Sewing small…

While a 6″ finished block with 1″ x 2″ flying geese isn’t really that small, it is when you’re used to working with bigger pieces and blocks.

Those bow-ties are huge, aren’t they?  Actually, each one measures 2-1/2″ x 2-1/2″ and will finish at 2″ x 2″.  Lisa Bongean.  She knows all about tiny pieces – lots and lots of teeny, tiny pieces.  This is her spectacular Bow Tie Quilt – before it was finished.

As part of the Blockheads sew-along, Lynne Hagmeier of Kansas Troubles has been answering some piecing questions as they come up on her blog and in the Blockheads Facebook Group.  The questions have started at the beginning and over the course of the next few months, she’ll be exploring piecing, appliqué, her layered patchwork and anything else she can think of.  And you can think of!  If you have a question, please feel free to ask – here or on Lynne’s blog.

I confess to getting a little bit behind with the questions – quelle surprise! – so we’ll get caught up today, and I’ll share a few other tips that I use when piecing smaller.

Some of the 1-1/2″ x 1-1/2″ finished nine-patches I started making several years ago for a project.  (I think I still need 300 of them.)

Question No. 1 – Where do I stand on pre-washing fabrics?

For garments?  Always.  For quilting?  Rarely.  It’s a matter of time and the fact that I use so many pre-cuts – Layer Cakes and Charm Packs.  I used to wash everything, partly out of habit and partly because that’s what garment-sewers do.  But then I would be pressing each piece with starch or sizing – more on that in a moment – and it took forever!  (And no, that’s not a dramatic over-exaggeration.)

Then I started using charm packs – a lot of charm packs! – and pre-washing wasn’t really an option.  So I did a little research and figured out that many of the reasons we pre-wash fabrics didn’t apply to quilting, that it had become a matter of personal preference.

Shrinkage?  If the finished quilt top, batting and backing have no been pre-washed, they will shrink at about the same rate.  The three layers have also been stitched together – quilted – to give it additional stability.  Washing the quilt after not pre-washing the fabric also gives the finished that soft, puckered, quilt-y look that most of us love.

Color bleeding or running?  While there can still be some excess dye in a fabric – especially a batik – most fabrics are finished in a manner that eliminates that.  A Color Catcher dye magnet sheet is additional insurance against that happening.

So the only time I pre-wash fabric is when I’m going to make a garment.  Which means I don’t pre-wash much fabric.

Question No. 2 – Do I starch my fabrics before or during piecing?

Yes!  Like Lynne, I prefer spray sizing because it seems to penetrate the fabric a little bit more.  Though I will confess that sometimes the fabric is a little bit stiff because I have been a little heavy-handed with the sizing.

I have been experimenting again recently with Stay-Flo, the mix-it-up-yourself starch concentrate as it lets me dip and dry.  Used at a 3:1 ratio of water to Stay-Flo, it’s giving me the body I like without making it too stiff.

In addition to adding a crispness to the fabric, I like that this “prepping” step also pre-shrinks the fabric a bit.  That’s a good thing for me since I press with steam.  A lot of steam.

Drying?  I recommend a laundry-drying rack made of plastic or plastic-coated metal.  You can find mine in the bathtub of the spare bathroom.  To make it easier to use with layer cake, charm squares and scraps, I used small zip-ties to join four cooling racks together to make a rectangle that I simply lay on top of the rack.  The squares-pieces are dipped or sprayed and layered, then left to dry.  (In fact, I have fabric drying as you read this… Market is coming.)

Merry Go Round by American Jane – mini charm squares.  Not pre-washable.

Seam allowance.  The smaller the piecing, the more important it is to have an accurate seam allowance.  Simply put, there’s less leeway for easing and fudging.  My favorite tool for checking and marking the proper scant 1/4″ seam allowance is still Perkins Dry Goods Perfect Piecing Seam Guide.

Best. Tool. Ever.  Every sewing kit needs one.

Stilettos & Awls.  Another tool that helps me when accuracy is required is a stiletto – or any long point-y thing that helps guide the piece under the presser foot and keep it straight.  If putting a piece of metal near the needle makes you nervous, there is That Purple Thang.

There are also bamboo stilettos – I like this one from Collins.  A good friend swears by the 4-in-1 Essential Sewing Tool from Alex Anderson and C&T.

While these are usually called stilettos, they’re also called awls.  The Clover Curved Awl at the top is what I use when I reach for this kind of tool.

Do you like piecing small blocks?  Have you got any tips to share?  Or any questions?

Happy Tuesday!

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20 comments on “Sewing small…

  1. David says:

    My favourite awl is the clover ball-point. It’s probably my most-used tool at my sewing machine next to thread snips. When it comes to sewing tiny pieces, accuracy is paramount, so I take things extra slow. If my needle is a blur, then I’m sewing too quickly.

    • Carrie Nelson says:

      How is it that I hadn’t heard of these magical tools until just a week or so ago? You’re probably the fifth person to tout the benefits of this must-have tool… the one I’d never even heard of. I really have to get out more. 🙂 To anywhere I can buy a Clover Ball-Point Awl – the one with the blue handle.

      As for the needle… if I can see that there’s a needle in the machine, I’m not sewing fast enough! lol

  2. richyjr says:

    My favorite tool to use is a seam ripper… I use it like the awl. I use the tip to keep the two seams together as it goes under the needle. I almost never pin either. In fact I pretty much only pin when I start to put the rows together. I rarely have to rip a seam but in case it is always there. I also find it is helpful to have a shorter stitch length and finger press before pressing with steam. I also press at each and every step.

  3. Adeline says:

    I love to use my Creative Grids Itty Bitty square and rectangular rulers with 1/8th inch grids designed by Lisa Bongean.

  4. Susan J. says:

    Morning Carrie – No, I never pre-wash fabric. Yes, I use Color Catchers. In fact, if I’m giving a quilt as a gift, I take a ziploc bag and include washing instructions, extra fabric scraps from the quilt and a Color Catcher! Yes, I do use spray starch all precuts – on the reverse side – I think it “grabs” the starch better.

    Question on the “sizing”. Do you find it penetrates the fabric better and gives it more body? Also, do you dip the pieces until they are really wet then “drip” dry?

    Thanks for all the tips today – Sue

  5. Sandra B says:

    I love piecing small….I am predominately a hand piecer, so small is good! When I do happen to piece by machine, I use an old wooden knitting needle as a stiletto….works great! For pressing, with small projects, I typically finger press until the block is finished, then I press with steam, and I like pressing the seams open to eliminate bulk…I find it makes for a better appearance in the end…. Pre-washing? Never…. I have never had any bad experiences caused by not pre-washing, and skipping the pre-wash means I can get to the stitching quicker!!

  6. Renee M. says:

    Regarding “Sewing Small”…check out the June Tailor “Perfect Half Square & Quarter Square Triangles” ruler. It goes from 1-1/2 cut to 6-1/2 cut units. I used it for the four-x blockhead block
    (2-1/2 cut) and made several of them with great success.

  7. I couldn’t do small pieces without my bloc-loc rulers. Accuracy is a must and making bigger and then trimming down makes everything fit together better.

  8. Janet O. says:

    I make LOTS of minis (47 finished just last year), and a few of my tips for accuracy are using fine thread (like Aurifil), using lots of very slim pins that I can sew over, and slowing down my stitching speed. A stiletto does come in handy sometimes, but I have never used starch, and I don’t prewash. Isn’t it great that there are so many options of ways to come to the same end–a beautiful little quilt!

  9. ginny says:

    what about prewashing flannel??

    • Pris Phillips says:

      I prewash flannel if it’s the cheap kind. If purchased from a quilt shop, I don’t preshrink the good quality flannel (per my local shop’s recommendation).

  10. Cathy says:

    Hi Carrie, Thanks for all the great tips. I am also working on Lisa Bongean’s Triangle Gatherings and challenging myself to make 3.5″ blocks. I am using Primitive Gatherings Triangle papers which for me, is a necessity. I also in a quick hurray, will grab a wooden orange stick (the kind for fingernails) and use it for a stiletto, to turn inside corners out, & to hold seams open while pressing. I love the Blockhead patterns first because they are so pretty and secondly because so many awesome designers are contributing. It provides us participants the opportunity to learn different ways of making the same block which has been great for me. Love love love your and Lynn’s Blog. Thanks so much.

  11. Hildy says:

    Thanks for your tips! I love to make small block and when thing that really helps me is to press all the time. I don’t prewash or starch but I always give my fabrics a good press before I cut and after every step on my sewing machine I’m using my iron again. I alomst never use pins becasue I’m better with just eyeballing it and tuck the fabrics with my fingers.

  12. Julie Hardgrave says:

    Carrie, my ballpoint awl from Clover came from Moda! Walk out in the warehouse!!! I found out about it at the very first Moda Camp. I think it was Alma who talked about it! It is used constantly by me! I think you will like it!

  13. Sue Chisholm says:

    I don’t prewash but I do steam press fabrics before using which usually catches any tendency to shrink. Started doing this when a fabric I thought was okay sucked it up heavily when pressing it in a ninepatch block.

  14. Frankie says:

    I have never quilted a small block quilt but I am interested in the one featured on this post. Is the small version bow tie pattern available. Many years ago I pieced a bow tie quilt and really enjoyed the outcome.

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