How to Read a Quilt Pattern Part 2: What on the Inside

Continuing with our discussion on patterns…

Now you have your pattern read and re-read, you’ve marked up sections you have questions about, and you’ve picked out your fabric.  It’s time to look at the inner part of the pattern and begin to cut our material and assemble our quilt.  At this point, there are a couple of items to keep in mind.  First, don’t think just because your pattern may have wonderful pictures or illustrations, you can get by without reading the directions.  No matter how great the graphics are, they are never completely complete.  You need to read all the instructions.  Second, most quilt patterns – no matter if they are stand alone, in a book, or in a magazine —  are similar.  There’s no great learning curve between the three.  Since you can’t get started sewing until you’re through cutting, let’s look at the cutting directions first. 

There are two different types of cutting instructions.  The first is simply a diagram.  Each unit tells you how long and wide to cut it.  It’s pretty easy to follow.

This next set of directions is a bit more complicated.  It’s for a table runner called Autumn Splendor by Norma Whaley.  The runner has three star blocks.  Each set of cutting directions is clearly labeled and easy to follow.  One item I would like to note is the numbering of the cut units. 

The number of units to cut is shown by parenthesis.  The size of the unit is outside the parenthesis.  For instance, the pattern tells us to cut (4) 2” squares and label them A.  This means you will cut four 2-inch squares.  These will go in the A position on the block, as shown on the diagram.  I would cut these, clip them together, and add a post-it note to them with an A on it.  This way I know exactly what these units are for and were they go. 

“Roadmap” of the block layout
The light areas denote background fabric. The darker areas denote the other fabric.

Note the two diagrams above.  The one in the upper position is a kind of “roadmap” on how to assemble the block units.  corner.  It illustrates how you put the block together.  It shows where each block unit goes.  The graph in the bottom shows how to assemble the units into rows, and then the rows into the block.  You can see the background fabric is white and the star points are darker.  This helps with color placement.  Most patterns will denote the background as white, and the prints as grayed out or black. 

As we finish reading through the pattern we find some other important info. 

First, section A points out all three star blocks need to finish at 6-inches.  This means when the blocks are sewn into the table runner, they will measure 6-inches square.  However, in order for it to finish at this size, it has to have a seam allowance, generally ¼-inch for each side.  So, when you complete the block, but before it’s sewn into the runner, it should measure 6 ½-inches.  This is the unfinished  size. 

In section B, there are pressing directions.  I love a pattern with pressing directions.  Let me explain why.  When you’re constructing blocks, one of the goals is for them to lie as flat as possible and to reduce bulk.  Correct pressing, so the seams nest and bulk is reduced, is incredibly important.  This pattern tells us how to iron that nine patch in the middle of the stars so all the seams nest and the corners line up. It also directs us on how to press the flying geese side units so it will lie flat.   Not all quilt patterns give you this information and may take some time to figure out the best way to press your block. 

We’ve read through all of this, but do you know what’s not anywhere on this pattern?  The unfinished size of the nine-patch or the unfinished size of the flying geese.  Nope.  All we know about unfinished sizes are two factors:  The size of the corner blocks (2-inches) and the unfinished size of the block (6 ½-inches).  We can “math” this out.  Before we do this, let me remind you if you are “mathing” quilt blocks out, work with the finished sizes and then add the seam allowance at the end.  This is what we know:

The finished block size is 6-inches.

We cut the four corner blocks at 2-inches.  When we subtract the seam allowances, we get 1 ½-inches as their finished size (2-inches – ½ seam allowances).  Since there are two of these blocks on each row, we add them together to get 3-inches.

Now we subtract the 3-inches from the 6-inches, and we have 3-inches left in the top row of our star block.  This means our flying geese should finish at 3-inches, and their unfinished measurement is 3 ½-inches (3-inches + ½ inch for the seam allowance). 

At this point, you have options.  You can go with your math and begin cutting out your quilt and sewing the units together.  Or you can make a test block out of scrap fabric to be sure everything works.  Personally, even if you’re really sure your math is correct, I strong suggest making a test block of every type of quilt block used in your project, even if you’re pretty darned sure of every unit’s unfinished size.  A test block can tell you lots of things…

  • If you like the construction methods the patterns used
  • If there are any incorrections in the pattern
  • Your math is correct
  • You want to make any changes
  • If pressing directions aren’t given, you can discover the best way to press the blocks

All of this information is important to know before you slice and dice your beautiful quilt fabric.  Yes, a test block takes time, but it can provide you with a wealth of information.  I would also add this – as you complete a few blocks, take the time to measure these and do any trimming necessary.  It’s always easier to trim a few at a time than to get to the end block construction and have 50 or more to true-up. 

Lastly, let’s talk organization.  The two quilts used as examples in this blog don’t have a lot of pieces.  Sure, you’d need to mark the size of the rectangles on Hope for Tomorrow, but overall compared to queen and king size quilts, there aren’t many block units.  But it’s good to have an organizational plan in place if you have lots of block units.  My favorite organizational tool for this is food storage bags which have the plastic zipper.

You can tuck each unit in its own bag for easy identification.  All the 2 ½-inch squares can go in a bag, all the quarter-cut triangles can have their own bag, etc.  These bags can be labeled according to size and set aside. 

Paper plates are another useful organizational tool.  Let’s say we’re making a scrap quilt from Monkey Wrench blocks:

I can put all the pieces for one block on a plate and then stack another plate on top of it and put the pieces for the next block on it.  I can keep stacking plates on top of each other and when I’m through, I can slip them into the plastic bag the paper plates originally came in for either storage or transportation to a sew day or quilt retreat. 

And one of these:

Is terrific for storing rectangular pieces of sashing, or string blocks such as those used in Hope for Tomorrow or the strips for a log cabin quilt. 

The two best things all these storage ideas have in common are they’re inexpensive and easily found at dollar store establishments and thrift stores.

I hope this blog and the one last week has helped any of you who have issues reading quilt patterns.  While not all quilt patterns are the same, it’s safe to say the majority of pattern designers want their instructions to be understandable and clear.  And if you are having problems with a pattern, remember your first line of defense is our old friend Google. 

Until Next Week, Remember the Difference is in the Details!

Love and Stitches,


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