Blocking Quilts and Pieced or Appliquéd Blocks
A mini-lesson by Sylvia Landman (written for Quilt U library)
As a teacher and designer of knitting and crochet for 35 years, I learned that the finished, polished look of blocked garments added to their shape and professional appearance. Editors commented that my laces and other garments looked more finished compared to those who submitted projects that were left unblocked. Even yarns marked "no blocking needed" benefit from this treatment.
Before becoming a knitting and crochet designer for publication and manufacturers, I made clothes. Pressing during sewing construction is necessary for well-shaped, finished garments. The same is true for completed quilts or quilt blocks, pieced or appliquéd. Blocking squares up and straightens wavy edges and can make appliqué stand out in relief as it flattens the background a little. Blocking also helps you to make perfect square corners and helps a wall quilt hang flatter. There are two basic methods of blocking all textiles not harmed by water.
Wet blocking means that you immerse the block, garment or textile in water, followed by careful pinning to a blocking board or, in the case of a large quilt, the rug on the floor. After pinning, described below, the textile is allowed to dry in the shape and dimensions you give it.
Dry blocking means the item is completely dry when you pin it into the shape and dimensions you want. You add moisture in one of several ways.
- You can spray it evenly with a spray bottle
- You can pass a steam iron over it, not on it
- You can use a commercial steamer
Both methods penetrate the fibers with moisture, making them malleable. This allows the project to dry in the shape and dimensions you want. Wet blocking is appropriate for projects that need a lot of shaping such as hand knitted or crocheted garments and laces and, most especially, for appliqué quilts or blocks that have been quilted, such as the one you see below. When wet and more elastic, textiles allow themselves to be pulled into shape as needed. Dry blocking works for projects that need just a slight adjustment in shaping or dimensions and a proper finish, which is the case in the completed quilt shown below.
You do not need much that is not already in your sewing room or studio.
- a good steam iron
- long, rust-proof pins called "T" pins
- rulers or yard sticks
- measuring tape
- one 8" or 12" square ruler
- a blocking board OR
- a clean sheet or pad laid on the thickest carpeting in your home or studio.
Whether you wet or dry block, the pinning process is critical. The pins hold the project into the shape you give it while it dries. You need many more than you think. I prefer to pin along the edges of my project at least every inch and no further apart than 2". If your pins are too far apart, your edges will become scalloped where the quilt edge sags inward between too-large spaces between pins, rather than being straight edges. Note the pins in the photo are less than 1" apart.
Pins are less than 1" apart
Blocking a single pieced or appliqué block is less daunting than an entire quilt. Start by preparing a blocking or pressing board. Stacking towels on a table or ironing board sounds good, but does not work well, owing to the softness and shifting of unstable layers.
Consider a piece of fiber board, cellulose or bulletin board cut 18" square. Mine last about ten years with frequent use. Yours will, too, if you prepare it well. Cut a piece of heavy plastic or oil cloth 20" square. Cut a 20" square of heavy but smooth padding. (Do not use polyester batting. It melts.) An old blanket is ideal. Cut one piece of sheeting, gingham or strong cotton fabric 22" square.
Layer these over your board: plastic on the bottom, the padded layer then the sheeting. Use a staple gun to pull the layers drum tight wrapping them over the edges of the board. You may find it helpful to enlist another pair of hands, one to hold the layers, the other to staple. I fold the extra fabric over the first two layers to create a finished back. Your board will last many years when you protect if from moisture with the plastic and pad it this way. My blocking board also doubles as a "big board" to fit over my ironing board.
My preference is to block pieced blocks right side down. I also block many appliqué blocks upside down. However, if there is dimensional work or embellishments, I block right side up. This is the case with the block shown beneath the ruler. Elsewhere on this block there are dimensional bugs, free-standing leaves and raised flower petals.
I use my 8" or 12" square ruler and a carpenter’s square to make sure all four sides are even. I block before applying the binding or joining quilt-as-you-go blocks. This gives me a way to trim perfectly and to measure accurately for the length of borders and/or binding to be added later.
BLOCKING A LARGE QUILT ON THE FLOOR
I start with a 12" square ruler in the first corner to insure that the quilt corner is perfectly square. I tug gently, pulling the quilt as needed, to align its top edge perfectly along the ruler edge. Once past the length of the ruler, I extend the perfect line by laying a yard stick (or two) even with the top edge of the ruler. When I reach the end of the top edge, I check with the square ruler again to make sure the yard sticks plus the ruler create a second perfect corner.
Placing the pins along the edge at a 45° angle to the quilt, not straight up and down. You want the pin head angling away from the quilt edge. This secures them in place so that when you pin the opposite edge and are putting tension on the quilt, they will not pop out. Pin evenly every inch or two along the top edge, inspecting continually that the row of pins lines up with the rulers. My preference is to block the bottom edge of the quilt edge next. I measure carefully to make sure both top and bottom are exactly the same width. Last, I pull out the sides of the quilt, pinning as needed to create four perfectly squared corners, edges and sides.
When blocking a bed size quilt on the floor, you must eventually lean or sit along the edges of the quilt as you block. I remove my shoes and wear clean clothes to keep the quilt clean. I use a steam iron as shown in the photo above. Scooting along, I hold the dead weight of the iron in my hand, moving it along pressing the steam button for extra steam as I go. Remember, the iron is NOT sitting on the quilt. For very stubborn bubbles in the quilt that will not lie flat, I add water from a spray bottle as I go.
Recently I blocked a very large bed quilt made in the quilt as you go method, the only one I use. Each of these orphan blocks was a different size, thickness, color and batting thickness. Blocking was key to making these blocks, made over 24 years, become one quilt.
However you block your quilts and blocks and whatever their size, it is important to allow complete and thorough drying while pinned in place. Since seamstresses and tailors always give a new, thorough, careful pressing to a completed garment, why not do the same for your quilts and blocks?
Copyright © 2002 Sylvia Landman, Sylvia's Studio. All rights reserved.