Tricks for Great Quilt Piecing
Many of you know my dad passed back in 2014 (I can’t believe he’s been gone for more than 4 years!) and I miss him dearly (daily). One of things I remember most about my dad was that he was handy with things. One of the phrases he always used to say when I was attempting to do something that wasn’t working out was, “Here, let me show you a trick.” His tricks always showed me there is a better or best way to do something other than what looks like the obvious. So in honor of my dad, I’m going to show you some tricks to nearly perfect piecing. I say nearly perfect because my piecing is not perfect, not by any means, but these techniques help. This post is image heavy but it’s a must to show you how things can go wrong and how to fix them.
First of all, even the best quilters – the best in the world, make mistakes. They have made more mistakes than you can imagine but what makes them great quilters, is that they have learned how to overcome them. Not a single quilter in the world, with all the special, expensive rulers and gadgets, or all the experience the quilting world has to offer, makes a quilt without making piecing mistakes. That’s why you won’t find a single quilter without a seam ripper! 😀
I’m in the middle of a quilted table topper pattern I picked up while in Las Vegas last week. Hubs had to go there for business so I told him he had to take his wife. 🙂 It’s a Barn Star pattern so it has its share of straight seams and intersections with bias (half-square triangles (HSTs)). Whenever you are seaming with anything on the bias, your odds of getting it right on the first go are a crapshoot. And I played Craps all last week so I know what I’m talking about! LOL I won about $1,000! I dropped a little over $200 in the Vegas quilt stores and lost probably about $400-500 so… I’m going to call my trip to Vegas a WIN!
Let’s start with the basics – a true 1/4″ seam. Do whatever you need to do to validate that you have a 1/4″ away from the needle marked on your machine. I’ve used a Sharpie and even scored a groove with an Exacto knife into a brand new machine base to ensure my 1/4″ is true. The best way to do this is to take a ruler and measure from where your needle drops into the feed dogs and measure out 1/4″. This machine, the Brother PQ1500SL – identical to the Baby Lock Jane but is less than 1/3 the cost – is designed specifically for quilt piecing so it has a marked 1/4″ line. My previous machines that were designed for garment sewing didn’t have a specific line for 1/4″ so I kind of had to give it my best guess from the center of the needle. If that is the case with you, then make a mark or place the edge of a piece of tape at where you believe the 1/4″ away from the needle is, so all your seams are the same. Your blocks may not match exactly in size to what the pattern says they should, but your quilt will come out correct as long as the seams are all the same. Before I bought my 1500, I purchased a 1/4″ seam allowance ruler where I could drop my needle into a hole on the 1/4″ line of the ruler and then find the true 1/4″ SA. This ruler is from PMQuilting (not an affiliate link) and it’s one of the best you can buy for just $7.99. See the hole above the 3″ mark? It says “Place Needle Here”.
If you put your needle into the hole, you can see where the 1/4″ edge is. This is where you need to align the left edge of a piece of painter’s or washi tape…or a Sharpie line. 😉
If you don’t have one of these rulers, align a mark in the middle of your presser foot where the needle comes down and then make a FINE TIP Sharpie mark on the bed of your machine where the 1/4″ line is. Don’t worry, not only will you not be sorry you permanently marked your machine, you’ll re-mark it when it fades.
I have to put these two pieced sections together. There’s a straight seam on the left (yellow-red on top to red-yellow on the bottom) and a bias seam in the middle of the two brown fabrics to make a point of the barn star.
Trick #1 – The first thing to do is to start matching things in the middle. In this case, I want to “nest” the straight seam first which is the first seam on the left. When you match seams between two pieced parts, always begin somewhere that is not on one end or the other. It can be in the middle or somewhere near there. “Nest” means to make sure that one seam allowance (SA) goes one way and the other goes the other way where the seams meet. Push these together until you feel them butt up against one another. If your seam allowances go the same way, fix it with your iron to iron one in a different direction or clip one seam allowance near the closest intersection so the seam allowance can fall to the proper side and press it. Due to what garment seamstresses call the “turn of cloth”, it’s virtually impossible to get a join to look right if the seam allowances go the same way due to bulk. Here the top SA goes to the left and the bottom SA goes to the right.
Once you have them butted up right against one another, take a pin and pin them together starting the pin on one side of the seam and coming out on the other making the pin perpendicular to the seam. Get as close as possible. This ensures that the seam will stay nested while you fiddle with the rest of the edges. In the image below, I’m only one thread away from the seam on either side. That nest is not going anywhere!
Once you have a straight seam anchored (if there is one), now you need to secure the top and bottom edges. If you don’t have a straight seam in the middle to work with first, find the center of the two fabric pieces and pin the two pieces together in the middle. This ensures a balance between the two pieces from the start. Below, now that the straight seam is nested and pinned, I’ve pinned both ends leaving the brown (bias) seam for last. Always leave the hardest join for last.
Trick #2 – Create a sewing line with a pin. Where the join is supposed to happen on the bias part, set the fabrics flat as they lie, and 1/4″ away from the edge, “sew” a 1/4″ seam with a quilting pin by weaving it through the fabrics at the join. Quilt pins are long enough to do this. Don’t guess, don’t stretch, just pin them as they lay. The brown is on the bias (a triangle) and it needs to meet up with another bias cut accurately on the bottom piece at this seam.
Once pinned, lift up the top piece to check the join. Wups, it’s off. The bottom fabric needs to move to the left about two stitches. Now, if this works for you, then fine. It’s your quilt and you press on. But that’s not what this post is about.
Unpin and move the bottom fabric to where it needs to be and re-pin. Keep doing this until you get it right. There, that’s better.
Now sew. From one end, take two to three stitches leaving the needle in the down position and then match up the edges of the top and bottom pieces along the 1/4″ mark. With a slight tension with your hands (don’t pull), slowly sew down the length of the seam. Again, don’t pull, just keep the edges flat to one another. When you get to a pinned intersection, slow WAY down as you near the pin. Take one or two stiches over the pin and THEN remove the pin. If you remove the pin before you get to it, you risk a fabric shift. I know sewing over pins is taboo, but everyone does it even if they say not to. Does that make it right? Maybe. If you go slow enough, (like handwheel-turning slow) the needle will find its way over the pin without breaking or messing up the timing of the machine. Your join will be perfect. Here, my needle is one stitch over the pin.
Keep sewing and do the same over the bias seam join. Then sew to the end of the pieced set.
Trick #3 – After sewing, do not press the seam open yet. Set the seam with an iron by pressing on top of both fabrics – not using a back and forth motion. Ironing back and forth will stretch the bias piece. Just press the entire length of the seam. Using steam is up to you, but my experience shows that steam can distort fabric cut on the bias.
Then finger press the seam open. This turned out perfect. The nest of the straight seam is perfect and so is the bias join of the brown fabric.
Once the finger press is complete. Press again the length of the seam with the iron until everything is nice and flat. Look at the 1/4″ seam on the edges of the block at the 1 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions. Perfect.
So what do you do when you think everything will work out right and it doesn’t? Hey, things happen. Sometimes even the best laid plans go awry. Is this good enough for government work (as my dad would say)? Sure. Is it what I’m after? No. This topper is going on my dining room table. Missing this point will drive me crazy every time I look at it. Perfectionist much?
Trick #4 – When joins don’t meet, unpick about 10-15 stiches on either side of the oopsie and try again.
Shift the fabric until you think it’s right and pin. Then begin sewing about 5-10 stitches above where you stopped unpicking on the INSIDE of the seam allowance. Cross over the SA before you get to the unpicked part and stitch exactly on the previous sewing line. About 5-10 stitches after you stopped unpicking, cross over the seam line again into the SA and stop sewing.
The crossover above and below the stitching line will lock the stitches without a bulky backstitch. Here you can see where I crossed over at the end of the fix stitch.
There, that’s better! Clean up any unpicked threads.
OK, so you’ve shifted the fabric and now you have bubbles in one side or the other. Dang, can’t a girl catch a break? Not to worry! See the bubble on top in the photo below? If you pull the bottom fabric hard enough so the bubble on top pulls out, you’ll distort the entire block because the bottom fabric is not cut on the bias. If you sew over the bubble, you risk a pucker in your seam. Scandal!
Trick #5 – If you can’t massage the section toward you enough to flatten the bubble without tugging hard, flip the entire unit over so the section with the bubble is on the bottom. Garment seamstresses know this by rote. Place the piece with the most amount of fabric closest to the feed dogs. The feed dogs will ease the extra fabric in invisibly while leaving the top piece without effect. Keep stitching until you reach the other end.
Trick #6 – This trick of flipping the fabric works even before you start. If you have more fabric on top, flip it over so the excess fabric is closest to the feed dogs. If you have to flip the unit over halfway through? So be it. Make it work! If it is WAY off and just wont’ fit, you’ll need to unpick your previous piecing and begin again. Hey, them’s the breaks kid!
So that’s it! I hope my tricks can help you become a better piecer!