Now You Have All the Pin Info…Here’s How to Use Them (Part Two)

Now that we’ve talked about the primary types of pins quilters need, let’s look at when to use them.

  1. We pin the patches together before we sew them into block units.

For this type of pinning, the glass head, silk pins, straight pins, dress maker pins – almost any straight pin will work except applique and fork pins.  The pin shaft must be long enough so it can be inserted into the fabric like this:

Or this:

And the pin won’t shift.  To be honest, unless my patches are large-ish, I don’t pin at this point.

  • We pin block units together before we sew them in to blocks.

Once the block units are constructed, then we begin to sew them into blocks and here’s where your pinning options open up.  Typically – or at least as often as we can – we press our seam allowances in opposite directions so the seams will “nest.”

This process allows the seams to fit snugly against each other, lining up perfectly.  However, as the fabric travels over the feed dogs and under the needle, it can shift a bit, causing the seams to get a bit out of sync.  I will share with you the way I pin my units together.

I start where the seams nest and I pin here.  Even if the unit’s top and bottom look a bit off, this can be “fixed.”  It’s more important the seams meet correctly.  There are three ways this can be pinned at this point.

You can insert one pin in the seam.  This is fairly effective.

You can insert one pin in the seam and two on either side of the seam allowance to make sure the seam doesn’t shift, and then remove the pin in the middle.  The seam won’t budge, trust me.

You can use U-pin.  The seam won’t shift any with this pin.

From the middle, I pin out one way and then the other.

If the top and the bottom of the unit doesn’t exactly come out even, don’t sweat it.  If the amount is small enough you can “fudge it” in your seam allowance, do so.  If it’s too much of a difference, something went wrong in your seam allowance or cutting.  You may want to remake it.  Totally up to you.

The situation changes when you must join multiple seams together.  Stars, compasses, Stack-and-Whacks, and pinwheels all have lots of seams which come together at one point.  It’s easy to have lots of bulk there, making the center impossible to lay flat.  For sake of example, let’s use a pinwheel block.  Despite all the bulk, this is one of my favorite blocks – they’re just happy!  And the first thing to consider with multiple seams isn’t the pinning, it’s the pressing.  It’s super important all the seams are pressed in the same direction – towards the darker fabric if at all possible.  This will help them “nest” and make the process much easier.

Now start with the sub-units.  Join two blocks together.  The way the blocks were pressed should make the seams nest together easily. 

Pin these together the same way you would any nesting seams (pick one of the three methods mentioned in last week’s blog…decide which is your favorite and go with it).  Sew the two blocks together with a ¼-inch seam.  Your intersection should look like the picture below. 

The stitching lines will cross over each other ¼-inch away from the two raw edges of the unit.  Press the seams to one side (towards the darker fabric if possible).  The intersection should match up and look nice and neat

Repeat with the other two blocks, again pressing towards the darker fabric. 

Now comes the tricky part, but if you’ve pressed and pinned correctly, the intersection matches up pretty close to perfect.  Align the two sections together. On the first unit, insert a pin right where the two stitching lines intersect.

Now align the other unit behind the first and insert the tip of the pin right in the intersection for the second unit as shown.  Push the two units together on the pin, but do NOT twist the pin around and try to put the tip back into the unit.

Let the pin stick straight up like a flagpole as shown below.

Now insert a pin just to the left and the right of your “flagpole” pin. If your flagpole pin leans one way or another as you insert the side pins, it means your intersection is shifting. Reposition the side pins to keep the center pin straight.

Once you have the left and right pins in place, you can remove the flagpole pin. Continue pinning the remaining seam allowances together.

Now sew the two units together. As your needle approaches the center intersection, the stitches should cross over the previous stitching lines as shown below. If necessary, use a stylus or sewing stiletto to guide the seam allowance and prevent it from flipping over.

At this point, the center should look great, but there’s still a lot of bulk in the middle to deal with.  There are a couple of ways to handle this mass of seams coming together.  First, you could press the seam open.

This would help distribute the bulk a bit better.   In all honesty, this is my least favorite way to deal with it.  As someone who quilts my own quilts, I have a preference that seams aren’t pressed open, as the quilting action can weaken open seams.  I prefer (as much as possible) to have the seams pressed to one side.  So, here’s how I handle it — carefully remove the stitches from the first two-unit assembly steps, leaving only the last seam that joined the two block halves together.  This will let us “spin” those seam allowances into a mini star on the back side as well, distributing all the extra bulk evenly.

You’ll now be able to press half of the long joining seam in one direction, and the second half in the other, and the center will lay flat! A perfect center, no lump to quilt over, and the seams stay pressed to one side.

If the center is spun, the block should lay completely flat.

Dresden Plates, Compasses, and some Star blocks can be handled in similar fashion.  The trick is to assemble half the block at a time, press the seams in one direction, and pin and sew together.  Release the stitches to relax the center and press.  This works most of the time.  However, with some blocks – especially those with lots of seams coming together like this:

It’s simply better to press the adjoining seam open and deal with any quilting consequences later.  If I was in this situation as a long armer, I’d avoid quilting the center of the block. 

The option of last resort – If you can’t successfully reduce the bulk in the middle and it poufs out –  cut it away.  I have used this technique before in times of sheer desperation.  Let’s take this block for example:

There are a lot of seams coming together in the middle.  Even if you carefully press the seams in one direction and release the stitches where you can, the bulk may be difficult to deal with.  When I’m faced with this situation, circles are my saving grace.  Determine what sized circle would cover the middle and be in proportion to your quilt block.  Construct the circle and sew it over the middle either by hand or machine (if you choose to applique by machine, pin the circle in place or use glue or fusible webbing only on the edges of the circle).  The very carefully, from the wrong side of the block, cut away the bulky middle.  Your block should now lay nice and flat.

  • We pin blocks together to make rows (with or without sashing).

Zone of truth right here – if you have vertical sashing between your quilt blocks, sewing the rows together becomes infinitely easier.  There are no seams to match.  You pin the sashing to the right side of a block, sew it on, then sew the next block to the sashing. 

If there is no sashing between the blocks, and seams must match up so the quilt top looks put together correctly, the same rules apply as before.  Press the blocks (as much as you are able) so the seams will nest.  Then use your preferred pinning method for nesting seams and sew the blocks together.

  • We pin the rows together to make the quilt center (with or without sashing).

Sewing the rows together to make the quilt center is in many ways similar to sewing the blocks together to make rows.  If the horizontal sashing has no corner stones, cut the sashing to fit, pin in place, and sew it together.  However, because of the length of the sashing in this case, I tend to use fork-pins or Wonder Clips.  Regular pins – such as patchwork – can fall out while sewing on the horizontal sashing.  The Wonder Clips or fork pins tend to stay put.

If the horizontal sashing has cornerstones, press the sashing and cornerstones so the seams will nest with the row of blocks and pin.  In my opinion (and experience), fork pins work best to sew this type of sashing to the rows.  The fork pins will keep the seams nested together, and the pins are better able to support the weight of the rows and sashing without falling out, like patchwork pins would. 

  • We pin borders onto the quilt center.  Sometimes there are multiple borders, so we may pin borders to border.

I won’t go into the particulars of how to make sure your borders are the correct size before you cut them out and pin them on to the quilt center.  I do have an upcoming blog on this topic, but if you absolutely need to know now, go here:

Regardless of whether your borders are pieced, solid pieces of fabric, or appliqued, it’s important to follow this process:

  1.  Find the center of the quilt top.  Put a pin there.
  2. Find the center of the border. Put a pin there.
  3. Place the border and the quilt center right sides together, lining up the center pins and pin them together.  Then from this center point, pin the borders on.  I find the fork pins hold the bulk and weight of the quilt center and border the best. 
  4. If there are multiple borders, repeat the same process, but find the centers of the borders, pin those right sides together, then pin out from the center.

I hope this blog answers questions about pins and how to use them.  Truthfully, pins are almost an afterthought with a lot of quilters – as long as they have some kind within arm’s reach, everything is fine.  However, having the right pin for the job can make all the difference in the world.  It just makes the task at hand easier. 

If you have a topic you would like for me to explore, please leave a note in the comments.  It may take me a week or two to have a blog about it, but I really do like to write about quilty subjects folks are interested in.

Until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,


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