Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Seam Allowance

In my last post I asked what books are good for the beginning quilter, specifically a quilter who’s interested in free-piecing.

I haven’t seen most of the books you all recommended, but one  caught my attention: Robin Strobel’s The Casual Quilter. Love the attitude. Read a review of the book here.

Anyway, the whole post got me thinking about what really is important to know about quilting. If you’re a quilter who’s not interested in accuracy, are there times when you do need to pay more attention than others?

Here are my thoughts on the Seam Allowance. I was going to say this was what you need to know if you are a liberated quilter, but I’m not sure what Gwen Marston would actually think about this – I wouldn’t want to make her cry. This is my take on the whole thing.

First off, is a quarter inch seam all that important? Yes and no. Fabric frays and if there isn’t enough whole fabric left in that seam allowance, then the seam could split open. Not something you want happening to a finished quilt.

So a quarter inch has been settled upon as an amount that will hold your quilt together. Does it have to be EXACTLY a quarter inch? No. You want it to be closer to that width than not but don’t pull your hair out.

Here I am sewing fabric together. I have a quarter inch presser foot and I aim the edge of my fabrics to the edge of the presser foot.

presser foot 11-12-2008 10-49-36 AM

When I’m finished I hopefully end up with straight line of stitching a quarter inch from the edge of the fabrics:

quarter inch seam 11-12-2008 10-53-07 AM

When I open it up, the fabrics lay fairly flat and the edges are straight:

quarter inch seam open 11-12-2008 10-57-49 AM

This time I bobbled a bit:

bobbly seam 11-12-2008 10-53-24 AM

The seam isn’t straight. When I opened it up and ironed it, I had a bit of puffiness in places, but for the most part it worked fine. In fact, I accidentally deleted the “after” picture because it looked the same as the straight seam. So no big deal.

But this time, got a carried away and really curved the seam:

pocket seam 11-12-2008 10-53-31 AM

And when I opened it up? Eek, wouldn’t lay flat:

pocket seam open 11-12-2008 10-57-39 AM

Now, I could force it flat by ironing in a pleat but it would probably cause fewer problems in the long run to just redo it.

Oops, now this time I didn’t end up with a quarter inch on both pieces of fabric.

eighth inch seam allowance 11-12-2008 11-39-44 AM

The black fabric is decidedly short. What to do? For a baby quilt or something else that is going to get a lot of use and washing, I’d redo the seam. For a wallhanging that will get very little washing? If there was at least an 1/8” in the seam allowance, I'd probably leave it as is add a few drops of Fray Check  if I were worried. In the picture above? That’s too narrow at the bottom even for me, so I’d redo it. sigh.

This time I’ve got the seam straight, but it’s at an angle:

angled seam 11-12-2008 10-55-43 AM

Opened up, it looks like this:

angled seam open 11-12-2008 10-57-24 AM

I’m lazy, but this just isn’t going to work.

Now, if you’re at the stage where you’re first joining pieces together in something like a crumb quilt or free-pieced houses, then you can just straighten up the edges like so:

angle seam trimmed 11-12-2008 10-58-59 AM

See, perfectly useable. [Note: You don’t have to actually cut the edges to make them straight. you could just make sure the next fabric is sewn on straight. If that doesn’t make sense, don’t worry about it for now.]

BUT -- and it is a big BUT – trimming straight  doesn’t  work when you are sewing fabric together for a border. And you very well may not want to do it when you’re sewing two finished blocks together because you are going to lose some of the blocks.

To sum up an angled seam: okay when first joining bits together, but bad later on…

So you’re a free-piecer and you have a lot of blocks made and all trimmed to the same size. It helps to have a consistent seam allowance when you put all those blocks together. Using the same presser foot for all those joins will help.

Depending on how casual you are about these things, it still might not be that big of a deal to get everything together consistently. Just add a bit of something to make all the blocks fit together, like I did when putting together my Margarita Quilt center.

I cut all of these blocks to the same size. Truly. At least I think I did. But I ended up with some rows longer than others. I added extra orange fabric to one unit of joined rows to make it long enough to fit together:

Margarita Quilt center 22 April 08

My other option would have been to join the two sections together and then whack off the bits that were too long.

On a side note, no still don’t have a border on this quilt center yet. Can’t decide if I should just add a wide border (my original plan) or add a wordy border.

That sums up my thoughts on the seam allowance. What do you think? Any questions? Anything in there confusing? What did I forget to mention?

By the way, I wrote this post in Windows Live Writer – thanks for the recommend Sassenach. For the most part it’s easier to use than posting straight into Blogger. The big question is, how does it look once it’s posted….


Anonymous said...

One of these days, I'll be able to sew a straight line, lol. You are so right in this post.

And, I love Windows Live Writer. I've been using it for several months and it works beautifully on my blog. Your's looks fine to me in IE7.

Amanda said...

I'm not an experienced quilter - only been going for about a year - but I'm with you here. I don't agonise too much over the seam allowance. Discrepancies can usually be fudged when I stitch things together, either by a gentle tug or easing. A steam press usually sorts out these small quirks. And like you, I'm more careful about getting a good seam allowance if something's going to be washed a lot, less bothered for a wall hanging.

Sarah said...

i tend to aim for a straight 1/4 inch. it doesn't always happen though. sometimes instead of ripping out a too narrow seam, i just sew another seam to the left of it. i also have a tendancy to make everything a little bigger when i'm free piecing so i can trim it all up to be straight as i go. i love your marguerita quilt.

Jude said...

Marvelous, thank you.
I totally agree, most problems can be ironed out or allowed for.
Love you site

Joyce said...

I'm with Sarah. I'd rather sew over top than rip out in many cases. Sometimes it just doesn't work though and then out comes the seam ripper. That's why I prefer free piecing over meticulous, although I do both.

jovaliquilts said...

I agree that the importance of exact seams varies with the type of quilt. But good seams are always easier to work with!

Just checked and Windows Live Writer is not available for Mac systems, so you might want to consider that before purchasing your new computer.

Donna said...

One thing I'd mention clearly to a new sewer is that you don't have to take out a seam that's too skinny or curved to sew a new seam -- you're pressing the seam to one side anyways, so let it have a "wrong" sewing line in the seam.... :-)

Anonymous said...

The #57 Bernina foot makes a more exact 1/4" seam.

Jennifer said...

Wow. Wonderful! I see why you have 76 followers. I'm a believer!

Quiltdivajulie said...

Great post with good illustration of your points.

Taking a bit more care with the seams on a full-time basis pays off in the long run.

I also checked - live writer is PC based only. Would work on my computer at work but not on my personal MacBook laptop.

Clare said...

Very informative post. Thank you.

Here is someone that simply cannot sew in a straight line unless the 1/4" foot is in place and even then has trouble! The seams are getting better - a lot better. I'm stil get lumps and bumps, especially with borders, but I think that might have something to do with fabric weight and not pining the fabric in place before sewing.

Kristin L said...

The post looks good to me -- wouldn't have known you wrote it any different if you didn't say anything.

I really like your pictures of what happens to the seams. We all hear that it's important to sew a straight line and to keep a consistent seam allowance, but here you can see why. Knowing the consequences is great in deciding whether or not one wants to break the rules!

Anonymous said...

jacquie said...

great post! i made my first dresden plate block last's tough without an exact 1/4 inch. that's why i prefer free piecing, though i do like "reasonably" straight seams as opposed to "exactly"

Fran said...

This was a great post Tonya, and I must tell you that until I started reading your blog and Bonnie's blog it use to drive me crazy when my seam weren't just so. You two gals have made me relax about it all and have taught me that there is beauty in everything, and perfection is not the most important part.
Bonnie said this to a blogger..."fabric is fluid and it can move, so if, when joining two pieces together, and you want the ends to meet, you either pull on it a bit or ease it in a bit." And I just love your philosophy.."if it's too long, cut it off, if it's too short, add a piece" Love it!!


Kristin Shields said...

Great post! The post itself looks great. I like the short sections which make it easier on my eyes.

Carol E. said...

This is the voice of experience stated in a clear and fun fashion. I think a lot of us do these things but never thought about explaining the reasoning. You rock!

YankeeQuilter said...

I think the type of seam allowance needed is based on two things: the pattern you are making and the type of fabric you are using. I hate to say it but cheap fabric requires larger/more consistent seams. I cringe when a beginner brings in some thin,loosely woven cottons they bought out of the bargin bin only to see them shred under the needle and their blocks fall apart as they put the top together. So sad....

Knitty said...

Great post and helpful comments too. I'd like to add an observation for anyone who might benefit from my discovery. I have an ironing board cover that is marked with inches, diagonal lines, etc, all intended to be helpful to sewing.

I haven't relied on this for accurate measurements, but was surprised the other day when I was doing a "rough measure" of 48 inches that didn't match up to a known 48 inches. I laid a yardstick over the printed measurements. The one inch markings almost agreed, but at the 36 inch mark on the yardstick, the ironing board cover was only 35 3/8 inches!

Lynn said...

lots of pinning and a 1/4 seam foot has helped me. Plus paying attention when I sew would also help. But sometimes when I chain piece I get to going fast and then something just isn't right. Frustrating when I know I cut them all correctly!

Denise Felton said...

So smart and sensible! I've scheduled a link to this post to go live on my blog Sunday morning (Central USA time). I hope it brings you a few extra clicks.


Nettie said...

I know that some of my piecing headaches magically went away after i'd installed a moleskin seam guide on my machine. It's also helpful when working on blocks for swaps (my foot isn't exactly 1/4 inch). Agree with you, though, about straightness of seams often being unimportant and that the straightest, most accurate seam in the world won't help you if one side has a too narrow allowance.

shortcakesmom said...

I haven't been quilting very long, and have mostly stuck with lap quilts and baby quilts so far. I don't even know how to use my machine, so I do everything by hand, from the piecing to the quilting. I thought it was a good demo of seam allowance and appreciate you taking the time to show it that way. Helped me. Maybe after we get moved I'll actually break out my machine and give it a whirl!
In the meantime, my problem is binding a quilt by hand. I've always turned the backing to the front and made that my binding, but this time I am using double bias tape quilt binding. It is hard to stitch up by hand. Or maybe it's cause I don't know what I'm doing. ha ha Any thoughts or words of wisdom to help me out?

Sassenach said...

Ton, you can preview what your post will look like on your blog by selecting "view" from the top menu and selecting "web preview" from the drop down menu.

When you set the program up, you should have been prompted to select the option of downloading your blog template. If, when you select the preview, it does not show you your blog, then go back to the "weblog" tab in the top menu and select "edit settings." Choose "editing" and select the option to update your weblog style.

Great post!

Julie said...

I tink a helpful thing for new quilters is cloth management during the quilt top process. When free/liberated pieceing I think it helps to have a small to mid size piece to work with. It is really hard to sew with 1/2 yard pieces. Sometimes it is hard to cut up a pretty piece of cloth but I think small pieces are easier to handle. If you have a large piece and know you have to cut it up before you sew, but you don't know how you want the shape to look once sewn, what is your advice about cutting? I think this gets into the whole design thing. Even if you are liberated, there is some vision that guides the placement, non? Maybe you could talk about that a little bit. The comfort of cutting out a pattern and sewing it together is real. Getting out of the comfort zone and appearing to just wing it is scarry.

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