The Basics: seams, pressing, etc.

K8OrlandoMarch 8, 2011

What do you consider to be the basics of good sewing?

I'll start this off with just two, but feel free to add as many as you want. (Pressing? Fabric? Thread? Colors?)

1. Take the time to cut accurately. If the pattern calls for 3.5 inches then make it 3.5 inches. Wonky blocks are only fun if you meant for them to be wonky.

2. Seam allowances need to be 1/4 inch. All the time, every time. Being a little bit off on seam allowances can end up being a LOT off, even in a 12"x12" block.

We talk about this probably once a year but with so many new people posting this seems like a good time to do it again. Many of us participate in the lotto blocks, in birthday block exchanges and in the round robins so it's critical that we pay attention to some basic sewing techniques. If we do, then blocks made by a variety of quilters still fit together perfectly, colors and fabric compliment one another, seams are neat and tidy. You don't have to be an experienced or skilled quilter; these are the basic steps that determine the foundation of a quilt.

What's important to you?


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For me, I like to make sure each segment of a block is the correct size before sewing them all together. It just doesn't work to trim it up afterwards, especially if points are involved.


    Bookmark   March 8, 2011 at 7:30PM
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Press, press, press... Use it as your most important tool for lining up the seams! Unless you're going "crazy" or "wonky", as Kate said, It's GOTTA be EXACT!!!

    Bookmark   March 8, 2011 at 7:32PM
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All the above! And "when in doubt, rip it out." If a seam is not straight, a block just a tad bigger than the others, a point of a triangle is cut off *too much*, if you didn't take that quarter inch seam on one corner, etc. etc.....stop, rip it out, and do it again before you go any further.

Don't ever cut off 1/4" from an edge that is too long - 'cause down the road somewhere, you will be short on length. Instead, take the "sliver" approach: only cut a sliver off then see if you can ease in the extra by pinning the seam with lots of pins only about 1/8" or less between the pins. Better to sliver one block and fix the extra length than to be too short on the next row and have that be really noticeable.

And get a 1/4" foot for each machine you have that you will use for piecing. A foot that gives you a correct quarter-inch seam every single time is invaluable to a quilter.


    Bookmark   March 8, 2011 at 7:48PM
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Keep your tools in good repair. Sharp scissors, blades, needles. Be consistent with the rulers you use on a project, different brands vary. Sewing machines are necessary (unless you do it all by hand) and need to be cleaned and serviced on a regular basis. Become knowledgeable about different threads and tensions needed for a good even stitch. And most of all know what a 1/4" is! Jayne

    Bookmark   March 8, 2011 at 11:23PM
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All of the above, plus I would add to -- be sure to take your time sewing the project seams together and check it as you go. Once I was sewing a border on, and I did not realize that the pieces in one area was not lined up together correctly (as the fabric had shifted) - thus one fabric area did not catch and the seam in that small area had an opening. So I quickly learned to double check my seams on both sides and as I press them to check that everything matches, before sewing the next seam.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 6:37AM
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And I have always heard to stick with one sewing machine throughout your project. In other words, don't piece the blocks on your old Singer and then put the top together on your new Janome. But, it is probably all right to do the quilting on another machine.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 6:52AM
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Press, but don't IRON. Its amazing how easy it is to turn an accurately cut and sewn block into a wonky one, with the iron. By the same token, one that is 'slightly' wonky can sometimes be corrected this way.

And, if I can throw in a second one... I always try to sew first and then cut, if the seam in on the bias. I'd rather have an extra HST by making them out of squares, than cut the triangles first and sew them together.


    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 7:14AM
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For me the 1/4" is near sacred! AND I would preface that to say 'CHECK YOUR MACHINE' - buying a 1/4" foot is not necessarily a given. Sew with it, & measure to be certain it really is 1/4". If you can move your needle horizontally to aid in getting the magic number, great! But not all machines allow that.
If you don't have the foot, a piece of painters' tape or similar, placed on the bed of your machine is a great substitute! Place the left edge of the tape so that when your seam is under the foot, your fabric butts up against it. Then be sure the needle falls exactly 1/4" from your fabrics' edge. (I hope I explained that clearly - as mud??!)
Also - whether you use the foot/tape/whatever - make sure your fabric edge is just UP TO the edge - not squashed up against it - or your 1/4" will look more like 3/8".

And Faye, I love your words of caution! PRESS - don't iron! Saw a woman in class one day attack her HST seams to the point of making the ironing board shake! LOL She definitely had wonky blocks!!


    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 8:16AM
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All of the above.

Most helpful for me, is Sharon's tip of making sure that segments are accurate. Single units, then all other units as the block progresses....make sure they are the correct size. I try hard to do this when the quilt is for someone else, but sometimes I am lazy about it.

When it's for myself, I don't obsess too much and tend to fudge a bit.

It's also important to enjoy the process!!


    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 8:25AM
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Since I hate, HATE to rip out anything... I try to make sure my seams are straight. Which means my cutting has to be right.
I agree with Geraldine "enjoy the process!"

    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 8:42AM
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Wow - what great comments from everyone! Thank you for sharing.

Geraldine, I agree! I don't stress as much for myself because I'm always sure I can fix it before the end, especially if it's only off by a little. But if I'm making something for someone else, then I'm pretty fanatical about it. I've won lotto blocks and received birthday blocks in past years that I could not use because the size was so far off from the other blocks. In each case, the wonkyness was the result of seams that were not 1/4".

    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 9:05AM
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Here are a few more I thought of and those new to quilting may not know. The rotary cutting rulers tend to slide very easily when you are cutting so I highly recommend putting something fastened by adhesive on the bottom of the ruler to prevent sliding. (They make things for this or you can use velcro, a sandpaper type dot, felt type dot, or whatever you prefer.) Position them in a place on the ruler than doesn't interfere with what you need to read. A small piece of it in a few areas on the ruler will do the trick - just something to hold the fabric.
Also, hold your rotary cutter so the blade is straight up and down when you cut. It will cut the fabric more easily that way and you will get a more accurate cut.
And watch your fingers with the blade! Always close it when you are finished using it and keep your fingers well away from the blade when you cut. I am sooo careful with mine - almost to the point of being excessive, but better to do that than to have a major accident.
Happy sewing!

    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 9:43AM
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Yes, yes, yes... close that blade. I left mine open and set it down 'just for a second' the other night and when I reached over to grab something I just touched that blade with my knuckle. Lost a half hour of sewing time because I didn't want blood on the birthday block I was making.

A very good habit.


    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 11:17AM
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Accuracy-the process is just as much fun and the results way more rewarding!

Just to clarify for new quilters-there is a 1/4" foot and a scant 1/4" foot available (at least for the newer machines).
The scant 1/4" foot has a little lip/fence on the edge. I still have to move my needle position one position to the right to achieve that perfect 1/4" seam. I personally don't think just measuring the 1/4" seam allowance is truly accurate. You need to press the seam, then measure the finished width. The slight bulk of the thread & fabric takes up a teeney bit. I am a huge fan of Pressing-Pressing-Pressing.

I also suggest pressing your fabric before you cut - and I use Sizing. I am a bit more aggressive (ironing) at this point. The selvages are still attached - I want the fabric to misbehave now, before I start to cut.

I think it is crucial to pin the intersections. The type of pin you use is also key. I read to use Patchwork Pins - very fine .05 (or .04), short 1.25, and small head - pin all joints, and not less than 4" apart on long rows.
I use Clover #232, and my joints showed a huge improvement.

Thank you Kate for starting this post. Sharing this kind of information was extremely helpful to me when I was starting and I still value the tips and suggestions as I grow into a better more experience quilter.

(I started writing this over 2 hours ago - and just got back to it-if I have repeated someone's suggestions, I apologize.)

    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 11:27AM
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I agree with all above. I will add that fork pins are wonderful for holding a junction of two seams in place when piecing. It holds down both sides at once for matching seams.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 11:35AM
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Ouch Faye - another blade tip - keep a small piece of batting (I prefer cotton) with your spare blades. Use it to separate/slide apart the new blades, if you buy a 5 pk, as they stick to each other and use it to clean the blade before you put it into the cutter. Also clean the lint and crude on the cutter before you put in that new blade.
I change blades, and needles often. I figure - that's my treat to myself (actually sewing is~but don't tell anyone who thinks I am working :).

    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 11:36AM
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A thought about rotary blades; after I have been cutting for a while I will take the cutter apart and wipe the lint from the blade and handle and reverse the blade when I return it to the handle. Surprising how much better it works.
Another thing, recently my friend was having problem with the cutter and after I suggested she loosen the screw so it wasn't as tight she found out that the blade hadn't been truning freely which made a big difference.. Jayne

    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 2:26PM
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Very good tips!!! I'm big on starching and ironing before I start my project, and I press as I go.
Clean your machine often and keep it clean. Mine makes a different noise when it starts to get linty. I clean out the bobbins area when I change each bobbin.
And try everything you see as an experiment to see what works for you!

    Bookmark   March 9, 2011 at 4:51PM
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When I press,after sewing a long seam of strips, I press with the fabric that was on the bottom while sewing..........on top. Then I can check if the fabric slid over while sewing and is no longer a quarter inch!

    Bookmark   March 10, 2011 at 10:43PM
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All of the above and have good tools for the job and keep them in good working order. For example, just like a woodworker doesn't try to chisel wood with a butter knife, don't try to use paper scissors to cut fabric. Don't use scissors when you can use a rotary cutter. More accurate and easier on the body. Keep all cutting tools sharp and clean. Use an iron that gets HOT, my new iron made all the difference in my "pressing" vs "ironing". A hot iron will just press better and you don't have to move it around. (ask me how I know...LOL) A final note on rotary cutters, make sure when you change the blade you put it back together how it is supposed to be. Right hand vs left hand. There is a difference. Again just ask me.....
So much of sewing/quilting is in the details, isn't it?

    Bookmark   March 11, 2011 at 5:19AM
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Another pressing/cutting tip: When the pattern directions have you stack 2 different colors to cut them at the same time, give them a quick press before going at them with the rotary cutter. The pressing helps to hold them to each other and not slip while they're being cut.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2011 at 7:49AM
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And to go along with what Jayne said about the tight screw on the rotary cutter... I find that sometimes my cuts start to 'feel' funny and I've learned that that means my screw has become loose. (okay... I'll play straightman... ba dum bum...) :) But it needs to be kept the correct tightness.


    Bookmark   March 13, 2011 at 8:51AM
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