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.

YAY!

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:

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made by Jean Welch

And here are some of the happy Santas we made:

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SO many corners and points and tiny stitches!

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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 . . .

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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