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Adventures with Tumbling Blocks

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

Last month, I dropped off my son for his first year of college. Moved him into his dorm. shed some tears, and left him with a quilt so he can wrap himself in a hug whenever he needs it.

I recently got his permission to share some pictures on this blog, and he said he looked forward to reading about the making of the quilt. When I warned him that there was some swearing involved in the process, he said something like, "That's how you know there's love in it."

Really though, only one step involved swearing -- the rest was a fun project. I even tried and learned some new things: making a whole quilt of Y-seams and long-arming a quilt with a minky back.

Designing and Piecing

I started with my gifted stash of plaids and stripes, and pulled a palette based on the college's colors of maroon and gray.

Then I figured I would use the tumbling blocks pattern: simple, graphic, cool 3-D effect, not too fussy for a dorm, but interesting enough to look at. I had never really done Y-seams before, but I had been looking for an opportunity to try. I was inspired and guided by Karen Bolan's super-useful IGTV (Instagram video) tumbling blocks tutorial. She lays out the process simply enough that I felt like I could make it happen!

I cut diamonds and split them into stacks of light, medium, and dark fabrics. The 3-D design only works if you maintain a consistent value placement within each of the blocks, so that fabric sorting step is important.

Sewing the first two pieces of each block together is easy -- just plain straight seams.

Adding the third piece of the block brings in the Y-seam. In her video, Karen shows a sew and twist technique that worked well for me. I'll let you watch it; she explains it way better than I could.

I made a bunch of blocks, probably enough for a throw-sized quilt, which was my original plan. When I asked my son if it was something he might like to have for college, he said, "Yeah, and can it be bigger?" So I went back to the cutting mat and the sewing machine to make some more blocks.

More blocks meant moving the "design floor" from the hallway to the living room to have enough space to do a layout.

Once I got the shape right (how many blocks tall? how many blocks wide?), I sewed enough row-end and column top- and bottom-half-blocks to make things even.

Sewing the blocks into rows was as easy as sewing the first two pieces of each block -- just straight, short seams. Sewing the rows together, on the other hand, is when I started swearing. Every four inches is a change in direction, an inset seam, with nothing flat or straightforward. I didn't take a lot of pictures of that stage because it was frustrating. And I was glad my son was off on a camping trip so he didn't have to hear me swearing the love into that quilt.

It took some time and some patience and some stitch picking and some resewing, but I eventually got the rows together well enough. I found that sometimes when I had to pick and resew I was better off flipping the whole thing over for each turn of the zigzag to get more control of all the intersecting seams. Pressing was important, too -- sometimes from the front, sometimes from the back, generally with lots of steam, and always trying to get the blocks to lie as flat as possible.

Are all the points perfectly matched? No, but they are all good enough, and the plaids and stripes help hide some of the flaws.


Last time I wrote about making a quilt with a minky back, I showed you my spray basting process. Because this quilt was so big, I decided to quilt it on the longarm at Hello Stitch Studio, with no real basting required. Still, the minky fabric is much stretchier than quilting cotton, so it's a bit fussy to work with. Thank goodness Terri at Hello Stitch was willing to offer tips and guidance throughout the longarming process.

The minky I used stretches more between the selvedge than along the selvedge, so I used the zipper (the way you attach the back to the longarm machine) to stabilize the stretchiest direction. I tried pinning when I attached the zipper, but still ended up with shifting fabric.

Luckily I had extra length at the top and bottom of the back, so I didn't have to worry too much about warping. I just scooted my batting and top a few inches lower to avoid the worst.

Even in the less-stretchy direction, the size and weight of the fabric cause some sagging.

I used a pin now and then to tighten up the back and avoid puckers.

I chose a large-scale loose quilting design that doesn't backtrack on itself or have to match up from row to row because I wanted to minimize the visible effects of the inevitable movement and stretching.

I attached the scrappy binding by machine to the back of the quilt so I could do the hand sewing on the cotton rather than the minky.

Finally, I played with thread color and the fancy stitches on my machine to make a label. It took me several tries to get it right!

I'm pleased with the final product, and I'm happy that its recipient knows it's infused with a little bit of swearing and a whole lot of love.

Until next time, enjoy your quilting adventures and the adventures your quilts might be taking.


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