I’ve been meaning to write this paper-piecing tutorial for aaaaaages. I love to paper piece (or foundation piece, depending on your side of the pond). No, not little paper hexies sewn painstakingly by hand, but rather sewing fabric to paper to achieve a level of accuracy very difficult to achieve in traditional piecing. Most often I hear people say “I tried paper piecing once and I hated it! I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again, although I wish I could do it, this is so lovely!” Or sometimes I hear “I love the accuracy of paper piecing, but it’s so wasteful!” Or something similar.
I suppose it’s possible people are just being nice, but really, once you *get* paper piecing there’s no reason to avoid it, and the wastefulness is really minimal when your fabric is cut properly. So today I’m going to share with you my methods for paper piecing. Everyone does it just a little bit differently, and I’ll note that I am an efficient piecer who gets bored easily, so I don’t mess around with pins or extra trimming. If you are that kind of person you might want to try a different tutorial.
My background in paper piecing mostly centers around my conversion project, although I do have some other awesome patterns. I have spent the past year converting traditionally pieced blocks into paper pieced patterns and sharing them for free in my shop. Most of the blocks are 24″, which I know can be cumbersome, but it makes it easier to paper piece them and also you only need 9 blocks to make a nice sized lap quilt. You can also easily reduce the patterns to smaller common sizes with basic math.
This is my Ice Star block, available in the shop.
I was at Spring Quilt Market a couple of weeks ago and holy wow Batman, Violet Craft’s upcoming paper pieced pattern called Forest Abstractions blew everyone away. It’s really spectacular! And it’s all paper pieced! So I decided to do this tutorial so everyone would know how to paper piece (the fast, lazy way) in preparation for the release of her amazing pattern which will be available here, and I also wanted to show off some pre-release fabric! Note that Rachael at imagine gnats will be carrying quite a lot of Cotton + Steel so check back with her shop in July!
So. Without further ado, on to the tutorial!
We’re going to be paper piecing my newest conversion block called Sister’s Choice. It’s quite similar to the X plus block but with chevrons in the corners, and has been used for Quilts of Valor quite often. The finished size is 12″ x 12″.
Supplies and Setup
You minimally will need a sewing machine, scissors or rotary cutter and mat, a glue stick, and an iron/surface.
You should also consider setting up your sewing space to be more conducive for paper piecing. That means having a trash can nearby, an iron/surface within arm’s reach, and a cute assistant. This is my sewing space. #honestcraftroom
Step 1: Print the pattern
Download the pattern PDF here. Print the pattern as directed on the first page, and make sure you print it at 100% or full size. Cut out all the pieces, and glue together the A pieces, overlapping the solid lines. Cut away most of the excess paper, but don’t cut directly on the lines. Leave a little space around the templates.
Pro Tip: You will see that I have traced my pattern on the wrong side of my paper. This makes it easier to determine alignment and fit when sewing. If you struggle with placement, this is something you should try.
So far so good! While you’re at it you should probably go ahead and pull your fabric choices. I usually work with scraps, but today I’m working with new Cotton + Steel fabrics that Rachael from imagine gnats obtained at Quilt Market! The pink arrows are from Melody Miller’s new line, Mustang, and the chevrons are from Rashida Coleman Hale’s new line, Moonlit. The gold dots are from Dear Stella and the navy raindrops are from Tula Pink.
Step 2: Cut out and glue the first piece
Paper piecing is sewn using a combination of letters and numbers. For each individual template piece you’ll be following the numbers. We’re going to start with the A section, which you should have assembled already in Step 1. You need to cut a piece of fabric to fit over the A1 section, and it should extend 1/2″ in all directions beyond the actual design. See in my photo the pink fabric extends well beyond the borders of the A1 section. Go ahead and iron your fabric if it needs it.
Next, you should use a few dabs of your glue stick to hold the corners and center of the fabric to the unprinted side of the paper, over the A1 section.
Note that I am gluing the fabric to the unprinted side of the paper. When paper piecing, the fabric always goes on the unprinted side, and you always sew with the printed side facing up.
At the end of step 1 your A section should look like this.
Step 2: Sew the A2 and A3 pieces to the template
Cut two squares of fabric that will completely cover the A2 and A3 sections plus 1/2″ on all sides.
Pro Tip: When cutting your fabric, make sure all the fabric is facing the same way, print side up or print side down. If you are cutting an odd shape and you cut with the print side up and the rest of your fabric/block is actually print side down, your cut piece will be a mirror image of the shape you actually need.
Flip one piece of the A2 (aqua) fabric so that it is right sides together with the A1 (pink) fabric. Imagine you are flipping the fabric over the line separating the two sections in the design.
Pro Tip: When working with directional fabric, make sure the design runs parallel (or perpendicular) to the sewing line dividing the two sections, rather than parallel to the edge of the previously cut fabric.
You can see in these photos I’ve traced the pattern onto the back of the paper.
When you place the aqua fabric face down, the left edge should overhang the dividing line by at least 1/4″. It doesn’t have to be perfect, we’ll trim it later. You can see here mine is overhanging by about 1/2″.
Once you are sure your fabric is placed properly, pick up the paper and the fabrics together, being careful not to shift the fabric, and flip everything over so that the paper is facing up, and the fabric is underneath.
Go to your sewing machine. Make sure you change your stitch length to at least half the normal size. I set my machine to 1.2.
Sew directly on the line dividing the A1 and A2 sections.
In this picture I’ve folded up the paper and fabric so you can see the placement of the materials.
Here is my sewn fabric and paper. Notice anything funny? I have intentionally sewn at least 1/4″ beyond the seam line in both directions. This is imperative for successful paper piecing. When you do this, it keeps your fabric from shifting when you align the pieces for final assembly, which means any seams that are supposed to meet will do so cleanly and accurately. Make sure you sew at least 1/4″ beyond every single seam line. Absolutely no exceptions ever…. except Y seams. Ha.
Now we just need to trim the excess fabric from the seam. I know some people use a quarter ruler to do this, but I think it’s a waste of time. I always eyeball when trimming. Fold the paper back from the fabric (you can’t see mine because it’s under the fabric), and just run your rotary cutter along the seam about 1/4″ away, making sure you’re only cutting fabric. Do not cut any paper!
Flip the aqua fabric back into place, and iron with a hot dry iron. The general rule is not to use steam when paper piecing because it can warp or disintegrate the paper. However, I find a light puff here and there does no harm. Just use sparingly.
See how the aqua fabric completely covers my traced lines of the template? This is exactly how it should look.
Follow the exact same process to sew the A3 section. This is how your template should look at this point.
Last, flip your fabric and paper over so the paper is facing up and trim away all the excess paper and fabric outside the dotted line.
This is what your A section should look like when complete.
Step 3. Assemble the B units
These are quite easy and similar to the A units so I’m not covering those in detail.
Step 4. Assemble the C units
Since we’re sewing four C units, I’ll be cutting my fabric pieces in sets of four or eight.
First, cut four square pieces big enough to cover the C1 square and overhang on all edges by 1/2″.
Glue one square piece of fabric on the back side of the C1 section.
Cut four triangles (or two squares cut in half) to completely cover the C2 section and overhang by 1/2″ on all sides.
Take one piece of triangle fabric, and flip it over your sewing line between C1 and C2, as shown, making sure at least 1/4″ is overhanging on the right side of the sewing line.
Pro Tip: When sewing triangles it is really important that you cut accurate matching angles and test to make sure your cut fabric will fit once sewn. This is usually the point at which most people stumble because triangles are awkward to position properly. To test, fold your fabric on the sewing line into place and make sure it covers all the template markings before sewing. If all else fails, cut fabric much larger than needed to ensure a good fit. You can always reuse the scraps later!
Flip the fabric and paper over together, making sure not to shift the fabric, and sew.
Trim the seam allowance, fold over, and press. Make sure the edges of the fabric overhang from all the seam lines by 1/4″ at least.
Next, cut eight triangles (or four squares cut in half) for the C3 (and C5) section. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the first square and the subsequent triangles are all based on the same measurement.
Lay one white triangle on top of the dark triangle, aligning the hypotenuse (I’ll wait here while you recall 9th grade geometry………) to the sewing line between C2 and C3.
Flip the fabric and paper over, making sure not to shift the fabric, and sew, using a shortened stitch length.
Fold back the paper and trim to 1/4″. Note here that the top corner of my paper, just north west of my rotary cutter blade, has torn away from my pattern. I did this intentionally. When you sew the 1/4″ beyond your seams sometimes you will have a sewn line that prevents you from folding your paper back from trimming. That’s ok! Just rip it off, no harm! You can see in the photo I’ve actually torn the paper. Totally normal!
Fold over and press with a hot dryish iron.
The C4 section is the trickiest to cut because it’s an odd shape, and I’m also using directional fabric. I want my raindrops to fall the same way and I need to make sure my C4 piece completely covers the template area. So I like to lay my block face up, and lay my fabric face up next to it. I cut any angles parallel to the original, and overcut by about 1/2″ on all sides. I eyeball when cutting this way.
Flip the fabric over the sew line, ensuring at least 1/4″ overhangs.
Take the entire thing over to the sewing machine and sew on the line, extending the sew line 1/4″ at beginning and end. Trim and press.
We’re almost done, we just need to sew the C5 triangle. Grab one of the extra C3 triangles you cut before and align it over the sew line, extending over the edge by 1/4″. You can see in my photo I have aligned the C5 fabric to the sewing line, not the previously cut and sewn fabric. Sometimes holding your block up to a window or lamp can help you with alignment.
Sew the C5 piece into place, trim, and press.
Trim your finished block down to the dashed line.
And here’s what your block should look like when complete! (Note: I have cropped out my seam allowance in this picture.)
Go ahead and sew the other three C units.
Step 5: Assemble the block
Now we’re ready to sew all our units together. We’re going to be putting this block together similar to a nine-patch.
In order to sew these large units together including their paper, we need to ensure that the points that meet between units line up accurately. These are the points I’m referring to:
I have a specific method for this which might be unorthodox, but it works for me, and the lazy way that works is the best way, in my opinion!
We’re going to work on the top row for now.
First, put a dab of glue on the corners of the paper where the fabric is flapping in the breeze and stick down the floppy fabric. We don’t need those babies to shift while we’re sewing!
Lay your B unit on top of one of the C units, as if you are going to sew them together. (My pattern letters are wrong. Just go with it.)
Next, place your thumbnail on the seam/point that you need to line up, and fold up the seam allowance so you can see the meeting point. I usually do this with two hands.
Adjust your pattern pieces so that the seams line up accurately, then put a dab of glue on the seam allowance and fold back together until they stick properly. Do this on all the points that need to line up between the two units you are assembling. Line up the long edges of your seam as your normally would and sew along the joining seam line. Sometimes I baste first if I’m particularly nervous about joining two units, then sew with tiny stitches once I’m confident the units are lined up properly. No one wants to unpick teeny tiny paper piecing stitches.
Pro Tip: If you ever get in a situation where you need to do a lot of easing you may need to remove the paper pre-joining. It happens!
Open up your seam and check out your accurate points!
Go ahead and assemble the rest of the block in the same way, making sure to check, glue, baste, then sew on all your joining seam areas.
Press everything super well from the back first, then the front. I let the seams tell me which way they want to be ironed. Most of the time they have a preference, especially when paper piecing.
And that’s it, you’re done. You’re a rockstar!
If you have any questions about paper piecing or this pattern or tutorial, please leave a comment. I reply! Happy lazy sewing!