4 ways to simplify quilts with triangles

Storm at Sea quiltOne of the trickiest skills to master in quiltmaking is the good ol’ quilt triangle. You might even say that mastering triangles is the skill that launches quilters beyond beginner status. Quilt patterns with triangles make up the bulk of history’s quilt designs—and until the 1980s when the rotary cutter made its debut, quilts with triangles were hand-cut with scissors and sewn with only a steady hand and your stitching wits to steer you. (Man, those quilters were tough!)

If you’ve ever shied away from a quilt because of triangles, diamonds, or other pointy shapes, you might be surprised at how the techniques below can simplify piecing. Ready to learn a few triangle tricks? Celebrate these clever quilters by making a triangle-filled showstopper all your own!

Half-square triangles—on the double
From Better Together by Karen Sievert

It’s no wonder beginners start with squares and rectangles to make their first quilts—the thought of cutting and sewing stretchy triangles can make some newbies break out in a sweat. But the two-at-a-time method for making half-square triangles revolutionized how to make triangle quilts. See how Karen takes a very complex-looking quilt like “Roman Tile” below and simplifies the construction with this quick method.

“Roman Tile”

1. Draw a diagonal line from corner to corner on the wrong side of one square. Layer a contrasting square of the same size underneath, right sides together. Stitch ¼" from both sides of the drawn line.

Making half-square triangles 1

2. Cut the squares apart on the drawn line.

Making half-square triangles 2

3. Press the seam allowances toward the darker fabric. Trim the dog-ears.

Making half-square triangles 3

See how Karen uses other triangle tricks to make her beautiful two-block designs in Better Together.

Quilts from Better Together
“Starflower” and “Circles, Stars, and Medallions”

Triangle-free diamonds
From More Favorite Traditional Quilts Made Easy by Jo Parrott

Jo has been a quilter since 1982, and she’s made more than 500 quilts since she started. But even with all that practice, she wavered about making the traditional wonder on the cover of her book. “I’d never even seen a Storm at Sea quilt in person, just in pictures,” she says. “It’s a quilt that I’d always wanted to make but never did because of the long, thin triangles. Now, because we can use rectangles instead of triangles, I expect to see many of these quilts.”

“Storm at Sea” (see an alternate colorway of this quilt at the top of this post)

In her version of Storm at Sea, Jo uses rectangles and a folded-corner technique to create long, skinny diamond units (you’ll see them where the circles in the design seem to crisscross.) Here’s how she does it—without ever touching a triangle.

1. Mark the wrong side of a rectangle with dots. All dots should be placed exactly midway along each side of the rectangle and ¼" from the raw edge. Draw lines connecting the dots, to precisely mark the sewing lines.

Sewing diamonds 1

2. With the wrong side of the marked rectangle facing up so you can see the drawn lines, position a rectangle, right side facing up, underneath the marked rectangle with at least ¼" of fabric extending beyond the marked line as shown. Sew on the drawn line.

Sewing diamonds 2

3. In the same manner, sew a rectangle to the opposite corner of the unit from step 2. Press the seam allowances toward the outside corners.

Sewing diamonds 3

4. Place the unit right side facing down on a cutting mat. Use your rotary cutter to trim the smaller rectangles even with the large rectangle as shown.

Sewing diamonds 4

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 to sew, press, and trim rectangles to the two remaining corners of the unit.

Sewing diamonds 5

Jo prevails over more complex shapes in the quilts below, and in other projects in More Favorite Traditional Quilts Made Easy.

Projects from More Traditional Quilts Made Easy
“Geese in Flight” and “Green Frogs at Sea”

Equilateral triangles: letting rulers rule
From American Jane’s Quilts for All Seasons by Sandy Klop

Have you ever had a love-at-first-sight moment with a quilt—and then upon further inspection, decided the relationship between you and it was…complicated? Take, for instance, this amazing quilt:

“Snowy Peaks”

Reminiscent of an antique beauty, this quilt might take until you’re an antique to finish if you use traditional cut-and-sew methods. But Sandy created her Equilateral Rulers to make the task a snap. Watch how what looks like an impossible quilt to make is simplified with the ruler:

Use the ruler to cut triangles from two sewn strips as shown; use a seam ripper to open the tips of the sewn triangles to create a diamond. Press the seam allowances toward the print rectangles.

Equilateral triangles 1

Equilateral triangles 2

Sew diamonds of the same color into pairs; sew the pairs into four diagonal rows. Sew the rows together in pairs. Sew the rows together to complete the block.

Equilateral triangles 3

Sew blocks into diagonal rows; then sew the rows together.

Equilateral triangles 4

Sandy features several smart techniques for triangles in American Jane’s Quilts for All Seasons, and they’re all great go-to methods to have at the ready.

Projects from Quilts for All Seasons
“Star Diamond” and “Whirligigs”

(We have to admit, we’re also in love with Sandy’s fun seasonal quilts that have absolutely no triangles at all!)

More projects from Quilts for All Seasons
“Chickens, Cherries, and Checks,” “Fiesta Wear,” and “Puppy Parade”

Too-tricky triangles? Try paper piecing
From Showstopping Quilts to Foundation Piece by Tricia Lund and Judy Pollard

Paper piecing can tame tiny pieces and sharp points in traditional quilt patterns such as New York Beauty, Mariner’s Compass, and Feathered Star. But the technique has a reputation for being a bit backwards. And because you work with a mirror image, it is a bit backwards. With practice, however, a rhythm inevitably develops.

The steps are simple enough: sew rough-cut shapes of fabric, in numerical order, to a paper foundation. Check out these projects from Showstopping Quilts to Foundation Piece—you actually can create magnificent traditional beauties without ever cutting or sewing a triangle!

“Museum Stars” (a foundation-pieced adaptation inspired by one of the earliest documented quilts in our nation’s history)

“Summer Feathered Star”

“Lost Ships”

Projects from Showstopping Quilts to Foundation Piece
“New York Beauty” and “Baskets”

Mariner's Compass quilts
“Mariner’s Compass” is a step-by-step pattern in the book; “Red-and-Brown Mariner’s Compass” is a variation on the original quilt.

Autumn Mariner's Compass quilt
A third variation: “Autumn Mariner’s Compass”

Incredible nods to tradition, aren’t they? If you’ve never tried paper piecing, you can learn about the basics here and here.

So, what techniques do you use when sewing triangles—or do you habitually avoid pointy pieces? Share your sewing story in the comments!

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