English Paper Piecing, the creation of a quilt block or entire quilt using fabric wrapped around paper patterns, is a terrific skill to add to any quilter's "box of tools." Since fabric is "wrapped" around the paper cut to the exact size, precision in piecing can be achieved. The technique works well with traditional or modern fabrics, giving all quilters a useful technique for hand piecing. A wide variety of shapes may be used when using this technique; however, the hexagon shape is the most common. Seven hexagons form a Grandmother's Flower Garden block which can then be surrounded by 12 more hexagons if desired and then appliqued to a background material or set together with setting hexagons to form an entire quilt. Along with hexagons, apple cores, clamshells, diamonds, octagons, pentagons, and rectangles, squares, triangles, trapezoids, half-hexagons, and tumblers are all popular shapes used in English paper piecing. Unless otherwise specified, the hexagon shape will be referred to in this article.
No specialty items are required to use this hand piecing technique. Fabric scraps or pieces, needle, thread, and simple paper patterns are all of the materials that are needed. Precut paper pieces can be purchased (www.paperpieces.com is an excellent site for this and offers very reasonable prices on their items), or you can make them using regular paper, cardstock, template plastic or freezer paper. Creating your own papers does involve making sure you prepare your shapes accurately. You'll also need to spend some time cutting out each individual piece. By using cardstock or freezer paper for your patterns you'll be able to use each paper several times. If you choose to use freezer paper as your pattern, you can iron the shiny side directly onto the wrong side of your fabric and it will temporarily adhere, offering great stability when hand sewing. Using a regular paper punch to make a hole in the center of the paper before you begin to sew will make it easier to remove the paper at a later time.
Once you have a collection of papers, it's time to prepare your fabric pieces. Fabric pieces should be cut at least 1/4" larger on all sides than the paper shape. The extra fabric will be used to fold over the paper creating a fabric piece the exact size of the template.
When you are ready to begin sewing, it's best to have a small collection of prepared paper pieces and prepared fabric pieces. First, you'll want to center your paper on the fabric and then secure it to the fabric. If you have used freezer paper, you can simply iron the shiny side of the freezer paper to the wrong side of your fabric as described above. If using paper, cardstock, or even template plastic, you'll need to use either a dab of glue from an acid-free glue stick, a straight pin, or even a plastic-coated paper clip in order to secure the template and fabric together while basting. For each method, the template should always be secured to the wrong side of the fabric.
Next, baste your fabric around the paper. There are a couple of different methods of doing this with advantages to each method. With the first method, the fabric is basted to the paper. Using a thread that contrasts with your fabric (to make it easier to remove the basting stitches later), you will fold the seam allowance over the template and take a couple of stitches through the fabric and paper within the 1/4" seam allowance. Continue around the paper folding the fabric over, making sharp points at the corners, and continuing to take small stitches through both paper and fabric. This method is easy to use; however, the basting threads will all need to be removed at a later time.
Another method of basting templates uses a similar technique; however, the stitches don't go all the way through the paper. Instead, a small stitch is made at each corner, securing the two edges. A running stitch is made through the fabric only along each edge with another stitch being taken through the folded edges at the next corner. With this method, basting stitches won't have to be removed at a later time since all of the basting is done on the back of the fabric.
When you have several basted pieces, you are ready to begin sewing the shapes together. Take two shapes and put them right sides together. Then, using a small whip-stitch, sew the pieces together, being careful to just catch the very edge of each piece with your needle. You won't be sewing through the paper here; you will sew through both fabric edges.
A good discussion of the entire technique can be found here.
Paper should remain in place until all of the surrounding edges of the shape have been stitched to another fabric piece. When a piece is fully surrounded by sewn units, press well, and remove the papers saving them to use again. Using a light mist of spray starch on blocks or units after the papers have been removed can also help to "set" the block.
Some shapes, such as diamonds, require that the points should be basted with the seam allowance extended. When sewing these shapes together, the extended seam allowances should all remain on the back of the unit.
English paper piecing is a quilting technique that has been used for many years. The growth of its popularity in recent years might be attributed to several things: you can achieve great precision using the technique; the technique is portable, allowing you to take all of your supplies in a small container to work on nearly anywhere; and the process of handwork can be a very relaxing pastime.