Paper Piecing — What You Need and How to Do It

At one time or another, especially if you’ve quilted for a while and have perused quilt sites for inspiration, you may have heard the terms paper piecing, foundation piecing, or English paper piecing (EPP) bandied around a bit.  For a beginner, either new to quilting or the whole I’ve-only-traditional-pieced quilt group, those terms can be confusing.  Are they the same thing?  If they’re not, then how are they different?  When do I use them?  And most importantly, which one is best?

Like most other quilting techniques, the best one to use depends on the quilt you’re making.  I will readily admit that English paper piecing drives me up a wall (to me it’s too tedious, or maybe I’ve been spoiled by Cindy Blackberg’s Stamp Piecing Method).  The English paper piecing method uses cardboard templates. You trace around your templates on the wrong side of the fabric and then cut the patches out with a ¼-inch margin.  Place the cardboard template in the center of the fabric and hold it in place with a dab of fabric glue.  Then you fold the fabric around the template and baste in place.  When several of these are done, they are whipped stitched or ladder stitched together to form a pattern.  Some quilts, such as Lucy Boston’s Patchwork of the Crosses, or the 1718 Coverlet require English paper piecing.  Other patterns can be adapted to it (such as Grandmother’s Flower Garden), if the quilter really enjoys this method.

Grandmother’s Flower Garden

English paper piecing is normally not confused with paper piecing or foundation piecing, but foundation piecing and paper piecing are often used interchangeably.  The difference between the two lies in the supplies used.  But in order to understand the distinction between them, let’s define them first.  Foundation piecing is a piecing method used to stabilize the fabric as the block is sewn together.  It employs muslin (or some other thin cloth) as the foundation.  Strips of fabric are sewn onto the muslin, often in random order, to create a quilt block.  Foundation piecing is used in string quilts, spider web quilts (sometimes, not always), and Crazy Quilts.  The muslin is not removed before quilting, it’s incorporated into the quilt.

Crazy Quilt

Paper piecing is different from foundation piecing in that the block pattern is either drawn or printed onto a paper source.  The block’s patches are positioned onto the paper and sewn on with by machine by a dictated numerical system.  Sometimes units are paper pieced and then the units are sewn together into the block.  There are two main differences between foundation piecing and paper piecing:  The block is printed onto paper and after the piecing is finished, the paper should be removed.

That is the cut and dried method.  I will also admit that in today’s technology-driven quilt world, there are a few gray areas here.  With the onset of freezer paper than can be run through an ink jet printer, muslin can be ironed onto the freezer paper and sent through the printer and have the paper pieced pattern printed onto it.  The muslin can be removed from the freezer paper and the pattern used as a traditional paper pieced block without the quilter having to remove the papers at the end of the process.  And on the other hand, some paper piecing “papers” tout the fact they don’t have to be removed before quilting the quilt.  So, you can see why today the terms foundation pieced and paper pieced are used interchangeably.  In many quilters’ eyes they are literally the same thing. 

Those are the three categories of paper piecing and their definitions.  Now let’s look at the circumstances where paper piecing may the best choice for making a block.

  1.  If the block is really complicated.

There are some blocks I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole unless I could paper piece them.  Take this block:

Maltese Cross

It looks complicated, if you think in terms of traditional piecing.  But if you want to paper piece the block, it can be broken down into units and then sewn together.  And FYI here, if you have the EQ software, it does have the paper piecing option for most of the blocks in it.  There are some blocks you can’t paper piece.  Electric Quilt also allows you to mirror-image the block, which is something you must do if the block is not symmetrical. 

  •  The block has lots of bias.

This is a personal thing here.  I get really antsy if there’s lots of bias edges in a block.  It’s easy to stretch out of shape even with the most careful handling and pressing.  However, between starching the fabric and the stability of the paper, the bias tends to keep its shape perfectly.

  •  The block has lots of pieces.
Pickles and Rings

If there are lots and lots of units in a block, paper piecing seems to simplify the process without overwhelming me.  I can concentrate on one unit at a time and as the units are completed, suddenly sewing the block together doesn’t seem quite so daunting.

  •  The blocks are tiny.

If Dear Jane taught me nothing else, it taught me that smaller blocks are much easier if they’re paper pieced. 

Dear Jane

The unfinished blocks in this quilt are 4 ½-inches.  That’s small, but I learned that if I can paper piece those, the corners match pretty perfectly, and the bias is protected.  I’ve embraced this concept to the point where I paper pieced 99 percent of my Farmer’s Wife and now paper piece nearly all my pieced sashing cornerstones in a quilt.

  •  You’re working on a group quilt, such as a raffle quilt.

If you’re working on a quilt where lots of people will be making blocks, paper piecing will assure that all blocks will turn out the same size (fingers crossed…).

The biggest drawback with paper piecing is that it does require more fabric than traditional piecing.  So, if you make the decision to paper piece a pattern that has traditional pieced fabric requirements, allow yourself 1/4-yard to a yard extra material.  With paper piecing, you trade fabric for accuracy:  Yes, it takes more fabric, but yes, it’s also more precise.

There are lots of notions that are available for paper piecing.  You don’t necessarily have to use standard copy paper to do this, but that is the most readily available.  If I’m out of my desired paper piecing paper, I copy (either by hand or by copier/printer), the pattern onto standard copy paper.  I unthread my machine, remove the bobbin, and shorten the stitch length.  Then I “sew” around each of the sewing lines on the pattern. 

Perforated Pattern

It’s important to understand that most paper piecing patterns have two lines drawn on them.  More often than not, the sewing line is a solid one and the cutting line is a dotted or dashed line.  The reason I do this is to perforate the pattern so it will make for easy paper removal.  While copy paper is the most readily available medium, it’s also the hardest to remove.  Between perforating the pattern beforehand, and then sewing the fabric on with the same small stitch, copy paper can be easily removed. 

The second most readily available paper piecing paper is newsprint. 

Ream of 8.5 x 11 inch Newsprint

This can be purchased or ordered from most office supply stores or Amazon in 8 ½ x 11-inch size, so it can be run through your copier or printer.  This is easier to remove than standard copy paper, but I still recommend that you perforate it.  And FYI, if you live in an area like I do where humidity runs rampant until the end of October, note that this paper holds humidity well and that can make it difficult when running it through a copier/printer.  Run a hot, dry iron over it before printing or keep it near a dehumidifying agent.  Either of those will help a great deal.

The next group of papers for paper piecing are opaque.  You can see through them, which really makes them really ideal for this technique – you’ll see why in just a bit.

Vellum – This medium used to be constructed from an animal membrane, but now it’s produced from rag cotton.  It feels like a cross between parchment paper and super-thin plastic. 

See-through papers – This includes my favorite June Tailor’s Perfect Piecing Papers, Carol Doak’s papers, and myriads of other papers.  You may have to try a few to find the one that works for you.

Wash-away papers – If the thought of spending hours pulling out papers from your project before quilting it drives you up a wall, then this may be the product for you.  These vary in thickness and quality, and some can be put through the copier and printer and some cannot.   Read the directions and review them thoroughly before using.  And on a side note, if you’re not a pre-washer, you may want to include that step in your prep work if you use this medium and plan on just soaking the blocks in a sink to get rid of the papers.  Of course, if you’re planning on completing the quilt and then throwing it in the washer with a color-catcher, you can get around the pre-wash. 

After you’ve picked the paper you’re using for your pattern, go ahead and trace, print, or copy the block/block units onto it.  Then assemble everything else you will need:

Sewing Machine – Standard rules apply here.  Make sure it’s cleaned and oiled and has a good needle in it.  Shorten the stitch length to 1.8 or 1.5, depending on what paper is used.  On a side note, paper piecing is notoriously “linty” and dulls your needle no matter what medium is used.  It’s a good idea to clean your machine and replace your needle when the quilt top is completed.  And speaking of needles, I use a topstitching needle for paper piecing.

Awl – Sometimes this is needed to help move the fabric and paper over the feed dogs and under the needle.

Walking Foot – This is optional.  Some quilters like to use them with this technique and other quilters don’t.  I find a walking foot is exceptionally helpful in paper piecing.  There is more thickness than usual with this procedure – fabric, seams, and paper.  I find that a walking foot is a big asset in moving all of that over the feed dogs.

Thread – Quality piecing thread – the same kind you would use of for any other piecing.

Iron or Another Pressing Tool – An iron, seam roller, or wooden presser is a must.  To save time (and steps, unless you’re Fit Bit attentive), use a method that can be kept near your sewing machine.  It simply saves time.

Straight Edge – A straight edge is used to help fold back the paper before trimming.  This straight edge can be almost anything that is thin – so it can’t be a ruler.  It can be an index card, a strip of Mylar, or a postcard.  My favorite things to use as a straight edge are these:

These are advertising cards you can pick up at quilt shows or maybe even receive in the mail that are of thick, coated card stock.  They are nearly perfect for every pattern (unless you need a long, straight edge) and are free.  Can’t get much better than that. 

Add-a-Quarter Ruler – This tool is used to keep a ¼-inch seam allowance when trimming.  If you decide you really like to paper piece, and plan on doing it often, you may also want to add an Add-an-Eighth ruler to your quilting tools. 

An Add-an-Eighth ruler will help you maintain a 1/8-inch seam allowance for times that a ¼-inch seam allowance is too bulky.  These rulers come in a longer length and a shorter one.  I have and use both kinds.  And they’re handy for other cutting jobs in quilting, so this isn’t a one-use only tool. 

Glue Stick – A bit of glue is used to hold the first patch into place.  This doesn’t necessarily have to be a fabric glue stick.  Any glue stick that says it’s water soluble can be used.

Transparent Tape – Any clear tape that you an see through.  This may be needed for pattern repair.

Fabric – Fabric with a firm weave is the best, as the wear and tear on it will be more than what’s experience with traditional piecing.  Remember that the stitch length is shortened, so more time will be spent on the feed dogs.  Then the paper must be removed.  Loosely woven fabric doesn’t hold up very well under those conditions.  If you do any type of prep work on your material (such as prewashing), go ahead and do that.  Then look at your pattern:

Decide what colors go where and mark them on the front of the pattern. 

Marked Block for Halo Medallion

Then measure your patches and flip the pattern over so you’re looking at the back side of the pattern.  This is where an opaque medium really comes in handy.  You will need to measure the individual patches and cut them out from the fabric.  You can use the front side of the pattern for this if the patches are symmetrical (the same on the left and the right, such as rectangles, squares, and some triangles).  If it’s asymmetrical (not the same on the left and right), you need to work from the back of the pattern and make templates for the asymmetrical pieces.  If you’re using standard copy paper or newsprint, a light box is a great tool to have to get you through these steps.

When you cut out your patches and/or templates, be sure to add a half-inch to give yourself enough seam allowances.  Truthfully, if you have a pattern that is made for paper piecing, most of the time the directions will tell you how big to cut out the patches and even have templates if needed.  Judy Niemeyer patterns are great paper piecing patterns. 

My favorite Judy Neimeyer Pattern, Pepper Dish

While her patterns look challenging, she breaks down the cutting and sewing directions into easy chunks.  For me, Dear Jane was one of the most difficult paper piecing quilts.  Jane Stickle hand-pieced the original quilt, which made putting together odd shaped patches a bit easier.  However, for today’s quilter, a lot of those blocks need to be paper pieced.  The patterns had to be reversed and even then, some of those patches drove me up a wall. 

Now let’s get down to it.

Step One

Take the first patch and use a dab of the glue stick to adhere it to the wrong side of the patch marked number 1 on the paper piece pattern.  Make sure that the fabric not only completely covers the area, but also overlaps all sides at least ¼-inch.  This is for your seam allowance. 

If you’re using standard copy paper or newsprint, you will probably want to hold it up to the light so you can see that you’re doing this correctly.  This is where an opaque paper piecing medium is really handy.  There is no guess work.  However,  if you’ve perforated your copy paper or newsprint paper, you’ve reduced any chances of error. 

Step Two

Take the second patch, and while still working from the wrong side of the pattern place it on the unit marked number 2.  Make sure there is ¼-inch overlap on all sides. 

Now flip it to line up with the edge of the first patch, so that right sides of the fabric are together. 

You may want to pin it in place to make sure it doesn’t wiggle out of position. 

Step Three

Now flip the pattern over so you can see the right side of the pattern – the one where all the lines are.  Sew on the solid line.  You will want to start a few stitches from where the solid line begins and then sew past the line for a few stitches.  This is to allow all the threads to lock and not unravel.

Step Four

We’re still working from the right side of the pattern.  Take your straight edge and line it up with the solid line. 

Fold back the paper over the straight edge.  Take the Add-a-Quarter ruler and line the lip up with the edge and trim.   

Notice the Add-a-Quarter ruler has a “lip.” This allows it to fit snugly against the paper and straight edge for a perfect cut.

Step Five

Flip the pattern over to the wrong side.  Flip the second patch out to make sure it covers all of the area it needs to and has a ¼-inch seam allowance extending out into all the unsewn sides.  If it does, great!  Press the patch and repeat this process until all the areas are covered.

If you’ve found you may need to make some adjustments and need to rip out the patch, be aware that due to the small stitch length, the pattern may tear.  Use the transparent tape to mend the pattern and keep moving.

Step Six

Once the entire unit or block is covered with your patches, now it’s time to trim the block.  Put the block or unit on your rotary mat right side up and trim along the outer most dotted line.  If you’re paper piecing units, once all of them are complete and trimmed, they can be assembled into a block. 

At this point, you will need to consult your pattern directions to see if the papers can be removed then, or if you need to wait until the entire quilt centerd or entire quilt top is completed before removal.

That’s it!  That’s all there is to paper piecing!  It’s a bit different, since you’re working with a paper medium and from two sides of the pattern, but I solemnly swear this is a wonderful piecing method! 

Until Next Week, Quilt with Passion!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

5 replies on “Paper Piecing — What You Need and How to Do It”

I have been spending a delightful afternoon reading past posts, and I’m very glad you have a search bar to check out previous topics. I hope I am not repeating anything as I may have missed something while scanning foundation paper piecing. I have done extensive foundation paper piecing, and I still have all my Foundation Piecer and Quilts with Style magazines. I also took a class from Carol Doak and have most of her books from before 2000. Her 1/8″ and 1/4″ rulers with an index card method make for much less error.

The best method I have found is to use Scotch Removable Magic Tape, recommended by Carol, because you can sew directly over it without gumming up your needle. No glue and so easy to reposition and no need to wash your design when completed. If I think my pattern is too intricate a design, I print the pattern with newsprint, trimmed to fit my printer, make size adjustments if necessary and print again until it’s what I want. I think I have all her old FPP computer quilt programs that are available, as well as two programs from Sew Precise by Shirley Liby and am thankful I can still use the disks by downloading them onto my new laptop with a separate device. Once the pattern/block is what I want, then I cut out the pattern pieces from the printed block and use them as guides to cut out fabric with 3/8″ seam allowances all the way around.

I made a 5″ ‘coaster’ pineapple with only 1/8″ of the fabrics showing around my 1/4″ center square. It was one heck of a challenge and took me just about all day from start to finish. I told my husband that if he ever used it for coffee, I would kill him!

Oh nice tip about the Scotch Removable Magic Tape! I never thought about that. What good info! I have also used newsprint in the past. I think I was able to purchase a ream of 8.5 x 11-inch paper through Office Depot or Amazon so I didn’t have to trim it to fit my printer.

I have Carol’s book on borders — Carol Doak’s Creative Combinations — and it was a game changer concerning borders. I was never fortunate enough to take one of her classes, though. If I had made that pineapple coaster, I would frame it. No one would even have a chance to spill coffee on it!

Thanks for all your tips and for taking the time to read and comment. It makes my heart happy when quilters can collaborate and learn from each other. It really, really does.


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