Let me begin by saying that I love to sew! What kind of sewing? Well, I haven’t found a variety I haven’t liked yet, other than possibly mending. But even mending can have its rewards! My grandson’s military garb needs various tweaks and mends occasionally and nothing makes me happier than doing for my loved ones!
But on to today’s subject, English paper piecing (or EPP). All kinds of sewing - machine or hand - have their own kind of rewards. I am not a perfectionist. I jump right in, get it done, love the look - just don’t inspect it too closely.
But I do admire perfection! I have friends that I follow on social media who post quilts that are absolutely perfect. You could examine them under a microscope, and never find a flaw. I don’t know how they do it, I try, but apparently, I didn’t get the perfection gene. So that is why I absolutely LOVE English paper piecing! This allows me to create perfect points! And not only is it accurate, but it’s easy to do!
So, what is English paper piecing you ask????
In this type of quilting, fabric is wrapped around a paper template and then basted in place. The pieces are then whip stitched together by hand. When the quilt top is complete, the papers are removed. Originally, English paper pieced designs used squares and half square triangles, but then evolved into geometric shapes such as hexagons, octagons, and diamonds. This quilting method is popular because it is more accurate than regular piecing.
Printing your hexagons
You need to print a lot of hexagons! My suggestion is to save your previously printed sheets and re-use the paper. The paper will not stay in the quilt, so the fact that the paper has some printing on it doesn’t matter. After you have pieced the quilt, you just reach in and pull the paper out. Then, it’s ready for the recycle bin. I sometimes spray starch my hexagons before I press them. If you do this, make sure do NOT use paper with printing on it because the ink may not be stable. It is fine, though if you just dry iron them.
Some tips before you begin. Firstly, it important to use quality fabric. That seems like a given, but quality fabrics are finely woven and have a very nice feel. They aren’t coarse, and stiff, as lower quality fabrics can be. This makes such a difference in your ability to maneuver the fabrics as you create your hexagons.
It’s best to choose small prints and tone on tone fabrics. The hexagons are small, so a large print can be distracting as it will be cut into small pieces and re-joined randomly. If you are someone who must match up patterns, pay attention to the direction of the prints as you cut and join your hexagons.
Just as you need quality fabrics, the same applies to threads. Dual Duty XP® Paper Piecing Thread is the thread I would recommend, when doing my English paper piecing because it’s the best! It’s not only strong but it is very fine which means the stitches don’t show. My niece was learning to quilt and she hand pieced a quilt with a bargain thread. When her kids were rough housing on the bed, it fell apart! If you cannot get your hands on a spool, Dual Duty XP All-Purpose is another quality thread you can count on.
Cutting out your hexagon fabric
Don’t skimp! That’s the most important part of cutting! A generous ¼” to 3/8” seam allowance is needed.
If do not have enough fabric at the edges or corners, you will be in trouble as you fold the fabric around the paper.
Pin the paper hexagon on your fabric with one straight edge parallel to the straight grain. It won’t be as nice if it is off grain. This is important for the pattern, but also for the way the fabric folds.
This is what I call mindless sewing! Great for when you are sitting and binge watching your favorite programs. Get your paper hexagons cut out, collect your fabrics and Dual Duty XP® Paper Piecing Thread and a good, fine hand needle. Do you need a thimble? Up to you. I don’t usually need one for this particular task. Start with a big, messy knot on the thread end. Neatness doesn’t count here! You want to be able to tug on the thread without pulling the knot through the fabric.
Take a couple of basting stitches through the corner. Be careful that you DON’T sew through the paper!
Then move to the next corner. Fold the fabric and take two stitches again.
Continue around the hexagon, finishing with three basting stitches in the final corner, then run the thread a few stitches towards the next corner, and cut the thread.
Next step, off to the ironing board. Press with a dry iron. I like to spritz them with spray starch to get a nice crisp edge. Don’t use spray starch if you are using printed sheets of paper.
Join your hexagons
Place your first two hexagons right sides together. Tie a nice respectable small knot in the thread end. Slide the needle between the paper and the fabric to bury the knot. Then slide the needle through the point on both layers.
Stitch very small whip stitches. As before, don’t sew through the paper. If you nick it once in a while, it’s ok, it will tear easily when you remove the paper.
Continue whip stitching to the next corner.
Then take two stitches into the corner to reinforce it so it doesn’t pull apart later.
Now we are ready to add the next hexagon. Unfold the first two and place the third one in place, right sides together with one of the previous ones.
Stitch through the corner of both hexagons, reinforcing it. Then continue to the next corner. Reinforce the corner.
You are now ready to get started on your first English Paper Piecing project! It doesn’t matter if you are English or not, you will do fantastic! Have fun!
Take a look at these free quilting patterns to get you started!
Marie is currently enjoying retirement from her corporate job in the sewing machine industry. She is kept busy freelancing including writing, illustrating and designing fun sewing projects for several different companies.
Before going to work at the corporate offices of SVP Worldwide, Marie had worked at the retail level in sewing machine dealerships for many years.
Marie is also co-author of four books on sewing and machine embroidery for Krause Publications and is a columnist for quilting magazines.