Your 1st quilt: piecing and pressing

We’ve learned some basics and cut our fabric. Let’s sew, shall we?

In quilting we sew with a 1/4-inch seam. Sounds simple but it can actually be a little tricky. Depending on your machine, you may want to purchase a 1/4-inch foot. The generic foot that came with my Juki sews a 1/4-inch seam if I line up my fabric at the edge of it. The generic foot that came with my old Singer sewed a 3/8-inch seam. You will not know what your machine sews until you try it.


Let me show you why this is important. I made this quilt for my own bed using the generic foot on my Singer, not realizing that I was sewing with a 3/8-inch seam. I used a pattern from Quilty magazine. Look at this:


Oops. The problem is that the pattern math was done for a 1/4-inch seam. Once I realized the problem I quickly ordered a 1/4-inch foot and the rest of the quilt lines up nicely. No, I did not take the quilt apart where it was wrong. I generally believe in leaving mistakes in if they don’t ruin the quilt. I don’t mind seeing small mistakes like this one. It reminds me what I learned when I was working on that quilt. This will always be “the quilt where I learned that I needed to buy a 1/4-inch foot.” It’s still pretty though and I absolutely never lose any sleep over it. Or under it.


You will sometimes hear quilters talk about a “scant 1/4-inch seam” so I want to address that. A scant 1/4-inch seam means something just less than 1/4 inch. It’s an attempt to take into account that tiny fold of fabric you lose when you sew a seam and then fold it over and press it. If you are following a pattern and finding that your blocks are turning out just a hair smaller than they are supposed to, try sewing a scant 1/4-inch seam instead of a true 1/4-inch seam. I have found this to be most necessary when I sew triangles and flying geese or any time a block has a lot of seams. You really won’t need to worry about this for this project but I wanted you to be aware of this concept for the future.  For simple square patchwork a true 1/4-inch seam is fine.

All right, let’s sew.

Lay out your blocks in the layout of your choosing. I chose to put my favorite fabric in the middle and then alternate the reds and greens.


Place your squares right sides together and sew them together with  a 1/4-inch seam. Don’t worry about backstitching at the beginning and end. We almost never do that in quilting because all of our seams overlap each other and then a lot of them get sewn back over in quilting. It’s just not necessary.


Let’s check your seam and see how it measures. First measure it before pressing.


With the ruler lined up right at the edge of the fabric, you can see my seam is just a tiny hair under 1/4 inch- just barely scant. I’m satisfied with that. You can decide for yourself whether yours is close enough. If not, think about whether your seam is too big or too small and adjust accordingly. It’s totally fine if it takes a few tries to get a good result. Just be sure that you stay consistent throughout the project. By the way, I used black thread so you could see it, but under normal circumstances I use white.

Now we’ll measure again after pressing. We’ll discuss pressing more in a minute but for now just press the seam to one side or the other, whichever direction it appears to prefer to go. Don’t forget that we are using our iron with a pressing down motion and not a pushing across motion. Also make sure that the fold at the front opens all the way and doesn’t “pleat.”


The blocks as sewn should measure exactly 9 1/2 inches because the seam allowance ate a 1/4 inch from each square. If your block is bigger or smaller you have 2 options. You can continue on and just be sure to be consistent with how you sew each seam. Or you can get out your handy seam ripper and work on achieving an accurate 1/4-inch seam. If you plan to try anything more complex than square patchwork be sure to revisit this issue!


Now, let’s dive into some controversy again and talk about pressing to the side vs. pressing open.

I’m pretty sure pressing to the side is the more traditional method. There are 2 advantages to this method:

  • the seams are stronger because there is a double layer of fabric under every seam
  • the seams can be locked together to ensure that they line up

But there are advantages to pressing open as well:

  • the seams lay really nice and flat
  • the seams can be lined up without any elaborate pre-planning
  • undersized blocks seem to happen less frequently, probably because the seams lay flatter


I think it’s good to understand the advantages of both methods and give them a try. Perhaps one method might be the ideal method for one project but not another. This is similar to my stance on sewing a scant 1/4-inch seam: you need to experiment a bit in order to understand different methods of doing things and when to use them.

Another thing you’ll hear quilters say is “press toward the dark.” The idea is that your seam underneath will show less if you press away from the lighter fabric. This might matter if you’re doing a really high contrast quilt (i.e. a black and white checkerboard) but most of the time it’s not worth worrying about.

The important thing to remember is that your quilt does not need to be perfect to be beautiful! Try to keep it fun and just improve slowly over time. I definitely allow myself to do things incorrectly at certain times if it seems too overwhelming to tackle so many new things at once. Sewing with a 3/8-inch seam wasn’t the end of the world for a quilt or 3. But by the time I got to my 4th quilt I was ready to start working toward better accuracy.

Let’s get back to sewing. So far we just have 2 blocks sewn together. Next we’ll sew the blocks into three rows. If you lay out your blocks next to your machine you can employ something quilters call “chain piecing.” This just means sewing multiple pieces in a row without cutting your thread. It’s not that important with a project this small but it can be a real time saver if you are working on a big project.

If I was going to chain piece this project I would grab the small green dot and big red polka dot and sew them together, and then grab the 2 floral fabrics and sew them together and then grab the green bias stripe and red hash marks and sew them. Then I’d take them off the machine and cut the threads. I’d do the same thing to attach the bottom three fabrics.


Sew your blocks into three rows of three. Now press the seams of each row in opposite directions. I pressed my middle row seams out toward the edges and the other 2 rows I pressed toward the middle. That’s about to get important.


We are going to very carefully line up these interlocking seam allowances. Place a pin on either side of each interlocking seam.



Now sew the rows together. Press the seams in whatever direction seems natural.


Ta dah! A finished quilt top.


Ok, full disclosure here: one of my seams could have been better:


I could have fixed it and you never would have known. I chose to leave it in because #1 I think it’s a good lesson of how small imperfections can disappear in the overall picture and #2 I just didn’t really want to do it again. Every quilter has to decide which mistakes they can live with and which they can’t. Some quilters would definitely fix this. I think it’s not fun anymore if I have to sew things twice.

In the next lesson we’ll prepare the quilt back and batting and baste them together. We’re getting close to finishing Your 1st quilt!

Your 1st quilt: starching & cutting

Today our goal is to cut 9 perfect 5-inch squares that we can sew together in the next tutorial. I chose a modern, Christmasy vibe for my quilt so I can use it as a decoration when the time comes!



Before we can even begin, I’m forced to acknowledge a major quilting controversy: pre-washing vs. not. (I know! Controversy already. And this isn’t the end of it. Just wait until we get to the great “pressing to the side vs. pressing open” debate. That one’s bound to get a little heated.)

Simply put, I don’t pre-wash while others do. The concern those “others” have is that the fabric might bleed and destroy your work of art. To me it seems like an unnecessary extra step. It’s also sort of impossible to pre-wash the smaller precuts because it causes too much fraying. I address the fabric bleeding concern as follows:

  • I only use high-quality fabrics and thread for my quilts
  • I wash my quilts in cold water
  • I use Scotch color catchers in the laundry

With those precautions in place I haven’t had any trouble with bleeding. But if you decide that you are going to be a pre-washer, this is the time to do it!

Ok, I’m glad we got that controversy out of the way.

Unless you purchased precuts for this project, your fabric probably looks something like this:


It’s hard to cut creased fabric accurately so the first step will be to iron it. I like to starch my fabric at this point because the starch removes the stubborn creases. Some people use steam for the same reason. I prefer starch because the starch causes the fabric to hold its shape at later stages of the quilting process.

If you use starch or steam, be gentle! When the fabric is wet it’s fragile and easily stretches out of shape. Quilters often like to say that we “press” our fabric, we don’t “iron” it: its a pressing down motion rather than a pushing across motion.

Now that we have nicely starched and ironed fabric, we need to understand a few things before we start cutting.

A few quick terms:

  • Selvedge means the tough 1/2 inch ends of the fabric (sometimes printed with information about the fabric).DSC05884
  • Raw or cut edge means the edge of the fabric where the fabric is cut off the bolt.
  • Bias means at an angle. When you cut across fabric at any angle except exactly 90 or 180 degrees to the selvedge, you create a bias edge. Bias edges are despised in quilting because they are stretchy and lose their shape from being handled or sewn. We work hard to avoid them if possible.
  • Straight of grain means horizontal or vertical to the selvedge edge of the fabric (NOT at an angle). If you cut your fabric perfectly on the straight of grain your edges will hold their shape better. To get our perfect 5 inch squares, we are going to carefully avoid creating any bias edges by cutting on the straight of grain.
  • WOF (width of fabric) is the distance from selvedge to selvedge, which is usually about 44 inches for quilting fabric.

Cutting is a little different depending on the size and shape of the fabric. I will demonstrate cutting from a fat quarter first.DSC05900

Lay your fat quarter on your mat, lining up the selvedge with one of the horizontal lines. We are always going to cut either at a 90 degree angle or parallel to that selvedge, thereby avoiding creating any bias edges.

But first we need a nice, straight edge to work from. Fat quarters and yardage rarely have straight edges when they come to you. You have to create one.


Place the ruler on top of the fabric and line up the lines on the ruler with the lines on the mat. Your goal is to create a straight edge without wasting any more fabric than necessary.


Firmly press down on the ruler with your hand and cut the edge of the fabric with the rotary cutter.

(It goes without saying that a rotary cutter is sharp and dangerous right? Be extremely careful.)


Now we have a nice, straight edge to work from.


Flip the fabric so that the selvedge is now at the top of the mat and position the ruler so that the 5-inch line is exactly straight against the line we just cut. Now you can cut your 5 inch strip.


Next we lay our strip horizontally on the mat and trim off the selvedge, carefully aligning the top and bottom of the strip with 2 lines of the ruler.


Rotate the strip again so that the freshly cut edge is to the left.


Place the rule 5 inches over the fabric and cut your square.


Keep in mind that a shape could have four perfectly 5-inch sides without actually being truly square (if you remember your geometry, that would be a parallelogram). To avoid this, always watch the corners of your shape on the ruler to be sure they are 90 degrees.


Hey! Look at that – a perfect 5-inch square.

Cutting from a shape bigger than your cutting mat is just a little different.

The first thing you’ll do is fold the fabric selvedge to selvedge, making sure that the folded edge hangs straight. If it hangs like this you need to slide the selvedges an inch or two until the fabric hangs correctly and that bubble goes away:


Now put the fabric down on your mat and line up the folded edge with one of the horizontal lines on your mat.


Now line up the ruler with the folded edge and the lines of the mat and make your first cut. Just like with the fat quarter, you are only trying to get a straight edge. Don’t cut more fabric than you need to.

Next, flip the fabric so the freshly cut side is to the left and cut your 5-inch strip.


Note that at this point, since I know the edge I just cut is nice and straight and square, I’m not even using the lines on my mat. I’m simply measuring 5 inches from the edge with my ruler to make my cut. However, any time you are cutting a shape that is larger than your ruler you will not be able to use the ruler as your source of measure. In that case you have to be extra careful to line the fabric up using the mat only.


As before, cut the squares from the strip.


This time you end up with 2 squares because the fabric is folded over. I don’t actually need 2 for this project but in most projects you’d need at least 2 if not many, many more!

Some people layer their fabric up and cut several layers at once. I don’t do that very often because I haven’t had accurate results. Accuracy is incredibly important at this stage. You will be depending on these cut lines to show you where to sew. If your cut line is not accurate, your sewing line will not be accurate either.

One final comment about cutting from yardage: I always try to preserve the WOF as long as possible. For instance, when I was cutting the 5 inch strip above, I intentionally didn’t cut parallel to the folded edge because I wanted to preserve the WOF. In the photographs I’m working with a half yard, which measures 18 by 44. After I cut a 5-inch strip the fabric measures 13 by 44. This is preferable to a piece of fabric measuring 18 by 39 because long pieces come in handy for borders and binding.

Ok, now get cutting because it’s almost time to actually sew something!

(In case you haven’t noticed, I added a “Your 1st quilt” tab at the top of my blog so you can always find these tutorials quickly in the future).

Your first quilt (a new series)


I’m so excited to announce a new series and (…if you’re local) a big event!

On Saturday, September 28 I will be hosting a beginner’s quilt workshop in my home. My students will each make a 12 by 12 inch quilt from start to finish. The cost will be $45 and I will provide all the supplies. (I cannot imagine anything more fun than shopping for this!) Every attendee will get to go home with the quilt they made + all the knowledge they need to make their next quilt. Oh, and I’ll provide lunch too!

Leading up to the event I’ll be posting a series of 7 tutorials especially for beginners. When I start posting the tutorials look for a new tab on my home page called “Your first quilt.” These tutorials will be a permanent feature here to serve brand new quilters. I hope you will direct your friends here if they want to learn to quilt and you don’t have time to teach them.

Because there’s really nothing more exciting than a first quilt.