December 7, 2015

Chart 21: Perfect Grainlines and Malvina, Block #55 in the Farmer's Wife 1930s Sew Along

Living in a Perfect Grainline World

In a perfect world, every piece in every patchwork block would have an obvious best grainline cutting position on the fabric. Needless to say, we don’t live in a perfect world or even a perfect grainline world. It is easy to list grainline guidelines. When possible, you want the lengthwise grain of the fabric:
  • On the outside edge of the piece,
  • The outside edge of the sub-unit,
  • And, on the outside edge of the block.

The most important of these guidelines, especially when making 6-inch finished patchwork blocks like we are in the Farmer's Wife 1930s Sampler Quilt Sew Along, is to have straight lengthwise grain on the outside edge of the block. The reason I say that is, typically, a finished block may lay around and be handled and finally manipulated a bit when being sewn into a quilt. The more stable the edges are, the less likely you are to distort it along the way, the flatter your quilt top will be, etc.

The next most important grainline position is the outside of the sub-units. Sub-units are also often subject to more handling, pressing, laying around.

If you want the outside edge of the sub-units to be on the straight grain, you have to identify or locate the sub-units. The Farmer’s Wife blocks are divided into sub-units on the block pages in the book. However, many blocks can be divided into more than one set of sub-units. Malvina is a perfect example. Look at the sub-units on page 214 in The Farmer's Wife 1930s Sampler Quilt book. The edge of all 12 pieces on the outside of the block is the hypotenuse of a 90° right triangle. It is easy to cut them on the straight grain.
However, the remaining 16 right triangles that are the same size and cut from the same fabric are sewn into square sub-units and we grainline geeks would want to cut those triangles with the legs on straight grain.

This is a Great Place for Compromise…

It is a real nuisance to cut the same shapes from the same fabric on two different grainlines and keep track of them. Naturally, there are times I have felt it was worth the effort and I have done it, but that was usually with bigger pieces for larger blocks. I did not think it was worth it on this 6-inch block, but I took a second look at the arrangements of the sub-units and decided to make different sub-units.

You will see on our Template Conversion Chart PDF that by making different sub-units, we could cut all of the triangles with the hypotenuse on straight grain -- and because we made different sub-units, the sides of most of the sub-units were also on straight grain. In addition, the four-patch unit in the center has straight grain on the outside edge of every piece, so where the squares are joined to the hypotenuse of the extra triangles, they will provide stability.

And Maybe Extra Starch

When you know you are compromising grainline cutting decisions, you may want to use more sizing or starch to stabilize pieces. We don’t recommend real starch unless you know you will finish the top, have it quilted and then wash the quilt to remove the starch in a timely manner. Many bugs love starch!

Remember, Design Overrides Grainline

Regardless of how much I stress grainline, I also say design always overrides grainline. Things like fussy cutting or the use of stripes or other directional fabrics to add a desired design element would be examples of design overriding grainline. When you make that choice, just take extra special care as you handle the pieces.

My Malvina Block

Click on the image for a larger view. Click the link to download the Template Conversion Chart for Malvina:

In addition to our template conversion PDF download, you will want to read Gnome Angel's tutorials for these blocks.

On a Personal Note

In the Farmer's Wife 1930s Sampler Quilt book, the letter that goes with the Malvina block struck a chord with me. The writer was proclaiming the enjoyment the family shared around the radio. Radio was important in my childhood home, too, as it wasn't until I was a sophomore in high school that Dad surprised the family with a television set. Radio was also special to our community of Mitchellville near Des Moines, Iowa. We were proud to be the home of the powerful 50,000 watt WHO AM radio tower. WHO could be heard from the Rockies to Pittsburgh and from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

I'll never forget the year mom got a new electric stove. When she turned on the left back burner, we heard WHO radio! It always intrigued me that we couldn't hear the radio on any of the other burners!

Our house was right beside the main road between Des Moines and the WHO transmitter. There is a famous family story about a WHO sportscaster who stopped at our house for directions and chatted and had a glass of water before going on. Because the sportscaster was the radio voice for major league baseball all over the Midwest, he was quite the celebrity. Later, when the Midwest sportscaster became a Hollywood actor, mom and dad repeated the story. When he became president of the United States, we joked about putting up a billboard at the farm that said Ronald Reagan drank water here!

The Farmer’s Wife 1930s Sampler Quilt: Inspiring Letters from Farm Women of the Great Depression and 99 Quilt Blocks That Honor Them by Laurie Aaron Hird for Fons & Porter/F+W


  1. That is an amazing story Marti and I love that you shared it. Ronald Regan was my favorite President and I just recently visited his library

  2. Marti,

    First thank you for all you do. I am new but enjoying this SAL quite a bit. But really just wanted you to know that I enjoyed your story about the letter. Very nice.

  3. Marti, I love your templates and your blogs, templates, and Conversion charts have made it possible for me to participate in this quilt along. I've really increased my skills. I loved your story about WHO AM and the connection to President Reagon. I didn't know of his sportscasting history. Thanks for sharing that story and for all you are doing with the group.

  4. :) I'm glad you enjoyed the "aside"!

  5. Marti, thank you for all the work you put into these valuable lesson and tips. I read them every time and have printed out lots of them for future use, when I am using your awesome templates. I enjoy your remberances! I also like hearing how all you celebrity quilters get your start into the field of quilting. I fell in love with the Bridal Bouquet quilt that was on the cover of American Patchwork & Quilting a few years back. I am in the process of working on it, slowly. Thanks again for all you do for us.

  6. Dear Marti, thank for all the lessons and tips, I read them every time and have printed lots of them to keep with my awesome templates for future projects. I thoroughly enjoy the stories you've shared, I like hearing how celebrity quilters get into the field of quilting. I fell in love with one of your quilts that was on the cover of American Patchwork & Quilting. I have not made as much progress on it as I would like to. Again, thanks for all you do for us in this quilt-a-long.

    1. Hi Margaret, thank you for writing such a nice comment. There is a little bit of our story on our website -- we're a small company so we're always busy putting new quilts on the design wall, and I hope one day to have the time to get back to writing another chapter about how great it is to be able to do what I love all these years. I hope you can make time to work on your APQ quilt in the new year!

  7. Gosh! What a great story. My Dad lived on a small farm in Indianana and loved baseball. He really would have enjoyed your story. I'm so glad you did decide to do this new book too!