1-minute tutorial for quilters on aligning seams

A reader asked me for tips on aligning seams when you’re sewing a bunch of blocks together. What I have learned in 25 years of making quilts is that if you don’t correct small mistakes at the beginning they become big mistakes by the end — meaning, if you’ve made a cutting mistake or a sewing mistake along the way, fix it before you proceed because it will cause bigger problems down the road.

Here are my quick tips for making things line up:

1. The more accurately you cut, the easier it will be to align seams.

2. Check the size of your blocks before you pin them together. If they are different sizes, either re-sew the small ones to the correct size or trim all of the blocks down to the size of the smallest.

3. Start pinning at the seam intersections, not at the end of the row. You can always trim the ends off but aligning at the intersections is what you’ll notice most in the finished quilt.

4. If you’ve pressed open your seams, insert the pin through the seam of both pieces to be sewn at exactly the point where the needle will hit — usually 1/4″ from the raw edge. With practice you’ll be able to eyeball that 1/4″. You needn’t sit there with a ruler but the idea is that you want to stabilize the points that need to match up.

5. Don’t remove the pins as you’re sewing until they are just about to go under the presser foot. I once sewed over a pin and the needle hit the pin and broke the needle. Luckily I was wearing glasses at the time but the end of the needle flew into my glasses. So I don’t advocate sewing over pins.

My last bit of advice on this is to not think of craftsmanship as an all or nothing proposition. My first quilt in 1987 had mediocre craftsmanship but but aim was to get a little better with each project. Most of us don’t use fine motor skills on a daily basis that’s any finer than keyboarding so it takes awhile to develop control over a rotary cutter and pins. Don’t get discouraged if your craftsmanship isn’t perfect, just aim for doing a little better over time.

9 Comments

  1. Posted February 22, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing how you align your seams. I have to admit that I don’t usually measure my completed blocks. Going to start measuring now. I’m sure that will solve lots of potential problems. :)

  2. Mary
    Posted February 24, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Your comment about accurate cutting reminded me of a question I’ve always had: Is the yellow line on the cutting mat or the black line on the acrylic ruler supposed to be part of the piece I am cutting, or outside of the piece I am cutting? When quilters write pattern instructions, what are the assuming? Or doesn’t it matter as long as I do it exactly the same way with every cut?

  3. Posted February 24, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    @Mary – I can only speak for us but we assume that you’re cutting through the middle of the line on the cutting mat when we write pattern instructions. We’re also assuming that you’re using a scant 1/4″ seam allowance because that fold in the fabric when the seam is pressed takes up a smidge. This may seem obsessive to some but especially when you’re working with curves or insetting circles that kind of precision makes things easier. The whole idea is that if you start off precisely you build in a buffer when you seam allowance isn’t perfect or your ruler is a bit off. If you begin with pieces that are 1/4″ off, the problems will only increase. It’s hard to absorb errors later in the process.

  4. Posted February 24, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    What do you mean by aligning seams? I know I must know this and call it something else? Is this only an issue if you press seams open?

  5. Posted February 24, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    @Jaye – It has nothing to do with how you press. Aligning seams is the same thing as matching points. I use the term seam alignment because there are instances I won’t go into in which you are visually aligning a seam with one that’s not next to it – say a row over or something – so it isn’t always a matter of matching points that are actually adjacent to one another. In most instances in quilting you want seams to line up. If you’re sewing a grid of blocks, arcs of a circle or a star, you want those seams to appear to be a continuous line, not staggered. You want the intersections to line up. Does that make sense?

  6. Nanette
    Posted February 27, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Those are really helpful tips, so glad you posted that information.

  7. jem-fl
    Posted March 4, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for clear directions.
    Every step helps in improving your skill!

  8. pam
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    Weeks…I so appreciate your thoughtful comments about getting a little better as you go. That’s very encouraging as your (and Bill!) work is exquisite!

  9. Jennifer
    Posted December 1, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    This helped me so much. Thank you for sharing.


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. [...] had mediocre craftsmanship but but aim was to get a little better with each project.” in her blog post from February 22, 2012. I am not sure what she means, earlier in the post, about aligning seams, [...]

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