Monday, May 7, 2007

¼” Seam Allowance – Why it’s not just Math

¼" Seam allowance is a bit of an irritating topic for me. On one of the message boards that I read this topic has been beaten to death. Since I'm still irked I'm going to share my thoughts here. If achieving a perfect ¼" seam or a scant ¼" seam were so SIMPLE wouldn't we ALL be turning out award winning quilts? Here are some of the comments this topic has received:

  • Isn't a 1/4" a set measurement? An exact sort of thing? Something definable and agreed upon by those measurement gods or whatever?
  • I just find it hard to believe that someone can sew say a 9 patch on one machine and have it turn out exactly 6 1/2" square unfinished and then sew on another machine with this mythical "different 1/4"" and also have the block turn out the same size but somehow not match the other block. Makes no sense to me.
  • A lot of people don't realize they can move the needle position for a straight stitch, so they throw on that quarter inch foot and go with whatever machine they're using at the time. Or they don't realize that, if you rely on the guide on the right hand side, sometimes that guide moves, so you need to check it every time.
  • I guess I was a little stunned that some people didn't realize that you actually have to measure a quarter-inch and not just judge by using the edge of a presser foot or moving a needle to the side. If it's OK once you'd measured, that's one thing, but taking it for granted that it's right is another.
  • You can move the needle over to the right just a bit, and on my machine, that makes a perfect quarter inch seam.
  • I don't feel we should have to do this on a machine marketed for quilters, and one that includes a quarter inch foot, but we do, and this is one way to get the correct seam allowance.
  • Not all feet are accurate, not even all feet made for any one brand of
    machine. Always check. Use your rotary ruler. But another important step is pressing so that the seam in truly flat. For the record, I do not use steam in my iron but sometimes spray a mist on the seam itself from a spray bottle. Moving the needle over solves the problem caused by the wider feed dogs. As long as you measure and mark for your 1/4", it doesn't matter where your needle is.

For the most part, I'm self taught; I just figured things out as I went. Before getting my Janome 6600P the needle position on my previous machines didn't move and it didn't dawn on me to measure it. I had a 1/4 inch foot and I did take for granted that it was a 1/4 inch. After thinking about it, the only 1/4" foot I've ever owned that came with instructions was the Accufeed one for my Janome 6600P. Even with the directions on the back of the package, it never occurred to me to measure my seam allowance until I had a block that didn't go together quite right. The ladies from the message board would probably be surprised at the amount of quilt squares one can sew without an accurate 1/4" seam as long as you're sewing a consistent seam. I think a lot of people do just assume that you throw a 1/4 inch foot on and you get a quarter inch seam; I know I did.

I've been quilting since 1999 and it wasn't until last year that I really sat down and spent time to find my 1/4". There are many variables that come into play beyond just getting that perfect ¼", it may look nice and perfect against your ruler, but wait…there's more!

· If your fabric "rides" the guard for your ¼" foot versus being right next to it, you'll have a difference. Your flange on your 1/4" foot could be bent by a pin or even bent right out of the packaging.

· If you use a super thick/thin thread you'll have a difference which I believe is why some sew with a scant 1/4". Why is it that no one suggests sticking with one type of thread through out your piecing?

· Stitch length. Recently when I pieced a quilt for our bed I was using 50 weight Star Cotton Thread. Since it's for our bed and we have a 95 pound black lab that jumps on and off the bed with her "claws" I wanted to make sure those seams were very snug. More thread was in the seam and when I ironed it, it wasn't as flat and it actually made my top piece of fabric shorter by the time I got to the end of each seam, also due to the amount of thread.

· Washed versus non-washed fabrics or starched fabrics.

· Fabrics cut on the bias or straight of grain.

· Regular iron versus steam.

· If you use the line on your ruler versus the center of that line you'll have a variance. Until you really concentrate on that 1/4" seam you might not realize that your actual problem is cutting. Who says the lines on our quilting rulers are completely accurate? I know I've never placed one on top of the other to make sure they're all the same. I change rulers all the time during the course of a project and they're from all different manufacturers. Years back quilters complained that the grids on our rotary mats were not accurate, some say now they are. I've never measured mine, but I take for granted that they're accurate even though I know I should measure them first.

My mom and I each own Janome 6600P's and we sew together a lot. If I use the Accufeed 1/4 inch on my machine I have to set my needle position to 6.0. I can take the same fabric, thread, etc. and move to my mom's machine and hers although the same model has to be set to a needle position of 5.5 just like the package says. If you really look at it, 5.5 and 6.0 really aren't that big of a difference up against a ruler but it's enough to make a difference over the course of your block. This difference could just be the tightening of a screw somewhere up inside the machine but I'm not a machine technician, nor do I expect mine to get two machines perfectly aligned with each other.

I find that if I start a project on my older Janome Jem 609 with the standard 1/4" foot and I move to my 6600P, I'm better off using the standard 1/4 inch foot than my Accufeed 1/4 inch just because the standard foot on my Jem doesn't give me anywhere near the accuracy that the Accufeed foot gives me and it's better to stay more consistent with that.

Another thing that irks me about this is just assuming that since you're sewing machine was marketed for Quilting that it should automatically sew a ¼" seam. It's a sewing machine, not a dedicated quilting machine that only sews a ¼". Needle positions are changed so frequently that it would be impossible to have it go automatically to a perfect ¼ inch. What if it did and your thread was too thick? What then? I know on my Janome 6600P when you put the ¼" Accufeed foot on the reason you have to move the needle to a different position is because this allows you to take advantage of all 7 feed dogs which is a major selling point of the machine. If you bought the machine for this reason, why oh why wouldn't you want to use those feed dogs? Why would you want a machine that only did one kind of sewing?

Most of this my opinion with the exception of the comments off of the message board. I just think it's ridiculous that people who come together on a message board can't realize that everyone is at different stages in their sewing career and some have more knowledge than others. There's always a fudge factor in my sewing. You can just about always pull one block a little tighter to ease it into another one. Some of the blocks I've ripped and ripped and ripped look fine once they're in a quilt, outside of the quilt they looked like a mess.

Even Mary Ellen Hopkins the author of "The It's Ok If You Sit on My Quilt Book" calls the ¼" seam a PPM which stands for Personal Private Measurement. She's been in quilting for how many years? She's realized that no one is going to be the same and accepts that. I challenge everyone to accept that their ¼" seam is not going to be exactly the same as someone else's. Besides, once the top is pieced and quilted there are no quilt police with x-ray vision measuring your seam allowances from the inside. As long as your points aren't all lopped off, you're Golden.

Monday, May 7, 2007 - Untitled Comment
Posted by CountryQuilter
You need to write your own book on this. :) I had never really checked mine until now. My needle position does move, but if centered with my 1/4 inch foot, it is exact. So if my blocks are off, it is one of 3 things, me, my fabric, or the thread. Thanks for bringing it up, I had not checked it.

Monday, May 7, 2007 - Untitled Comment
Posted by bobbinhead
LOL. This is why I don't use those boards anymore. We spend more time arguing over who's right/wrong than actually learning about our machines or actual quilting. I am guilty of some of those questions myself. I love having a blog where we can say what we want without starting arguements. Thanks for your information.

Monday, May 7, 2007 - Untitled Comment
Posted by scissorhandscps
Oh, the 1/4 inch seam! I've been told to start and finish a project on the same machine and I got a quarter inch seam foot with a guide on it. It increased my sewing 3000%!!! But i'm with you, as long as you don't lose your points, who should care what your seam measures. I've heard recently that the new long staple threads can affect your seams because they're skinnier.

Monday, May 7, 2007 - Untitled Comment
Posted by bobbinhead
You asked in my blog if I used the knee lift to go over seams. Duh..should have thought of that. I guess I fall into the category of "It's a quilting machine. I shouldn't HAVE to do that"..ROTFLOL. I'm slowly learning..I think. Thanks for the idea.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007 - Untitled Comment
Posted by orchidlover
I agree with you Jen. As long as you are happy with the quilts you turn out, who cares whether your seams aren't exact. There are some people who just need to get a life and go back to enjoy their sewing. A friend of mine, who teaches tolld me of a woman in her class who undid a perfect section of piecing just because in one place both seam allowances were facing the same way where she had sewn them. My friend, who has won prizes and written a book, couldn't believe it.
love and hugs gina xxx

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