TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Patchwork Quilts by Donna Hussain

A quilt is made of three layers: a top (usually patchwork or a cloth background for an appliquéd design), batting (a lining of cotton or wool for warmth), and a fabric back. These three layers are held together with quilting stitches or ties.

The patchwork designs we use today are traditional geometric patterns favored by quilt makers in the past. One of the first blocks all beginning quilters learn to sew is the nine patch. Two designs can be created by this block depending on the placement of color.

Formerly this block was made by cutting nine fabric squares of the same size with scissors. These nine squares were placed in three rows, three squares per row. Each row was then sewn together by hand or machine. (Quilters sew ¼ inch seams.) Finally, the three rows were joined to create a nine-patch block.

Quilters today have tools that make the cutting of fabric and the construction of quilt blocks like the nine patch much easier to sew. We have cutting boards, rotary cutters, and plastic rulers that allow us to measure and cut fabric with speed and accuracy.

In turn, modern-day accuracy in cutting strips of fabric allows quilters to modify the construction of traditional blocks. For example, beginning quilters now learn to make nine-patch blocks as follows.

With one additional sewing skill, quilters can make hundreds of traditional quilting blocks. That skill is accurate sewing of a half-square triangle.

Simple, you might say. Just cut out two triangles of fabric and sew the triangles together. Unfortunately, this will result in a distorted half-square triangle unless the seamstress is very skillful. The reason is that threads in fabric are horizontal and vertical. If cut along these thread lines, called the straight of the grain, fabric cutouts are fairly stable. When fabric is cut on the bias, diagonal to the straight of the grain, the cut edge will stretch. (In cutting triangles at least one edge will be a bias cut.) With the use of rotary cutters and plastic rules, however, even beginning quilters can sew half-square triangles with great accuracy using a number of different construction techniques. The method I favor is as follows:

1. Cut two squares of fabric of different colors.

2. Place the squares one on top of the other, right sides together. On the wrong side of the top fabric draw a diagonal pencil line between two opposite corners.

3. Stitch ¼ inch away the diagonal line on both sides of the line.

4. Cut along the diagonal line. (Note the cutting is done after sewing the bias seam.)

5 Press open both sets of half-square triangles. Trim with a rotary cutter and ruler for size accuracy.

Here is a sampling of tradition quilt blocks that use only squares and half-square triangles in their construction. Each block is sewn row by row like the nine-patch block described earlier in this article.

After only six classes of beginning quilting I was able to sew the quilt below:

Can your figure out what block was used in making this quilt?

California quilter, Donna Hussain, has exhibited in major quilt shows around the country, authored books, and is a regular contributor to Fiber Focus. Click on name to see all of her past articles. The photo shows Donna with her husband, Pascha.


  1. I never did make a "real" quilt. Though my pieces are "fabric sandwiches" and therefore, technically, quilts. Some of my customers call them "little quilts," which I rather like. :)

  2. Wonderful article, especially for beginners! I can't wait to share it with my readers. I've scheduled a link to your article to go live on my blog early morning (Central USA time) August 1. Thanks so much for this great resource.



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