Quilters Rule

by Lorie on June 16, 2009

When my boss asked me to put together some simple block instructions for Quilting 101 (our free tutorials section on YCQT!), I thought it was going to be easy!   I decided to do a simple but fun block called the Double Windmill which is comprised of half-square and quarter-square triangles that are reasonably easy to cut and assemble.  I love this block because you can make a whole quilt from just this block, and based upon how you place them, you can get some really wonderful patterns. 

I got out my fabrics and cut half- and quarter-square triangles and started sewing.  My first block came out wonky–and not in a good way.  The second one I cut out was off even before I began sewing.  The third was hopelessly out of square. 

Not being a complete novice, I started looking at the details.  Why were my blocks coming out so very wrong?  I went back over the advice I’d written to other quilters:

-  Make sure you are using a perfect 1/4″ seam allowance.  Test it.

-   Keep the fabric edges aligned and sew slowly, checking carefully as you go.

-  When using cut triangles, be sure to press carefully to avoid distorting the bias edge. 

The thing was, I had done all these things.  So, I went to research the block I was making and study the techniques I was using.  It was interesting to me that I found none of my problems to be any one of the obvious reasons above.  So, I thought I might share with you what I learned so you can avoid making the same mistakes that I did.  Here’s what I came up with:

Rotary Cutting:

I’ve been changing rotary blades very consistently with each new cutting project, but it didn’t seem to help the fact that the blade was skipping and cutting a slightly wavy edge.  After inspecting the 5-year old cutter, I realized that a washer that spaced the blade from the nut had cracked and was not holding the blade stable.  I decided a new handle was in order and, as I love to buy new quilty things, I went off to the store and bought a new one which only had three parts to it and no washer.  Problem solved, right?  No. 

The rotary blade was still skipping spots on the cut line.  When I looked carefully, I could see that I had solved part of the problem by stabilizing the blade, but I realized that part of the problem wasn’t the blade at all–it was my mat.  My mat is in pretty good shape and looks only slightly worn.  However, when I carefully ran my fingers across the surface, I found that the mat had an uneven texture to it that could most definitely create a problem for a rotary cutter.  The fact is, one corner of my mat was constantly getting used and worked upon, and it had deteriorated enough that it was not working well.  I turned the mat so it would face the opposite direction, and suddenly my blade worked perfectly. 

I re-cut the block and tried again.  It was still off enough that it was too small on one side and too big on the other.  Ugh! 

I looked next at my pressing.  As I mentioned above, I press carefully and don’t slide or stretch the fabric.  However, I noticed on one of the blocks that was off that I had created the slightest crease along the seam line of the block.  That wrinkle was enough to pull the block out of square.  I needed to check my pressing to make sure the seams were lying perfectly flat.

In some of the reading I did, I also found that many quilters actually don’t sew a pefect 1/4″.  They sew a scant 1/4″ to allow for the thread or two that the width of the seam takes up.  So, I adjusted my process to take a thread less than 1/4″ while sewing.  Much better, but still not perfect. 

Mystified, I decided to mark my rulers and templates with colored tape to ensure I was actually cutting the proper dimensions of the blocks.  I re-checked the plastic templates I had made with gridded template plastic to ensure they were the right size.  And, guess what I found? 

First, the grid on the template plastic measured slightly less than the 1/4″ it was meant to be.  Now, over one or two squares, this isn’t a big deal, but with each additional square, it compounded until it was between 1/16″ and 1/8″ off.  That’s a big deal when you’re talking about half- and quarter-square triangles.  I hadn’t measured that carefully because I assumed the quarter-inch mark was accurate. 

Then, I wondered–what if it’s not the template plastic, but my ruler?  I started measuring each of my rulers against others and against the cutting mat I was using.  I also measured the tape I use when dressmaking (the one I’ve had since Jr. High Home Ec.)  Horror of horrors, many were just plain off, and my beloved (and stretched out) tape went directly into the trash can. 

I’m not completely certain how I’m going to determine which of my rulers is correct and which are not.  I’ll have to ask my Engineer husband what he thinks, and I’ll probably end up using one of his metal drafting rulers to be the benchmark.  I’ll be more careful to use one ruler, or two that exactly match, in the future. 

With the Double Windmill, I will most likely cut the block slightly larger than I actually need it and square it up to the proper dimension afterwards.  I always thought that if you measure, press, and sew accurately, you couldn’t go wrong but it’s clear to me now that some things can be done better by using simpler methods.  I’ll certainly be checking any rulers I purchase from now on, and I won’t be so tempted to buy the least expensive. 

I’ll let you know what Engineer Dale has to say when we do part two of this article next week:  How to Square Up.  If anyone has other suggestions–please do post–I would love to hear them!  I’ll have the Double Windmill block out on the site in the next few days for all of you! 

Sew Now, Quilt Now!



1 Rachel 06.17.09 at 7:07 am

Wow! it’s amazing what can set off you quilting! I am a very new beginner so I appreciate your input on your mistakes and things that went wrong so that I can be careful in future. =:) I know how frustrating it is when working on a project that just won’t come out right and you can’t figure out why! Lol! I love all of the quilting 101 tutorials you all do! They are so helpful to me as a beginner! I certainly don’t want to mess up my projects by doing the wrong thing! =;)

~Miss Rachel~

2 Bev 06.17.09 at 9:58 am

Excellent article! I know that brands of rulers are different so I always buy the same brand. Also, plastic rulers can get slightly chipped on the sides and that can affect rotary cutting. Nice article!

Cheery wave from

3 Carlotta 06.17.09 at 8:58 pm

It’s amazing how so many things can happen to mess up a good quilting project. You’ve done a fine job of trouble shooting. I must say, what you’ve gone through here is why I like to quilt without rules. I would like for everything to match up and lines to meet where they’re meant to. But if they don’t ( shrug shoulders) oh well. I do appreciate your quilting 101 posts though. If I ever make a quilt for someone who’s a stickler for things meeting up as they should, I’ll need this info. Thanks bunches.


4 Anonymous 06.18.09 at 5:50 am

Hey, great post, really well written. You should write more about this.

5 Lorie 06.18.09 at 10:06 am

Hi Carlotta–good points! I heard a famous quilt designer say, “If you can’t see it from across a room, the error doesn’t exist!” And, while I will always want my points to match, I’m guessing I have many years of experience to gather before it happens all the time. LOL


6 Cara 06.18.09 at 10:38 am

I am consistently having measuring problems. My troubleshooting hasn’t been too successful, but this gives me more things to check. I have noticed that I have to be very careful which side of my marked line I sew along as it can make a HUGE difference when it comes to piecing.

I also recently realized that my quarter inch foot was not a quarter of an inch!!! So much for that!

With all the preciseness quilting demands, I’m always amazed when I see a perfectly square and pieced top.

7 Jennifer 06.18.09 at 6:53 pm

Lorie – thanks for this great post. It was much more interesting reading about how you addressed difficulties than a vanilla Windmill block how-to. Ya cain’t larn nuthin’ wi’out ta screwups, as my grandma used to say… . Please, always include something about any challenges you hit!

8 Juanita 06.20.09 at 10:28 am

Lorie, this is so excellent! Thank you, thank you. I made the first quilt-a-long that YCMT did and it was pretty bad in some places – well, okay, most places! I really enjoyed it but never figured out how I made my mistakes. Thanks for explaining why it doesn’t work even when directions are followed exactly.

9 Sara 06.23.09 at 4:25 pm

Pretty good post. I just found your blog and wanted to say
that I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts. Any way
I’ll be subscribing to your blog and I hope you write again soon!

10 Mary 06.25.09 at 6:23 am

If your quarter inch foot isn’t sewing a quarter inch seam you can try to move your needle position a little one way or the other to get an accurate quarter inch seam. Some people don’t realize they can move the needle position by moving the stitch width of their machine. It does not work on all machines. Hope this helps.

11 RaLinn 06.25.09 at 9:04 am

To get great half-quarter triangles, never cut triangles always use squares . First, stitch a scant 1/4″ on either side of a line drawn down the middle of a square and then rotary cut the line. You’ll never have BIAS EDGES that stretch with two half-square triangle. Check the web for charts of proportions.

“Thangles” is a great tear away paper guide that is available in a variety of sizes to make multiples of half-square triangles. BUT my favorite tool to make a half-square triangles and even quarter square triangles is the “Square Up Ruler” by Eleanor Burns. From just two large blocks you can easily make 8 accurate half-square triangles and 4 quarter square triangles. You trim after you sew using her special guide on the ruler for perfectly square and correctly sized half-square and quarter square triangles. Her instructions are easy, well illustrated, and the ruler is available at JoAnn’s, speciality quilt shops and at “Quilt in a Day” website.

Of course, it’s up to you to make the points match in the middle. Check out quilting tutorials on the web for tricks to make multiple seams lie flat, sometimes its an odd pressing technique that works best, or its removing a few stitches after the seam. There’s plenty of tricks of the trade to make quilting go from, “It kinda looks like the picture” to “WOW, I’ve made this.”

12 nancy 06.25.09 at 12:33 pm

when quilting i follow my husbands advice “you’ll never notice it on a galloping horse…” i do try to get all the points to match and the blocks to be square but when necessary i improvise…right now i am working on a foundation string pieced kaliedscope(sp?) quilt that only one center came out perfect ..my solution i am putting yarn bows at each center… works for me…. do enjoy your tutorials….nancy

13 vickie 06.25.09 at 1:02 pm

one thing i have found is to use the same brand of ruler for each project, also y0u need to be careful with the newer rulers that have a half inch on the edge , i usually end up turning the ruler to the wrong side.

14 Christi Scheffel 06.25.09 at 7:04 pm

My guess is that you probably did have some stretching as well so my advice is starch or at least sizing. I prefer starch in the bag, in the freezer like we did as kids but I know now adays people like the spray stuff convenience. Have fun that’s all that really matters.

15 How I Make $5000 a Month Posting Links on Google 06.25.09 at 7:14 pm

Loved your latest post, by the way.

16 Bill 08.12.09 at 5:37 am

My wife invented an adjustable Ruler for quilters and it won the Viewers Choice Grand Final on The New Inventors Show here in Australia.
Her products address the issues you talked about that have plagued Quilters for so long. We do have a selection made in the US by Quilters Rule
Great Blog

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