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Patchwork Basics

a traditional pieced log cabin quilt block

Quilters love to take fabric, cut it up, and put it back together again.  That is the fun of quilting.  I suppose it is like children playing with building blocks and Legos and making their own creations.  We start young!

Sewing fabric together to make quilt blocks and quilts is called piecing or patchwork.  There are a few basic rules that you must follow if you want your patchwork to fit together, lay flat, and look good. Here are piecing basics

1/4- Inch seam
picture of a quarter inch seam quilt sewing foot You must learn to sew an accurate quarter inch seam or those Legos won't fit together.  There are many ways to do it. See the 1/4 inch seam quilting page.

Chain Piecing

picture of a quilting strip pieced unti Chain piecing is a quick way to get a lot of patchwork done.  As long as you start correctly, your work should be accurate.  The last thing you want to do is sew multiple pieces together only to discover they are all wrong.  Take your time and make sure everything is placed correctly before you begin sewing.

When you cut them apart, you can cut several pieces at one time.  However, do not place them exactly on top of each other.  This makes too much bulk at the seams.  it is easier to cut through several layers if you stagger them by placing each piece slightly higher than the next, so that you only have to cut through the bulk of one seam.

Choosing Fabric

picture of a churndash quilt block with contrast Do not cut up large scale prints.  They are not suitable for piecing.  Use them in your borders or in large squares.  Be aware of your lights, mediums and darks, and make sure you have contrast where necessary.  See the Value and Quilting Page for tips on determining contrast.

Stopping and Starting

starting to sew from a scrap piece of fabricIf you fabric is drawn down into the feed dogs when you begin stitching, start sewing on a scrap of fabric and then sew onto your fabric.  If you have another throat plate for your sewing machine with a smaller opening for the needle, that may also stop it.  Or you can try  holding the thread behind the fabric, and pulling on it when you begin to sew.

Most quilters do not backstitch because they know their stitching is going to be crossed by another row of stitching to secure it.  Also, it makes it a lot more difficult if you have to pull out stitches.  However, when attaching border strips and other long pieces of fabric you should backstitch to secure your stitches.

Nesting Seams

picture of nested seams that are splitPlan your blocks so that when seams meet you can turn them opposite directions when sewing.  This is not a problem with a simple block like a 4-patch quilt block. Usually pressing toward the dark will make this happen.  You want your patchwork to lie as flat as possible.  On occasion you may have to press a seam open, or pull out a few stitches and split the direction of a seam, as in the picture at the left.  Sometimes there is nothing you can do to nest the seams.


a churndash with a modern style Add personality to your quilt with color, texture, strips, plaids, and scale.  Do not make a quilt too busy.  Be sure use fabric that is either solid, or reads solid from the distance, as a background for fabrics that are more ornate.  These ornate fabrics are often called the "stars" of the quilt, as opposed to the background fabric or "workers." Notice how the traditional block to the left has been given a modern twist, and the background is more of a star than the block itself.


picture of piecing pins for quilters

Many quilters do not use pins because they feel it distorts the fabric.  Others pin quite extensively; before and after every seam allowance.  Most quilters use 100% cotton fabric, so you can use a variety of pins without hurting your fabric.  I like the flat headed pins, pictured at the left.  I find them easy to use and locate if I drop them.  Some quilters like to keep their pins in magnetic soap type dishes.  If you are prone to spilling your pins on the floor, this is a good solution.


Always press, either with your fingers or the iron, after every seam.  Be careful not to distort the fabric by dragging the iron over it as opposed to pushing down.  Most irons will automatically turn off if you don't use them, but always look for that safety feature.  Popup irons, that can lay flat when you are not using them, are convenient. A good iron is expensive, but serves you well. See the Pressing Quilt Page.

 Strips and Borders

Your sashing strips and borders must be precisely cut to square up your quilt.  See the Sashing Strips and Borders quilting page.

Seam Allowances

illustration of the need for 1/4 inch seam allowances You must always leave a 1/4 inch seam allowance on the edges of your work. When you don't leave the seam allowance, your pieces do not fit together, and you can cut off points, as illustrated on the flying geese block to the left.  You can see the black lines where you sew the block to another fabric. Without the seam allowance, the point is cut off.

Seam Rippers

Keep your seam ripper handy, as even experienced quilters use it a lot.  There are also patterns that require you to sew and then rip out stitches.  The proper way to use your seam ripper to undo a seam is to take out a stitch every few stitches from the back side, and then pull the seam apart.  In the picture to the left, the holder for a seam ripper has been taped to the side of a sewing machine, and the seam ripper is quick and easy to find.

Test Blocks

picture of a bearclaw block variation in a quiltMake  test blocks of repetitive blocks in your quilt.  Make sure you like the look of the fabrics and colors before you spend the time and make a lot of them. I made the bear claw quilt in the picture to the left.  The block I made was a variation of the traditional bear claw quilt block.  I split the center square and put a plaid print in half of every block.  This is an example of a quilt with just one repetitive block.  If I didn't like the block, I wouldn't like the quilt.

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