In quilting, there are special techniques used to sew patchwork pieces into blocks, then assemble those blocks into a quilt. The precise execution of these techniques is paramount to a beautifully finished quilt. It’s similar to putting together a puzzle; each piece has to fit perfectly in order for the larger picture to come into view. As we go through the specific piecing techniques, don’t be surprised to find you can apply many of them to other areas of sewing! This is part Four of our Five-part Quilting Basics series. If you haven’t already, we do recommend you read parts One through Three prior to launching into today’s tutorial. You’ll find the related links listed at the bottom of the page. To keep these instructions to an manageable size, we’ve broken this Part into two sub-parts. And just like a good television soap opera, we’re sure you’ll be on the edge of your seat, waiting for tomorrow’s installment!
We have a few primary goals in patchwork piecing. As we already mentioned, precision is a big one. We discussed this in some detail in Part 2 – Rotary Cutting, because this is actually where you begin the quilt construction process. If you haven’t cut precisely measured pieces, they will not sew together precisely.
Our other goals include maintaining an accurate ¼” seam allowance, lining up sewn seams perfectly, and keeping the fabric flat with constant pressing (quite contrary to those of you who’ve sewn garments where you want to add shape). None of this may make any sense now, but when we’re through, you’ll understand why it’s all so important!
General machine settings and such
We thoroughly discussed the various tools, needles, thread, fabric, etc. you need to sew a quilt in Part 1. Therefore, we’re going to assume you have everything ready to go. In this section, we’ll discuss the various settings on your sewing machine. In addition, we’ll review some general stitching details that pertain to sewing a quilt top, along with a few other important aspects involved in the process.
NOTE: Knowing your machine’s features is important to successful sewing, regardless of what you’re making. If you have questions about any of the details below, we encourage you to visit with your local sewing machine retailer for guidance about your specific sewing machine brand/model.
When sewing patchwork pieces together, it’s customary to use a straight stitch. The length can range from 1.8 – 2.4, depending on the type of stitch adjustments you can make on your particular sewing machine.
A smaller stitch length is usually recommended since the pieces you’re working with are small and the seam length is short. Plus, you do not backstitch in piecing! This is because you will most likely be sewing across the seam later, locking it as you continue to build the block/quilt.
In addition to stitch length, sometimes you have to adjust stitch width. When you adjust the width on a straight stitch, you are moving the straight stitch to the left or right within the oval opening of the foot/needle plate. Now, why would you want to do this in quilting? Because many quilters love to use what’s known as a scant ¼” seam for piecing. This obscure measurement is slightly less than ¼”. You could think of it as a “thread width or two” of stitching from a true ¼”. In the picture below the seam on the top is a scant ¼” and the one below is a standard ¼”.
The idea behind this is when two sewn pieces are pressed, some of the ¼” seam allowance is taken up in the fold of the pressed seam on the right side. The scant ¼” seam compensates for this loss, providing more accurate piecing and matching of seams.
The scant ¼” seam is primarily used by intermediate to advanced quilters, who are creating more complex designs. However, it’s a very good technique to understand, and now, when you see it referenced in quilt instructions, you’ll know exactly what they’re talking about!
Scant or standard, the accuracy of the seam allowance in quilting is very important. As we’ve stressed, the pieces simply won’t fit together properly if you do not take the time to determine where you need to sew every seam. You can use a Quarter Inch Seam foot (as we have on our Janome studio machines), a seam guide on your machine (another option we like and use ourselves), or you can mark the bed of your machine with a removable tape, such as blue painter’s tape. The photo below shows you a standard Janome Quarter Inch Seam foot (Janome also has a 9mm Quarter Inch Seam foot).
Regardless of the method you use, always test your stitch setting by sewing a scrap, then actually measuring the resulting seam allowance with a seam gauge or ruler.
Two additional aspects of the sewing machine, that are important for quilting as well as many other sewing projects, are the fabric feeding system and ability to adjust the foot pressure.
Since you sew from the very edge of the fabric when piecing, it’s not uncommon for the fabric (especially triangles) to get caught and pulled down under the needle plate. This is a mess that can be avoided. Understanding the type of fabric feeding system on your particular sewing machine will help you anticipate if this will be an issue. For instance, as our exclusive sewing machine sponsor, Janome provides us with a variety of models for the Sew4Home studios. Most of their models have a 7-piece feed dog system, and/or a built-in AcuFeed™ system, both of which are designed for smooth feeding of fabric under the foot regardless of thickness, type of fabric, or starting point. Therefore, we have no problems with piecing from the very edge of the fabric.
Many quilters use a little trick called a “starter” piece of fabric. This is a fabric scrap you sew on first, feeding the actual pieces to be sewn immediately after it (similar to chain piecing). The “starter” fabric takes the brunt of any starting hiccups, preventing the “real” fabric from going under the needle plate.
We mention foot pressure because this is an additional feature on many sewing machines that can help with various sewing tasks. On our Janome studio machines, we can adjust the amount of pressure depending on the thickness of the fabric.
Heavier fabrics require less pressure, while light fabrics require more. The foot pressure helps keep the machine stitching evenly. Even though basic woven cotton fabric is used most often in quilting, some of the latest trends include utilizing other fabric types and weights. So, you may find adjusting the foot pressure helpful when piecing.
Your machine is set up and you’re ready to sew your quilt pieces together. Whether you’re following a pattern or designing your own, you need to keep track of the blocks and the overall quilt layout. This means you want to work methodically across (or down in some cases) the quilt. It’s easy to sew pieces (or blocks) out of order. You don’t want to have to rip out a block in the middle of the quilt!
To avoid this, you can use a felt-covered design wall (we mentioned this in Part 1), or you can place pieces on a (smaller) cutting mat or quilt ruler to transfer them from your cutting area to your machine, or you can simply place them in order on a table next to your machine. Depending on the size of your block/quilt, sometimes the floor becomes your new best friend. Whichever method you choose, just remember you have to pay attention to the order.
Have you ever wondered why we always say to “press” your fabric instead of “iron” your fabric? In all areas of sewing, we “press” our fabric, which means actually pressing down with an iron on a particular area (usually a seam). Ironing is what we do to our shirts and sheets. You never want to take an iron and just run it back and forth over your fabric, especially in quilting! Pressing is an important part of the seaming process, and keeping track of the direction in which you press the seams between the pieces becomes part of how well the seams line up as you build the quilt top. You’ll see pressing notes in most quilt instructions; it’s a very important part of the overall process.
When you’re ready to press your quilt pieces, you’ll most likely be using cotton fabric. Turn your iron to its cotton setting, preferably with steam. The more diligent you are about pressing, the easier it will be to sew your quilt. Some quilters prefer to starch their fabric (especially if they preshrink the fabric). You’ll find starch to be a major component in quilting too, as some techniques require super stiff fabric pieces.
In general, proper pressing is as important in sewing as the needle and thread you use, regardless of the type of sewing you like to do most. It’s not uncommon to press sewn pieces from the wrong side, the right side or both (depending on your fabric, of course). You should own the best iron for your budget. Take a look at the recent article on our new love: the Oliso® TG1050 Smart Iron with iTouch® Technology.
NOTE: In the techniques below, we assume you have your machine set up for a straight stitch, with proper thread, needle (size & type), as well as an appropriate foot (see Part 1) on your machine for piecing. Also, we are using a bright colored thread so you can see our stitching. You would use a neutral tone thread or thread that matches your fabric, depending on your selection of fabrics (one color or many).
- As we mentioned above, you want to sew systematically. You can work across left to right or right to left, depending on your natural tendency, then top to bottom (or bottom to top). It’s up to you, but whatever order you select, stick with it so you don’t lose track.
- Lay your cut pieces alongside your machine (or other surface area) in the selected quilt block pattern. For our example, we will work from left to right using the 4-Patch block we cut in Part 3.
- We have two rows, each consisting of two pieces. We will sew the top row first.
- Place the second square in the top row right sides together with the first square in the same row.
- Using a ¼” seam allowance, sew the two squares together.
- Press the seam completely to one side. It’s customary to always press the sewn seam to the left or right, usually toward the darker color. The direction in which you press becomes very important later in the process. We’ll talk more about why in the Matching Seams section coming up.
- Place the sewn unit back on your surface.
- Repeat the process for the second row. Don’t forget to press the seam in the opposite direction of the previous row – towards the darker fabric!
- Now, sew the two rows together, matching the seams as described below.
- Assuming there are more blocks to be sewn, continue in this manner until you have as many blocks as needed for the desired size of your quilt top.
- To sew all the blocks, work in a similar manner to that described above, joining the first row of blocks together, then the second and so on. Continue to sew each row together until the quilt top is complete. Don’t forget to press the seams in between and match the seams as you sew.
Matching Intersecting Seams
Another aspect of precision in quilting is the ability to line up the intersecting seams between the patchwork pieces within a block and the blocks within the quilt top. If you’ve cut and sewn the pieces accurately, lining up the seam lines should be automatic, right? Wrong. It’s not uncommon (and very frustrating) for seams to not line up. Fortunately, there are two different techniques you can use to help.
- As we’ve indicated above, one of your goals should be to keep your quilt pressed flat. In addition, you want everything to be perfectly aligned (or as perfect as possible). This includes intersecting seams between sewn units and blocks. In order to do this, quilters prefer to press each seam to the side. This is so the seams can be nested together, allowing them to line up perfectly as you join the units and blocks. But, not so fast… don’t just nod in agreement! In this method, you have to pay close, close attention to the direction of the row (or unit) that will be adjacent to it. For example, if you’ve sewn two squares together, and pressed the seam to the right, then on the unit you plan to sew to these first two sewn squares (or unit), you have to press the seam to the left. Let us show you how this works.
- We’ll assume you’ve sewn two separate units already, using one of the above methods.
- On one unit, press the seam to the right. On the second unit, press the seam to the left.
- Place the unit right sides together, matching the seams. Use the pressed edge to nest the seams.
- Place a pin in the seam to hold the unit precisely together. You can do this a couple of ways.
- You can use the stitching line as your guide. Insert the pin on one side of the stitching.
- Then make sure the pin comes through the other side precisely on the opposite side of the stitching from the first side. You can actually feel a difference in how the pin goes through the seam then through the layers of fabric – so you’ll know you are pinning the seam at the exact spot.
- Or, you can pin on either side of the seam to hold the nesting in place.
NOTE: Some quilters prefer to use just one pin after they’ve matched the seams.
- Regardless of how you choose to pin the seams together, the point (no pun intended) is to use pins – always! As you progress in building your piecing/quilting skills, you may hear about some experts who don’t use any pins. We can tell you, from our experience, using pins at the seam intersection is always a good idea.
- At the sewing machine, you should always try to avoid sewing over pins. Hitting a pin can damage your machine.
- As you sew the seam, stop just as the pin reaches the front of your sewing machine foot, then remove the pin. The pressure of the foot will help hold things in place as you continue to sew.
- You guessed it! Time to press the seam to one side, thinking about the direction of any adjacent intersecting seams that will be sewn next.
NOTE: If you’re following a pattern or tutorial, the direction you press seams may be indicated.
- And, here’s what our intersecting seams look like from the right side.
Open seam method
- An alternate method to nesting is to simply press each seam open. This eliminates the bulk of multiple layers at the intersecting seams.
- After sewing two pieces together, press the seam open. Repeat for any remaining units.
- Place the units right sides together, matching the seam.
- Use the same pinning methods mentioned above to keep the seams lined up.
- Sew the units together.
- Press the new seam open!
- Before we conclude this first sub-part of the tutorial, we want to show you a few details about sewing some of those triangles we cut in Part 2. These are also known as half-square triangles (sometimes abbreviated in quilt instructions as HST).
- The trick with triangles is to not stretch them. Since they are cut at an angle, they have a bias (or stretchy) long edge. This can cause them to stretch and become misshapen when sewn, Handle triangles with care.
- The other issue is the points. The stitching line begins ¼” in from the actual point. Therefore, when you’ve completed the seam, there will be little “dog ears” at either end when you press the seam (whether to one side or open). So they do not get in your way as you continue to piece, these points should be trimmed away.
- Place the triangles you plan to sew right sides together. Once again, we’ve created two piles – black and white
- Place two triangles right sides together.
- Place the points of the triangles under the foot. Drop the needle down into the fabric. We raised the pressure foot in the photo below so you could see exactly where we placed the points of the fabric.
- Sew the triangles together, using a ¼” seam allowance. This is really no different than sewing the square pieces above. Remember, do not backstitch at the beginning or end of the seam.
- Press the seam to one side (usually toward the darker of the two fabrics) or press the seam open.
- Trim away the points (or dog ears) using a rotary cutter, cutting mat and ruler.
- The next challenge is sewing two half square triangles together. You want to sew them so you maintain the points on each.
- Again, place the newly sewn squares right sides together.
- Match the point of the intersecting seams as above.
- If you’ve pressed the seams to one side, there will be many layers to sew through at the point of intersection. This is why many quilters prefer to press the seams open when sewing half square triangles, eliminating this bulk. You should try both methods to see which works best for you.
- Sew the squares together, using a ¼” seam allowance. You’ll notice the new seam will create a point where it intersects with the previous seam. Press the seams accordingly.
NOTE: It’s always best to sew into a bulky intersection versus starting to sew at the bulky end. This tip is applicable to all forms of sewing.
- The sewn half square triangles should look something like the photo below. You can see there is a ¼” seam allowance at the bottom; so when you sew across, the points will be maintained.
Hints and tips
- After you’ve sewn your quilt blocks together, it’s recommended you check the finished size of each and trim any uneven edges with a rotary cutter. This will make sewing the blocks together more precise.
- Remember, if you’re having difficulty sewing from the very edge of the fabric, you can try using a “starter” piece of fabric and/or spray starch the pieces.
- An alternate method to checking for accurate seam allowance is to measure the finished width of a completed unit.
- When working on various rows of a repeated design, it helps to label them in numbered order so you don’t confuse the original layout.
- There are additional piecing techniques in quilting such as paper piecing, English paper piecing and curved piecing. These are considered more advanced and so are not included in our Basics series.
- If all this talk about accuracy and precision is making you anxious, take a deep breath and don’t let it deter you from trying your hand at quilting. When you look at minor mishaps and misaligned seams close-up it can bring you to tears. Always remember to step back and look at the big picture. Most tiny mistakes disappear into the overall beauty of the quilt top. Dry your tears and keep quilting!
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly