Okay, here goes…
These are some of the things that help me when I make small quilts. Use what makes sense to you and ignore the rest. I am not an expert and I haven’t invented anything new here, just passing along a little information.
1) Buy the best
Use 100%, quilt shop quality fabric. It might seem like the cost is higher but in the long run it’s worth it. You are putting hours of work into your quilt, you don’t want the colors to run if it gets wet or fade because the fabric is poor quality; in addition piecing is easier and more consistent with high quality fabric. If you don’t have a stash you can purchase fat quarter or fat eighth bundles and you will have plenty to work with in no time.
There are differing opinions on this but I prefer to prewash everything except pre-cuts (charm packs, jelly rolls and layer cakes). A very nice vendor at a quilt show shared this: agitate your fabric gently in the sink to prevent strings and raveling then dry with low heat. I like to press all my fabric right away and use Magic Sizing to return body. The sizing also makes the fabric easier to handle while piecing.
3) Oversize then trim
There are many methods for making standard block elements like half square triangles and flying geese units. For half square triangles my favorite is to make them slightly oversize then trim to the desired size with a ruler designed for this purpose (Bias Square ruler from ‘That Patchwork Place’ is one). I do the same with flying geese units and square-in-square blocks, make them oversize then trim down. Though it involves extra steps, I find it easier to get accurate finished blocks this way so it saves time and frustration in the end.
4) Step back
Find or create a design area. This could be a 3′ x 4′ foam board covered with batting or felt, a wall in your sewing room or even the floor. The idea is to lay out your pieces then step back or walk away. I will often lay a quilt out on my studio floor then leave it for a day or two and see if any blocks jump out as I’m working or walking past. If they do – into the scrap box with the offender.
5) Small stitches
Use a small stitch stitches when piecing small quilts and blocks. My machine stitch selection runs from 1 to 4, when piecing I set it to 2, when sewing on binding or working on larger blocks I set it to 2.5. If your machine has a speed setting, set it to slow or slower. This helps prevent smaller pieces from being ‘eaten’ by the feed dogs.
6) Press for success
Press don’t iron your piecing and blocks. In other words put the iron straight down on your work not in a side to side or back and forth motion as this can stretch blocks out of shape. I like to use steam for a couple of reasons; 1) if a piece of fabric is going to shrink, I want that to happen before I’ve pieced my block and 2) most seams lie flatter with steam. Usually seam allowances are pressed to one side (the darker fabric) but there are times when pressing them open works best to reduce bulk. Most well written books and patterns will let you know which way to press to get the best result. A small travel iron set up near your sewing machine is a convenient way to press as you go.
With color, shapes, designs, borders, all of it. The pieces and blocks in a small quilt are, well, small. So you can cut a couple of 2″ squares, lay them in the design and if they don’t work, no harm done, pull them out and put them in your scrap box for another quilt. I have found that adding an ‘ugly’ fabric or two can make a quilt more appealing. The same holds true when adding bright colors like yellow or double pink to a quilt with mostly dark traditional fabrics, just a little spices things up and really adds interest. Brown and tan often work well as a setting or border to calm a busy quilt down.
8) Save the scraps
I used to toss (or donate) anything that wasn’t at least an eighth of a yard. When I started making small quilts, scraps went into a plastic box. Well that got out of control so I sorted them into 2 boxes, one for lights and one for darks. When that got out of hand because of all the different shapes and sizes I sorted them further by size into 4 boxes – so small (4″ or less) darks and lights and larger darks and lights. Sounds crazy but it’s so much easier, for me at least, to pull the appropriate box when I’m putting something together and not have to dig through a pile. So save your scraps, you never know when you might need just a little piece of something to brighten up a block and it’s a way to use every bit of that special piece of fabric that you really love.
9) Cotton batting
Cotton batting such as ‘Warm and Natural’ is perfect for small quilts. The quilt top and backing stick to cotton a little better than polyester when you’re pinning or basting. It is thin enough to hand quilt through easily and shrinks nicely if you want to wash your quilt for a vintage look.
10) Narrow binding
Most of the time I use narrow, single fold binding. I found double fold binding felt too heavy and looked awkward on my small quilts. I cut strips 1 3/8″ wide, a little odd I know, but 1 1/4″ doesn’t seem to leave enough for me to turn under and 1 1/2″ seems to be to much. Experiment a bit and find what works best for you. I use my hand quilting needle to stitch the binding to the back of the quilt – again a little odd I guess but I’m so used to working with that size needle I can get a nice small, hidden stitch with it.