Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Building Blocks: Nine-Patch Know-How

Here's the thing about strip piecing a nine patch block -- as long as you use the same measurement every time you cut, it doesn't matter what measurement you use. You'll see what I mean.

Take your 45" wide dark cotton fabric and fold it so you can cut a 45" strip off one edge using your rotary cutter (ruler and cutting mat). Start by trimming the fabric to a straight line.

Cut a strip Two and a Half (2.5) inches wide (by 45"). You'll need four of these from the dark fabric.

Take your second contrasting (light) fabric and do the same. You'll need five of those.

Now go to the sewing machine. Remember we're using quarter inch seam allowances.

Put the right sides of the fabric together and sew a dark strip to a light strip (along the 45 inch length). Do that three times. Don't freak out if the strips are different lengths -- textile manufacturers don't seem to always agree on how wide 45 inches really is.

As you sew you can use a method called chain stitching. It's a sort of assembly line method. When you're doing several seams/units that are the same don't worry about stopping after each one, just sew one right after another. That's called chain stitching you can snip the threads between them when you're done sewing. I find it cuts down a lot on the amount of wasted threads.

Now press your seams. (We will be pressing our seams towards the dark side for this block).

Back to the sewing machine. You should have three identical sewn strip units and two light un-sewn strips and one dark un-sewn strip left.

Sew a dark strip to the light side of the first sewn unit.

Then a light strip to the dark side of the second sewn unit.

And the light strip to the dark side of the third sewn unit.

And press. Go towards the dark side -- and that isn't really meant to be a Star Wars reference although it certainly sounds like it could be one.

Now we go back to the cutting mat. Begin by trimming off the selvage edges so you have a straight line. You can see my preshrunk blue batik is a good two inches shorter than my unwashed yellow fabric. Just trim off the extras and the selvage edges and start with a straight edge -- not a big deal.

[I prefer unwashed fabrics, for the puckering effect, but I wash my batiks and some darker fabrics because they tend to bleed a little.]

Next, our measurement was Two and a Half (2.5) inches, so cut at 2.5 inches so that you have three 2.5 inch squares already sewn together. Don't you love it?

Cut all the strips down like that. (And stack them in three fun this is what the block will look like stacks, or not, your call there.) You should have twice as many of the light-dark-lights as you do of the dark-light-darks.

Take one row of light-dark-light squares, and one row of dark-light-dark squares and pin them together at the corners of the center square. You'll notice that the seams butt up against each other going opposite ways, this will cut down on bulk and also helps lock the seam in place for crisp corners.
We're still using quarter inch seam allowances. Sew. And Press. This time you can press the seam anyway you want -- I'm pressing mine open for less bulk but you don't have to.

Now, to the other side of the dark-light-dark row sew another row of light-dark-light the same way. Pin, seam, press. You finished a block! (Don't forget to press it flat.)

Our 2.5 inch measurement makes a (six) 6 inch finished block -- it's 6.5 inches right now because it still has quarter inch seam allowance around the outer edges. Six inch blocks means you need to do a bunch of them to make a quilt. You'll need 42 six inch blocks (seven rows by six rows) to make a baby quilt that's 36 inches by 42 inches.

Are you impatient? I am too ....ummm.... make that really busy. So here's something we can do to make the quilt top work up faster, simply change our cutting measurement. Strips cut at 3.5 inches will make a 9 inch block, or 4.5 inches makes a 12 inch block and 5.5 inches will make a 15 inch block (although you need really interesting fabric to carry off a nine-patch block that big). There are all sorts of sizes in between too, as long as you always use the same cutting measurement it doesn't matter what size you're working with. Isn't that great?

Another way to make a bigger with our smaller blocks, and make it faster, is to use an alternate block, a solid square of fabric is the easiest alternate block but there are lots of different options, and sashing too can be narrow or wide making a difference in the size and look of the quilt top.

Is anyone else hearing a voice that says "Tune in next time for the continuing saga of P i g s I n S p a c e . . ." or is that just me and my Muppets?
In my next Building Blocks I'll take a look at simple Irish chains, alternate blocks, sashing, and other ways to spice up and finish up your nine patch.

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