Foundation paper piecing is a precision piecing method, which uses paper both as a pattern and a stabiliser, and this helps to produce perfect points and accurate blocks. It’s a straightforward technique once mastered but initially it can seem counter intuitive. I have included a lot of extra photos in these tutorials to make the method easier to understand.
What is Foundation Paper Piecing?
Foundation paper piecing is a method of sewing quilt blocks, which involves sewing through a paper pattern with the paper upwards, and the fabric positioned underneath. The blocks starts to form on the ‘wrong side’ as you sew and the paper is flipped back and forth as each new piece of fabric is joined to the one before it. There are lines and numbers on the paper pattern, sometimes letters too. The lines are the seam lines and the numbers tell you the order in which to sew each piece. Letters are used when a pattern is sewn in sections e.g. A, B, C. The sections are sewn separately and are then joined together to make the block. When the sewing is finished, the paper is removed. It is possible to unpick seams if things go wrong but it is harder than with standard piecing as the stitches are smaller and the paper will start to tear away as you unpick.
You don’t need special equipment to foundation paper piece but there are a few basic items that can make life easier. A water based glue stick like Sewline or even Pritt stick is helpful for positioning the first piece of fabric on the reverse of the paper, although you can also pin it. An ‘Add-a-quarter’ ruler is an easy and safe way to trim your seams accurately as you sew. This ruler has a quarter inch lipped edge that sits over the edge of the paper pattern. You can also use a standard quilt ruler. A window, light source or a white work surface, or even white paper also helps you to see what is happening beneath the paper as you add each piece of fabric (If you use Patterntrace foundation paper which is semi-transparent you won’t need this). A Hera marker can be used to pre-crease the seam lines on the paper pattern before you sew. This makes it easier to flip the paper back and forth. You could also use a blunt non-serrated butter knife. Plus purpose designed foundation paper makes the job so much easier, Fiona from The Sewing Directory has designed some available to buy here.
A strings block is a gentle improvisational introduction to foundation paper piecing. Sewing takes place on the fabric side of the block and the paper lies underneath providing a foundation and stabilising the strips. This block is a great stash buster too! You could sew a whole quilt from string blocks to really clear some of your scraps.
Finished block size, 12” square. This block is made up of four string blocks joined together. Finished size does not include the seam allowance so the unfinished size is 12½” square. Seam allowance is 1/4” throughout.
You will need
Rotary cut strips of fabric. You will need strips of different widths from 3/4” up to 2” (the widths need to be consistent on each strip) and different lengths up to 12” long.
Four sheets of A4 printer paper or foundation paper. Lightweight paper is easiest to use, e.g. 70gsm weight.
Water based glue stick e.g. Sewline glue stick or even a Pritt stick.
On each sheet of A4, use a quilt ruler to draw a 6½” square. Cut out.
On one side of each paper square, draw a line diagonally corner to corner using a soft pencil. With the paper held up to a light source e.g. a window, take a long fabric strip and place evenly over the diagonal pencil line: the wrong side of the fabric should be against the paper and the strip ends should overhang the corners. Use a couple of glue stick swipes to hold it in temporarily in place.
Take a second fabric strip, place it right sides together along one of the long edges of the previous strip- I chose to work towards the top right corner of the square first. Either hold, pin or use a tiny amount of glue stick in the seam allowance to temporarily hold the fabric in place and carry the block over to your sewing machine.
Using a small stitch, 1.5mm or less, sew the strips together using a 1/4” seam allowance and stitching through the fabric and the paper. Your seam should start and stop at the outer edge of the paper. There is no need to secure the seam at the beginning or end as the small stitches will hold it together tightly.
TIP: The small stitches should hold your seams together and perforate the paper making it easier to remove when the block is finished.
Press the seam on the fabric side, then open the second strip out and press the second strip away from the first.
Continue adding strips in this way working towards one corner of the square and pressing the seam and opening the strip and pressing away as before.
Once the strips have covered one half of the square, repeat the process to cover the rest of the square. With the paper side upwards, use a quilt ruler and a rotary cutter to trim the excess fabric so that the square measures 6½” square using the paper as a guide.
Carefully remove the paper by starting from the last corner sewn and working towards the centre of the square. Fold the paper away from the fabric and along the seam line before you tear it off.
Repeat steps to make three more string squares. The finished squares can be arranged to make a O or X shape or even as chevrons. Sew together as a four-patch pressing the seams open.
The economy square is a traditional quilt block which can be made in the standard way sewing rotary cut shapes together, but it is also a very effective block to make using foundation paper piecing and a great way to familiarise yourself with a new construction method. You will need to download the Economy Square Template and print off four copies; each copy will fit onto a sheet of A4 – remember the thinner the paper, the easier it is to use! The printed pattern should measure 6½” square including the seam allowance shown by the dashed edges. We will also be using a fussy cutting technique to choose interesting centres for each economy square. Instructions are included to pre cut the fabrics for the block corners that makes them easier to add, this is not always the case for foundation piecing but it definitely makes life easier for a beginner!
Finished block size, 12” square. This block is made up of four economy squares joined together. Finished size does not include the seam allowance so the unfinished size is 12½” square. Seam allowance is 1/4” throughout.
For each economy square:
You will need
One fat eighth for background.
One fat eighth for square centres– I am using fabrics from Katarina Roccella’s Recollection range for Art Gallery Fabrics.
Glue stick e.g Sewline glue stick or even a Pritt stick.
Masking tape or Washi tape.
Background Fabric: Cut two 5” squares for the block corners. Cut each square in half diagonally to make a total of 4 triangles. It is easier to use a non-directional print or solid fabric.
Square Centre fabric: A fat eighth for the block centre. A print with motifs that can be ‘fussy cut’ works well.
Print four copies of the Economy Square Template, make sure your settings are at 100% and not scaled down. Cut out along the dashed lines.
Prepare your pattern by pre-creasing all the seam lines using a Hera marker or non serrated blunt butter knife and a quilt ruler. These are the solid black lines on the pattern.
The centre square is cut at 5¼” square including a generous seam allowance so use masking tape or washi tape on your quilt ruler to mark that size of square. You can then use your ruler to view the size of square you want to cut on your fabrics and centre a particular motif or pattern before you cut. Cut along the outer ruler lines first and then rotate your ruler, line up the tape on the cut edges and cut the opposite sides of the square.
TIP: Fussy cutting is a way of featuring a motif or particular part of a print and is often used for ‘I Spy’ quilts or in pincushions, cushions, quilts – there are no limits. If you are nervous about cutting out your motif, use a temporary fabric marker to draw your square on the fabric before cutting it out.
With a light source behind the paper, hold it up right side towards you and use a swipe of glue stick on the back to stick the fabric centre square in position. The wrong side of the fabric square needs to be stuck on to the wrong side of the paper.
With the paper side upwards, place the block on a cutting mat. Fold the paper triangle marked 2 towards the block centre along the pre-creased line. This will reveal the excess fabric (wrong side up), some of which will form the seam allowance of the next seam. Place a quilt ruler or an ‘Add-a-quarter’ ruler over the folded triangle so it hangs over the edge of the paper and the excess fabric by 1/4″ to create the seam allowance. Use a rotary cutter to trim off the excess fabric.
With the fabric side upwards, place one of the background triangles onto the centre square fabric right sides together so that the diagonal edge aligned with the diagonal edge of the square. This triangle is going to be covering piece 2 of your paper pattern. Ensure that the triangle is evenly placed. This can either be held in place, or pinned or even lightly glued in the seam allowance.
Whilst the fabric is in position, flip it back over the paper to check it is big enough to cover piece 2 on the paper pattern including the seam allowances at the outer edge. Assuming it is, flip it back to where it was.
Turn the block over so the paper side is upwards ready to sew and carry to the sewing machine.
Using a small stitch, 1.5mm or less and with the paper side upwards, sew along the black seam line between pieces 1 and 2 on the pattern. Start the seam just before the seam line and stop at the end securing the seam at each end. You can start and end the seam at the very edge of the paper if you prefer but this will make the paper a little harder to fold back for step 8 and you might need to tear it a little at the edges.
On the fabric side, first press the seam, then open the triangle out and press away from the centre of the block.
The outside edges of the fabric triangle should go beyond the paper pattern at the block corner.
Next, prepare the edge of the centre square for adding the next piece of fabric that will cover piece 3 on the paper pattern. With the paper side upwards, fold the corner towards the centre of the blocks along the pre-creased line and continue as above.
Continue adding the corners of the block in numerical order following the steps above until the block is complete.
With the paper side upwards, trim the block to measure 6½” square.
Make three more blocks. Once trimmed, remove the paper carefully. Sew the blocks together as a four-patch, pressing the seams open.
Next time we will continue with foundation paper piecing and make a more challenging block. This will be the last of the twelve sampler blocks so we’re close to putting them all together to make a sampler quilt. There are different ways to approach foundation piecing and methods may vary. There are some core principles but it’s all about personal preference and finding what works best for you.
If you’ve enjoyed the foundation paper piecing method, you can find a list of links and online resources including tutorials from other foundation paper piecers who use a range of techniques on this page at my blog verykerryberry.blogspot.co.uk.