Updated: Jan 7
The 4th and final section of this series is all about alignment methods: How to get those perfect points. Assuming you've cut, sewn, and pressed relatively accurately, this is the easy part. However, if you haven't cut, sewn, and pressed accurately, all is not lost. I'll be showing where and how to match points to get those perfect intersections every time.
FYI: This post is part of a monthly series on precise piecing. If you haven't read Parts 1-3, make sure to check those out first. There's lots of good information for easy ways to cut, sew, and press more accurately, as well as some ground rules. My goal is to show some easy habits that you can implement to up your quilting game and ultimately make quilting more fun. Also, if you aren't already subscribed to my newsletter, make sure you sign up at the bottom of this page so you don't miss more monthly tips and tricks!
When it comes to alignment techniques, there are a couple of basic things that I find are required to get near-perfect points no matter what kind of intersection you're dealing with. Here's the lo-down.
Tools of the Trade
Getting good alignment means having good control over the placement of fabrics. I cannot do that without pins. I know, I know, this is a very contested topic in the quilting community. There's this unspoken feeling that not using pins makes you somehow a better quilter, but that's a load of crap. Here's the thing, a few pins means way less seam ripping so I'll gladly take a few extra seconds to pin down my pieces before sewing them in order to avoid seam ripping.
Choosing the right pins can help. I use Clover Extra Fine Patchwork Pins (not an affiliate link). The key point (see what I did there) is that they're very thin, flexible, and sharp. That ensures that the seam that I'm about to sew lies as flat as possible while headed under my needle. Thicker pins result in a very rippley edge that can shift the fabric that you've so carefully aligned between when you align it and when you sew it which is exactly what we're trying to avoid by pinning in the first place. Do yourself a big favor and invest in some finer pins for precision piecing.
If you're one of those people who avoids pinning because the act of having to stop and stick pins back into a pincushion while you're sewing takes too long, consider a magnetic pincushion. This is the one I use (again, not an affiliate link) and it stays under the harp of my machine at all times (and has the added bonus of magnetizing my whole machine bed). The magnet is powerful enough that I just have to toss pins in the general vicinity and it will grab them which means I can do it without having to stop or even look over at the pincushion. I am a lazy quilter after all!
The other essential tool for good alignment is a stiletto, but I won't belabor that point anymore. If you want to hear more about why stilettos are awesome, check out this blog post.
How to Use Pins
This might seem like a very basic point, but it's worth mentioning because I spent a good portion of my sewing life using pins the wrong way and I'm willing to bet I'm probably not alone.
Pins should always be inserted perpendicular to the seam you want to sew. Why? Because when you insert a pin into fabric, because of the way it is woven through the material, the fabric will shift. While the amount of shift is smaller if you're using fine, sharp pins, there will still always be some shift. This shift occurs primarily in the direction that the pin is inserted. If I insert the pin along the seam direction, my fabric is going to shift in that direction which is exactly what I'd like to avoid. If I insert the pin perpendicular to the seam, it's still going to shift, but I have an easy visual to see when the edges of my fabric are aligned so that kind of shift is easy to correct for.
Inserted pins perpendicular to the seam also has the added benefit of allowing you to leave the pin in longer before the fabric goes under the needle. While it's less effective with a flanged foot, inserting pins perpendicular allows you to sew right up to the point where the needle would intersect the pin before removing it meaning things stay secure longer. If they're inserted parallel to the seam, no dice; that pin has to come out as soon as it approaches the foot.
For extra security, I like to use two pins - one on either side of the seam - for critical intersections. Some people really like forked pins for this purpose, but I find them difficult to use so I stick with regular straight pins.
One last thing: never EVER sew over your pins. There are quite a few quilters that believe that they can get away with sewing over pins, largely because they've never had an issue so far. This is pure dumb luck. If you sew over your pins, it is a matter of when, not if, you will cause expensive damage to your machine. Don't risk it, pull those puppies out before they go past your needle and use your trusty stiletto to guide the pieces the rest of the way. Hitting a pin with your needle, at best will dull your needle, and at worst, can completely screw up the timing of your machine and jam your hook which will require $200+ dollars in repair. It's not worth it!
When to Shift
During the course of this blog series, I've talked a lot about avoiding stretching your fabric. Here's where that rule gets broken. Alignment of points is priority number 1; not stretching your fabric and maintaining a full 1/4" seam allowance come second.
Here's what I mean by that. Say, for instance, you're not perfect (no one is) and two points that need to be aligned on a block are not the same distance away from each other. This means that you're going to have excess fabric on one side in order to keep the points aligned. How do you fix that? You stretch the fabric on the side without excess in order to keep the intersection points aligned. I know, it goes against everything you've learned, but a little stretching will quilt out (provided you don't have huge (more than 1/8") amounts of distortion anyways). You'll never notice it. You will, however, notice that the points don't intersect properly (but ONLY you will notice that, no one else is even going to see it).
The same thing goes for points that got a little too close to the edge. If you have to take a scanter seam allowance for that section of the seam in order to maintain the point, do it. You're likely going to tack those seams down during the quilting process anyways. The seam will have less integrity, but as long as you still have an 1/8" or so of seam allowance, it will be just fine.
Types of Intersections
Now that we've covered the universal basics, let's talk about the families of intersections you will encounter in quilting. The final section will provide some easy methods for dealing with these types of intersections.
This is the most common type of intersection that quilters are concerned with. A point, as the name would suggest, is where fabric (or fabrics) comes to a peak at a seam. Points are characterized by an intersection that occurs 1/4" away from the actual block edge. This is to allow for the block to be sewn together with other blocks without blunting a point. If the point went all the way to the edge of the block, there would be no way to sew those blocks together without blunting the point; there always has to be a seam allowance.
The key to sewing points is to always sew just beyond the point when sewing the seam. If you sew directly on it, when the fabric is folded to press the seam, the very tip of the point will often get nibbled off by the seam allowance ever so slightly.
Perhaps the most forgiving type of intersection, chevrons are characterized by two diagonal seams coming away from the seam to be sewn at the same angle. Like this. The blocks must be aligned correctly with respect to one another in order to get the correct result. Although, if you're off a bit on a chevron, it's really hard to see.
Diamond intersections are a specific kind of chevron intersection and one of the more tricky types to align because there's no easy visual to use. Diamond intersections are formed when 4 different pieces come together at a non-90-degree angle such as in a lonestar quilt.
Now that we've defined the different types of possible intersections, let's talk about strategies to achieve good alignment.
Matching Seam Allowances - For Simple Chevrons
This is the east strategy, but it also is only useful for chevron-type intersections. Since the seams that need to be aligned fall away from the edge you're aligning at the same angle, all you have to do is make sure the seams are right on top of each other. If you've pressed your seams open, this is visually easy to see and feel. If you've pressed your seams to the side, try to make sure the seams nest so that it's easy to feel if the seams are right on top of each other. Once you have things aligned, place a pin just to either side of the seam to make sure it stays in place while you align the other points and sew.
Hang-pin - For Points and Diamonds
This technique goes by many different names; standing pin, positioning pin, etc. You can read an in-depth tutorial on how to apply the hang-pin alignment technique here. This technique is one of my favorites. When used traditionally, it's only useful for aligning point-type intersections. However, by doing some easy marking, it can be used to align diamond-type intersections as well. Check out the tutorial for all the details.
Dog-ears - For some Points, Chevrons, and Diamonds
Dog ears, the little flaps of fabric that stick out of a seam on non-90-degree seam, are probably the most ignored alignment technique in quilting. Most people find them a nuisance and cut them off, but they can be used as a visual alignment marker that can prevent the need for more time-consuming alignment techniques such as the hang-pin. The catch is that they only work well on certain types of intersections.
60 degree intersections (of any kind) work great with dog ears. If you've left yours intact, matching the dog ears to be directly on top of each other above a point will ensure correct alignment without ever having to touch a hang-pin. This also works for chevron and diamond-type intersections.
Another time where dog ears are useful is in general chevron-type intersections. By leaving them on my HST units here, I have a more prominent visual marker to ensure that my seams stay well-aligned.
Finally, dog ears are immensely helpful when aligning diamond-type intersections of all kinds. Diamond-type intersections must be offset a certain amount so that the seams intersect in the same position once the 1/4" seam allowance is taken away. You could mark that intersection and apply the hang-pin technique, but that gets to be laborious when you have a bunch of intersections. The dog-ear can help you figure out how much to offset the pieces by to get a good diamond-type intersection.
In a diamond intersection, the dog ear should be a scant 1/4" tall at the point it sticks out. You can measure this with a ruler while you pin, but do a couple and you will soon realize that your eye quickly becomes calibrated to a 1/4" and you can easily visually decide how far out that dog ear needs to stick in order to be correct. Verifying the first couple by sticking a hang-pin through the intersection will help your eye calibrate more quickly. Once you're calibrated, you can churn through your diamonds quickly and easily.
With all three of these strategies, always align the critical intersections first, then pin the remainder of the seam distributing any excess fabric evenly to keep things from getting too wonky. Only points where different fabrics come together need to be aligned. If you have sections where fabrics of the same color intersect, it is perfectly OK to let those intersections be off. No one will notice!
Ok, there you have it: my crash course in lazy quilter precision piecing. I haven't covered everything, there's just too much, but these are the things that make the biggest difference for me. Did you learn something new? Did your precision improve? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!
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