I’ll be honest – when I first started quilting, curves gave me the willies. It’s silly, because while I wasn’t particularly good at it, I’ve sewn clothing. I’ve managed a sleeve or two that were decent enough to appear in public. I don’t know why the thought of a curve in quilting made me so nervous. After I’d been quilting about a year I decided it was time to put this silly fear to rest and I bought a Drunkard’s Path template set. I didn’t know any better so I bought the wrong one, of course – one was that was intended to be used for applique rather than piecing. I fiddled with it until I was able to cut a passable Drunkard’s Path block, sewed it, figuratively patted myself on the back, then moved on. Later I found an Olfa circle cutting and tried again. Still no love, mostly because cutting the darn things are really unpleasant if you don’t have proper templates or, even better, a die cutter. Eventually Jeanne picked up an AccuQuilt Go Cutter, I picked up a Drunkard’s Path die set, and voila! I have pieces cut to sew approximately 37 million Drunkard’s Path units. I’ve sewn five. Seeing a pattern? Oh, wait – if you follow my blog (and those who still do, thank you for either your loyalty or your laziness in not cleaning out your feed reader), you are well aware that this fairly typical in many aspects, not just quilting.
Still, curved piecing isn’t just about the Drunkard’s Path unit, which, if you aren’t familiar with it, looks something like this:
It has many different names, depending on how you lay out the blocks. There’s the Drunkard’s Path, of course, so named because of the way the block seems to stagger across the quilt. There’s also a Peace Dove, Drunkard’s Pinwheel, Cleopatra’s Puzzle, Indiana Puzzle, I Wish You Well, and even a Turtle, among many others.
There are other blocks that use curves, some that also use a quarter circle, such as the New York Beauty, from the most basic block to the more complex.
Of course there are blocks that include gentler curves like the Orange Peel, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, and the Double Wedding Ring and its variations:
The Improved Nine Patch, one of my favorite blocks from the 30’s:
And the wonderfully complex Mariner’s Compass blocks, including variations like Chips and Whetstones:
Curves are becoming popular again in contemporary quilting, thanks to things like Amy Butler’s Single Girl quilt and the Quick Curve Ruler from Sew Kind of Wonderful. Be sure to check out this blog, if you don’t already follow it. There are tons of incredible patterns, including some free tutorials, that use the Quick Curve Ruler. Here’s a recent quilt, Spring Fling (available as a free tutorial), that uses the ruler:
You can also see freeform curved piecing used in improvisational piecing like the incredible Ripple Effect II from Marianne at The Quilting Edge.
The point is, curves are everywhere in quilting today, and even if you have no intention of making a Double Wedding Ring or a Drunkard’s Path, you may want to apply the technique in your own unique way. So how do you do it? Everyone knows when you are sewing curves you need to put the concave side on top and pin the heck out of it, right? Only I’m not a big fan of absolute rules when it comes to quilting, so I tried several different methods and decided that, for me, the method I use depends on the degree of curve I’m sewing.
If you’d like to try curves, improvisational piecing is a great place to start. The curves can be as easy as you’d like and they don’t have to line up with anything so you can sew and then trim to your heart’s content. The only trick is to cut both pieces of fabric along the same curve. In order to do this you need to layer them both right sides up (NOT together).
Using a rotary cutter, slowly cut a gentle, flowing curve, making sure that you’re cutting through both layers of fabric.
Flip the pieces right sides together and place one end under the needle. Hold the top piece of fabric and gently ease the edges together as you slowly sew.
While you could certainly pin this, I think the long, gentle curves are excellent for the no-pin method. You can clip the curves when you’re done if you’d like, but if the curve is gentle enough it isn’t necessary.
A while back I posted a short video of how I sewed the shallow curve of the melon portion of a Double Wedding Ring. I laugh at myself every time I watch it – to quote my original post:
By the way, I don’t lisp. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a lisp, but something went funky with the sound on this and my S’s sound thtrange. Here’s the video:
So the funny part is, I managed this all by myself. Think about it – how do you hold a camera to record a video, and use both hands for the demonstration? Answer: You find the last remaining wire coat hanger in the house and bend it into an odd shape that both fits over your head so it hangs around your neck AND holds the camera in exactly the right position. Well, I’m nothing if not resourceful.
Since I have so many Drunkard’s Path units already cut out, I’ll show several methods using that block. You’ll notice in a couple of these photos that the two pieces do not appear to line up properly – I don’t know why that is. They seem to come out okay, and they were cut with the AccuQuilt 3 1/2″ finished die, so I’m not going to worry about it.
First I tried the method that most people advocate – concave side on top, pin like crazy. Align the center point on both piece, right sides together, make sure it’s straight, then pin the center point.
Align both outer edges and pin each side.
Finally, find the center between the pins and pin, then again, and again and again…
Sew the standard 1/4″ seam, removing the pins as you get to them. Go slowly and tuck the top layer out of the way to avoid sewing a crease into the seam. You may need to stop occasionally and lift the pressure foot to adjust the fabric. This is where a needle down option on your machine is helpful.
Carefully clip the seam allowance along the curve. Don’t cut the thread! Clipping the seam allowance will help it lie flat when you press it.
I am usually a press-to-one-side girl, but curves are one time I prefer to press the seam open. If you look closely you can see how clipping the seams helps it stay flat. On the red side, the clips spread open a bit and on the yellow they overlap at the edges.
Well, it isn’t the most perfect of Drunkard’s Path blocks, but it isn’t a bad starting point. You may notice the top edge is a little crooked. (Also, you generally aren’t on grain when using a die cutter, resulting in a lot of thread ends that stick out. Of course it doesn’t help that these piece have been lying around for six or eight months.) The crookedness stems from taking too much seam allowance on that side. Maintaining a quarter inch seam is one of the more challenging aspects of curved piecing.
In the second method, I still put the concave side on top but this time I didn’t use any pins. Line up the one edge, right sides together. It will look strange because the curves swing away from each other when they’re right sides together.
…gently easing the two piece into place. Hold the top fabric and lift it so you can see the edge of the bottom fabric. Carefully pull the top fabric to the left so the edges line up as they go under the pressure foot.
When you get to the very end use a pair of tweezers (these bent ones are wonderful) to grip both layers and guide them under the foot.
This block went faster because there was no pinning, but you can see there’s a little flat spot where I didn’t ease them together quite right. While the start and end line up, it’s still a little crooked like the first one was. With practice, I think this could work well, but if I want a smooth curve the pinning seems to work better.
This time around I did not pin, but I put the convex piece on top and the concave piece on the bottom. Proceed exactly as in method 2, sewing slowly and easing the two fabrics together. As in the video above, I found this easier because I could see both edges, where in method 2 I had to keep lifting the top fabric to see the edge of the bottom fabric.
Unfortunately, this one wasn’t quite as neat as the other, and it didn’t line up quite right. The curve was a little smoother, however.
Finally, I pinned with the convex side on top and the concave on the bottom. As in method 1, line up the fabrics right sides together and pin at the center.
Pin both outside edges, then at the halfway point on each side. I didn’t pin any more than this – for this small piece, I felt like all that extra pinning didn’t help me that much.
With the convex side on top, the pinned unit curved up. Rather than force it flat, I just let it curl as I fed it through the machine. As always, sew slowly and remove the pins as you go.
Note: Some people are comfortable sewing over the pins. I used to be one of those people, but I’ve bent too many good pins and I’m always nervous that I’ll damage or even break a needle. Since I’m sewing slowly and stopping frequently to adjust the fabric anyway, I might just as well remove the pins before sewing over them.
The finished block, as with all of the others, is not quite perfectly aligned. It was a little awkward to sew and though I didn’t, I was worried I’d sew in a crease because I couldn’t see the excess fabric on the bottom. This was probably my least favorite method.
So here are my four blocks.
Clockwise from the top left, they are lightly pinned and convex on top; no pins and convex on top, no pins and concave on top, and heavily pinned and concave on top. None are perfect, but all are reasonably good. With practice, I’d definitely improve. HOWEVER…
As you well know, I prefer cutting larger and sewing then trimming to size. Could I do that here? The answer is yes, but you have to be very careful and pay close attention. The problem is you need to be able to align the seams and trimming become a bit of a challenge. Pivot it too much either way and the seams don’t align. Also, if you’re using a die cutting machine you can’t adjust the size you cut so you have to adjust the finished size if you want to trim. Make sure the finished size won’t throw off the rest of your project if you’re going to do that. Here’s how to trim:
The block is supposed to finish at 3 1/2″, meaning the sewn unit should be 4″. I’m going to trim them all to 3 3/4″ so the blocks will finish at 3 1/4″. First, determine the measurement you want your “points” to be at – the seam line. This will be the same on both sides. I chose 1 1/4″ from the outside.
Place a ruler on your block, lining up the 1 1/4″ mark with the seam on both sides (blue arrows). Make sure all four sides fit within the lines you’ll use to trim – in this case, the outer edges and the 3 3/4″ marks on the ruler (blue line). Hold the ruler firmly in place and trim the two sides.
Turn the piece around and put the 3 3/4″ mark on the corner you just trimmed (orange arrow). Check that the seams still line up correctly on both sides (blue arrows) and trim the other two sides.
Here are the four blocks after trimming. Better, hmm?
So if you’d like to give the Drunkard’s Path a try and don’t have a plastic template or special tool, here’s a template you can print: Drunkard’s Path Template
I think this is where I’m going to stop – though there is a lot more to talk about in curved piecing, this post is long enough! Are there any questions you’d like addressed if we do another curved piecing post? Do you have any tips or tricks you’d like to share about curved piecing?