Finishing a Sampler Quilt

Last week I introduced the concept of sampler quilts – a bit of their history, how they’re made, and some steps you can follow to ensure you’re successful if you decide to construct one.  This week I want to delve a little deeper into them.  Today we’ll discuss how to complete a top and the quilting process.

If you use a sampler quilt pattern, you’ll have the finishing directions as part of the pattern.  But this is not always the case.  Sometimes if you join a sampler BOM as part of a quilt along or a program at a LQS, once it’s over, it may be up to you how to join your blocks and make the quilt top.  Or you may like a pattern’s blocks, but not the way the blocks are set.  In any of these scenarios, you have to decide how your finish quilt will look.  This is the process I want to walk you through, to give you the skills and confidence to finish the quilt.

The very first step I take with every sampler quilt I make is sash my blocks.  For me, sashing in a sampler quilt does takes care of two issues.  First, it can serve to add cohesiveness to all the blocks.  Second, it calms the blocks down.  Even if you followed my suggestions in the first Sampler Quilt post and used all the same background color, judiciously utilized the focus fabric, and employed some precuts from one line of fabrics, the sashing will serve to add some tranquility to the top.  For me, if you simply sew all the blocks together, the eye has no place to rest a second or two before taking in the next block.  So, you may want to plan on sashing the blocks.  If all the blocks are the same size, this can be a fairly easy process.  If the blocks are different sizes, you have to get more creative.  Let’s start with an easy sampler.  Let’s say we have participated in a quilt along and now have 25 blocks which are 10 ½-inches unfinished. 

To begin, you must decide if you want to set the quilt in rows or on point.  I’m sharing both construction methods with you today, but if you want an in-depth dive in the process, go here

Let’s deal with rows first.  Since we don’t have directions to tell us how wide or narrow to make the sashing, we need to figure it out ourselves.  In a series of blogs I wrote several years ago, I gave you a couple of formulas to work through to make sure the sashing wasn’t too wide or too narrow.  We used the Golden Ratio to figure our sashing limits.  This is easy-peasy, and don’t let the math scare you.  You can use the calculator on your phone to do this.  All you have to remember is the Golden Ratio – 1.618.  To determine how wide you can make the sashing, multiply the size of the finished block by 1.618.  We currently have twenty-five 10 ½-inch blocks, but once they’re set in the quilt top, they’ll measure 10-inches.  This is the finished  size. 

10 x 1.618 = 26.17924

Now we divide 26.17924 by 4 because the block has four sides.

26.17924/4 = 6.54481

We’ll round this to 6.5.  By this calculation, the widest we can make the sashing and it still look good is 6 ½-inches.  But what if we don’t want our sashing this wide?  We can use the Golden Ratio to estimate how narrow we could make the binding and the quilt still look balanced.  This time we multiply by half the Golden Ratio – which is roughly .618

10 x .618 = 6.18

Now divide by the four sides

6.18/4 = 1.545

We’ll round this to 1.5 or 1 ½-inches.  The narrowest we can make the sashing is 1 ½-inches.  However, the sashing width can fall anywhere between 6 ½-inches and 1 ½-inches and still look balanced.  It all depends on how you want your quilt to look.  I’ll be honest here and tell you one of my favorite sashing widths is 2 ½-inches.  There are two reasons for it.  First, I have a handy-dandy sashing ruler which is 2 ½-inches wide.  I simply line the ruler up with the edge of the fabric and cut.  Second, if I can find a jelly roll in a color I want to use for sashing, my cutting is already done for me.  And once you’ve decided on your sashing, now you can entertain the idea of cornerstones. 

Finally, you may want to consider borders.  We’ll use the Golden Ratio for this, too.  In this instance, we’ll use the new finished block size and plug in the formula.  With the 2-inch sashing, the new size of our finished block is 12-inches:

Original 10-inch finished block + 2-inch finished sashing = 12-inches. 

12 x 1.618 = 19.416

Now divide by 4

19.416/4 = 4.854 or 4 7/8-inches.

The widest we could make the borders is 4 7/8-inches.  However, I’ll be frank here.  This measurement of eighths can make you crazy. I just round up to 5-inches.  The widest we can make the borders is 5 inches.  Now let’s see how narrow we can go.

12 x .618 = 7.416

7.416/4 =1.854 or 1 7/8-inches, which I’d round up to 2-inches. I dislike one-eighth measurements. They’re neither ruler nor cutting mat friendly.

We can make our borders anywhere between 2- inches and 5-inches wide.  And this is the total border width. If we decide to go with a 5-inch border, we could break the border into any incremental measurements as long as they total up to five.  We could have two borders, one 2-inches and one 3-inches.  Or we could have a 1-inch border and a 4-inch border.  As long as the total width of the border ends up being 5-inches, it will look balanced. 

Depending on the set of blocks, sometimes you can put them on-point and they’ll look amazing.  Generally, the block needs to be somewhat symmetrical in order for it to look right when it’s set on-point.  Let’s work with this layout (on-point happens to be one of my favorite layouts) and a new formula called Quilter’s Cake. 

With this on-point example, we’re working with eighteen 12-inch finished blocks, which we will sash (if you want on-point quilt with setting squares in between the blocks, go here:  Even though this quilt is set differently than the first horizontal row example, the premise is still the same – sashing serves to calm down the blocks.  The first step is to determine how wide and how narrow the sashing strips can be.  Let’s math it out.

12 x1.618 = 19.416

19.416/4 = 4.854 or 4 7/8 (which I would round up to 5…because of my personal issues with 1/8-inch increments).  This is the largest width we could make the sashing.

Now we have to determine what is the narrowest width we can go with:

12 x .618 = 7.416

7.416/4 = 1.854 or 1 7/8 (which I would round up to 2 – because you know why…)

Since the sashing can be anywhere between 5-inches and 2-inches, I will opt for 3-inch sashing this time since these blocks are bigger than the ones we used in the horizontal rows.  And here’s how the borders will look–

New finished block size:

12-inch finished original block + 3-inch finished sashing = 15.  Our new finished block size is 15-inches.

15 x 1.618 = 24.27

24.27/4 = 6.0675 or 6 1/8-inches, which we will round down to 6-inches.  This is the widest we can make the borders.

15 x .618 = 9.27

9.27/4 = 2.3175 or 2 1/3-inches. 

Remember, you can slice and dice your borders anyway you want, as long as the entire, finished border does not exceed 6-inches in width.  Also keep in mind, you can opt for no border at all.

What you’ve probably noticed by now with the on-point setting are the triangles along the sides and at the top and bottom corners.  These are collectively called setting triangles and now we need a formula to figure not only how big to make them, but also how to cut them.  These triangles are sub-cut from fabric squares.  Let’s deal with the four small, corner triangles first.

The first step in this process is to disregard the new, finished size of block (original, finished block size + the sashing).  We will work with the original finished size of 12-inches.  I also want to introduce you to Quilter’s Cake – 1.414.  Consider this the “Golden Ratio” of triangles.  To cut the four corner triangles, take the finished size of the original block, divide it by 1.414 and then add a 7/8 seam allowance.  This 7/8 seam allowance is constant, no matter how large or small the corner triangles need to be. 

(12-inch finished, original block/1.414 Quilter’s Cake) + 7/8 seam allowance

(12/1.414) +7/8 = 9 3/8.  I would round this up to 9 ½-inches.  These triangles are easy to trim once they’re set in the quilt. 

You will need to cut two 9 ½-inch squares and then cut each square once on the diagonal.  This will give you the four corner triangles you need.

When you sew the corner triangle onto your quilt, be sure you align the diagonal cut with the quilt edge. You want the grain lines (here marked with arrows) facing the outside.

Now we have to determine how big to cut the squares for the side triangles.  In this layout, we have six triangles along the right and left sides of the quilt.  The math is similar to that of the corner triangles, but this time you will sub-cut the fabric square twice on the diagonal to make four triangles. 

Take the finished size of the original square and multiply it by 1.414

10 x 1.414 = 14.14

We still need to add a seam allowance, and for the side triangles this is 1 ¼-inches (this stays consistent no matter what size side triangle you make).

14.14 + 1.25 = 15.39 or 15 3/8 inches – which I would round up to 15 ½-inches. 

Since we need six side setting triangles and we can get four triangles from each 15 ½-inch square, we cut two squares and cut each square twice on the diagonal.  I know we’ll have two triangles we won’t use, but you can always put these in your scrappage or somehow incorporate them into the label.  

Like the corner triangles, you want to keep the grainline facing outwards (again, marked with arrows).

Once you’ve decided what kind of layout to use with your sampler quilt, you can get busy cutting and sewing.  Then comes the next hurdle — how do you quilt it?  To help you make this decision, I will break sampler quilts into two categories:  Those quilts which are pieced and those which are primarily appliqued.  Let’s deal with the pieced samplers first.

Truthfully, the quilting design depends on either A) How much time you’re willing to put into the quilting or B) How much you’re willing to pay for the quilting.  If the answer to both is “Not much,” I suggest you find some kind of all-over design which will complement the piecing.  For instance, if your sampler quilt has a lot of star blocks in it, you may want to choose a pantograph with stars in it.  And you can’t go wrong with loops or meanders.  Any kind of all-over, edge-to-edge design won’t take too many hours out of your schedule or break your piggy bank.  This isn’t my favorite kind of quilting, but it can work – especially if your sampler blocks are on the small-ish side. 

However…if you want to spend a bit more time (or a bit more money), there are other options. 

  1.  Soften up hard geometric designs with some curvy quilting.  For instance, if your quilt has blocks like this which incorporates lots of triangles:
Orange Peel

Try softening up the look by quilting orange peels which join in the center to create a kind of simple, curvy flower.  If your sampler has lots of triangles, this may work well over the entire quilt, or you (or your quilter) may find other designs to join the flowers.

  •  Split the blocks.  This idea comes straight from the talented and awesome Bethanne Nemesh and her book Sampler Quilt Smackdown, which can be ordered from her website  The way this works is you take a block and divide it in half diagonally.  Fill in one side of the triangle with more detailed work and on the other half you simply outline the block with quilting stitches or do something equally as simple (such as meandering or loops).
  •  Let the fabric speak to you.  For instance, if you have a large print in some of your fabric, simply quilt around the print.  If it has large flowers, quilt around those.  If there’s a large fabric motif involved, that’s a great jumping off point.
  •  Allow the quilting to create a secondary design.  This takes a bit more planning, but it’s really a great look.  Look over the quilt top with a critical eye.  If there are triangles, rectangles, or squares which are on the edge of the block, quilt the same shape in the sashing and borders, extending and echoing that shape. 
Continuing the quilt square by quilting it into the negative space. Quilting by Green Fairy Quilts.
  •  When you can’t think of anything else, echo, echo, echo (to borrow a line from Angela Walters).  Repeat the shape of the block unit by quilting about ¼-inch in from the seam and keep repeating. 
  • Break down the block.  If you see a secondary pattern in the blocks themselves, such as this:

You may want to incorporate it in your quilting.  If there are tons of half-square triangles, you should consider diagonal lines in your motif.  No matter what kind of quilt you’re quilting, sometimes the blocks themselves can point you in the direction the quilting needs to go.

Applique samplers offer different quilting adventures.  I will explain my method of quilting applique quilts (whether samplers or not), but strongly encourage you to view quilts quilted by other long armers who have many more years of custom quilting techniques under their belts than I have.  The first step I take is to outline the applique motif.  I try to stitch as closely to the applique as I can, and then echo around it about ¼-inch away.  Then I fill the background in with some tightly stitched meander, cross hatch, or similar stitch.  This “smashes” the background down and allows the applique to appear to “pop” off the background.  If a wool batt is used, at this point the applique will appear almost trapuntoed.  And if the applique block is small, I may just echo around the applique pieces until the block is filled. 

There is one more step I do take with blocks which have large applique pieces such as this:

These blocks are 26-inches when sashed with cornerstones.  Thus, the applique pieces are large.  If I’m quilting blocks such as this, I will go back and fill in details in the leaves and flowers to make it look more realistic and interesting and to make sure the pieces don’t sag away from the batting and backing.

Lastly, let’s talk thread.  Like most quilts, samplers offer a variety of fabrics and if applique is thrown in the mix, there are even more colors involved.  My personal, favorite choice of quilting thread for samplers is Superior Thread Micro Quilter 100 weight in a neutral color.  This thread is so fine it’s nearly invisible, yet it’s strong and you don’t have to be as fiddly with it as you do a monofilament thread.  I have been known to change thread colors on large pieces of applique (to match the fabric), depending on how much time I want to put into the quilting and what this quilt’s future is (is it show-bound or a special gift for a special person). 

I hope the last couple of blogs has maybe stirred up some interest in sampler quilts.  They’re a great way to use up a family of fat quarters, jelly rolls, or layer cakes.  They’re also terrific for exploring new quilting techniques you may not want to commit an entire quilt to undertaking.  And there are definitely some lovely patterns and quilt alongs out there to consider.

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

4 replies on “Finishing a Sampler Quilt”

As always, so much great information! I’m not really a fan of sampler quilts but the information on sashing and setting triangles will certainly come in handy. Thanks for continuing to share your knowledge.

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