Learning Classic Pieced Blocks

on May 3 | in Sewing + Quilting Tips, Sewing Tutorials + Patterns | by | with 12 Comments

We’re pleased to share today’s post about stretching your sewing skills, written by Sandi Walton of Piecemeal Quilts. Sandi writes about classic pieced blocks and introduces some of the themes in her new Skill Builder posts. For more on our own “Stretch Your Skills” series of articles, see Kristin’s “Great Debate” post.

by Sandi Walton

I Love Quilting
I love the history behind it and the future of it. I love the unbelievably wide range of design. I love the way twenty people can make the same thing and have it turn out completely different. I love that it is accessible to everyone, at every skill level, economic level and aesthetic. I love that it is both creative and productive. I love that it can be therapeutic in both its simplicity and its complexity. I love quilting, and I want to share that with everyone who has even the slightest interest (and, as my co-workers can attest, even with people who have NO interest).

Sandi’s Modern Flying Geese using a non-traditional method for the geese.

The internet has allowed us to share our love of quilting in ways that were unimaginable just twenty years ago. I’ve been quilting for about eight years. A new quilt shop opened in my town and my mom and I signed up for their very first beginner class. We met five times in five weeks, each making a sampler quilt from our textbook, Start Quilting with Alex Anderson. (The book has gone through a couple of revisions since then but I still consider it one of the best starting places for new quilters.) There is a huge advantage to learning from a “live” person, a skilled quilter. If you have a question the answer is available in seconds. A teacher can see what you are struggling with and help you, sometimes before you’re even aware that you need help. Having that dedicated point of contact when you are learning is invaluable. When you’re learning on your own you can’t just hold up your fabric in frustration and wait for the teacher to identify your problem.

Of course not everyone has access to (or a desire for) a hands on class and that’s why online resources are so important. Each site like Sew,Mama,Sew!, each blogger, each discussion forum and photo sharing group provides a snapshot of quilting as they see it. They each offer a different perspective, different information, or different facets of the same information. To a new quilter it can be both inspirational and overwhelming. While a classroom setting usually presents quilting in a linear progression– teaching one skill, then the next, slightly more difficult, and so on– it isn’t as easy to find that progression online.

Quilting Skill Builder Series
As Kristin mentioned in her introduction, Jeanne from Grey Cat Quilts and I have teamed up to present a Skill Builder Series on our blogs. It’s an idea that Jeanne first brought up during one of our sewing days, and she generously agreed to share the idea when I realized that I needed to put my money where my mouth is after my mouth got me into some trouble (ahem). We’re covering everything we can think of about quilting and we have plans for nearly weekly posts through at least July, expanding from beginning techniques to intermediate:

  • fabric & color selection
  • tools
  • fabric storage & preparation
  • pressing
  • cutting
  • quarter inch seams
  • nine patches
  • half square triangles
  • quarter square triangles
  • flying geese 60 degree triangles
  • foundation piecing
  • curved piecing
  • drafting blocks & quilts

Expand Your Skill Set
Quilting has so many different aspects– color, fabric, piecing, applique, foundation piecing, hand work, machine work, quilting the layers, embroidery, embellishments, binding, and so on. Certainly not everyone is excited about every aspect (I admit, my mother loves to bind quilts and I love to let her), but having information is always better than not having it. I encourage quilters to learn the basics. It isn’t about doing things the “right” way, it’s about increasing your skill set so you have the tools to create what YOU want to create. The range of classic pieced blocks is astounding– literally thousands of different blocks have already been designed, using a very few basic components. Not everyone wants to make quilts from pieced blocks, but they may find those components useful in creating their own kind of quilts.

A star block from Sandi’s Family Block of the Month Quilt project.

I don’t entirely agree with the idea of beginner, intermediate and advanced blocks. I think there are skills and components that are learned at the beginning or intermediate levels of quilting, while advanced quilters are extremely skilled in these techniques and apply them in more complex creations. I work primarily with classic pieced blocks, and they are my focus here. Goose in the Pond has 77 pieces in one block, and yet I would not hesitate to recommend it to a beginning quilter because it is made entirely of half square triangle, nine patch, rail fence and plain square components. One large block could be made into a 50″ square lap quilt at the beginner level while an intermediate quilter might use twenty-five 15″ blocks to make a quilt the same size, and an advanced quilter might create a wall quilt out of twenty-five 5″ blocks. Degree of difficulty changes depending on the scale of your project.

Another star block.

Keep in mind that these basic components may be made several different ways. The half square triangle is an excellent example; we featured four different methods of making them in our Skill Builder posts. If you try something and it doesn’t work, don’t write it off just yet. While practice is always helpful, sometimes just using a different technique may make all the difference. One of the most useful things I’ve learned is to make my components slightly larger than I need them, then trim them to size before assembling the block. For me, removing the frustration of trying to achieve perfection the first time through makes everything comes together so much easier!

Five Basic Components for a Beginner
There are five basic techniques and components that a beginning quilter should master if you are interested in making classic pieced blocks:

  1. matching seams
  2. half square triangles
  3. quarter square triangles
  4. flying geese
  5. diamonds in squares

With these techniques you can make thousands of classic pieced blocks. You can also combine those components in any fashion you can dream up.

So where do you start, and how do you progress?

  • A very new quilter might start with a coin quilt to get comfortable with the idea of chopping up a stack of perfectly good fabric just to sew it all back together again. There are no seams to match, and no seam allowances to worry about. It’s a very basic technique that can be interpreted many different ways, from blocks to entire quilt tops.
  • A rail fence quilt is also a good starting place.
  • With the accomplishment of a first quilt under your belt, consider trying some nine patch blocks. Here’s where the importance of consistency and matching seams comes into play.
  • Half square triangles (HST) are the next component to conquer. With just HSTs and plain squares, you can create literally hundreds of different blocks. They work especially well when you have high value contrast between the two halves. Try laying out sixteen HSTS in a 4×4 grid and rotate the pieces until you find a layout you like. Mosaics and stars emerge with every twist.
  • Now try quarter square triangles (QST). These are another great example of different piecing methods working for different people. To paraphrase a friend of mine, these kicked my backside until I learned a different, very simple, technique. The classic Ohio Star makes use of the QST, and a grid of QSTs with every other unit rotated 1/4 turn makes a lovely, and simple, baby quilt.
  • Flying geese are used to great effect in the Dutchman’s Puzzle block, and the Variable Star block gives you endless options for customization by replacing the plain corner and center squares with four patches, HSTs, and smaller pieced blocks.
  • The diamond in a square (sometimes referred to as square in a square) is the basis of the Snails Trail block as well as a main component of the incredibly complex looking, but fairly easy, Storm at Sea.

Storm at Sea quilt created by Sandi’s mother.

Pieced Block Resources
If you’re interested in pieced blocks, there are a number of resources on the internet.

  • The largest is probably Quilter’s Cache (http://www.quilterscache.com/), with well over a thousand blocks posted, including detailed instructions.
  • There’s also a smaller collection of illustrated blocks at http://www.earlywomenmasters.net/quilts/index.html. Some of the blocks have historical information and links to instructions, but many are simply illustrations.
  • Check your library or bookstore for Barbara Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns, which contains over 4,000 blocks that were published between 1830 and 1970. This book was the basis for Electric Quilt’s software product, Blockbase (which can be used independently or in concert with EQ5 and up).
  • More recently, Jinny Beyer released a book titled The Quilter’s Album of Patchwork Patterns: 4050 Pieced Blocks for Quilters. In both of these books, quilt block are illustrated but it is left to the quilter to figure out how to piece them. They are fantastic for reference and inspiration.
  • If you’d like a little more information, look at the Around the Block books and 501 Rotary Cut Quilt Blocks by Judy Hopkins, which include basic illustrations plus cutting charts so you can create the block in several different sizes.

Sandi’s Ohio Star quilt created with her Everything Old Is New Again pattern.

Challenge Yourself
Learning new things is all about challenge– that’s how we grow. We challenge ourselves, we challenge each other, and we accomplish things that before we had only dreamed. Finished quilts are fantastic, but be proud of your collection of blocks created with the purpose of learning new techniques. If, like my mom, unfinished projects give you the willies, choose a color palette to make all of your test blocks and turn them into a sampler in a few months or a year. Make individual blocks into potholders and give them away for Christmas. Make a dog or cat bed out of them or incorporate them into another craft project. Give them away in an orphan block swap or donate them to a quilting charity.

At the beginning, I said that quilting was therapeutic in both its simplicity and complexity. When our brains are busy with the events of the day, worries and plans and too much stuff to do and is the plumber coming tomorrow and did I forget to buy the broccoli for supper and is that project at work going to be finished on time and, and, and… Simple, repetitive sewing is calming. But there is also a satisfaction to be gained from tackling a more challenging project. While repetitive sewing is soothing, focusing on complex sewing can allow you to shut off those endless loops of worries in your head and give you confidence that spills over into other parts of your life.

Quilting isn’t only about making blankets to be used today. It’s about the past and the present and the future, the quilters and families who have come before and those who will come after. It’s about expression, celebration and beauty. It’s about pride and love and nurturing others and ourselves. Quilting is more than a hobby, it’s a craft and an art and a passion. The joy you receive from quilting is worth a little struggle, a little challenge, a little effort.

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12 Responses to Learning Classic Pieced Blocks

  1. Leila says:

    I have loved reading your Skill Building posts. They are soooooo well written and in depth. Great job.

  2. Melissa says:

    Great post. I have been quilting for over 10 years and still have not done a flying geese quilt. Triangle other than HSTs intimidate me. It is definitely something I need to check off my list so I can advance my skill set!

  3. Those are beautiful quilts! I want to learn how to quilt now! Thanks!

  4. Sharon E says:

    I’ve been on an 11 year hiatus from quilting, but this just might get me back in the sewing mood. Thanks for the blog. I’ll be following along.

  5. Katrina H says:

    OOOH these are pretty quilts!

  6. Maman A Droit says:

    Ooh I’m excited to read this series. My Grandmas are both quilters and I’d love to keep quilting as part of our family heritage. I think I might start with a mug rug though since I’m still pretty intimidated by the thought of something bigger! Lol.

  7. Ramona says:

    what a wonderful post. I am off to read her skill builder posts. I always love to see how different people do one skills.

  8. gillian c says:

    This post is great!There is so much information on modern quilting but I think that knowing the basic, classic foundational elements of traditional quilting makes you a better quilter in every aspect. Awesome!

  9. Samina says:

    Great article. That Storm at Sea quilt is just stunning!

  10. Heidi says:

    What beautiful quilts!

  11. Lucy says:

    This post is wonderful–I have the privilege of knowing Sandi personally, and her passion for and excitement surrounding the art of quilting sparkles and bursts through every inch of this post. I am a seamstress myself, my sewing obsession surrounds the artistic design and beauty within vintage clothing and costume design–I can wholeheartedly relate to her undeniable passion and excitement towards the art of sewing, and why we must all work together to keep it alive and thriving. So proud of her! Rock On!

  12. I love this post! Thank you so much!!

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