Learn to Quilt Series: Reading patterns and making your blocks

By now we’ve spent a lot of time talking about supplies and fabric. Maybe you’ve even sewn a few nine patches – hopefully you all are feeling pretty comfortable with your sewing machines and your practice seams are looking slightly straighter than a drunken sparrow’s flight.

I don’t know, I feel like I spent a lot of time in the drunken sparrow phase.

If everyone made it out last weekend without sliced fingers or nursing a steam blister, I’d say it was a success! This week we will get fully underway – if you haven’t already, go ahead and download the pattern.

Let’s first briefly talk about quilt patterns – because after all, when you’re finished with this quilt hopefully ALL of you will have the bug and want to sew more. That’s a reasonable goal, right? To convert as many people as possible to fellow fabric hoarders and obsessive quilt makers?

One can only hope.

But if you do want to make another quilt, it’s helpful to know a little about how patterns are written. Most patterns assume you already have some knowledge – but good news! After this quilt, you’ll be in good shape to try another pattern. There’s always new skills to learn, but you’ll know the lingo!

Things you’ll find in patterns:

  1. Finished size of quilt
  2. Fabric requirements
  3. Cutting instructions – if you’re lucky, patterns will include cutting diagrams!
  4. Basic organization – this is very pattern-specific, but you may need to group your fabric into blocks, stacks, or otherwise. Read carefully!
  5. Block assembly – you’ll find step by step instructions for all the block types used. Patterns will often assume you know to put the pieces right sides together (RST) and sew with a 1/4″ seam.
  6. Pressing directions – many patterns indicate which direction to press in order to nest seams. In our pattern, pressing directions are indicated with arrows.
  7. Quilt assembly – how to arrange all the blocks into a quilt top.
  8. Finishing – the details varies from pattern to pattern. Many patterns assume you have some knowledge on how to baste, quilt, and bind your finished top.

Things you likely won’t find, because it’s highly variable or personal preference:

  1. How to organize blocks for efficient chain piecing.
  2. How to baste (layer) your backing, batting, and pieced top together.
  3. How to quilt.  (Quilt (verb): stitch the three layers together)
  4. How to bind the finished quilt. (Some patterns include it, some do not.)

But no worries, we will touch on all of that. So let’s start with chain piecing – that’s what makes this quilt go so fast!


Organizing your blocks for chain piecing

If you watched the sewing video from last week, you saw me chain piecing three squares. All chain piecing means is you sew without cutting thread in between, and it’s a huge time and thread saver. However, it’s easy to get disorganized! Eventually, you’ll find what works for you – but here’s how I keep all my squares organized for this quilt:

First, sort all your squares into the color combinations you want for each block – five squares of print. Group your background squares into four stacks of 25 squares each.

Next, lay one block out in a giant nine patch – remember, the middle square is the color that is chopped and becomes the tiny squares. I like to put my darker fabrics in the middle, but it’s totally up to you! (Save time and stack all 25 background squares at once.)


Lay another block right over top. Continue until all your squares are laid out in stacks. (There should be 25 squares in each stack.) Place a pin in the upper left-hand corner of each square in column 1. These pins will help orient you later.


Take the top stack of print column 1 and the top stack of background squares from column 2 to your sewing machine. Pair the top square of print (leave the pin in place) with a background square, right sides together, and sew a 1/4″ seam on the right-hand side of the square. Without breaking thread in between, continue pairing and sewing the entire stack.

*A word of advice – if you get in the habit of handling your blocks exactly the same way every time you move them, it will help prevent you from getting  your blocks twisted around. For example – I always set my squares down with my seams (sewn, or to-be sewn) on the right-hand side. In the picture below, I’ll flip my white squares (from column 2) on top of my green squares (from column 1) and then my seam will be sewn down the right-hand side of the squares.


Chain piecing video – I tried SO HARD to edit this so it was fast-forward. I downloaded editing software and tried and tried, and in the end everything I tried was just going to cost an insane amount of money for the ONE THING I wanted to do. Sigh. So, here’s an example of chain piecing in real time sewing mode – watch as much as you need to get the idea. : )

At the end, you will have a long, connected strand of flapping, dangling squares. Let’s call your pinned square the top – start from the bottom and press each pair towards the print, stacking the pressed pairs as you go. (The easiest way to do this is take the whole mess to your ironing board, snip the bottom pair off, press, stack, and snip the next pair.) When you’re finished, place your stack back in place on your nine patch. The pinned pair should be back on top!

Remember to press towards the print!

Repeat the entire process with the second stacks in columns 1 and 2, then lastly with the third squares. At the end, you should have rows with two blocks sewn together and stacks that look like this:


Now you’ll start over! Take the stack of sewn squares and the stack of single squares in row 1 to your sewing machine. Place the print square right side together with the background square. Sew, snip, press, stack, and repeat with rows 2 and 3. You’ll now have all the rows done for your nine patches!

If you ever lose your place, just look for the pins. They will always show you which set of squares is your top block.

Remember to sew the prints on right side together with the background/print combo!

Remove the pins from row 2 and 3. Take row 1 and 2 to your sewing machine. Flip row 1 down so it’s right sides together with row 2. Your seams should nest, and I highly suggest sticking a pin where they nest to keep them from shifting.


Sew, snip, press, and place the stack back in the nine patch – once again, your pin should be back on top. This is going to get repetitive.


I bet you can guess what happens next. Row 3! Flip, pin, stack, sew, snip, press, stack.



Pat yourself on your back. You’re over halfway done!

Slice and dice

This is why these blocks are called “disappearing” nine patches. It’s time to take all those blocks you pieced…and slice them into quarters, making the traditional nine patch pattern disappear.


Just go slow and be careful – when I made this quilt the first time my rotary cutter slipped and I butchered a block. Sad day.

But you totally won’t do that. Don’t worry…just go slow.

Start by measuring your nine patch – it should measure 14″ square. (Hopefully close to it!) You’ll be cutting in into quarters, as shown in step 2 of the pattern:

Nine patch step 2

You can measure and lightly mark the middle with a pencil or fabric marker, or you can square up the block on your cutting table and use the lines on your mat to mark the middle points. Either way, place your ruler in the middle of your block and make the first cut. Try not to disturb the block too much – if it shifted, place it back together and make the second cut.


Swap the upper left and lower right quarters, and set the block aside all laid out – we are going to make stacks again just like we did the nine patches.

(For a super scrappy quilt, you can mix and match the quarters from other blocks! Just make sure you get them back in this orientation!) 


Continue slicing, dicing, and stack until you have four stacks of 25 quarters. Place a pin in the upper left hand corners of both stacks on the left.


And now we resume chain piecing! Take both stacks in row 1 to your sewing machine, and flip the squares in the right-hand stack onto the squares in the left-hand stack (right sides together) and sew down the right-hand side, just like we did in the nine patches. Press towards the LEFT. (Don’t forget to double check your pattern for pressing directions!)

Repeat with row 2 – only press these squares towards the RIGHT.

Now flip row 1 down so it’s right sides together with row 2, and pin the nested seam. (Psst – this is your last set of seams for your blocks! Get excited!) Do the thing with the sewing machine, then the thing with the iron. The pattern says to press towards row 2, but as long as you go the same direction with all the blocks it doesn’t matter.




You did it!

Take a break, kick your feet up, and reward yourself. That was a lot of sewing!

In two weeks, we’ll meet back up to talk about how to sew all your blocks into a finished quilt top. (Hint – more chain piecing!) If you don’t get all 25 blocks finished in two weeks, don’t worry – there will be plenty of time to catch up!

Happy sewing!



Learn to Quilt Series: Tutorial links

  1. Notions Part 1 – Sewing machine and basic supplies
  2. Notions Part 2 – Cutting and pressing supplies
  3. All about fabric!
  4. Basic cutting, sewing, and pressing
  5. Making your blocks!
  6. Tips for staying organized and sewing blocks into a quilt top
  7. How to attach borders and piece backing
  8. To quilt or not to quilt – professional long-arm services vs. quilting at home, plus a basting tutorial
  9. Quilt at home – machine quilting yourself
  10. Binding your finished quilt and quilt care

10 Comments on “Learn to Quilt Series: Reading patterns and making your blocks

  1. Pingback: Beginner Quilt-along: Getting started! Basic cutting, sewing, and pressing. – RebaLeigh Handmade

  2. Pingback: Beginner Quilt-along – Fabric! – RebaLeigh Handmade

  3. Pingback: Beginner Quilt-along: Notions Part 2 – Cutting and pressing supplies – RebaLeigh Handmade

  4. Pingback: Beginner Quilt-along: Notions Part 1 – Sewing machines and basic supplies – RebaLeigh Handmade

  5. Pingback: Beginner Quilt-along – Introduction! – RebaLeigh Handmade

  6. Pingback: Beginner Quilt-a-long: Sewing blocks into a quilt top! – RebaLeigh Handmade

  7. Pingback: Beginner Quilt-along: Borders and backing (and block catch up!) – RebaLeigh Handmade

  8. Pingback: Beginner Quilt-along: Long-arm vs. home quilting and basting tutorial – RebaLeigh Handmade

  9. Pingback: Beginner Quilt-along: Machine quilting – RebaLeigh Handmade

  10. Pingback: Beginner Quilt-along: Binding and finishing your quilt – RebaLeigh Handmade

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