Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Paper Piecing Tutorial

I don't know if I like to paper piece, but I do like the results you get from paper piecing. Paper piecing is time consuming. And sometimes a little frustrating. But the cool things you can create in fabric from paper piecing patterns are amazing. As I've worked on group quilts with the Twilight Quilters Coven and my own Twilight quilt, I've honed my skills as a paper piecer. I think I'm slower than ever, but hopefully I can put together some instructions that will be helpful for beginners or those who have only done basic paper piecing.

Paper Options:
There are many options for how you prepare your pattern. The obvious choice is foundation paper. It is nice and stable to work with while piecing, but does not tear away after you've finished your project. Some foundation papers must be trimmed away. The foundation paper I linked to washes away, but is a little expensive at $1.20 a sheet. You can also use newsprint (blank, obviously, available in rolls at a local newspaper office). The advantage of using this is ease in removal after you've finished piecing. The disadvantage is that it tears easily and may be difficult to copy or print on. Copy paper works well, but is a little thick. The lowest weight I've seen in stores is 20 lb. paper. If you can find a lighter weight, that is best. Recycled paper, even at the 20 lb. weight seems to be a little lighter than regular paper, so I try to use that when using copy paper.

My personal recommendation is vellum paper (17 lb. weight). There are several weights of vellum available, so make sure to go with the lightest you can find. Avoid vellum card stock. There are several advantages to using vellum paper. You can print or copy on it easily. Many craft stores and copy shops carry it, making it readily available. You can see through it. It is thin but strong, so it doesn't tear accidentally, but will tear away easily when you've finished your project.

Pattern Sizing:
You may find a pattern that you love but it is the wrong size for your quilt. You can adjust the size of your pattern by dividing the size you want your pattern to be by the size that it is and then multiply by 100 to get the percentage.

For example, if you want your pattern to be 4" and it is 5" you divide 4 by 5 and get a decimal of .8. Multiply the decimal by 100 and you will get the percentage that you need to reduce it. In this case you would reduce the pattern to 80%.

Using the same 5" pattern, but enlarging it to 6" means that you divide 6 by 5 and get a decimal of 1.2. Multiply it by 100 and you will get the 120%. In this case, you enlarge the pattern to 120%.

  • Rotary Cutter
  • Ruler with ⅛" markings (I like the 4" x 8" Omnigrid)
  • Small Cutting Mat ( 6" x 8" to 9" x 11" is about the right size to keep next to your sewing machine)
  • Spray Starch (I like Faultless Magic Sizing)
  • Dry Iron
  • Scratch Paper
  • Portable ironing board (if you are buying new tools for this, may I recommend this portable cutting/pressing station which has one side for pressing and one side for cutting and folds up for transport and storage)
  • Neutral colored thread
Let's Get Started:
Once you have your supplies assembled and your pattern ready you can get started. Some patterns are marked with a seam allowance around the pattern. I completely ignore this and add my own seam allowance plus a little cushion for error.

Use your rotary cutter (yes, I said rotary cutter) to cut your pattern pieces out (paper dulls cutting tools as we all know, so you may want to keep separate blades, one for "paper piecing only" and one for "fabric only"). When cutting the pattern pieces, add ⅜" around all inside seams, that is, all seams that connect with another piece in the block. The notes I put on some of the pictures are a little hard to read at this size, so click on any picture for a closer look (right click to open in a new tab).

Add ½" around the outside edges of the block.

The reason for adding a bigger seam allowance than you need is because fabric doesn't always behave the way it is supposed to, so you want a cushion to work with, just in case.

Here is the pattern all cut and ready to go. We're working with Cat's design for the New Moon Cover, which will be available soon. The pattern is the back side of your finished block. What you see on the pattern will be the reverse of your finished block.

Prepare your fabric by cutting it into strips. The strips should be wide enough to extend beyond the widest piece required for that color. Using spray starch and steam, press your fabric strips. This is important in a neat finished product.

Paper piecing is like paint-by-numbers, only with fabric. The pattern will indicate which color of fabric to use in each numbered section. Because I enlarged this pattern, it is all in black and white, so I kept a copy of the colored original close by to make sure I was using the right color in each section. Some patterns will write out the color to be used rather than coloring in that section.

Following the key on the pattern for sewing order, begin piecing the first section indicated. Cut a piece of fabric in the corresponding color from your prepared fabric strips large enough to completely fill in section 1 (the area inside the dotted red lines). Don't try to cut an exact piece. Work with pieces of fabric that fill the area plus seam allowance. The wrong side of the fabric should be against the wrong side of the pattern. If you flip the pattern and fabric over, you should be looking at the right side of the fabric. You can pin your fabric into place on the paper side of the pattern if you want to.

Place the fabric that will cover section 2 right sides together with the fabric for section 1. The majority of fabric 2 should be on the side of section 1. We are moving from section 1 to section 2, so when the fabric is turned from section 1, the right side will show and it will cover section 2.

Slightly reduce your stitch length. My default stitch length is 2.5 and I reduce it to 2.0. Place your pattern and fabric pattern side up and sew on the line between section 1 and section 2, beginning about ½" before the stitching line begins (or intersects with another seam line) and extending about ½" beyond the end of the stitching line (or intersection with another seam line -- in this case, all the way out to the edge of the pattern). Be sure to backstitch at the beginning and the end of your seam. This will help prevent your stitching from being pulled out when removing the paper later.

With the pattern facing up and the fabric laying flat, fold section 2 of the pattern back onto section 1 along the seam line.

Place your ruler along the seam and cut away the excess fabric in the seam allowance. On this particular pattern I am cutting at ⅛", which is half the normal seam. This pattern has many small and overlapping pieces and so I am using a smaller seam allowance to reduce bulk. On less complex patterns, a ¼" seams works just fine.

Unfold the pattern and open the fabric out so that right sides are showing and the seam is under the fabric. Place the pattern on a piece of scratch paper (the ink of the pattern will transfer when heated and you don't want it on your ironing board cover to transfer to other fabrics later) and press with a dry iron (steam makes the paper curl, well worse that just a dry iron). Make sure to only press on the fabric side of your piece and not on the printed side of the pattern.

*Note: If you have used starch on your fabric and you are turning a small piece you can finger press here instead of using an iron.

Pull the paper away from the stitching in the area beyond the stitching line. This helps to get a clean seam allowance around each section added to the piece. Also, most of the backstitching will be trimmed away as you work, so by pulling away the paper while the backstitching is still there you will avoid pulling out the seams when removing the paper after the block is completed.

Place a strip of fabric that will cover section 3 right sides together with sections one and two. Stitch along the seam line between sections 2 and 3, extending at least ½" beyond the beginning and end of the seam line (where the seam line intersects with another seam line).

With the pattern side up, fold section 3 back onto sections 1 and 2 along the seam line as you did with the first seam. Trim the excess seam allowance away (as before). Fold the pattern back into place, open out the fabric and press. Remember to pull away the pattern from the seam at both ends of the seam line.

At this point your pattern is starting to take shape in the center, but still looks like kind of a blob around the edges. Don't worry! We'll get there. Continue adding sections to your block until every number has been filled in with fabric. This pattern has 4 sections. This is what it looks like from the back (pattern side) after it has been stitched, trimmed, pressed and the pattern has been pulled away beyond the seam lines. If you have been finger pressing as you work, make sure to press the whole piece with a dry iron now.

We're ready to cut this piece to shape now. Trim inside seam allowances to ¼".

Leave a ½" seam allowance on the outside edges of the pattern. This is the back of the piece.

This is what it looks like from the front.

Continue assembling pieces as directed by the pattern. The instructions for this pattern read:
AB > CD > E
FG > H > I

Row 1: assemble pieces A and B and sew them together; assemble sections C and D and sew them together and then sew joined sections AB to joined sections CD; assemble section E and add it to joined sections ABCD. Set the joined sections ABCDE aside.
Row 2: assemble sections F and G and sew them together; assemble section H and sew it to joined sections FG; assemble section I and sew it to joined sections FGH.
Row 3: Sew joined sections ABCDE to joined sections FGHI.

When it comes time to join two sections together determine the most important points in the two sections to match each other. In sections A and B it is most important that the two stem sections in the middle of the pieces match.

To help get the points to match up, insert a pin from the back (pattern side) through the center of the intersection where the points should meet on one pattern piece. Put the second pattern piece, right side together on top of the first and insert the pin through the top pattern from fabric side out through the pattern paper. Begin stitching with the pin still in (it should stick straight up through both pieces). Remove the pin and continue stitch along the seam line, backstitching at the beginning and end of the seam.

Remove the paper from the seam allowance on both sides of the seam and in about the width of the seam allowance on the side that you turn the seam to. This helps with removal later. After the paper has been removed, press the joined sections.

As I mentioned earlier, sometimes fabric doesn't behave as it should. When you lay the pattern out before assembly, all the pieces match up. But when you add fabric, sometimes you get unexpected results. That's why it is important to build in a little wiggle room when preparing your pieces. Since we left a ½" seam allowance around the outside of the block, there is a bit of extra fabric to work with and there shouldn't be a problem with the outside edges not matching in the top corner

Repeat the above steps for individual section completion and joining of sections as necessary to complete your pattern. This is the finished block before the extra fabric in the seam allowance has been trimmed away. By leaving a ½" seam allowance all around the edge of the entire block it gives an extra ½" to work with when centering and trimming your block.

There are two schools of though as to when to remove the paper from your block. Some quilters prefer to leave the paper in until after sashing has been added to the block. The paper gives the block stability and keeps the bias pieces on more complex patterns from stretching when you put it into place in your quilt. Some quilters like to remove the paper now after piecing is complete. I've tried it both ways and prefer to remove the paper at this point (*see below). The reason I use starch, apart from getting a neater finished result, is that it helps to stabilize the bias in the fabric. I suggest that you try both ways and find the method that suits you best.

This is the back of the block. Trimming the seams as each piece is assembled helps keep the back neat and reduces bulk in the block. I left the paper in the falling petal at the bottom of the block because I wanted to use the outer seam line as reference for where to trim the block.

Before trimming, give the block a good pressing with steam and if necessary, more starch. Again, the starch is to help stabilize the the different biases in the fabric.

There are several options for how to square up your block. The easiest way is to use a square ruler the size of your block (plus a ¼" seam allowance all the way around). Center the ruler over the block (right side up) and using the grid in the ruler to make sure the design is straight, trim away the excess fabric.

*If your pattern is fairly simple (only a few pieces per section and only two or three sections to join overall) and lays nice and flat with the paper still in, you can use the outer seam lines and the grid on your ruler and/or cutting mat to square up (remembering to leave a ¼" seam allowance on all four sides).

In squaring up this block, I used a landmark on the block as a reference. As I mentioned, I left the paper in the falling petal at the bottom because I wanted the seam to cut off as the pattern indicated. I used the grid on my ruler and on my cutting mat, as well as the line on the pattern to decide where to trim this block up, remembering to leave a ¼" seam allowance all the way around.

Here is the finished block. The camera bends the image a little, but trust me, this was nice and square when I put it into place.

A word about unpicking:
If you by some chance make a mistake, you don't have to throw out your whole section -- you can unpick paper piecing. Make sure to pull the stitches out from the fabric side so you don't tear your paper. Once you get the stitches out, you'll be ready to give it another try.

Paper Piecing Pattern Resources:
SewHooked by Jennifer Ofenstein (a Coven Favorite)
The Quilter's Cache by Marcia Hohn
Paper Panache
Piece by Number Etsy Shop
Silver Linings Originals by Linda Hibbert


Elizabeth said...

I agree about paper piecing. I don't really enjoy doing it, but the results are amazing. It's the only way I have to get a "perfect" block.

Richard Healey said...

Great tutorial thank you for sharing it with me. One reason I want to learn paper piecing is I love the Sesame street quilt your making it totally fascinates me.