How to Build a Quilt

There is a point in every workshop I teach where someone asks, “But how do I stitch it together?”

In response to that question, I have begun to emphasis construction up front. I even wrote a blog post hi-lighting this concept. It is a pretty good read, but the jest of it is in this paragraph.

“Construction is an issue that must be contemplated at EVERY step of the way. It is one thing to have a vision, it is something else entirely to build it. Adjustments and adaptions will be made, and the sooner you embrace flexibility, the further along your journey you will travel. You can also choose water colors or acrylics—construction is not a problem with these mediums.”

As piecers, we build our surfaces. This is not an easy feat. To stitch hundreds of seams together while also creating a flat surface is a difficult thing to do. Why are we compelled to challenge ourselves in this fashion? I do not know.

Frequently, a stitcher will stitch and stitch and stitch. After hours of this, she will consider her situation. Which may be quite complicated by now. I tell the stitcher (who is sometimes myself) to refer to paragraph number three.

At some point, we must stop stitching and figure out how to put things together. This can be difficult if you have an assortment of units that are not the same size. Here are some ways of dealing with this problem.

Stop stitching and put those bits on the design wall. These are the quilts on my design wall right now.

Quilt number one needs immediate attention–as in you better think about that now. Quilt number two should be easy to construct.

If something is too small, you can add more bits.  If something is too large, you can cut it up. Both options work. Can you see where I have added and subtracted to this quilt?

If your units are meant to be the same size, I often cut ONE unit with a ruler and then I use that ONE unit as my future ruler to cut the next unit. Then I use the FRESHLY CUT unit as my new ruler. DO NOT use the same one over and over again as your units will slowly get smaller and smaller and you will be back where you started. I call this shaping.

All of my Color Grid quilts are composed by shaving slivers of fabric off of improvisation-ally pieced units.

When I have built things out to a point where I really like them. I stitch them up. I call this “Locking In”. Locking In means that I will build the rest of the composition to support the part that is locked in. I could also call this SEWN UP, which would be a sort of double entendre.

8. This-Quilt-is-Technotronic-Web

I frequently take a photo of my quilt on the design wall, print that photo out, and draw my seam lines on the photo.


If I am working from a real image, I will do the same.

Root Glacier Drawing


If you create something on the design wall that you absolutely love, but it is a puzzle as far stitching goes, you might have to resort to partial seams. I am not partial to these things, but I have been to known to use them. There is even a tutorial on this subject in my book


If you can’t wait until the book comes out, just google Partial Seams. Here is a good oneEssentially, you sew one seam HALF WAY, then you sew all the other seams. And, finally, you go back and complete the first seam.

Can you find the partial seams in this quilt?


Sometimes the seams used to build the quilt are actually hidden within a pieced unit. The seams within the stripes of this quilt are actually also construction seams used to build the quilt.


If I have a lot of negative space, I will patchwork that space together to create an interesting background texture. I am also using those seams to build my larger units. You can see that in the background of HOME and McCarthy Day.

HOME by Maria Shell and the Residents of Moore PlaceMXY Solstice Full

Now for the tricky part. Once you have built out larger units, especially units with curves, you will need to follow these steps.  I know these are not large units, but we are going to pretend they are. 

1. With your rotary cutter, smooth the edge of one large unit to create a line that you love. This line is now your ruler.


2. Place the edge of that unit over the edge of the unit you will be stitching it to.  Overlapping them about a 1/4’’.


3. Pin the units to each other.


4. Make registration marks on both units.


5. Using your rotary cutter, cut along your beautiful line and remove the excess fabric that is beneath that line.  With right sides together, pin the units matching the registration marks as you pin.


6. Stitch slowly and carefully. If you have a knee-lift, needle down, and/or heel tap needle down on your sewing machine, use them.

7. Press with intention.


These are the things I do. If you have stitching strategies that work for you, please share them. We will all be the better for it.

This entry was published on September 6, 2017 at 9:17 PM. It’s filed under My Process-Quilts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

14 thoughts on “How to Build a Quilt

  1. Congratulations on the new book, Maria! I can see that you have studied with Nancy Crow and have augmented her strategies with some of your own. The book will be a great resource to many, including myself. The partial seam technique is inspired!

  2. I look forward to seeing your book (and hopefully you!) at Houston. I often call upon the partial seam in my freeform constructions. When assembling irregular shaped units, another useful strategy is to join smaller units together to make a bigger unit and then join the bigger units together.

  3. Beautiful piecing and quilts (and colors and fabrics!) – your new book looks like it will be fun and I will watch for it – congrats!

  4. So much useful info. here–thank you! I always marvel at the construction of complex piecing, and this helps me understand it better. I’m very eager to get your book.

  5. I look forward to seeing the book. I trust you will let us know when and where it can be purchased…

  6. Wow, this is exactly the way I work, particularly the Locked In. At some point I have to make a commitment and push on from there. I thought I made up this way of working all by myself. You know, I love your work. I will miss Houston this year. Just had a knee replaced. Luckily the up and down from machine to iron to design wall is perfect exercise. But so sorry to miss seeing you.

  7. Thank you, so much great information here! Especially the big unit curved seams. I seem to have a lot of problems with those. I had not thought to make registration marks.

    I kind of like partial seams, because I like overlapping things like that. I will have to try out the others. I like the idea of using the negative space.

    • I am glad you like these ideas. I hope you will let me know if they work when you try them. I do find that if you have a long curvey seam to stitch that those registration marks really help!

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