Those of us who have been patching (or quilting) for far too long blithely use all sorts of terms that may not be quite so obvious to those just discovering quilting. One of those is ‘block’. A related term is ‘unit’ which I explained in a previous post. I aim to explain what we mean by block in this post. A block is a collection of shapes arranged into small squares (units) which are then arranged into a bigger square. These bigger squares, or blocks, can be then put together to make a quilt such as the one in the header.

Many of the blocks we use are traditional American designs – back in the olden days wealthier Brits tended to make ‘mosaic’ patchwork by piecing small scraps over paper to make hexagons, diamonds or octagons in intricate designs whereas poorer ones cobbled together any bits and scraps they had to make something bigger. The Americans tended to piece using straight stitch and joining simple shapes into small squares in their hands (perhaps while walking alongside their wagons as they trekked west?) before joining those smaller squares into larger ones. These blocks also tend to be easier to piece by machine as well which is why they have become so popular.

As a result many of these traditional blocks are based on a grid consisting of a set number of small squares, or units. Four-Patch blocks are based on four units set into a square (2×2). Those four units could be made from more units giving us sixteen smaller squares in our block which are set 4×4 – but it is still a four-patch.

Likewise, Nine-Patch blocks are made of nine units joined in three rows of three. Again, these units may be divided into smaller ones but the basic underlying grid will be 3×3.

More rarely you will also come across Five-Patch or Seven-Patch grids.

Knowing and understanding this can be very useful when you want to make a block for which you perhaps have been unable to find a pattern but you do have a picture. If you can work out the units used and the underlying grid then you are half way to being able to draw the block and work out what shapes of what size you will need to cut.

It is also useful to know the grid when it comes to making blocks as this helps to work out a suitable size. You can easily cut pieces for a Nine-Patch grid if you stick to your 3 times table; a Four-Patch grid means using your 4 times table and so on. However if your four-patch units are divided into three, or your nine-patch units in two, or four, then that can make things trickier!

There are a few sneaky blocks which do not have a clear grid and these are often divided into four across the diagonals rather than the horizontal and vertical

or are based on the Eight-Pointed (Le Moyne) Star, which looks superficially like a 9-patch but the divisions are not equal.

or ones that need a partial seam in their construction

Have a look at these blocks and see if you can work out the grid for each and the units used.

Hint – there’s one from each category I mentioned.