Tuesday, 3 August 2010

How to Block a Quilt

Tutorial: Blocking a Quilt

It has to be said that "Blocking a Quilt" is not a common activity for most quilters. Me included! But I will always block a quilt before I enter it into a competition or exhibition. Other quilts such as utility, juvenile and baby quilts can most certainly be blocked but probably really aren't really worth the effort. Well certainly not in my household where they are frequently dragged into the garden , used as a tent or a parachute, or up-chucked on every now and again! But for heirloom quality show quilts I will always block them before I put on the binding to make them as flat, square and true as possible. Blocked quilts always hang, drape and show texture so much better than those that haven't. What's more a blocked quilt retains a memory of its size and shape and will travel much better too.

But to block a quilt means you will have to thoroughly wet the quilt before you begin .. (is that palpitations I hear?) Yep .. I said thoroughly wet your quilt! Now you are panicking aren't you, but don't worry though its not that bad and you will be so glad you did when your exhibition quilt romps home with a ribbon!

So what is Blocking and why do should we do it?

Put simply, blocking is a way to flatten out and ensure a quilt is square and true at all major visual elements such as blocks and borders. It will remove the built in stresses introduced into the fabric fibres during construction and quilting and will ensure the quilt hangs flat without ripples, puckers and waves. The drape of the quilt is greatly improved,particularly where heavy or dense quilting has been used and the textural quality of the quilting becomes much more apparent.

When we quilt, especially machine quilt, we add stresses, tension and possibly even some minor distortion into the fabric fibres and a good " blocking" will help to relax the fabric fibres and reduce/remove any distortions and size variation throughout the quilt blocks. Some quilt tops are not square before quilting. They might have 'wiggly' borders and/or individual blocks that are out of true. If we are careful when we quilt we can introduce a " little attitude adjustment" to help correct these problem areas and a good blocking prior to binding will underpin and support these adjustments.

On a practical note, techniques such as Trapunto often require a full wetting to remove water soluble thread and once wet the quilt will need to be laid out flat and reshaped before drying. Heavy quilting used to create faux trapunto effects also respond well to blocking as the wetted quilt will shrink up to accentuate the trapuntoed areas. If left unblocked the quilt may look distorted and hang poorly. However, once dried a blocked quilt should hang flat, square and true and retain this shape until the next time it becomes wet.

The Blocking Process

Step 1 : Half fill a bath tub with luke warm water. Not cold and not hot! Add at least 5 or 6 dye-magnet sheets - these are the sort that attract surplus dye floating in the water.
Even if you have a large capacity washing machine I would still advise using a bath tub for this step simply because you can see what is happening to your quilt while it is in the water and you can gently agitate it to remove soluble thread, quilting marks and any localised soiling.

I use Colour Catchers - available on the laundry aisle at Tescos and other supermarkets. I think they cost around £3 or so for a box of 12 . I also add a small amount of liquid soap such as orvus paste or similiar.

Step 2 : Add the quilt - keeping it as loose and open as possible. Leave it to soak for a few moments then agitate the water around the quilt and use the palms of your hands to gently agitate the quilt itself. Do not wring or maltreat the quilt at this point otherwise you stand the chance of breaking quilting threads!

Look at the excess dye in the water!
The dye magnet sheets will prevent this going back onto the quilt.

Remove the dye magnet sheets

Step 3 : Drain the water from the bath tub and refill with luke warm water.
Gently rinse the quilt and drain the water again. DO NOT wring the quilt to remove the excess water.

Let the rinsing water drain away. Gently pump the quilt with the palms of your hands to help with the draining process but DO NOT WRING! It will take 5 -10 minutes for enough water to drain from the quilt for the next step.

Step 4 : Place a large clean white towel or sheet in the bottom of the bath tub. Roll the quilt onto the sheet or towel. ONLY use the sheet or towel to support, lift and move the quilt.

Step 5 : Move the quilt to your laundry room and gently place it into the drum of the washing machine. Note: European front loading machines are big enough for a queen/king size quilt once they are wet!

Step 6 : Spin the quilt to remove as much water as possible.

Step 7 : Remove the quilt from the washer and place it in a bucket for support while you move to an area large enough to spread the quilt out flat.

Step 8 : Lay the quilt out on the floor.
I have a laminate floor in my studio that I am happy to put a damp quilt directly onto. (If you are not happy to do this securely tape a piece of plastic sheeting to the floor area first.)
Lay the quilt on the floor and gently tease the quilt into shape. I start at the centre of the quilt and use my hands to pat and tease the quilt outwards making sure it it flat against the floor as I do it.

Step 9 : Check for square.
You will need to check for square several times as you adjust and readjust your quilt. I pick a major design element such as an inner border first to check the squareness as follows:

Using a metal tape measure measure the diagonal right to left through the quilt. Make a note of the measurement.

Now check the left to right diagonal and make a note of the diagonal. Is it the same as the right to left? If it isn't then your quilt is NOT square. To make it square gently manipulate your quilt until BOTH diagonals are the same.

If you find your are having to stretch your quilt out to make it square use T-Pins if your base floor is carpeted to secure in place or use small lengths of grossgrain ribbon pinned to the edge of the quilt on laminate floors. These ribbons can be pulled out to gently adjust the quilt and can be secured to the floor with masking tape. Usually I allow a good 5"to 6" extra on the quilt top to account for any shrinkage during quilting and blocking so I prefer to ease in out of squareness as opposed to stretching it out.

Once you are happy the quilt is as square as possible, check for waviness! I use a 90 degree laser level to check this out. See the red line on the blue border? One you have positioned the laser you can tease the border in or out to meet the laser line.

A metre metal rule is also helpful in this straightening process. Be patient and take your time to get things as good as they can be. I think I spent the better part of an hour or more getting this quilt laid out the best I could. You can see how wavy this border was before I blocked it.

Once you have laid your quilt out and it is is as flat, square and unwavy as possible - LEAVE IT ALONE! Let it dry for at least 24 hours or longer. A fan will help speed up the drying process but do not move the quilt until you are satisfied it it thoroughly dry. The quilt is now ready to be trimmed, stabilised and finished with a nice binding. See here for details on how to stabilise and finish the quilt.

For details on how to launder a quilt look at the free download on my website here How to Care for your Quilt


  1. Replies
    1. Good morning, You CAN save your back by using your washing machine like the tub. In other words, use a laundry basket on top of your tub (this is assuming you have a top loader). Line it with plastic. Old shower curtains are great to prevent a sloppy mess. Put the quilt in the basket and turn on your washer to fill up. Let it fill and then stop the action. You can also use your dye magnet here - I love them.

    2. Use your washer as you would the bathtub and save your back. You can use a laundry basket lined with plastic. This is for top loaders, so I am not sure you could do it with a front loader. Line the top with plastic - generally a shower curtain or plastic garbage bags. Put the quilt in it while you fill the washer with enough in the water level to take care of the quilt. When the washer is full, you can put in your dye magnet, and then put in the quilt. You can let it soak as long as you would in the bathtub, and then take it out and put it into the basket. Let all the water go out and you can actually to it one more time with the rinse water if you want to. After you take the quilt (oh, and you CAN use the ease and squeeze method to get the water out without doing anything to change it for blocking. Just think of it as a neck and you wouldn't strangle a neck, so don't strangle the quilt either. Then do everything else the way you would the bathtub, but without hurting your back. Also, I have a strong suspicion that some of the new front loaders have a very gentle cycle that might work too since there is no agitation going on in a front loader. I used to do quilt restoration/repair and certified appraiser for some 22 years, so I have washed a lot of quilts. I think that getting down to get the quilt out of the tub can really hurt your back and knees unless you are younger, and even then, eventually it might hurt them. Hope this is helpful for you. All the other parts will work very well.

    3. Great suggestion to save your back and knees Anne. Here in the UK we don't have top loaders as a rule but you are correct about gentle wash cycles. Newer front loaders also have bigger washer drums too so I think it would be ok to pop a large quilt directly into one now. My new washer has a capacity of 12kg. At the time I wrote this post most washer capacities maxed out at only 6kg and a big quilt would have been difficult to get into the machine drum. Thanks for commenting.

  2. No palpitations or panic anymore :-) Well... i didn't even know about Blocking (I've only made one quilt), but after this tutorial I can't imagine not taking the time to do it! Great tutorial. Thanks.

  3. Wow what an awesome tutorial! Thank you so much! I am a new follower and would love it if you followed me back!

  4. wow...that's a beautiful tutorial...i have to try it for my next project and your quilt looks awesome...

  5. great how to - thanks :) Now to find floor space that won't get trampled on for 24 hours :P

  6. Thanks for a great tutorial . I don't think I will be scared to try this now.

  7. Wonder what happens if you try to block a quilt AFTER binding it? I'm just confused why you would do the binding afterwardrs? wouldn't that leave the stretchy, fraying raw edges of the quilt vulnerable?

  8. Thanks so much!! Wish I'd known how to do this (or thought to do it!) on the many quilts I've made!!

  9. Great tutorial except that the link to how to stabilize and bind the quilt link does not work!

  10. Do you llow the same directions on a large (94x94 inch) quilt?

    1. Thanks for the comment A very Long Time. Yes I would follow the same directions once washed for a large quilt. Do read the response from Anne Copeland on pasqueflower comment though, She makes some good suggestions to save your back during the washing process if you use a top loading washing machine.


Thank you for your comments. I appreciate each and every one of them.