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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Quilting Essentials ~ The Accurate 1/4 Inch

For many of us, piecing with an accurate 1/4 seam allowance is a difficult task.  I'm hoping this post will help many of you in achieving this quilters' goal.  It's really not as difficult as it may seem when you break it down, so that's exactly what I'll try to do here.  There are many elements that can effect our 1/4 seam accuracy, but I'll stick with what I feel is the most basic step first.  I'll address other factors that mess with our perfect 1/4 in future Quilting Essentials posts.  (Not sure what Quilting Essentials is?  Click here to find out!)

In my humble opinion......I sum up 1/4 inch accuracy in one word......


For me, the accuracy of your 1/4 inch seam is all based on alignment.  

It's all about where you align your fabric in conjunction to the needle.  It's as simple as that!  Let me explain.

The photo above shows my sewing machine.  I sew on a Bernina.  The same principal applies no matter what brand of machine you use.  I have my 1/4 inch foot on my machine and use The Angler template for my alignment.  (I don't believe The Angler is available anymore, however there are other similar types of templates on the market.)  

Here's the principal in a nutshell:

Think of the needle as center position.  Where you align your fabric, meaning what line or guide you follow as you push the fabric to the needle, must be exactly 1/4 inch to the right of the needle.  Does that make sense?
The pink arrow shows the needle in center position.  The blue arrow shows the right side of my 1/4 inch foot (which means the edge is 1/4 of an inch to the right of the needle), and the orange arrow shows my alignment line...which is where I line up my fabric to sew.  Notice that the right edge of my 1/4 inch foot and my alignment line are in perfect alignment with each other.

What do you use as an alignment guide when you piece?  Is it a template like mine?  A Post-It Note?  A piece of tape or other guide?  Do you move your needle right or left?  
You can see that the edge of the red square is perfectly aligned with the edge of the 1/4 inch foot.  This seam will presumably be an accurate 1/4 inch.  Presumably.  Read on....

An important element is helping my 1/4 inch success.  It's a large, flat surface surrounding my machine.  At home my machine sits in a table, but when I travel to a retreat, I have several options with portable tables.  In my (humble) opinion, it is very important to have as large a surface as possible surrounding your machine to keep your fabric/patchwork/quilt as flat as possible as it approaches the feed dogs and needle.  Why?  Control!
In the photo above, between the two black arrows, I have about 1 inch of  space to align my fabric and control its journey to the needle.  Not much at all.  (With the table and The Angler, I have about 8 inches.)  With a small piece of fabric it may not be too bad, but with blocks in a growing top, and borders, there is a lot of drag weighing you down, making it hard to control. With a table surface, it's much easier and you definitely have more control.

To sum up....the line or guide where you lay your fabric, and guide it to the needle, makes all the difference in what your seam allowance will measure.  The needle should stay in center position and your guide should be exactly 1/4 inch to the right of the needle.

Now...there's one more super important step.  Checking your 1/4 inch seam for accuracy by putting my alignment principal to the test.
Checking for accuracy is very simple.  Make a strip set.  Choose two high contrasting fabrics.  Cut (2) 2 x 6 inch strips of one (in this case a light print) and (1) 2 x 6 inch strip of a dark (blue strip above.)  Sew them together into a strip set using your alignment marking as a guide.  Press to the outside strips.
The center strip must measure 1 1/2 inches. Period.
By creating a strip set this way, you can lay a ruler on the center strip to check accuracy for the entire length of the strip set.  I never recommend checking your seam allowance on the wrong side of your fabric as often you can't tell.  With the high contrasting fabrics you can easily see what the center strip measures.  Pressing the two outer strips to the outside creates a ditch so the ruler fits in the seam snugly.  You can also monitor how accurately you sew at the beginning and end of a strip - a trouble spot for many quilters.

What if your center strip doesn't measure 1 1/2 inches?  

If your center strip is smaller than 1 1/2 inches, then where you align your fabric is too far to the right of your needle, making your seam smaller than it should be.  Move your alignment line to the left, and make another strip set to test for accuracy.

If your center strip is more than 1 1/2 inches, then where you align your fabric is too far to the left of your needle, making your seam larger than it should be.  Move your alignment line to the right, and make another strip set to test for accuracy.    

Once you achieve a perfect center strip of 1 1/2 inches......don't move your alignment line.....EVER!  Teehee....or try not to!  If for some reason you have to move your alignment line, just repeat the steps above to find that sweet spot that is the perfect 1/4 inch seam!  I make a strip set every time I get my machine back from having it cleaned.  Just to be sure.

Once you know exactly where to align your fabric for a consistent perfect 1/4 seam, you can make any block in any size and not worry.  Your entire piecing experience improves because you're happy with your work.  It's worth the effort to go through these steps.  

Keep in mind....these hints and tips are my opinion and what has really worked for me.  I don't claim to know everything, and certainly there is always more than one way to do the same task. 
I sincerely hope that this exercise will help you.  

If you have a request for a hints and tips subject you'd like me to write about in future Quilting Essentials posts, please leave me a comment to say what you're having trouble with in your piecing.  (I don't hand quilt, so I would not have any help with that subject.)  If I choose your subject for a future post, I'll send you a little gift so leave your email address along with your comment.  Or, you can email it to me Pam@HeartspunQuilts.com

FYI - For some unknown reason...Blogger is not publishing my own comments.  Often, you leave me a comment and ask me questions or have requests.  I try to reply to your comment but it just doesn't publish (frustrating!!)  I have no way of responding to you if you are commenting anonymously.  I'm trying to figure this out as I want to respond to your comments.  Any suggestions for a fix?  

Be well....go forth and have happy stitches!


  1. How much time and effort do you put in so that your fabric is cut on grain. I try very hard to get the fabric on grain but it doesn't always work out. Any suggestions?
    Thanks for any help you can send my way.
    Claire Drake

  2. I sew on a Bernina also. I use my foot as a guide and move the needle to the right.

  3. Thanks for this post and the photos that show exactly what you mean. I think that I own each 1/4 seam guide notion that's been offered to us! But I rely on the Angler 2 (I stocked up on them when I found out they were being discontinued) and Perkins Dry Goods seam allowance guide. I also move my needle position to the right when I sew to find my spot, but the perfect spot seems to be in between 2 needle positions. 2.5 isn't quite big enough and 2.8 is a little too bit, so I choose to sew on 2.5 and use the edge of my foot as my guide. I'm going to go see if I can fine tune this after reading this post tho. Thanks and have a great weekend, Pam.

  4. Excellent instructions, Pam. I feel like sewing so many miniature quilts has really increased my accuracy, but I learned things here that I didn't know I needed to know. Great photo tutorial to illustrate your methods! Thanks!!

  5. Pam, I have the most problem with getting accurate seams. When putting flying geese pieces to the adjoining block. I always seem to lose my points. Thanks, Jeanne

  6. Great tips Pam! Have already learned so much to make quilting more accurate. I was also wondering if you have any tips on sizing your pieces as your building your block. minkgirl60@hotmail.com

  7. Excellent tips on 1/4 inch seams. I didn't think about double checking after my machine has been serviced. Good point!

  8. Wow, great great tips, Pam. Thank you SO much for posting. Fairly new quilter here and had never thought of having a 1/4 inch line along my extension to be a better guide. Love your Angler, but I did pretty well with two layers of painters tape. What a difference lining up the fabric before getting to the needle is making. Might go to three layers of tape. And so happy that my test strips came out perfect. Now if I could just stop trimming off my points on stars... Seriously, thanks again. So glad to have found your blog!!

    1. Glad you found this so helpful. No matter how long we have been piecing, there's always something new to learn. So glad you found my blog, too!

  9. Thank you so much for this posting Pam! It has been the best way I've had it taught and shown! Can't wait to try it.
    I do have a question, hoping you can help. Do you ever prewash panels when using them in a quilt? There are a couple of quilts I want to make that use prieces from a panel but I don't know if I should wash them first or not. Is there any kind of advice for that? Thanks for any help

    1. Well.....I haven't worked with a panel in more than 10 years, so I'm not sure I'm the person to answer this question. That said, panels are 100% cotton the same as any other fabric. I think if you wash all the fabric for the quilt before cutting it, there should not be a problem, but remember that all fabrics shrink some. Perhaps asking your local quilt shop owner would yield a more experienced answer. Wish I could have been of more help!

  10. Appreciate your helpful explanations!

  11. Beautiful blues Pam!! And love the unusual star block. Looking forward to seeing them become a beautiful quilt.