Sew You Wanna Quilt? – Stitching and Pressing

Welcome to the seventh installment of the Sew You Wanna Quilt? series

My apologies for the late posting of this edition. Please note that all photos in this post may be enlarged by clicking on them.

Today’s post is all about stitching and pressing – it is time to learn how to piece fabric to make the components of your quilt!

Orienting Yourself to the Machine, Threading the Machine and Winding Bobbins

If you have not ever sewn using a sewing machine, now is the time to pull out your sewing machine instructions and spend a little time orienting yourself to the parts. Most machines have a similar threading procedure, but there may be subtle differences in brands.  Here is an illustration on the top of my machine about threading both the machine and the bobbin:

All machines allow sewers to adjust stitch length (how long each stitch is – 2.2 is the default setting on my machine and it is perfect), and some allow you to adjust your needle position (which can help you achieve a perfect 1/4 inch seam allowance – more about that later).  On my machine, the needle position is set on 3.5 and the stitch length is set on 2.2 in the photo below:

My suggestion for new sewers is to pull out a scrap of fabric and play a little with the settings on your machine. Sew using a 2.2 stitch length, a 1.4 stitch length, etc…in order to see what the differences are as you make adjustments.

I always thread at least two bobbins before I begin to sew, putting one in the machine, and holding the second off to the side. This just saves a little time when one bobbin runs out because I don’t have to change my threading to wind a second bobbin. Some quilters have multiple bobbins ready to go. This is just a personal preference.

The Perfect 1/4 Inch Seam Allowance

Quilters sew seams which are 1/4 inch wide. Accuracy is important as you begin to put the components of your quilt together.

Sandi at Piecemeal Quilts has a terrific post about sewing accurate 1/4 inch seams – you can read her thoughts here. This is probably a good time to mention (again) that Sandi is hosting a Skillbuilder series on her blog (in conjunction with Gray Cat Quilts) which includes all the basics I have been covering AND a whole lot more. Links for the series can be found her on her site.

Before you actually begin piecing your quilt, grab a scrap of fabric and set up your machine for a 1/4 inch seam…then test it. Nowadays, quilters can purchase special sewing machine feet which have a 1/4 inch seam guide. Here is mine:

That said, if you simply line up the guide along your fabric and sew, you will probably not get an accurate seam. This is why I say: “TEST IT.” I have discovered that if I set my needle position to 4.0, that I can then use my special foot and sew a perfect seam.

Pressing Vs. Ironing:

DO NOT iron. Ironing is pushing your iron across the fabric. This technique distorts your seams and fabric. Remember that there is stretch in fabric. We want as little distortion as possible in our blocks so that the seams all match up as we piece our quilt.

Pressing is placing the iron carefully onto the fabric, pressing it down, then lifting it again at frequent intervals. Pressing causes little to no distortion if done correctly. Many quilters emphasize that you should use a dry iron vs. steam when pressing. I have to admit, I use steam…but I am beginning to think I need to try a dry iron.

Before pressing seams to the side or open, you should SET THE SEAM. This means pressing directly over the finished seam on the wrong side of the fabric. This allows for a more crisp seam once it is either pressed open or to the side.

Here is a terrific blog post about pressing – it goes into much more detail than I did here. Here is what she recommends re: pressing:

  • Always press fabric before cutting. A wrinkle-free surface will give you more accurate cuts.
  • Press on the wrong side of the fabric whenever possible.
  • When using unfamiliar or delicate fabrics, test your iron’s heat setting on a scrap first to make sure it doesn’t scorch. You may also want to use a pressing cloth in between delicate fabrics and your iron.
  • Don’t press over pins—pinheads can melt.
  • After pressing, allow your fabric to cool for a few seconds before moving it. This prevents stretching and distortion.
  • I personally don’t use any starch, but I know many quilters who swear by it. So that aspect might be a matter of personal preference.

All great advice with which I agree.

Pressing Seams Open or To the Side

There are many arguments for either of these two techniques. I use both depending on the seams I am stitching. Again, visit this post for a very detailed description of both techniques, including pros and cons.

I am going to show you how to do both. But, suffice it to say that I typically press to the side UNLESS the seams are getting bulky OR when I want better accuracy for a complex block. For example, I always press open when doing half square triangles because I have found that my block is much squarer using this technique. You will have to practice both and decide for yourself what is the best technique for you.

Demonstration of Stitching a Seam and Pressing

Take the two pieces of fabric you are going to stitch, place them right sides together and line up the edges carefully (you may use pins to hold the fabric together which I recommend especially if you are stitching a long seam). Set your needle position, line up your fabric along the edge of your special foot (or, if you don’t have a special 1/4 inch foot, line up your fabric along a line drawn on the machine or along tape you have set on the machine).

Drop your needle just in front of your fabric, and lower your pressure foot. Begin to stitch, keeping the edges of your fabric together and lined up. Go slowly if you are new to this (most machines have a speed function to adjust how fast you sew). DO NOT SEW OVER PINS – this is dangerous and can also cause your sewing machine needle to break.

After completing the seam, raise your needle and the pressure foot and cut the threads. Set the seams with your iron. Then do one of the following:

Press to the side by nudging the completed seam to the side with the front of your iron, then pressing. Slowing work your way down the seam.

Press open by first finger pressing the seam open, then using the front part of your iron, nudge the seam open and press

When you have finished pressing the seam to the side or open, flip the fabric to the right side and press again down the length of the seam to set it.

Some Things To Remember When Stitching Components

1.  Cut out all the components for a block before piecing them – be accurate in your cutting.

2.  Lay out the components of a block before stitching to make sure they are all oriented correctly:

3.  Stitch together the components of each row separately:

4.  Join the rows by matching up seams. When seams are pressed to the side, make sure that the seams are pressed in opposite directions for each succeeding row so that when matched up, they connect like two pieces of a puzzle. Use pins to hold the seams in place.

5.  Be careful to make sure your seams lay flat and in the correct direction as you stitch.

6.  Press after stitching each seam.

7.  Enjoy your finished block!

After you have finished piecing a block, make sure you use your ruler and rotary cutter to square it up (you can see in the above photo how the block is not completely square – but with just a little bit of trimming, this block will be perfect).

A Note About Chain Piecing

Chain piecing is a quick way to piece components without having to lift your needle. Chain piecing saves thread and allows you to speed up the piecing process.

To chain piece, first prepare all your components. Then take the first component and stitch the seam. Then WITHOUT RAISING YOUR NEEDLE, line up the second component and allow the feed dog to pull it under the needle. (Sometimes I lift my pressure foot while chain piecing to get things lined up correctly). Here it is in photos:

That’s it – easy, right?

Please feel free to leave questions or feedback in the comments section of this post.

Previous articles in this series:

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  1. I will probably never in my life actually quilt but I love reDing about this when you post!

    • Teresa on September 20, 2011 at 09:30

    I seriously need to pick quilting back up. You’ve given me the bug again!

    • Sandi on September 21, 2011 at 05:22

    I probably said this before, but I just love to see these posts! Not only because I find it interesting to see how different people approach the same thing, but because it makes me happy to see experienced quilters share their knowledge. Great post!

    • Wendy on September 26, 2011 at 08:39

    Pam: LOL – thanks for reading!

    Teresa: Oh, I hope you will!!!

    Sandi: I wouldn’t really call myself that experienced LOL – but I like to share what I know! Thanks for stopping by!

    • Jude on October 31, 2011 at 09:37

    When I am putting together my blocks to make a quilt block, do I reverse stitch a couple stitches at the beginning and end to ensure it won’t unravel or just stitch a straight 1/4″ seam and not worry about backing up a couple stitches in order to secure the seam?

    Also, I see that some quilters use a little block of material BEFORE they start their seam, what is that all about ? I’m a beginner, can you tell. LOL. Jude

    • Wendy on October 31, 2011 at 14:42

    Hi Jude, Thanks for stopping by!! Some quilters like to “backstitch” their seams, but I don’t…and my blocks are nice and stable. So the short answer to your question is that it is okay to do so, but you don’t have to 🙂 Re: the little block of material before a seam – I haven’t seen that done, but I wonder if it is in case of a “birds nest” – which is the tangle of thread that sometimes happens when you first start stitching…it is an aggravating thing, and sewing on a “scrap” before starting into your seam would keep the birds nest from becoming part of your quilt. Another way to avoid birds nests is to chain stitch as much as you can when piecing.

    Hope that answered your questions!!!

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