  3. Prepare to pin.  And pin some more.  I know some of don’t like to pin, but it’s almost impossible to have a pretty curvy block without the judicious use of pins.  You’ll pin a lot.  This is be explained a bit further down the blog.
  4. Speed is not your friend.  Straight seams can be sewn fairly quickly.  Curved seams cannot.  Sew slowly and make sure the raw edges stay aligned as you go along.  Some quilters do great with using their ¼-inch quilting foot.  Others swear by a walking foot for sewing curves.  Try both and see what works best for you.  Regardless, sew slowly to maintain your accuracy and stop frequently (with the needle down) to adjust the fabric so you don’t get pleats, tucks, and puckers.  If you do all of this and you still have issues, you may want to switch to a scant ¼-inch instead of the full one.  Sometimes the narrower seam allowance works better. 
  5. I find it easier to sew with the concave piece on top.  If you can’t remember which is concave and which is convex, think about it like this:

This is pie:

This is pie ala mode. 

This may not work for you.  If it doesn’t, switch the pieces so the pie is on top and try it.

  •  Even with all the precautions, you may still get puckers.  The tighter the curve, the more you’re apt to get puckers.  If this happens, try stopping frequently (with the needle down) and smooth the fabric out with your fingers.  I find using a stiletto is a big help. 

The first construction method we’ll try is the “traditional” method.  If you want to make one with me, I’m making a 6-inch finished Drunkard Path block.  That means I need to use at least 6 ½-inch unit pieces to allow for the seams.  However, any block with this much bias involved can turn out a little wonky.  I would cut the pieces at 6 ¾-inches and plan to trim them down. 

My first step is always prep several blocks at a time.  It’s a wonderful idea to cut all your pieces out at the same time, but since this block unit requires a great deal of pinning, you may find it helpful to pin a dozen or so block units and then sew them.  This seems to go faster than make a block, prep the next block, sew that block, prep the next block, etc.  It also helps you get a rhythm up sewing those curves. 

After your pieces are cut out, fold the pie shapes in half and press it so there’s a crease running down the middle of each piece of pie.

Next, fold the “ala mode” pieces in half:

And press them so there’s a crease in the middle of it.

Now match the two pieces, right sides together, so the creases line up and put a pin in them.

I’m throwing a personal preference for pins at this point.  When I machine piece any curvy block, I prefer using the glass head pins:

These are fine and sharp, and shorter than a lot of pins quilters use.  They don’t get in the way and are easy to remove before they reach the needle. Don’t sew over them.  This can damage your sewing machine needle. 

After you’ve pinned the middle, then you want to pin the ends of the ala mode piece to the ends of the pie like this:

Here’s where the tricky part comes in – now you want to pin the rest of the curves together, working out tiny tucks and wrinkles as you pin.  This process will require the judicious use of pins.  As a matter of fact, I think the more you pin the better the block will look, and the better the chances of it coming out perfect.

Take the unit to your machine and sew the seam slowly and carefully, removing the pins before you get to the machine’s needle.  I know this is a lot of stopping and starting, but this also gives you a chance to smooth out the fabric, keep the raw edges of the fabric aligned, and correct any mistakes.  I also find a stiletto is very helpful with this step, and remember to stop sewing with your needle in the down position. 

Once the two pieces are sewn together, they need to be pressed.  Even though the seam is sewn together, there still are bias edges involved and they can still be stretched if you’re not careful.  I press my edges toward the concave unit.  If your block doesn’t want to lie flat, try clipping the curves of the seam and pressing again.  Usually this will help the unit lie pretty flat.  After pressing, trim your block to the correct unfinished size. 

The traditional method of piecing a Drunkard’s Path works well for a two-piece block unit.  However, if you remember this year’s blog theme is Level Up Your Quilting – which means this year we’re pushing the boundaries with what we’re comfortable doing.  We’re taking what we know and expanding it to bigger and better quilting experiences.  So…what if you want to make a three-piece Drunkard’s Path with a pieced middle ring?  Sounds complicated, right?  It really isn’t.  It’s a few more steps, but the look is stellar.  Here’s how it goes….

When we look at the drawing, we know we want that center piece to be the star attraction.  Why?  Because if pieced carefully in the quilt, those center arcs can match up and create circles which add movement to our quilt.  So that middle ring must be made true to the unfinished template size.  The middle ring can be made of a single piece of fabric.  If this is your choice, I would suggest using a dominant color or a print which immediately draws your eye to it.  I would make the other two pieces – the pie and the ala mode – out of a neutral tone-on-tone or solid regardless of whether the middle ring is pieced or not. 

The first step is making sure all the fabric has a good starching and pressing – especially the middle ring fabric.  This particular piece has exposed bias on the inner and outer curve.  It’s important to stabilize it as much as possible.  If you’re piecing your middle ring, you’ll want to make sure all the fabric has some starch in it, and if you can paper piece it, so much the better.  The papers will add additional stability to the bias edges. I don’t remove the papers until I’m ready to sew, and if I can avoid it, I don’t remove them until after the entire quilt top is ready for quilting.  But if you struggle to join the middle ring to the two other pieces while the papers are on, go head and remove them, but starch the ring before sewing.   If you’re using a template to draw the ring onto fabric, don’t drag the pen or pencil across the fabric and stretch the bias.  I cut my middle ring pieces out with scissors (more accurate than a rotary cutter) and store them flat.  I don’t pick them up until I’m ready to sew and have been known to give them another shot of starch and a quick press with a hot iron before sewing. 

Now let’s talk about the pie and the ala mode piece. 

Here are my templates:

And here’s how big I cut each out of the fabric:

I increase the size of both templates by as much as two inches.  Why?  Well, it makes the middle ring fit easily onto the pie piece. I find the center of the pie and the center of the middle ring and pin those two together, but I don’t have to keep shifting and pinning to avoid puckers.  This helps keep the bias in both pieces from getting stretched.  I sew these two together, and then add the ala mode piece, finding the center and pinning the same way.

After it’s over, I trim the pie and the ala mode piece down to fit the middle ring.

This makes your Drunkard’s Path look impressively difficult.  Only you will know how easy it truly is. And that middle ring gives so much motion to your quilt.  Remember the Halo Medallion?

When you look at those circling geese, they’re the middle ring of a three-pieced Drunkard Path block.  

Yes, this Drunkard’s Path takes a little more time and a little more prep, but man, is it fun!

The last curvy unit I want to talk about is what I call the Curves of Deception.  This means the quilt looks as if it has curved pieces, but it doesn’t.  Thus, my name, The Curves of Deception.  This effect all has to do with color and fabric placement.  Take a look at this quilt on EQ 8:

This quilt consists of two blocks, with absolutely no curved pieces in either one:  The Monkey Wrench

and the Garden Path Star. 

The manner in which the half-square triangles of the Monkey Wrench lock into the white squares of the four-patch in the Garden Patch triangles makes the quilt look as if it has gently curving pieces when in reality no curves exist at all.  This isn’t an effect you can get with a lot of blocks but I have learned if the blocks have HSTs at the corners and they can be linked up with a four-patch, they have the possibility of this effect.  It’s a good idea to play with this on EQ 8 or graph paper before cutting out the quilt or even choosing fabric. 

There is absolutely no reason at all to dread curved piecing.  Like a lot of quilt techniques, it does take a bit of advanced planning and some prep work.  But it’s not as hard as it looks as long as you slow your sewing down and use pins.  And when you expand a block like Drunkard’s Path into a few more pieces, the look is dramatic and the skill set is easy.  You may want to start with a small curvy quilt to make sure you have the technique well in hand before you move onto a bed-sized one. 

Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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