Tools and Tips

Test Blocks +/-

I have never been big on making test blocks. I just bought a little more fabric in case one of my first blocks needed to be redone. I actually cannot remember making a test block before. I always was too eager to get started with the project to take the time. And I didn’t know what to do with the finished test blocks.

My latest project, the Singapore Sling quilt, was going to be made with these new templates that my daughter 3D printed. She wanted to make sure they were accurate. My first thought was I would use some scrap fabric to make sure they work. However, I knew I had extra of the Good Vibes fabric designed by Christa Watson for Benartex, so I decided to try a test block with the fabric I planned to use for the quilt (this may sound basic to you, but it was a novel idea for me).

I carefully laid out one block and realized immediately that both my background and foreground fabrics were directional. I tried to line up the templates so the fabrics would be straight and I cut them out using the templates. Then I carefully pinned and sewed the block.

It took me about 15-20 minutes total and I learned a lot of valuable lessons:

  • The templates work and appear the be the correct size.
  • If I cut the fabric to keep the pattern straight, all of the cuts are on the bias.
  • It is really hard to get the fabric pattern perfectly aligned for this block. And I don’t like the look when it is off.
  • The tight curves are really tight – I ended up trying glue basting for them and it worked like a charm.
  • I will need to be very precise in my seam allowances.
  • I need to starch the fabric before cutting and before piecing. The fabric distorted a little with the curves. You can see below that the line does not fall perfectly straight.
  • I may need to slightly trim the blocks to get them all square and perfectly the same so the quilt top lays flat.
  • I like the finished look of the diamond.
  • There is enough contrast between the foreground and the background.

Because I learned so much making the first test block, I decided to do a second one keeping one edge of the template on the straight of grain. I like the scrappy look and it was much easier to cut out.

What did I learn? There are some excellent reasons to make a test block, especially if the equipment or techniques are new to you.

Of course this leads to a new question – what do you do with test blocks? Let me know what you do with them and we will address that in another post!

Tools and Tips

Where Do You Iron?

Since 1992, I have used my mother’s ironing board.

She bought it about 50 years ago and it was the Cadillac of ironing boards. It is heavy-duty and heavy. It was corded with an outlet on the board, and has a springy guide to hold the iron cord away from fabric. Over the years, the cord got cut off. I always tuck the springy guide under the board because it drives me crazy. Mostly, I get frustrated because it is not wide enough and the angled end means my fabric never seems to get fully ironed.

After a lot of research, I decided that I wanted an ironing station with storage. I looked at all of the Pinterest ironing stations and I even considered buying the Singer Ironing and Crafting Station, but at $350, I thought I could figure out something that was less expensive. I bought a 15-drawer rainbow drawer organizer, a 3/4 inch sheet of plywood that is 2 foot by 4 foot, Insulbrite, 100% cotton quilt batting, and silver ironing board cloth. All together I spent less than $120 (not counting what my husband spent for a new hammer stapler).

I brought it all home and left it in the living room, because work got crazy and I didn’t have time to put it together. Enter my husband, the hero! He put together the drawer unit, rounded and sanded the edges of the plywood so the corners would not wear through the fabric, and created these cool latches that hold the board onto the drawers, but can be easily turned to remove the board for storage (as if I will ever put my new ironing station away).

This weekend, we decided to work together to get the board upholstered. I started with a layer of Insulbrite to protect the board and reflect heat back up to the fabric. Then we put on 2 layers of 100% cotton batting.

My husband was using a hammer stapler to staple everything down. He didn’t want to catch my fingers, so on the corners, we used tape to hold the miter in place until he stapled it.

Finally, we stretched the fancy silver ironing board fabric on top.

Doesn’t it look great!

It is about 1 inch higher than a normal ironing board, but I am on the tall side, so I don’t mind. And it is 24 x 48 inches so I can iron the full width of a cut of fabric. I can get a sharp press on it. And check out all that lovely fabric storage. Fifteen color-coded drawers. I have already started moving my scraps from shoe boxes randomly placed around my room into this neat stand. There is even room for my power bar between the cart top and the board!

I am SO grateful that my husband put everything together and made my new ironing station happen. Happy ironing and pressing!

Tools and Tips


Pins are such basic sewing tools that we don’t think about them very often. For years, I used whatever pins were available. I didn’t pay attention to whether I was using quilting pins for sewing satin clothes, or silk pins for a cotton quilt. A dear friend taught me that quilting pins are for quilts and you need the appropriate pin for the fabric you are using. But I didn’t understand the finer points (pun intended) until recently. I have a toolbox of pins. My all purpose pins are on my red magnetic pin holder. My large safety pins for basting are in the clear container. I also have small safety pins that are used primarily for costumes and quick repairs. I have become a lover of the lowly pin. As I discuss my favorites, please be aware that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links.

For basting, I like large (at least size 2) curved safety pins. These work very well for me. I have a box of size 1 safety pins, but I don’t use them except for some wallhangings. Here is a handy size chart for safety pins:

SizeLength in inches (mm)
003/4″ (19mm)
07/8″ (22mm)
11 1/16″ (27mm)
21 1/2″ (38mm)
32″ (51mm)
42 1/4″ (57mm)

Straight pins also have sizes. Some manufacturers list a pin by the length and some include diameter to distinguish fine pins from regular or large pins. Here is a chart for straight pins:

SizeLength in inches
442 3/4″
281 3/4″
241 1/2″
201 1/4″
171 1/6″

Pin diameter also varies:

Diameter in mmSizeUse
0.4 mmSuper fineSheers, chiffons, satins
0.5 mmExtra fineCottons, sewing curves
0.6 mmFineAll purpose sewing
0.7 or 0.8mmHeavy dutyDenim, corduroy, heavy fabrics

I have played around with a lot of pins over my nearly 50 years of sewing, and I am happy to share some of my favorites with you.

My favorite pins for keeping track of pieces for a quilt are these star pins from Dritz. They are long (2 3/4″) and thick, but the variety of numbers and marks works for most of my quilts.

There are pins numbered 1-10 and blank stars, and stars with up, down, right and left arrows.

If I need more variety, I add in my Wright flower pins . These are also long and are slightly thinner than the star pins. I wrote numbers 1-75 on my flower head pins, but some of the numbers have worn off. They work well in conjunction with my stars.

For piecing, I have two sets of pins. Sheri Cifaldi-Morrill of Whole Circle Studio suggested that better pins would improve my precision in piecing tight curves, and she was right! Sheri recommends (and I agree) the Iris 1 1/4 inch pins for tight curves. Iris also makes 1 1/2 inch colored head pins which are great general use pins.

These are European pins with a delightful tin. I love opening and closing it! The pins are fine and relatively short and work great on tight spaces.

For most piecing, my favorite pins are Clover Fine Quilting Pins<a href="http://<a href="http:// .

These pins are 1 1/2 inches long, with a glass head and a 0.5mm diameter.

They are long, thin and hold up to heavy use quite well. I have been using them for curves and straight piecing. Clover also makes a super fine which is also 1 1/2 inches long but is 0.4mm.

I don’t do much hand applique, so I have not worked with fine applique pins, but there are numerous short (1/2 to 3/4 inch) special applique pins to choose from

I am always looking for the newest, best pin. Do you have a favorite to share? Remember to change out dull or bent pins. I keep a “discard” bottle for old pins next to my sewing machine.

Happy sewing and may your pins be sharp!