ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tutorial: Making Improvisational Curved Blocks

Here is the tutorial I've promised on how to cut curved blocks free hand. Because the background fabric needed to make my "Falling Leaves" pattern requires you to find the feature fabric that will only be available for as long as you can purchase my fabric line, I'm offering this tutorial for those who would like to try piecing blocks for the background.

In these two samples of my pattern, the background uses the feature fabric from my "Falling Leaves" line by Northcott. This is a beginner design because you only need to purchase a piece of the background fabric and use my pattern to make the applique leaves.

In my original quilt (below) that inspired the fabric line, I pieced every single block by cutting free-hand. Let's use the word "improvisational" to describe this method. My original quilt measures 39" x 58-59". Each block is 7" square unfinished, and 6-1/2" square finished (once sewn together). 

Because each block is cut free-hand, and the fabrics each person chooses will be different (either by type or quantity), each person's quilt will be different. I urge you to read this post all the way to the end before you begin. WARNING: This method might be challenging for perfectionists. I also strongly recommend that you not pre-wash your fabric as it will have more substance and body and piece together better. One pre-washed fabric is limper and harder to piece. 

I begin by choosing the fabrics I want to use in my quilt and cut enough squares for my quilt. For a beginner, I recommend cutting squares 3 inches larger than the finished block size you want. So for a 6-1/2" finished block, cut squares 9-1/2".  Note, the "cheater" panel in my fabric line has 4 inch squares. If you are making your blocks this small you will need to cut your fabric squares 7" in this case, but piecing such tiny blocks will be more challenging than piecing larger ones. I generally like to use at least two squares of each colour.  You will need as many squares as the number of finished blocks in the quilt.  Both my original quilt, and my Northcott pattern, use 45 squares and blocks. But as you will soon see, you are always cutting squares by two's, so you will need 46 squares of fabric. By looking at the colour composition in each quilt you can determine an approximate proportion of each colour. I would say the piece is at least 2/3 to 3/4 greens and 1/4 to 1/3 golds. I've also decided to use greens from both the "Spring Rain" collection as well as the "Autumn Harvest" collection.

To cut blocks, I work in pairs. I pull two squares randomly (that look good to me at the moment), LAYERING THEM BOTH WITH THE RIGHT SIDE FACING UP.

I take my rotary cutter and cut a gentle curve across the squares, slightly diagonal. 

Then I pull out the bottom (green) fabric and match it up with the two pieces of gold fabric. Perfect fit!  I usually do many of these in succession and then take them to my sewing machine to chain piece.

Before I feed them in my sewing machine I always lay the pieces out on my table to the left of my sewing machine to make sure those are the curves that fit together (easy to mix them up or flip them).

I use a 1/8" seam to sew the curves together. You will notice that once I flip half of the pair over to allow me to sew my seam on the wrong side of the fabric, the fit on the curve isn't perfect anymore and I have to do a little manipulating.

I find it easiest if I hold the top fabric with my fingers on top and thumb on bottom and keep making it meet the edge of the bottom fabric.

I press each block after each seam. I simply lay the block face up on the ironing board, feel with my hand to check that the entire seam is pressing in the same direction and gently steam press. I strongly recommend you do not pull and tug from the back side because you will stretch the seam. It doesn't matter which direction you press the seam.

You can see I've cut and sewn the first seam in an entire series of blocks here.

Now you are going to begin randomly choosing two blocks, layering them, and cutting your second seam. This means that all the blocks you match should have all had one seam already cut and stitched.

Again, I LAYER BOTH BLOCKS with RIGHT SIDE OF FABRIC FACING UP. The more seams you cut and sew, the wonkier your blocks are going to grow. So I also recommend that you line up your blocks so they meet up on the side where you are going to begin sewing.  I am right-handed so I will cut from the upper right side to the upper left side, and will begin sewing on the upper left side, so I want my blocks to line up on the upper left and top side.

Taking my next cut.

I now have a block with two cuts. I'm laying it out before putting it through my sewing machine.
Second seam sewn. 
Now I'm going to randomly match up blocks again that have been pieced up to this point (two seams each, 3 fabrics in blocks) and cut a third curve, which brings me to the stage below. Each block now has 3 seams and four different fabrics.
One more cut to go.
Here are my blocks all sewn (5 fabrics in each block, four seams). No it doesn't matter if a fabric gets used more than once in a block. This is a pretty serendipitous looking quilt.
I'm going to use my square ruler to square them up. Some blocks are going to be larger or smaller than others.  I want all the blocks in my quilt to be the same size, so I'll square up all blocks to the size of the smallest one, or to the size I originally intended,

The block on the right has been squared to 6-1/2 inches.

Once I complete all blocks I start playing with them on a design wall. For this design, I place them all in the same orientation with the look of a downward flow from upper left to lower right. WARNING: playing with blocks on a design wall is highly addictive and you might not be able to get to bed before 3 a.m. If you think you like your layout, take a picture, just in case you change your mind and then decide you liked the previous layout better.

After you sew the blocks together, you can add your appliqued leaves. The pattern is available from the Shopping Cart on my website. Or you could design your own leaves.

I hope this tutorial makes sense. I am going to consider it a work in progress. I will be happy to entertain questions and make clarifications as needed. If you have taken my "Reflections" class, we are using a similar piecing method, except we are keeping a gentle diagonal cut to this block. In the "Reflections" class we are making our first cut from corner to corner, which has a different result.


  1. Elaine, I am so glad you posted this tutorial. I had a blast at the Reflections class, and this was just the jump-start my brain needed to remember how to create the blocks. Thanks!

    1. Barb, the only difference with Reflections is that in that class we made our first cut from corner to corner, which gives neat secondary designs and more movement when arranging the blocks.

  2. Great tutorial, Elaine. Opens the door for lots of exploring.

    1. Happy New Year Judy! Glad you find the tutorial useful.

  3. Thank you for making it look easy. :) I think I will try a couple of blocks as a test run.

    1. It is easy Rolanda, and especially enjoyable for those of us who like to fly by the seat of our pants :-) Happy New Year.

  4. Thank you, Elaine. Best tutorial and simplest on the web. Nice photos as well. You are a blessing.


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