Overrun with Scraps? Make String Quilts! – New Quilters

Photo of string quilt block

The more time I spend quilting, the bigger my scrap pile grows. The thought of throwing away all that precious fabric makes me break out in a cold sweat, so I keep all but the very smallest scraps.

But what is a quilter to do with all those odd bits and pieces that accumulate as you trim off selvages, square up blocks, and cut out odd shapes?

The answer is easy: Make string quilts!

What is a String Quilt?

“Strings” are all those leftover fabric strips and pieces that float around everyone’s sewing room. String quilts are simply quilts made from your longer fabric scraps.

To make a string quilt, you start with a foundation fabric or foundation paper, then use an easy sew-and-flip technique to attach strips and scraps to the foundation until the scraps completely cover the foundation.

That’s all there is to it! There’s no fussy measuring, no templates to follow, no precision cutting, no pattern to worry about. The license to be imprecise is my favorite part.

Here’s an adorable string quilt made by Jennifer Worthen of Flickr:

Rainbow string quilt by Jennifer Worthen, Flickr.

What Kind of String Blocks Can You Make?

String quilt blocks are usually made on a square foundation and look more or less like this:

Photo of string quilt blocksYou can also make string quilts on triangular-shaped foundations, although the technique is a little more complicated. Here’s one by made from trimmed-off selvages by Katja Rother:
Photo of star-shaped string quilt blockAnd another by Heidi Elliott:

Photo of star-shaped string quilt block I’ve also made string borders on long rectangular foundation strips. Here’s what one looked like:

Photo of string quilt border

In this post, though, I’ll show you how to make a square string quilt block.

You can make your blocks any size that works with the scraps you have. The smaller the block, the smaller the strings and scraps you can use. Larger blocks need longer strips to cover the foundation. In general, wider strips look good on larger blocks, and smaller ones look better on smaller blocks.

The most common setting for string quilt blocks combines four blocks into a large diamond shape. If you use large blocks to start with, keep in mind that the completed unit will be twice as wide and twice as tall as the individual blocks. I found this out when I made these big string blocks for a quilt I gave my daughter.

Photo of four string quilt blocks

This four-block unit is 17″ x 17″ square! That poses some challenges when it comes to laying out a quilt. Luckily, I ended up using these in a bed quilt.

String Quilt Foundation Options – Fabric, Paper, and More

String quilters use many different types of foundations. Here are some of the options you might try:

  • Muslin
  • Quilting fabric in prints or solids. Darker foundation fabric may show through lighter-colored strings.
  • Copy or printer paper
  • Commercial foundation paper
  • Old phone book pages (this one recommended by Bonnie Hunter of Quiltville)
  • Wax paper deli sheets (also recommended by Bonnie Hunter)
  • Used fabric softener dryer sheets
  • Lightweight interfacing
  • Old bed sheets. This is what I use. Sheets are densely woven and are probably easier to quilt by machine than by hand.

Paper foundations need to be removed from the blocks before you assemble the quilt. Fabric foundations can be left in as part of the quilt. That’s one reason why I prefer fabric, although the added foundation layer makes the quilt a bit heavier. Any type of foundation helps stabilize the strings and make them lie flat. Using a foundation also means you don’t have to worry about stretching or distorting scraps that were cut on the bias.

Which Fabric Scraps are Useful for String Quilting?

Both small and large scraps can be used to make string blocks. Cut larger pieces into 1” to 2½” strips. The strips don’t need to be all the same width, or have perfectly straight edges. Smaller or odd-shaped pieces can be used to fill in the corners of the blocks.

Supply List for Making String Quilt Blocks

Most of what you’ll need for string quilting is already in your sewing room.

  • Pile of fabric strips and scraps from your scrap bin. These can be organized by size or color, or simply pulled out of the pile as they come.
  • Foundation fabric or paper, cut into squares.
  • (Optional) pins or fabric glue to hold the block’s center strip in place for sewing. I just skip this step.
  • (Optional) 1”-2” strips of a focus fabric to make “sashing” for the blocks. Unlike the rest of your strings, these strips should be cut neatly so they are all the same width.
  • Sewing machine. If you’re using a paper foundation, set the stitches to a short length for ease of tearing off the paper when the block is finished.
  • Denim or quilting needle, size 14 or 16. A large needle makes it easier to pierce the foundation.
  • Neutral colored thread (light grey or beige both work well.)
  • Rotary cutter.
  • Cutting ruler for squaring up the blocks.

Step-by-Step Instructions for Making String Quilt Blocks

  1. Start with your foundation square. Photo of string quilt block foundation square
  2. Lay a fabric strip right side up so it stretches diagonally across the foundation from corner to corner, like this. The strip should be long enough to cover the whole length of the square from corner to corner. You can pin or glue the strip in place, but I don’t bother.Photo of string quilt block with one fabric strip laid on top
  3. Place another string right side down on top of the first one, aligning its edge with one edge of the center string.  Make sure the new string is also long enough to more than cover the foundation from edge to edge. Photo of string quilt block with two fabric strips added
  4. Sew the strings to the foundation along the aligned edge, leaving a ¼” seam allowance.Photo of fabric strip being sewn onto string quilt block
  5. Flip the second string over to show its right side, then finger press or press with a dry iron.
  6. Keep laying on and sewing new strips in the same way until you have covered the foundation block all the way to the right corner. Photo of string quilt block with half the fabric strips added
  7. Then turn the block around and add more strings until you reach the other corner. Here’s the block with all the strings added. Photo of string quilt block with all strips added
  8. Press the block, then use a rotary cutter and ruler to square it up. After squaring, it should look something like this:Photo of completed string quilt block

That’s all there is to it! You are now officially a string quilter. Keep making blocks until you have enough for the quilt you want or until you use up all your scraps. (Like that will ever happen…)

Post photo by T, Flickr.com.

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Felicity Walker

Felicity Walker is the author of the best-selling Quilting for Beginners book series and other books for quilters. She has been quilting for nearly twenty years and loves finding easier, faster, and more fun ways to make quilts.

  • Laura says:

    I lOVE string quilts. I’ve two of them in progress right now. One of them is a throw made with 6.5″ blocks, copy paper pieced on the diagonal and I’ve made them in color groups – variations of red on some, variations of blue on others, etc., so that it will have a rainbow affect. It will have 2.5″ black sashing and a black border with colored diamonds in it. The backing is going to be a slightly mottled turquoise. Can’t wait to get it done but my only problem is deciding a color for the binding. Would anyone like to offer ideas or suggestions? I’ve got myself stymied on this one.

  • Janice Jarreau says:

    What’s the method of sewing the squares together and sewing the back of the quilt on? I’ve never made a quilt before.

    • Hi Janice,

      Once you’ve made a string block, you can either remove the foundation (if you used paper) or leave it in place (if you used fabric or interfacing) and sew the blocks together the way you would sew any other blocks to make a quilt top.

      If you need help with that, may we suggest our best-selling book, Quilts for Beginners, or the expanded, updated version, A Beginner’s Guide to Quilting, which you can preorder now for delivery at the beginning of October? Either book shows you exactly how to piece a quilt top and do everything else you need to make a quilt from start to finish.

  • Linda Wilson says:

    On the very first strip placement, does it need to be centered from corner to corner diagonally before I sew the second strip to it? Do I need to sew it down or just sew the second strip to it?

    • Hi Linda,

      The strip does need to be centered and should stretch all the way across the quilt block. You don’t need to sew the first strip when you put it down — one side of the strip will get sewed down when you add the second strip, and the second side will be sewed down when you turn the block around and start adding strips in the other direction.

      However, you don’t HAVE to place the strip diagonally. You could also lay it out vertically or horizontally, which would make string blocks that look like they have vertical or horizontal stripes.

      Hope that helps.

  • Deb c says:

    Love these quilts. One question: is there a “shrinkage” in the size of the quilt block from sewing on the strips.

    • Hi Deb, I find that there is often a small amount of “shrinkage” in a block that has a lot of seams in it, and there is always some distortion caused by sewing on the strips. It always pays to square up your string blocks after you finish sewing them.

  • Lucile Lapin says:

    The best quilt shop in Madison does something gteat. They have color coded bins for scraps, we can donate scraps we can’t use and choose others for our project. They keep it in the classroom and bring us an excellent variety of classes too. It is Blue Bar Quilts.

  • Donna Fischer says:

    which way do you cut a strip——from salvage to salvage or the other way?

    • For purposes of string quilting, it really doesn’t matter which direction you cut your strips. In general, I cut strips from selvage to selvage across the width of the fabric. Sometimes I cut strips on the length of grain, for instance, when I want to make striped binding and need the strips to run horizontally across the binding fabric, or if I need to cut a really long border.

  • Janet says:

    really god idea I will give it a try thank you

  • Colette says:

    Hi, my volunteer group (in Edmonton, Canada) sews approx. 40 Bedsize string quilts each year for a local Women’s shelter. We use donated cotton fabric, which is sometimes already cut, or cut up the leftovers that are not the right size, shape, or color for regular block components. Strings are taken from a box in no particular order, except for length, and sewn to a Poly-cotton foundation, starting with a center strip, and sewing out to each side. That way you can press both new strips at the same time.
    The blocks are set in either ZigZag or Diamond patterns, and the Quilts are very colorful; NO two are the same. Who knew that these scraps can be so beautiful.

  • Beth says:

    Great teaching directions and pics

  • Kamaljeet kaur says:

    It is beautiful scrap quilting idea.thanks for guidance

  • Karen Pogue says:

    Do the scraps have to be on the bias?

    • Thanks for the question, Karen. I think you’re asking if the scraps have to be placed diagonally across the foundation square, and the answer to that is no: you can place them vertically too. The scraps don’t need to be cut on the bias, either. You can use any old scrap that fits your foundation. Hope I’ve answered the question you were asking. If not, please ask again!

  • Tyree Dickens says:

    Loved learning the “string quilt” directions. I’ve never attempted this kind of quilt before. The reason is I have always found the directions confusing and I was unable to picture it in my mind. With your pictured explanations, it was much easier and was simplified immensely.

  • Monica Goings says:

    Wonderful tutorial! Very easy to follow. For the paper backing, I tried using inexpensive wrapping paper. Works great!

    • Felicity Walker says:

      That’s one we hadn’t heard of before, Monica. Thanks for the comment!

    • Dori Paschal says:

      I just thru some out that was on a roll but became wrinkled when it shifted in the box as there was no band to hold it together. Darn I wish I had read this sooner. Thanks for the idea.

  • Marjorie says:

    I have made string blocks and started with a red string as a starter string down the middle of each block. I can then arrange them make a pleasing design eg a red diamond when you put 4 blocks together.

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, Marjorie. It’s one of the ideas mentioned in the blog post, but I don’t think we included a photo.

  • Sheilah says:

    Brilliant and easy to follow directions! Thanks!

  • Marsha says:

    I make my stringers using quilt-as-you-go method. I cut my backing fabric and batting into 11″ Squares. I then layer them with backing wrong side up, followed by batting. Then I start sewing diagonalally like you do through batting and backing. Once squares are finished and trimmed, I lay them out the way I want them to be finished. I sew squares right sides together including a 1 1/2 finishing strip in the 1/4″ seam allowance. Finishing strips are of the backing fabric. Then I sew rows together with that same finishing strip. The edges of Finishing strips need to be turned under 1/4″ and hand stitched. Then I bind off quilt. Check out other QAYG methods on Pinterest for sewing squares together and rows.

    • cdmwriter says:

      This sounds like a terrific method, Marsha. Thanks! You had me hooked until the hand quilting — but I’m going to try it and see if I can find a way to substitute machine sewing for the hand stitching. I have only made quilt-as-you-go squares with finishing strips a couple of times. Time for another try!

    • Pamela Krieg says:

      Hi Marsha, I read your comment about how you join your QAYG blocks and I have a question… do you only use finishing strips in the front (in the same fabric as your backing) and have none on the backside? This is something new to me, I’ve done 1 quilt as you go quilt and I had finishing strips on both the front and the back sides. Just curious. Hope you have time to explain it more in depth. Thanks so much.

      • Felicity Walker says:

        I have done QAYG with only a set of finishing strips in the front. The procedure is complex enough that I think it calls for its own tutorial. Stay tuned!

    • Dori Paschal says:

      Thank you for this method.

  • Helen Grantham says:

    My mother made string quilts when I was a child. I got the job of tearing off the paper backing off each square. She used the pages from the Sears-
    Roebuck catalog for her foundations. By the way, her quilts were all pieced by hand!! I do not like to use a fabric for the foundation because of the extra weight. After experimenting I found that ordinary tissue paper worked best. Surprisingly it is tough enough to work well, but easy enough to tear away. I cut the tissue whatever size I want the block to be (lots of them). Then square up the block from the back with a ruler. Blocks can be made any size you wish to have. I mainly use the 4-block used as one block with sashings and cornerstones to put together. I spend a good amount of time pressing strings. I love it. Makes me think of my mother. Her quilts were made of necessity, mine are for fun.

    • cdmwriter says:

      The things we did with our mothers make some of the best memories, don’t they? Thanks so much for your story and your tips, Helen.

    • Dori+Paschal says:

      I would have thought the the ink from the pages like a phone book or newspaper would come off onto the fabric so never used those . Apparently it is coved with the string quilt fabric so doesn’t matter ? Thanks for clarify this.?the scraps sewed onto the paper in the old days did not bleed as they do today Correct?

      • Debra says:

        You can go to a newspaper office and ask if they sell their end rolls of newsprint paper after they get through printing. I went and bought some for $0.50 per pound. They weighed the roll. You can get a lot of paper and don’t have to worry about the ink.

  • Corinne says:

    I’ve made two string quilts. Like you, I have so many scraps. Love making string quilts. I’ve made my string blocks into tote bags as well. I’ve turned two of my newbie quilter friends into “stringers”.

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Thanks for your comment, Corinne. I haven’t tried making string quilted bags. That’s a great idea! Happy to know you are spreading the word about strings.

  • Pat Pagels says:

    I’m making one of these for my granddaughter…To make it a little lighter, I bought some thin flannel fabric. I haven’t got that far yet but I was told it’s much easier to hand quilt through this and it’s not flamable. (sp)

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Great idea, Pat. Flannel is so cozy and I’m sure it must be easier to hand quilt than a foundation of sheets, which is what I use (machine sewing only for me!) Just make sure you prewash to minimize shrinkage.

  • Judy says:

    Do you use thinner batting then? Muslin might be easier to quilt through, but would it stretch out of shape?

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Thanks for the question, Judy. I use polyester fleece in place of the batting and backing layers on most of my quilts. If you’re asking whether thinner batting makes sense because of the added weight of the foundation layer, my answer is that yes, anything you can do to reduce the weight of the quilt makes it more comfortable for the person who will eventually use it. I have used muslin as a foundation layer and found that it works fine — no stretchier than regular quilter’s cotton. I also use old sheets for the foundation layer. Hope that answers your question.

  • Michele says:

    One thing I hever see mentioned it the size that is prefered when making these blocks? If i dont have a pattern in mind. But would like to make them as i sew other stuff, what size do you suggest?

    • Felicity Walker says:

      That’s an important consideration, Michele. If you’re planning to make the popular diagonal striped string blocks and arrange them into a four-block diamond pattern, the finished diamonds will be about four times the size of the original blocks. The first set of string blocks I made were 9″ blocks, but then the diamond blocks I assembled them into were 36″ squares — pretty large to make a pleasing quilt pattern from. If that’s your plan, I would recommend making your string blocks 6″ (6-1/2″ unfinished.) If you don’t plan to use the diamond design, you can make the string blocks larger.

  • KBBarden says:

    There is a picture on Pintrest of a string pieced crazy quilt stype block and a reference to this website. I cannot find the tutorial mentioned. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  • Mangal says:

    Loved your idea.will try some thing similar. Will keep you posted.

  • I have Started to make a play mat for my great grandson who is due in May and will put the string blocks as a border with baby type fabric in the middle .
    Thank you for the idea of the string blocks . Sheila

  • Rae Davie says:

    do you have to use a foundation block? Why can’t you just seam the strips together and trim to size at the end?
    I can see that using a foundation block makes it easier to lay out the strips to make sure the final size is correct, but why sew the strips to the foundation block?

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Good question, Rae. You don’t HAVE to use a foundation block. As you point out, you can just sew the strips together and trim to the size you want. And using a foundation layer can make the block heavier than it would be if you didn’t have that extra layer. I find, though, that having the foundation makes the whole project much easier and more fun. I can see exactly where each strip or piece will end up on the finished block. The foundation layer keeps the strips from getting pulled out of shape. The block is easy to square up because I can see what shape it ought to be before I cut into it.

      It’s really a matter of preference. I prefer to use a fabric foundation layer that stays in the finished quilt. Other people like to use a paper foundation that they pull off after they finish sewing. If you think you would like it better to go without the foundation layer, give it a try and see if it works for you. Happy quilting!

  • Sarah says:

    How do you attach them to the adjoining block?

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Thanks for the question, Sarah. You can sew string blocks together using a standard 1/4″ quilter’s seam, just like any other blocks.

  • Andree says:

    This is the best tutorial for string quilts I have ever read. Thank you.

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