The following are some basic stitching terms and techniques you will encounter in DSQ pattern instructions.
All DSQ patterns use standard ¼" quilting seam allowance. Unless the instructions state otherwise, the ¼" seam allowance is included in all pattern pieces and cutting instructions. When stitching fabric pieces together, try to keep your seam allowances consistent. Even a small difference, multiplied over many seams, can add up to quilt blocks that don’t match or seams that don’t align. Do your best, but remember that any imperfections attest to its being handmade, and that’s a beautiful thing!
Your sewing machine may have a ¼" allowance marked on the throat plate, or you can use a patchwork presser foot (or ¼" foot). If you align the edge of your fabric with the right side of this special foot, you will sew perfect ¼" seams every time.
If a pattern instructs you to sew a scant seam allowance, make it a tiny bit (no more than 1/16") less the measurement stated. A generous seam allowance should be sewn a tiny bit wider than the measurement stated.
Aligning Seams on Irregular Fabric Pieces
When sewing curved or angled fabric pieces, knowing how to align the pieces may not be initially clear because the edges won’t necessarily match. Align the pieces where the seam lines intersect, instead of the outside edges of the fabric piece.
If you like, you can lightly mark your seam allowances on the wrong side of your fabrics, and pin the pieces together through the intersection points together to ensure you’re aligning the pieces correctly. Once you get used to how these intersections look and feel, you’ll have more confidence in how they should be aligned for sewing.
You can save time and thread when sewing together lots of small pieces, like triangles and squares, by chain piecing. Feed pairs of pieces through the machine without lifting the presser foot between the pairs, allowing the machine to stitch through nothing between each unit. Cut the chain of threads between each of the pairs when you are finished sewing.
Stitching curved seams is not as difficult as it may appear. The key is careful alignment and pinning. Transfer the center notch on curved templates to your fabric pieces, or fold the pieces in half with the end edges aligned and finger press a small crease to mark the center. With right sides together and edges aligned, place the inner edge of the concave piece on the curved edge of the convex piece, matching the centers and ends. Pin, easing the fullness of the fabric into the curve. Use as many pins as you need to keep the fabric smooth and the edges aligned.
Using a slightly longer stitch length than you would for straight piecing, sew slowly along the curve, removing pins as you come to them (always stop with the needle down). I like to sew with the concave piece on top, so I can control the fullness and make sure I don’t inadvertently sew in any folds. Press the seam allowance as directed in the pattern. There is no need to clip the seam allowance.
Sharp Patchwork Points
When stitching shapes with points, take a little extra time to pin and stitch carefully so you don’t turn your points into flat tops. When pinning rows of triangles, work with the wrong side of the triangle rows facing up. That way you can take care to stitch through the points, where the intersecting seams of the triangles form an X shape.
Sewing Long Seams
When sewing several narrow, WOF strips together in sets, if you always start sewing on the same side, the set will “bow”, or curve, to one side. To ensure a straight set, flip the work over each time, alternating the sewing direction for every seam. I recommend this technique any time you are sewing together several long rows.
Stay stitching is a line of machine stitching about ⅛" in from the edge of a fabric piece. It’s used to prevent curves and other bias-cut edges from stretching and distorting.
When piecing triangles and other angular pieces, little triangles of fabric, called dog ears will extend past the raw edges of the seam allowance after pressing. Trim the dog ears to avoid excess fabric bulk and make aligning block and row seams easier. Some quilters prefer to blunt their pattern pieces by cutting the tips off their templates, ¼" from the intersection of the seam lines, which will eliminate dog ears.
Square Up Your Blocks
Even if you’ve been careful to accurately cut your fabric pieces and sew consistent seam allowances, the size and shape of your blocks may not perfectly match the dimensions in the pattern instructions. This is a common occurrence that’s easy to remedy. Before sewing your quilt top together, check your blocks by placing them on your gridded cutting mat and making sure they are the same size. Remember that an unfinished block will be ½" larger than the finished block size in both directions to account for seam allowances. Using a rotary cutter and your acrylic ruler, trim the block, or square up, if necessary. Make sure freshly cut block seams don’t come apart later by machine stay-stitching across the edge of any trimmed seams. Later, when your quilt top is assembled and ready for binding, follow this same squaring-up process to make sure the quilt top’s sides are straight and the corners square.
Hand Sewing Basics
The running stitch is what people think of when they think of sewing. Use this stitch for hand piecing, or for hand-quilting. Thread a needle and take several small forward stitches, weaving the needle evenly in and out of the fabric layers. “Pick up” as many stitches are you easily can, stacking them on the needle, and then pull the thread through. Try to make your stitches as even as you can on both sides of the fabric. For piecing, your stitches should be small so the seams hold together, about 1/16" – ⅛" long. For hand-quilting, stitches can be longer from ⅛" to ¼" for traditional stitching with hand-quilting thread, to a generous ¼" or longer for big-stitch quilting with a heavier thread.
Basting stitches are used to temporarily hold together layers of fabric, or fabric and batting, while quilting, tying, or appliquéing the quilt. Use a contrasting color thread to make it easy to see the basting stitches when you need to remove them. Make your stitches large, about ⅜" to ¾" long (even longer for quilt-basting a quilt sandwich), and don’t bother knotting when you run out of thread. Instead leave a short tail of thread, re-thread your needle, and start stitching again.
A blind stitch is an almost invisible stitch used for appliqué or to finish quilt binding. To blind stitch, slide the needle up through the bottom fabric, grab just a thread or two of the folded edge of the top fabric, and bring the needle down into the bottom fabric very close to the folded edge, perpendicular to the stitch. Slide the needle approximately ⅛" along under the fabric, come up to take another stitch and continue in this manner for a secure and invisible line of stitching.
There are many methods – both hand and machine variations – for appliqué, but needle-turn is my favorite technique. I like the portability of hand stitching, and this method requires little preparation and no special materials. If you prefer another appliqué technique, feel free to adapt project instructions for your favorite method.
As the name suggests, you’ll use your needle to turn under the seam allowance, and the blind stitch to secure your appliqué motifs, or shapes, to the background fabric. To be certain that your stitches are invisible, use a thread color that matches your appliqué pieces, and a fine thread weight. Select fabrics for your motifs that have a tight weave (so they won’t fray too easily), but which aren’t too stiff (or the edges won’t turn under smoothly).
For needle-turn appliqué motifs, you'll make templates without a seam allowance. Using a sharp pencil, trace the templates on the right side of your fabrics, making sure to leave enough room (at least ½") between motifs for seam allowance. Lay out rounded shapes with the curve on the bias as possible; this will reduce fraying and makes it easier to turn under a smooth edge. Points should also be laid out on the bias. Cut out the motifs using scissors adding a 3/16" (for smaller shapes) to ¼" (for larger shapes) seam allowance by eye. If your fabric frays easily, cut the shapes with a wider allowance and trim it later when appliquéing the motif.
Follow the project instructions for positioning your motifs on your background fabric. I like to use an appliqué glue stick to keep my motifs in place if I know I’ll be stitching them within a couple weeks. If the project may be on the shelf for longer before I can applique, I’ll thread or pin baste the motifs in place, since glue is prone to drying out. Whatever method you use, keep your basting ½" from the motif edge so you have room to turn under the folded edge.
Appliqué the motifs to the background fabric using a blind stitch, folding the raw edge under along the pencil line. If at first you find it difficult to coordinate turning under the edges and sewing at the same time, you can use short (½"-¾") sequin or appliqué pins to secure the folded edge as you go.
Start your stitching on a straight side or gentle curve. Clip inside points or tight inside curves just shy of the pencil line, as needed. Fold the tip of an outside point under first, then the sides. Outer curves can be notched and/or trimmed as needed to reduce bulk.
Foundation piecing is a technique in which fabric pieces are sewn directly onto a piece of paper or fabric, which becomes the foundation. The foundation won’t show on the finished quilt because you’ll overlap each fabric piece as you sew. When foundation piecing with paper, the paper is removed before you finish the quilt. Typically, foundation piecing is used to guarantee accuracy and avoid concerns about fabric grain when sewing together complicated blocks with lots of pieces and points. Foundation piecing also makes it easy to improvise your design without using a pattern. Some DSQ patterns can be adapted for foundation piecing, like Between the Lines. For piecing with a fabric foundation, it’s helpful to have a patchwork (or ¼") machine foot for your sewing machine.
USING FOUNDATION FABRIC
- With your foundation fabric (use muslin or lightweight cotton) flat on your work surface, place your first piece of fabric on the foundation piece, right side up and flush to the left edge. Pin your fabric in place if necessary, then staystitch the strip along the left outer edge. The pieces should be long enough to extend beyond the top and bottom edges of your foundation fabric; you’ll trim the excess off later.
With right sides together, align the next piece of fabric with the right side of the first piece. Sew through all layers using a ¼" seam allowance. Press the seam flat first, then flip the second piece right side up and press again.
Continue working in this manner, adding additional pieces to the right until you’ve completely covered your foundation fabric.
Turn the piece over (foundation fabric up) and square up your block to the size indicated in the pattern instructions.
After squaring up, machine stitch around the perimeter of the block ⅛" from the edge.
USING A PAPER FOUNDATION
To foundation piece using paper, print the block template from the pattern instructions onto freezer paper (or any lightweight paper) at full scale and assemble as needed (if the template uses multiple pages). The block templates do not include interior seam allowances but do include a ¼" seam allowance on the outside of the block. Freezer paper, which is available in most local supermarkets, has a plastic coating on one side, so the fabric temporarily sticks to the paper when you iron. If you’re using freezer paper, print the template on the side of the paper without the plastic coating. Print and assemble one paper template for each block required for the size quilt you are making.
To help keep things organized, lay out the fabric pieces as you plan to assemble them in the block. [Diagram 1]
Following the piecing order instructed in the pattern, secure the first piece in place on the side of the foundation without printing, fabric right side up, making sure the fabric covers all sides of the section marked on the template by at least ¼" (if you’re having trouble seeing the lines through the paper, hold it up to a light or window). The fabric pieces should be long enough to extend beyond the outside edges of your foundation paper; you’ll trim the excess off later. If you’re using freezer paper, you can iron the piece in place; for regular paper, pin the fabric in place or lightly adhere it using a glue stick. [Diagram 2]
Place the second piece of fabric right sides together onto the first piece, aligning the raw edges next to the section the piece will cover, and hold in place. Gently turn the paper template so the printed side is right side up and take it to your sewing machine. Sew directly on the printed line between the two sections you’re piecing. [Diagram 3] Turn the foundation back over and press the seam flat first, then flip the second piece right side up and press again. [Diagram 4]
Continue to build your block in the order instructed, adding pieces with right sides together and aligning the raw edges, until you have completed your block.
Using the block template and your gridded cutting mat as guides, trim the blocks to the size indicated in the pattern. [Diagram 5]
After trimming, machine stitch around the perimeter of the block ⅛" from the edge.
Pressing is a critical part of the sewing process. It is the finishing touch to your completed block or quilt top, and it can help resolve, or prevent, unruly seams.
Correct technique is essential. Press the fabric with your iron on the cotton, or hottest, setting, and with the steam feature on. Press each seam flat (or as sewn), then press the seam allowance as directed. Use an up-and-down motion (rather than pushing and pulling) when pressing, especially on pieces with curved or angled edges, to avoid distorting the fabric.
Plan Your Pressing
There are two factors to consider in determining which way to press your seam allowances in a quilt top. One is that you want to avoid having too many seam allowances overlapping in any one spot on the back of your quilt top. Excessive seam build-up is hard to quilt through, and the quilt fabric over those lumpy areas can wear faster. Another factor is that typically, seam allowances are pressed toward the darker fabric to avoid showing through. Given the complexity and abundance of seams in some patterns, it’s not always possible to accomplish both.
Most pattern instructions will suggest a pressing direction for your seam allowances when piecing your blocks. The general idea is to press seam allowances in adjoining units or blocks in opposite directions, when possible. The instructions will also suggest which way to press your block seams when sewing the quilt top together so that seams from one row to the next will be oriented in opposite directions, allowing the seams to nest when sewing the rows together.
You may find that sometimes your fabric choices make it more sensible to override the recommendations, and as with most else in quilting, it is not the end of the world if some of your seams are pressed toward the lighter fabric. (And some quilters prefer to press their seams open. Whatever works!) Even with the most meticulous planning, you will still have some seams allowances that overlap. Neither of these will ruin your quilt top, but having a considered plan for pressing your patchwork before you start will take the guesswork out of the process and make it more enjoyable.
It’s sometimes easier to finger press short seams than to get up to use the iron for every seam when you are sewing together block components. With the unit right side up, use your thumbnail to gently crease the seam flat. Always use the iron later to finish the pressing. Finger pressing also works well if you’re hand piecing on the go and don’t have access to an iron.
Make a Tabletop Pressing Board
Ironing boards may be the perfect size for pressing a shirt, but they fall short when it comes to pressing rows of blocks and quilt tops. If you have room, a tabletop pressing board is the answer, and it can double as a large surface for working on other stages of your quilt. Large but portable, the pressing board can be stored in a closet or under a bed when you’re not using it.
To make your own tabletop pressing board, buy a piece of ⅜" plywood for the base from your local hardware store and have them cut it to size — approximately 4' x 4' (or larger or smaller depending on your available space). A hollow core door will also work well. Layer three pieces of batting on top of the base, followed by a piece of muslin on top of the batting. Both the batting and muslin should be about 6" wider and longer than your base. Stretch the edges of the muslin and batting around the edges of the board and use a staple gun to staple them in place. To use the board, place it on a table with a blanket or extra batting underneath to protect the table surface.