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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

8 Ways to Improve Your Quilters' 1/4 inch?

On October 1, 1908 the first Model T Ford rolled off the assembly line. It weighed 1,200 pounds and could zoom along at a breathtaking 40 mph. The assembly line car was affordable at only $825 (under $20,000 in today's economy.) Using a moving assembly line, the car was simple enough in design that unskilled workers could build thousands of them every week.

The key to the success of the Model T was non-customization. When Henry Ford began making cars on an assembly line, he was quoted as saying, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."

Just like the Ford assembly line, if you want consistently sized blocks you gotta sew consistently sized seams.   
Some quilters like to say, “It doesn't matter how big your seam allowance is, as long as it's the same throughout the quilt.”

That's only partly true, and only true if you are talking about just 1 – 2 threads difference in size.

If you are making a quilt where all the blocks are identical, a "Model T quilt" if you will, you could possibly get away with using a “customized” seam allowance... at least until you add the rest of the parts, such as a border.

When your pattern says cut a border strip 72” long, but you've been using a 3/8” seam allowance, that border will be off by an inch or more.

And if the quilt has identical blocks with sashings between, you'll have to adjust all the measurements of all the sashings, in addition to the borders.

Furthermore, how many quilts do you make that only use identical blocks? I've never made one.

I promise, your best bet is learning to make a consistent, scant 1/4” seam allowance. 

You can “quilt out” a lot of mistakes. Fabric is very forgiving. But it's much easier to avoid mistakes than to work around them. 

If Henry Ford had been speaking about quilt patterns rather than cars, he may have said something like: “It doesn't matter how big your seam allowance is so long as it's what is written in the pattern.”

Why a quarter inch? Why not 3/8” or 7/16”? The answer is simple: Ease of use. Can you imagine trying to sew a consistent 7/16" seam allowance?

I've never understood why garment sewists use a 5/8" allowance. Why not 1/2"? Maybe that's why I don't sew clothes.
If you know why clothes are sewn with a 5/8" allowance, let us all know in the comments.
If you use a metric system, I would imagine quilting patterns would be written using 1 cm seam allowances. (That's a guess. I don't speak metric.)

The objective is to sew far enough from the edge that the stitching won't fray out, but close enough that you don't have a lot of bulk in the seams.

Why a scant 1/4”? Why not just a 1/4”?

Have you ever tried to fold a regular sheet of paper in half 6 times? The first couple of folds are easy. Paper has a thickness of nearly nothing. Nothing folded in half is still nothing, right?

It's that word “nearly” that gets you.

When you create a seam, you are sewing fabrics with “nearly” no thickness, with a thread that has“nearly” no thickness. Then you fold the the fabric around the thread. The folded fabric has to go around itself and around the thread. We sew the seam two or three threads “scant” of a quarter inch to accommodate the fabric going around itself and the thread.

It may seem like “nearly” nothing, but it adds up.

Those few threads make or break the correct measurement of the blocks, so we're good long as we maintain that scant 1/4” from beginning to end of the seam.

How to improve your consistent scant quarter inch seam allowance.

First, let's start with a baseline test.

For this test you'll need 3 fabric rectangles size 1 ½” x 3 1/2”
  • Begin by sewing the long sides of the rectangles using your usual sewing technique.
  • Look at your seams. Are they straight and even? Do they begin at a scant 1/4” and end the same?
  •  Now press the seams in your usual way, open or to one side.
  • Look at the block from the top. Are there any puckers where the fabric folds somewhere other than right against the seam?
  • Look at the block from the bottom. Do the seam allowances lay flat? Are there puckers?
Now for the final test... Ready?
  • Get a ruler. Lay it down on your piece. It should be a perfect 3 1/2” square. The center rectangle should be 1” wide from top to bottom. The 2 side rectangles should each be 1 1/4” wide from top to bottom.

How did you do? Give yourself an honest evaluation. What do you need to tweak for a perfect seam?

Here are some ideas of what you can do to get those consistent seam allowances.

This is NOT a comprehensive list. It's just a few tips I've picked up along the way.
  • The first, and simplest way to correct the problem is to look at your seams and check for variances as we did with the test above. Are your seams straight? Do they follow a scant 1/4” from start to end, or do they “wander” at the ends? Sometimes you can fix issues just by being aware of them.

    Sometimes you have to go back and resew the seam to correct the wandering seam as in the photo.

  •  If you have wobbly seams, or you are not sewing in a straight line:

    • Practice straight sewing using a piece of lined paper. You don't need fabric, or thread for that matter. Just run your needle down one line, turn the paper around and go down the next line. The needle will leave perforations so you can check your work. 

    • If you worry about paper dulling your needle (which it won't), keep a used needle around just for paper practice. Run a few lines before you begin a sewing session to get your mind and muscles prepared for straight line sewing. 

  • Check your posture. Try to sit so your elbows are at a 90 degree angle with your work. Keep your feet flat on the floor... well... as much as you can if you are using a foot controller. Keeping your body aligned will help fight fatigue, and keep your seams aligned as well. 

  • Use a patchwork foot. There are two kinds of patchwork foots (feet?... Hmmm) that I use. There are also some helpful work-arounds: 
    • On the center foot in the photo below, called a patchwork foot, the right side is made to be 1/4” from where the needle lands. The idea is to keep your sewing edge even with the edge of the patchwork foot. In theory it should also align with the 1/4” markings on your machine. If you use this foot with a machine that has an adjustable needle, be sure to center your needle before sewing. Just sayin....

    • The other foot shown, called a quarter inch guide foot, has a guide along the right edge. When you insert your fabric under the needle you snug it against the guide. As long as you are feeding your fabric along the guide you'll have a 1/4” seam. This foot allows for an adjustable needle so you'll need to know where your needle needs to land to make the scant 1/4” seam. When my needle is centered I get a 1/4” seam, so I move it one tick to the right for a scant 1/4” seam allowance.

    • You don't need a foot for a guide. A stack of painter's tape or posty notes will stick where you need them and do the same job. Just make sure to make accurate measure of the guide in relation to where the needle falls.
    • There are dozens of gadgets to help with this. Do a Google search for 1/4” seam guide.
  • Use leaders and enders

    • These small bits of fabric have more names than uses - and they have a lot of uses. I try to make them from fabric similar to what I'm sewing. So if I'm sewing 2 layers of cotton I use about 2x3 inch rectangles of 2 layers of cotton. Run a “leader” under the needle before you feed your project. That stabilizes the thread so you always get a well formed stitch at the beginning and end of your seam. They are especially useful when chain piecing. Put one through first and also one at the end of the chain. Snip off the chain leaving the “ender” to be the “leader” for the next chain.

    • If your machine is prone to birds nests, that will happen under your leader, not your project. However, if you are getting birds nests, there is something else going on as well. Try changing your needle and cleaning your machine. Also remember to hold onto the bobbin and spool threads before you begin stitching. Anchoring the threads will fix most of the birds nest problems as well as keeping the needle from pushing your fabric into the abyss. 
    • Using an ender will also help your seam from drifting to the right at the end of the seam. It's all about feeding the seam straight under the needle.
  • Are you using pins? Don't. 

    • I know this one is hard to hear. Sorry. Pins are a catch 22. They are convenient and almost always hold your seams together just like you need them to. It's that word “almost” that causes the problem. If you are just sewing 2 fabrics together with a long straight seam. Fine, use pins, no problem. Too often a pin needs to hold a seam with more than just 2 layers, or a short seam on a small piece of fabric. Often inserting the pin puckers the fabric and distorts your seam. Yuck.

    • Sometimes, however, you just need to use pins. They were necessary in the Turkey Trivet. As I said, a catch 22.
  • Use Washable School glue to prevent fabric shifting.

    • Washable glue is a great alternative to pins... not just any glue. It must be Washable School Glue. Some also say it must be Elmer's Washable School glue. Elmer's Washable school glue is great and Washable glue is cheap. If you want to spend $1 for the name brand Washable School glue rather than 75 cents for the generic Washable, go right ahead. But you don't have to. Generic Washable School glue is fine so long as it says WASHABLE on the bottle. Need me to say Washable School Glue one more time or can you take it from here? Good.

    • I've discussed all about glue and glue tips in a previous post. Read about my preferred tools here.
As mentioned before, this list is in no way comprehensive regarding tools and tricks to improve your consistent, scant 1/4” seam allowance. Nothing beats practice.

  • Practice and evaluate! Practice Practice Practice!

Do the seam allowance test we did before. See where your seams are at and what needs attention. If you need to, keep a stack of 1 1/2” x 3 1/2" rectangles close by so you can do the test often. (You can also fold them in half and use them as leaders or enders when the dog has eaten, or wandered off with all of your used ones...)

Leave a comment below to share your best tricks for keeping a consistent scant 1/4” seam allowance.

And, as always, don't forget to FOLLOW!

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