Quilting On A Firm Foundation

Have you been intrigued by quilting but you’re not sure where to start?

A little intimidated by yards of fabric and the idea of cutting it up, just to sew the pieces back together again?

Overwhelmed by the idea of sewing all those straight lines straight and getting all the corners and sections to match up?

I recently took a workshop that I wish I had taken years ago, as a beginning quilter. The workshop was in what’s called “foundation” or “paper” piecing and, while experienced quilters often use this technique to tackle very difficult piecing of very tiny quilt pieces, it seems to me a fine way for non-quilters to dip a toe in the water and find early success.

I think, if you are at all interested in learning to quilt, this might be the route for you!

I am not going to teach you how to do it—I hardly know myself! I only want to tell you about the approach so you can consider whether it might be something to explore, whether at a local workshop or through online videos on YouTube or Craftsy.

Basic idea behind paper piecing:

You start with some sort of foundation that has the design marked on it; the foundation can be as simple as plain white paper or as fancy as specially made and expensive transfer paper.

To this foundation, the quilter stitches pieces of fabric, in a particular order, by sewing on the marked lines. Along the way, pieces of the fabric are also being stitched together, not just to the paper. Because everything is done on a marked pattern, everything goes together in a specific and controlled way. The foundation adds body and substance to the fabric.

When the design is finished, the foundation can be removed or, in some cases, might just be left as a component of the finished project. The paper ends up on the back so it doesn’t show.

So, this sounds complicated—what’s the point?

For me, one of the most frustrating, daunting, and difficult aspects of making a pieced quilt is cutting all those pieces. Yards of fabric flop around and I need hundreds of inch-size pieces from it.

Even with the use of a rotary cutter and good rulers, my pieces seem to end up a little out of square, a little small, a little large. The mistakes might be tiny in each piece but, as I try to sew them all together, the mistakes are magnified and my blocks end up wacky.

I try so hard and still make mistakes (could it be my astigmatism?)—this just sucks the fun out of starting a new project.

Paper piecing solves that.

When prepping for paper piecing, you might cut your fabric into manageable pieces but those cuts are rough cuts and precision isn’t the issue. You cut more precisely after the stitching has been done and the cut edges of the fabric have nothing to do with the stitching. With paper piecing, you aren’t ever going to have to cut your fabric into tiny, fussy triangles that have to be exactly, precisely right in order for the finished product to work.

Let me say that again: With paper piecing, you aren’t ever going to have to cut your fabric into tiny, fussy triangles that have to be exactly, precisely right in order for the finished product to work.


Another aspect of piecing that I have struggled with since day one of quilting is getting corners and points to match up. Look at a pattern like this one and consider all the corners and points and seam lines that need to be aligned.

This was the Santa sampler* we made in the workshop. This is the instructor’s finished piece:


made by Jean Welch

And here are some of the happy Santas we made:


SO many corners and points and tiny stitches!


Unmatched corners and points were the bane of my quilting existence. Much of the reason I’ve done so much piecing by hand is that I couldn’t get corners and points even close on a sewing machine—pinning the fabric together made things shift and everything was just a mess. Sewing by hand let me handle the joins with more finesse but, needless to say, it slowed me down!

So discouraging. I began to just tell myself that imperfection was okay and that nobody noticed the mismatched points.

But with what I’ve seen so far, paper piecing means that precision is easy. You can use very few pins, if any. Since you are stitching on lines, if you follow the lines, you’ll get the predicted outcome. Very precise, very satisfying!

Paper piecing has made me pretty happy so far because it eliminates two of the big problems that took the fun out of quilting—cutting fabric precisely and stitching pieces together precisely.

Isn’t it ironic that, by looking for a technique that allows me to avoid precision, I actually end up with a much more precise product?!

This is not to say that paper piecing is all lollipops and rainbows and sweet songs of liberty—I think it has some drawbacks, too, and for me, it’ll be a question of whether the benefits outweigh the costs as I explore the technique more.

One of the drawbacks is that the technique really does take some time to get your head around. It is different from every sort of straightforward sewing you’ve ever done. I can’t imagine learning it from a book. It’s not that it’s difficult but it can be confusing.

In the workshop I took, the participants were valiant and focused, the teacher was well-prepared and patient, and . . . we struggled. It’s just a confusing technique to get a handle on so if you decide to try a) find a class (and there seem to be excellent ones available on the internet, if you can’t find one where you live) and b) don’t beat yourself up if this doesn’t come to you right away!

Two other issues to be considered: so far, paper piecing seems to waste fabric. I am told by my teacher that, in the long run, once a person gets more proficient, the opposite can be true, and you’re able to use up very small scraps of fabric. I hope so.

Also, in most cases the foundation, which was so helpful along the way, needs to be removed . . . I took the paper off the back of my Santas last week. The sewing stitches create a perforated line that makes removal pretty easy but it can still take a lot of time and you end up under a mountain of paper scraps.

For me, another issue that may play a role in whether I continue is that paper piecing is tied to a sewing machine. I like sewing by hand and am most likely to work on quilting in the evening, in an easy chair, with a cat on my lap . . . but I can’t really imagine sewing through paper by hand. Having said that, I CAN remove the scraps of paper in an easy chair and the cat in my lap thinks that’s great fun!

I am going to stick with paper piecing for a while. The red and white block I played with is done with this technique; my guild is having a challenge this year to make a red and white quilt so I’m thinking a lot of these stars would be pretty cool . . .


Love the colors . . . but I still have one imperfect point!

As I look for more information on the technique, it is evident that paper piecing should never get boring—as the quilter grows in confidence and expertise, the paper piecing patterns get more intricate and the pieces of fabrics get tinier . . .

I’d love to hear about the experiences of other quilters on this topic. Are there benefits or drawbacks of the technique that I haven’t learned so far? And, if you aren’t a quilter yet, can you imagine trying this approach?

  • The Santa quilt pattern came from Favorite Foundation-Pieced Minis by the Editors of Miniature Quilt magazine


46 thoughts on “Quilting On A Firm Foundation

  1. Love the Santas!!!! Have “pinned” the idea. I’ve done limited paper piecing and agree that it improves accuracy immensely but it’s a process that I don’t seek out. I may, though, for this cutie. So glad to see you all had such success!!!!!

      • I’ve not really had accuracy issues, once I started using a rotary cutter (etc) and my Juki’s foot is an exact scant 1/4″ for piecing. However, there is absolutely nothing even close to the accuracy that paper piecing gives for those complex/little piecings.

  2. The only thing with some paper piecing quilts ,is that if there are a lot of small pieces and seams it makes handquilting almost out of the question for it is very hard to go though all the seams. As I don’t care for machine quilting, I love to do it by hand, I just keep to paper piecing to where I can quilt it by hand, like the Fire Island Hosta. That said .. I love to paper piece!!!!!

    • I think I’ll have the same issue–I’m definitely a hand quilter. The red and white blocks, though, don’t have super tiny pieces–the blocks end up 8″ square–so I think I can manage to hand quilt. We’ll see!

  3. Since I’m a fan of paper piecing I applaud your foray into those waters. The key to paper piecing is being organized and paying attention. It’s not an improv style of quilting. If you make yourself a coloring sheet to remind you where the different colors go and rough cut your fabric pieces so they’ll be sure to cover the whole area you’ll be 75% of the way to success. I also recommend an add-a-quarter ruler (it’s 6 inches long). While no one seems to do this, you can make your paper patterns by perforating paper on an unthreaded sewing machine rather than printing out copies. That way your paper is easier to remove once you reach that stage. I recommend the book “The Experts Guide to Foundation Piecing” for several methods of paper piecing.

    • Thanks for the book recommendation! That will be a big help! I’ve been rough cutting for multiple red and white blocks and will focus on organization, as you suggest. SO much to learn!

  4. Oh, you hit me where it hurts. LOL Paper piecing is on my bucket list for 2016, but I can’t find a local class so far. I may have to resort to on line. I try so hard when I’m measuring and cutting and then when I wind up with a square that is 1/16″ too small it is enough to make you throw the towel in. I don’t, but the air gets blue and I get blue. 🙂

    • I predict you will love paper piecing! Your frustrations sound so similar to the ones I’ve had as a quilter–and paper piecing seems to be an answer. I’ve never done a course on Craftsy but I’ve heard good things and they do have classes on paper piecing–let us know what you end up doing!

  5. Even though I have no intentions of taking up quilting [again] this was a fascinating post about paper piecing – which I have done a little of as part of mixed media and thought way too fussy and precise for my style of working – [I can’t help it, I’m just a fling it on and see what happens kind of a gal]. I had so much trouble aligning my quilting blocks of 6 sq inches that I know I would never be competent in anything smaller. I shall stay an ardent admirer of those who can and do quilt with straight lies and sharp corners and repeating patterns………… no matter how it is achieved!

  6. Hmm. I think it sounds as though a qualification in Technical Drawing and a degree in Maths is a prerequisite for this quilting malarkey. Not one for me I think. But I’m glad you do it, so I don’t have to……

  7. I leave the quilting to my mom (she has the patience and the skills for it) but I still reap the rewards — she makes me all kinds of fun things. I will need to show her those Santas. They are so cute I know she will love them and maybe I’ll get them in my stocking next year! =)

    • Like a drawing for a shed, it takes something that would be overwhelming and makes it manageable. And it looks more complicated than it is–but I think that’s true of instructions for all kinds of things, really.

  8. I feel like you are talking to me. (What an ego, eh?) But seriously, I’ve long admired quilts and quilters. We had to make a nine square pillow for our sewing final in high school and were strictly graded on those matching corners. Beyond that though, now quilting. I love to sew and used to sew my own clothes in high school and later sewed for a costume shop.

    I really enjoyed hearing about your class and seeing the technique put in to place and the finished results. It’s always good to keep learning.

    • I’ve been intrigued by paper piecing for a long time but hadn’t had access to a class–and I really don’t think this is a technique to be cleared from a book! I feel so much more in control of the whole process of piecing now!

  9. I really like how you explained paper piecing. Until today I wasn’t familiar with the technique. i first read you comment about paper piecing on Deb’s blog–and wondered what it was. Now I know. 🙂

    • It’s a funny process that does take time to absorb–in the class, we all made the same mistakes over and over! But, once it clicks, the results are really satisfying!

  10. I haven’t done paper piecing. I actually think I’d catch onto to the reversey-process fast enough. But I don’t have any interest in removing paper. Guess I should try it some time and see what I think. Thanks for the post. I enjoyed your enthusiasm, and I can’t wait to see your red/white quilt. The block is stunning.

    • The points look great . . . except for one. But it won’t be noticeable when all the blocks are together. Paper piecing isn’t difficult, once you get over the initial hump. We made a LOT of mistakes in the workshop but eventually it just clicked.

  11. Paper piecing is great, isn’t it? My problem with it is that I cannot figure out quite how to cut odd shaped pieces and so I have to cut them very large and I end up wasting a lot of fabric! When I am doing PP, the studio looks like a blizzard of fabrics and my trash baskets fill up quickly! There are a lot of quilts I wanted to make when I first started quilting, but was leery of them; patterns with lots of sharp points. Now it’s easy peasy. Judy Mathieson and others, I am sure, do a freezer paper type of PP. You sew along the edge and then iron it down and there is no ripping out paper (and you can reuse the pattern pieces until the stick doesn’t work). I try to do this as much as possible. And I either leave the stabilizer in or use the dissolving kind when doing a teeny tiny pieces. The Santas are great!

    • The workshop teacher was just trying to explain the freezer paper process to me–I need to watch a video or something! The waste of fabric bums me out. For the red and white blocks, I am using my rotary cutter and rough cutting the fabric and I think it will mean less waste. With the Santas, it was just what you described–little bits of fabric everywhere!

  12. Oh Kerry this is beautiful and I love your detailed explaination of the technique. I love quilts, I love the patterns, history, colors, the art, etc. I can look at them all day. But sewing is not my talent, alas. Long ago my first training was for professional housekeeper( two years training full time , those were the days right?) when finshed I was ready to manage big families, big farms and manor houses complete with budgeting, menus planning, care for invalids and…mending. Well I passed all classes with flying colors and worked successfully …except for indeed mending. My lovely teacher even advised after still giving me a pass to really, really stay away from any sewing ;0) well nowadays I manage to do simple alterations but the gentle art of quilting..despite some courses, was never meant to be for me. So I double, triple enjoy your photos!! More of this please! Xo Johanna

    • That training you received sounds fascinating, and so useful! I love the stories behind the quilts, too–I seem only to be interested in the traditional patterns and old ways . . . which makes paper piecing kind of a walk on the wild side for me!

    • The Santas are cute but I’m not sure I’ll finish the wall hanging–it seems like quite a lot more work for something I might use only a month a year. I have other projects!

  13. I once tried making pinwheels – the points were out of alignment; not a good look. Not sure I’d want to try the paper piecing; it sounds a bit tedious and awkward. Maybe if I think of it as solving a puzzle it would appeal more. I have discovered my quilting nirvana this past week making blocks that are enjoyable to me and which require less precision.
    Hand sewing with a cat on your lap sounds like a nicer way to work! But it’s great to have found a method to achieve the results you’ve been striving for.

    • I saw your tree blocks and can see why you felt liberated! In the past, when I’ve been cutting patches for quilt blocks, I’ve always been VERY tense because I was sure I wasn’t cutting just right and the blocks wouldn’t come to together right, etc. Paper piecing solves that for me so, while it does have some tedious moments, it feels so much less stressful! And then the points turn out great and I’m so happy!

  14. Pingback: The Crafter’s Conundrum: Get It Done or Get It Right? | Love Those "Hands at Home"

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