Do You Chain Piece?

Chain piecing… not a method of making jewelry, but an efficient way to stitch fabric pieces together.

The other day I read a post by a new quilter. She commented about hesitating to try a quilt made of triangles, because of all those threads tangled underneath! Extra piecing — triangles rather than squares — would mean extra threads to trim.

I’m a thread picker, myself. If there are ends of threads protruding from seam lines, I diligently pick or snip them off. So I understand her concern about having even more threads to wrangle! But there’s an easy way to reduce that, and it’s chain piecing.

Simply put, chain piecing is sewing multiple pairs of patches without cutting threads between. The “chain” comes from the few stitches between patches.

A few stitches chain the patches together.

Why would you want to do this? I can think of five reasons.
1) It reduces the tangling or knotting of thread at the beginning of stitching.
2) It decreases the amount of thread used.
3) It keeps your patches in order, making it easier to move to the next step.
4) It reduces time involved, compared to the stitch-cut-stitch-cut.
5) It reduces the thread ends on the underside of your quilt block or top.

While most helpful tips can have some downside, depending on your methods and preferences, I can’t think of any negative to chain piecing.

Here’s a description from the thread company Coats & Clark:

How does it work? Stack up the pieces for whatever you’re making in quantity. If it’s quilt blocks, place the adjacent pieces right sides together in a pile for easy retrieval. Pick up the first pair of pieces and put it under your presser foot. Stitch the seam, stopping at the edge of the pieces. NOW, don’t cut the threads or remove the stitched piece from the machine…simply feed in the next pair and continue seaming.

Leave just a bit of space (the thread chain) between the pieces, and keep going through your entire stack. But, there’s no need to stop there—pick up another stack of pieces that need seaming and keep going. You’ll see a chain of pieces exiting the sewing machine behind the presser foot.

See the whole post with some great photos to illustrate the process, too.

You can continue chaining throughout the piecing process.

And now they are 4-patches.

Thread bunnies… like the “rabbit” in a long-distance race, it leads the pack.

Even with chain piecing, some piece of fabric has to go under the needle first. Some people call that piece a thread bunny. The long tails of leading thread collect here, though I trim mine off. Once the crossing threads are thick, I throw it out and start another. Usually I use small trimmings from bindings, which give just enough surface to ensure the threads are not bunching and knotting underneath.

Besides using them at the beginning of a chain, I also end a chain with one. When I snip the last quilt patch unit from behind the needle, a bunny remains, ready to start the next chain.

Leaders and enders… not the rest of the runners in the race.

Some people use leaders and enders, rather than thread bunnies. This might sound mysterious. All it means is having another set of patches from another quilt ready to stitch, to use at the beginning and end of a series of your primary project. It works best if you have fairly uncomplicated piecing. Also scrappy designs work well, so you aren’t switching concentration from your primary project to the leader-ender project.

Bonnie Hunter explains the process at her Quiltville site.

Then a lightbulb went off. I took a bin of scrap 2″ squares that had been accumulating from trimming scraps down, and started using those as leaders/enders instead of a wadded up thread covered scrap. I would sew a light square to a dark square, trim off behind it…..and eventually have a stack of these little “two squares” that I would also use as leader/enders to sew into 4 patches….

She has great pictures on this page, too, of beautiful quilts made just this way.

So if you aren’t already a chain piecer, you may find it an efficient way to speed up and organize your piecing. And while you’re at it, give leaders and enders a try.

17 thoughts on “Do You Chain Piece?

  1. Pingback: Putting the Pieces Together | Orange You Joyful

  2. Trish

    I’ve found chain piecing to be more efficient as well–though I’ve only recently heard of leaders and enders and am fascinated!! Curious–do you backstitch the beginnings and ends of each piece or not worry about it?

    Reply
    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      I don’t worry about it, either at the beginning of the leader or on each piece. You’ll be crossing all those seams again soon, right? So they get reinforced anyway.

      The only time I do is when stitching on a long line, like an outside border, or rows together in a block quilt. But half the time I forget and nothing bad happens. 🙂

      Reply
  3. orangeyoujoyful

    What a wonderful post! Thank you for taking the time to explain this- I am new to quilting and never understood what chain piecing was. Having leaders and enders sounds like such an awesome idea! I must try this tomorrow when I assemble a few quilt blocks.

    Reply
    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      You’re very welcome! I was “lucky” to read my way through my first few years of quilting, and this is one of the earliest things I came upon.

      Have fun with your new craft. Don’t be afraid to ask if you have questions. I can’t speak for other people, but as far as I’m concerned, you can drop a question into any of my posts’ comment streams, whether it’s related or not. If I can help, I will.

      Reply
      1. orangeyoujoyful

        Thank you so much for the encouragement! I am having lots of fun. My goal is to finish my quilt this summer so I can use it at school in the fall. I will let you know if I have any questions!

        Reply
  4. KerryCan

    I feel like the guy in the Dos Equis ad: I don’t always machine piece but, when I do, I choose chain piecing! I really struggle with a sewing machine–not sure what my problem is. So, I often end up reverting back to hand piecing. I get a lot less done but at least I stay relaxed and sane!

    Reply
    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      There’s a wonderful quilt artist named Meg Prange. She does whimsical applique, all by hand including all quilting she does. A few years ago she disassembled her machine. Parts of it ended up as embellishment on many of her works. I saw her early in the month at an art festival. She has only ONE work left with pieces of her machine.

      As to sanity, I believe we should hold on to it any way that doesn’t hurt other people. Can’t think of anything about hand-piecing or quilting that would hurt someone else, so you go, girl!

      I am really glad I found your blog. It’s been a real pleasure beginning to get to know you. 🙂

      Reply
      1. KerryCan

        I feel the same way, Melanie–it’s one of the nicest surprises about blogging, meeting like-minded people! I will check out Meg Prange–she sounds like my kind of gal! I was very tempted to put my Bernina on the curb but then I traded it for a Singer Featherweight–much more my speed!

        Reply
  5. farmquilter

    Chain piecing was how I was taught with a “spider”, but now I try to do leaders/enders – get a “free” quilt pieced that way!!

    Reply
    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      I need to work on that. I’ve got a log cabin quilt to do (long-term goal). Seems like that would be pretty perfect for a leaders-enders project.

      Thanks for stopping to read and comment.

      Reply
  6. amyurb

    I chain piece but have never used a bunny or leader.I’ll have to try that. I also chain piece in sewing clothing whenever I can—-finishing raw edges on a facing, hemming small pieces, attaching cuffs, etc

    Reply
    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      Absolutely. Whenever two or more of them are … uh… Well. Anytime you need to sew 2 pieces together, it’s a good opportunity.

      SO my brain went here:

      🙂

      Reply
  7. Thread crazy

    Yes, I love to chain piece…and I use thread bunnies. Love sewing that way. I just finished making a bunch of flying geese and chain piecing is the only way to go.

    Reply
  8. lorene holbrook

    Oh Melanie! I LOVE to chain piece and I do it as leaders and enders. I am working on several UFOs right now. lots of half squares triangles and flying geese. I do 10 of one UFO and then 10 of the other UFO project. I just got back from visiting my parents in the cool mountains. by doing this, I completed 50 flying geese, 160 half sq triangles, 1 quilt top, and 2 more tops that just need the borders! I was rockin’! great blog today!!!!

    Reply
    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      I almost always chain piece, and almost always use a bunny. But I haven’t gotten a habit of leaders and enders. You’ve been super-efficient with yours, yes indeed, ROCKIN’!

      Thanks for taking a look. This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a while. Glad I finally got spurred to do so.

      Reply

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