Machine Piecing Basics (part 1 of 2)
Today we will talk about the basics of machine piecing. Many new quilters are interested in learning to machine quilt but if your piecing is not flat and smooth you cannot expect your machine quilting to cover up poor piecing. No matter how well you machine quilt if your piecing is lumpy and crooked your entire quilt will be lumpy and crooked.
Buy closely woven quality 100% cotton quilting fabric. Cotton quilting fabric will be easier to cut and stitch than thin inexpensive fabric. Before you cut your fabric, wash it, dry it in the dryer, and iron it before cutting to remove the sizing and to allow for shrinkage.
Washing your new fabrics before using will insure that they will not shrink or bleed after the quilt is finished, and all the chemicals used in manufacturer will be removed.
If you wish to return the new crispness, use a little spray sizing when ironing. Spray sizing is available in the laundry section of the grocery and is very inexpensive. Spray starch is not recommended as the starch draws bugs and other critters.
Machine Piecing includes three basic techniques
1. Cut accurate pieces
2. Stitch an accurate seam allowance
3. Accurate pressing
Do you see the word accurate in the list of three items above? Accuracy is very important to machine piecing. If you are stitching a dress or a pair of pants a 1/8" discrepancy probably won't be noticed. If you are stitching a nine inch quilt block you will notice any small discrepancy as the pieces are so small and the finished block is much smaller than an article of clothing.
Cutting accurately -- To cut accurately you will need a rotary cutter with a sharp blade, a cutting mat at least 18" x 24" and an acrylic ruler. All these items are available at the quilt shop, fabric store and some "super" stores.
Correct cutting with your rotary ruler
Fold your fabric in half, lengthwise with the selvage edges together. Line up the selvages having them even. The selvage is the tightly woven edges along the length of the fabric. Do not line up the cut edges. These may or may not be even. When fabric is processed, sizing is added to make the fabric stiffer. Then it is rolled on the bolts and sometimes one side is slightly stretched. When the fabric is cut at the store it has not "relaxed" from the manufacturing process. After the fabric is washed, the cut edges may seem uneven. Even if the fabric is torn at the store, the crosswise grain may not be exactly straight and perpendicular to the lengthwise grain or selvage.
When the selvages are even, make another lengthwise fold so that your fabric is folded in fourths lengthwise. Your center fold is now even with the two selvages. The selvages and center fold should be away from you and the second fold will be toward you. Your fabric will now be approximately 11" wide as folded. Place your rotary ruler at the folded edge toward you. Line up one of the horizontal lines on the ruler on the folded edge. Check to see that another horizontal line matches the opposite fold away from you. When everything is lined up to your satisfaction, trim a small amount of fabric off the uneven cut edge to make everything even. Continue making cuts as needed for your project. Every two or three strips you cut recheck by placing your ruler on the folds, to see that your cut is straight and if necessary refold your fabric and cut another small amount off the cut edge. You might have a small amount of waste but you will have straight cuts that don't make "V's".
Let's practice cutting 3" strips. First "square" the fabric as explained above. Place your rotary ruler on the fabric. If your right handed the bulk of your fabric will be to the right. If you are left handed the bulk of your fabric will be at the left. Line the 3" line on your ruler with the clean cut edge of your fabric -- the first three inches of your ruler will be on the fabric. Place the three inch line just so it is just covering the clean edge of your fabric. This is the accurate way to cut. Do not place your fabric edge before the line as this will result in a scant cut. Be sure the line on your ruler is covering the cut edge of the fabric but no extra. Make your cut. Move ruler and place it on the fabric using the three inch line again. Continue until all strips are cut.
When cutting strips, be sure to make a fresh "square up" cut every two or three strips. Sometimes you only cut off a very small amount when squaring up and you may think it is unnecessary. But after several cuts any small discrepancy will be noticeable in cutting your strips. The accuracy of your strip piecing depends on the strips being straight and not having a "V" at the center fold.
Learn to cut with both hands
It is recommended to learn to cut both right handed and left handed. I have seen in several books instructions explaining to make the first cut and then turn the entire mat around without moving the fabric. It would be so much easier to make your first cut with your less dominant hand and then continue the majority of your cutting with your dominant hand. Take a half yard of scrap fabric and simply cut strips and squares with your less dominant hand for practice. It will take less than a yard of fabric to practice. After you get the feel for using your other hand to cut you will save so much time and frustration in the long run. Remember if you are right handed the bulk of your fabric will be to the right. If you are left handed the bulk of the fabric will be to your left.
The same method applies to cutting lengthwise grain cuts for longer borders. For cutting lengthwise grain borders that are 108" long (three yards) -- fold your fabric along the length until it is a manageable size for cutting. Keep the selvages even when folding. Pin if necessary using the flat flower pins. Line up two horizontal lines with your ruler and make your first cut -- cutting off the selvage and another half- inch. Make your first border cut the width desired. Check your border piece and re-fold main fabric if necessary. Continue this method until all four borders are cut. I can usually cut two border pieces before having to refold. Sometimes I can cut all four without needing to re-fold.
Remember to always line up the selvage edges and trim the cut edge for a straight cut. Occasionally when I have a quarter yard cut of fabric that is very skewed, I will line up the cut edges and ignore the selvages -- but this is very seldom. I hope these pointers will help you cut straighter strips.
For safety, remember to always cut away from yourself and close the safety on your blade. Keep your rotary cutters away from children and pets. When carrying your cutter to classes or guild meetings, store it in a case especially designed for rotary cutters or an old glasses case.
Machine piecing -- the main thing to remember when machine piecing is the 1/4" seam allowance. Measure and mark your 1/4" seam allowance. Don't trust the edge of the foot or the markings on the throat plate to be an exact quarter inch. Place a small ruler under your machine pressure foot. Turn the hand wheel to put the needle down on the quarter inch mark. Place several layers of masking tape, sticky notes, or a strip of foot care pad to give you a place to line your fabric pieces against. If your machine has a movable needle position you might find that moving your needle position one or two steps to the right will give you an accurate seam allowance using the pressure foot or throat plate. Some of the newer computerized sewing machines have a quarter inch setting that automatically moves the needle to do an exact quarter inch if the fabric is at the right edge of the presser foot. That is a really nice feature to have included for quilters.
When I first learned to quilt I thought the seam allowance wasn't important as long as I was consistent. If my 12" finished blocks came out 11 1/2" I thought that was "good enough".
I found that doesn't work when you are making blocks for exchange or for a raffle quilt where many quilters are piecing blocks. I decided I needed to learn to make an accurate seam allowance so all my blocks would be accurate. I also discovered that some blocks -- especially curved pieces -- simply don't stitch together properly if an accurate seam allowance is not used. So learning to stitch an accurate seam allowance is very important.
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The second part of this article will be published in the next issue of the newsletter.