Yesterday I finished the last block of the precision piecing challenge and while I was arranging the blocks on the design wall I reflected on what I learnt – it became quite a list and so I started to write things down while I arranged and rearranged the blocks.

It took one and half hours to get the blocks into an arrangement that was balanced, evenly distributed and pleasing. In rehandling all the blocks the list of what I learnt from the challenge became two pages!

  1. Fabric choice. Initially I chose three fabrics, a cream background, a dark red with a small pattern on it that wasn’t directional, and a medium cream with red dots which turned out to be directional but I hadn’t noticed it was when I bought it. There was good contrast and there needed to be.
    I’ve noticed when students choose fabric for my classes that they choose a lot of mediums and only a couple of lights and maybe one dark. Medium tones are comforting – they don’t shout and they don’t draw attention to themselves. But too many mediums and there is a lack of contrast and the work becomes stale and ordinary. You need to bring in the contrast from a dark fabric or a light fabric to make the mediums work.
    In the case of the precision piecing challenge I only had three fabrics but I soon realised that I was going to need another two at least. I chose a light medium and a dark dark. I had lots of opportunities to make each choice of fabric sing.
    However even with such a limited palette I still made some errors – using the light with the light medium and the medium in place of the dark just was too light. The dark was needed to anchor the block and when I repeated it that’s exactly what it did.
  2. Accurate cutting. I had always been reasonably accurate and had been corrected early in my quilting career to cut from the ruler not from the board. The reason being rulers are laser cut the boards are printed and are nothing like as accurate. This alone improved my early blocks but it was a lesson learnt before I started the precision piecing challenge.
    When cutting close enough is not good enough. A gungho attitude with the rotary cutter will result in a less than perfect quilt. Accurately cutting, making sure the ruler doesn’t slip and having a good sharp blade is half the battle to making a good quilt that goes together easily without having to ease each seam.
  3. Good thread.  There was a time when the only thread available in the quilting stores was Guttermann thread. It was everywhere and everyone used it. I don’t actually know for sure what happened but all I know is that the quality of it started to slip and there were lots of conversations about problems with machines when you used it. I had my fair share of problems too and now I use Aurifil and love it. Its not as easy to find but when I do I stock up.
    Interestingly I discovered after talking with a sewing machine engineer Aurifil thread is the standard thread that all sewing machines are tested with. With that knowledge I feel pretty confident that my switching to Aurifil was the right choice.
  4. Press not Iron. I have touched on this in the previous post. This was singlehandedly the most important discovery of the challenge. I would iron as if ironing a shirt or a pair of pants. When pressing a seam its and up down movement with no lateral movement at all. If you move from side to side it is easy to distort the block and the seam. Just by changing the way I pressed the seam brought more accuracy to my blocks.
    Another lesson learnt using the iron was to set the stitches in a seam. Before you press the seam to the side, press the sewn seam as it is. The stitches are pressed into the fabric and also tighten just a little bit, not enough to distort but enough to fix the seam. Its such a simple thing to do but makes all the difference to folding the seam.
  5. Use a scant quarter inch seam. This has always been my biggest problem when piecing. I could never get an accurate quarter inch seam and didn’t understand the concept of a scant quarter inch. I think I now know how to and understand the concept and the reasoning behind it.
    A scant quarter inch seam is literally a couple of threads less than a full quarter inch seam. Why do it? Well it appears that you need to allow for the thickness of the thread and the thickness of the fabric in the folding of the seam and pressing it to one side. Even if you have set the stitches they are still standing above the fabric and  pressing the seam to the side you have to take into account the fabric thickness and the stitches – using a scant quarter inch seam allows for these smallest of measurements and gives you a perfect quarter inch seam after pressing the seam to the side. In the scheme of things if your block is 20 inches its not going to make a lot of difference, if your block is six inches and has 40 pieces in it, it will make a big difference.
    An accurate scant quarter inch seam needs guides on the sewing machine bed to feed the fabric in under the needle accurately. I am very fortunate in that I have a laser guide but in machines that don’t have such fancy tools, marking on the bed of the machine will help as will strips of paper set at a scant quarter inch to the needle point. When sewing don’t watch the needle, when its being sewn it is too late to adjust. Keep your eyes on the fabric as its being fed to the foot making sure that it is on the scant quarter inch marks. When it gets to the foot the feed dogs will guide it under the needle and you will have an accurate and straight scant quarter inch seam.
  6. Take your time.  I found that when I was rushing that’s when I would make the majority of my mistakes. I would make almost as many mistakes when I was tired. You are not going to do good work if you are hasty and will most likely have to unpick  seams more often when rushing and tired. Stop, take a break or better still change to another project or come back another day. Being frustrated by mistakes will only make you make more and takes the fun out of what should be a fun activity. I have learnt this the hard way.
  7. Constructing the block. There were many small lessons I learnt and I can gather them together under this one heading.
    Analyse the block.  If no instructions were given only dimensions, you need to analyse the block and work out how you would construct it, the sequence of construction and the sides you plan to press the seams to. If there were no dimensions, just a picture of the block, sketch it out on graph paper. This extra step will save you mistakes and frustration in the long run.
    Use modern methods of construction. The old fashioned way of constructing the blocks is not necessarily the best way unless you are a purist. There are lots of new ways of constructing common elements in blocks which are often quicker and more accurate than the old ways. There are several methods of making flying geese some where there is minimal wastage others where two squares will make four flying geese in two steps. There are also modern tools and rulers that make making the elements easier and more accurate. During this challenge I was introduced to the Deb Tucker Trimmer. Its the best tool I’ve ever had and I can’t now imagine not using her methods in piecing.
    Chain Piecing. This is not really a modern method of construction but its not how it used to be done. It is really an assembly line for quilts where you just keep feeding the pieces in and out the back comes a line of bunting just waiting to be cut up and pressed into shape! Its a massive time saver and also thread saver.
    Use a Thread Catcher. Again this is a very useful thread saver and also it prevents those frustrating birds nests and swallowed points when your machine just seems to eat your block. I didn’t understand the concept particularly as I had an automatic thread cutter but now I wouldn’t sew any other way.
    Pin Pin Pin. I never bothered with pins, if the seams nested, I trusted that they would stay nested. However, I discovered that they didn’t always stay nested and as a result my points were often a bit off. I now pin everything. I use the finest gauge pins I can, pin the beginning of the seam, every crossing seam, every nesting seam and the end of the seam. Nothing can move. Using the finest of pins means that I can sew over them. They bend very easily and won’t break my needle. I have had a disaster where I used a much thicker gauge pin and had a direct hit with my needle. It cost me $400. I never use those thicker pins any more but I do still sew over pins as I want the accuracy.

These observations and lessons learnt from the precision piecing challenge have led me to enjoy piecing. I have since starting the challenge made three pieced quilts one of which has appeared in Australian Patchwork and Quilting and a second one is shortly going to appear in the same magazine. If someone had told me 12 months ago that I would be selling patterns for pieced quilts not applique quilts I wouldn’t have believed them.

If nothing else, the challenge has opened new doors and new opportunities in my quilting career and shows you can teach an old dog new tricks!