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Two Tricks for Perfect Log Cabin Blocks

Two Tricks for Perfect Log Cabin Blocks

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Hi! I'm Marti Michell. When Moda asked me to be part of the Rulers Rule blog hop I immediately said “Yes!” It was almost as easy to decide that, because Log Cabin quilts are popular with nearly everyone, the From Marti Michell Log Cabin Rulers would be the tools I'd want to talk about!

Just in case you haven’t made a Log Cabin quilt or even a block, Log Cabin starts with a center square and is completed by adding strips to the center unit in either a clockwise or counterclockwise order. I like my blocks to go clockwise:

If you want Log Cabin blocks that are both square and all the same size, there are two tricks you need to know:   

#1 --Cut fabric strips on the lengthwise grain. 
#2 --Cut the strips to length before sewing!   
The best part of this method is that, in addition to being accurate, it is faster than any other Log Cabin technique I have seen or you’ve ever tried. (We've done time studies - no, really, we have!)


Trick # 1 is to cut your Log Cabin strips on the lengthwise grain (parallel to the selvage). Yet, most quilting instructions start with cutting fabric strips the width of the fabric from selvage to selvage. Why?

Before we answer that question, pick up a piece of fabric, grasp one selvage in each hand and pull. Do you feel how the crosswise grain stretches? Now pull on the same fabric in the opposite direction, parallel to the selvage. Can you feel the difference?


Because most pieces in a Log Cabin block are considerably longer than they are wide, most distortion in a block will be eliminated if you cut strips on the firm, non-stretchy, lengthwise grain.

So, back to the question, “Why don’t all Log Cabin instructions say that?” Probably because: 1. It is easier to write instructions and figure yardage using crosswise strips. 2. It is the way the author was taught and just hasn’t tried another way. 3. The author is not trained in textiles and so may not realize the importance of understanding the characteristics of lengthwise and crosswise grain.   

Trick #2 is cut the strips to length before sewing! If you have ever made Log Cabin blocks by sewing small pieces to a long strip and then cutting to size, you may be thinking you don’t want to give up the chain-piecing method you have been using. With the From Marti Michell method, you don’t give up chain-piecing. You give up aligning your ruler at both ends of the pieced section and cutting the long strip twice to get one piece in the block. Instead of aligning your ruler twice for each piece, you simply nip the threads separating the units. Which way is easier?

You don’t need a From Marti Michell Log Cabin Ruler to take advantage of these tricks—It is just easier with a Log Cabin Ruler.

If you are going to cut strips to length, you have to know what length that is. The length of each strip is the total of the width of the pieces to which it will be attached. So, first you have to decide how wide the strip will be. The sample we are using today has strips that finish 1-1/2 inches wide, but are cut 2 in. wide. So the first piece is 2 in. long, then 3-1/2, 5, 6-1/2 in., etc., all measurements you can find on a regular ruler.

BUT on the 1-1/2 in. finished width From Marti Michell Log Cabin Ruler #8037, we have eliminated all of the ruler marks except the lengths that you need to cut for that block. This ruler has white paper behind it so you can see the markings:

(In case you don’t want 1-1/2 in. finished strips, we also make 3 other Log Cabin Rulers that pair one-half and 1 in., 5/8 and 1-1/4 in., and 1 and 2 in. finished strips. You'll find more information and videos on our website.)

It is very easy to use a From Marti Michell Log Cabin Ruler to measure and cut both the strip width and length.   

Measure Strip Width Using the Log Cabin Ruler 
Measure the strip width from one long edge of the ruler to the first vertical purple line. (For right handed cutters, the fabric is to the left.) For this example, there are just two fabrics representing the traditional light and dark halves of a Log Cabin block. There is also a pre-cut 2 in. center square. Use a regular ruler to true-up one edge or remove the selvage.

True-up an adjacent edge: align a line on the ruler with the just-cut edge and trim.

Without moving the fabric or yourself, use the Log Cabin Ruler to measure the strip width. 

Put your regular ruler against the edge of the Log Cabin Ruler. 

Remove the Log Cabin Ruler and cut against the regular ruler.

Cutting the Log Cabin Pieces  
Turn the strip and, with the Heart in Hand logo on the fabric and the line marked A aligned on the squared-off end, cut the first piece A:

The first piece added to the center square is typically the same size as the center square and is the only other piece in the block that length - it can be either light or dark. When using the classic half light and half dark block arrangement, I like to start with light fabrics. By starting with a light fabric, the last piece in the classic block will be the opposite value of the first piece. When the block has an equal number of strips on all four sides of the center square, the last piece added is the only piece that long. This creates a pleasing jog when blocks are arranged in rows for most layouts. 

Next, cut the B pieces:

How you add this piece determines whether the block goes clockwise or counter-clockwise. It doesn’t matter, unless you want your blocks to match our illustrations, which all go clockwise. But you do want them to all go the same way. Sewing is detailed in Log Cabin ABCs (Product #8043).   

Then cut the C pieces and continue down the alphabet cutting and arranging.

Measuring and Cutting Many Blocks at One Time 

Of course if you are making more than one block, you want to cut more pieces more efficiently. I love to demo cutting the pieces for a "Snuggler" quilt. It is the first quilt in The Log Cabin ABCs and the quilt we recommend for your first Log Cabin quilt. It is a scrap quilt made with 16 blocks. 
I’m making a new version and all of the light fabric strips will be cut from the same fabric, but I’d like for the 6 dark strips to be scrappy... So I did a little math... I bet you don’t know that if you add the length of the shortest strip in a Log Cabin block to the length of the longest strip, it will be the same as the total of the length of the next shortest and next longest, etc. A cutting scheme began to percolate! There are 16 blocks, each with 6 dark pieces. I wanted more variety than 6 fabrics, so it worked out perfectly to cut all 6 lengths twice from 8 different fabrics. The exact size piece needed for each fabric would be 12 by 14 in., but we say 14-1/2 x 18 in. in the book - 14-1/2 in. allows for an extra strip if needed, and 18” gives a lot of wiggle room. We used that measurement in the book because many people would start with fat quarters 18 in. long on the lengthwise grain. First, true up and cut 6 stacks of strips just like we showed with 2 fabrics. (You will need a sharp blade in your cutter to cut 8 layers. If you just can’t cut 8 layers, do 4 at a time instead.)

Then, using this cutting chart and starting in the lower left corner for right handed cutters, move up the stacks of strips and cut in alphabetical order: B, B, C, C, D, D. Then move to the right and come down the strips: E, E, F, F, G, G. (If you are left handed, start in the lower right corner with B and cut in a counter-clockwise order.)

I can cut 96 pieces in 2 minutes using this method! You can watch a video demonstration on our website.

 What about the sewing? Well this blog is about cutting. The sewing is detailed on pages15-17 of The Log Cabin ABCs and in this video on our website. In a nutshell, I always sew Log Cabin units with the new piece on the bottom so I can control the seam allowances. I finger-press each new piece and “real” press after each 4-piece round. On the first 3 pieces, I lead with the center square, with the new piece on the bottom so that my strips go clockwise from the center out.

Other Fun Styles

You can cut center squares that are larger than the strip width when you use the From Marti Michell Log Cabin Rulers, as long as the cut square is also one of the dimensions on that ruler. For example, in this small batik Fat Quarter Log Cabin, the strips finish at 1” and the center square is 3” finished.

And in this Courthouse Steps Variation, there are actually 3 different size center blocks.

Sometimes Log Cabin blocks are combined with other blocks. I love Log Cabin blocks set on point. Look at this quilt called "Rachel’s Baskets." Using the same fabrics for the light side of all the blocks created a wonderful “self border” when the blocks were set on point. 

The Rachel's Basket pattern is in Log Cabin ABCs, and it is also available as a separate pattern that includes more detail and a crib quilt variation. You can also see several videos on our website that detail more cutting and sewing information about the quilt.

One More Thing About the Rulers  In case you were wondering why there are two strip widths on every ruler… One of the fun variations of Log Cabin quilts is off-center or round Log Cabins. These blocks need to have narrow and wide strips, as well as light and dark strips.

For the best circles, the wide strips should finish twice as wide as the narrow strips. The important phrase is “finish twice as wide” -- strips are not cut twice as wide. 

So that you would not have to remember that until the day you want to make an off-center Log Cabin quilt, we paired them permanently on each ruler. You can cut both strips widths for this fun block with one ruler! It takes 4 blocks to make a circle, as you can see in the center unit below. Then, we like to add an additional strip all around to frame the circle and make it stand out. Rotate the blocks to create the shape on the right. In those blocks, we added a strip in the center to elongate the curve. There are more details in The Log Cabins ABCs.


There are 4 sizes of round or off-center blocks you can make with From Marti Michell Log Cabin Rulers. From smallest to largest, they are 12”, 15”, 18” and 24” square finished. You may have noticed that on each ruler, the letters on the wide strip are capitals and the letters on the narrow strip are lower case—that is so you can differentiate wide or narrow strip lengths when making the off-center or round Log Cabin blocks.


Did I mention that it is easy to make the Log Cabin variations called Chevron and Courthouse Steps with the Log Cabin Rulers? We made this darling Little Woolie Chevron quilt using cotton flannels from Maywood Studio.


And this is me with my favorite Courthouse Steps quilt!  It is made with some of our daughter’s hand-dyed fabrics. She is Stacy Michell of Shades Textiles fame. Thanks for reading this blog, and thanks, Moda, for the invitation to the Moda Cutting Table!

Happy Log Cabin quilting 
From Marti Michell! 
I will be giving away a Log Cabin Ruler #8037 (1-1/2 and 3/4 in. finished strip widths) and a copy of Log Cabin ABCs to one lucky winner! To enter please leave a comment about your favorite Log Cabin quilt or one that you are planning to make. You will have until September 30th at midnight to comment. All winners will be randomly selected and announced on Moda...The Cutting Table Blog on October 2nd. Be sure to visit the blog every day for the opportunity to win each giveaway!