Sizing Up the Sampler Quilt

You may have seen a quilt similar to this one at some point in your quilting journey:

Blue Sampler Quilt

This type of quilt is called a Sampler Quilt.  Per dictionary definition, this kind of quilt is called a sampler quilt because they incorporate a sample of many different and varied patchwork blocks and types of patchwork fabric. A sampler quilt can have examples of pieced patchwork blocks, appliqué blocks and paper pieced blocks such as clamshell or hexagons to name but a few.  Samplers are a uniquely American innovation in quilting. Until the early 19th century, most quilts made in the U.S. were similar to those made in Europe, where medallion quilts were all the rage. Starting in the early 1800s, American quiltmakers began designing quilts to feature blocks of the same size, but not necessarily the same pattern, laid out in a grid. In fact, for a few decades, pieced samplers were as prevalent as one- or two-block quilts.  As time passed, some sampler quilts became known as Friendship Quilts or Album Quilts.  I do have a blog planned in the future which features the history of all three of these quilts, but for this post I want to discuss why sampler quilts are important today and how to put one together successfully.

 Years ago, when I taught beginner quilting, I started my students with a lap quilt made of two blocks – a nine-patch and a solid block of fabric.  This simple quilt taught the basics – how to keep a consistent ¼-inch seam, how to strip piece, how to press and match corners, and how to pick out a simple color palette.  My intermediate beginner class always made some type of sampler quilt.  I had my reasons for this choice.  Sampler quilts are generally a bit larger than lap quilts.  Each block taught a different technique, so the student was able to spread their quilting wings and try something new.  Hand work as well as machine work usually figured into my choice, as well as the experience of deciding on an expanded color scheme.  With a good sampler quilt pattern, I could teach lots of techniques and all the students would have invested in it was one block – not an entire quilt they may not really like. 

While sampler quilts may have begun in the early 1800’s, it wasn’t until newspapers had the technology to print quilt blocks in a series that this type of quilt really gained popularity.  Today, they work well in quilting groups – both online and in person.  There are websites and quilt stores which offer one block a month.  If only the pattern is provided, there may be no cost involved at all.  If fabric is included, there is a fee.  Sometimes you know what all the blocks look like going into this kind of BOM and sometimes you don’t.  In addition to these types of sampler quilts, there are wonderful books such as those in the Farmer’s Wife series by Laurie Aaron Hird (she just came out with the third book in this series in May 2020). 

The First Farmer’s Wife Sampler

Tula Pink has a wonderful sampler quilt book, City Sampler:  100 Modern Quilt Blocks.  This is also another great sampler source. 

Tula Pink’s City Sampler

And of course, the Grandmother of all Quilt Samplers is Dear Jane.

Dear Jane

The key with sampler quilts is usually each block teaches a different quilt technique.  This is important to remember as you may look for a pattern for yourself.  The blocks in a quilt such as a Baltimore Album Quilt are all different,

Baltimore Album Quilt. I really want to make one of these.

but they all possess the same technique – applique.  Dear Jane is a sampler because part of the blocks deal with simple piecing, others with paper piecing, and still others with applique.  With any sampler quilt, the crucial theme to remember is the quilt teaches several different types of techniques, not just one or two.

At this point, you may be asking yourself if you should make a sampler quilt.  I realize not all quilters like sampler quilts – for some, they’re too busy or aren’t uniform enough for their taste.  If you feel this way, there are ways to work around it, and we’ll deal with those issues in just a bit.  However, if there’s a few different quilting techniques you want to learn but don’t want to put all the effort in several quilts, find a sampler which incorporates them in one quilt.  At the end of the project, you’ll know if you like the techniques enough to really master them and  you’ll have a quilt as a bonus. Of course, making a sampler quilt is a good way to reinforce what you already know about quilting or maybe brush up on some skills you haven’t used in a while, too. 

Once you start a sampler, there are some issues you need to keep in mind.

  1.  A consistent ¼-inch seam allowance is important.  Anyone who has followed my blog for a while knows I stress that a consistent seam allowance is important.  However, long-time readers also know I’ve repeatedly said the ¼-inch seam allowance isn’t the Holy Grail of quilting – the final block size is.  It’s more important all the blocks end up the same unfinished size than they all have a ¼-inch seam allowance.  However…most of the time, the ¼-inch allowance is the one you need to use.  And this is most important in sampler quilts.  Remember, sampler quilts are made of different blocks.  Other quilts aren’t.  If you’re constructing the same block over and over, you know what areas you can fudge a bit in, so the blocks come out the same unfinished size.  Since sampler quilts are made of different blocks, this luxury isn’t available.  Keep the seams ¼-inch consistently.  If there are few “mistakes” when you’re squaring the blocks up, I have a few secrets to share with you at the end of this blog to help you out. 
  2.  Don’t be afraid to make a few test blocks.  There are some quilt blocks and quilt units you’re probably perfectly at ease with – four-patches, nine-patches, log cabins – blocks such as these are pretty simple.  You also may be really good at making your favorite block.  I have two favorite blocks – Corn and Beans and Monkey Wrench.  I can whip those blocks out quickly and accurately, all while have a wonderful time.  But Attic Window?  Well, that’s entirely another issue.  If there are a few blocks in the sampler pattern you think may give you some problems, use your scraps to make a test block of these.  This way you won’t waste the fabric designated for your quilt and you can work out any issues before making the real thing.  And this brings me to number 3…
  3. Don’t be afraid to use your plan.  Quilt directions are nice to have, as long as you remember, they’re not the Holy Grail, either.  This is quilting, not the Ten Commandments.  You’re free to deviate from the directions.  So, if there’s a block in the quilt you don’t want to make, feel free to substitute with a block you enjoy constructing or redesign the block to suit you.  I promise the quilt police will not show up at your door with a warrant for your arrest. 

Feel free to also make the blocks out of order.  Generally, there is no reason you have to make block one first before you proceed to block two.  Even if you’re participating in a BOM or a quilt along, if a there’s a block you really don’t know if you want to make, set it aside for a few months.  By the time you’ve gotten some additional blocks under your belt, it will be obvious if you need to make that particular block or can substitute another one.  The only thing which may give you an issue is putting the top together.  If you plan on making the rows as you complete the blocks, then you may want to make the blocks in order (or change the layout of the top). 

If you’re making what I call one of the Super-Sized Samplers (Dear Jane, one of the Farmer’s Wife quilts, or something like Tula Pink’s City Sampler), this same premise holds for them – even more so.  You may decide you want to make all of one type of block at the same time (this is actually a good idea – you can get a good rhythm going and get a lot accomplished).  For instance, with the Farmer’s Wife, you may decide to make all the Star Blocks in one sitting.  Flag those pages and get busy.  You won’t ruin anything by getting all of those completed in one sitting. 

However, let’s park it here and have a serious discussion about these Super-Sized Samplers.  Personally, I love them.  I love the variety and I adore small blocks (unless they have set-in seams – then, ugh!).  I’ve constructed several of these mega-samplers and in the process, I’ve learned a thing or three about them.  These quilts have blocks which range from the super-easy to oh-my-heavens-what-were-they-thinking difficult.  If you decide to make one, the first piece of advice I’d give you is check and see if the quilt has a Facebook Group (most of them do) or a website.  In these groups or on the website, often you’ll find a listing of blocks from easiest to hardest.  If you’re unsure about making the quilt, chose one block from the easy, intermediate, hard, and difficult categories and make one of each.  This process will only take your time and scraps, but it will give you an indication of how difficult the difficult blocks actually are.  Lists are subjective.  What was hard for the list-maker may not be as challenging for you.  The sites will also give helpful construction hints as well as show pictures of other quilters’ work.  I’ve found them to be an invaluable support group. 

The second piece of advice I would like to share is this:  mix the blocks up.  Don’t work from the easiest blocks to the most difficult ones.  At the end of the construction process, you’ll face a wall of quilt blocks which will take a lot of time, effort, and thought.  After a few of these, you may decide to cut your Super-Sized Sampler quilt experience short.  Try to intersperse the hard blocks with the easy ones so you won’t face burn out at the end.  Believe me, I know this from experience.  I accidentally did this very thing in the first Dear Jane I made.  Dear Jane was the first Super-Size Sampler I made (I have the fabric for the second one…so…it’s in the works).  I made the blocks in the order the book published them, so I could join the rows as I went along.  On the surface, this sounds like a great idea, except following this process meant I had all those triangles and kites to make at the end.  And for some reason, my quilting mind could not get over the hump of moving from constructing four-sided blocks to three-sided triangles.

It was not a good time.  I ended up putting Jane in time-out for a good while until I could face all those triangles again.  In retrospect, I should have interspersed making the triangles along with making the blocks.  I will do this on the second one. 

  •  Press and measure as you go.  Normally, when I’m making a quilt, I cut everything out, make the units, and then begin block construction.  After I’ve made about a half-a-dozen blocks, I’ll press then and then square them up.  Don’t use this process with a sampler quilt.  It’s so much easier to give the block a good, final press and then square them up as you go.  If you’re making a quilt with all the same blocks, it’s easy to catch your mistakes and quickly learn how to correct them.  Since sampler quilts are made of lots of different blocks, it’s harder to rectify errors.  Stopping to press every block let’s you correct mistakes as you go. 

And there will be mistakes – it happens to all of us.  But I’d like to share some of the ways I get my blocks which have errors in them to cooperate enough to get set in my quilt top without me having to take the block apart – because taking a block apart should always be the last resort.  So, park your seam ripper and consider these options:

  • If the block is a tad small, try pressing the seams open.  Normally, I don’t like to press seams open, because the quilting process can weaken open seams.  However, if your block is 1/8- to ¼-inch too small, pressing the seams open can give you just the tad more fabric you need to make the block true-up to the required unfinished size.
  • If you have a block which looks like this:
The sides of these blocks are uneven. I’d definitely try my freezer paper trick before I’d take all those Y-seams apart.

You may be wondering if you need to take the block apart and correct the unit which is coming up a bit too small.  When this happens to me, I don’t reach for the seam ripper, I reach for my freezer paper.  Cut a square of freezer paper the size of what the unfinished block needs to be.  Center and press the freezer paper to the right side of the wonky block.  Proceed to piece as normal, but when you get to the spot where the block unit is too short, consider the edge of your freezer paper as the edge of your fabric and sew as normal.  Once that one seam is complete, remove the freezer paper and examine the seam to make sure the fabric was caught in the stitches.  If it isn’t, try pressing the seams open in the block unit only and repeat the process.

  • Finally remember sashing covers a multitude of quilting sins.  If you have a block or two which is a tad small here and there, quite often by the time the block is sashed and set in the quilt, you (nor anyone else) will be able to tell.
  •  Use some constants.  Sampler quilts have a variety of blocks and the larger the quilt and the more blocks it has, the more difficult it may be to have a unified look – which is why some quilters don’t like samplers – the quilt looks too busy.  When I make a sampler, I freely pull from my stash and scrappage, but I do try to keep a couple of fabric choices constant.  The first is my background or neutral.  I may use different prints, but the background/neutral fabric will be the same color, hue, or shade.  The second fabric constant will be a line of fabrics in the same family.  For instance, when I decide to make a sampler, I’ll pull one line of precuts – fat quarters, a layer cake, charm pack, or jelly roll – and use one of these precuts in every block.  This is an easy way to make sure the blocks harmonize, and the quilt has a coherent appearance. 

My focus fabric with sampler quilts is usually a medium- to large-size print and I use it in the border.  However, I also look for opportunities to use it in the quilt top – such as in the center square of a star block or square-in-a-square block.  If the focus fabric is sprinkled throughout the quilt top, it really looks pulled together when constructed. 

  •  Know your contrast comfort level and stick to it.  If you’re comfortable with as stark of a contrast as black and white, you’re pretty much up for almost any color combination in your sampler.  If complementary contrasts such as red and green are your ideal, own it and have these types of contrasts in your quilt.  The main idea is to be constant in your use of contrasts.  In other words, don’t start out featuring contrasting color schemes in each block and then stop half-way through the quilt.  Use them consistently and be sure to lay your blocks out in the way they’ll be sewn together before starting the construction process.  Look the layout over carefully.  Back up and squint at it.  Take a picture with your phone and edit it to black and white.  Take all of these actions so you can make sure the contrast is spread evenly throughout the quilt top.  If a block has too little or too much contrast, discard it.  You can use it as the label for the quilt. 
  •  Watch where you place the yellows, lime-greens, and oranges.  I like a little yellow in my quilts.  It’s a happy color.  I also am partial to lime green and I like orange.  It’s great to use these colors in a quilt but be careful where you place them in your quilt top. The eye travels and homes in on yellow and the colors which have yellow undertones such as lime-green and orange.  Don’t group them all together in one spot, but make sure they’re evenly spread throughout the quilt top.  Don’t put them all in one corner or just in the center.  Spread them out, or else those viewing the quilt will focus in on the one area which has the yellow, lime-green, or orange and not pay as much attention to the rest of the quilt. 

Next week we’re taking a look at some construction ideas for sampler quilts, as well as ways to quilt them.  This week, if you have a chance, take a few minutes and look at some sampler quilts on Pinterest and think about making one.  Do they appeal to you?  If you made a sampler quilt, what would you like to learn or learn to do better?

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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