Two Measurement Systems

In Kenya, when I ask a shopkeeper the width of a fabric, the answer comes in inches. To tell the shopkeeper how much fabric I want, I must specify meters. Although labeled and sold at a width measured in inches, fabric in Kenya is measured not with American yardsticks but with European meter sticks. This kind of cultural anomaly can be quite confusing if you are not familiar with the local system!

Quilters live and work all over the world. Different countries use different measurement systems. You are already familiar with your country's way of measuring things. To use patterns and diagrams from another country, you need to know that country's way of measuring.

The two measuring systems most commonly used in the Western world today are the Standard (base 12) system and the Metric (base 10) system. In the Standard system, units are divided in half, then in half again (1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8).

RF 02 Fractions

Standard measuring system ruler

In the Metric system, units are expressed as tenths with 10 millimeters to a centimeter and 100 centimeters to a meter.

RF 03 Decimals

Metric measurement system ruler

A measurement system is only as good as it is useful and easy to manage. We all believe the system we learned as children is the easiest and best. This may not always be true. One measurement system may be more suitable for a particular task than another. Understanding more than one system reveals that each has its own strengths and weaknesses. It also prepares us to work well in either system!


As we see wonderful patchwork quilt designs coming from other countries we want to expand the scope of our capabilities. However, conversions from one measurement system to another are time-consuming, fussy, and often prone to error. Many of us are afraid to work with an unfamiliar measuring system because we think we must make conversions. That kind of thinking is wrong and outdated. We need not make conversions for patchwork quilting!

When it comes to measurements and the problems of conversions, the solution is simple: have two sets of tools and know how to use each of them. If you maintain two sets of tools, you need have no fear. As you work with these tools, you become increasingly confident and more comfortable working with each system. It is not difficult to master each system independently. The same idea works for cooking. When concocting a foreign recipe, measure with that country's measuring tools. What could be simpler?

If you use quilting patterns and instructions from another country's measurement system, your measuring tools should include:

  • A yardstick and a meter stick or one stick that has both measures printed on it
  • A tape measure with inches on one side and centimeters on the other
  • A 6″ and a 20 cm ruler for small measurements
  • Rotary cutting mats and rulers in both systems

Rounding Measurements and Dimensions

For all measurements involving fabric, round up. Rounding up ensures that all measurements are slightly larger than they need to be. It is better to have a little too much fabric than not enough to do the job!

.... by Dena Dale Crain

This brief explanation of how to work with more than one measurement system came from Math for Quilters, taught by Dena Dale Crain. If you want or need to know more about Dena's class, click here Math for Quilters.