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Quilting Basics Part 1- The 1/4" Seam

Quilting techniques and patterns vary widely but all quilts have four main components. Three of these components make a sandwich. The quilt top and backing are the bread sandwiching the batting in between. The fourth component is a seal around the edges of the quilt which is referred to as binding. Most quilt patterns are instructions for how to piece together a quilt top. From there, the same steps are generally used to finish a quilt so those instructions are usually not included in a quilt pattern but over this series of blog posts, I will go over how to make a quilt start to finish.

Just like in a recipe, there's a list of ingredients for quilting. Fabric of course is on the list but so are some tools. Having the right tools for the job makes all the difference. While there are a gazillion different quilting tools out there, there are only a few you really need to get started. In addition to fabric, you'll need a rotary cutter, a self healing mat, a clear acrylic ruler, pins, an iron, an ironing board, a sewing machine, coordinating thread, and batting. I go over these in more detail in upcoming posts.

Let's start by talking about making the quilt top. This is typically what people think of when talking about quilting but it's technically called piecing. This is taking smaller pieces of fabric and sewing them together to make a design. Traditional quilts take the smaller fabric pieces to make blocks then the blocks are assembled together to make the quilt top. Modern quilting sometimes uses this technique but more often is putting together larger pieces of fabric for bold designs. There are also art quilts which approach a quilt top more like a canvas and use varied techniques to create images using textiles. No matter the approach, if its a top, batting, and backing layered together, it's a quilt.

While there are quilters who make a quilt all by hand, most use a sewing machine. To piece together a quilt top, it is essential to make a consistent quarter inch seam allowance (the distance from the edge of the fabric to where the stitching lies). This is done by placing two of the smaller pieces of fabric together with the right sides facing each other and lining up the edge that needs to be sewn. Then this edge is pinned and stitched.

Using fine pins with large flat heads makes this step so much easier. I have learned to pin a lot. I even pin smaller seams. The feed dogs on sewing machines pull the bottom fabric. This makes the bottom layer of fabric move faster than the top fabric. Pinning helps move the fabric layers evenly. Because quilting uses such precise measurements and a small seam allowance, pinning pays off. Pinning is also particularly important when adding a border to a quilt top. If the border is not pinned, either it will end up bigger than the quilt and wavy so the borders do not lay flat or it will be shorter and you won’t have enough fabric in the corners to make a square quilt.

When pinning, place pins perpendicular to the fabric edge. This keeps the fabric from shifting side to side and affecting the precision of your piecing. While pinning takes time, it really pays off in the end in the quilting world.

Now that we've got pins in place, it is time to stitch the 1/4" seam. One trick to making a consistent 1/4" seam allowance is to use the edge of your presser foot as the guide by moving the needle position ¼" away from that edge. On my machine, I move the needle two notches to the right as shown and use the right edge of my standard presser foot to make a quarter inch seam.

A second trick is to leave the needle positioned in the center but apply painter’s tape on the ¼" marking on the throat plate to act as an easy to see guide.

Some manufactures make a ¼" presser foot specifically for piecing a quilt which may be the easiest way for some. There is no right way, stitch a few seams trying these different methods and then measure them to see how you can make the most consistent ¼" seams on your machine.

The real trick to making consistent seams, is keeping an eye on the fabric edge as it approaches the presser foot. If your eyes are on the needle, it’s already too late. Just like driving, you've got to keep your eyes looking ahead to give yourself time to make adjustments.

Happy Quilting! Quilting Basics Part 2 - Rotary Cutting


Hi! I'm Jen, a quilt pattern writer, product & fabric designer, mom, and retired nurse practitioner and certified nurse midwife. Whether you're new to quilting or making your 100th quilt, you're in the right place. Check out the tutorials, quilt patterns, coloring pages, and featured quilters. 

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