Updated: Jun 13
If you’ve made some of my quilts, you know I love small pieces! Small pieces can help create intricate designs using traditional piecing methods without the need for applique or foundation paper piecing. (And some of my quilts use pieces that are cut at 1” square – that’s small!)
Does working with small pieces intimidate you? Here are my best tips and favorite tools for sewing with small pieces and getting accurate results!
1. Choose the right fabrics.
When you’re picking out fabrics for your quilt, you want to think about what the fabric will look like when it’s cut into tiny pieces. Sometimes fabric with large-scale prints, novelty prints, or multi-color fabrics won’t always look the best once they’re cut up and pieced into your quilt. I try to use a lot of solids and small-scale prints in my quilts with small pieces to help avoid this problem. I also make sure I am working with 100% high quality quilting cotton that I purchase at my local quilt shop or online quilt shop. Working with anything other than cotton can quickly become a nightmare when working with small pieces and may require a stabilizer.
The above collection is "Lighthearted" by Camille Roskelly for Moda Fabrics.
The left fabric stack shows larger scale fabrics. If you cut them down to 2- 1/2" or smaller you lose most of the design. The middle fabric stack shows medium scale fabrics. These are typically ok to use when working with small pieces. Anything above a 1- 1/2" square works best for these. The right fabric stack shows small scaled prints - my favorite. These look great in most small cuts under
2- 1/2" and you never have to worry about loosing the design. You also can never go wrong with solids!
You can find the Lighthearted Collection CLICK HERE
Even though I typically don't work with many large scale prints in my blocks, they are great for borders, backings, and larger blocks.
2. Use smaller tools.
Smaller pieces can be easier to work with when you’re using tools that are scaled down, too. Try subbing out your usual rotary cutter, rulers, and iron for smaller ones, which handle small pieces more accurately and gently than the bigger versions. I love working with my Olfa 45mm rotary cutter, and I often use my 6-1/2” Creative Grids square ruler.
Products in photo:
Creative Grids 6-1/2" square ruler
Olga 45mm rotary cutter
Fiskars 18mm rotary cutter
Fiskars Pink 24" x 36" Cutting Mat
3. Measure and cut carefully.
As quilters, we always want to measure and cut our pieces accurately. But when we’re working with small pieces, even a piece cut 1/16” smaller or larger than intended can multiply the mistake across the quilt, leading to bigger issues later on. I like to use the Stripology ruler or my AccuQuilt to cut squares easily and accurately.
In the photo to the right, I am using my AccuQuilt Go!Me fabric cutter to accurately cut nine 1-1/2" squares. The AccuQuilt fabric cutter has not only saved me time, but it has improved my cutting accuracy by 100%. No more wonky pieces! I also love being able to cut up to 6 layers of fabric at a time, improving cutting time. It's a win-win! If you would like to checkout the AccuQuilt System and coordinating dies, I would love for you to use my special link:
4. Keep pieces organized.
Small pieces are easy to lose on your cutting or sewing table (especially if your space is a little messy). Once you have pieces cut, you can pin or clip them together along with a label, so you know their size and you can keep them all together. I love using design boards with labels to keep everything organized. If you won’t be sewing with them right away, place pieces in a project box to keep them organized.
Piece Markers: Alphabitties by It's Sew Emma.
5. Sew with an accurate ¼” seam.
Any variations in your seam allowance can really add up when you’re working with small pieces. Always test your seam allowance before you start sewing. If you struggle to get an accurate ¼” seam, try using a ¼” foot with a guide on your machine. Or you can use Diagonal Seam Tape from Cluck Cluck Sew.
Diagonal Seam Tape: by Cluck Cluck Sew
6. Try a straight-stitch plate.
If your machine came with a straight-stitch plate, you can use it when sewing tiny pieces. This plate doesn't have the wide hole that allows the needle to swing for specialty stitches, so there's less of a chance for small pieces to get sucked down into the machine when you’re sewing. I hate when that happens! I used to use leaders and enders when I was sewing with my old machine, because it had a wide hole. And that's why I love my Juki so much–it has a smaller hole. Since purchasing my Juki TL-2000Qi machine I no longer have issues with my pieces getting sucked down into the machine. In addition to using leaders and enders to reduce frustration when piecing, I would also use them to eliminate thread waste. My current machine now has an automated thread cutter so I don't waste thread.
7. Use a smaller stitch length.
When sewing with small pieces, shorten your stitch length a little. Because small pieces have less fabric to catch in your stitches, smaller stitches catch more fabric to help hold them in place. I use a 1.5 stitch length (middle stitch line) for all piecing. It does make it harder to seam rip when I make a mistake, but I find my stitches stay intact better. I’ll use a larger stitch length (2 or 2.5) when binding or straight quilting, though.
Left: 1 stitch length
Middle: 1.5 stitch length (my piecing favorite)
Right: 2 stitch length
8. Sew with a stiletto.
If you’re nervous about putting your fingers so close to the needle when you’re guiding small pieces through your machine, try using a stiletto. This tool allows you to hold pieces tight as you push them through the machine. It also helps to use a stiletto when sewing stitch and flip corners, because you can keep the square from shifting. That is often a mistake I see when quilters are chain-piecing.
My stiletto is pretty sharp. Be sure not to push down to hard so you don't create a hole in your fabric. You are simply lightly guiding your fabric pieces through.
9. Pin your pieces.
Although you may be tempted to skip pinning when working with small pieces, pins still come in handy! Small pieces can shift when sewing, so pinning will ensure all your pieces are lining up correctly. You can also put a small drop of glue within the seam allowance or on stitch-and-flip corners that you’ll be tossing in the trash to help hold pieces in place.
Be sure not to sew over the pin. For small pieces, sew up to the pin. Stop, then take out the pin and continue sewing.
In some cases your pieces may be too small to use a pin. Just sew carefully, use a stiletto, or use a drop of glue in the seam (if not pressing open).
Pressing is an important step in the quilting process that can be overlooked when working with small pieces. You want to make sure you are truly pressing and not ironing, so you’re not distorting your fabrics. Press the fabric down, don't push it around. I have found that finger-pressing my small pieces first and then setting the iron on them helps them keep their shape. Because the small piecing may not want to lay flat after pressing, I use a tailor's clapper over the seam until the piece has cooled. You can also starch your fabrics to help your pieces keep their shape. If your pattern allows, pressing seams open will also help the pieces lay flat.
Another Helpful Tip:
Also be sure to start with a fresh needle in your machine, fresh rotary blade, and a BIG happy smile before starting a new project.
I hope these tips help when you’re sewing quilts and blocks with small pieces! If you want to test your skills on a project, check out a few of my favorite projects:
Top Left: Blooming Boutique
Top Middle: Sunflower Stand
Top Right: Pastel Jardin
Bottom Left: Daisy Chain
Bottom Middle: Appliqué Garden
Bottom Right: Cottage Charm
2023 Year of Spools BOM blocks: The PDF patterns can be purchased HERE
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