Rail fence quilt blocks are simple enough for a beginner to make, but has a very striking effect when complete. It is the perfect design to give you practice with sewing in a straight line, which is something that improves with experience. It will also give you a good opportunity to practice guiding the fabric correctly and maintaining your ¼” (6mm) seam allowance. How useful, to practice these quilting skills and to create a beautiful quilt at the same time!
Rail Fence Quilt Blocks
Rail Fence quilts were probably created as a necessity by people who were using scraps to make large covers for warmth. Historians think that this design is an adaptation of the Log Cabin quilt block design, as they are both constructed with strips. One of the earliest examples of a Rail Fence quilt that historians have found is from the early 19th century. It was originally known as the ‘Roman Stripe’ design.
- Fabric - Quilting cotton.
- Thread - Best to use cotton thread with cotton fabric. Choose thread which matches one of your colors, or a neutral which will blend with both.
- Cutting Tools - Rotary cutter, self healing mat, quilting ruler.
- General Supplies - Sewing machine, straight pins, iron and ironing board.
Further notes on fabric for rail fence quilt blocks:
- Choose a tightly woven cotton in four colors.
- Strip piecing is ideal for constructing this quilt, so you will need long, thin strips of fabric. Jelly Rolls are perfect for this.
- Color choice is important for maximum effect. The most common choice for rail fence quilts is varying shades of one color. Try playing with your strips before you decide in what order to place them. You could arrange them from light to dark or place two bright colors on the outside and two pale or dull colors on the inside.
- Look at your arrangement of colors and fabrics from close up as well as from a distance.
- If you are using prints, see how the size of the print looks when you are just looking at a small strip of it.
- This quilt also lends itself to being made from scraps, and in fact, probably originated as a scrap quilt, made from necessity. You only need small pieces of each color, but this will mean you cannot strip piece the quilt. You will have to sew it together block by block!
Cutting Rail Fence Quilt Blocks
The final size of your rail fence blocks is not important, it is a matter of personal taste. What you do need to calculate is the proportions of your square. If you are using four fabrics, the width of each strip must be ¼ of the size of your final block. Plus, of course, those seam allowances.
So for example, if you want to finish with 8” (20 cm) blocks, Each strip must be 2 “ (5 cm) wide. To add in the seam allowance, you will add another ½” (1.2 cm )to each strip, ¼ “(0.6cm) on each side. Your final width will be 2”+ ½”=2 ½” ( 5cm +1.2cm= 6.2 cm)
If you plan to strip piece the blocks, you will need long strips of fabric, cut to the correct width. So for our example above, you will cut strips 2 ½” (6.2cm) wide across the width of the fabric, perpendicular to the selvages.
If you are planning to use Jelly Rolls all this measuring and cutting will be done for you!
If you would prefer to use scraps, just cut the scraps 2 ½” (6.2cm) wide, and the length will be the length of your scrap! It must be a minimum of 8 ½” (21.2 cm) long to form your square, though! If your scraps are not long enough, you can always join them into a longer piece. With a patterned fabric the seams will just blend in and hardly be noticeable.
More Quilt Blocks
Piecing Techniques for Rail Fence Quilt Blocks
To use this time-saving method, you need to have long strips of fabric, cut to the correct width.
Step 1 - Create Strips
- Arrange your strips in the order you have chosen, say from darkest to lightest.
- Stitch strips 1 and 2 together. Press seam to the darker side.
- Stitch strips 3 and 4 together. Press seam to the darker side.
- Finally stitch the seam between strips 2 and 3 together, forming a 4 strip wide band. Press this seam towards the darker side too.
You will have to make numerous strip sets like this if you are planning to make a full-size quilt. Concentrate on sewing in precise straight lines and on maintaining your ¼” (0.6cm) seam allowance. This is especially important for this quilt, as with so many seams, even a tiny deviation each time will add up to a big difference at the end. This quilt is the perfect example of a suitable quilt to practice these skills!
Step 2 - Cut into Squares
The next step is to cut your long strips into squares. If your seams have been accurate, the width of each strip should be the same measurement as your desired block, plus seam allowances. Did your strips line up to exactly the measurement you were aiming for? If so, well done, you have maintained your seam allowance very well!
If you have gone a little bit wonky, (as all of us do, sometimes!) measure the width of your strip and then cut the squares to that same measurement.
Cut the squares all the way across your joined strip. Use the lines marked on your quilting ruler and on your cutting board to make sure that your cutting lines are exactly perpendicular to your seam lines.
You will find that you may have little leftover pieces at the end of each strip. Save these for your next scrap quilt! I have a large box in my sewing cupboard which contains all my little leftover bits and bobs from everything I make!
If you are using scraps, chain piecing will speed up your stitching considerably. Do not backstitch at the beginning and end of each piece, and do not lift your presser foot in between each piece. Adjust your sewing machine to a short stitch length.
Sew all of your little strips together in pairs, just moving on to the next pair without cutting the thread or lifting the presser foot. Your pieces will be connected by a thread chain. Press the seams towards the darkest piece before cutting the ‘chains’. This will keep them in the correct order.
Once pressed, cut them apart and stitch the pairs together to form a block of 4 strips. To help you keep the color sequence correct, it is helpful to place the ‘pairs’ in two piles next to your sewing machine, and take one pair from each pile each time to make a square block.
When sewing the pairs together, you can use the same chain piecing method, and cut them apart afterwards. Trim your squares to perfect size squares once you have finished joining all the strips.
Stitching The Blocks Together
You now have neat piles of perfectly squared-up blocks. Before you can stitch them all together, you must decide how you would like to arrange them. There are a number of options for Rail Fence Blocks.
Assuming you are going for the conventional alternate direction arrangement as above, place your squares in piles in alternate directions next to your sewing machine.
First stitch the blocks into rows, using the chain piecing technique explained above, so that your whole row is joined by threads. Press each seam well. Cut the threads before stitching the rows together.
- Sew rows 1 and 2 together.
- Sew rows 3 and 4 together.
- Now join them up, making your seam between rows 2 and 3.
Be sure to match up the seams between each block with the seams in the next row. If you find that one square is slightly larger or smaller, ease the fabric to fit so that the seams match exactly.
Continue in this way until all your units are joined. Press the complete quilt top, making sure there are no folds or tucks hiding inside those seams.
Rail Fence Quilt Blocks - In Conclusion
There are no hard and fast rules for Rail Fence blocks, although usually, the strips are all the same width. Combining Rail Fence squares alternately with plain squares creates an interesting look.
Another arrangement of these blocks is to combine two different colorways. So you will sew 4 strips of one colorway, and 4 of another colorway. Piece together, and cut into squares as described previously. Now take two squares of one colorway, and two of the other, and arrange as shown. Sew them together to make one larger block. Now piece those larger blocks together first in rows, then sew the rows together.
You can see that just by piecing a few simple strips together to make a rail fence block, you have a large variety of different quilts you can make, before even doing any research into any other block patterns! Let your creativity take over when playing with this pattern! Remember that inside every quilter is a masterpiece trying to get out!