Precision Piecing for Lazy Quilters: Part 1

Updated: Jul 27

Don't you just love it when your points come together perfectly on the first try? It's not critical, but when it happens, it just gives you that little extra jolt of excitement and you feel like a boss! The only problem is that consistently getting precise points usually means slowing down a lot and doing a bunch of extra starching, trimming, and often seam ripping steps all of which zap the fun out of quilting. We'd all love perfect points every time, but the "lazy quilter" voice inside my head gives a big "Nope!" and moves on. All of that is just too much work unless it's for something really special (and/or small).


Instead, I take a bunch of more palatable "shortcuts" that improve my chances of getting precise points without all those pesky steps that annoy the crap out of me. While it's not 100% foolproof, it gives me pretty good odds of being close to perfect 90% of the time, and those are odds I can live with. I'll be working through all those little tips and tricks that make the biggest difference for me starting with the most important. I'll be covering a new topic each month on this blog, so if you're not signed up for my newsletter yet, get on that! There's a link at the bottom of this page. You don't want to miss anything!



Contents:

  1. The Rules

  2. Precision while Cutting

  3. Sticky rulers

  4. To prewash or not to prewash

  5. Making the cut


First, The Rules:

Before we get started, I do have two hard and fast rules:


Rule #1: NEVER seam rip!


The only exception is if I put a piece in upside down or something (then you have my permission to seam rip). A point not being perfect is never a reason to seam rip. Just learn from it and move on because no one will EVER notice it once the quilt is finished except for you. Over time, you will improve until you have near-perfect points on the first try consistently. The point of this is not to stress over your points, but to learn some easy habits that will ultimately level up your overall accuracy and make quilting more fun.


Rule #2: The technique that will give you the best results is the one you’re most comfortable with


I’m going to show you my techniques, but if you already have habits and techniques that you love and are comfortable using, please don’t change them on my account. You will do your best work when you are confident in what you’re doing. No two people are the same; what is best for me is not necessarily what is best for you. However, if there are techniques that you are currently using but aren’t entirely thrilled with, experiment with the way I do things and give yourself time to adjust. You might just find a way you like even better.

A note about links:


You are going to see a lot of links sprinkled through this blog post. They are there for your convenience so you can find the things I'm talking about if you're interested. None of them are affiliate links. While I have nothing against affiliate links, they're not right for me and my business and you will not find them in any of my blog articles. Most of these links are to Amazon just out of convenience and longevity, but I highly encourage you to purchase these items from your local quilt shop and small businesses which will usually carry them. Amazon doesn't need more support.


So without further ado, I present to you Part 1 of Precision Piecing for "Lazy Quilters" - Cutting

Precision while cutting


Precise cutting is the root of all perfect piecing. Most quilters are pretty good at sewing a consistent seam allowance, so if we had the ability to cut perfectly precise, we would have perfect points almost all the time. The problem is that fabric is stretchy and slippery (yes, not as stretchy and slippery as some other fabrics out there, but it isn’t cardboard either). You can place your ruler down and make a cut, and in the time it took you to do that, things can shift . . . sometimes a lot. Have you ever measured your pieces after cutting and moving them? You’d be surprised how much they can be off by even if you’re fairly precise when cutting. So the first step in precision piecing is improving your chances of making accurate cuts (within 1/16” of the intended size).


a. Sticky rulers


Acrylic rulers are very smooth. That’s good for a lot of things, but it makes it easy for the ruler to slide over your fabric even when pressure is being applied during a cut. Have you ever felt your ruler move while your cutting? It's not a great feeling. Ideally, we’d like for the ruler to move easily when pressure isn’t being applied (during positioning) but be difficult to move when pressure is applied (during cutting). There are a number of products to help with this. My favorite is clear window sticker vinyl. Omni grid makes a product that is window sticker vinyl specifically for cutting rulers. It’s great, but it comes on a roll which always wants to curl up for me when I’m trying to use it. For that reason, I tend to purchase generic sheets of window sticker vinyl instead. You usually have to use multiple for long rulers, but I prefer that to fighting a roll. See how I apply it here.


Once applied, I just leave it on the ruler until it starts to not stick anymore. I’m up to two years on the first ruler I applied it to and it’s still going strong. It’s kind of a set it and forget it thing; perfect for a ‘lazy quilter’ like me.


To me, the vinyl is ideal since it has a thickness to it but is still very smooth. This means that when I’m not applying pressure, it glides over my fabric without moving any of it. But when I apply even relatively low amounts of pressure, the fabric sinks into that soft, thick vinyl layer and is very difficult to move. Exactly what is needed to make accurate cuts.


Yes, there are many other products out there to give your rulers grip. Here are some, but I have found that vinyl is by far the best.



  1. Rulers with pre-applied grip - Creative Grids rulers come with little grippy pads already on the rulers. I believe several other manufacturers also sell rulers with grip pre-applied. I’m a fan of these, but it doesn’t help with the rulers you already have unless you’re looking to replace all your quilting rulers.

  2. Gripping stickers – Again, lots of suppliers make these. They’re just little nickel-size stickers with a rough texture to give your ruler some grip. They work well, but you have to apply enough of them to get good coverage. I prefer something that makes pretty much every inch of my ruler grippy, hence the window sticker vinyl.

  3. Grippy sprays – Odif (as well as some other suppliers) sell aerosol sprays that give your ruler some grip. I haven’t personally used these, but all the ones I’ve seen frost your ruler so I stay away from them personally. I would prefer to be able to see my fabric clearly through my ruler. While you can still do that to some extent with these sprays, it’s not as clear. Additionally, these coatings are very thin layers. There’s no ‘give’ to them. That means that the difference in grip between non-pressure and pressure is minimal (it just grips all the time) which isn’t as ideal as some of the other products.


b. To prewash or not to prewash


Surprise! I don’t pre-wash my fabrics. Aside from giving myself an extra step which is decidedly not the ‘lazy quilter’ way, pre-washing your fabric ultimately makes them extra floppy and difficult to cut precisely. Fabrics from the mill contain a host of products and chemicals (mostly derived from natural sources) that make them easier to process commonly referred to as ‘sizing’. This includes stiffeners applied to the fibers prior to weaving so that processing goes smoothly without breakage. I treat this like free starch. They’ve already done it so I don’t have to. However, all of these sizing chemicals are water-soluble so washing your fabrics before working with them removes the free starch which is why I don’t do it.


The exception is with fabrics that I am particularly concerned about bleeding issues. If you’re buying quality fabric and use a color catcher sheet during the first wash, you probably won’t have to worry about this (even if you have bright red next to white on your quilt). Personally, I’ve never had an issue with bleed when I use quality fabrics and I’ve put deep fuchsia against pure white in quilts before. The only time I have had an issue, was when I used cheaper calico fabrics from Joann Fabrics. In the quilt below, the green from the backing fabric definitely tinged the yellow a little darker and I noticed the difference when I pulled it out of the wash even with color catcher sheets. The quilt was fine, nothing got ruined, but I can only attribute the bleed to the lower quality fabrics where the dye was less well fixed because everything else was the same. That’s not to say that all Joann’s quilting cottons are crap or not to buy them. Neither is true and I definitely still buy lots of fabric from Joann’s. Just be prepared that you may start to have some issues with bleed if it’s a cheaper quality fabric (from any store). You can get around this by prewashing, but in those cases, I do like to lightly starch my fabrics with Best Press before using them (although I tend to just pay slightly more for my fabric so I don’t have to pre-wash or starch because I’M LAZY).



c. Making the cut


When you’re actually doing the cutting, there are a couple of things I do to help ensure I make precise cuts.



  1. Always measure with your ruler (not the lines on the cutting mat) - The cutting mat lines are precise, but it’s hard to keep your ruler and fabric aligned with those lines while cutting. As a rule, I never take precise measurements from my cutting mat. Instead, I use my ruler to measure the cut in from the straight edge of fabric and always place my ruler over the fabric to be cut (rather than the rest of the yardage) to help stabilize it.

  2. Never cut more than 2 layers of fabric when making precise cuts, 1 is better – The only time I cut more than two layers is when I’m cutting my initial strips from yardage just because my cutting mat isn’t big enough unless I fold the yardage into 4 layers. I’ll cut 2 layers if the fabric has been stabilized into a strip tube or something similar, but otherwise, I unfold my yardage to make my sub cuts so that I’m cutting only 1 layer at a time. This takes longer, but I make way fewer mistakes this way. Fabric likes to slide against itself so its very difficult to keep two layers or more aligned with each other unless they are stabilized with a seam or similar prior to cutting.

  3. Make sure your rotary blade is sharp – It goes without saying that sharper blades will always be more precise. How do you know when to change your blade? I do it whenever my blade starts ‘skipping’ on my fabric, i.e. I start having incomplete cuts with small sections still attached. Every time I have to go back and re-cut a section, precision drops so if my blade is doing this frequently, it’s time for a new one.

  4. Use a quality rotary cutter - Make sure you’re using a decent rotary cutter. I’ve noticed some cheaper ones result in your blade wobbling a bit when you cut even when the blade is sharp. If your rotary cutter is doing this, it may be time for a new one (check and make sure just tightening the axel doesn’t fix it first), again, a highly worthwhile investment in my opinion. I personally like the Olfa Deluxe one. I’ve used it for years and I love it. I also notice a major improvement when I upgraded. The wobbling blade means you can end up with slight curves in your cut even if your ruler is straight and you’re cutting against the edge. Not at all ideal.

  5. Make sure your rulers are precise – on cheaper rulers, I’ve noticed that one edge might not be quite a ¼”. I have one ruler where one side is more of a scant ¼” and the other side is a full ¼”. It’s not necessarily a problem, just be aware that not all quilting rulers are created equal. Likewise, you want the lines on your ruler to be as thin as possible without being difficult to see. Fat lines introduce more uncertainty into your measurement which leads to less precise cutting. If you haven’t invested in a high-quality ruler with thin lines, I highly recommend doing that so you have at least one really good one, especially for the smaller cuts, because it makes a big difference! Some good brands are Creative Grids, Quilter’s Select, and Olfa



There you have it, my best tips for cutting accurately. That was A LOT and while this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, these are the things that make the biggest difference for me. Let me know which one you found most helpful or if there’s anything you want me to dive a little deeper into in the comments below. Next month, in Part 2 I’ll be diving into sewing accurate seams. See you then!


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