Mom and I shopped at garage sales over the weekend and we scored a sentimental treasure. A shoebox of vintage hexagons ready to be pieced and a stack of hexagon blocks caught our eye. As we shifted through the box, looking at all the fabrics, Mom commented that the scrappy assortment of fabrics made this a quilt in the Grandma Mary tradition.
Grandma Mary was my dad’s paternal grandmother, and she’s the one who taught my mom how to quilt. When Grandma Mary made a quilt, she’d throw all the pieces in a basket and pull out each piece without looking. If the pieces clashed, who cared? Scrappy and random was the only way to do it, in Grandma Mary’s opinion. When my parents started dating, Grandma Mary heard my mom could sew, so she asked if my mom knew how to use that “newfangled rotary cutter contraption.” (Sorry to carbon date you like that, Mom!) Before the rotary cutter, all quilters used templates and members of quilt guilds or sewing bees would trade their templates with each other.
In this shoebox, we found a template of Grandma Mary’s. It’s been 22 years since Grandma Mary passed away and she’s still finding her way to us.
These vintage hexagons reminded me of one of my favorite precise piecing tricks. It comes from hand piecing, and you don’t hear much about it for machine piecing because it takes some time and patience, but the results and versatility can be so worth it for those trickier projects.
In hand piecing, one never crosses seam allowances with stitches. Knots at either end completely secure the seam. This hand piecing technique allows quilters to nest every seam as they sew without ever committing a seam to pressing in any given direction. (I know I’ve been guilty of clipping a seam while machine piecing because a seam was pressed the wrong direction for nesting.) It’s also relatively easy to sew challenging angles and Y-seams with hand piecing because of this technique.
Using ¼” quilter’s tape, take a stitch at the corner where the seam allowances meet, and then go back over that stitch to “lock” it.
I use a tailor’s stitch, which is a running stitch with a backstitch every inch or so. This makes the seams stronger throughout time. I also took a backstitch at the end before tying off to lock the stitch like I did at the beginning. The seam begins and ends ¼” from the edge of the fabric.
On the machine, there are a few more steps to assure the same level of precision.
Mark your seam allowances on the wrong sides of every piece. Layer the first two pieces right sides together, then use a pin to pierce the fabric at the exact corner where the seams meet. With luck, the pin will come out the other side in the corresponding corner. Just kidding, that never happens! Keep trying until the pin is going through both pieces of fabric at the exact corner. Repeat for the other corner, and for any stabilizing pins.
Quick note on the pins themselves: I’m using Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Pins because they are almost excessively thin. I prefer a very, very thin pin for this technique because it’s the least likely to warp the fabric and thus hinder my precision. I’d rather warp a needle than warp my block. Although I’ve had no problem with these pins warping, proof that their name isn’t an unearned brag
This is the trickiest part! Get the fabric under your sewing foot and line your needle up with the first corner pin. Carefully remove the pin and take the first stitch beginning at the exact corner. Reverse and stitch back over the first stitch to “lock” it and then sew along the rest of the seam. Repeat this at the end of the seam by sewing to the exact corner and reversing over the last stitch to lock the seam. Remember to never sew over pins.
So, when is this somewhat time-consuming technique called for? Any Y-seams like in this hexagon block. This technique is a lifesaver when joining sections of a foundation pieced block to ensure all the points match. It can also be the answer to any quilt that needs points to match but is proving impossible using other methods.