02 February 2021

String Tulip QAL - Month 1

 Welcome to the first month of the String Tulip QAL. 

String Tulips 2 quilt

We usually issue biannual prompts to focus our creativity and our discussions {somewhat.} However, this time we are trying a QAL. Using my String Tulips as a starting point, I'll post directions here and on my own blog the first Tuesday of the month. 

We have the whole month for each step which helps it fit in between the many projects we all have. You can try it or not. Change it up to suit yourself - larger blocks, different flowers, flowers in the border. Whatever. That's why it's improv. 

This month we address the string blocks, the ones in my border, because that was the first part I made.

Four ESS string blocks form an X

Block Plan

There's no way to figure every size and variation of these blocks. I'm writing what I did previously. Make your own alterations. My 42-inch square baby quilts used five-inch finished string blocks. The X shows up when you put four blocks together. Even if you make a different size quilt, keep that fact in mind.

As I wrote last month, you will need 64 string blocks to make only Electric Socket Shock {a quilt of all string blocks} or 48 string blocks to make the String Tulips quilt variation but it always helps to have some extras. 

Cut paper foundations 5.5" square. Use newsprint or even copy paper and cut with paper scissors or an old rotary blade since the paper will ruin it for fabric. Here's a sample Electric Socket Shock block to scale with a 1" marker to check. It looks like the sketch below. 

The foundation has a quarter-inch seam allowance; however, bulky seam allowances may require wider seams.

The diagonal lines are merely suggestions but drawing a few on each sheet serves as a reminder of the direction of the expansion. {Ask me how I know.} Your actual seam lines depend on the width and shape of your strings. All of mine are different widths. I found the sequence of values more important than the widths. 

The critical part is the way the strings widen from one end to the other. They don't need a huge difference in the width; most of mine differ from a quarter-inch to an inch at opposite ends. I.e., the wide end might be 1.5" while the narrow end is 1.25". Just ensure that the narrower ends are all at the same end of the block.

My sketch has the seam along the main diagonal but my blocks have the first/main string {more or less} centered along that line instead. Either way is fine. 

Strip Sizes

The red lines on the foundation point out is how little fabric will show {and how much extra bulk will be added to the seam allowance} if you aren't careful. I learned {the hard way} that the width of those outer strips should be 1.5" or more. That doesn't mean you can't use narrower strings; just put them closer to the center.

The three center strips need about eight inches to cross the diagonal while the shortest ones are about four inches long. {The longer length of the side strips took me a while to visualize. I kept trying to put little HSTs there. While they work with regular string blocks, they don't work with ESS blocks.} You can certainly use even longer strings and trim after they are sewn.


Because my scraps are often short bits, I pulled strings long enough for the center and set them in one pile. That ensured there were enough long ones to finish my blocks; they weren't used up early in shorter lateral positions.

After that I pulled randomly but generally left the lights for the sides. I usually put darks or bright mediums in the center but there are multitudinous ways to order the strips. What should you do? Whatever tickles your fancy.

When there is a value difference between the center section and the sides, the X shape shows up better although it's not very visible until four are set together.  Light and dark are relative; they depend on which fabrics you're using. If you are hesitant, consider using a Grey Scale Value Finder

It's hard to visualize how well your blocks are working until you put four together. So make your first four, and look at them before making adjustments.

Here are my first 12 blocks. No rhyme or reason in their construction. Narrow "blades" {the center of one section of the X} and wider corners or vice versa change with the value choices. A strong value contrast creates a defined edge of the "blade" in the center while a subtle value contrast widens the blade... or causes it to disappear. Where do you see the "sides of the blades?" What do you think made that happen? Does it help or hurt to alternate darker and lighter fabrics in the corners? Your opinion is the only one that matters in your quilt.

Twelve Electric Socket Shock string blocks

Matching colors on each side of the center strip could be an interesting idea but, as has been written in many scrap quilt books, value is more significant than color.  Or consider alternating light and dark strips. So many possibilities.

The yellows on the first ESS made the quilt vibrate. And it didn't take many to achieve that result because of yellow's high intensity. 

Blocks that don't seem to work can be used for tulip petals later on. Or they can go on the back. Or you can donate them.


There are some choices for cutting. {That's why it's improv.} If you have wider strings/chunks, consider cutting them diagonally like this. Not corner to corner! Try for a 3/4" or greater width at the narrow ends of the strips to leave room for seam allowances, to reduce the bulk on the edges, and to better utilize all your scraps. I call this a wedge. Remember, it doesn't take much difference from end to end; the cumulative effect of several wedges increases the expansion.

Cutting a strip into two wedges

If you have a chunk of fabric, you can cut several wedges like this. They don't have to be the same widths.

Cutting several wedges from a chunk of fabric

If your string is already a wedge or triangle, just leave it.

This string went in to the scrap
bag as a wedge/triangle.

If you have a long {WOF} string, leave it until you are ready to place it. Then you can cut it to the appropriate length and create a wedge.


Shorten your stitch length to aid when removing the paper later. 

Place a long {eight-inch} wedge on the main diagonal and sew another wedge each side. {If you choose a different-sized block, the longest string is about 1.5 times a side length. Yes, technically the correct measurement is 1.41 but 1.5 is easier.}

If your string is already a wedge, just sew the regular quarter-inch seam. 

Two wedges sewn with quarter-inch seam

Or sew a seam allowance that starts with a quarter-inch at the wide side and increases a bit {3/8" or 5/16"} at the narrow side. The excess seam allowance can be trimmed back by hand or by flipping back both the string and paper and trimming. You can leave the excess but I found the extra fabric at the narrow end makes the block's seam thicker which becomes hard to iron down once blocks are sewn together.

Because I frequently use any paper lying around, I always fold the papers back {and then straighten them out again} after every seam. Call it pre-creasing. They tear more easily later. Don't do this with fine or fragile paper.

Fold paper back after every seam
to help it tear later

If using a really narrow string simply sew the quarter-inch seam; it's only one tiny string and won't lose the expansion effect.

The Corners

As you reach the corners, it's often easier to use a rectangle at at least 4" by 1.5" or more. There will be some waste but it may be better than sewing a wedge on the wrong side. {Ask me how I know.}

A 2.5x4" rectangle
completes the lower corner

Pre-test your strip placements by overlapping the seams to ensure it reaches as far as you want. Sometimes the string covers the corner but frequently the last strip doesn't quite reach. 

String in lower left won't
quite cover the corner

Here are three ways to handle it. 

1. Use a larger wedge or chunk instead.

Don't worry about it being too large. It's easy to square up later... even if there's some waste.

A wide wedge or chunk
covers the corner with extra room

2. Adjust your final trim to avoid the problem.

Here, the paper peaks out a smidge behind the final strip on the right. 

The lower right strip is a bit short
of the width needed

Turn the block over to evaluate if it can be eliminated by trimming a bit differently. In this case, moving the 5.5" ruler to the right and down for the final squaring up resolves the problem. 

Back of "a bit short"

This solution does not work for precision piecing; however, these are improv blocks and seam lines don't need to match up. 

3. Move the final strip closer to the center
If the last open space on the foundation is too small {less than 1.5" wide} consider moving the final strip towards the center and sewing a new quarter-inch seam allowance based on the top strip. 

Give the corner strip more room 
by moving it towards the center

Final Details

Press after every pair of strings is sewn {one on each side of the first.} If the foundation is heavier paper I steam the back {paper side} each time, too, to weaken the paper for tearing later. 

Blocks can be trimmed to any size, larger or smaller than the foundation, as long as the fabric extends that far. Trim from the front or back of the block, whichever wiggles less. The paper does not adhere as well to the mat or the ruler so take your time and be careful. Mine get  trimmed as soon as they are finished; however, because of all the bias edges, I don't remove the paper until I'm ready to sew them into the top. I just keep them in a stack where they won't fray or stretch. 

Special thanks to Gayle, Sharon, and Maureen for proofing and testing this post. Their suggestions improved the clarity. For more information, Maureen kindly agreed to post her impressions and samples on her blog, MysticQuilter. 

Please post photos on this blog if you can. Feel free to post your progress anywhere - on whatever social media you use and your own blog - but we'd appreciate tagging it with #AHIQStringTulipQAL so they can easily be found. We always enjoy details about how you personalized your version. The process is more interesting to us makers.



O'Quilts said...

My goodness Ann...this is a marvelous tutorial I keep forgetting about this blog, until Maureen bragged on it.. Good for you for getting folks interested in string piecing. xo

rondiquilts said...

I'm jumping in! Thank you for the detailed instructions yet allowing us some wiggle room in our output. This will be fun to follow along.