This week two people (one of whom was Kate, so expect to see goodies from her in the near future!) wrote to me about English paper piecing (EPP) asking for some quick-start tips about where to begin, so I thought I may write a whole post about it. The summer holidays are here and EPP is a deliciously sociable and portable way to fit in some sewing while still spending time with family and friends. I'm relatively new to English paper piecing, but my learning curve has been made shorter and less painful by the kindness of people like Ruth, Katy, Lynne and Kerry, so I hope that they won't mind that some of their guidance is bound up within this post and being passed on. I write not as an expert, but someone who is relatively new to this and so remembers all the tiny things I had questions about myself.
What is English Paper Piecing?
English paper piecing is basically the process of wrapping fabric around paper to make crisply formed shapes to be sewn together by hand. Once sewn, the papers can be removed and a beautifully pieced patchwork is left from which to make cushions, quilts or anything else you can think of. Because it's hand sewn it is more fragile than patchwork produced on a machine, but with that fragility comes beauty and an intrinsic look of love and care apparent within the tiny just-visible stitches.
Fabric choice is important. Ruth talked to me about certain fabrics 'needling better'. Because of the open weave of a quilting cotton your needle is able to enter the fabric easily making it a perfect choice for EPP. Ruth said Liberty Tana Lawn (which I used in the cushion seen in some of the photos) was the rare alternative fabric that she'd found to quilting cotton that is also relatively easy to needle.
Having now worked with both, I'd say that quilting cotton definitely has the edge and the needle travels in and out with noticeable ease making your work faster, but the Tana Lawn is so beautiful that the results are definitely worth pursuing and I'll happily choose to use it again
Books and patterns and doing your own thing
|Picture from Feathering the Nest by Brigitte Giblin|
If you want to follow a pattern from a book, then I'd recommend Tacha Bruecher's Hexa-Go-Go: English Paper Piecing 16 Quilt Projects for a modern look or Brigitte Giblin's wonderful Feathering the Nest for a more traditional look. I won't talk about either in more depth here, as I'm intending to review them both at length very soon. Alternatively, you could sew along with Katy using her Hexy MF pattern. However, if you want to do your own thing, this is a really easy option with EPP. For my stars and hexagons cushion, I simply downloaded the outline of a repeating pattern from the free library at Connecting Threads. You can use this to see how the shapes go together and you can also print a copy out and colour it in to give yourself an idea of how you want to use colour and pattern (I didn't do this for my cushion and wish that I had). The free downloads in the library don't come with printable shape templates, so you'll need to go to a shape generator site to create printable sheets of the correct shape (I'll give you the link to this a little later in the post). It's up to you to decide on scale - you can paper piece with shapes as small or as big as you like. To give you an idea, 1" pieces are displayed on the projects seen throughout this post - these are slow but enjoyable to piece together: a more quickly finished project may use pieces of 2.5".
With English paper piecing it's also easy to freestyle and create your own patterns...you can just cut out shapes and see how they look and fit together.
Please excuse these gloomy photographs - I hadn't intended to share them here, so I was making no attempt to photograph them nicely at the time.
Paper choice: you can buy pre-cut papers for your project (I think I remember Katy often recommending this shop: http://www.paperpieces.com/ ) or you can print them out on your own paper at home to save money. I chose to do the latter and found that using a relatively sturdy paper/card of about 220gsm has meant that I can use the papers several times over. Because you'll keep the papers in place until large sections have been pieced together, you'll need many, many paper pieces. Be prepared to spend a while cutting paper and, for new sewists, remember never to use your fabric scissors on paper as it will blunt them horribly.
Creating shape templates
You can use this fantastic site to create most shapes you'd need to your exact specifications. When EPP quilters talk about the size of a paper piece they generally refer to the length of one of the sides of the shape and not its diameter. So if I use 1" hexagons, then the length of the each side of the hexagon will measure 1".
When you're choosing sizes for EPP you don't need to think about seam allowances - those pieces of paper will slot together and butt up against one another exactly as they are. So obviously that means that if, as I did for my cushion where I chose to put 6-point stars made from diamonds interspersed with hexagons, then the edges of both the diamonds and hexagons used would both need to measure the same length for them to butt up to one another perfectly. Once you've printed your shapes, cutting with accuracy is really important - it will affect the ease with which you piece together your shapes.
Making the template for cutting fabrics
So, the paper pieces you've just cut will go inside your fabric, but your fabric needs to be cut a little bigger so as to wrap around the shape. You'll need to create one larger template from which to cut your fabrics. I use clear plastic to make my template - this means you can use it with a rotary cutter more easily and also see through it better if you wish to place part of the fabric's design in the centre of your shape (this is called fussy cutting). However, if you don't have any template plastic to hand, you can just as easily use a sturdy bit of card.
To make the template, simply make one of your paper pieces 1/4" bigger on all sides. You can happily use a ruler to do this, although if you have a perspex grid ruler it's even easier. Use this single template to cut your fabric from.
Cutting the fabrics
You can use scissors or a rotary cutter to cut your shapes. Unless you're fussy cutting fabric, you can cut many at time. With a fresh blade, my rotary cutter will happily make it's way through over a dozen hexagons at a time, making quick work of cutting hundreds of hexagons.
Basting the fabrics around the papers
Before you can begin sewing shapes together, you'll need to secure the fabrics to the paper shapes. To do this you can either use large basting stitches (front view, back view) which can be removed afterwards or you can use fabric glue. I use Sewline fabric glue which Kerry recommended to me, as it's a quick option that allows you to get on with the fun of sewing proper.
However, some people (such as Katy) feel that basting is actually part of the fun of the slow, meditative process that is EPP, so don't discount it just because it takes longer. It's also better in certain situations. On a rare, hot day I took my EPP outside and found that in the intensity of the sun my glue began to melt and a few of my papers fell out before I hastily retreated inside, so if you're taking your sewing with you on holiday you may wish to think about this.
Wrapping the fabric around the paper
To wrap the fabric around the paper, place a paper template in the centre on the wrong side of your fabric shape. Then neatly fold the edges inward. When I'm glue basting a hexagon I tend to glue one side and then glue its opposite side, until all are stuck down, whereas if I'm thread basting I tend to work around the shape one side at a time.
A hexagon is an easy shape to create - all sides are simply stuck down. Whereas when covering the diamonds to be used in my 6-point stars, Katy memorably told me to 'let the dog's ears wag' meaning that I should leave the ears of the fabric unstuck.
Thinking about thread
This is an area where I'm still trying to decide on my preferences. I began using a regular polyester thread, which I was happy with. However, I later bought a dual duty hand quilting thread by Coats intended for piecing and quilting, which seems stronger, but is possibly a little thicker than I'd like. I'm still not entirely satisfied. Lynne recommended using a light 50-weight thread for piecing and her favourite brand is Aurifil. I wonder what others use?
Your stitches will be very slightly visible, so you'll need to pick a colour that will blend well with your fabric choices.
Thinking about needles
In my hurry to begin I started piecing with a regular hand-sewing needle. However, I soon invested in shorter, finer needles. I buy mine locally and they're called Gold Eye Quilting Needles Between (no.9) made by Clover. However, Kerry and many others rave about Clover's Black Gold needles, so I believe if you want the deluxe option that may be what you should buy and I'm intending to try them myself at some point.
Types of stitches
You can use either a ladder stitch or a whip stitch for piecing (you'll find tutorials or videos demonstrating both via Google). I've tried both and although the ladder stitch will mean that your stitches aren't visible, I found it to be slower, less enjoyable, and most importantly, substantially weaker. For this reason I use a whip stitch.
When I first started EPP I became slightly obsessed with how many stitches per inch one should be making 'to do things properly'. Actually, there is no 'properly' and it's all about personal preference and what feels good to you. But just in case there are any control freaks out there who, like me, still want a rough guide, I use about 20 - 25 stitches per inch. I now think this is at the higher end of what's necessary and I know others who use about 15 per inch and their piecing is perfectly sturdy.
How to sew it together
To sew, simply place the pieces face-to-face and stitch along the edge, stitching through the fabric that runs along the edge of the paper piece, being careful not to sew through the paper itself. It's careful work and the more care you take the less visible your stitches will be. However, it's also meant to be relaxing and enjoyable and when I went to the quilting exhibition at the V&A museum a few years ago one of the things that made me feel slightly weepy was seeing the visible, fragile stitches; the imperfections; and the sign of human hand within the stunning quilts - so don't ruin your enjoyment striving for perfection - English paper piecing creates work with an heirloom feel where there's little wrong with leaving tiny traces of your own presence.
If you're not following a pattern, where it will advise you on this, bear in mind that it's easier for you to avoid having to sew together deep 'v' seams. Often, you can avoid them simply by breaking your work into oddly shaped sections that keep the seam lines to be sewn relatively gentle (this will only make sense once you begin working on larger areas, so don't feel stressed if you can't comprehend quite what I'm saying here).
If you feel stuck with how to piece two shapes together, butt them up against one another in the way you wish for them to look and work backwards. Often you'll sew one seam and then twist it into another place to sew the other side of the shape - you don't need to tackle both sides at the same time (as you often would when you're working on a machine, pinning everything into place beforehand. In fact no pins are needed - you can hold it in place with your fingers as you sew). Know that you can bend and gently fold your shapes and sometimes this will be necessary to be able to sew the seam needed.
Ruth (who, as well as creating her own lovely work, is also a technical editor on many of Kaffe Fassett's books) has kindly passed on many clever tricks while I've been beginning my adventure with EPP and I hope that she won't mind me sharing some of her insight here. As a new English paper piecer, when it came to sewing diamonds together to make the star below, I began by stitching each diamond together in turn. This meant that by the time I reached the sixth diamond I had a deep 'V' seam to negotiate (I don't actually mind these, but it's easier if you don't have to tackle them) and it also meant that I was left with a very tiny, but irksome, hole at the centre of the star.
Ruth showed me that by assembling the star first as two halves, using three diamonds on each side, I could avoid the deep 'V' seam and simply place the two halves of the star together and join them sewing along one straight, easy-to-sew seam running across the centre of the star, eliminating that irksome hole that formed in the middle.
Not only was this an invaluable trick, it also taught me a lot about English paper piecing in general. That is, to look for the way of piecing things together which keeps the seam lines simple, even though it may not feel intuitive at first sight.
You'll quickly find that you need somewhere to store it all. I don't like tins as they're hard to store and rattle in my handbag, but if I'm piecing in the garden then I do put everything in a tin to prevent it from blowing away.
However, most of the time it's stored in a series of small bags and if certain fabrics have been paired with one another then I hold them together with paper clips.
I'm currently working on making something to store it all in that will slot into my handbag easily and keep all the different bits of paraphernalia and different stages of piecing in contained areas.
Removing the papers
Don't remove a paper until it has something surrounding it on all sides - the papers are there because it makes it easy to sew a seam together. When it comes to removing them, simply take out your basting stitches and gently pull the paper out, or if you've used glue, you can ease the papers out by warming the glue with an iron. Either way, they tend to come out easily and without damaging your work.
Over to the experts
These are my thoughts as a beginner. I know from some of my regular readers' responses to previous posts about my own adventures with English Paper Piecing that many of you are long-time paper piecers, so if you have your own tips and tricks or links to tutorials and techniques that you think may be useful or could expand on this, then please do share them in the comments.
I've always loathed the expression about skinning cats, so will just say that I love that there's more than one way to peel a satsuma and I'd love to hear about ways other that my own and Kate and other EPP newcomers may too.
Ps. I'm really sorry to write one post before responding to the comments to the last - totally the wrong way around, especially when they were so very lovely. I will reply as soon I'm home this evening and thank you for all your kindness - which was so much appreciated. xxxx...xxx...xx...x