PM/GC Quilts Skill Builder Series: Part 6 – Nine Patch

One of the earliest skills to learn in quilting is matching seams, and the basic Nine Patch block is a great way to practice. There are several different methods for constructing nine patch blocks, and the method you choose depends not only on what you find easiest, but what you want the block to look like and how many like blocks you need to make. Jeanne at Grey Cat Quilts will be posting a strip piecing method, which is perfect if you’re making a lot of the same block. I’ll show two other methods, one that starts with two squares, and the traditional method that starts with nine separate squares.

If you’ve been following the blog since November, Method 1 is going to look very familiar since I decided not to reinvent the wheel and am reusing my Nine Patch instructions from the Christmas Cactus Quilt Along.

Matching seams works differently if you are pressing your seams open rather than to one side. I use both methods depending on the size and complexity of my blocks. I prefer pressing my seams to one side for the larger sizes, but if you’re doing a quilt with 1 1/2″ finished squares or smaller you should consider pressing the seams open. It may mean pinning a bit more, but you’ll probably be happier with the finished quilt.

Method 1 – Traditional

The traditional method of making a Nine Patch begins with nine separate squares. This is the best way to make Nine Patch blocks if all or many of the squares are different fabrics. It is the most flexible, but it does take longer to cut the fabric and sew the pieces together.

I like to chain piece, which means leaving a little bit of thread connecting the sewn pieces and continuing through several blocks at a time. (It makes more sense in the illustrations below.) If you have the space to lay out several blocks right next to your sewing machine, you can do this whole thing without moving from your seat. Well, if you have an iron nearby, or if you’re good at finger-pressing.

Lay out your squares to form your nine patch. If you’re chain piecing multiple blocks, lay out two, three or even four blocks. I’m showing two blocks, but I often do four at one time.

Starting with the first block, flip the SECOND square in the top row onto the FIRST square in the top row, and sew those two squares together.

Without cutting the thread or removing the first two pieces, repeat with the middle row. A little chain of thread links the two sets.

Now repeat with the bottom row. Don’t cut the thread yet! Repeat these steps with the first two squares of the next block.

When you’ve finished those squares you can cut the thread linking the first block to the second block, and place the chained pieces by the remaining squares for that block. Don’t turn it upside down!

Finish chain piecing the first and second squares of the remaining rows on the second block. (If you’re doing multiple squares at once, repeat the chaining until you have all sets sewn.)

With the last set from your last block still under the presser foot, pick up the chained squares from the first block. Open the first pair of squares and place the last square for that row on the middle square.

Sew a scant 1/4″ seam, then repeat with the other two squares. Just as you did with the first sets, start your second block before cutting off the first one.

Repeat with the rest of the blocks.

Press your squares. If you’re using larger squares (for me, 2″ finished or larger) you can press them open or to one side. If you press to one side, alternate the direction the seams are pressed. I recommend pressing the top and bottom rows to one side and the middle row to the other side. That way when the rows are sewn together, the seams will nest neatly together.

If you’re using smaller squares (for me, smaller is 1 1/2″ finished or smaller), press the seams open.

Now sew the first two rows of your first block together. The little chains of thread hold the rows in the correct order, which is very handy. If you pressed to the side you can still pin, but you may not need to. Nest the seams together, with one seam folded one direction and the other going the opposite way. See how they nudge right up against one another? If you squeeze the seam intersection between your fingers, it should feel perfectly flat. If you can feel a ridge or a depression, they aren’t nested together properly.

If you don’t pin, press on the seams with your finger as you sew so you can feel if it starts to separate.

You can adjust the block as you sew by lifting the top piece and aligning the seams, then pressing on them with your finger as it feeds to the needle.

If you pressed your seams open, you may want to pin before (and after, if you prefer) the seam intersection to make your seam intersections as accurate as possible. This is where fork pins might come in handy (for those who saw the comment under the Tools Skill Builder post).

If you pin, don’t pin in the seam, pin in the seam allowance. If you push a pin into the seam, you’ll widen the space and cause a little gap in the intersection. If I pin, I usually pin just the side that will be going under the presser foot first.

Sew those two rows together, then repeat with the remaining blocks. See how you always have a block under the presser foot? That’s chain piecing.

Do the same with the bottom row of the block, pinning as necessary, and repeat until all blocks are sewn together. (Sorry, I forgot to take pictures here!)

If you’re pressing to the side, I suggest waiting to press these last two seams until you assemble the finished blocks into a quilt top. That way you can decide which direction to press so the different blocks nest together neatly.

If you’re pressing your seams open, do that now. Snip the little thread chains so you can press the open seams flat.

Here are the finished blocks. As you can see, the one with the seams pressed open are flat and pretty. The block with the seams pressed to the side looks a little funny now because it hasn’t been pressed, but you’ll appreciate that when you sew the rows together later.

Method 2 – Two Large Squares

If you want to make a couple of Nine Patch block out of just two fabrics, try this method. First decide what size to cut your squares. If your quilt is made entirely of Nine Patch blocks, it’s handy to start with square that are easy to cut (or are pre-cut). This is a great way to use a layer cake, especially if it contains fabrics that have high contrast. For these instructions I’m starting with two 10″ squares, the size of a layer cake. It does require a tiny bit of extra trimming. If you are cutting your squares from yardage, you can cut them at 9 3/4″ and eliminate the two extra cuts, or cut the squares at 7 1/2″ so your blocks will finish at 6″.

So… start with two large squares.

Place the squares right sides together and sew a scant 1/4″ seam on the left AND right sides. (Yes, sew both sides!)

Cut 3 1/4″ from each side, then trim the middle section to 3 1/4″ (if you cut your squares at 9 3/4″ you do not need to trim the middle section).

Press the two sewn pieces to one side (or open, if you prefer). If you press to the side, press to the same fabric on each piece. In this case, I pressed to the print. Place the center pieces on one side of each sewn segment so you have alternating fabrics.

Sew each set using a scant 1/4″ seam.

Press to the same fabric you did before. Place the two pieces right sides together. Because you pressed to the same fabric, when you put them together the seams will go in opposite directions. They should lie very flat, nesting together.

See how the seam allowances go in opposite directions? If you squeeze the layers between your fingers it will feel flat, without any lumps or valleys.

Once again sew both sides.

Cut 3 1/4″ from both left and right sides.

Trim the center section to 3 1/4″ (and push the “helpful” cat out of the way for the 37th time.)

Place the center pieces on one side of each segment.

Sew, press, and you have two two reversed Nine Patch blocks!

When you start with 10″ (or 9 3/4″) squares, your block will finish at 8 1/4″ (it is 8 3/4″ before sewing into a project). That’s a rather odd size for a block, so starting with this size only makes sense if you are making an entire quilt of 8 1/4″ finished Nine Patch blocks. If you want to make Nine Patches using this method that finish at standard sizes, here’s the (very easy) calculation:

Finished block size (as it will be when it’s sewn into the project) + 1/2″ seam allowance (to reach the size it will be when the block is sewn, but not put into a project) + 1″ = size to cut the squares.

Or, the short version: Finished block size + 1  1/2″ = Size to cut squares

So, for a block that finishes at 6″, cut 7 1/2″ squares. After you sew the squares together, you need to calculate 1/3 of the original square size so you know where to cut the segments. If your square started at 7 1/2, you need to divide that by three. Remember learning fractions in school? Here’s a quick refresher:
Multiply the bottom number of the fraction (2) by the whole number (7), then add the top number of the fraction (1). (So 2 x 7 = 14, plus 1 = 15) 7 1/2 is the same as 15/2 (fifteen halves). One third of 15 is 5, so one third of 7 1/2 is 5/2 (or five halves). To get back to an easy to measure number, count how many times the bottom number goes into the top number, and how many you have left over (2 goes into 5 twice, with 1 left over). So 5/2 is the same as 2 1/2.

You can see why Nine Patch blocks are usually made in finished block sizes that are multiples of 3 to make it easier to calculate. A 5″ finished block is cut at 6 1/2″, which means you’d have to measure 2.1666″ when you cut the pieces. That’s not a real ruler friendly size!

So, do you have any tips for making Nine Patch blocks, or for matching seams?


6 thoughts on “PM/GC Quilts Skill Builder Series: Part 6 – Nine Patch

  1. Hi Sandi
    I am enjoying reading through your posts. I have been quilting for a couple of years but never stop learning! I am currently tutoring a small beginners quilt class and it’s a real eye-opener seeing how everyone sews and helping them to achieve accurate piecing so the blocks fit together. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  2. These tutorials are GREAT! I’ve never seen the two large squares technique before. (I’ve been quilting for about 6 years now) I’m going to give it a try. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge!

  3. Wow! That second method was intriguing! I have never made a nine patch block, only a four-patch and a four-patch made of four patches (16 squares), so when I get around to nine-patch blocks, I’ll revisit this tutorial. Thanks.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I try to reply to every comment, but sometimes it takes a few days. And sometimes, well... it has been known to drop off the radar. I'm easily distracted by shiny things.

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