10 Reasons to Sew a Sample Block

I can still remember my very early quilting years when I signed up for my first class (probably 35 years ago). It was with a "famous" teacher, well known for her lovely designs and charming personality. In preparation for the workshop we were to cut 60 strips 3-1/4" x wof. That was a LOT of fabric and it was very costly for me. But, I did what I was told.

Sample of pre-cut strips (not the ones for this class)

We didn't have much information other than a description of the quilt. Remember, this was before the internet. I really didn't know what we were going to make! Came the day, the class and the project - yuck! But I had all of these 3-1/4" strips, right? 195" worth = 5-1/2 yards!

I learned a very valuable (and painful) lesson: Always cut and sew a sample block BEFORE cutting out all your fabric! 

  • If you don't like the first block, you won't like 24 of them. 
  • If there's an error in the construction or templates - you discover that BEFORE you cut everything out.
  • You discover how well your colors and fabrics play together.
Here's the entire lesson I wrote for Quilt Almanac Magazine 2001. And it appeared in my first book, "Bold, Black and Beautiful."
10 Good Reasons to Sew a Sample Block

    There are times a printed template is incorrect in size. Just being off by 1/4" will ruin the entire block. Just imagine if it were repeated 20, 30 or 40 times for an entire quilt. A sample block will show template accuracy.
    "The instructions may state that they are for a 12" block, but I have discovered more than once that my 12" block really sews up to be an 11" or 14" block! Some of the older patterns appearing in out of print books and magazines may not have used the most accurate printing techniques. Today's writers and designers can make mistakes, too, so just to be sure, I make that sample block. This is also a good time to check the accuracy of the 1/4" seam I think my sewing machine makes!
    I readily admit to being "color challenged." I just can't visualize how a block will look with my fabric choices until I actually sew it up. I have rescued many a quilt by sewing a sample block with my first choice of fabric combinations only to discover that those choices are not to my liking. I make a second sample block with new choices before I go and cut out the rest of the quilt.
    I have been so inspired by beautiful quilts made of intricately pieced blocks only to discover my enthusiasm wanes after making one or two blocks. One quilt I made had twenty-four blocks, and each block had forty pieces - for a total of 960 pieces in that quilt! I was exhausted when I finished and vowed to always sew a sample block to help in my decision making.
    Sometimes the colors are right, there aren¹t too many pieces, but I don't like the result. Would I like it any better if I went on to make twenty, thirty or even forty? Probably not. I quilt because I enjoy it, not just to acquire another "cover."
    Cutting out that first block starts my brain calculating ways to speed-cut the rest of the blocks. I see the way the template fits onto fabric strips and I envision ways to not only cut out several of the same template at once, but how to conserve fabric in the process. If I¹m going to cut out scores of blocks, I want to do it the quickest and easiest way possible.
    As I sew the first block I think of ways to speed sew sections of the block. Perhaps there are units within the block that I can sew all at once, then go on to sew other sections of all the blocks at the same time. Sewing all of the same section at once and then going to the ironing board and pressing, saves time.
    I find that most blocks require pressing the seams to one side. But when seams of one part of the block butt up against another part of the block, they fit so snugly when they are pressed in opposite directions. Piecing that first block works out those details. Also, there are times when seams need to be pressed open. For example, working with a block where six or eight seams come together can create too much bulk. Pressing sections with open seams helps eliminate a lot of that bulk
    If I plan on making scores of the same block but I¹ve yet chosen my border and sashing fabric, it's quite easy to carry around one block to my favorite fabric stores to audition fabric for finishing my quilt. All of the colors are contained in one 10" or 12" block and I can easily lay it atop a bolt of fabric spread out on a cutting table.
    Having that first block hanging in front of me as I stitch the rest of them helps me see the sewing sequence, keep the pieces turned in the right direction as I sew, and generally inspire me to keep sewing, because I will soon have many more of the same block, in the same size, in the same colors for a beautiful quilt!
I since found a few projects to make with those 3-1/4" strips, but it took a few years before I could pull that box out of the closet. It was filled with 60 strips of failure - but I learned a valuable lesson and hope you do, too!


  1. Thanks for the above information. One other thing I learned in taking a class is to use the same sewing machine for the entire quilt. A different sewing machine can mess up the size of the quilt blocks even though you have gone through the same steps to ensure a 1/4" seam. I learned using a different thread if you run out can also make a difference.

    1. Those are excellent tips - and true! Thanks for sharing them.

  2. Forgot to add, so what did you end up making with the "discarded" 60 inch strips?

    1. I have been wracking my brain about that. I do know that I didn't pull them out for several years and then discovered some pattern and triangle template that worked specifically with 3-1/4" strips. I'm digging around in my digital files, but we are talking 30+ years ago! Will let you know when it comes to me!

  3. Yes, I'm curious about that "discarded" strip project, too!

    1. See my comment to Susan above. Big lesson learned for sure.

  4. That IS a good lesson! Thanks for sharing it. I can never bear to cut out an entire quilt at once anyway.


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Thanks for stopping by Debby Kratovil Quilts! If you had a question and don't get an answer from me, please feel free to email me at: kratovil@his.com