Thursday, February 18, 2016

Tips for success with specialty rulers

When I was recently at a quilt shop, I was asked about how I get really good results with matching points on my quilts, especially when using specialty rulers.

I fully admit to my mild (yeah, who am I kidding) obsession with rulers.  My most frequently used specialty rulers are probably my Jaybird Quilts Sidekick Ruler (both regular and Super sizes) which can be used for cutting 60 degree equilateral triangles / diamonds / half triangles and the Jaybird Quilts Hex N More Ruler for cutting hexagons / half hexagons / triangles / jewel shapes.  I love both of them for the variety of shapes that they can cut.  I also love just about any ruler made by Creative Grids.

Now, on with my tips. The key word to success, in my opinion, is accuracy. So, how can you really achieve that?

1.  Press your fabric before you cut
This might seem really obvious, but I know for a fact that not everybody does it. If your fabric is wrinkly, your cuts will almost definitely wind up being inaccurate. I loathe pressing, but it really does make a difference. Set yourself up for success and take the time to do it right. 

You may also consider using starch or a starch alternative to help better manage the bias edges.  I can honestly say that I don't use a lot of starch/starch alternative. This is due, mostly, to my allergies. Starch (think of the cans of spray starch that you may have seen your grandma using) gives me a rash and/or hives, so I usually opt for a product like Flatter by Soak or Best Press.  I prefer Flatter if you are curious. I find the scent (even the unscented) to be less overwhelming, and I like that they list the ingredients. 

If you are going to use starch, you will want to do this before you cut the fabric as starch can make the fabric shrink. 

2.  Cut accurately
I absolutely cannot stress how important it is to be accurate with your cuts. This starts when you make your first cut.  As an example, if the pattern tells you to cut strips at 2.5" wide, make sure they are 2.5". If you are using manufacturer precut fabric, you will want to measure the strip and trim off any excess (I've seen strips that are closer to 2.75" in a precut pack).  Yes, I realize that pre-packaged fabric might say that it measures 10" square, but it isn't always the case.  I know that it isn't ideal, but it's reality.

Many of the patterns that I have made begin with strips of fabric of varying sizes (I've used strips that may be as narrow as 1.25" or as wide as 12.5").  Once your strips are the right size, you can proceed to cutting out the appropriate shapes listed in the pattern. Whether cutting pieces with multiple bias edges (a triangle, for example) or simple squares/rectangles, why would you not want to give yourself a higher chance of success by starting off on the right foot?

In the following 2 pictures, you can see that my strip is lined up with the top edge of the ruler and at the 8.5" line that the pattern specified.  With the left edge also properly aligned, I am ready to cut the other side of the triangle.

Another favorite ruler of mine is the 12.5" Creative Grids 60 degree equilateral triangle ruler
Note the alignment on all 3 edges of the ruler.
Some patterns may require the use of templates or rulers.   I prefer rulers because I find them to be substantially more time efficient for cutting and cost effective because you don't have to spend time tracing out each size on template plastic (and inevitably re-tracing because I've lost one piece or cut through it accidentally). Plus, I can cut way more accurately using a precision cut piece of acrylic and a rotary cutter rather than by tracing a line.

Try as I might to make my cuts perfectly, I'll be honest, I've had some pieces wind up being a smidgen off. Can I make it work?  It really depends on how far off I cut it. If the pattern says to it your strip at 3.5" and you cut it at 3.25", it probably won't work.

3.  Pin at intersections 
I don't normally pin every few inches with most of my sewing, but I do place a pin perpendicular to my seam at intersections where lines will cross.  This will hold the fabric in place.  I do NOT advocate sewing over pins.  It can be dangerous to do so.  I like to sew close to where my pin is before I remove them.

This piece had 4 pins in it.  One at both the top and bottom and one at each of the seam intersections.  Note that my pins are perpendicular to where the seam will fall.

4.  PRESS
Don't iron.  Press.  Ironing is often done with a side to side motion that can quite easily distort your pieces, especially since many of them have bias edges. 

Many of the newer quilt patterns instruct you to press your seams open. This is a very important step and you shouldn't ignore because you were taught solely to press to one side.  

Why does this matter?  Unlike some of the simple, traditional quilt blocks with only 2 sets of seams at an intersection, you may find yourself with 4 or 6. Pressing your seams open will reduce the bulk and make them easier to sew and quilt. Yes, that means that your seams won't nest like you may be used to, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's just different. Again, the purpose is to reduce bulk. Pressing seams to one side can also unintentionally lead to shrinkage.  

I'm a big fan of pressing with steam, but you have to be extra careful about using steam if you tend to iron. Using steam plus ironing (not pressing) can be a disaster for accuracy. Also, since you are pressing your seams open, take extra care to not give yourself steam burns (they REALLY can be painful - ask me how I know this). There are some great tools that are available for people like me. 

The Hold It Precision Stiletto by Joan Hawley (Part of the Clover Press Perfect collection of notions).  This handy tool can hold your seams open while you are pressing.


Dritz Thermal Thimbles can be worn on multiple fingers and can shield your fingers from some of the heat.  These are not a total heat shield, but they are WAY better than naked fingers.

The downside to accuracy
The only negative aspect to all of this is time.  A few seconds here and a few seconds there can add up.   It does take a little more time to do things like make sure that your fabric is pressed, it takes more time to cut your fabric, and it takes more time to stop and pin, but it's worth it for me. In the end, I'm happier with the results. Does that mean that you can't make one of these projects quickly?  Absolutely not. 

If you are really in a crunch for time, think about the pattern and consider selecting a less complex pattern or making a different size.

A few other tidbits to help you on the path to success

1.  Keep the handling of the pieces to a minimum
Bias edges can easily stretch, so I try to keep my handling to a minimum. If you don't need to keep grabbing your pieces, why do it?  Hang them on your design wall, leave them in a stack, or store them together in a box. The geometric nature of these patterns depends on shapes fitting together properly. Shrinking or stretching out the pieces can have a cascading effect as the blocks are assembled.

2.  Don't fear the ripper  (Yes, I totally said that. I'm very punny, you know). 
Seam rippers can be your best friend.  I will admit that I'm a little OCD about my seams matching, but it doesn't always happen for me the first, second, third time, or ever. If I have a section that is slightly off (and I know that it will really bother me), I will usually rip the stitches out for about .5"-1" on either side of the mismatched seam. If it's off by more than that, you will probably need to remove additional stitches. 

3.  Be realistic
One thing that I do try to tell myself is that some of my "less than ideal" seams will be hidden by quilting due to shrinkage of the fabric/batting or they may even be covered by thread.

It's also important to think about the integrity of the fabric itself.  If you are ripping out stitches, the fabric can only recover so much from the stress.  With high quality quilt shop quality quilting cotton, the most that I will ever rip something is 3 times.  If it still isn't fixed, it stays.

Accuracy is often the first to suffer under the crunch of time.

It can also be helpful to tackle some of these projects in stages.  Maybe you press your fabrics before cutting on one day and cut the following day.  You don't have to sit down for a single marathon session (unless you happened to be a procrastinator and waited until the day before you had to have it done).

4.  Practice, practice, practice
The more you make, the better you will get.  Techniques become second nature and you become more comfortable and relaxed with the process.  I think this really comes through in your sewing.

5.  Hang on to the instructions
Most of the specialty rulers that I've purchased have a set of written instructions included.  While I don't find that I refer to these on a very regular basis, they can be very handy when you are cutting a different shape or if you haven't used the ruler in a while.  I keep all of my ruler instructions together in a clear bag.  There are some great videos on the Internet that demonstrate how to use quite a few of these rulers, but sometimes going back to the printed instructions can be faster.

So, a quick recap:
1.  Press first
2.  Cut accurately
3.  Pin at intersections
4.  Press


Now you've heard my tips, go forth and make awesome stuff!

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