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Quilt Basics - Quilt Blocks from Squares, Rectangles & Triangles - Part 3 of 5

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You saw the appropriate tools and other stuff needed for basic quilting in Part 1. You leaned how to properly (and safely) rotary cut your fabric for patchwork piecing in Part 2. Now, you get to discover how to use those pieces you cut (squares, rectangles and triangles) to create some of the most popular basic quilt block patterns. We'll also teach you how to design a custom block of your very own.

It’s safe to say there are hundreds, actually thousands of different quilt blocks you can select from to make a quilt top. As we discussed in Part 1, many blocks have a prominent place in history, while others are inventions of today’s modern quilters. In general, the type of quilt block directly relates to the type (and theme) of the quilt you’re making, such as patchwork pieced, appliqué, paper-pieced, embroidery, etc. Of course, a quilt can have all of the above!

Regardless of the style, every quilt starts with a quilt block made up of pieces or units (two pieces sewn together). Some quilt blocks require many pieces or units, others just a few. In the end, when sewn together in a specific order or pattern, the quilt blocks create the quilt top.

Remember, we are discussing the basics here. If you don’t see a design you like today, don’t be discouraged. There are so many quilt designs and patterns available at local retailers, in books and online. Soon enough, you'll move from trying to find a block you like to trying to figure out how on earth you'll ever narrow down all your favorites! Plus, as we mentioned above, we’ll be sharing a little insight on how to design your own unique blocks.

Designing a basic quilt block

When you first decide to try your hand at quilting, it's usually best to follow a pattern or tutorial (maybe one here at Sew4Home). The advantage is the block design and cutting instructions have been completed for you. But remember, someone somewhere had to figure out all those details. And, if you ever want to create your own quilt design (or alter an existing design), that someone somewhere could be you! All it takes is a little graph paper, a few pencils or colored pencils, a ruler, and a bit of math.

A common inclination is to sew what we see. When a completed quilt is hanging in a shop, or we see a picture of one we love in a magazine, we want to make it exactly the same way. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, because as we all know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, what about your own creative vision? 

There are several different reasons why and when designing your own quilt block and/or the entire quilt top, is a good thing. It could be a matter of size and space. Is there an empty wall in your home you would like to decorate with your own art? Why not a wall hanging quilt? Designing one to match your décor as well as perfectly fit the empty space is ideal. Or maybe it's the opportunity to play with fabric. Part of what makes quilting so great is how we all see color and pattern differently. It’s particularly fun to watch a group of quilters working on the same quilt design. Each person has a different selection of fabric - a different vision of the finished quilt. It’s amazing to see the variety. Or... what if you want to use a quilt block pattern but it’s too large for your purposes. You can re-plot the design on a smaller scale.

When designing your own quilt block, you can use the shapes we cut in Part 2, as well as others, such as circles, curves, etc. There's no inherent need to limit yourself, however, when you’re starting out, it’s easiest to work with squares, rectangles and triangles. Graph paper forces you stay confined to these shapes, and you can also use it to help determine finished measurements.

First, you need to determine the completed size of your quilt top. As we stated above, this may be determined by the space where you plan to use it (i.e. wall, bed, etc.).

Second, you want to decide how you will divide up the space within the quilt and/or the type of block you want to use within the space. 

Finally, you have to figure out the actual size of the block units, or pieces that make up the block. Conversely, you can design the block first, then decide how many you will use across and down to determine a final size.

Let’s design a quilt block!

  1. To start our design, we will work with a square. We determined in Part 2, we wanted our finished square to be 3" x 3". For our drawing, we decided to make each square on our grid paper equal to 1". Our 3" square looks like this on our graph paper.
  2. We then decided we wanted our block to consist of two squares and a rectangle. So, now we add another 3” square, adjacent to the first one. This is now a block unit.
  3. To keep things simple (and divisible by 3 for no real reason other than to keep the math easy), we added a 3" x 6" rectangle adjacent to our squares to complete the block. You can also color or shade your shapes to represent your selected fabric.
    NOTE: The drawn lines around each shape represent a seam line.
  4. Do you know what our finished block size will be? 6" x 6"!
  5. Once you have your quilt block design complete, you can sketch out the quilt top. It can be whatever size you want. All you need to do is add blocks until you have a size you like. Remember, this finished size might be small for a table runner or large to cover a bed.
    NOTE: In the following examples, we’re showing small renderings of how to draw the blocks in succession with borders and sashing. The lines represent the seams, but around the edge, they represent the raw edge. The shading and texture lines represent the three different fabrics with which we are working. Many quilters like to use colored pencils that coordinate with their selected fabrics to get an overall idea of what the finished quilt top will look like.
  6. What happens if you need just a few more inches to reach an overall preferred size? You can add a border around the entire quilt top. Here’s what our quilt would look like with a 2” border.
  7. Or, you can put borders (or sashing) in between the blocks. We re-drew our layout, using a 1" sashing strip. This option would look great in a bold color between our chosen black and white fabric.
  8. Or, you could rotate the blocks, alternating the block design to create different looks. We redrew another quilt top plan with our blocks facing opposite directions.
  9. See, we just designed our very own quilt top with a few variations to boot! Your turn.
    NOTE: There is no quilting rule that says you cannot use all three of the options mentioned above: borders, sashing, and rotating the blocks. Sketch it out and see how it looks. If you like it - do it!
  10. Now that you have a quilt top plan in place, the remaining details to be considered are: the cut size of each of the pieces, and the order in which the quilt will be constructed (a process we will discuss in more detail in Part 4 of this Series).

Basic beginner blocks

As we stated above, working with a quilt block pattern is certainly acceptable, and a good way to get started. Using the same basic square, rectangle and triangle shapes you learned to cut in Part 2, you can make a number of existing quilt blocks. The ones we have shown below are considered traditional options that are great for beginners. 

All you need to do is decide on the size! Don’t forget to add a ¼" seam allowance to your measurements for each piece... and remember to add it to every side that will be seamed. 

NOTE: The samples below are not sewn, just cut (with seam allowance). Remember to look at the many quilt block designs available; they can be used as-designed or combined in different ways to create a custom look.

Squares

  1. The quilt block examples below utilize only squares. Each square is 3½" x 3½", which, when sewn together, will yield a 3" x 3" finished square. We’ve positioned the squares on our cutting mat to show how they would be sewn together. (We will actually sew them in Part 4 of this Series).
    NOTE: We used only black and white fabric in our examples; you can use three or four colors, add in a print, etc. This is that fun, "playing-with-fabric" part we talked about.  
  2. Four patch – this block speaks for itself.
  3. Nine patch – and, so does this one!
  4. Double nine patch – this is a combination of smaller nine patch blocks within a larger nine patch block.
  5. Irish Chain – this is a fun block to make and real easy! When the blocks are sewn together the pattern is seen more clearly. This is considered a single Irish chain. There are double and a triple options as well.

Rectangles

  1. Rail Fence – our example below does not do this block justice because it’s not sewn together. But, you get the idea of how alternating rectangles can create a very interesting pattern.

Triangles

  1. Pinwheel – remember playing with one of these when you were a kid? It's a beautiful use of triangles. At Sew4Home, we love using this pattern on round pillows.

Combinations of shapes

The most interesting quilt blocks use a combination of the basic shapes. In addition, each block is often rotated to create a design-within-a-design across a quilt top. 

Below are a few we selected to show how you can combine the most basic shapes. Again, as you get deeper into your quilting addiction, you'll find your own favorite(s)!

  1. Churndash – this block is comprised of all of our shapes: squares, rectangles and triangles.
  2. Friendship Star – a traditional block made up of squares and triangles.
  3. Shoofly – another classic combination of squares and triangles.

Sew4Home tutorials to try

Not all quilts have to be bed size. They can be a small pillow, table runner doll quilt... even a mug rug or coaster. We have a number of tutorials we’ve created in the Sew4Home studio that utilize much of what we learned thus far in the Series. Anyone trying quilting for the first time might prefer to try one of the these projects, using the basic shapes we’ve discussed thus far. For even more ideas, browse through our Project Index

Hints & Tips

  1. If you’re intrigued with designing your own quilt blocks, consider using quilt software. This enables you to design blocks, figure measurements, and assign fabric color/patterns and more with great ease. In addition, you can print templates and patterns. A general Internet search will help you find dozens of current options. 
  2. If you want to know what your selected fabrics will look like, cut sample pieces and place them on your drawn design. The motif sizing might not be 100%, but it will give you a good idea of color and pattern mixing.
  3. You'll find many quilt patterns are illustrated in black and white so as not to influence your fabric color/print combinations. This way, you get to create your own look! (That’s also why we did our sketch in black and white and used black and white fabrics).
  4. Precut fabrics are all about getting to the block building process in patchwork piecing more quickly. There are a wide variety of books and patterns available that solely focus on using these, which are also great for beginner projects. Find out more about the most common pre-cuts in our handy tutorial from our friends at Fat Quarter Shop

Contributors

Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly

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Comments (8)

Carrie Michelle said:
Carrie Michelle's picture

I'm new to quilting and learning more everyday. The problem I have is how do you know exactly what sizes will form a certain size block? For example, if I want to make a 10 inch block and make it scrappy, how do I know what sizes are compatible to fit properly? 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Carrie Michelle - use the "drawing-it-out" method shown above. You'll need to reach back into some of your dormant math knowledge to match up the geometric shapes. You also get to work with fractions, as you'll need to remember to add 1/4" to each side along a seamline to account for the seam allowance. With scrappy piecing - or modern piecework, always work to make your block about 1" or so larger all around than your finished size. Remember, the edges don't need to be perfectly straight. When your piecing is complete to your liking, then trim down to your finished 10" x 10" block. 

LaurieAW said:
LaurieAW's picture

I am quilting the quilt by hand but the  back of the quilt is messy.  How do I make the back stitches as neat as the front?

Tawni said:
Tawni's picture

You need to do one stitch at a time and make sure your needle is held straight up and down.  If your needle tips and tilts as you quilt through the layers then your back stitches will be all over the place.

daisygirl said:
daisygirl's picture

Thank you for this series.  I'm learning a lot every day. I'm a new quilter. I hope you'll discuss how to choose a sewing machine for quilting and sewing in your next topic.

willucci said:
willucci's picture

Thanks so much for this series!  I'm printing each segment out and keeping it in a reference binder!  As a new quilter, your tips, suggestions and guidance are invaluable!

JoyceLM said:
JoyceLM's picture

Thanks - I plan to share this with my niece who is just starting quilting.

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