How to join quilt blocks as you go

Tulip applique quilt

This is the second in a series of how to make an applique Tulip quilt. Part 1 is here.

Tulip applique quilt
Tulip applique quilt

Don’t be put off by the length of this post. I’m going to show you a quick method for joining your blocks, but I have gone into a lot of detail so that you can be as accurate as possible.

If you followed along as I showed you how to trim your quilt blocks, you should have a pile of identically sized blocks, beautifully square with straight edges, ready to sew together. The method I’m going to show you today is for blocks that you have made as a sandwich. In other words, you have a pieced or appliqued block, quilted to layers of stabiliser, batting and finally your quilt backing fabric.

Traditionally your quilt top is finished (blocks are all pieced, appliqued and joined together) before sandwiching with batting and backing. You then tack the layers together and quilt it, by hand, on your sewing machine, or with a specialist long arm quilting machine.

With the quilt-as-you-go method, you make each block as a mini sandwich of the top, batting and backing fabric, and each block is quilted individually. If you are making the blocks in your embroidery machine you’ll also have a layer of stabiliser.  The blocks are then joined together into rows, and the rows are then joined to complete the quilt. Finally, the edge is bound.

Join as you go or JAYG, as this way of assembling your quilt is called, means you don’t end up wrestling with a huge bundle of fabric and batting, trying to quilt it under your sewing machine, and you don’t need to spend ages crawling around the floor pinning and tacking your quilt sandwich together.

There are three techniques for joining quilt-as-you-go blocks.

  • Use strips of matching or contrasting fabric to join the blocks
  • Join the quilt backing and bring it to the front, turning it in to form sashing strips.
  • Join the blocks as normal from the front and stitch in the ditch to join the quilt backing.

The first two methods separate the blocks with sashing, which can be part of the overall design.  This is the way I’m going to describe to you today.

Equipment

The method I’m going to show you here uses a few tools but it’s quick, easy and precise. (I’ve linked to the ones I like). You’ll probably already own most of these.

OK, you don’t actually need a sewing machine that costs over £2000 but it’s nice to dream, right?

How to make sure you join your blocks in the right order

For complicated or huge quilts you might like to a chart to keep track of which block joins where. Alternatively, you could mark your blocks where you won’t see the mark once they are sewn together.

My design is simple enough, as I only have 9 blocks, but if yours is more complicated or a lot larger, you might like to lay them out in the order they are to be joined.

Let’s join two blocks. First of all mark your seam allowances. Your trimmed block will have 1″ of quilt sandwich all around the basting stitch, like this:

Quilt block trimmed to 1″ from basting stitch.

Turn the block face down, and fold back the layers until the wrong side of the main fabric is showing. You can pin or tape them out of the way, but I just held them.

Use your ruler to mark a line 1/2″ in from the trimmed edge. Repeat on all 4 sides.

Marking seam allowance on join as you go quilt block
Mark the seam line 1/2″ from the trimmed edge.
Seam line marked on quilt block
Seam line marked on reverse of quilt block

Next we need to trim away the excess batting and stabiliser. Once the blocks are joined we want the batting edges to meet at the seam, and it’s a lot easier to trim it now than after the blocks are stitched together.

Fold back the quilt fabric and backing fabric to expose the batting and stabiliser. This time I pin them out of the way or use tape. I don’t want them in the way when I use the rotary cutter.

Quilt fabric folded back to expose batting
Quilt fabric folded back with washi tape
Quilt backing folded back to expose batting
Quilt backing folded back with washi tape
Quilt backing pinned back to expose batting
Quilt backing pinned back
quilt block fabric pinned back to expose batting
Quilt block pinned back

Use the rotary cutter and ruler to trim 1/2″ off the batting and stabiliser on all 4 sides

Batting trimmed by 1/2"
Batting trimmed by 1/2″

 

Quilt batting level with stitching line
Quilt batting and stabiliser level with the marked stitching line

When I made my quilt blocks in the hoop, I used a few pieces of batting that weren’t quite large enough (gotta use up those offcuts!). After I trimmed the blocks the batting was still a fraction smaller than the stabiliser. So when I came to further trim the batting I used the stabiliser edge as a guide to line up my ruler. You can see the difference in size here:

The batting is sometimes smaller than the stabiliser
If the batting is smaller than the stabiliser, use the stabiliser edge as a guide
Line up your ruler with the edge of the stabiliser
Line up your ruler with the edge of the stabiliser

 

Trim all four sides of the block
Continue to trim all 4 sides

You will end up with a lot of little strips of batting and stabiliser. I save the batting to stuff pincushions and in-the-hoop projects like my llama softie,

Offcuts of batting and stabiliser
Offcuts of batting and stabiliser

Remove the pins/tape from the front of the block and lay one block on top of another, right sides together and lined up so corners and edges match.

You might like to refer to your chart to make sure you join the correct blocks.

Pin the seam together, matching the seam line. I pin at each end, where the seam lines cross at the corner, and in the middle. Check you have the blocks the right way around before you sew.

Blocks pinned together along stitching line
Blocks pinned together along stitching line

 

Pins from reverse side
Pins from reverse side

Stitch on your sewing machine, keeping the seam straight. Lock the stitch at each end to stop the blocks coming part later. I sew a couple of stitches in reverse to start and end the seam, but if you have a newer machine it might do that automatically.

Seam stitched along marked line
Seam stitched along marked line
Press the stitched seam with a mini iron
Press the stitched seam with a mini iron

Press the seam to set the stitches. Now open out your blocks and lay them face down on your ironing surface. Still keeping the batting and backing out of the way, press the seam allowance to one side. This is where a mini iron comes in handy. It can get into the little places that your regular iron simply can’t.

Tip: depending on the design of the block and where the quilting stitches finish, you might need to trim the seam allowance to 1/4″ so it lies flat. I kept mine at 1/2″ because I had space, and because my main fabric is a fairly loose weave that frays easily. I don’t want the seams to unravel.

Batting and backing fabric pinned aside
Batting and backing fabric pinned aside
A mini iron can get into tricky areas.
A mini iron can get into tricky areas.
Seam pressed to one side
Seam pressed to one side

Once your seam is pressed to the side, lay the batting edges on either side flat so they meet on the seamline and cover the seam allowance completely. Another quick press will smooth them perfectly.

Tip: Press all the seams in a row of blocks the same way. In the next row of blocks press them the opposite way. This reduces bulk as the seam allowances where the seams meet will lie either side of the stitching line. It also helps align your seams at the block corners, and ‘locks’ them together.

Batting laid over seam
Batting laid over seam
Press the batting edges so they lay flat
Press the batting edges so they lay flat

Now take your ruler and make a mark 1″ from each end of the seam. Cut a piece of fusible tape to fit between the marks and lay it over the batting, covering the join. Make sure the tape does not go past the mark. We need to keep that last inch free.

 

Batting marked 1" from end
Mark 1″ from each end
Fusible tape
Fusible tape (and chubby fingers! OMG)
Lay the tape over the join
Lay the tape over the join

Fold the backing fabric on one side over the join, covering the tape completely, and use your mini iron to fuse it in place. To reduce bulk, I fuse the side that is over the pressed seam allowance. So if you pressed your seam allowance to the left, I fuse the backing on the left-hand side of the seam.

Fuse backing fabric on one side
Fold over the backing fabric on one side

 

Use the mini iron to fuse the backing to the batting
Use the mini iron to fuse the backing to the batting

 

Fusible tape stopped 1" before the end, leaving the backing free.
Fusible tape stopped 1″ before the end, leaving the backing free.

Fusing the batting edges to the backing fabric keeps the batting edges together and tops them shifting.

You now have one loose edge. The fabric might be a little crumpled from all the folding and pinning, so give it a quick press onto the back of the quilt. (Make sure there’s no fusible tape showing, or it will stick).

Take your ruler and mark a fold line 1/2″ in from the trimmed edge. Fold the edge under so you can see the marked line. Press again and pin in place. I put one pin 1″ inch from each end, and one in the middle. You will need to erase this line afterwards, so use chalk or disappearing pen.

Fold line marked 1/2" from raw edge
Fold line marked 1/2″ from raw edge

 

Fold line marked on raw edge
Fold line marked on raw edge (the paper is for clarity)

 

Folded and pinned, with the fold line showing.
Folded and pinned, with the fold line showing.
The markings disappear with plain water
The markings disappear with plain water

From the right side, stitch-in-the-ditch through all layers, starting and finishing 1″ from the end. You can use the basting stitch as a guide for the start and finish. Lock each end as before and trim the stitches. Check that the stitching has caught the folded edge of the backing, and trim the thread ends.

Stitch in the ditch, leaving the first and last 1" free
Stitch in the ditch, leaving the first and last 1″ free

 

The last 1" of backing fabric is free
The last 1″ of backing fabric is free

Stitch in the ditch means sewing along the seam line so that the stitches are hidden in the ‘ditch’ between the two blocks.

Repeat for all the blocks until you have three rows of three blocks.

 

Joining the rows

The principle for this is exactly the same as for individual blocks, except we are sewing longer seams.

Start by pinning back the backing and batting along the length of the edges to be joined, on both rows. Now you can see why we left 1″ of backing fabric free at the edge of the block. Again. check with your chart to get the rows in the right order, and the right way up.

Place the rows right sides together
Place the rows right sides together
Batting and backing fabric pinned back
Batting and backing fabric pinned back

Pin the rows together in the same way as you pinned the blocks. This time you will match the seams between the blocks. If you pressed your allowances correctly, they should make matching the seams a piece of cake! Pin at each seam and at each end, and in between. Sew the seam as before, locking the seam at the end and the beginning. Stitch right to the end of the seam and press.

Seam allowances lock opposite ways
Seam allowances lock opposite ways

Tip: If you’re making a larger quilt it will get bulkier and trickier to manage as you join the rows. Keep the largest part of the quilt on your left so you only have one row of blocks to the right of the needle. An extension table can help support the weight of the quilt while you sew.

Open out your quilt and follow the same method as before for folding the seam to the side, pressing and covering with batting. This time I trimmed at the join between the blocks, just because there wasn’t quite enough room to lay the seam allowance flat.

Seam allowance trimmed where seams meet
Seam allowance trimmed where seams meet
Seam pressed to one side
Seam pressed to one side
Batting laid flat over seam
Batting laid flat over seam

Cut the tape to go the whole length of the seam. It can go right to the ends this time. Fuse backing fabric on one side as before.

Backing fabric fused to batting
Backing fabric fused to batting

Mark 1/2″ fold line on the other edge, and press under. Pin in place and stitch in the ditch from the right side, sewing the whole length of the seam. Check the stitching has caught the folded edge.

Tip Sometimes there might be a spot where the stitching has missed the folded edge of the backing fabric. You can adjust the fold, press it again and re-sew, but if it’s only a short section I like to catch it in place with a few hand stitches.

1'2" fold line marked along row
1’2″ fold line marked along the row (with paper behind so you can see the edge)

 

Mark across the seam between blocks
Mark across the seam between blocks
Fold under 1/2" all the way along
Fold under 1/2″ all the way along

When you’ve joined all your rows you should have all your blocks assembled and quilted perfectly, with backing that is as neat as the front.

Blocks joined with basting stitch still in place
Blocks joined with basting stitch still in place
Reverse of assembled blocks.
Reverse of assembled blocks.

 

Hooray! You just made a join-as-you-go quilt! Give yourself a huge pat on the back.

Now it’s time to bind the edge. You can see how I did that in the next post here.


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