Ah, the quarter inch seam allowance. The holy grail of quilting. Love or hate it, embrace it or ignore it – it can be friend or foe. For those of you who do most projects with a healthy dose of improv, this puppy might not be high on your list of things to master. But if you make things that need to fit together, getting a grip on it is a good thing. Master it well and you’ll never have to worry about it again.
Any time you add mastery to your craft, you get more room in your creative practice to play rather than fight with your skills or tools. No matter how much improvisational piecing you do, it will never hurt you to have a reliably accurate 1/4” seam in your arsenal.
Like most of us, I got my first intro the the quarter inch seam via a piece of carefully placed masking tape in my first quilting class. Which, once I had removed it to reload the bobbin, never got back to exactly the same place again. Harrumph.
I struggled with this on my old Kenmore until I bought my first Janome machine, which came with an exciting little widget called a Quarter Inch Foot. It has a flange down the side of the foot (see below). I was prepared to never miss the corners of a block ever again, expecting the heavens to open and harps to thrum, but alas… it didn’t make a perfect seam no matter which needle position I used – I was always a thread under or over. Bah.
So I grumbled about this to my quilt teacher, the fabulous Marilyn George. Marilyn was a wonderful teacher for newbies – utterly unflappable and full of humor – and full of all sorts of solutions as only a seasoned quilter would be. (Marilyn… all of this is *still* your fault!).
So Marilyn tut-tutted, and pulled a funny little foot out of my box of bits. “Behold the Adjustable Blind Hem Foot,” she said. I had ignored this foot because I thought it was for hemming pants, and I knew now that once I started quilting, such mending was supposed to be beneath me.
It’s an odd looking foot… it has a rolly wheel on one side (the adjustable bit) and a pretty healthy bumper that helps hold the edge of the fabric straight. After a few seams of fussing it into EXACTLY the right place and a dab of superglue on the wheel to stop it from moving, I had the perfect quarter inch foot – and I’ve been using it for some 20 years across three different Janomes!
And that big bumper extends further forward of the needle than the flange of the other foot, so I get my fabric aligned straighter and earlier as it approaches the needle. Having the bumper also means I don’t have to keep an eagle eye on my fabric wandering past the edge of the type of foot that doesn’t have a flange. This makes not only for accuracy, but for some serious speed too (helloooo efficiency!). Yes, I know… we’ve talked about this… it’s not all about how fast you can go. But if you can go faster with more accuracy, you get to make more stuff. And I really like making more stuff.
So here are some hints on how to set this foot up:
1. First find the Adjustable Blind Hem foot for your machine style. They tend to come standard with the higher end Janomes, and aren’t too expensive at all for the lower ones ($18 on Amazon at the moment). I imagine that all brands have one – or might have a foot that will clip to the Janome version. There should be a rolling wheel and a bumper.
2. Move your needle position to the LEFT, and roll the bumper about a 1/4” to the RIGHT of the needle. Now take a look at the set up, and make sure that your feed dogs are somewhat centered between the two. If they aren’t close to center, they could pull the fabric sideways – but we’ll be testing this so get close to centered for now. Use a ruler, and set up the space between the needle and bumper for a hair less than a 1/4” (that hair is taken up in the bend of the fabric at the seam when you press it open, so always start just under).
3. Accurately cut some swatches of fabric that are 1 1/2” wide, and 2 1/2” long. Make at least a dozen as we’ll be playing with some tiny adjustments here, and we don’t need to play with the seam ripper at the same time – ripping them apart can make them distort, so let’s use fresh swatches for this exercise.
4. Sew 2 of these swatches together along the 2 1/2” side. Press closed to set the stitches, and then press open.
5. Place the ruler over these two pieces, and make sure that the result is a piece that is EXACTLY 2 1/2” wide.
6. If it isn’t EXACT, adjust the bumper or needle and sew two fresh swatches until you get it. While you’re doing this, make sure that the fabric is tracking straight through the feed dogs. If it isn’t, then move the needle position and bumper together and re-test.
Don’t be discouraged if this takes a few goes. It’s worth it. Cut more swatches if you have to.
7. Now that you have it… one final test: sew 4 swatches together. This shows the accuracy better… one thread off on one seam might not show up but across three will be quite visible. Again, adjust and re-test until you are happy.
8. Put a drop of superglue on the wheel, and make note of the needle position. If you have a label maker, this is a good time to write that needle position on a label and stick it to your machine.
9. Go make a nice cup of tea (or your fave beverage). Sit back and admire your handiwork. You won’t have to re-do this until you buy your next machine!