Strip Piecing: Rail Fence Block with Amy Smart

on June 16 | in Quilting, Sewing + Quilting Tips, Sewing Tutorials + Patterns | by | with 8 Comments

Hello Sew Mama Sew fans. My name is Amy Smart and I blog about my quilting fetish at Diary of a Quilter. I love short-cuts when it comes to quilting. Maybe it’s because my time seems short, or maybe I have a short attention-span and I want to get to the next project and pile of fabric! I love short-cuts so much that I wrote a whole collection of patterns based around short-cuts in a book Fabulously Fast Quilts.

One of the most basic, time-saving methods when it comes to quilting is strip-piecing. This usually consists of sewing long strips of fabric (generally strips the width of fabric yardage) together and then rotary cutting across the strips to create smaller units that are already pieced. Today I want to share a few simple tips that will help the accuracy of strip-piecing projects. In the process I will demonstrate a simple quilt project. This quilt uses the very traditional Rail Fence block, a super-versatile quilt block that can be laid out in multiple ways to create many different designs. It’s as traditional as they come, but depending on the fabric choices it can look very modern at the same time.

There are lots of great commercially pre-cut strips that can really stream-line the strip-piecing process. But if you are cutting your own strips from yardage, the first important step when it comes to strip-piecing is to square-off the edges. Skipping this step can result in a V-shaped strip instead of a straight one.

Don’t just start rotary cutting strips off the yardage. Often the yardage can become distorted on the bolt, or perhaps the busy fabric-store-worker has just cut your yardage without time to see if the edge is straight or square. The first thing to do is to match up the selvage edges. You can see in the photo on the left that the edges are not matched up. After you match up the selvage edges you may need to re-press the center fold.

When your selvage edges are matched up, lay the newly-pressed center fold on the cutting mat with the fold closest to you and lined up along the bottom straight line marked on the cutting mat.

Put the edge you are going to trim on your right (if you are right handed… Opposite if you are left handed). Lay the long ruler over the fabric, again lining up a straight line on the ruler with the bottom fold. Using the rotary cutter, trim the un-even edge off the right side of your fabric, creating a straight edge at a 90 degree angle to the selvage edge. This is how you “square-up” your yardage.

Now you are ready to start cutting straight strips from your yardage. Turn the fabric so the newly trimmed edge is now on your left side. (Right side if you are left-handed.) Again make sure the fold is lined up with the bottom straight line on the cutting mat. Lay the ruler over the fabric to measure the width of the strip you want and cut. Measuring the strip’s width with the ruler, rather than the mat, is the most accurate measurement.

For this little 21″ x 21″ Rail Fence mini-quilt I cut three strips 1 1/2″ wide x the width of the fabric from three different fabrics.

Sew two of the strips together lengthwise. As you sew multiple strips together, they will begin to arc or “bow” slightly if you sew them all starting at the same end. This is because the feed-dogs will pull the bottom piece of fabric differently than the top strip that glides with less resistance under the presser foot. One way to minimize this “bowing” is to alternate directions the seams are sewn. For example, sew the first strip to the middle strip going one direction, then change and sew the third strip to the middle strip starting at the opposite end.

After the strips are sewn together, press seams to one side. (I’m a side presser.) Press seams from the top and use the point of the iron to make sure the fabrics are fully open and the seams are flat. I like to use a hot, dry iron so I don’t distort my strips.

When strips are pieced, return to the mat. Trim the selvage edges. Again, flip the newly squared edge to your left (or to the right if you’re left handed) so you can use your ruler as your guide to get your new units cut accurately.

When you go to cut your units from the strip-set, place the ruler over the top of the strip-set and measure the desired width you want to cut. Lay a straight line on the ruler directly over one of the seams (see arrow in photo) to keep your strips square in the new unit. (Don’t use the top or bottom edge of the strip-set as your guide as these edges will still bow slightly.)

Cut your units off the strip-set (in this case cut squares 3 1/2″ wide). You will get 12 squares from each strip set, for a total of 36 squares measuring 3 1/2″ x 3 1/2″. (When making any Rail Fence block from a strip-pieced set just cut the width of the unit to the same measurement as the height of the pieced-set.)

As you cut units from the strip-pieced set, keep the straight line of the ruler lined-up on one of the seams. Because of the slight bowing of the strip-set, you will need to square-off the edge again after every few cuts. It’s worth it to keep your units square!

After you’ve cut all of your units, lay them out six across by six down. By rotating the blocks, you can get a variety of designs.

This is the design I chose. Sew the squares into rows of six blocks each.

Press the seams toward the vertical blocks. This will help the seams to nest together when you sew the rows together. For the borders, cut two 2″ x width of fabric strips from your yardage. Sub cut them into an 18 1/2″ and a 21 1/2″ strip from each strip. Sew the 18 1/2″ strips to opposite sides of the pieced portion. Press seams to the borders. Add final 21 1/2″ strips to the top and bottom of the quilt and press seams to borders.

To make this same design into a 40″ x 40″ baby quilt: Cut six strips 2 1/2″ x width of fabric from three different colors. Cut four 2 1/2″ strips for borders. Make six strip-sets. Cut each strip-set into six squares 6 1/2″ x 6 1/2″. Add borders.

You can see more variations and options for strip-pieced Rail Fence-inspired designs on this Rail Fence Pinboard.

Strip sets can also be used to cut smaller units to use to make blocks such as these nine-patch blocks.

The options are endless, but the basics are all the same. Using good strip-piecing techniques can be a huge time-saver when it comes to quilt-making! For more tips and patterns take a look at Fabulously Fast Quilts.

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8 Responses to Strip Piecing: Rail Fence Block with Amy Smart

  1. Karen says:

    I loved this Rail Fence. I’m a recycled quilter. I first learned in 1982 and then due to family, work, etc. got away from it until I retired this past January. I actually feel like a beginner again as so much has changed. I found a great teacher at my LQS where I’ve been taking classes ever since I retired. I just can’t get enough of it. I was wondering if jelly rolls would work for the Rail Fence?

  2. Debby says:

    I love this block. I once made the rail fence blocks for a quilt for my father-in-law when he was very sick. I mailed separate blocks to friends and family, with fabric pens to write words of encouragement, prayers and scripture verses on the lightest stripe. They mailed them back to me and I put the quilt together. I included “blank” blocks, so visitors to my in-laws could sign and leave messages. It was the perfect block for that kind of gift – easy to do and complete. Thanks for your thorough tutorial!

  3. Amy Smart says:

    You could get a third fabric if you want to – but here is a similar project that is fun and fast with just two fabrics:

  4. Rona, did you ever make the quilt you talk about here in the comments? I am making quilts like there’s going to be a fabric shortage (my husband chuckles) and this rail fence looks like a fun one. Did you get a solid fabric to go with your blue and yellow prints? I’d love to see what you made…

  5. Sharon Powless says:

    Yes, you can use just two fabrics if you want. I would make the strips wider though. That is a personal preference.

  6. Rona says:

    You make this look so easy! I love this and want to make one myself because I am new to the world of quilting (again. the last time I made quilts I was a very young girl and my granny taught me). But I was wondering if I can make a strip quilt using only two fabrics? I have some material that I purchased to make a quilt for a co-worker that just had a baby and I have just two different, but coordinating fabrics (yellow and blue with clowns and circus theme). Do I need to get another fabric that is maybe a solid?

  7. Sue H says:

    Amy, I follow your blog and you really seem to have it all together in spite of leading such a full & busy life. Thanks for all the tips of strip-piecing. I’m currently in a Round Robin in my guild and I was planning on using Rail Fence piecing for July’s round!

  8. Sondra says:

    Have to get this book! Adorable quilt.

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