What to do with those bee or lotto blocks?

Many of us quilters participate in bees or swaps--I participated in a few of these last year and was lucky enough to win one of our guild block lottos. Last year I also got a stack of blocks from our Bento swap with the Baltimore Modern Quilt Guild, and another stack from our guild Granny square cookie swap.

In each of these cases I was so excited to come home with a nice stack of blocks. However, my excitement soon faded as I realized I did not actually have a neat little package of blocks, ready to be simply sewn into a nice-sized quilt...

First, in the case of the cookie exchange, I think in part because there was some confusion with the directions, all the blocks were a different size. The block size varied by almost half an inch, which is just too much to ease in a 9 inch block without winding up with a puckery, wonky looking quilt.

Second, for the Bento swap, one of the blocks I received has bright red and black in it, which was not part of the plan (my block quarters have muted pink and teals).

Finally, in the case of the block lotto, I won an odd amount (28 six inch blocks) that at the time I couldn't think of a way to easily translate into a quilt of a reasonable size without making more blocks (which I did not want to do).

Argh! What was I going to do with all of these?

I wanted to post about these problems and a few different ways to deal with them in case the same thing happens to you (surely I am not alone!). I am sure that you have seen some of these ideas before. Also, in our guild we are starting up the monthly block lotto again, and I want to see more finished lotto quilts!

First problem: blocks are not all the same size. 

Slight variations in block size are not too much of a problem--I usually feel comfortable easing in about 1/4 inch in a 12 inch block. Much more than that and you might want to fix things before you sew your blocks together.

There are basically two different options: Add on or trim back.

If you don't have any important elements, points, or whatnot around the outer edges of your blocks (for example, an improv block, a wonky log cabin, or a string block), it is easiest to just trim all of the blocks to be the same size as the smallest block in your stack, centering the design in the newly-trimmed square if necessary.

If you do have important details around the edges, you can add on, using something called "coping strips" around the edges of the block. These are kind of like one round of a log cabin block. Coping strips are jokingly referred to as helping you to "cope" with different sized blocks :)

This is what I did in the case of the cookie exchange. All the corners of the grannies went right to the edge of the finished block so trimming was not an option. Fortunately we had all used a very similar white as a background color, so framing each block with white and squaring it up did not stand out. I started by carefully trimming each block to exactly ¼ inch larger than the corners of the granny. I then added a narrow (I think one and a half inch) strip around the outside, and trimmed each block to be the same size as the smallest one in the stack, making sure the original granny was centered in the new block.

If you try this, choose a size of coping strip that is large enough that a small difference in size between the blocks will not be as noticeable--try one and a half to two inches or so. Or maybe the difference in sizes of strips will be a design detail--it might look neat to have ¼ to ¾ inch frames in a contrasting color around each block.
Use coping strips to make all your blocks the same size.

You have some choices here--coping strips can blend in or not, can be all the way around, top or bottom and one side, or just on one side. You have probably seen these at work before in quilts that use blocks of different widths in the same column--the narrower blocks simply have strips added to them to make them the same width as the wider blocks.

After I added the coping strips to my blocks, the interior components of the blocks didn't line up with each other very well, so also I added sashing to disguise that a bit. You could also try alternating types of blocks (including using plain blocks). This way the blocks not quite lining up should be much less noticeable, depending on your choice.

Second problem: blocks you get in an exchange contain an unexpected color.

Ways I can think of to deal with this are:
  • don't use those blocks (or use them in the backing or another project), 
  • add more of the "problem" color when putting your blocks together so that it stands out less, or 
  • perform "block surgery" and rip out the troublesome piece(s).
For example, this is my stack of bento blocks. I think they all look pretty good together, except that one bright red and black one (the block itself is fine; it just really stands out). I was always planning to make some string blocks to make the quilt bigger. To make the black and red "blend" a little better, I will make sure to sparingly use some black and red in my string blocks and scatter/balance them mostly evenly throughout. That way there won't be just one block to really stand out.

I have resorted to block surgery a couple of times, and it is not pleasant, but in those cases there was no other choice. If a piece of a block just doesn't work once it is together and you can't or don't want to remake the block, you can carefully rip out the piece, even if it is in the middle of the block. Then, use the extracted piece as a template for cutting out the new piece, and very carefully sew the replacement piece in. This won't work for every type of block and it is a major pain, but perhaps less painful than looking at a finished quilt and hating that piece forever!

Third problem: the blocks just don't look that great together, and/or there aren't enough of them.

While the example below is fairly traditional, you can use these ideas for any type of block. Let's take a look at an approximation of my stack of lotto winnings: snowball blocks, all set next to each other.

I think these look ok. However, I received 28 six inch blocks, which created a tiny, odd sized quilt if I wanted to use them all in the top and not make more (4 blocks x 7 blocks = 24 x 42 inches). Even adding two blocks would have made a quilt that was only 30 x 36 inches.

There are a few different tricks you can try to get everything to look more planned and pulled together instead of just making more of the original block. As a bonus, all of these tricks will also increase the size of the finished quilt.

Use a unifying color or colors to bring everything together.

If the blocks look too disjointed or too noisy when placed next to each other, try spacing them farther apart by adding coping strips, sashing (with or without cornerstones), borders, plain or pieced blocks, etc. in a color that goes with and brings together all of the blocks. Neutrals can be a good choice for this, but many things could work. Try white, cream, gray, navy, or even black.

If you need to add just width or just height, the horizontal and vertical sashing don't have to be the same size, or you could alternate your blocks with a narrow row or column of plain blocks or strips.

Snowballs set with white sashing and blue cornerstones.
Snowballs set with dark gray sashing, light gray cornerstones, and alternating rows of plain blocks to add width.
Snowballs set with long narrow strips to add width.

Add lots of negative space. 

This will both tie your blocks together and make your quilt much larger. It has the added benefit of being really quick and easy!

Make more blocks, but not necessarily the same block.

For my quilt, I didn't want to make more snowballs. I thought instead I could sew four rows of seven snowballs and then made a few nine patches and stars so I could just alternate rows of snowballs, nine patches, and stars. Now that I see the other options, I probably would not have done it this way, but that's ok.

Adding stars, nine patches, and a little space with an off-white solid.

Alternate scrappy blocks with easy blocks that are all the same or similar in color.

Try any kind of easy linking block, like a 9-patch, snowball, pinwheel, quarter square triangle, shoo fly, etc.

9-patches are really fast if you strip-piece them and are a great choice. If you also make all the linking blocks about the same color, it really ties everything together nicely. And a nice bonus to this idea is that the quilt about doubles in size.

I kind of wish I had been less stubborn about using all the blocks in the top and just alternated the snowballs with a nine-patch. I could have used the extra three blocks in the backing.

Alternating with identical nine-patches, all in blues and greens.
Alternating with nine-patches, in black and cream.
Alternating with a kind of a single Irish chain.
Alternating with identical shoo fly blocks, in brights and cream.
Alternating with shoo fly blocks, in black and cream.
Alternating with identical friendship stars in blue and green

Alternate with plain blocks and simple linking blocks. 

This is great if you want to make your quilt a fair bit larger. It might not have been my first choice for this snowball quilt, but for a star or other complex block, this would look beautiful.
Adding plain blocks and alternating with a kind of single Irish chain.

Set the blocks on point.

The blocks themselves might all be very pretty, but when you lay them all out the design might be kind of lacking. Look at what happens when you tilt everything on point. If you want to know how to do this, Google is your friend. Here is one example of all the math done for you.

Snowballs set on point.
Snowballs on point with sashing.
Snowballs on point with sashing, alternating with plain blocks.

Bonus problem: I can't fix this. It just isn't working.

If all else fails, start cutting! The book Create Your Own Free-Form Quilts by Rayna Gillman suggests that if a fabric or block is ugly or you can't figure out how to use it, cut it up and piece it back together with other fabrics or block fragments. Use it as an experiment in improvisation! If you are too afraid to cut or the blocks are too precious--use your blocks in small doses in a backing or a border.

For example, I wanted to try an improv curve block. After I had made a couple, I thought they looked alright, but they took a long time and there was no way I had the patience to make 35 of them for an entire quilt top. I scrapped that idea. But, what to do with the two orphan blocks? I cut the blocks into 3" strips. I pieced these strips into one long column, and inserted them into an otherwise boring solid-colored backing for the newly designed quilt. I really like how it turned out!

A great example is Tracy's string lotto quilt. She cut some of the squares in half diagonally and made this gorgeous star quilt:

Tracy's string quilt block lotto quilt

The very last thought I have is that not every quilt has to be a show-stopper. If your blocks have been hanging around for awhile and you can't figure out how to make them great, it might be time to just make them good enough--there are many worthy charities that will gladly take your quilt to help comfort someone who likely won't even notice what you think are imperfections.

Lately I have been trying to tackle projects with the mindset that "Done is better than perfect", and that has meant choosing the best idea I have at the time and moving on. Then I get to start a new quilt with less guilt. :)


  1. Thank you for your suggestions for solving difficult block problems. I will certainly try harder now to use blocks that I have sitting around. Your ideas are great and your explanations very clear. Again many thanks.

  2. Thank you for your suggestions! I have a lot of blocks I can't put together and I'm about to throw away... I'll give them a chance!!

  3. use extra leftover blocks of a quilt to make pillow shams for decorative throw pillows. if you have blocks that you really aren't wild about and can't put together, use them for pet quilts/beds to donate to animal shelters. the animals wont care about the design. or use them for stuffed toys. they'll make unique teddy bears or such. you can always recut quilt blocks to make a string design, or scrap quilt. no fabric should be thrown away. even sew it together, the best you can, for a quilt for a homeless person. they want a quilt to keep them warm, not caring about the design.

  4. Nice post, thanks for sharing the ideas.

  5. Quilts of Valor will take orphan blocks to be used in presentation quilts also.
    Check with your local group.

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