Mary Hertel had been quilting for more than 20 years before she tried paper piecing. “It immediately snagged me,” she says, “because it’s a puzzle. I love games and puzzles, and geometry. All those angles are fun to me.”
Her love of paper piecing blossomed into a full-time commitment. Under her independent pattern company, Made By Marney, Mary has designed hundreds of paper-pieced patterns, each more adorable than the last, and sells them through her Etsy store. She has also published two books with C&T Publishing, Cute and Clever Totes and Sew Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, with more under development.
Mary loves to design for Halloween and Christmas, because they offer a lot of images to work with. “With Halloween especially, I can stretch a design out of so many things.”
Her Candy Collector treat bag from McCall’s Quilting September/October 2018 is created using one foundation-pieced quilt block and simple sewing skills. Whether you’re a fan of candycorn or not, it’s the perfect trick-or-treating bag for the little goblin in your life.
“I totally love to embellish with embroidery and buttons, sometimes I use rick rack,” she says. If it’s for a child’s quilt, Mary recommends using appliqué for the eyes. But if the child is over three, she says it’s usually pretty safe to use buttons.
“There are some people who paper-piece eyes [in an animal design] and that’s really noble of them,” she jokes, “but you need, like, 10 pieces to get the eyes.”
And who has time for that?
“I love to design patterns with animals,” says Mary, adding that cats and dogs are her most popular designs.
“One of my first quilts using animals had six dogs and six cats, and there were so many request for specific dogs,” says Mary. So she decided to design an all-dog quilt, and sent a note to her customers, inviting them to get involved. “I told them I’d like to draw pictures working from real dogs, so send me your pictures. I named the blocks after the 11 dogs I drew.”
Involving her customers, and designing with them in mind, is a big part of Mary’s success as a designer. Her quilt blocks, for example, generally finish at 7-1/2” inches, guaranteeing the foundation pattern can fit on a standard piece of copy paper. “Because that’s what my customers use,” she says.
Even for larger patterns, she’ll work this way: “A large pony? I’ll break it down into four different blocks that all finish at 7-1/2”.”
This also means that the quilt blocks are easy to swap in a quilt pattern. “That’s the beauty of it. That’s how all my books work; they include at least five projects, and the blocks can work in any of them.”
Designing for foundation-pieced patterns takes practice, but for Mary, it has become second nature. “I find a piece that’s centrally located, and then think about how those seams overlap, because you have to have straight seam lines. I can maneuver the seamlines, after I abstract the shape.”
She always starts with a 3” x 3” thumbnail drawing, “abstracting” the design to have the fewest number of shapes to create an image. “When I like what I have, I blow it up to the size I want, and think, how would this be done with numbers?
“I was an elementary school art teacher for 35 years, and paper piecing brings in my drawing skills,” she says. “They all start with a hand sketch. I don’t work with software. I like to draw, and then figure out how this will work.”
Mary’s Paper Piecing Tips
As far as tips and techniques for paper piecing quilt blocks, Mary cautions against skimping in fabric. “There’s waste in every process,” she says. “I don’t pre-cut my patches to 5” or 4” or whatever. I maybe start with something the size of a fat-eighth, use that for my first piece, trim it, and then keep using that piece.”
One of the joys of designing a paper-pieced pattern, she says, is when she finally sews the design she created. “It’s so exciting to make this for the first time, because it didn’t exist before,” she says, her enthusiasm bubbling in her voice. “This is the first time this design exists in fabric.”
Gotta get started with paper piecing? We recommend beginning here: