Tag Archives: Ergonomics

Accurate Piecing — That 1/4″ Seam

Intricate piecing can be beautiful, but every extra patch means an extra seam, and every extra seam means another opportunity for errors in sizing.

Consider the border I’m working on now. It’s just 24 half-square triangles that finish at 2″. The length of border should finish at 48″. Each of the 24 HST has only one seam. And there are 23 seams attaching the HST to each other to create the border. That’s 47 seams in total. Now, only consider the vertical seams attaching them to create the border length. If each seam allowance is off by 1/16″, that’s not much, right? But 1/16″ x 23 seams is 1 7/16″, or almost 1.5″. That doesn’t even include the error potential when making the HST.

So much for potential error. Here is the real thing. Here are two halves of one border strip. They really do have the same number of HST.


Each part is supposed to measure 24.5″, unfinished. The first one I made (top) is slightly short, so I adjusted the seam allowances so the bottom strip would be slightly longer. Oooops! It’s more than a half inch longer. Now I need to fix it by making a few seams wider, to take up the extra fabric.

Everyone faces the question sometimes of how to make a block or border fit. When I was a beginning quilter, I usually made block quilts. My seam allowances were usually too big, which meant my blocks were too small. I learned a lot of ways to improve my seam allowance, and a lot of ways to fake it or fix it. Here are a few.

It starts when you prep your fabric. Some people prefer to use washed fabric and some don’t. I strongly prefer washed, for multiple reasons. Either way, soon you will cut fabric, and before cutting, you need to press it. (Yes, you really do need to press it.) 

I press carefully with a hot steam iron, because cutting is more accurate on flat fabric. Many people recommend starching fabric to stiffen it. I do now and then, especially if I’m working with a cotton that’s flimsier than usual, but it isn’t part of my standard practice.

When’s the last time you changed your rotary cutter blade? If your cutter blade is dull, it will drag the fabric rather than slice through it. You may need to cut through parts multiple times, risking moving your ruler slightly. A sharp blade will give you better cuts with less force. A bonus is that sharp blades are less dangerous, too!

My cutting surface is a comfortable height for me to use while standing. It’s a plastic-topped, folding “buffet” table, the type that can be found at most discount stores. It is much too low by itself, but I have it raised with PVC pipes slipped over the legs. The pipes are cut to raise the table about 5 inches. Other people find that bed risers work well to raise their table. The extra height helps with comfort, but it also helps with precision, because I’m not bent so far over my work.

I stand with my shoulder directly lined up with the line of cutting, so my arm moves straight forward, not at an angle. This helps keep the blade moving in the right direction, so I don’t accidentally push the ruler offline.

Lighting is another element. Enough light, in front and above you, makes your work easier and more precise. Besides the overhead light, I have LED utility light strips on either side of the room where I cut.

As I was learning to quilt, two cutting strategies led to big improvements in my piecing. First, cutting along the selvage provides more accurate strips as compared to cutting across the width of fabric (WOF.) The grain is more stable and doesn’t shift as much when piecing. Besides that, you won’t need to worry about whether the fabric was cut from the bolt on grain. (It rarely is, which requires adjustment if cutting WOF. In addition, you may lose significant yardage when squaring up for cutting WOF.) If the selvage is gone, you can tell which direction is “with” the grain by which one has less stretch when you tug it.

Cutting along the selvage is especially important when cutting border strips. You’re much less likely to have waves and flares when attaching the border. (Of course, this also requires measuring the border length accurately, and pinning the strip in place before stitching.)

Second, don’t try to cut through more than four layers of fabric at a time. More layers are harder to cut through, requiring more force from you and increasing the opportunity to shift your ruler with the movement of the blade.

Finally, measure twice, cut once. Make sure the ruler lines are parallel to the lines on the mat (if using them) or lined up exactly with the edge of the fabric. Too often I’ve cut on a line crossing from 1/8″ to 1/4″, or that type of thing.

When you take precisely cut pieces to the sewing machine, how can you get good seam allowances? Again, ergonomics, or your comfort, plays into it. If you can, use a desk chair with adjustable height. You need to be able to see and reach your workspace easily to have good control.

Pins: sure, they take time. Time to put them in, time to take them out… they seem like a hassle. I rarely pin small units. But when I assemble bigger blocks I usually use them. And when I sew long lines, such as rows of blocks or borders, I pin a lot, every couple of inches. (Twice as many pins do not take twice as long to set or pull.) Thin pins are best, as they don’t distort the fabric and are easier for your machine to cross if you don’t pull them first. Pins also allow you to ease in the fabric without making little darts when the two pieces don’t match up exactly right.

I use a 1/4″ foot to make my seam allowances better. It has a little “fence” to guide my fabric edge. Still I need to know whether to nudge my fabric against the fence or leave a thread width away from it. Some machines have adjustable needle positions, but not all 1/4″ feet can accommodate a change in position. If not, you still need to be in charge.

If you don’t have a 1/4″ foot, there are a lot of sources for tips (here and here, for example) in getting a better seam allowance.

A key strategy to avoid my problem above is to check sizing regularly. Because my HST finish at 2″, each pair of HST should finish at 4″. A set of four of them should finish at 8″. If I had checked my piecing before stitching all the units together, I could have adjusted my seam allowances before creating the whole strip.

And no, you’re not done yet! Pressing a stitched unit or block is the last part of the puzzle. As with fabric prep, when you press units, use an up and down motion, rather than dragging the iron across. Most sources recommend pressing toward the darker fabric. Sometimes this is practical and sometimes not. You can find more tips for pressing here and here.

As you can see, there are a lot of different elements that play into piecing accuracy, not just your time at the machine. Little changes can add up to a lot!

What choices do you have when your piecing isn’t as good as you’d like? It depends on your need for perfection. One option you can always choose is to add some if the border or block is too small, or cut some off if it is too large. This “wonky” or “liberated” style is historically traditional and works great for some styles of quilts.

I am no perfectionist, but I do like things to be “pretty good.” For me that means fixing some and fudging some.

Fixing generally requires re-doing at least some seams. For my strips above, I want to shorten the longer one about a quarter inch. I will re-stitch four or five seams with a little wider seam allowance. If my strip were too short, I’d take out a few seams and re-stitch with a narrower seam allowance.

Fudging is possible in a lot of cases. If you’re trying to attach a border and the length is off by 1/4″, or even 1/2″, go ahead and pin a lot to ease the extra fabric in. If my border is too long, I also might “adjust” at each end. I pin about 1/8″ of border beyond each side of the quilt center. This gives me another 1/4″ I don’t need to ease in, and the loss is barely visible. If my border is too short, I can adjust it the other way.

Similarly, you often can trim edges of blocks or borders, and no one will know but you. Some blocks are easier than others. If your flying geese are too large, make sure the “beak” side has a nice seam allowance to preserve the point. Trimming the other edges won’t be very noticeable.

Remember, once the project has been quilted, many of these small errors disappear into the dimpling of the surface.

And it’s always good to remember, you might be your own harshest critic. If you wouldn’t scold a friend for her piecing mistakes, why would you scold yourself? If it’s important to you, try a few ideas above to improve your accuracy. If it’s not, just keep having fun and enjoy the process!


The Comfort Zone

A lot of people don’t realize how physical quilting is. Perhaps in the old days it wasn’t. Perhaps people picture an old aunt or grandma, sitting in a cozy circle of light with her needle and thread, a pair of shining scissors on the table next to her. One at a time she pieces the patches together, the blocks together. When it’s time to quilt, a large group of women gather around a frame, daintily poking needles through layers to stitch an intricate design.

No sweat, right?

But if you’re a quilter these days, you probably have a different sense of the physical toll. You may suffer from elbow tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, seemingly permanent pain in your neck or back, or sore knees and hips.

Elbow tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome can arise from that modern miracle of quilting, the rotary cutter. These conditions, unfortunately, can make both fast-quilting (rotary cutter and machine piecing) and slow-quilting (scissors and hand-piecing) impossible. Your best bet is to avoid them with good ergonomics and some body awareness.

First, your cutting table needs to be at the right height for you. This site quotes Carolyn Woods to suggest, “Your cutting surface should be quite a bit higher than your sewing table. To determine the best height for you, stand with your feet flat on the floor and your arms straight forward and bent 90 degrees at the elbow. Your fore­arms should lie flat on the cutting table. This height is likely to be between 36˝ and 40˝ (91–102cm).”

I actually think this (“flat on the table”) is too high, as then I would need to lift my shoulder quite a bit to get leverage for cutting. However, 36″ is about the right height for me, and I’m about 5’3″. If you are taller, a higher table may be even more comfortable.

I use leg extensions for my cutting table. The longer legs give me a comfortable surface.

The pipe pieces are longer than the table’s original legs, and they support the crossbars, raising the surface.

A few years ago I made hundreds of blocks for my local guild’s donation quilts over a short time. The result was many lovely quilts and some significant elbow strain for me. The combination of cutting and pressing led to tendonitis. I still have trouble with it sometimes, and it can get aggravated in a number of different ways now, not just quilting. My best help for that has been use of elastic elbow braces. Whenever I’ll be cutting or pressing a lot, I try to remember to use one. And I use it when my elbow is tender, or when it will be strained for very long. That includes driving long distances and lifting weights.

To ease the strain on your wrist, consider an ergonomically designed rotary cutter. Several manufacturers sell different models. If you can try it for feel before buying, you may get a better “fit.”

Another tool some quilters like are the Accuquilt products, like the Go! cutter. I don’t have one so can’t give any feedback on them. It seems that if you could use it for most of your cutting, it could substantially reduce your wrist and elbow strain.

Dem bones dem bones … Remember the old song? Of course, your back bone’s connected to your … hip bone…

If you’re like me, you may spend a lot of time on a basement floor. I have carpet over padding, but it’s still concrete underneath. Between cutting, pressing, and quilting with my longarm, I’m on my feet a lot.

I ALWAYS wear shoes with good support. ALWAYS. Besides that, I’ve found more help. I use chef’s floor mats at each of my work stations. Mine were cheap, found at a weird discount store at about $20 each. If you buy them from restaurant supply companies, they can be much more expensive.

My cutting table with cushioned mat in front.

There are other mats you can choose, too, including interlocking floor tiles. I’m not advocating this brand — it was the first one that came up when I googled. I know nothing about them and am not recommending them. You can also find similar foam floor tiles at big home centers like Lowe’s. I just saw some the other day. Imagine buying one package of 4 to interlock in front of your cutting station or your longarm.

Shoes protect in other ways, too. While I’m pretty good at keeping track of pins, I do lose them occasionally. Wearing shoes prevents getting stuck with one of the strays in the carpet. Similarly, if you’ve ever dropped scissors, an open rotary cutter, or an iron (I’ve managed all three at different times,) wearing shoes protects you from stabbing, cutting, and just plain OWies.

Leaning forward to cut, press, and sew all put tremendous strain on your neck and back. The close work we do, both hand-stitching and unstitching, can lead to unnatural postures, too. OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) has a number of recommendations for industrial employees. They apply to quilters, too, due to the long hours we spend at our craft.

For example, sewing chairs should be fully adjustable for height, seat tilt, and backrest position. The back should be padded with support for the lower back, and the front edge of the seat should be sloped to prevent pushing into the back of legs. In other words, that antique wooden chair that looked so fun at the flea market is exactly the wrong chair for sewing.

Though they also have recommendations for chair height, those assume a table height adjustable for the height of the worker. I actually like to shift the seat height adjustment for mine a couple of times during a work session, slightly up or slightly down. It helps adjust for my changing posture as I tire.

One of the best ways to stay comfortable is to stay stretched. A lot of people recommend keeping a tight working triangle of sewing machine, cutting table, and ironing board, for efficiency. I prefer having my cutting table in the next room, as it makes me move about more. Also I take breaks regularly from whatever my tasks. A trip up the stairs to chat with Jim or have a glass of water helps me stay looser.

In addition, I try to stay in shape. For the last couple of years I’ve focused on my back and core, which helps my posture. But leg strength is important, too, for getting up and down comfortably.

AQS offers a set of ten exercises to keep quilters loose and comfortable, from your head to your toes.

Do you have favorite ways to stay comfortable while quilting? Please share in comments.

I Always Wanted Longer Legs

I’m not very big. Okay, a lot of people would call me “short.” It doesn’t bother me, though there are disadvantages.

It’s hard to reach stuff up high without a stool, ladder, or help.
It’s hard to see over people in a crowd.
Long legs give a longer line, aesthetically considered attractive.
Long legs make long strides easier.
Small weight increases are large, proportionally for me.
It’s hard to buy clothes that fit without altering.

But there are advantages, too.
I’m not real impressed when other people are taller than I am, since most adults are.
I learned good table manners, since my arms are too short to make a “boarding house reach” very effective.

Mm… I can’t think of others.

I’ve gotten over the disappointment that I didn’t grow taller. Still, I always wanted longer legs.

And the other day, Jim made my legs longer.

Okay, they aren’t MY legs. They’re the legs of my cutting table. There are a lot of things we can do to make our work spaces a little more comfortable. I determined that a slightly higher cutting table would reduce the stress on my right shoulder. (Sharp rotary cutter blades make a big difference there, too. Don’t ignore that simple improvement.)

Years ago he bought PVC pipe and cut it into lengths to raise the surface of my table. It’s a plastic, folding banquet table, the kind you can buy at the big discount stores. The PVC pipe pieces are longer than the table legs, so when slipped over each leg, they raise it up. (Some people use bed risers to raise their tables, too.)

To make the table even higher, he bought another 12″ of PVC and cut it into 4 pieces. With a piece added on each leg, the table is 3″ higher than it was before the alteration.

The additional 3″ piece of pipe.

The pipe pieces are longer than the table’s original legs, and they support the crossbars, raising the surface.

I love my long legs!

Accurate 1/4″ Seams

How important are they?

Well, accurate seams aren’t important if you don’t think they are. It’s your quilt, your hobby, and if you’re comfortable with the way you work, remember all the sayings about quilt police!

On the other hand, if you quilt in groups (round robins, charity quilts, or the like), projects are easier if everyone uses the same standards. In this case, the standard is the 1/4″ seam. Triangle points are preserved, blocks fit together easily, and seams don’t ripple and need to be “quilted out.”

A lot of quilters make blocks, especially half-square triangles, oversized and then cut them down. This works and I do it myself sometimes. But sewing with precision in the first place saves time later. Accurate piecing means rarely trimming blocks. Don’t do things twice if you don’t have to!

You might think accurate piecing is just a matter of sewing the right width seam allowance. That’s a big part of it, but it isn’t the only part. Accuracy actually permeates the whole process.

It starts when you prep your fabric. Some people prefer to use washed fabric and some don’t. I strongly prefer washed, due to sensitivities, but I don’t see it as a religion. Either way, soon you will cut fabric, and before cutting, you need to press it.

I press carefully with a hot steam iron, because cutting is more accurate on flat fabric. Many people recommend starching fabric to stiffen it, making it easier to manage. I do now and then, especially if I’m working with a cotton that’s flimsier than usual. Here’s an interesting note from Judy Laquidara of Patchwork Times. She has a comparison between Best Press, a product many quilters swear by, and Niagara’s non-aerosol spray. As it turns out, Best Press IS starch, and in fact is much more expensive than Niagara. I’m cheap. I know what I’ll buy!

Okay, you may think once your fabric is pressed, you’re ready to cut. But wait! There’s more!

Want more tips for improving precision? Click here.

Be Prepared!

Be prepared… for what? For sewing and quilting, for mishaps and disasters, for the disposition of your stash and equipment when you can’t use it anymore. There are ways to prepare for all of these things.

There are a number of steps to take when preparing to start a new project. Of course you need to choose the project or pattern and decide on fabric. (Actually, for a lot of my projects I decide these things as I go, so I don’t necessarily do them before beginning.)

Prepare your fabric.
I always wash mine when I get it home from the store. I’m sensitive to chemicals and also prefer the feel of washed fabric. When I take care of it right away, it is ready to use from my stash. I use laundry detergent that is free of perfumes and dyes, and I don’t use fabric softeners in the washer or dryer. If you are quilting for anyone with sensitive skin, including infants or sick people, these are sensible steps.

Before cutting, I press carefully with a hot steam iron, because cutting is more accurate on flat fabric. Accurate cutting is the first step to accurate piecing.

Prepare your space and equipment.
When’s the last time you changed your rotary cutter blade? Like knives, rotary cutter blades are less dangerous when they are sharp, because you cut with the correct force. But even when they are “dull,” they cut through flesh (and fingernails) in a hurry. (Ask me how I know…) So change your blades regularly. Think about your cuts before you start, and make sure you know where your fingers are. Consider wearing a “klutz” glove. Emergency room visits are a lot more expensive than simple precautions. (Ask me how I know…)

Wipe the cutting mat to clear lint caught in grooves. This keeps it from transferring to fresh fabrics, and also allows the mat to “heal,” giving a smoother surface and better cuts.

Pay attention to your sewing machine. Change the needle regularly. If it is making a quiet popping sound as it moves through fabric, it is dull and needs to be changed. Check the machine owner manual to see how often the machine needs to be serviced, or whether you should oil it yourself. Many newer machines are self-lubricating, but not all of them. If you no longer have the manual, you may be able to find it online.

Wind bobbins. Clean out the area around and under the bobbin case. Your manual should tell you how, but likely calls for using a soft, small brush, cotton swab, or soft cloth.

Clean your iron. Mine calls for tap water, which is great for saving money, since I don’t buy distilled water. (I iron a lot and go through a lot of water. Tap water is much more convenient for me, too.) Though I use filtered water, it still has a lot of chemical and calcium residue. Frankly, I don’t clean my iron often enough, so I never remember the process. Finally I decided to put the iron’s user instructions on the underside of the ironing board (it wedges up under there nicely), so I can find them easily.

Turn your ironing board. The narrow end is useful when ironing shirts, but you aren’t ironing shirts when you’re quilting. If you turn your ironing board so the broad end is to your left (if you’re right-handed), you’ll have more surface to use when pressing yardage.

Clean up your space. Since I lay projects out on the floor, I always vacuum thoroughly before I start something new. I also wipe off my cutting table and my sewing surface.

You may not need to do these things for each new project, but think about whether they’re needed or not.
– For more preparation tips, click here!>