Sunday, December 11, 2016

English Paper Piecing: Sewing It All Together

English Paper Piecing Tutorial: Part IV
Sewing Your Pieces Together

Finally! You've put together your kit, decided on a pattern, and got your pieces all ready for sewing.  Now it's time to start sewing them together.  As with everything else, there is more than one way to sew in English paper piecing.  I use a whip stitch to piece them together. You can also use a ladder stitch or a flat back stitch.  I'll go into that a little more towards the end of the tutorial.

Choosing Your Thread

First, you'll need to decide on a thread color.  As I mentioned in my EPP kit tutorial, I said that you only really need a handful of colors to get started.  Even if you only had cream, medium gray, and black, you're off to a good start.  I like to have more in my kit to choose from, but you'll figure that out as you go along.

Basic colors: white; cream; light, medium,
and dark gray, and black
It can be easy to choose a color if your pieces are relatively close in color, but what do you do if you are sewing together light and dark pieces together, for example white and black?  The general rule of thumb is to choose a thread color that will blend with the darkest fabric.  In the picture below, I used two different contrasts to illustrate this.  The pieces on the left were sewn with black thread. On the right, I used white thread.  This picture illustrates two points: first, you may notice on the right, the stitches sewn with white thread are slightly more visible than on the left. Second, if you're careful with your stitching, they're going to be hard to detect, regardless of the thread color you choose.

Once you've got your thread, you'll want a piece about 12-18" long.  I wouldn't go longer because then you run the risk of knots and tangles, and after awhile, that can really take the fun out of sewing.  By keeping your thread length relatively short, you have less of a chance of having to wrestle with cranky thread, plus you have less of a chance of breakage.  (Not that neither will happen--they will, but a shorter thread is still more manageable.)

Next is to knot the end of your thread. I prefer a quilter's knot.  To do this, you start by threading your needle.  You only need a single thread thickness to sew, so no need to double up.  Leave a few inches of single strand at the end for your thread.  Hold the end of the thread in between your finger and the needle.

Then wrap the thread around the tip of the needle three or four times.  (I typically go with four -- just because.)

Then grab the wrapped thread and end of the thread between your finger and thumb and slide them down over the eye of the needle and along the length of the thread going all the way to the end.  You'll get a nice quilter's knot.

If you prefer a video of this technique, here's a quick video tutorial by another quilter that does a good job of illustrating the technique.

Once your knot is threaded, you're ready to start sewing.

Sewing Your Pieces

Line up your pieces, right sides together, making sure the corners and edges line up perfectly.  If the shapes are identical, you can also line them up along all the edges with your fingers like you're stacking playing cards.

Next, you'll want to run your thread up along one side of the piece.  (If you're left handed like I am, start on the left side.  If you're right handed, start on the right.) This serves to hide and secure your knot.  Start your needle about a 1/4" from the end and bring it up through the very corner.  Do not go through the paper. (Unless you're thread basting, you never pass the needle through the paper.  It's only there to serve as a guide.) Pull your thread through.

Next, do a single stitch through both corners, stitching from the back to the front. The key to English paper piecing is to keep your stitches very small.  You should only be grabbing two or three threads of the fabric with each stitch.

Next, anchor your stitch with a double knot in the same corner.  To do this, pass the needle through the same spot as your first single stitch, making a loop. Before tightening the loop, pass the needle and thread through the loop two times before tightening.  

This secures your starting knot, secures your corners (where there will be extra tension during the sewing), and anchors each edge so that if breakage occurs somewhere while you're sewing, you don't have to undo all your stitching.

Once your corner is anchored, start doing small stitches along the length of the edge.  Make sure your stitches are secure. You don't need to yank them, but you want to make sure they're firm. But pull too hard, and you'll break your thread. Too loose, and you'll have very weak stitches, plus there will be visible gaps in between your pieces once they're opened flat.

You'll want your stitches fairly close together, maybe a millimeter or two apart.

I typically do about 15 stitches per inch.  This will vary person to person. Do what you're comfortable with. Just be careful not to have them too far apart. Remember, you're only grabbing two or three threads of fabric with each stitch. By having the stitches fairly close together, you're securing the pieces together better.

Once you get to the end, secure your corner the exact same way you secured the beginning corner: single stitch, then anchor knot.

If you're done stitching and are ready to cut your thread, hide your thread again by running the thread down along the side, just a reverse of how you started. Then trim your thread.

Open up your piece, and you can see your stitching.

Notice that even though I used a contrasting thread for the purpose of the tutorial, my stitches are still pretty small.  Using white thread would have hidden them completely.

Sewing Together Multiple Pieces on One Thread

When you're stitching multiple pieces together, you can do this without having to cut and reknot your thread for each side. It will use up just a bit more of your thread, but you're saving yourself a lot of time and streamlining your process.

Stitch your first two pieces together just like normal, ending at the corner with your single stitch and anchor knot.  This time, instead of tucking and cutting your thread, you're going to slip your thread to the next corner.  Open up your piece and figure out what order you'll need to sew.  In this hexie flower, the gray is the center and the purples are the petals, so I will want to hide the thread behind the purple piece so I can connect the next "petal" to the purple before stitching it on to the center.

To do this, slide your needle behind the fold of the fabric along the paper (but not through it), bringing it out the opposite corner.

Flip the piece over...

...and line up your next piece, just like before.

Start stitching just like before, including your single and anchor stitch.  When sewing to the adjoining piece, be sure you're all the way to the corner so that you don't have any gaps in your pieces or corners once the piece is open. Note, it's okay to bend or fold the paper of other pieces in order to get the pieces you're sewing to line up just right.

Keep going all the way around the center, connecting the sides and then the center as you go. As you go along, it's a good idea to lay down the piece as it would look when finished, then flip the next piece to be stitched over where you plan to sew it to make sure you're connecting the piece in the right direction. If you do happen to sew it on wrong, just get out your seam ripper and try again.

Below is a complete hexie flower.  (A bunch of these will make up a Grandma's Flower Garden.)

 Removing Papers

Once a shape is surrounded and sewn on all sides, you can safely remove the paper. You don't have to do this as you go, but I like to because it makes the project easier to work with.  As you work further and further out, you gain more flexibility with the fabric being able to bend than if you were to leave all your papers in until you were done.

You can get several uses out of your papers as long as they still retain their shape and aren't too creased or full of holes.  This one is still good to go!


Yup, you're going to get them. It's pretty much a guarantee.  There are things you can do to minimize it happening.  Condition your thread if you like. (Some people use beeswax on their thread.) Dangle your thread from time to time when you notice it's starting to twist as you sew. Keep your thread a manageable length. But even if you do all of these steps, you're still going to get knots.  If you're not able to work them out with minimal tugging, don't panic. It's perfectly fine to leave it there.  Remember, it's on the back of your project, and it's not going to show up on the front.  Just keep sewing. Do not pull too hard when trying to free the knot. You might end up breaking it, and then you're going to have to remove the stitches along the edge you were sewing all the way back to your anchor knot, and that's a pain.

Alternate Sewing Techniques

I've tried both the ladder stitch and the flat back stitch, and I just didn't like them as much as the whip stitch.  Nothing is inherently wrong with either of them. They just didn't feel as natural to me.  I also had a hard time making the stitches tight enough so that my pieces didn't have gaps. If you want to give them a try, here are some videos from other quilters on the ladder stitch and the flat back stitch.

That's it!  You're ready to start English paper piecing.  Don't worry if your stitches aren't invisible when you're just starting out. It takes practice to get your stitches even and to make them small and tight enough for them to blend.  You'll get there.  Work on a few small projects to get the hang of it, then tackle something more challenging once you've gained your confidence.

Welcome to the EPP club!!!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Getting Ready for English Paper Piecing

English Paper Piecing Tutorial: Part III
Getting Your Pieces Ready

Welcome to Part 3 of my English paper piecing tutorial.  I apologize for taking so long to get this post out.  You know that expression "when it rains, it pours?" Well, life has been pouring of late, complete with holidays, a toddler birthday, and a wicked cold.  But I'm finally getting time to sit down and get this tutorial together, and I'm excited, because that brings us another step closer to the actual steps for sewing together your pieces (next tutorial).  I'm also working on a project that should be easy for beginner English paper piecers so that you can try out your new skills!  But first things first!

Getting your pieces ready is super easy and, like the sewing, can be done just about anywhere. You'll need your paper pieces, fabric, scissors or rotary cutter, and (if you decide to glue baste) a glue stick.  Other miscellaneous tools may come in to play depending on how you go about cutting your fabric, but for the most part, it doesn't take much to get started. (If you don't know what kinds of tools you need to get started with EPP, please see my previous post on putting your kit together.)

The key difference between EPP and traditional quilting is the use of paper (typically a thicker weight like card stock), which stabilizes the fabric while you hand sew the pieces together.  You'll need to decide what pattern/shape you're going to use. Then you'll need to decide how you're going to acquire them.

If I'm doing a complicated pattern with a variety of shapes, or if I'm using a shape that's not easy to make myself, I'll usually buy them from an online retailer or a local quilt shop (though many shops don't stock English paper piecing supplies).

However, one shape that's easy to buy or make yourself is the hexagon.  There are a lot of possibilities using this basic shape, including the traditional Grandmother's Flower Garden.  If you're planning to make a quilt using hexies, it may be worth investing in a Fiskars punch. Last I checked, they come in three sizes.

A quick side note about paper sizes.  Some crafters (e.g. scrapbookers) measure papers across their widest point to get the measurement.  (See photo above.) However, those who do EPP typically measure along one side.  So be careful when buying a punch that states a specific size.  It may not be what you think it is.  See if there's a diagram on the package indicating "actual size" so that you can measure it.

Cutting Your Fabric
Once you have your papers cut out, it's time to get the fabric cut to size so that it can be basted to the papers.  For this, you'll either need good fabric scissors or a rotary cutter and mat.  You may also want to have a template (or ruler that has eighths for measuring your seam allowance).  They're not required, but they do make the work a little easier.

In traditional quilting, a 1/4" is considered the appropriate seam allowance.  You may also use the same in English paper piecing -- but remember, you're going to be basting the fabric to the paper temporarily, which means folding the fabric over along the edges of the paper. Just a smidge of extra space will be going in that fold, which means you may end up with less than a full 1/4" seam allowance. This is by no means a deal breaker.  Some people prefer to keep everything at a 1/4", but I've found that I prefer a 3/8" seam allowance.  It gives you just a little bit of extra breathing room.

There are a few ways you can cut your fabric.  You can place your template on the "pretty side" of the fabric and use your rotary cutter to cut around the outside.  (This is the best method if you're fussy cutting...more on this in a future tutorial).  You can buy your templates in stores and from online retailers.  You can also make your own using template plastic, but the acrylic ones are much sturdier and worth the investment if you're going to be doing a lot of fussy cutting.  Another plus with using templates: you can cut multiple layers at a time, saving you time. (This doesn't work with fussy cutting, but it's great if you're not worried about capturing a specific part of the fabric.)

Cutting fabric using a store bought template.
Note: you can see along the edges where I've put
little pieces of sandpaper to keep it from slipping while cutting.
Another method for cutting is to use a ruler, papers, and rotary cutter.  The ruler will help you get your 3/8" (or 1/4") seam allowance.

Finally, you can just use scissors and eye ball it by cutting around the outside of the shape. Be careful that you're leaving enough of a seam allowance though.

A side note about pre-washing fabric.  I see this question on Facebook daily--and the answers are always adamant no matter which direction you look.  Pre-washers insist it's the best way to pre-shrink your fabric as well as help eliminate the possibility of fabric bleed later.  Non pre-washers insist that this is a waste of time, doesn't really work for pre-cuts, and it makes it harder to work with since it no longer has the starchy feel it has when you buy it.  I personally don't pre-wash. I throw color catchers in with finished quilts and have never had any issues with shrinking.  Ultimately, this is a personal decision.

Basting Your Fabric to the Paper
As with everything in quilting and in life, there's more than one way to do things. English paper piecing is no exception. If you ask people on Facebook about whether you should glue baste, tack around the corners, or sew through the paper, you'll get a dozen different reasons on why you should do it a specific way.  They're all perfectly valid.  However, I learned using glue basting, and I never learned sew basting because glue basting was so easy to do and seemed like it would be a time saver.  I'm going to share my tips on glue basting and provide you with link to a tutorial on sew basting.  Check them out and see what works for you.  

Step one: center your paper on the wrong side of the fabric.

Step two: using your glue stick, draw a thin line of glue along one edge. (Remember, the glue should be water soluble.)  Be sure to leave about 1/8" of space between the glue and the edge of the paper.  If you're right on the edge, it can make it a little more difficult to sew. Also, use a thin line.  You don't need a ton of glue to make the pieces hold.  If you use too much glue, you may struggle a bit more when removing your papers later.

Note the small amount of glue along the upper left part of the
hexagon.  It's just a little bit away from the edge of the paper
to make sewing easier.

Glue is not easy to photograph unless you're heavy-handed
with it, so I drew a line on the paper in pen to represent the
proper placement and amount needed to secure your fabric
without making it difficult to remove.

I'm left handed, so I always start on the left side and work counter-clockwise around the piece.  Do it in whatever way makes the most sense to you.  Just be consistent. With hexagons, it's not as big a deal because you don't have tails that will hang off the piece, but with other shapes you might, and you want your tails all to point in the same direction when you're sewing.  (Note: if the shape you're using has a long side, start there and work your way around from there.)

Step three: fold the edge of the fabric over firmly and press the fabric to the glue so that it holds.  Make sure that you're not leaving gaps of space in the fabric around the paper.  It can make lining up your pieces more difficult.  While you don't need to tug the fabric (you'll stretch it), you want to make sure it's snug.

Step four: spin the piece gently so that the paper doesn't shift, and repeat steps 2 and 3. Continue all the way around the piece until all sides have been glued down.

Flip it over and see your sharply basted hexagon all ready for sewing!  Note the sharp corners. They can make all the difference in helping line up your pieces correctly.

If you would like to give sew basting a try, here is a really good YouTube video on basting your pieces using needle and thread instead of glue.

And that's it!  Once you get the hang of basting, you'll be able to fly through getting your pieces ready without even having to think about it. Make as many or as few at a time as you like.  I tend to prepare only the pieces I need for any one piece of the project I'm working on, or what I plan to take with me. But some people like to make all of them at once so they can concentrate on sewing.

In the next tutorial, I'll show you how to sew your pieces together.  Until then, happy quilting!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Putting Together Your English Paper Piecing Kit

English Paper Piecing Tutorial: Part II
What Goes in the Kit?

Welcome to Part II of my English paper piecing tutorial! I'm excited to share what I've learned about EPP.  I hope it opens up a whole new world of quilting possibilities for you. (If you don't already know what English paper piecing is, please see Part I of my tutorial.)

Oh My Stars!!

Getting started in EPP is easy and can be done pretty affordably.  If you're already a quilter/sewer, there's a very good chance you already have nearly everything you need, but I'm going to give the full list for anyone who is starting completely from scratch.  Please note: Any product recommendations are based on personal experience only.  There are any number of good options out there, so experiment with other brands and see what works for you.


1. Needles: You'll want your needles to be long and thin.  Look for "straw needles" or "milliner needles" in size 10 or 11.  There are many options to choose from.  Ones I like in particular are the John James Easy Glide Milliner and Richard Hemmings Milliner.  If you can find large-eye needles, even better!

2. Thread: Honestly, any good, sturdy thread will do.  Ideally, I would go with a 50 or 60 weight thread, or an all-purpose cotton or polyester thread.  You'll find out pretty quickly which ones you like the best.  You'll want a thinner thread so that your stitches blend, but it has to be strong enough so that it holds up to repeated tugging.  Some people swear by Aurifil, and some prefer Superior Bottom Line threads.  Both are great, but they're a bit pricey and not as easy to find.  (I've seen them most often in dedicated quilt shops.)  I actually prefer Gutermann thread. It's strong, affordable, and easy to find.  I also like that there are so many color options.  I've also got some Coats & Clark in my kit.

Basic colors you should have at minimum: light gray, dark gray, black, and white/cream. Many times these will be sufficient.  Sometimes though, I've wanted a color to be a little more matchy so that my stitches blend better, particularly when I'm using orange, red, and pink.

These all work equally well.  The main goal is strong and thin.
Go with the thread that fits your budget.
3. Thimble: You're going to be pushing that needle through over and over again. A thimble will save you from feeling like a pin cushion.  There are unlimited options for these. Just find one that you find comfortable.

4. Seam ripper: Even experienced quilters know that sometimes you make a mistake, and you'll need to take out some stitches.  Sometimes your thread breaks mid-sewing and you need to backtrack.  In either case, it's good to have one on hand.

5. Scissors: I use two kinds of scissors when doing English paper piecing.  I have a small set that fits in my kit for cutting thread.  I also have the dedicated fabric scissors that no one else is allowed to touch.

6. Papers: These are the key to English paper piecing.  They give your fabric its shape while you sew the pieces together.  They can be made from any kind of paper, though I recommend something sturdy, like a basic card stock.  Some people like to use the advertisements that fall out of magazines.  Others like using junk mail.  I've even heard of people using regular paper, though I would caution you against that.  You need your papers to be sturdy.  Regular paper is not going to give you that support while you stitch.  Also avoid anything that's too rigid, since you'll want to be able to bend your papers from time to time.

You can purchase your papers already made from a number of companies, both online and in craft stores.  The craft stores are typically going to have basic shapes like hexagons (a great beginning shape).  The specialty companies are going to have far more of a selection, a greater choice in sizes, and perhaps even some in kit form for some really fun quilt patterns. You can also make your own shapes using tools that I'll talk about more in the next section. Note, however, that your shapes should be consistent in size.  If you choose to make your own, you'll want to make sure that you're measuring carefully so that they will line up properly.

Both homemade and store bought papers
7. Fabric: The star of the show! Obviously you have endless possibilities for fabric.  Just be sure you're getting a good quality fabric, wherever you decide to buy it.  If it feels like paper or is easy to see through, it's probably better to pass and keep looking.  You want your hard work to last for a very long time!


1. Rotary cutter/cutting mat: It's a lot easier to cut your fabric using a rotary cutter, particularly if you're cutting multiple layers of fabric at one time, if you're using a template, or if you're fussy cutting.  You can cut your fabric using scissors, but it may take longer and be harder on your hands after awhile.  

2. Rulers: Straight edges are a handy tool for marking your seam allowances, if you're cutting fabric in bulk, or if you're cutting your own paper pieces.  

3. Glue pen: When I learned how to English paper piece, I was taught using the glue basting method.  It's a quick and easy way to baste your fabric to your papers, though it's certainly not the only way.  (There will be more on basting in the next tutorial.)  If you decide to use the glue basting method, be sure to use a glue stick that is water soluble.  I use craft ones since they're smaller and easier to apply in modest amounts.  The refills are also universal between different brands. They're a little more of an investment, but the manageable size is worth it to me. I've also heard of people using Elmer's glue sticks because they're significantly cheaper.  I tried it once, and it worked okay, but it goes on a bit thick. If you'd rather use those, just be sure it says it's water soluble.

4. Templates: If you've followed my blog or Facebook posts for any length of time, you know I like to fussy cut, meaning I like to cut specific parts of my fabric in order to create pretty patterns.  If you decide to give fussy cutting a try, templates are very helpful.  You can get acrylic ones from the same places that you buy your papers, or you can make your own using cardboard or template plastic.  

5. Mirrors: This is another fussy cutting tool.  The first couple of years I did English paper piecing, I'd never tried using them.  But after taking a workshop with Sue Daley, she introduced me to the mirror method, and I've found I like it a lot.  It opens up additional fussy cutting opportunities that you might not have considered without it.  You just need two mirrors at an angle, and by changing the angle, you can preview what your fussy cut might look like.

Checking to see what a five pointed star might look like when cut.
I like it!!  
6. Fiskars punches: If you want to make your own papers at home, then these are a great start for some of your basic shapes.  The square and hexagon cutters especially are a good investment.  You just need to buy card stock and a punch, and you'll easily be able to make a one-shape or two-shape quilt.  Just be careful with the shapes you choose to buy.  I've checked the diamond ones that Fiskars sells, and they are not the right shape for using in English paper piecing.  I'm hoping sometime they catch on to the fact that EPP is a pretty open market and start making shapes that work for our needs.

7. Clips: Clips are a good way to hold your pieces lined up so that you don't have to stress out your hands.  Especially in the beginning, it's common to hold the pieces more tightly than necessary, which can create some achy hands after sewing for awhile.  Get a few clips, and your hands will thank you.

I use both specialty clips and tiny binder clips.
They work equally well.
8. A way to carry it all: One of the wonderful things about English paper piecing is its portability.  You'll want a little box or container to carry it all in. I have an Art Bin that carries all of my thread, plus a smaller box inside for the sharp things like needles, scissors, and seam ripper.  You have endless options.

As you can see, with just a few basic items you can get started with English paper piecing. And with a few additional tools, you can go even further with your piecing.  Start small.  You can always add later.  The most important thing is having fun!

In my next tutorial, I'll show you how to get started.  Until then, happy quilting!!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

What Is English Paper Piecing?

English Paper Piecing Tutorial: Part I
What is English Paper Piecing?

First, let me tell you what it's not.  English paper piecing is not the same thing as foundation paper piecing, which is a technique for creating quilt blocks by having a printed design on paper (the foundation), and then sewing the fabric to the paper in a pre-arranged order using your sewing machine.

English paper piecing, or EPP, on the other hand, is a technique of quilting that uses pieces of paper to stabilize fabric so that they can be sewn together by hand.

In EPP, you start with a pattern that calls for any number of shapes, from one-shape quilts, like Grandma's Flower Garden, that's completely made up of hexagons, to those with a great number of shapes, like the New Hexagon Millefiore Quilt by Katja Marek.  

Once you've decided on a pattern, you make or purchase a number of the paper shapes needed, for example, 1" hexagons.  Then your fabric is basted to the paper (more on this in a future post).  After that, you sew the pieces together along each edge until they form the desired shape.  Then you just keep adding shapes until the top is complete.  After all of the stitching is done, the paper is removed, leaving you with a beautiful, hand-stitched quilt top.

The centerpiece for a rosette in a La Passacaglia quilt.

If you're just starting out with English paper piecing, a good place to start would be a quilt that only needs one or two different shapes, like Grandma's Flower Garden or Lucy Boston's Patchwork of the Crosses (which only uses two shapes, a honeycomb and a square).  Both are easy ways to learn the technique, as well as not being quite as tricky when it comes to basting and sewing.  (Some shapes can be a little more challenging, like obtuse triangles, which create some very narrow angles for bulky fabric to wrap around.)  

How do I know if I would like English paper piecing?

Consider the following:
  • Do you like hand sewing the back of the binding onto your finished quilts?
  • Are you looking for something portable that you can do while traveling, during breaks at work, or while waiting during doctors' appointments?
  • Do you have trouble sitting for extended periods of time at a sewing machine?
  • Are you looking for something to help you relieve stress or anxiety?
If you responded yes to any of these, then you might want to give English paper piecing a try. It's great for people who want something portable, that doesn't take up a lot of space, and that doesn't cost a lot of money.  There's the initial investment in getting supplies to build your kit, but after that, it can be as frugal or as elaborate as you choose to be.  (See Part II, coming soon, on what you should have on hand when starting out in EPP).  

You also shouldn't expect to put your quilts together quickly.  EPP is a slow technique, done completely by hand.  For some people, that's part of its attraction.  For me, it's a form of meditation.  The methodical stitching of each piece together is soothing, and shouldn't be rushed.  It's been wonderful for helping to relieve stress.

English paper piecing makes it possible for quilters to piece very precise points. It also allows for some amazing fussy cutting, which can be a lot of fun once you figure out how to find interesting repeats. 

Caution: Fussy cutting is addictive!!!
If you think you'd like to give English paper piecing a try, stay tuned.  More tutorials are coming on what you should have in your kit, basting your pieces, sewing your pieces together, and fussy cutting.  I'm also pondering some free patterns to get you started!  If you have any questions about English paper piecing, feel free to post your question in the comments. Happy quilting!!