Paper Piecing: definition, terminology and tutorials
Paper Piecing is not a new technique. There are examples of this form of patchwork dating back to the late eighteenth century (Audin, 2013). The actual method involves placing a paper template onto the wrong side of the fabric, folding the fabric over the paper template, basting/tacking into place and then stitching the shapes together (almost like a fabric form of Tetris!)
I have, until recently, used the term English Paper Piecing and there is a huge wealth of books available for “English Paper Piecing”, companies selling “English Paper Piecing” tools and templates (I have myself got English Paper Piecing kits and YouTube videos so I am not pointing a finger, I am acknowledging where I have used a problematic term myself) and an incredibly popular use of the hashtag on social media. As I’ve read more into this method as part of my University research and ongoing act of trying to be more inclusive, I have become increasingly concerned about using this term and I have tried to stop using this name.
The method, of folding the fabric over the paper template, did not even originally have a name and this method continued to have no name into the nineteenth century (Long, 2018). Audin (2013) and Long (2018) both refer to this technique as ‘mosaic patchwork’ as the pieces fit together and it thus makes no geographical (and inaccurate) links. There is no clear indication that this patchwork method existed, or even originated, exclusively in England and there are examples of historical paper pieced quilts using this method existing in Britain (not England), and the US (Audin, 2013; Long, 2018). However, this history of the origins of paper piecing/mosaic patchwork is based on surviving quilts and patchwork. This, doesn’t mean, however, that the technique wasn’t used in other countries historically. It could just mean that those quilts may not have withstood the test of time/history to the extent that others have.
There are also suggestions that the name “English” was ascribed to this term when all things ‘English’ were deemed fashionable during the 18th/19th century (Ashford, 2020; Sew and Quilt, 2020). For me, this immediately raises concerns around colonisation and perpetuating racist and white privilege by continuing to use the name “English Paper Piecing” as it implies English way is the way, of a higher standard, is historically superior and is exclusively done by English people. That is simply not true. Language has incredible power to elevate voices and to silence voices and this is why I think it is important to be clear about words, terms and the impact they may have.
For these reasons, I’ve decided to stop using the term “English Paper Piecing” as it is not historically accurate and it also continues to exclude anyone who may not identify as English. It is a technique that is used, has been used, and continues to be used worldwide and for these reasons I think it is imperative we use language that acknowledges this, and is inclusive to all.
I’ve chosen to use “paper piecing” instead of mosaic patchwork as I feel a lot of patchwork is mosaic (in terms of visually creating a mosaic and often repeating designs). There is another technique called “foundation paper piecing” but I do not think there is a risk of confusion between the two as “paper piecing” and “foundation paper piecing” are thus clearly two names and two techniques.
Below are some tutorials on Paper Piecing. These Paper Piecing tutorials are not meant to be exhaustive tutorials, but a taster of tips, tricks and possibilities when using this method. The hope is that these tutorials will give you the tools to inspire you to play and continue on your creative journey!
I have made videos also showing these techniques. As I filmed this videos over a period of time, I have used the term “English Paper Piecing”. For future videos, I will be using the term “Paper Piecing”. These videos can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLu3yBqH4hGgXnuj4hcKrjT4u-Msi7ZUpk
Ashford, S. (2020) ‘The History of English Paper Piecing’ https://community.themodernquiltguild.com/resources/history-english-paper-piecing (Accessed: 4 October 2020)
Audin, H. (2013) Patchwork and Quilting in Britain. Shire Publications. Available: https://www.quiltersguildshop.org.uk/products/patchwork-and-quilting-in-britain?_pos=1&_sid=4d262c143&_ss=r
Long, B. (2018) ‘Names, Terminology or Nomenclature: What do we mean?’, The newsletter of the British Quilt Study Group: Issue 51.
Sew and Quilt (2020) ‘English Paper Piecing History’ https://www.sewandquilt.co.uk/english-paper-piecing-history (Accessed: 4 October 2020).
Thread basting non-curved Paper Piecing shapes
The basting photos may show different shapes to those that you have but I use the same basting principle for most (non-curved) Paper Piecing shapes from hexagons to diamonds, from tumblers to houses etc. The templates in these pictures have numbers on because they are for a specific design that I was making so just ignore the numbers on the paper pieces template!
Place the paper piece template on to the wrong side of your fabric. I like to use wonder clips to hold this into place (as I find it doesn’t wiggle as much as when I use pins) but you can use pins, wonder clips (or another gadget) to hold the template in place. I use enough wonder clips to hold the template onto the fabric without it sliding around.
Working either clockwise or anticlockwise (this is dependent on your preference, just try make sure that you maintain whatever direction you choose throughout all of your basting), fold the fabric over the edges of the paper template and use your thumb to press it into place flat against the edge of the template.
To thread baste, begin by tying a knot in your basting thread (I just use the cheapest thread I can get my hands on!) and, starting from the back/wrong side, push your needle down through the paper/fabric on a straight edge and come back up ¼” along to the left. Then take your needle and thread back down through the paper/fabric through the corner – this will hold your folded corners down in place
Continue this process of working your way around the shape by:
- Bringing the needle through the fabric/paper piece (from the front/right side to the back/wrong side) at around the mid-point of each edge.
- Taking the needle back through the fabric/paper piece (from the back/wrong side to the front/right side) at each corner to hold that fabric fold into place.
Keep repeating this process until you return to the point where you started. You can add more basting stitches along each length if the shape is larger/you want to. Finish your basting by tying a knot in your basting thread before cutting. Repeat this process for all of the paper piecing shapes making sure that you work in the same direction (whether clockwise or anticlockwise) for each shape.
Whip stitch for sewing together non-curved Paper Piecing shapes
I prefer to join my pieces using a tight whip stitch but you can use whichever sewing method you prefer to use. Make sure you have a sharp needle. The whip stitch photos may show different shapes to those that you have but I use the same whip stitch method for sewing most (non-curved) Paper Piecing shapes from hexagons to diamonds, from tumblers to houses etc. I like to use Gutermann sew-all (polyester) thread as I find it stronger than cotton thread for Paper Piecing.
Cut a piece of thread no longer than arm’s length and tie three or four knots (one on top of the other) towards the end of your thread where you have just cut it (cutting at this point helps to minimise thread tangles when hand sewing).
Choose the 2 basted Paper Piecing shapes that you’ll be joining (don’t worry if your shapes are different from those in this photo, the principle is the same for sewing together most non-curved paper piecing shapes).
Place these 2 pieces right sides together making sure you match up the points on the edges which you’ll be joining. I sew from left to right because that’s the direction I write in but if you prefer to sew the other way then do what feels comfortable for you. With this in mind, place a wonder clip holding together the 2 points on the far right of the edges that you’re sewing together (fig. 5). You’ll see that I have folded the tail out of the way to help with visibility when sewing (if your paper piecing shape doesn’t have a tail, like hexagons don’t, then this bit doesn’t matter).
You’re going to start by securing your thread. I would recommend doing this ¼” in from where you’ll start sewing (this helps to make sure your knot isn’t at a weak point eg. the corner). So, starting ¼” in from the left point, make two stitches (one on top of the other). Do this by guiding your needle through the very 2 edges of the fabrics taking 1 or 2 fibres from each fabric and taking care not to go through the paper pieces themselves .
Next, you’re going to just begin stitching from that far left point (don’t cut the thread, it is only 1/4″ so you can just move your needle over to that starting point on the far left).
To whip stitch, continue to guide your needle through the fibres from the edges of the 2 paper piecing shapes that you’re joining. I try to take a stitch approx. every 1/16”. Make sure you’re going through the fibres from the 2 paper piecing shapes and that you’re not going through the papers themselves.
You’ll start to find your own rhythm and strength as you sew. Try to make sure that the thread isn’t pulled so tight that the thread snaps but also try to make sure that the thread is not so loose than they can pull apart. Continue to sew along the edges that you’re joining and remove the binding clip once you have reached it so that you can continue sewing right up to the corner on the far right.
Once you’ve reached the corner on the right, you’re going to take an extra stitch through the 2 pieces at the corner (as we did right at the start) but leave a loop of thread.
Guide your needle through the thread loop twice to create the knot and then pull the thread to close that loop. You should be able to feel a small bump which is the knot.
Finally, because we don’t want that knot to be on a potential weak point which is right on the corner, you’re going to do what we did at the start of sewing and take your needle and thread back ¼” to the left of where you’ve just created the thread loop knot and repeat this process of taking a second stitch, leaving a loop and then passing your needle through the loop twice before pulling it to secure the knot.
Then, cut your thread and ta-da! You’ve joined your paper piecing shapes!