When piecing at this small scale, precision is really important. Being just a few threads off can make a difference, so I’m going to spend a little time here talking about how I set up my work area for piecing and how to find an accurate seam allowance.
• Good light is essential. I strive to keep my work area neat. A portable design board (see earlier post) keeps the pieces from wandering.
• Sewing machine. I have two: a Bernina 1530 and a Singer Featherweight. Both have reliable straight stitches. I’ve been warned by the service guy that the Bernina might be on its last legs, but the Featherweight will probably outlive me. When I use the little machine, I often use doorstops to angle the machine for better visibility.• Thread. For small-scale piecing I use a fine cotton thread — 50 or 60 wt. Presencia is the brand I carry on my website. It is a 3-ply, long staple Egyptian cotton made in It Italy. Harriet Hargrave recommends this thread and I like it. Finer thread creates less bulk in the seam lines.
• 70/10 Schmetz Microtex (sharp) Needles. I’ve been using these machine needles for small-scale piecing. I think if they got much finer, I wouldn’t be able to thread them. “Sharp” needles (as opposed to “universal”) are recommended for straight stitching on cotton. The smaller size makes a smaller hole in the fabric. For needle sizes, the lower number, the finer the needle. (NOTE: If you depend an a needle threader on your sewing machine, I’m told it may not work with this needle.) Needles need to be changed more often than you think. My Singer manual says to change the needle after every 8 hours of sewing! Also, change the face plate on the machine to one with a small round hole for straight stitching. (If your machine does other stitches, be sure to change it back before zig-zagging again!)
• Presser foot for piecing. My favorite is the straight stitching foot for the Singer or the #13 foot for the Bernina. A #53 foot is available for newer Berninas. They all have an open toe so I can see the needle as it enters the fabric. The narrow inner toe allows me to see the edge of the fabric as I sew. The shorter inner toe gives me room to guide the fabric with my finger closer to the needle. Some people use a stylus for this.
• Stitch length. Short and strong, but not so short that you can’t use a seam ripper: 11 stitches to the inch on the Featherweight and about 2 mm on the Bernina (a little shorter than the default setting).
• Scissors. I keep Karen Kay Buckley’s 7-1/2″ Perfect scissors next to my sewing machine. They are sharp all the way to the tip and good for clipping threads and trimming seams. The large handles make them easy to grab.
• Precision Trimmer 3 ruler. I often trim points on triangles for matching as I go along, so I keep this point trimmer, a rotary cutter, and a small cutting mat by the sewing machine.
• Pins: My current favorites are the Clover Patchwork Pins. Fine, short, with a glass head.
• Leader strip. I use a leader strip to control threads and save time when machine piecing. A leader strip is a strip of fabric about 8″ long and 2″ wide. It can be a scrap or something you cut for this purpose. Fold the strip in half lengthwise and stitch over one end of it at the beginning and end of each row of chain piecing.
• Pressing board. I needed a pressing board next to my sewing machine, so I made one. It’s a small piece of plywood (10″ x 18″) covered with a layer of batting, then a piece of fabric — all attached with a staple gun. Works for me.
• Small Iron. I have a truly wonderful travel iron that must be more than 15 years old, that I picked up at a drugstore somewhere in the Midwest. It’s not as if I could ever go back and get another one. If it ever dies, I will be bereft. It gets hot enough, has a nice point on it and is a perfect size for pressing tiny seams
BEFORE you sew your cut patches together, please, please, please, do an accuracy test on your 1/4” seam allowance! When we were doing Bias-Strip Piecing and making the 4-triangle squares for the Ohio Stars with the cut-larger-true-it-down method, the seams were sewn before the final shapes were cut, so if the seam allowance was a little off, it really didn’t matter. From now on in piecing the Winters Star block, the seam allowance matters.
• To find the 1/4” seam allowance, I use a piece of my 1/8” graph paper cut on
one of the solid lines. I lower my needle into the second line in (1/4” from the edge ). The edge of the paper is where the edge of my fabric patches need to be. On the Featherweight, I lay a tape. On the Bernina, tape would cover part of the feed dogs, so I depend on the line etched on the plate just before the feed dog holes.
• Stitch two of your perfectly cut 1-1/2” feather squares together with your best 1/4” seam allowance. Press the seam open and MEASURE the results. The unit should be 2-1/2”. If it isn’t, then adjust until you get the proper measurement.
3″ Ohio Star Piecing
1. The Ohio Star is constructed in 3 rows. Stitch the squares together with exact 1/4″ seams and measure the results. Each row should be 3-1/2″ long. Press seam allowances away from the pieced squares: this will result in opposing seams row to row. Trim seams.
2. Sew the rows together. Pin carefully, using a positioning pin to match the triangle points. A positioning pin is a pin placed perpendicular to the fabric to match two points. You can’t sew over it, so another pin is placed just in front of it the keep the matching point from slipping.
Leave each positioning pin in place as long as possible, removing it just before stitching. For the best matching, stitch right over the pinhole (where the positioning pin used to be).
Once the rows are together, press the seams open to distribute the bulk. Measure the sewn block to make sure it is 3-1/2″ square.
Next, we’ll cut the rest of the pieces for the Winter Star.