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Get the Lowdown on Little Pieces from Mary Elizabeth Kinch–Coauthor of “Small Pieces, Sp

“I’m not sure whether I keep finding antique quilts made with many, many  small pieces or if they keep finding me. One thing I know for sure is that I keep being enthralled with, and inspired by, them.” 

So confesses Mary Elizabeth Kinch, in the introduction to her brand-new book, Small Pieces, Spectacular Quilts, coauthored with friend and fellow Canadian quiltmaker Biz Storms. I’m thrilled to have Mary Elizabeth on board today, visiting See How We Sew as part of her very busy blog hop.

Hot off the press from Martingale & Company!

The quilts in this book are simply A-M-A-Z-I-N-G …

Simple Gifts, 80″ x 80″, pieced by Mary Elizabeth Kinch, machine quilted by Robyn House-Guettler. Notice the tiny pieces in the corner squares, as well as the center diamond.

… and left me with many questions about how she does it, from collecting and managing those tiny pieces, to sewing, piecing, and pressing them. I asked, and here’s what she had to say.

How small a scrap is “small?”  At what point, if ever, do you toss a scrap?

If I cannot cut a 1″ square from it, then I toss it, although I have been known to keep favorite fabric strips that are a mere 3/4″ wide, bordering on 5/8″. A little 1/8″ sliver running across a string block is very sweet!

Note the wee (1/8″-wide) sliver running out from the bottom left corner of the photo.

I have to admit, I will put aside pieces that I know are too small, but that I cannot bear to part with. I use them for color “storyboards” for future projects. Okay, that’s an excuse … I’m a fabric junkie. The first step is admitting we have a problem, right?

How do you sort and store your small pieces?

When I first considered this question, I thought I had only one medium box of scraps … apparently denial is not just a river in Egypt!  That, ummm, would be three different containers, actually! If a piece is 2″ to 3″ or larger it gets filed back into the bin with other large pieces of that color, since I don’t want to miss any exciting fabrics when I do a fabric pull. I make an exception to re-filing if a fabric has been cut into a specific shape or size; then it goes into a resealable plastic bag in a separate bin. Strings have a container all to themselves.

A peek at Mary Elizabeth’s fabric “filing” system

Is your stash of small pieces self-generated or are you the recipient of “donations” from quilting friends? Do you ever take part in charm square or other fabric swaps?

My stash is a delightful combination of both. At one quilt retreat I used a soup pot to contain my “string” pieces. Over the course of the retreat, the stash in my pot grew as other attendees surreptitiously added to my collection!  I still find some of those “donations” now and then as I am stitching and smile every time I do.  My friend Judy, a member of Squeegees, a small quilting group that I belong to, has been known to arrive at meetings with a bag of beautiful scraps for me to add to my collection.  Other than that, I seem to have no trouble self-generating and have not yet taken part in fabric exchanges.

Go with the Flow, 90″ x 90″, pieced by Mary Elizabeth Kinch with original quilting design and machine quilting by Mary Elizabeth and Margaret Mitchell. If you’ve been wondering how Mary Elizabeth uses those strips, now you know!

Do you typically sew your small pieces by hand or machine? Do you have a favorite thread? Color of thread (top and bobbin)? If you sew by machine, do you adjust your stitch length?

My piecing is about 80/20, machine to hand right now.  My “go to” threads are: Aurifil and YLI Select, both great for hand and machine piecing.  When machine piecing, I use the same thread top and bottom. I have an assortment of neutral, taupe, brown, and gray threads. One of them will usually work for any given project.  I have a drawer of threads from my fashion-design days that I am slowly working through. I use these threads when I am piecing string quilts, as consistent use of the same thread and color is not as important in a scrappy quilt.

A (mere) sampling of Mary Elizabeth’s neutral-colored threads

For machine sewing these small pieces, I set the stitch on my Bernina at 2.5. Recently, when I’m chain piecing, I have been stitching past the end of the seam for about an inch, which “sort of” twists the two threads together, and then I snip the pieces apart about 1/2” away from the end of the seam. The thread and seam have to work a little harder to unravel when I do this.

Detail of Homeward Bound, pieced by Mary Elizabeth Kinch, Emma Kinch, and Helgard Koch, machine quilted by Margaret Mitchell in a machine-quilting design by Vicki Makaski

How do you press? Fingerpress? Iron? Steam or no?

May the heavens not open up and devour me when I say this, but I have taken to not pressing with an iron until the top is complete.  I just fingerpress as I go. Wassenaar Windmills (shown below) was done that way and went together beautifully since the blocks were not distorted or stretched by pressing. Of course, I suggest that you test this out on a few blocks yourself before you tackle a whole quilt!

Wassenar Windmills, 63 3/4″ x 85 1/2″, pieced by Mary Elizabeth Kinch and machine quilted by Margaret Mitchell in a machine-quilting design by Ellen Munnich

When I finally take the top to the ironing board, it can require some patience to tame all the seam allowances in the right direction on the back of the quilt, but it is worth it–and  I love steam!  The more steam the better, as it helps all those seam allowances on quilts with small pieces to lay down and behave.

Here’s Mary Elizabeth!

Great info, no? Well, if you like what you’ve heard (and seen), you just may be in luck. Mary Elizabeth and her publisher, Martingale & Company, have given us a copy of Small Pieces, Spectacular Quilts to give away to one of our lucky readers. Just leave a comment by midnight (PDT), August 27, telling us How small a scrap is “small?”  At what point, if ever, do you toss a scrap? and you’ll be entered in a random drawing for this wonderful prize. I’ll announce the winner in my Friday, August 27 post. Oh! And catch Mary Elizabeth at the next stop on her blog hop. She’ll be featured on Quiltsalott beginning Monday, August 13.

Speaking of winners, we had so many beautiful and heartfelt responses to our query “why quilts matter to you.” Congratulations to Linda Stone, winner of Why Quilts Matter: Politics, Art & History, the two-DVD, nine-part documentary profiled in my July 27 post. Linda, please send your snail-mail address to us at, and we’ll get your DVD set on its way.

I’m heading off this morning to pick up Hugs and Kisses from Grandpa from the quilter. In my next post, I’ll show you the finished quilt (with pieced binding and label)–and a little extra “something” I made for two special young ladies with the leftovers.

‘Til then, happy stitching!

PS: Just over a month to go: See How We Sew at Quilting in the Garden, Alden Lane Nursery, Livermore, CA. Hope to see you there!

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