I’ve talked a lot recently about some of my favorite tips and tricks for quicker and more efficient piecing. One of my favorite techniques – and one that I used a lot of in the patterns in my book Fabulously Fast Quilts– is strip-piecing.
Strip-piecing is one of the most basic, time-saving methods when it comes to quilting. This usually consists of sewing long strips of fabric (often strips the width of fabric yardage) together and then rotary cutting across the strips to create smaller units that are already pieced. Today I want to share a few simple tips that will help the accuracy of strip-piecing projects. In the process I will demonstrate a simple quilt project. This quilt uses the very traditional Rail Fence block, a super-versatile quilt block that can be laid out in multiple ways to create many different designs. It’s as traditional as they come, but depending on the fabric choices it can look very modern at the same time.
In the post I’ll be demo’ing strip-piecing a simple and traditional Rail Fence block for a 21″ x 21″ mini quilt. This block has so many layout options. At the end of the post, I’ll also give cutting and piecing instructions for a baby quit version measuring 40″ x 40″.
There are lots of great commercially pre-cut strips that can really stream-line the strip-piecing process. But if you are cutting your own strips from yardage, the first important step when it comes to strip-piecing is to square-off the edges. Skipping this step can result in a V-shaped strip instead of a straight one.
Don’t just start rotary cutting strips off the yardage. Often the yardage can become distorted on the bolt, or perhaps the busy fabric-store-worker has just cut your yardage without time to see if the edge is straight or square. The first thing to do is to make sure the edge of your fabric is “square” – meaning there’s a 90 degree angle from the selvage edge to the yardage edge.
Begin by matching up the selvage edges. You can see in the photo on the left that the edges are not matched up. After you match up the selvage edges you may need to re-press the center fold.
When your selvage edges are matched up, lay the newly-pressed center fold on the cutting mat with the fold closest to you and lined up along the bottom straight line marked on the cutting mat.
Put the edge you are going to trim on your right (if you are right handed… Opposite if you are left handed). Lay the long ruler over the fabric, again lining up a straight line on the ruler with the bottom fold. Using the rotary cutter, trim the un-even edge off the right side of your fabric, creating a straight edge at a 90 degree angle to the selvage edge. This is how you “square-up” your yardage.
Now you are ready to start cutting straight strips from your yardage. Turn the fabric so the newly trimmed edge is now on your left side. (Right side if you are left-handed.) Again make sure the fold is lined up with the bottom straight line on the cutting mat. Lay the ruler over the fabric to measure the width of the strip you want and cut – this helps with accuracy. Measuring the strip’s width with the ruler, rather than the mat, is the most accurate measurement.
For this little 21″ x 21″ Rail Fence mini-quilt I cut three strips 1 1/2″ wide x the width of the fabric from three different fabrics.
Sew two of the strips together lengthwise. As you sew multiple strips together, they will begin to arc or “bow” slightly if you sew them all starting at the same end. This is because the feed-dogs will pull the bottom piece of fabric differently than the top strip that glides with less resistance under the presser foot. One way to minimize this “bowing” is to alternate directions the seams are sewn. For example, sew the first strip to the middle strip going one direction, then change and sew the third strip to the middle strip starting at the opposite end.
After the strips are sewn together, press seams to one side. (I’m a side presser.) Press seams from the top and use the point of the iron to make sure the fabrics are fully open and the seams are flat. I like to use a hot, dry iron so I don’t distort my strips.
When strips are pieced, return to the mat. Trim the selvage edges. Again, flip the newly squared edge to your left (or to the right if you’re left handed) so you can use your ruler as your guide to get your new units cut accurately.
When you go to cut your units from the strip-set, place the ruler over the top of the strip-set and measure the desired width you want to cut. Lay a straight line on the ruler directly over one of the seams (see arrow in photo) to keep your strips square in the new unit. (Don’t use the top or bottom edge of the strip-set as your guide as these edges will still bow slightly.)
Cut your units off the strip-set (in this case cut squares 3 1/2″ wide). You will get 12 squares from each strip set, for a total of 36 squares measuring 3 1/2″ x 3 1/2″. (When making any Rail Fence block from a strip-pieced set just cut the width of the unit to the same measurement as the height of the pieced-set.)
As you cut units from the strip-pieced set, keep the straight line of the ruler lined-up on one of the seams. Because of the slight bowing of the strip-set, you will need to square-off the edge again after every few cuts. It’s worth it to keep your units square!
After you’ve cut all of your units, lay them out six across by six down. By rotating the blocks, you can get a variety of designs.
This is the design I chose. Sew the squares into rows of six blocks each.
Press the seams toward the vertical blocks. This will help the seams to nest together when you sew the rows together. For the borders, cut two 2″ x width of fabric strips from your yardage. Sub cut them into an 18 1/2″ and a 21 1/2″ strip from each strip. Sew the 18 1/2″ strips to opposite sides of the pieced portion. Press seams to the borders. Add final 21 1/2″ strips to the top and bottom of the quilt and press seams to borders.
To make this same design into a 40″ x 40″ baby quilt:
- 1/2 yard of 3 different fabrics – from each cut six strips 2 1/2″ x width of fabric (WOF).
- 3/8 yard for border – cut four 2 1/2″ x WOF strips.
- 3/8 yard for binding – cut four 2 1/2″ x WOF strips.
- 1 1/4 yard for backing
Make six strip-sets of three 2 1/2″ x WOF strips (one in each color. Keep color order the same on all three sets as demoed above.) Press seams one direction.
Cut each strip-set into six squares 6 1/2″ x 6 1/2″ for a total of 36 blocks.
Sew the blocks into 6 rows of 6 blocks each (6 x 6) pressing as demonstrated above with the smaller blocks.
Add borders. Baste and quilt as desired.
You can see more variations and options for strip-pieced Rail Fence-inspired designs on this Rail Fence Pinboard.
Strip-piecing can also be used to create smaller units that can then be sewn back together to create new blocks such as traditional 9-patch blocks. The options are endless, but knowing these basic tips like how to square-up your fabric before you cut strips, etc. will make a huge difference in the accuracy and efficiency of your piecing.
I’ve also been collecting more Rail Fence quilt inspiration on this pin board where you can get more inspiration.
Another favorite strip-pieced block is in this easy, but eye-catching Pinwheel tutorial.