Mini design boards: keep patches organized while you sew quilt blocks

The 2018 Tula Pink City Sampler Sew-Along just finished, and I’m pleased to say my quilt top is completely done! It was challenging to keep up with the one-block-per-day schedule but I’m glad I did it. What with the move and all, I had to be extra-organized and do a lot of advance sewing and photographing so that I would always have a photo of the right block ready to post.

The City Sampler book surrounded by piles of coordinating fabric
Pulling fabrics for upcoming blocks

Since we followed the blocks in order from the book it was easy to know which blocks were due when (and the swap hostess Angie/Gnome Angel made a fantastic block tracker that really helped too). I usually pulled fabric for 10 blocks, then cut out those 10 blocks and clipped the pieces together until I was ready to sew them. At first, I was laying out two blocks at once on my small 20″ x 30″ design board, but I quickly realized it would be more efficient if I could lay out several at a time.

I did a little research to see how other people used their design boards, and I found an idea that I loved at once: mini design boards that were the perfect size for a single block. I looked at several tutorials and in the end chose a quick & dirty method, detailed below. If you want something a little nicer, I recommend this Fat Quarter Shop video tutorial for boards with pretty, finished edges by Lori Holt.

My Solution

A stack of 7 finished mini design boards
A stack of finished boards

I made a set of mini design boards, each 10″ square, so that I could lay out six blocks at once. I laid out all the patches for one block on each board, and stacked up the boards next to my machine. That way I could chain piece multiple blocks at once and keep everything straight. I’d chain piece whatever I could from each one, then press the units and return each one to its design board to make sure I had all the block layouts correct. Then I’d go through the boards again, chain piecing the next set of units, until each block was done.

Here’s how I made my boards.

Materials (makes 6 boards):

  • 1 sheet of foam board, 20″ x 30″ (look for this in the school supply section of department stores, or at office supply stores, if you don’t want a 10-pack)
  • 1 yard of white cotton flannel (you can use scraps of batting instead — you need six 12″ x 12″ pieces)
  • duct tape
  • a craft knife to cut the foam board (or a really old rotary cutter blade)
  • an acrylic ruler or other long straightedge
  • scissors or a rotary cutter to cut the flannel or batting

STEP 1. Cut the foam board to size. A 20″ x 30″ sheet of foam board divides easily into six 10″ x 10″ pieces. I laid it out landscape and cut it in thirds first, then cut each third in half.

To do this, place your board on your cutting mat in landscape orientation (wider than it is tall). Measure 10″ from the end of your board and place your ruler there, as if you were cutting fabric. Then use the craft knife to score the foam board, cutting just through the top layer of paper and most of the foam; you don’t have to cut all the way through the bottom.

Craft knife, ruler, and foam core
Foam core cuts easily with a small craft knife

Once you’ve cut through the top layer of paper and the foam, bend the board back to open the cut. It’s okay if the edge is a little ragged.

Partially cut foam board
After cutting through the top layer of paper and the foam, bend the board to fold the second layer of paper

Next, flip the board over and fold it all the way back on itself to mark the back with your fold line.

Folding the foam board back
Marking the back with the fold

Then just cut through the fold line with the craft knife. I didn’t even need the ruler for this; the knife follows the fold pretty easily. This cut will separate the two pieces of board.

Craft knife cutting foam board
Cut along the folded mark with the craft knife

Now you should have a piece of foam board that’s 10″ wide by 20″ long (one-third of the total sheet).

A cut piece of foam board
A 10″ section (one third of the board)

Cut it in half crosswise to make two pieces that are 10″ square.

Two pieces of foam board
Two 10″ x 10″ pieces

Cut the rest of the foam board sheet the same way until you have six pieces that are each 10″ square.

STEP 2. Cut the flannel. From your yard of flannel, cut six pieces that are 12″ x 12″. It’s not critical to be exact; you want about an inch of overlap on each edge of the board, but a little more or less won’t hurt.

12" x 12" pieces of flannel
A 12″ x 12″ piece of flannel (before pressing)

If your flannel has folds or wrinkles, you can take a moment to press them out before continuing, if you like. Check to see if your flannel has a right and wrong side or if you prefer one side to the other. I didn’t worry about this since my flannel was pretty similar on both sides. If you do care, make sure the right side of the flannel facesĀ down for the next step.

Step 3. Cover the boards. Lay one 10″ x 10″ board on top of one 12″ x 12″ piece of flannel, centering the board on the wrong side of the flannel.

Foam board centered on flannel
Lay the board in the center of the flannel

Now comes the worst part (for me, anyway): cutting the duct tape. This stuff is super sticky and I always end up wasting some because it sticks to itself. I try to work with only a few pieces at once, so I start by tearing off a piece about 5″ or 6″ long. Then I tear it in half lengthwise to get two long pieces; then I tear each of those in half crosswise to end up with four short, skinny pieces. These will be used to hold down the corners of the flannel.

Strip of duct tape
About a 5″ piece of tape
Two narrow strips of duct tape
The tape torn in half lengthwise
Four short strips of duct tape
Each lengthwise strip torn in half crosswise

To tape the corners, pull each corner diagonally across the board (be careful not to shift the position of the board as you do this). I try to keep the edges more or less square, but they do get pulled out of shape a little. You want the flannel to be taut but not too tight. Just tape the corners down to the board as you go; I usually do one corner, then the next one diagonally across, then the other two.

The corners of flannel pulled taut behind the foam core and taped down
Taping the corners

Now we’ll tape the top and bottom edges. Make sure you have four more pieces of duct tape ready. Then start with the top edge of flannel, folding it carefully over the top edge of the board and pulling it tight (again — not too tight). I hold it all along the length while I tape down the middle. Since these boards are so small, you only need one piece of tape (about 2″ or 3″ long) to hold each edge. Make sure that at least half the width of the tape is on the flannel for a good hold.

Taping down the top edge of the flannel
Pull the top edge taut, then tape it down

Rotate the board so the bottom edge is the top edge, and repeat the process.

Top and bottom edges taped
Top and bottom edges taped

Now do the same for each side. I find it easiest to keep rotating the board so that the edge I’m taping is always the top edge.

All four sides of the flannel taped behind the foam board
All four sides taped

Next we’ll secure the corners. You should have nice, mitred corners, and we’ll tape them down so they don’t catch on things or come undone. I use a full-width piece of tape for this, about 2″ long.

The flannel has mitred corners
The mitred corner

Just tape right over the corner toward the center of the board, making sure that most of your tape covers both sides of the flannel but some of your tape catches the board. I put the tape on the flannel first then pull gently toward the center of the board to tighten the corners before taping them down to the board itself. Be careful to keep the tape from going over the edge of the board; you don’t want it anywhere near the narrow side edges or the top, where it could catch your fabric later.

Four corners taped down
Taping down each corner (full-width tape strips)

STEP 3. Cover all the edges. Now tear off a length of tape that will cover the edge of the flannel from corner to corner without hanging over. For this step, I tear each piece of tape as I need it, because otherwise it twists itself up into a bunch while I’m waiting to get to it. Position the tape about half on the flannel and half on the board and tape down the whole top edge, then the whole bottom edge.

Top and bottom edges completely taped down
Tape all along the top and bottom

Rotate the board so the sides become the top and bottom, and repeat the process to finish covering all the edges. Carefully press down all the exposed edges of the tape to make sure none of them are curled over or unattached.

All four sides completely taped down
Side edges fully taped

That’s it! Your mini design board is done.

The finished design board from the front (flannel side)
The front of the finished board

Repeat the process five more times to use the rest of your board and flannel pieces, and you’ll have a set of six design boards, each big enough for one quilt block. I use it for blocks up to 8″ square. You can lay out the blocks and then stack the boards up — the tape won’t mess anything up as long as you pressed the edges carefully down.

A stack of 7 finished mini design boards
A stack of finished boards

You can also choose prettier duct tape if you prefer. There are rolls with patterns or different colors. My first set of design boards uses pretty blue tape:

The back of a board taped with light blue duct tape
You can also find pretty duct tape

Then the only thing left to do is cut out your patches, arrange them on the boards, and start sewing!

I also use the boards for photographing finished blocks. They make a nice clean backdrop and they keep the block edges from curling up. Every now and then I brush them lightly with a lint brush to pick up spare threads and keep them tidy. When I’m not using them, I slip them onto a shelf, standing them up on their edges like books.

Enjoy your new design boards!






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