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Piecing challenging shapes in quilts

Updated on June 12, 2013

Shapes such as diamonds, stars, and circles add a touch of flair to quilts. Some quilters may become timid about patterns using these sorts of pieces because of the the perceived difficulty in working with them. While we each may come up with our own techniques, often times these methods are developed by basing them on tips taught by more experienced quilters. Whether you are a novice or a seasoned vet, here are some tips that may help built your own personal skill set.


Many striking quilt designs are based on eight-pointed stars and require piecing diamonds of various shapes together. The most common patterns use equilateral diamonds, which have equal sides and equal opposite angles, such as a Dutch rose.

One reason that piecing diamonds can be challenging is that at least two sides of the patch are on the bias grain. You can help control the stretchiness of the bias by cutting all of the diamonds facing the same way, with the straight of grain along two edges. That way, you will always be stitching a straight grain edge to a bias edge.

When you are stitching diamonds together into a star, it is very important to remember the hand-piecing rule of not stitching into the seam allowance. You will find that marking dots at the corners of the seam lines, as described in the first lesson, will be very helpful in maintaining accuracy. If you are piecing an eight-pointed star, first stitch two diamonds together and repeat four times. Then stitch two sets of pairs together, stitching just to the dots. This forms half a star. The long edge should be straight across.

Finally, pin the two halves together, matching the seams in the center. Stitch the seam, leaving the seam allowances free. If you press all the seam allowances in the same direction, they will swirl neatly in the center and reduce the bulk, as well as cover any small holes that may be in the middle (Some people like to trim the points at ¼” from the center to further reduce bulk, especially if they are planning to quilt close to the center.) For larger stars made of diamonds, stitch each diamond unit from the small diamonds first, then stitch the large diamonds together as described above.

Curved seams

Curved seams add a sense of motion to pieced designs, and many old favorite patterns make good use of them. Stitching curves is easy to do by hand, because the fabric doesn't have to be forced to lie flat as for machine stitching.

The concave piece of a curved pattern often has very skinny long points. You can adapt most patterns that have curves ending in the corner of a square to make them easier to piece. Take advantage of optical illusions, and end the concave piece short of the corner. Mark the convex patch with dots where the matching patch ends.

Check the templates against the original pattern to make sure the points end in the right place. Mark and cut the patches for curved seams in the same way as straight-edged patches, being sure to mark the dots where needed. Sometimes curved patterns will be given with notches or dots to match on seams to be joined. Transfer these dots to the fabric patches as well.

To pin the curved seam, separately fold both the convex patch and the concave patch and finger-crease the center of each curved edge. Place the two patches right sides together with the marked centers matching and the convex piece toward you. The concave piece will stick up like ears in the back. Pin perpendicular to the seam lines. Curving the two pieces around your thumb, pin each of the ends, matching the dots. Add pins about every 1/2" between the end and the center, keeping the pins perpendicular to the seam lines. As you stitch, again curve the pieces around your thumb to keep the seam lines aligned. Do not clip any seam allowance, or the seam will not curve smoothly. After stitching, press the seam allowance toward the convex patch.

Sharp points

Very sharp points, like those in a mariner's compass, can be a challenge, because the fabric can easily be distorted. Here is a little trick I learned long ago. Any patch with a point less than 30 degrees would benefit from this technique. Mark around the templates as for previous patches, including the dots at the corners, but don't cut the shape out with 1/4" seam allowances. Instead, cut a rectangle that is at least 1/4" larger than the marked patch.

Line up the seam lines to be stitched, and pin. (It will look strange, but what you are accomplishing is keeping the fabric from distorting while you are stitching.) Stitch along the seam line, then trim the seam allowances to 1/4). If the point is split, cut two strips of fabric and place right sides together. Mark around one template with the grain edge 1/4" from the edge of the fabric. Be sure to mark the dots. Stitch the marked seam, then place pins through the dots. Turn the strips over, line up the reversed template with the stitching and the pins and mark. Then proceed as above.

English piecing

Stabilizing fabric by using paper templates behind each patch is a time-honored method of hand piecing that many people find very relaxing. Often called English piecing (although I've also heard it called Norwegian piecing), it is a technique that people who have difficulty seeing can accomplish mostly by feel.

English paper piecing is most useful for designs which don't have long straight lines, but which have an allover pattern and lots of set-in corners. Any pattern based on hexagons, is a good choice.

It is necessary to start with accurate paper templates that are the exact size of the finished patch, one for each piece in the pattern. Make the templates from a fairly sturdy paper, although if you are careful, typing paper will work.

You can layer fabrics to cut the patches. Pin one template to the top layer, and cut out the stack with a generous 3/8" seam allowance.

Place a paper template right side down on the wrong side of a fabric patch, and fold a seam allowance over an edge. Baste the allowance in place. When you come to the corner, don't worry about folding in the seam allowance at the points, it won't be in the way as you stitch. Continue around the patch. Don't knot the thread when you finish, so it will be easier to remove.

Place two prepared patches with the right sides together and the edges to be stitched matching. Pin the patches together near the center. Using a single thread, begin about 1/8" from a corner and catch a thread of both folds. Stitching back toward the corner, take tiny whip stitches close together until you get exactly to the corner, then work back to the other end of the seam.

Backstitch a short distance before knotting the thread. Don't stitch through the excess seam allowances at the corners, but fold them out of the way.

Open up the two pieces and check the seam from the front. The stitches should not show. If they do, you are taking up too much of the fold with the whip stitch.

To set in a corner, pin and stitch the seam on one side, then fold the previously stitched pieces so the second seam will match, and continue stitching.

After all the edges of a patch have been stitched to its neighbors, you can remove the basting and the paper. This will make a large design easier to handle.

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