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British Sew-a-Row: Dawn Chorus

EDIT: The Dawn Chorus blocks - along with the Chorus Line bonus project - are now available as a printed pattern booklet here.


Welcome to week two of the English Garden British Sew-a-row. Before I introduce you to my Dawn Chorus blocks, let me remind you of our summer sewing schedule:

22nd May - Topiary Garden with Lou Orth - Foundation Paper Piecing

29th May - Dawn Chorus with me - Machine Piecing and Snowballed Corners

5th June - The Potting Shed with Jo Westfoot - Foundation Paper Piecing

12th June - Fluttering Florals with Sonia Spence - Hand applique and Machine Piecing


making my blocks at our Cotswold sewing retreat...

Once we'd settled on the English Country Garden theme for our quilt, Jo, Lou, Sonia and I all settled down to design a set of four blocks that would explore a different technique. My favourite is traditional machine piecing and I absolutely love making bird blocks, so I looked to our native birds for inspiration. My blocks see them finding a new home, nesting, greeting their new arrivals and supervising them fledging. Collectively I named my blocks after the dawn chorus: the soundtrack to spring and summer mornings in the garden.

The dawn chorus starts in early spring, reaching its crescendo right now. The earliest risers are the robins, blackbirds and thrushes - who start singing just before dawn - joined by woodpigeons, wrens and finches as dawn breaks. The cool, still morning air carries their song many times further than it would later in the day. It's generally the male birds serenading us as they sing to defend their territory, attract a mate and raise the next generation of chicks. And as they raise their families, our garden birds are busy gobbling caterpillars and aphids, helping to keep everything garden lovely.

Are you ready to sing as you sew? You can buy the Dawn Chorus PDF Pattern here.

A Note about Quarter Inch Seams:

Before we begin, how is your quarter inch seam? I almost hesitate to ask, because it's not the most scintillating subject. I'll confess that when I first started quilting I thought the edge of my standard machine foot gave me a ¼" seam and it honestly never occurred to me to measure it. Although my quilts did turn out rather small!

Most of us pop that ¼" quilting foot onto our machines and call it George, but if you stop to actually measure your seam you might find that it's still slightly off. Even tiny inaccuracies can add up as you assemble your blocks, but just half an hour spent playing with your machine settings - go on, break out that manual - will repay you a million times over in time saved unpicking.

My accuracy was transformed when I realised I could move the needle position (or needle drop, as it might be described in your manual) on my Janome from the standard 3.5 to 4: it's a fraction of an inch but it really does make all the difference!

The easiest way to test the accuracy of your quarter inch seam is to make a simple four patch with 1½" squares (a bit like making a tension square when you're knitting). Generally I like to press my seams to the side, so I made my test four patch with seams pressed to the side, too.

If you can accurately join the 1½" squares together - in two rows of two - to yield a 2½" four patch, you can look forward to piecing the Dawn Chorus blocks with confidence.

If your four patch is coming up small, then the seam allowance is too big. If it's coming up large then the seam allowance is too scant. Give that needle position a tweak!

Creating Snowballed Corners

You may know this as an Easy-Corner-Triangle or a Sew-and-Flip-Corner. Whatever you call it, it's an incredibly useful technique, simplifying cutting out, minimising bias and keeping the edges of your units nice and square. I like to press my corners 'open' before I trim away the back layers so that I can check their accuracy first.

We are using quite small pieces to create or snowballed corners, but please use your standard stitch length. It's tempting to make your stitch length shorter when sewing with small pieces, but if you make a mistake it will be a pain to unpick the seam. Rather, turn down your machine's speed: you are far less likely to make a mistake.

It has been a total joy making this quilt with my friends. We hired a tiny cottage (with a very big table) in the Cotswolds to make it, which meant that I pieced all of my blocks - along with the pieced elements of the setting - over the course of a coupe of long days, but I probably would have taken twice as long over them at home. Gosh, we did have fun though!


Bonus Project: Chorus Line Table Runner

Any of the English Country Garden blocks could be used to adorn a cushion for your favourite garden chair or to make a tote bag to take to the Garden Centre (I have a simple tutorial for the latter here).

Or use four together to make a simple runner for your kitchen table. To make a 18" x 54" runner all you will need is an extra ½ yard of outer border fabric and ¼ yard each of inner border and binding fabric.

Cut 4 1½” x WOF strips of inner border fabric and subcut 2 1½” x 14½” pieces for the ends of the runner and set them aside. Join the remaining strips to make the 1½” x 48½” inner borders for each side, then add the ends.

Next, cut borders 4 2½” x WOF strips of outer border fabric and subcut 2 2½” x 18½” pieces for the and set them aside as before. Join the remaining strips to make 2½” x 50½” outer borders for each side, before adding the ends.

After quilting by hand or machine, cut 4 2¼” x WOF binding strips - which are slightly narrower than usual and look better proportioned on smaller projects – to bind the edge.


I'd love to know how you get on with your Dawn Chorus blocks. You can leave a comment, below, tag your blocks #britishsewarow on Instagram or come and join the British Sew-a-Row Facebook group. Thanks for your company this week and look out for Jo's post on the 5th of June!

Until then, happy sewing,

Nicola xx


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