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!


Knots

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!!!