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

“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 seehowwesew@gmail.com, 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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60 thoughts on “Get the Lowdown on Little Pieces from Mary Elizabeth Kinch–Coauthor of “Small Pieces, Spectacular Quilts”

  1. I save nothing smaller than a 1.5″ square, but I have been saving 1/2″ strips to do a clothesline basket. This book looks lovely, I took out one of her other books from my local library, very cool book!

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  2. So far, I’ve kept 1.5″ pieces. This has given me the inspiration to start organizing and plan a project to work on by hand while on vacation. Thank you for the opportunity. :-)

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  3. I love having a huge box of scraps to play with, but it can sometimes get overwhelming. For me, a small scrap is around 2 inches square or a long 1″ wide strip. I usually toss scraps that are smaller than about 1.25″ in both length & width, unless the material is particularly special or rare. Thanks for this great book giveaway!

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  4. I keep just about everything. If it’s a sliver (too small to sew), I’ll toss it, but most things I can use as applique or cut into new small shapes for miniature quilted projects. Love her scrap sorting. Definitely need to start that. Right now I have everything in one bin…..to be sorted later….promise ;)

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  5. Loved seeing more of the quilts in the book. I save 1″ squares and skinny strings. Really small pieces I save in a baggie to use for applique – yes I’m a fabric junkie too :0)

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  6. Hmm, I try to keep scraps if they are at least 2″ square, or 1″ wide ones if they are at least 4″ long. I really like those organizational methods, I think I might keep more scraps if I had some way to sort them like that!

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  7. Amazing quilts! Love love love “go with the flow”. I keep all my small scraps but haven’t put them in a project yet. Would love to make this quilt!

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  8. The patterns in this book are AMAZING; I’d love to win! I suppose I toss them if they’re under an inch. I too feel some remorse but the reality is I’m likely to never use them…..maybe that would change with this book! Thanks!

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  9. My smallest “official” size is 1″- I have some bins for scraps that are strips, though I have kept smaller sizes in my big pile if I really love the fabrics!

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  10. I save almost all my scraps. Use the long, thin pieces for gift wrapping ties, and the others…well, I have lots of little bags and clear boxes for them.

    I think I could use this new book!
    Thanks, Joanna

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  11. I have a nice full baggie of scraps that range from 1/2″ wide by about 1 1/2″ long and up. Some squares are about 1″ by 1″. I recently used some of them to make a name tag for my quilt guild.

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  12. I can hardly bear to throw any scrap of fabric away! Fortunately, I have friends who make pillows for the local animal shelter, so I can pass off the “tiny” scraps to them and that makes me feel particularly environmentally friendly. I will save strips that are as little as 3/4″ wide and will cut squares that are 1 1/2″ x 1 1/2″. Seeing that little 1/8″ strip may cause me to change my mind!

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  13. I’m making a log cabin quilt with 1″ strips and most other small pieces are 1 1/2″ because I make little quilts with 1″ finished squares for doll quilts and table toppers. I love small pieces and can’t bear to throw them away.

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  14. Is any thing really too small? My on going scrap project is a 3″ log cabin block with 13 rounds. The smallest piece is 3/4″. I save all scraps but when working on logs if the scrap will not fit the smallest it does get tossed. Actually, have put enought of these blocks together as a lap quilt for my son. Have made many scrap quilts with different patterns and I promise you the scraps never go down. Use a lot of tiny scraps for birthday, Christmas, get well, etc post cards. It is so much fun to dig thru the scraps for just the right little piece for a post card. Have added this book to my must have list.

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  15. Actually don’t throw anything in the garbage since I have recently decided to make pet beds with all of the pieces that would normally go into the trash. Anything under a 2″ square goes into the box for pet bed filling, which I plan to donate to the local Humane Society. I’ll just fill a thrift store pillowcase, close it up & wa-la!

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  16. No scrap is too small! I collect my tiny scraps in an empty pickle jar and use them to stuff my rag dolls.

    Deborah
    homemakerhoney @gmail .com

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  17. I LOVE scrap quilts! I save nearly everything, but to be usable I have found that I have to do the sorting as I go along. I save “larger” scraps, which measure 3″ or more, by color in bins about 12″x18″x6″ with smaller bits stashed in one corner. I save “strings” down to 3/4″ in shallow trays, again by color. I will save even smaller pieces, including the frayed edges, if the fabric has potential for landscapes. I also save small pieces of odd-ball fabrics for making dolls, toys, softies, etc. But I can’t tolerate a jumble of crumpled-up scraps — I’ve given away laundry baskets full of scraps before I developed a sorting system — and, equally important, a proper place to store the various bins so that they are accessible. I love diving into scrap bins for just the right piece, and I hate using up that last little bit of a favorite fabric.

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  18. I’m with the 1″ square folks. I’m known among my friends for being willing to take any scraps they offer, so I’m drowning in scraps right now. Looks like I need this book.

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  19. I’m just a beginner, working with large squares, so I don’t have many scraps yet. But I have a problem throwing away paper scraps in card-making, so I loved reading this because I’m sure it will come in handy very soon!

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  20. I usually keep scraps about 1 1/2″ square, although I have yet to make anything at all rom these scraps :) on occasion I will look through them when I need a small piece for an applique leaf or circle which admittedly is not that often.

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  21. Thanks for the chance as those quilts are gorgeous. I keep little pieces as small as one and a half inch squares or half square triangles, and half inch by 2 or more inches on up — IF the pieces are not the kind that ravel. I keep them in a little baggie with all the little pieces from a quilt together. Then, I sew itty bitty together randomly to make dolly quilts. My new sewing machine allows me to sew smaller pieces without eating them. Larger pieces go back into the fabric boxes by color.

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  22. I usually throw away anything that I can’t cut a 1 1/2inch square from. But sometimes I hesitate, wondering if there isn’t some way to use those little pieces. The quilts in this book are beautiful, thanks for the chance to win.

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  23. i from keep 1″ pieces up … they all go in the same bin right now. i know it’d be better to separate them as i toss them in , but i paw through them for applique pieces. as i see more of the mini’s, i may be more inclined to separate them.

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  24. I have a small tote that I constantly dive into especially when I need to applique small leaves or berries into the applique album quilts that I make. It’s great fun recycling 1 inch squares into lovely floral parts, stems, fruit,etc. and I love the memories behind each small scrap and weaving them into something wonderful. Looking forward to viewing your new book!

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  25. I make letters from 3/4 inch strip, so I keep those. anything smaller goes, unless it’s lying in the floor during sweep up and then it all goes. looks like a great book!

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  26. Oh, please! I would LOVE this book. Daughter and I are both scrappy quilters. I stop at 1-1/2″, but she is daring with 1-1/4″ squares and is currently building a bed-size quilt out of nine-patches created out of 1-1/4″ squares.

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  27. Learning to love small piece scrappy quilts after quilting some on the longarm for QOV. I was amazed and decided it was time to save those tiny pieces to give it a try. I have limited it to 11/2lx11/2 for now. I would love to have this book.

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  28. I’ve found a “scrap sister” in Mary Elizabeth. I love my fabrics no matter how small the scraps. I have narrow slivers 1″ in width to add a sparkle to string quilts – thanks for the hint. 2″x2″ used to be the smallest block size I would save but after reading this, I’m going to find a container for 1″x1″ squares. Thanks for the inspiring post!

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  29. having recently rummaged through my scraps to make a baby quilt with ONLY my stash on hand (yikes) i realized that i did need that 3/4″ wide scrap of just the right color pink!! i had kept it only because i LOVED the fabric :-) i now have a new standard… 1/2″. you just never know.
    and the thought of quilts made with little bitty pieces is a style that i’ve been stalking for about a year now. i’m just about ready to make the leap and see if i have any hair left when i do.
    thnx for the chance to possibly win a most fabulous book!

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  30. What an inspiring and informative post. I loved the quilts, it’s so nice to see traditional, well made and exciting quilts. As for a fabric stash, well Darra, you know mine, the pity is we live so far away from each other but there’s always the mailman for sending those scraps!

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  31. 1″ sqaure is the smallest I’ll keep. Although recenty I cut off triangles from 1″ squares that I sewed to the corners of a snowball blocks and kept them…help!!! I belong to a scrap quilting club so the scrappier the better is my motto. I would love to win this book! Thanks for the chance Darra!

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  32. i love making scrappy quilts! Therefore the pieces I throw away have to be pretty small. I’d say anything that I can’t cut a 1 1/2″ pieces out of goes into the waste basket.

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  33. I throw away the little triangles I cut off while piecing, the ragged edge I cut off before cutting a strip for sure. Everything else depends – if it’s a novelty print with a lot of contrast it has to be bigger to save, but most of my fabrics read as one color from a distance and then, I throw almost all of it in a basket to sort through later – 3/4 inch in one direction is big enough to keep.

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  34. What an interesting article. It inspires me to do something with all those fabric pieces I have. I don’t save anything smaller than 1 inch. I have just started working on a very simple string quilt and am actually enjoying it.

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  35. I toss pieces if I can’t cut a 1″ square out of it, but if it’s a longer strip, I keep it if it’s 3/4″ or wider and toss it in mu string drawer. Of course, right now, it’s more of a collection because I haven’t figured out what to do with them yet :)

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  36. Hmmm, for me small is a bit larger – maybe 2″? Or maybe not, I just measured a scrap in my bin – 1 1/8″ x 2″, lol… I guess it depends upon how much I love the fabric!

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  37. I save scraps mostly because of my belief in need to recycle in general. I’m not great at using them! The smallest I’ve kept is about 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 or the equivalent! The book sounds like a useful resource!

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