Improving Your Quilting Skills
By Donna Sebastian
My first quilt was a round robin friendship quilt. We all had the same instructions so our blocks should have matched. Sadly, when I began to assemble the quilt I discovered some blocks were off by as much as ½ inch. Blocks that were too big could be trimmed down but the odd assortment of sizes created a challenge to assemble. I struggled through and managed to put it together, but a lesson was learned. Blocks really need to be all one size. It took many more years to piece together enough information to allow me to approach quilting with the accuracy I wanted.
Many variables contribute to piecing a quilt accurately. The first variable is you the individual. Just how accurate do you want to be? I know quilters who literally count the number of machine stitches per seam. Others count the threads in the fabric. Another quilter I met used magic markers to touch up seams that showed through the fabric. These are extreme examples of perfecting a quilt project and you may or may not fit in this category. If you want this level of accuracy, be prepared to really work hard and above all learn as much as you can. Most of us will probably be happy with a little less attention to detail. As you make more quilts, your goals may change also. Before you begin quilting, decide just where you are on the continuum of accuracy and accept your abilities at that point. You may find that over time you become more demanding of yourself, but always accept where you are now. Finally, never ever point out your flaws or make excuses for your work. When your admirers praise your efforts, learn to say thank you, I really enjoyed working on this.
Understanding and choosing fabric is the first step once you have accepted your role in the quilting process. Not all fabric is equal. Another of my first projects was a quilted bargello jacket. The shop owner who taught the class was, of course interested in selling as much fabric as possible for the project. Because her shop was new and not well stocked, I found the selection insufficient for what I thought I wanted. I raided my garment stash, bought other fabric very unsuitable for quilting just to get the colors I wanted. This resulted in a lot of frustration on my part when I assembled the quilt sections. Another lesson learned, stick with one hundred percent cotton when starting out.
This is what you can expect if you buy one hundred percent cotton. Some fabric will be heavier or denser than other fabric. Some fabric is loosely woven and some is tightly woven. Other fabrics will shrink when laundered. Fabrics will be off grain, especially at the end of the bolt. All of these factors will affect your accuracy in some way.
Fabric is woven and has properties worth knowing. The long threads that run with the selvedge are the warp threads. These threads tend to have very little stretch. The threads that run perpendicular to the selvedge are called the weft. These threads will tend to stretch when handled. You can test this by holding a piece of fabric and pulling along each direction of the weave to see which has more give or stretch. Fabric can stretch when cut, sewn and pressed. The selvedge edge may draw up tighter than the fabric itself, especially if you launder the fabric. You may not even notice it until you begin to cut the fabric. To eliminate problems with the selvedge trim it off before working with your fabric. We will talk about how to tame the stretch and shrinking of fabric later.
Rulers and Measuring
A basic fact of measuring and cutting – the smaller the piece cut the more accurate you need to be.
Not all rulers are created equal. Before talking about rulers and measuring let us do a little experiment. You will need a ruler, a pencil, a sheet of paper, and a cutting device, either scissors or rotary cutter.
First draw a 2 inch square using the ruler. Label this square #1
Cut out the square. Be as accurate as you can.
Using square #1 trace a second square and cut it out. Label it #2.
Using square #2 trace a third square and cut it out. Label it #3.
Continue until you have 6 squares total. Always use the last square cut as your template for the next square.
Now place the #1 square on top of the #6 square. Are they identical or are they way off in size?
You have just experience the phenomena of compounding errors. Understanding rulers, measuring, and cutting can minimize this problem.
A basic set of starter rulers:
6 inch X 24 inch quilting ruler
6 inch X 12 inch quilting ruler
2 inch X 18 inch C-Thru ruler
Rulers are slippery so you will want to put a nonslip backing on all rulers. Quilt stores have materials that can be cut to size and adhered to the ruler. A do-it-yourself option is to cut ½ inch circles from fine grit sandpaper and glue them on about 6 inches apart with contact cement.
Quilt rulers and grids on cutting boards are wonderful for cutting but are not very good for accurate measuring. The thickness that makes them so wonderful for cutting distorts the line you are looking at for measuring. The other problem is the thickness of the line on the ruler. Do you cut to the right or the left or somewhere in the middle of the line? It is best if you try to use the center point of the line. A better ruler for measuring is a 2 inch X 18 inch ruler by C-Thru. These rulers are the ones to use for making templates, checking for accuracy, especially on small piecing. You will also want to use a .5 mechanical pencil to ensure consistency in the line width.
Many rulers start at the exact edge. Over time, the corners of the ruler can become worn or nicked. To measure a 2 inch line, place the 1 inch point of the ruler on the material and mark the 3 inch point.
To make a template or anything else you will be tracing you will want to be consistent in how you hold the pencil. If you hold the pencil at a 90 degree angle to the paper along the side of the ruler the line may be off. It is better to hold the pencil at a 45 degree angle against the edge of the ruler. This undercut will be more accurate
A final word on measuring – rulers are only half of the equation. The eye of the individual is the other half. Some people have a better eye for detail than others. You can train your eye to see more accurately. The more you practice the better your eye for accuracy will become.
Rules for cutting:
Measure twice, cut once
Never cut when you are tired
Never cut with a dull blade
Always cut off the black line
You may cut with scissors or a rotary cutter. We will only talk about cutting with a rotary blade. Blades come in various sizes. The ideal blade size is the quarter size blade. They are cheaper so you will be more inclined to use a fresh blade when the old one becomes dull. The smaller size blade is more stable than the larger blades. The larger blades tend to wobble when you put pressure on them. This creates uneven wear and dulls the blade faster.
You will want to cut with the fabric and ruler lined up so that you are cutting away from your body. This will be easy if you are cutting stripes. You just move the ruler over and cut another strip. Sometimes you will be cutting in several directions. Do not pick up the fabric to reposition for the second cut. Instead, have the fabric on a cutting board and turn the board to the position you need for cutting. When you pick the fabric up it can become distorted when you put it back on the cutting board.
Use the ruler sized for the cut you are making. Use large ruler for large cuts and small ruler for small cuts. Place your hand flat on the ruler with your fingers splayed out like an octopus to anchor the ruler. Pick up your hand and move it forward as you cut so that the section you are cutting is always opposite the hand anchoring the ruler. You may also place your forearm on the ruler to gain more distance when cutting long pieces. Try to cut only the length of the ruler. If your cut is longer than the ruler move the ruler, so that at least half of the ruler is lined up with the cut section. If you are having trouble cutting a folded piece of fabric open the fabric and cut one long strip. You must be extra careful when cutting a fold that the cut line is exactly perpendicular to the fold. To see what happens when your cut is not perpendicular fold a piece of paper in half and cut a slightly angled line from the fold. Open the paper to see the distortion. For the best accuracy hold the rotary cutter at a slight angle against the ruler, the same as you did with the pencil. You will be making a slight undercut.
If you suspect the blade is skipping it is time for a new blade. For best results you want to make one cut only. Once the cut is made, keep the ruler in place and gently move the scrap section away. This is the time to discover any skipped sections and correct them and change the blade.
When you are cutting a pattern or template it is important to cut away all of the black line. When you make the template, the ruler should be on the inside of the template and the line drawn to the outside of the template. No matter how skinny the line is it has thickness and will add size to the final cut.
You have done everything so far to the best of your ability, so what could go wrong now? Your fabric will now be subjected to handling and manipulating that can undo all your best efforts of measuring and cutting. Rule # 1 – Handle the fabric as little as possible.
The sewing machine:
The sewing machine can be a brutal force in distorting your beautiful block. You line up the edges and set them under the pressure foot and sew away, only to discover that the opposite ends no longer meet. Home sewing machines are really bad at feeding the top and bottom fabrics unevenly as they sew. One remedy is to use a walking foot. Unfortunately, you must now eyeball the quarter inch seam allowance or put a piece of tape on the throat plate of your sewing machine. The sewing machine is not the only factor in misaligned seams. Remember all those fabric characteristics we talked about? Fabric that tends to stretch will tend to stretch more as it goes through the sewing machine. If you have a stretchy piece and a stable piece of fabric you will want to put the stable piece on top whenever possible to minimize stretching. Stretch comes from having a cut edge on the weft (selvedge to selvedge). It can also occur when triangles are cut. You now have a bias edge that can be really stretchy. Again, try to sew with a stable fabric on top and use a walking foot. If this is not possible or you find it too difficult to manage then starching the fabric will create a stiffness like paper that will keep the edges more stable. Basting is always an option and preferable to pinning. Basting is underrated and nothing to shy away from. It can be a really fast and effective way to tame a difficult situation.
Sewing with pins will hinder your progress and cause more problems than they solve. Pins can nick your needle, distort the seam, and slow your progress. Pins do not work well with ¼ inch presser feet or walking feet. The best seam is one that is sewn in one long continuous motion with the least amount of handling the fabric. Learning to sew without pins is liberating and builds confidence. Confident quilters do the best work.
Sewing the seam:
To actually sew the seam line up the top edges, place under pressure foot and sew a few stitches. Stop and line up the bottom edges and hold them firmly together as you complete the seam. You may hold the fabric with just a wee bit of tension as you sew. Tension is not the same as stretching the fabric.
There are several ways to sew a ¼ inch seam. Whichever method you use always make a sample and measure for accuracy before proceeding.
Many machines have a line marking the ¼ inch line. Line up your fabric and sew a test seam. Press the seam flat and measure with the C-Thru ruler.
Measure out from the needle hole ¼ inch and place a strip of masking tape on the throat plate. The piece of tape should extend about 4 – 6 inches towards you and be perpendicular to the left to right edges of the throat plate. When sewing the seam you should be lining up the fabric several inches in front of the needle and presser foot. It is too late to line up once the fabric reaches the needle.
Use a ¼ inch presser foot. These special feet have a guide that keeps the fabric within the seam allowance. The guide can be a hindrance when joining seamed pieces together. You may need to stop and raise the presser foot before feeding the fabric through.
Remember, there is only one measurement for ¼ inch. There is no measurement for a scant ¼ inch. It either is ¼ or not. It is not worth the effort to try to figure out how big or little a scant is.
The preset stitch length is generally the one to use. If you are finding that you rip out a lot of seams you may increase the stitch length. This makes it easier to take out stitches. As you improve you can go back to the preset stitch length. Occasionally, you may want a shorter stitch length for more precision work such as curves or really small pieces. Paper piecing also requires a shorter stitch lengthen. Shorter stitch lengths may cause the fabric to draw up making the seam length shorter. Make a 6 inch sample seam, press it flat and measure before using the shorter stitch length.
Things are going along smoothly but you decide something needs to be ripped out. This will also distort the seam edge. The best way to rip is to cut the top thread at one inch intervals. Then gently pull the bottom (bobbin) thread.
Fact or myth about pressing – Never use steam when pressing a seam. This is definitely a myth. Fabric is fabric whether you are making garments or making a quilt. Correct pressing is important in all types of sewing. The same principals apply in all fabric pressing. To press a seam you place the iron on the seam and hold the iron in place. If you use steam, you allow the fabric to dry before handling. You do not move the iron back and forth. This will stretch the fabric. Most of the time, a hot, dry iron works. A dry iron works when the fabric is thinner and both pieces are the same weight. Heavier fabrics such as Kona cotton do not always respond to a dry iron and need the added boost of a shot of steam. The goal in pressing is to have the flattest seam possible.
Steps for pressing a seam:
With the seam still flat (not open) press to set the threads in the fabric. Do this on both sides of the two sewn quilt pieces.
Open the two pieces and finger press the seam to one side. Usually this is the side towards the darker fabric. To finger press either pinch the fabric between your fingers or lay the fabric on a flat surface and press with your fingers.
With the fabric face up press the seam flat with the iron. By having the fabric face up you can see if a small pleat is formed at the seam edge before you do the final pressing. If the padding on your ironing board seams too soft and the seam isn’t flat enough then you should press on a piece of wood covered with a press cloth.
Always do a test pressing to determine if you need steam or not.
If you used steam, set the piece aside to dry before using. The time to dry depends on your climate, dry or humid, and the amount of steam used.
No matter how good you are there will come a day when things just do not fit. You can rip, take a break, or toss the project as hopeless. This day happens to the best quilters and is addressed with some simple fixes that throw out the rules.
The most common problem is the seam that does not match from end to end. You do not want to cut another piece because you do not know which piece is in error or you do not have enough fabric to cut another piece.
Longer seams have more wiggle room. First, measure each piece and correct by cutting if one seam is too long.
When one seam is too short you can stretch it to fit the correctly cut seam. Sew with the short seam on top and stretch as you sew. Then press with steam to set the fibers.
In extreme cases when the cut is too short and there is no more fabric to recut, you can wet the fabric and stretch it to the desired size using your iron to set the threads. I heard a nationally known quilter openly admit to doing this on her award winning quilt.
You have carefully measured, cut, and sewn a 12 inch block with multiple pieces and the finished block does not measure 12 inches. After pressing it flat you can use a template to trim and true it up. You can also use a steam iron and stretch it to size.
You discover a tiny pleat on one piece. Open the seam several inches and stretch the shorter piece to match the longer piece that had the pleat. If the pleat is near an edge, open the seam, re-sew and trim the excess.