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Learn How to Paper Piece a Quilt

Paper Piecing is a Simple Technique

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Learn How to Paper Piece a Quilt

Miniature Oddfellows Star, a Paper Pieced Quilt

©Janet Wickell

What Is Paper Piecing?

You've probably heard about paper piecing techniques, even if you are a brand new quilter. The term is a bit confusing, because paper piecing is just one of the names used to describe the broad category of foundation piecing. The term 'paper' clicked with quilters, because most of the templates used to complete a design are printed onto paper foundations -- more about that in a bit.

Flip and sew and sew and flip are two more terms often associated with paper piecing. Both describe the actions you'll take when sewing a foundation pieced quilt.

Foundation piecing is a traditional method that's had a dramatic rebirth since the early 1990s. Miniature quilt enthusiasts were among the first to rediscover foundation piecing, because when the method is done correctly, blocks are perfect every time, even when they are sewn with tiny patches.

Don't confuse the paper piecing method described here with English paper piecing -- that's a completely different technique.

String piecing is a popular freehand version of foundation piecing.

Intro to Paper Piecing

To paper piece, patches are sewn directly onto an exact replica of a quilt block or portion of a block. The foundation template can be drawn or printed on paper, fabric or another material. The only seam allowance on the template is the one that surrounds the outer perimeter of the unit.

For my favorite paper piecing method, fabric is positioned on the unprinted side of the foundation, with edges overlapping drawn lines, which can easily be seen by holding the foundation up to the light. Seams are sewn on the front, directly on the lines, and the overlapped edges of fabric become seam allowances. If you position fabric carefully, and sew on the lines, your blocks will always be perfect.

It's more difficult to describe paper piecing that to actually do it -- you'll find that it's one of the easiest techniques you've ever tried, even if you initially don't quite understand the process. We'll get to some projects in a bit, but first let's talk about foundation piecing options.

Foundation Materials

Foundation templates can be permanent or temporary.
  • Permanent foundations stay in the quilt forever.
  • Temporary foundations are usually removed after the blocks are joined, but before the quilt is sandwiched with batting and backing.

Pros and Cons of Permanent and Temporary Foundations

  • Permanent foundations add an extra layer that can make hand quilting difficult.
  • Permanent foundations add bulk to seam allowances where blocks or other foundation pieced units are joined.
  • Permanent foundations remain to stabilize patches, so you can use up bits and pieces of your stash without regard to fabric grain placement.
  • Temporary foundations are sewn with short stitches that help perforate the template for easier removal and keep seams stable when foundations are pulled away, but short stitches can be difficult to remove if you must rip out a seam to correct errors.
  • You can use longer stitches on permanent foundations.
  • It takes time to remove most types of temporary foundations, especially when patches are small.

Using Permanent Foundations

Lightweight muslin and other cottons are traditional choices for permanent foundations. Woven fabric has a tendency to stretch during handling, and the stretch can create skewed blocks. Moisture enhances stretch, so use a dry iron to press quilt blocks during assembly.

It's easy to print on fabric when you back it with freezer paper. Many companies offer pre-treated and pre-backed fabrics made especially for quilters.

Non-woven interfacing is another foundation option. It's sheer, doesn't stretch, and template lines are visible from both sides to make fabric placement a cinch.

Temporary Foundation Materials

Smooth vellum can be used for temporary foundations and will feed through most laser printers. Blank newsprint is another choice, and pulls away easily after sewing.

Commercial foundations are also available. Many are made so they will pass easily through inkjet and laser printers.

  • The Electric Quilt offers precut sheets of temporary foundation material made from a non-woven, rayon polyester blend.
  • Collins' Wash Away Foundation Paper is said to dissolve in ten seconds when the finished quilt is placed in water.

Other plain and pre-printed foundations are available at quilt shops and from mail order suppliers.

I normally use temporary foundations for quilt blocks, because I prefer to avoid a bulky extra layer. I do use permanent foundations for projects that would look best with a stiffer appearance -- such as items that will decorate clothing or accessories, when I am making a string quilt, and when I can disregard the weight and hand quilting issue if a longarm quilter will quilt the finished project.

Making Foundation Templates

There are many ways to make templates, but the easiest way is to print them with your printer. Inkjets are best for permanent foundations, because fabric printed on a laser must be sealed with a protective coating that stiffens the fabric. Either type of printer is fine for temporary foundations, but use a dry iron to keep inkjet inks from running.
  • Try the free paper piecing patterns on this web site and others.
  • If you're using a book, make 100% photocopies or scan images for your own personal use. You might be instructed to add a 1/4" seam around each template.
  • Quilting software programs allow you to design and print accurate templates quickly and easily.
  • Treat fabric foundations with a product such as Bubble Jet Set before printing to make dyes permanent.

Paper Piecing Tips

  • Use 15-20 stitches per inch when piecing on temporary foundations. Go with the higher stitch count for minis with short seams to keep them from unraveling when foundations are removed.
  • Keep stretch to a minimum by making sure the fabric's straight grain lies along the outer perimeter of a block when using temporary foundations.
  • Begin each project with a new needle. Needles must pierce multiple layers of fabric and paper, so they become dull more quickly.

The best way to truly understand paper piecing is to practice. Try my log cabin quilt block before moving on to other projects.

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