Trouble-shooting your Mariner's Compass

Problem: My compass makes a cone, what should I do?

Analysis: When Mariner's Compasses make a cone, it is usually for one of two reasons:

1. The sewing lines on one or more pieces make that unit too narrow. These narrow pieces force the circular design into a cone when all units have been joined.

2. Sequential assembly (around the circle) seems to lead more frequently to cone-shaped compasses than does assembly as described below.


1. Be sure templates are accurate. Check your template for those pieces against your original art from which they were drawn. After making certain that template is correct, check stitching lines on fabric. If these are correct, then consider the way you assemble the piece, directions follow.

2. Assemble in sub-units. Mariner's Compasses should be assembled in sub-units so that you wind up with four quarter-compasses. These quarters should then be joined to make halves and the halves then stitched together. When stitching the halves together nail the center point first and sew fromt here to one edge, matching crucial points with pins and tacking stitches (if necessary) before sewing. Then sew from the center to the other edge.

3. Paper-piecing Mariner's Compass designs; join subunits. Paper-pieced Mariner's Compasses tend to go together without coning if drafted accurately and if sewn meticulously (on stitching lines).

Question: Must Mariner's Compass pieces be cut on grain for accurate assembly?

Analysis: Grain lines should make little or no difference if you do not stretch edges of the pieces. Fabric pattern should take precedence over grain lines.


1. Stabilize fabric to help control stretching by spraying fabric with sizing (on supermarket shelves near spray starch) prior to cutting shapes or paper piecing.

2. If grain line differs from the way you want the design to run, cut according tofabric design, not grain line.

3. When possible, grain line should point to the outer tip of each piece.

Question: What options do I have for making Mariner's Compasses from patterns?


1. Shar's Mariner's Compass templates, Marti Mitchell's Sunburst Templates (a Mariner's Compass variation).

2. Paper-piecing patterns by Lynn Graves, Nancy Rosenbaum (miniature), Northern Star.

3. Draft your own and paper piece or make templates.

4. Use patterns from books such as Judy Matthieson's Mariner's Compass books, Betty Boyink's Nautical Quilts, Jane Hall/Dixie Haywood's Precision Pieced Quilts Using the Foundation Method.

Question: I want to draft my own Mariner's Compass patterns. Where should I begin?

Suggestions: My best compasses come from drafts that I have made according to Matthieson's drafting directions. I then photocopy the draft in as many units as I need to piece. For a 32-point MC, I make a sub-assembly of all small points and background. I then assemble that unit to the next larger point (removing paper on the sub-unit after assembly, leaving it on the larger unit) until the circle is assembled in 8ths. Then I join to make quarters, then halves and then, always holding my breath(!) the whole thing.

Piecing an MC from pieces cut from templates is very challenging, and accuracy in marking seems to me to be the big determinant for "fit." Jinny Beyer also has drafting and folding directions in her books, but these are less precise in my hands. They may, however, work well for other quilters.

Note: For what it's worth, the advantage of drafting your own is that you can have the compass in any size you want, with points as wide or as narrow as you want. And you control the number of points -- whether 8, 12, 16, 20, 32, 64 or whatever.

Question: Is there an easy way to get a Mariner's Compass set into a background block?

Analysis: Appliqueing the MC piece onto a block often leaves lumpy turned-under edges. I personally do not like sewing curved quarter borders to the Mariner's Compass, since much of this must be done blind. A third option is to reverse applique the MC piece into a background piece, which is actually easier than it seems.

Here's how I did it:

Suggestion: Since I didn't want to applique onto or piece a recently completed 10.5" compass into a 12.5" background, I used my favorite method: reverse applique. In this case, I appliqueed to a 14" square, to be trimmed to size by the recipient.

I prepared for the applique in my usual way.

1. I pressed the square into four quarters and put it face-down on my work table.

2. Then I aligned the MC, also face down, atop the square.

3. I basted about 3/8" (which I mark on my paper foundations) outside the ultimate finished edge of the MC, and another line about 3/8" inside the ultimate finished edge. (Some would not find this necessary; I like the stability).

4. And now ... my discovery. (Why didn't I think of it before???) In the past, I'd pinned on the sewing line, turned the assembly over, and chalked over the pins to get a line for turning under to reverse applique. This time however, I remembered my friendly old tracing wheel and tracing paper (had Dritz on hand ... Saral's good, too) and:
Put tracing paper face up beneath the 14" background square and traced onto it the turning line. In other words, I ran the tracing wheel -- had to press pretty hard -- on the wrong side of the MC (basted face down to the wrong side of background square, remember?).

5. I then turned the whole thing right side up and carefully cut away the "middle" of the background, cutting close to the inner line of stitches. (This leaves enough to turn under a good 1/4" that can always be trimmed during applique or after if there's too wide a margin.)

6. Finally, using silk thread to match the compass background and 14.5" square, I reverse appliqueed the compass into the background using Ami Sims Invisible Applique method.

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