Paper Piecing for Quilting Accuracy
I’ll be using my “CANADA” paper piece block pattern for this demo. We’ll construct the “C” and attach it to the first “A” in the design.
What Is Paper Piecing?
Foundation paper piecing is a fool-proof way of ensuring the points in your block are perfectly aligned, making for a beautiful - and accurate - finished piece of quilty goodness. We’re not bound by specific angles, so the possibilities are endless!
Patterns are printed to scale on paper. This is the template. Fabric is placed directly on the template and they’re sewn together, stitching directly on the lines, on the paper. The paper is then torn away when the block is complete.
Choosing Paper For Paper Piecing
Printer or copy paper is common for paper piecing. Some people use freezer paper. I recently discovered “Carol Doak’s Foundation Paper” on Amazon, and I love it. It’s very thin, so it tears away easily and doesn’t curl when pressing with an iron. Your local fabric stores carry other brands as well.
Along with your chosen fabric, and your sewing machine, you’ll need the following:
- Rotary cutter and ruler
- Cutting mat
- Foundation paper
- Glue stick or pins for larger pieces
- Thin cardstock, or plastic strip, for folding templates while sewing. You can use the thin cardboard inserts that come in magazines. I like to use quilter’s plastic sheets with the grid drawn on them. I cut them lengthwise about 2” wide. They’re reusable and won’t wear out as thin cardboard will. If you use a plastic sheet without a printed grid, you will lose it. I speak from experience… I continually lost track of it, dropped it on the floor, couldn’t find it. Yep… also cut through it with my rotary cutter.
- Stitch ripper… yep, still use mine daily
- Quilter’s awl or something with a small, but not sharp, point. This is useful in removing paper in tight corners. You can use little pointy scissors or your stitch ripper.
- Light table… optional. A window works just as well.
- Iron and pressing board
- Sewing machine needle… it doesn’t have to be new because you’re stitching through paper. Just be cautious. If you notice skipped stitches, it’s time to put a different needle in your machine. Topstitch needles are my secret weapon, thanks to the expertise of my friend, Linda Smith, @scrapmaster01 on Instagram. An 80/10 works well for paper piecing.
Re-Creating Paper Pattern Template
For each block that will be constructed, a separate paper piece template is required.
There are a few ways to reproduce the paper pattern piece when there are multiples of the same thing to be sewn. Below are three methods. Choose the one that works best for you.
This is a good method if it’s a simple, one-use design. Lay a single sheet of your foundation paper over the pattern. Tape them together to avoid shifting while you trace. Using a fine black, permanent marker and ruler, carefully trace the entire pattern, including the outer dashed lines and piece numbers. This method is a great idea if you only have one to reproduce. It can become a tedious step if you need multiple copies.
Stack up to six blank sheets of paper. Place the pattern template on top of them. Staple together near all four corners, ensuring staples are not close to drawn lines on the template. Remove thread, including bobbin thread, from your machine and insert an old needle no longer suitable for fabric. Stitch through all layers of paper along all solid and dashed lines. These will be your stitching lines when you stitch your fabric to the paper. Remove staples and voila… you have multiple copies of your template. This is useful if you don’t have a printer.
PRINT OR PHOTOCOPY
This method needs little explanation and is my favourite. Print or copy as many as required to complete the project. This is the fastest way to reproduce your templates. You can also reduce or enlarge the pattern at this point to suit your needs. Keep in mind, if you alter the scale, you’ll also be altering the scale of the seam allowance. If you change the size, ignore the old seam allowance. Create your own new seam allowance by measuring ¼” from the outer solid line which is the finished edge of the section.
Let’s Get Started
Fabric is ALWAYS placed on the unprinted side of the template.
Stitching is ALWAYS done on the printed side of the template.
Since you position your fabric on one side and stitch on the other, holding your piece up to the light, or using a light table if you have one, helps to ensure your fabric is positioned correctly.
Separate your templates and cut just inside the dashed lines, as shown below. The dashed lines represent your seam allowance. If you cut just within, you won’t be cutting paper with your rotary cutter when you trim your constructed sections down to size.
Notice the markings on the template. Depending on the pattern, guidelines will be different but what remains constant is the order in which you add each fabric piece as you sew. The numbers represent the order, or sequence, to stitch each fabric to the template.
The letter, in this case, ‘A’, represents the section of the pattern you are constructing. So ‘A1’ will be your first piece, ‘A2’ will be your second, A3 will be your third, and so on. At this point, you can use pencil crayons, or markers, to colour directly on the template. If you are using multiple colours or shades of fabric, this helps to avoid confusion until your pattern starts to take shape.
If you’re new to paper piecing, you may want to use a larger swatch of fabric than required until you’re used to the process. Ensure your fabric extends at least 1/4” beyond the shape you are covering. A1 is completely covered and fabric extends beyond the shape… the illustration shows what it looks like from both sides. My light table shows the fabric is positioned correctly. A window, or holding it up to the light, will have the same effect.
Position A1 on the unprinted side of the template right side up, so the wrong side of the fabric is against the unprinted side of the paper.
Your glue stick will be helpful in this first step to hold the first piece of fabric in place. Place a small amount in the middle of the shape. Once you’re happy with the placement of your fabric, press it against the template. That little dab of glue will hold it in place.
Trim A1 in preparation for A2.
With your pattern template printed side up, position your plastic strip, or thin cardboard, directly on the line separating A1 and A2. Fold the paper, creasing along the edge of the strip. Remove the strip. Position ruler with the 1/4” markings lining up with the fold. Trim off excess fabric, giving you the necessary 1/4" seam allowance. The illustration below, using the light table, shows what it will look like when the paper is unfolded.
Sew A2 to A1.
A1 was placed right side up on the unprinted side of the template. Every piece after that will ALWAYS be placed right side down on the unprinted side of the template. The easy way to remember is, as with all sewing, fabric is placed right sides together (rst).
Position A2, rst, with A1, aligning edges along seam allowance, as shown. It’s perfectly fine to extend A2 beyond the seam allowance because it can be trimmed later. Remember, you’ll want to ensure the fabric will extend beyond its seam allowance once pressed open. To avoid incorrect positioning, and the frustrating chore of ripping out stitches to re-position, use the following tip in this section. It’s amazing and will remove the fear factor we all experience when positioning that piece of fabric.
The first two illustrations below are identical except for the added blue and green rectangles. I added them because it’ll help you see the boundaries of A2 from the unprinted side of the template. The blue represents the actual finished size of A2. The green represents A2 with added seam allowance.
Here’s where the magic happens… while the template is folded back, position A2, rst, with A1. As long as A2 extends beyond the blue rectangle, you’ll know that when pressed open, it will extend beyond the real seam allowance. Holding it up to a light source will indicate if it’s positioned properly. This technique works with all subsequent steps.
Mind blown, am I right? I learned this amazing technique from Lee Heinrich - here's her tutorial.
Fold the paper back to its original position. It’s now flat in preparation to sew. The last diagram shows the fabric positioning through the light table.
Move to the sewing machine, maintaining the positioning of the fabric with the template. Shorten your stitch length to about a '2' for paper piecing. This will help paper tear away easily later.
Backstitch at the beginning and end of each row of stitches to secure. Start at one end of the line, between A1 and A2, and stitch to the end of the line. Remove from the sewing machine.
Press seam open.
Repeat the process.
Place plastic template on the line between A2 and A3. Fold along the line as before. Trim fabric 1/4" from the fold.
Use the technique you learned in Step 4. Position A3 while the template is folded to ensure it’s placed correctly. Make sure it extends beyond all seam allowances. Unfold the template in preparation for stitching.
Stitch as shown. This sample shows an outer seam. Ensure any stitches extending into the 1/4” seam allowance go just beyond the seam allowance. Again, backstitch at the beginning and end of each line of stitches, over the seam allowance area. This will prevent 'unravelling' of stitches before the sections are joined.
Press seam open. The letter “C” is starting to take shape.
Continue using the same techniques for A4 and A5.
Trim 1/4" from the solid line, giving you your 1/4" seam allowance to sew your sections together.
Join the sections.
Once your sections are complete and trimmed, place right side up, side by side.
Position them right sides together and stitch using 1/4” seam allowance.
Remove paper before pressing. If there aren’t a lot of diagonal cuts, you can remove all the paper before sewing your sections together. The paper provides some stability so, if you have a lot of bias (diagonal) cuts of fabric, it’s useful to leave the paper attached until you’re done.
Where there are a lot of sections in some patterns, there will be instructions on the order to sew the sections together.