A Material Difference: Paper Quilts

One of my earliest quilt mentors would say, “Add a lot of starch. You want the fabric to be just like paper.”

By “just like paper,” she meant that it should hold a nice crease, won’t fray, and won’t slither away just when you needed it to stay put. (Totally unmerited, by the way—some papers slither away faster than a toddler with mayhem in mind.) She didn’t really mean like paper. And yet… what about those lovely scrapbooking papers? Or those pretty origami papers? Or even pages from old books?

Could you make a paper quilt?

A paper quilt is not going to function well as a bed quilt, clearly, but could make a fun wall hanging!

I decided to experiment with a few craft papers and some “ephemera,” which is a fancy-schmancy mixed media word for odds-and-ends. (In my case, this meant a paper doily, wrapping paper, and thicker cardstock.)

When I hit the sewing room, everything became… strange. I suddenly became hesitant, uncertain about what to do, doubting everything. Would the feed dogs grip the paper? Wait—what about seams? Am I really going to sew paper with a quarter-inch seam and fold it back?

I began to panic. There I was in the sewing room, my entire arsenal of knowledge suspect, my quarter-inch instincts completely useless, and surrounded by nothing but sewing scissors, sewing scissors, sewing scissors!

Breathe. Stay calm and sew on.

Let’s start with cutting. What about a rotary cutter? Could I use that?

Answer: Yes. It cut quite smoothly through the paper, but dulled pretty quickly. In the future, just to save on rotary blades, I would trace my shapes on the wrong side of the paper, and then cut with paper scissors or a craft knife.

Using templates took some mental adjustment. All of the templates in my stash include a quarter-inch seam allowance, which, with paper, you don’t need (I’ll talk about that in a moment). Some two-part templates, like my favorite Glorified Nine-Patch set, are designed to work together with a seam allowance. To get those peculiar shapes to work together on my paper quilt, I needed to trim off that unnecessary seam allowance, which took some time.

The nice thing about paper is that you can cut those peculiar shapes. With no bias to think about, nor fraying to fear, you could cut delicately filigreed paper snowflakes, if you wanted, no problem!

So this quarter-inch seam allowance thing—what gives?

OK, this is where I had to think things through. Sewing and folding back quarter-inch seam allowances was silly, I decided. Weird for straight seams, and useless for curved ones…

This may seem obvious to you, dear reader, but when I finally realized that the pieces needed to be stacked in layers and sewn down—essentially like raw-edge appliqué—I literally yelled, “Ha! Eureka!”

Start with a base or foundation, then place your “patches” and topstitch them in place. Right!

Paper quilts? Yes! It’s all about the layer-and-sew approach!

Paper quilts? Yes! It’s all about the layer-and-sew approach!

You’ll need to think about how to apply your patches to your base: as individual, almost mosaic-like shapes, or pieces stacked in layers? For example, for a classic, light-and-dark Nine-Patch Unit, instead of cutting nine individual squares, use a single sheet of paper for the light-colored background, and then place the dark-colored squares on top in a grid. For a three-color Hourglass Unit: Cut multiple triangles, or stack combinations of squares and triangles? How would you stack them? What color would you layer first? It’s kind of fun to think through.

Also, you need to consider the paper’s weight.

The rule is that thinner papers, like tissue or wrapping paper, aren’t great for sewing because they tear easily. But I found that the gift wrap worked fine as long as it was on top of a heavier paper and I sewed very slowly.

I also found that some gift wraps and origami papers are slippery little beasts. (Dang, man! Chill! Stay put!) Since pins would leave holes, I hit on using a glue stick to hold the pieces in place while sewing, although double-sided tape may also work.

The sticky glue and tape can be brutal on your needle, but let’s be real, paper is going to ruin the needle anyway. Just throw that needle out when you’re done. (And clean out your machine—paper is super dusty!)

They say that a smaller needle will leave finer holes, and a larger needle will give you a primitive, hand-done look. To be honest, I experimented with a denim needle and a finer 70/10 needle, and the holes were essentially the same size. A finer needle is more likely to break, especially if you opt for a tougher paper, so that’s something to consider.

In this case, I’d say match your needle to your thread, and just accept that the needle punctures will be visible. (On more fiber-y papers, like the handmade art papers, the holes will be less visible.)

 On more fiber-rich handmade papers, the needle punctures are less apparent, but your top stitching will always be visible, so plan your threads and designs with that in mind. Have fun with it!

On more fiber-rich handmade papers, the needle punctures are less apparent, but your topstitching will always be visible, so plan your threads and designs with that in mind. Have fun with it!

I will say that you should only topstitch.

On fabric, the needle goes through the woven threads; on paper, it punches through, leaving a raised area around each hole on the “back.” So, keep the paper right side up under the needle.

Also, lengthen your stitches to maybe 3 or 4mm. If you’ve ever paper pieced, you know that a shorter stitch length will perforate your paper, making it easier to tear out. That’s the opposite of what you want to happen here. You do not want your patches to tear out easily.

To that end, don’t use your machine’s lockstitch or backstitch, because multiple punctures in the same spot will, again, perforate the paper. Instead, tape the thread tails down on the backside of your project to keep them from pulling out.

When I was playing, the sewing machine’s feed dogs worked just fine on the paper, as did the free-motion setting with the feed dogs down. I’d recommend using an open-toe foot or a clear embroidery foot. If you’re free motioning, use a free-motion foot.

Because your topstitching will be visible, this is a great opportunity to break out the fun threads! You won’t be washing this “quilt” and it won’t be subject to the stress and strain of use, so use whatever thread feels right and looks good.

Happy quilting!


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