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    Sewing a straight line sounds simple enough doesn’t it, yet in reality it can be harder to achieve that one might imagine.  It’s a bit like trying to draw a series of straight lines without the aid of a ruler, or trying to walk a straight line.

    The best tip I have is to know your machine and its accessories.  Spend 20 minutes or half an hour really getting to know your machine or reacquaint yourself with some of the basics of your machine if it has been languishing in a cupboard.

    I confess that I didn’t spend the time getting to know my old machine, which used to belong to my late mother-in-law.   When I bought my current machine part of the ‘package’ was a whole day’s tuition at the sewing machine shop on ‘Getting to Know Your Machine’.  That day in the shop was invaluable although just one day wasn’t anywhere near long enough to cover all the functions as my machine is pretty whizzy-do and so since that ‘Getting to Know’ session and much to my delight I have stumbled across lots of other functions.

    Quilters almost always use a ¼” seam although on occasions a scant ¼” seam is used.  A scant ¼” is a smidgen smaller than a ¼” and I will come back to scant ¼” seams on another occasion.

    If you haven’t done so already take a good look at the needle plate or foot plate on your machine and familiarise yourself with the markings as these will help you in the long run.  If your machine doesn’t come with ¼” markings, you will need to find out what width your seams are by sewing one and measuring the distance from the stitch line to the edge of the fabric and then adjust the stitch width on your machine so that the needle is in the right position.  Consistency is what you are aiming for and if you can sew your patches in straight lines this accuracy with help when sewing blocks together.

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    Next have a closer look at the standard presser foot for sewing a straight line.  The one in the image below is for a Janome Atelier 5.  Whatever presser foot you have for your machine take a close look to see what markings there are and get your tape measure out if necessary.  There may be markings or grooves at the front, back and at the edges of the foot.


    In the next photograph I’ve used pointer to show a groove in the presser foot.  This groove is the guide that can be used so when it comes to sewing the fabric the raw edges of the fabric need to be lined up with the groove.

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    A couple of tips before you start sewing:  make sure your fabric has straight edges and that the fabric has been pressed rather than ironed.  Treat your fabric gently as if you iron the fabric rigorously it may become distorted.  Try not to be heavy handed with that lovely fabric.   To demonstrate just how easy it is to distort fabric hold of a small piece (a scrap piece that you don’t mind practising on).  Try stretching the fabric horizontally and then vertically and then diagonally and you will notice that when stretched one way there is some give and the other way virtually none and when stretched on the diagonal (the bias) it will stretch.  If the fabric is overworked or excessively stretched it will become distorted and achieving those yearned for straight lines will become even more elusive. 

    You may want to spray starch your pieces before you start sewing.  Spray starching gives you lovely crisp fabric so is worth thinking about.

    Now it’s time to sew a straight line.  Place your pressed pieces of fabric on your machine so that the raw edges of the side you want to sew are lined right up against the ¼”marking on the presser foot and that the raw edges are also lined up with the ¼” marking on the needle plate, if of course you have those markings. See the photos below.

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    If you don’t have these markings on your presser foot or on the needle plate, create your own guide by placing a piece of tape (blue or masking tape) on to your machine.  You will have to carefully measure where the tape needs to be placed by inserting the needle into the fabric and carefully measuring a ¼”. Each time you sew a seam you can then use the edge of the tape as your guide.  If you're not clear how to do this just send me a message and I will try and explain in more detail.

    When piecing patches together there’s no need to do any back stitching although you can if you want to but it becomes a bore if you need to do any unpicking!

    So my top tips are:-

     -           Make sure that your fabric has straight edges before you start sewing.

     -           Start with the needle in the downward position and gently hold the threads slightly to the left to prevent bunching.  Once you have sewn a couple of stitches to can release the loose threads.

     -           Use your hands to gently guide the fabric as you sew.  Don’t pull the fabric as it may stretch and become distorted and this will make it harder to achieve straight lines.

     -           Guide the fabric right to the very end.  It’s very easy to let go and sometimes the fabric can start veering off course and if that happens you’ll lose that lovely straight line, so it’s worth slowing down as you approach the end.

    This is the seam I sewed using the standard straight stitch presser foot and the guides on the foot and the needle plate to help.

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    My machine is computerised  which happens to have a quarter inch setting and this is the setting I use most often.  However all the setting does is move the needle so that instead of being in a central position it is slightly to the right.  I still need to make sure that I have the fabric in the correct position so when I use the ¼” machine setting I use the edge of the presser foot as my guide rather than the groove as shown above.  See below and you’ll notice that I’ve placed the edge of the fabric in a different position.

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    Another tip for you:  on occasions instead of sewing off the end or stopping at the very end you may need to stop ¼” from the end.   This will come in handy when you want to do a mitred corner for example.  Again there are markings on the foot and on the needle plate that you can use as your guide.  If you are going to rely on the presser foot there is a small groove at near the front end as indicated below:

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    Sew right up to that mark and stop.  At this point I would do a couple of backstitches.  It may look very close to the end but as long as you don’t sew beyond that small groove it should be all right. 

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    You may want to try this out on a piece of scrap fabric so that you are confident.  Alternatively you can mark the fabric where you want to end or use a pin to mark the spot.

    At the end of the day you need a guide, whether it is the edge of the presser foot or the groove on the foot or a piece of tape so long as that guide is straight you should be able to achieve straight lines too, so have a play around and see if using the guide on the presser foot and needle plate help. 












    Before I share my first tips I should mention that I’m self-taught and my tips are based on trying out different methods and finding one that suits me.  I may make a tweak here and a tweak there.   There are bound to be other methods for doing the same task and so I recommend that you try a variety and find the one that works for you.   

    I generally don’t follow patterns, which has meant that I have been known to make mistakes, but along the way I have developed a talent for adaptation and sometimes I will unexpectedly stumble across a method of doing a task that works!

    So on with the first tips.  This has to do with cutting fabric.  Sounds easy enough - but just a couple of pointers could help you avoid making some basic errors.  Only yesterday I made a mistake whilst cutting because I didn’t follow the cardinal rule ‘Measure Twice, Cut Once’.  

    For this exercise I am going to describe how to trim a Fat Quarter otherwise referred to as FQ (18” x 22”) that has been cut from the bolt.  In other words it hasn’t been precision cut by machine but has been cut directly from the bolt by a human (me) with scissors and I’m going to trim the Fat Quarter ready to be cut into smaller pieces.

    Before I do any cutting I’m going to spray starch the fabric on the ‘wrong’ side and press the fabric on the ‘right’ side.  I have found that using spray starch makes the fabric easier to handle.  This is personal preference and for a long time I didn’t use starch but once I was introduced to the idea I saw the benefits and am now a convert.  You will discover that fabric has a tendency to move and can become distorted and starching the fabric helps to avoid some of that distortion and is also nicer to handle. 

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    When cutting use a self-healing mat, a rotary cutter (with a sharp blade - for safety reasons ALWAYS make sure that the safety catch is on when the rotary cutter is not being used.  Also when cutting fabric make sure you cut away from the body not towards you).  You will also need  a quilter’s ruler.   Quilter’s rulers come in different shapes and sizes and are marked in inches.  Cutting mats tend to be marked in inches as well and I rely on a combination of the cutting mat and the ruler to help me when cutting fabric.

    As my Fat Quarter isn't completely even the edges need to be straightened.  Fold the fabric in half and lay the folded edge against the horizontal marked line on the cutting mat making sure that you can see the inch marks.  Image You’ll notice from the photograph that the folded edge is straight and the right-hand edge is uneven.  Place your ruler to the right hand side and make sure that the bottom edge of the fabric is at right angles with the ruler.   There are markings on the ruler and these need to correspond with the markings on the cutting mat.   Slight adjustments may be needed to get the ruler lined up.   Have a look at the photo and you’ll see that the inch mark is exactly in line with the folded edge of the fabric, which in turn is lined up with the marking on the cutting board. 

    So the right-hand edge of the ruler is in line with the inch mark on the ruler and that is my cutting line.  (My ruler happens to be the wrong way up, which was not intentional.  However the markings on the ruler are still visible.  This little mishap has reminded me that on the underneath of my ruler are opaque circles which you should be able to see.  These circles are slightly rougher to touch and help to make the ruler non-slip, when used the right way up of course! As I mentioned before fabric has a tendency to move and so the non-slip feature on the ruler is really helpful when trying to cut fabric accurately).  Release the safety catch on the rotary cutter and cut the fabric moving the cutter away from the body.   Put the safety catch back on. 

    Image 1Turn the fabric over, so that the newly trimmed edges are now on the left-hand side but still with the folded edge along the horizontal line on the cutting mat.  Line up the ruler as before and trim what is now the right hand side edge. 

    Image 5Two sides have now been trimmed.  Turn the fabric once more but this time with the folded edge on the left-hand side and line the edge up against one of the vertical lines on the cutting mat.   The horizontal edges are of course straight as these have been trimmed.  Place the ruler on the right-hand edge and check whether the edge is straight and trim if necessary. 

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    Always check the edges are straight by using the cutting mat and ruler. 

    The FQ is now ready to cut into smaller pieces.

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    As you gain in confidence you can cut multiple layers at once to save time.  I am happy to cut two or three layers at the same time but no more.

    An extra tip:  when cutting long strips from a larger piece of fabric periodically check that the right-hand edge is still straight.  Sometimes the fabric will shift very slightly and will need to be trimmed before cutting more strips.   I generally cut two or three strips and then check to make sure the right-hand edge hasn’t shifted.  If it has, trim any excess fabric before cutting any more strips. 

    I hope you have found these tips helpful.