Piecing 101: Quarter-inch Seams

July 11, 2014 § 19 Comments

25-patch

Quarter-inch seams. Why are they so important in quilting? While consistent seam width is important for simple quilts. It’s the good ol’ 1/4-inch standard that will guarantee better success when making complicated blocks.

quarter-inch

Your machine may have one of these types of 1/4-inch presser feet above.

1. The foot that came with my Brother PQ-1500s.
2. The foot that was sold to me for my Featherweight when I took a maintenance class.
3. The foot I purchased off the Internet and comes with some brands of machines.
4. The method that my Janome uses to achieve a 1/4″ seam is a pre-programmed needle position. No special feet involved.

No. 1 is by far my favorite presser foot with No. 3 as a close second.  No. 2 is my least favorite and I would rather go without a 1/4-inch foot altogether than try to work with it. And I could live with No. 4 if I had no other choice, but I would certainly prefer a special 1/4-inch foot far & above a pre-programmed needle position.

So let me explain why I have the opinions I do.  You are free to form your own opinions and are under no obligation to change them just because I happen to prefer something else. Use what works for you.

I like presser foot No. 1 because it shows me where a 1/4″ seam is but doesn’t force me to follow it if I don’t want to.  And the second bump on the right side is the guide for a 3/8″ seam, which is what I generally use when sewing binding, sort of. Or maybe making bags or some home deco type of item.  It’s my go-to all-purpose foot.  I like that extra little bit of width in the back to keep the fabric stable, yet it doesn’t intrude on achieving a 1/4″ seam when necessary.

edge-guide

Foot No. 2 is my least favorite because I’m not quite sure where a 1/4-inch really is.  It has a hard edge guide on the right side that forces the fabric to go no further.  What if I wanted to sew a 1/4-inch top stitching line? I can’t do it because the metal bar is in the way.

And do you see that little gap between the foot and the bar?  It seems to ever so slightly slant out further in the front than in the back.  So is the 1/4-inch in the back or the front?  It makes me feel like I am constantly pulling the fabric one way or another when I’m sewing.  And where is a scant 1/4-inch?  That bar is in the way and I can’t see what I’m doing.

As you can tell, this presser foot really gets on my nerves.

And that is sort of why I am not overly fond of the pre-programmed needle position in No. 4 either.  It’s much too fussy and I’m still not quite sure what is a full 1/4-inch and what is a scant 1/4-inch.  I’m a visual person and I like to “see” what is going on.  I don’t like computers telling me what they think I want.  In quilting anyway.  But I could learn to get used to it if I had to. It’s better than nothing.

measure-seam

So, now I’ve thrown another concept out there.  What’s the difference between a full 1/4-inch and a scant 1/4-inch?  A full 1/4-inch only includes the seam allowance from the thread to the cut edge without including the thread.  A scant 1/4-inch is anything less than that.  How scant does it need to be, you ask?  Well. That depends on the thread you are using and the thickness of your fabric.  It’s something that you need to learn for your own personal machine and your thread & fabric choices.

The above photo shows my scant 1/4-inch seam that includes the thread.  It is what I need with this thread, and this fabric on this machine.

measure-width

The objective is all about making the math add up.  In theory, the above image is five 2 1/2-inch finished size squares sewn together plus a 1/4-inch seam allowance on each side. So the width needs to equal 5 x 2.5 + .5 for a total of 13 inches.  When you sew it all together is your block at this point measuring 13 inches?  What if you had twice as many seams and lost only 1 millimeter for each seam? Eight millimeters adds up to nearly a centimeter which is approximately 3/8-inch. So your block would be short by that measurement and it would be difficult to match up to whatever the next block might be.  Certainly you can fudge. But then you may be sewing blocks together with only an 1/8-inch seam or less in places.

seams

Additionally, if you have thick thread, every little millimeter of variance adds up.  Thick fabric when pressed to one side is impossible to make completely flat without loosing a couple of millimeters or more.  That little fold of fabric can take out a couple of millimeters, easily. Add on a few more seams and suddenly your block is not the size you thought it was going to be.

One trick to making flatter seams if there are a lot of tiny little seams is to press them open.  Then only one fold of fabric is being taken in with the seam allowance rather than two.  I don’t know if you can see the difference in the photo above.  The left is the flattest seam and the right is the bulkiest seam. The middle is the average seam pressed towards one side and of medium thickness.

I prefer Aurifil 50-weight thread.  It feels just a hair thinner than most thread and therefore adds just a smidge less to the seam allowance.  The topic of thread could be a whole separate discussion.

feed-dogs

In continuation of talking about 1/4-inch presser feet are the feed dogs underneath the feet that help you achieve the seam that you desire.   These are the feed dogs on the above machines.

1. Brother PQ-1500s
2. Featherweight
3. My grandmothers Singer 15-91
4. Janome Horizon 7700

This is one of the reasons I prefer older, vintage machines for piecing quilts.  Numbers 2 & 3 are vintage Singer machines. Do you see how close the feed dogs are?  And that there is one that is extremely close to the needle hole?  This helps to keep the fabric straight and flat while sewing small seams.

My Brother happens to follow in the footsteps of these vintage machines and one of the reasons why I love it so much for making quilts.

The Janome’s feed dogs are wider and farther from the needle hole.  Which is not as favorable for sewing together small pieces of fabric with small seams.  It’s great for sewing clothing and decorative stitches where you may have a lot of fabric being fed through. But it’s not so great for tiny little pieces with tiny little seams.  To me, it feels like the fabric isn’t as stable under the presser foot as it could be. It feels like it has a little more room to slide around and shift during the process of sewing.

Well, I hope you found this interesting or useful. I could continue with more about leaders & enders, single hole plates vs. zig zag plates and thread. But this post is getting too long already. So those may need to be separate topics another day.

Meanwhile, sew on!

block-piecing

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§ 19 Responses to Piecing 101: Quarter-inch Seams

  • Thanks. I think I’d like your foot #1. I have one like #2 and it works fine for me, but it does require knowing just WHERE that right spot is. I feed my seam in about a thread away from the guard and get good results (usually 1/8″ or so over a long pieced border or row.) And yes it doesn’t work great when I need to sew on top of something, but I use it anyway.

    I talked a little about leaders and enders in my recent post on chain piecing. http://catbirdquilts.wordpress.com/2014/06/24/do-you-chain-piece/

  • taconsolo46 says:

    What a good article, thanks so much for posting this

  • Trish says:

    Thanks Anita! I’ve been piecing for a few years but still feel like I’m more of a beginner since everything I know is thanks to blogs like yours. It was groundbreaking to me when I learned a scant 1/4″ but since then got a new machine (7700 Horizon) and have the toughest time. I usually use the foot you show in #2 but like you mention, the fabric feels so unstable compared to with my cheapy Kenmore machine and I don’t think my sewing has ever been as accurate on the Janome. Such a disappointment given the cost of the machine. Do you mind if I ask which foot you use to piece on the Janome? Or do you just skip the piecing with that machine and use it for other things?

    Looking forward to leaders and enders–I’ve just recently discovered this and would LOVE to know more! Another complaint I have with the Janome is that my first few stitches of each piecing seems to be loose. I have the toughest time with getting my tension right with that machine!

  • Joyce says:

    Anita, Thanks for the post. Good tips and information. Maybe one day my entire quilt tip will have 1/4″ seams. :)

  • Jenny says:

    I had a Janome and I can attest to this: (1) The feed dog situation you described causes them to have a hearty appetite for fabric, particularly the lead edges. Yes, you can work around it and use a different plate, whatever, but I like my Bernina better. (2) The 1/4″ foot situation is a mess. The answer to your question is that your foot has a manufacturing defect. The guide is supposed to be absolutely flush with the edge of the foot. I know this because I bought one and it was even more jacked up than the one you have. I took it back, got a big hassle from the dealer who had just sold it to me, and demanded one that was right (and got one). (And started having my Janome serviced by the Bernina dealer. Ain’t nobody got time to be hassled over a $10 obviously defective foot.)

  • Colleen Gander says:

    All very good tips here and worth the read through. Quilters often talk about the 1/4″ seam but seldom take the time, myself included to test out the results of sewing blocks together. Many a time I am disappointed in my results where simply checking a row of blocks would have forced me to adjust before the frustration of a block with seams that don’t line up.

  • Joni says:

    Wow Jenny, you are right on about that foot! I have 2 Bernina’s, and it seems I have 2 of their 57 feet, which is exactly like the one Anita speaks about, with the gap she is not sure about. I just checked both of mine, and there is no gap on either of them.
    I am a real rookie, I am just starting my 2nd quilt, my 1st is at the Longarm quilters.
    It’s a surprise for my son for his 30th birthday this month. It only took 10 years of procrastination! But I like it, this quilting bug, but will need to learn to throw that darned perfectionism out the window, no room for it as a beginner, or I will never finish any other quilts…..Thank you Anita, many of us depend on learning through quilter’s like you who are so willing to share.

  • bermudagirl says:

    Wow, loved your post, it was really informative and useful. I agree and hate my 1/4″ foot and rarely use it. Instead just go by the side of the foot. The last quilt I made had tiny half-square triangles and now I know why I could have had so much trouble sewing them, maybe the feed dogs. Wow there is so much to consider. Loved the comparison of the 4 machines, photos were great too. Keep it up, and I would love to hear about the thread. Great work! Thanks so much!
    Jodie

  • bermudagirl says:

    Anita, And P.S. to my above comment: Love the fabric is this by V& Co Happy something or the other. I am so drawn to it. I am usually not into the modern prints but the colors are to die for!!! Love them!
    Happy Quilting
    Jodie

    • Anita says:

      Yes, that is the fabric. Color Me Happy by V & Co. I picked up a fat eighth bundle when it was on sale. The colors are great.

      Anita

  • Great post Anita. I find that if I’m making my own quilt from start to finish I’m good enough with a 1/4″ seam for it to all work out…what gets me is collaboration quilts (like our do. Good quilts) because we EACH have our own version of 1/4″ and that makes it so hard to use any design where the edge of a block has to match up nicely with the block next to it. I try to pick blocks where the pattern does not have persnickety match points when it’s my turn to choose.

    It does seem to work for me to use the machine settings to move the needle to the right because then I can just use the regular foot. I have a super basic Janome…someday I dream of upgrading. Not because I have any problems with my current machine…it’s done everything I’ve wanted to do. But, it’s so small and I’m thinking FMQing would be easier on a larger machine.

  • Sandy Sorenson says:

    Thanks for this great article, especially the tip on including the seam thread as part of the 1/4 inch. Now if I could just so in a perfect straight line….

  • Love seeing all your feet and your thoughts on them. Learning to sew a consistent 1/4″ seam was one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around when I first started quilting regularly 10 years ago!

  • Good post, Anita! It took me years to get comfortable with the scant seam and also to learn to take into the consideration the fabric consumed by folding/pressing the seam. Lol, the foot you hate is one I really like (unless I’m stitching on top of the fabric), and I haven’t had any of the Janome issues experienced by some of your readers. I marked a dot on my acrylic general purpose foot (to aid in teaching my granddaughter the 1/4″ seam)….now I’m often using that guide and get a perfect seam every time! Looking fwd to your future posts :)

  • Yahoo! Starting my first quilt.
    You have inspired me!!

  • Janice says:

    Thank you, Anita, for your very informative article. Could you tell me the name of your second choice for a presser foot?
    I am going to save your article.

  • Nancy says:

    I found you to be very anti Janome Horizon. I have that machine and DO have a 1/4″ foot that goes with it…actually, they found a problem with the first one so made a newer improved one that I use all the time.
    No problem with the feed dogs no matter how small my pieces of fabric.
    Every machine, whatever the brand, has it’s own little tricks to obtaining the best 1/4″ seam and I do agree with the Aurifil thread statement.

  • eva says:

    thank you so much for this informative lesson. i’ve had many similar questions that you just pointed out, and answered…..

    i have that same janome, and i definitely noticed that small pieces are out of the question….. they bunch up….and become a tangled mess…..

    featherweight…… i still dream……

    now i’m going to have to pull out my juki, and see what the feed dogs look like…..hm…

    just discovered your blog and am loving what i see so far. look forward to perusing more of it,
    xo
    eva

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