Workshop Wednesday: Paper Piecing Pointers

Whether you call it paper piecing or foundation piecing, the fact is there are times when neither traditional piecing nor applique will give you the look you want and the only thing you can do is break out the foundation paper.

Paper foundation piecing is a technique that allows you to create patterns and achieve shapes that would be difficult–if not impossible–to do via traditional piecing. With this technique, you are stitching your fabric onto the pattern itself, then flipping and pressing each patch before stitching the next one on.

I’ve made a few foundation-pieced projects, mostly individual blocks that I’ve turned into 16″ pillow shams.

A couple of years ago I made the Vulcan Greeting block, designed by Vanda Chittenden and available as a free download from the site Fandom in Stitches, for a friend who loves Star Trek.


Vulcan Greeting pillow sham, designed by Vanda Chittenden, made by Mary Kate Karr-Petras

I really love the Mariner’s Compass block from Carol Doak’s book Mariner’s Compass Stars that I made into a summer-themed pillow.

Sun Sand Sea Sky Workshop Wednesday: Paper Piecing Pointers

Sun, Sand, Sea, Sky pillow, designed by Carol Doak, made by Mary Kate Karr-Petras

And I also love my Stack of Books pillow, made from a block designed by Penny Layman.

Stack of Books Workshop Wednesday: Paper Piecing Pointers

Stack of Books pillow sham, designed by Penny Layman, made by Mary Kate Karr-Petras

Because so far I’ve only made individual blocks and not an entire quilt, every time I sit down to try a new pattern, I have to get my brain oriented correctly; it always takes me a few minutes of hands-on work to get into the groove. Once I do, though, it really does go quickly and I end up having fun.

The thing that’s important to remember as you work is that the patterns are printed in reverse and you stitch the fabric to the wrong side, meaning you are essentially working in reverse the entire time. Generally speaking, there is more fabric waste with foundation piecing than with traditional piecing, although you can learn how to reduce waste through experience and by planning ahead.

If you think you’re not experienced enough yet for foundation piecing, I’m here to tell you that you probably are. As long as you consider yourself a somewhat-confident beginner (meaning, you know how to use a sewing machine and understand the importance of seam allowances) you’re ready to give this technique a try.

Here are just a few of the many, many resources we have for quilters of all skill levels.

A few years ago Debby Kratovil blogged about her foundation piecing tips for Quilters Newsletter. In it, she lays out the basics, such as how best to prepare your foundations and what types of pins she recommends.

I streamlined the process realizing that you can pre-cut squares, rectangles and triangles to correspond with the patches so you can sew with confidence that you won’t have to “un-sew” an inadequate unit. None of this “hold it up to the light and pray to the fabric gods for special dispensation.” It was “trim, then sew” and not “sew, then trim.” I saw that using a ruler to trim a patch to 1/4” BEFORE adding the next patch assures a perfect alignment. I actually began to enjoy this!

Here’s her Tip #7 for preparing the paper foundation to aid in accurate fabric placement:

Once you cut out the pattern, fold along every line using a postcard. This will allow you to “see” the lines as you place the fabrics.

Waterwheels Folded 190x300 Workshop Wednesday: Paper Piecing Pointers

There’s a lot more for paper piecers of all experience levels in the full blog post. Click here to read all of Debby’s tips and tricks, including her “Patch of Shame” technique for dealing with un-sewing (or not un-sewing) patches.

MQM06 Workshop Wednesday: Paper Piecing PointersI mentioned Penny Layman as the designer of the Stack of Books block above. Penny did both a webinar (available for on-demand streaming) and an episode of Quilters Newsletter TV: The Quilters’ Community for us, which is where I first learned about the fantastic patterns in her book The Paper-Pieced HomeI really recommend it, especially if you’re a fan of a mid-century modern or retro look. Scroll down to learn more about her video for QNTV.

Video Tutorials

If you’re an absolute beginner, check out Quilty: Paper-Piecing Basics Parts 1 & 2 hosted by Mary Fons. In these free video tutorials, Mary shows basic paper-piecing techniques. 

In Easy Foundation Piecing: Sew by Number, Eileen Fowler shares her tips that will help you successfully foundation piece, always cutting your fabric large enough and positioning it in the right place. 

In Helpful Notions for Foundation Piecing, Eric Drexler, National Educator for Sulky of America, shows how to make the Diamond Crossing block from Quiltmaker’s 100 Blocks Volume 7. Eric uses temporary spray adhesive (no pins!) and a water soluble stabilizer (no picking paper from the seams!) when he makes foundation-pieced blocks.

Penny Layman’s full video tutorial is available for viewing on; below is a free preview that features Penny’s genius use of fork pins–why did I never think to use those before? And why do I still not have any in my supplies?

As you can see, there is no one right way to paper piece successfully, but there are a lot of best practices. Take some time to study them, then take some time in your sewing space playing with a pattern you really want to make. When you’ve finished it, you’ll be hooked on the technique that opens up a whole new world of design opportunities for today’s quilters. Have fun!

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