How to Tame Those Tiny Fabric Pieces (Without Losing Your Mind or Your Patience)

Quilts such as this:

And this:

And this:

Are beautiful.  They’re eye candy, and a lot of quilters are immediately drawn to them, not only because they’re beautiful, but also because they’re challenging.  What’s so difficult about these quilts?  The size of the blocks. 

Ranging anywhere from 4-inches to 6-inches (finished), the blocks in these quilts are on the smallish side of things.  Are these the smallest blocks in any quilt? No.  Not when you consider a quilt such as this:

A postage stamp quilt, where the blocks can measure about 1-inch (maybe less) when finished.  However, the blocks in a postage stamp quilt aren’t pieced.  Then there’s always that random hexie project out there with super-small pieced hexies. 

The more you research quilts with small blocks, the more options pop up.  I was introduced to small blocks when I constructed my Dear Jane quilt a few years ago.  This project pushed me from my usual 10-inch blocks to something considerably smaller.  Smaller quilt blocks caused me to “up my game.”  For me the smaller size meant I had to be particularly precise and accurate, as any mistake seemed to be magnified despite the block’s tiny dimensions. And after a few of the blocks were under my belt, I had found my favorite construction technique for them – paper piecing.  

I like to paper piece.  It took me a while to learn how to do it correctly, but once I did, I fell in love with it.  However, this blog isn’t about paper piecing.  It’s about how to sew small blocks.  I’m writing this from a non-paper piecing perspective because some quilters don’t like paper piecing or know how to do it, and some small blocks such as this one:

Can’t be paper pieced. 

To start, let’s talk about some quilting notions you’ll need to have on hand.  Most of these supplies can already be found in your sewing space.

  •  Spray Starch.  This will be your BFF when working with small blocks.  And here I’m talking about straight-up, real spray starch.  In one way, cutting out the pieces for a 6-inch block is no different from cutting out the pieces for a 12-inch block – accuracy is important for both.  However, with larger blocks there is a bit more “wiggle” room which isn’t there with small blocks.  From my own personal experience, I’ve found starching the fabric until it feels like paper makes cutting small pieces a lot easier.  Shake the can of starch well, then working from the backside of the fabric, spray the fabric lightly and then press with a hot, dry iron.  Repeat the process until the fabric feels like paper.  Don’t think you can do this with one pass by saturating the fabric and then pressing it.  You’ll get a lot of starch flakes this way and a damp fabric which the iron won’t dry completely.  One more bit of wisdom at this point:  If the quilt with small blocks won’t ever be washed (such as a wall hanging), I don’t prewash my fabric.  The extra layer of fabric finish plus the starch makes the material extra-stiff. 
  • Downsize Your Rotary Cutter.   Most quilters use a 45-mm rotary cutter.  This size falls in the middle and usually handles everything but the thickest of layers with ease.  However, when rotary cutting small pieces, a smaller cutter may give you more control and accuracy.  I began using a 6-mm rotary cutter when I worked on Dear Jane.  It really felt small in my hand after cutting with a 45-mm or 60-mm, but now I find I prefer the 6-mm to almost any other size.  I have petite hands and this size just works better for me.  I also have this:

Which I purchased some years ago from Missouri Star.  It also works super-well when cutting small pieces, or prepping pieces for reverse applique.

  •  Thinner Thread.  While the block and its units may be small, this means everything used will seem to be amplified – including thread.  Reducing bulk is one of the goals for any quilt block, and it’s really important for small ones.  Thinner thread is one way to reduce bulk and increase accuracy.  I typically use #50 in either two or three-ply (depending on the brand).  For small blocks, I will go up to #60 or#80 in two or three ply.  In a pinch, or if I’m out of the #60 or #80, I’ll still use #50, but make sure it’s only two-ply. 
  • Be Careful About the Scale of Print Fabrics. Under normal circumstances, I would consider this:

To be a small-scale print.  I’ve placed a dime next to the print to give you some idea of how small the print is.  However, if I cut this into a 1-inch square

You can see how the print can lose its integrity.  When working with small block units in small blocks, be conscious of how the print will look once it’s cut down, and then has a seam allowance taken in.  With super-small block units, you may want to stick to solids, small dots, or tiny stripes.  With others, you may find yourself fussy-cutting small prints to show off in the middle of a tiny star or snowball block.  If there’s any doubt about your prints, it’s a good idea to audition your fabric through a cut-out template.

  •  A Stiletto Will Come in Handy. Even though I have small hands, I find they get in the way when feeding tiny block pieces over my feed dogs or holding the fabric steady.  A stiletto can do this for you, and still allow you to have control over the material.  Your choice of stiletto is a personal one.  These great tools are not expensive, so if you don’t like your first choice, try another.  I have several

But this one is my favorite.  The pointy end is long enough to control the fabric without the risk of being hit by the sewing machine needle.

  • Pins.  I pin a lot.  I know some quilters simply nest seams and keep moving, but I’ve always found pinning helps everything match up better.  And I think it’s even more important to pin when sewing small pieces.  I’ve also found small, thin pins work best with small blocks and block units.  My go-to pins are these:

Glass head pins.  They are thin and sharp.  Added bonus, because the pin head is made of glass, they won’t melt if you accidently iron over them. 

Now that you know what tools you’ll need to begin working on small blocks, let’s talk techniques.  Overall, cutting and sewing small blocks isn’t any different from other sized blocks.  However, the one concept I quickly grasped with tiny blocks is this:   whatever “normal” sewing technique I used with average-sized blocks, I had to be doubly careful with when working with small blocks.  It just seems any  mistake you make with a small block just looks bigger than it does on a larger block. 

Accurate Cutting:  Accurate cutting is important regardless of the size of the quilt block.  Be sure to read and re-read the needed measurements before cutting.  If templates are used, quite often with small blocks, it’s more accurate (and easy) to trace around the templates with a pencil or fabric marker and cut out the units with scissors.  If rotary cutting, make sure your blade is sharp.  The drag of a dull blade can distort your cutting.  And with accurate cutting in mind…

It may be easier to make the block units slightly larger and then cut them to fit:  My regular readers know this is how I make my half-square triangles – I make them about a quarter inch larger than needed then cut them down to the exact unfinished measurement required.  This allows for complete unit accuracy.  I’ve found this technique even more useful when dealing with small blocks.

Use smaller seam allowances or trim the seam allowances down a bit:  It’s important to reduce bulk as much as you can with any quilt block.  This makes pressing, sewing, and quilting easier.  With small blocks, reducing bulk is even more important.  Let’s say you’re constructing this block, which is three inches finished:

The center block unit is 1 ½-inches, finished.  If all the ¼-inch seams surrounding this block are pressed towards the center square, this means one-inch of the center square will be covered by two additional layers of fabric from the seam allowances.  All of this bulk concentrated into such a small space can make pressing difficult (the block won’t lie flat) and make quilting – even by machine – difficult.  So, there’s two ways to approach this bulky issue.  You can re-draft the block using smaller seam allowances or, after you’ve sewn the seam, you can trim away a bit of the seam allowances with a sharp pair of scissors.  And while we’re discussing bulk reduction, here are a few more ways you can reduce it even more:

  1.  Clip or blunt the additional fabric at corners (such as in half-square triangles).
  2. Press the seams open.  I know I normally don’t advise this, but small blocks are different.  If you can, press the seams open.

Use leaders and enders:  If you’re not familiar with these terms, let me explain.  Fabric is fed over the feed dogs, under your needle, a stitch is formed, and then the fabric is fed off the back side of the feed dogs and off your needle plate.  When “normal” size block units are used, the feed dogs can engage when they touch the fabric, and the material is evenly fed over the feed dogs. However, with small block units, the dogs may begin to move before the fabric is on them and this results in a hole being chewed in your fabric.  And if your block units are super-small, they may get completely “eaten” by your feed dogs and this produces frustrating minutes of removing the entire needle plate and digging the fabric out of the dogs and anywhere else they may have lodged (usually very tightly in a very hard place to reach).  To avoid this happening, use a leader and an ender.

What are these?  They are simply small pieces of cloth you begin your stitching on and when you’re finished with a seam, you sew off on another piece of fabric (thus the names, “leader” and “ender).  I use scraps for these, folded in half.  My favorite thing to make leaders and enders out of is leftover pieces of binding.  Those work really well.  The leader engages the feed dogs and gets them moving so when you line your block units up as the leader feeds off, the dogs keep moving and your fabric glides over them instead of being chewed.   The ender will allow the fabric to smoothly feed off the dogs and keep the seam allowance consistent as the stitching ends.  And leaders and enders bring me to the next point…

Chain piece and strip piece whenever you can:  This makes life easier for you and speeds up the sewing.  You can get into a rhythm sewing like units or strips together and this will also help with accuracy.  And while you’re sewing, you may want to try this…

Reduce your stitch length:  Your regular stitch length may be too long for small pieces.  There may be too few stitches in the seam to hold the pieces together well.  Try shortening your stitch length if you feel this is the case.  I know short stitches are harder to take out if you make a mistake, but you want your block to stay together. 

Be careful when you press your block:  Be sure to press (up and down motion) and not iron (back and forth motion).  Ironing can stretch any bias, and this makes any block wonky. 

Always square the blocks up:  Just because the blocks are small, they don’t get a pass on normal follow up.  Make sure they come out to the correct unfinished size. 

Armed with correct quilting notions and techniques, constructing small blocks isn’t any harder than constructing larger blocks.  And if you think you may never have to deal with small block units because they look as if they would fray your last nerve, think about blocks such as this: 

Which has 64 pieces in an 10-inch block.  Small quilt block units don’t necessarily always stay in small quilt blocks.  Sometimes they can live in larger blocks, too.  It’s important to know how to handle these well and without fear.

Until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

8 replies on “How to Tame Those Tiny Fabric Pieces (Without Losing Your Mind or Your Patience)”

I’m at the point now where anything over 8-inches feels ginormous in my hands. My guild is in the middle of a BOM program and all the blocks finish at 12”. I’m on the struggle bus with the size!

We’re making star blocks to celebrate our 10th anniversary. I think it’s just the sheer size of the block which sets me back. All the block units seem so large!

As usual, excellent and timely advice. I am considering making some star blocks for a quilt challenge that will be about 3 inches finished. I don’t even know if that’s possible.

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