In a time of speed, technology and computerised sewing machines, many quilters are choosing to go back to basics and sew quilt blocks by hand. Hand piecing has many advantages. It uses a simple running stitch, is suitable for all sewing levels and can be done anywhere! Portability is at the heart of its appeal. Once cut out and prepped, a hand pieced block can be stored in a zip-lock bag ready in an instant to do whilst travelling, waiting, or away from your usual sewing space. Many hand piecers take their sewing on holiday, or to quilt groups where it’s the ideal activity to do whilst talking to others. Within the home, hand piecing can easily move from room to room so you can sit with others, sew in the garden, or in a comfy chair away from your sewing machine, plus it’s the ideal way to fit brief moments of sewing into a busy schedule and optimise time to sew. Hand pieced seams can be surprisingly strong and don’t need to be pressed until the block is complete so there’s no need to be near an iron as you sew.
Working directly with your hands is a pleasurable process and hand stitching can be an act of meditation: your focus is in the moment and on the stitch you are sewing. Hand piecing also sharpens your stitching skills and gives you greater control of your sewing, which is especially useful for blocks with more challenging elements like curved sections or Y seams – an inset seam where three or more pieces of fabrics meet in a Y shape.
In this feature on hand piecing, I’ll introduce you to some handy tools as well as the basic techniques for hand piecing a simple quilt block.
What Equipment do I need?
The basics of hand piecing involve tracing the shapes for your quilt block on to the wrong side of your fabric, cutting them out (adding a seam allowance if not already included) and sewing the fabric together with a needle and thread.
Templates and Seam Wheels
Hand piecing usually uses templates to create the shapes that form a block. These can be made of card, paper (stuck on to card backing), freezer paper, template plastic, pre-cut acrylic templates that include seam allowances, or pre-cut paper pieces. If your templates do not include seam allowances, a seam wheel like Clover Seam Marker or a brass magic seam marker will easily add this by inserting a pencil in the hole and letting the marker roll along the card of plastic template edge as you draw on the wrong side of the fabric. Freezer paper can be used for templates, ironed directly to the reverse of fabric. The freezer paper acts as a stabiliser for the fabric when drawing around the template with pencil. Seam allowances are then added. Helen from Archie the Wonder Dog blog has a project with this technique: archiethewonderdog.blogspot.com/2016/05/oakshott-lipari-blog-hop-pretty-little.html
Simple shapes like squares and rectangles shapes can be rotary cut instead of using templates. Remember to include seam allowances in the measurements and seam lines are drawn on the reverse after cutting. Another option is to use specially designed rubber stamp sets. Helen has also written a helpful informative blog post about this method: archiethewonderdog.blogspot.com/2019/02/quilt-stamps.html
A soft pencil is used for drawing around the templates and creating the seam lines. A standard drawing pencil with a softer lead like a B, or a fabric pencil with a ceramic lead like Sewline, are both good options as they draw smoothly on the fabric.
Sandpaper covered board
This is invaluable for holding your fabric pieces in place and preventing distortion when you draw the seam lines on the reverse of the fabric. It’s easy to make your own using fine grade sand paper stuck on to an old notebook cover or piece of sturdy cardboard using double-sided tape.
The right needle can make the world of difference when hand piecing and reduces hand and wrist strain. Milliner’s needles, also called straw needles, are very popular for hand piecing. These are long and fine, but also strong and keep their shape, whereas an appliqué needle is thin but also flexible so tends to get bent when hand piecing. An appropriate needle size ranges from 9-11 (the higher the number, the thinner the needle). There are Milliner’s/Straw needles with larger or longer eyes that are easier to thread e.g. Tulip Hiroshima Milliner’s Big Eye Needles. Milliner’s needles vary according to manufacturer so you may need to try a few makes to find what works best for you. Richard Hemming, Foxglove Cottage, Tulip and John James are all good quality needle manufacturers.
You will need a fine, strong thread. My preference is Aurifil 50wt cotton thread. It’s smooth, easy to work with and is available in different sizes and colours. You could also use a fine filament polyester thread like Superior Threads Bottomline.
Some sewers like to use beeswax or a silicone thread conditioner to keep cotton thread extra smooth. The thread length is lightly pulled through the conditioner before sewing. It’s very much down to personal preference and not a necessity.
Standard pins will hold your fabrics together at the seam points but you may find your thread gets caught around them so shorter (3/4” or 1”) appliqué pins can be easier to work with.
You will need small scissors or snips for thread. For cutting curved fabric edges scissors with a spring hinge like Fiskars Micro-Tip are good for reducing hand strain. Karen Kay Buckley Perfect Scissors are wonderful for cutting small fabric pieces and come in a range of sizes. They have a cushioned handle that is comfortable for either dominant hand and also have serrated blades that grip the fabric as you cut and reduce fraying. They do cost a little more but if you cut a lot of curved shapes for hand piecing or appliqué, they may be worth the investment.
Although hand piecing is a slow stitching activity compared to machine piecing, once you get started you’ll develop a rhythm and sew a little faster.
How to Hand Piece a Simple Four-patch Block
Finished block size, 4”
From two contrasting fabrics A and B, cut 2 squares each measuring 2½” square. There will be 4 squares in total.
Using a sandpaper board, a soft pencil and a quilt ruler, mark the ¼” seams on the wrong side of each square. Once you are more confident, you may want to just use dots instead of lines to mark the beginning and end of the seams but I find my hand sewing is more accurate following lines!
Arrange the squares so the two fabrics alternate to form the four-patch block. Place the two squares from the top row together to form the first vertical seam. Precision at the start and end of seams is very important when hand piecing. You will need to pin precisely by pushing the pin vertically through the corresponding end points to align them, and then use a second pin to secure the fabrics before sliding out the first pin.
Cut a piece of sewing thread the length of your arm from shoulder to wrist. Make a quilter’s knot at the end of your thread – there’s a handy tutorial at patchworkposse.com/quilters-knot-tutorial/. I’ve used a dark thread to show the stitches but a neutral colour that blends in with your fabrics is best.
When hand piecing, only the seam line is sewn: so a straight seam will have a secure start and end, and the ¼” seam allowances at the beginning and end of the seam will be able to move freely as they are not sewn down. This is one of the advantages of hand piecing and makes it much easier to sew inset seams or unusual shapes. Slide the starting pin out and begin stitching approximately ½” inside the seam line (see arrow in photo below), and sew 2 or 3 running stitches to arrive exactly at the start of the seam – this will mean sewing in the opposite direction for a couple of stitches and prevents the seam ends from getting bulky with thread knots. Make one more backstitch at the start of the seam, and then you are ready to keep stitching along the seam over on top of the first stitches and beyond.
I am right handed and sew from right to left. Whether you are left or right handed, your hands work together so one is manipulating the fabric up and down as the dominant hand rocks the tip of the needle in and out so that 2, 3, or even 4 stitches will be on your needle as you pull the thread through. This takes a bit of practice so initially aim for 2 stitches. Your stitch size needs to be small but not tiny; you’ll find a comfortable and consistent size emerges as you sew. Once you’ve sewn around 1” of the seam, add a backstitch to strengthen the seam, and then carry on stitching. As you sew, keep checking the front and the back pencil seam lines to check your stitches follow them accurately. Continue to the end of the seam, adding backstitches approximately every 1” or so until you reach the pin near the end. Slide the pin out and as you make the end stitch, ensure your needle is aligning at the seam line ends on the front and back. Backstitch at this point, then move the needle point along one more stitch, backstitch again and knot off the thread by passing the needle point under the final stitch to create a loop and then pulling the needle and thread through it to secure (see photo below).
Repeat the process on the second pair of squares; remember the colours are alternating so there will be a different fabric facing you as you sew this time.
To join the two rows, place them together to form the horizontal centre seam and pin at the start, centre and end. Remember, precision is key, use vertical pinning to align these points perfectly! Slide the starting pin out, and start sewing the seam as before. Stitch until you are close to the centre, and then making sure the vertical seam allowances are flipped away from your stitches (if you are sewing from right to left, the allowances will need to be flipped and held to the left) and sew exactly to the middle of the row, ending with a backstitch. Release the vertical seams and with your needle at the front or the back, pass the needle through the seam and directly through to the square on the other side (see photo below).
Now, flip the vertical seam allowances the opposite way from your stitching direction so you don’t catch them in your stitches and secure this centre point with another backstitch before continuing sewing as before.
Sew to the end of the seam, adding backstitches at regular intervals as you sew and ending with a backstitch and knotting off the thread.
Your block is complete and your seam allowances have the freedom to lie as your wish. If you are sewing lots of blocks to each other, you can leave them unpressed and decide at a later point, or you can press the block now.
One option is to press the seams to the side and open the centre seam allowances out to evenly distribute seam allowances around the block centre.