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What is English Paper Piecing? Easy Hexagon Quilting Tutorial

Updated on May 12, 2013

By Natasha Hoover

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English Paper Piecing - Quilting Made Easy

Does the idea of quilting make you nervous? It downright scared me for years! I avoided quilting for a very long time because it seemed 1) tedious and 2) difficult. It was not the actual quilting that made me nervous - it was the piecing. How could I possibly cut all those little pieces the same size and then sew them all together so everything matched up perfectly?

Then I learned that it's actually very easy, if you use a technique called "English paper piecing." Abbreviated EPP, it involves using paper shapes as a foundation for the pieced fabric. (Don't worry - you take the paper out eventually!) It may take a little longer than other methods of piecing because you must sew by hand, but it ensures all pieces are the correct size and it makes creating even elaborate designs easier than I'd ever imagined possible.

This tutorial does not show you how to actually 'quilt' the pieced fabric to the batting and backing, but it gives detailed instructions on how to use English paper piecing to piece fabric for a quilt more easily and accurately than ever before. In case you aren't familiar with the terminology, "piecing" is the part of quilting where you sew all the bits of fabric together to make a design. "Quilting" is actually stitching through the layers of pieced fabric, batting, and backing.

Because you can use very small pieces of fabric, EPP is the perfect way to use scraps of favorite materials. The small piece size and use of hand sewing make EPP projects perfect "lap work" for long trips or even watching a movie. Try it and you'll wonder why you never used this technique before!

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Charm packs are a great way to pick up a lot of different fabrics for a fun quilt. Simply cut each 5" square in quarters if you're using 1" paper hexagons.

Using a mat makes it far easier to even fabric squares!

Hexagon Quilting Tutorial

Paper pieces for English paper piecing come in all shapes and sizes, but hexagons are the most common, basic shape. I like 1" hexagons because they are small enough to look impressive without being so tiny any project will consume the rest of my life! This tutorial is written based on using hexagons, but you can adapt it for any shape you chose to use.

To get started with English paper piecing, you will need:

  • Paper hexagons. I use 1" hexagons, which means each side of the hexagon is 1" long. You can find free printables online, but it is worth a few dollars to buy pre-cut hexagons. No matter how hard you try, you simply cannot perfectly identical pieces at home unless you have a die cutter. If you do, that's awesome! If you don't, visit a specialty quilting shop or look online for paper pieces. Unfortunately I've never seen paper pieces at a mainstream, chain craft store. If you don't have a local quilting shop, I suggest you check out Paper Pieces. They have a variety of pre-cut paper pieces in all manner of shapes and sizes. They even off some free pattern downloads, if you're looking for inspiration.
  • Fabric. You can choose anything you want, but the kind of lightweight cotton made for quilting is easiest to get started with. Just head over to your local fabric store and pick something out! With English paper piecing, you can use small pieces, so why not pick up some charm packs and see what you can create?
  • Paperclips. Lots and lots of paperclips.
  • Scissors.
  • A needle.
  • Thread.
  • Optional but recommended - a cutting mat or grid so you can cut even fabric squares.

Hexagon Quilting Tutorial

My method of English paper piecing is a little different from what you may see elsewhere. Some people prefer to cut the cloth in hexagons, too, and then pin the paper hexagon in place on the cloth one. If I wanted to cut fabric in hexagons, I would just sew these hexagons without worrying about the paper piece! The method of EPP I was shown involves cutting squares of fabric and paperclipping them in place instead of pinning. I find this superior for a couple of reasons. First, cutting fabric squares is way easier than cutting hexes. Second, by using paperclips instead of pins, I avoid putting holes in my paper pieces and can reuse them many times.

1. Cut a lot of fabric squares. For 1" hexes, cut fabric squares that are at least 2". Experiment to find what size fabric square you are most comfortable with using before cutting up all of your fabric!

After figuring out the correct size for you, go ahead and cut a stack of squares.
After figuring out the correct size for you, go ahead and cut a stack of squares. | Source

2. After you have some fabric squares ready, paperclip them to the paper hexagons. Remember that the side you place the paper on will be the quilt's "inside," so place the fabric face down on your work surface and then place the paper hex on top. Just fold the cloth around the paper and clip the fabric securely in place. Don't pull so hard you distort the paper template, but pull the cloth as snugly as possible. I like to clip as many hexagons as I can at a time. I have a box of 100 paperclips and I keep clipping until I run out!

Paperclip the fabric in place.
Paperclip the fabric in place. | Source

3. After clipping a stack of hexes, baste the fabric in place, removing the paperclips as you work. Take care to only sew through fabric, not paper!

Baste the fabric in place, being careful not to sew through the paper.
Baste the fabric in place, being careful not to sew through the paper. | Source

4. After basting your hexes, trim away any excess fabric, as shown below.

After basting, trim away the excess fabric.
After basting, trim away the excess fabric. | Source

5. After you have a stack of hexagons prepared, you're ready to get piecing! Hold two hexes front to front, so the paper pieces are showing, and line up the edges and corners along one side. Use small whip stitches to secure the two hexes to one another. Just look at the photo below to see how this works. Once again, take care to not stitch through the paper, whenever possible.

Sew through the cloth, not the paper.
Sew through the cloth, not the paper. | Source

6. Rinse and repeat!

Continue making hexes and piecing them together to create anything you want. You can start small with a decorative pillow or go all out with a bedspread - the choice is yours. After a hex is attached to other hexes on all six sides, you can simply pull the paper out and reuse the template.

View of the pieced back. You can see the paper pieces still present along the edges.
View of the pieced back. You can see the paper pieces still present along the edges. | Source
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Patterns for Paper Piecing

There you have it - the easiest way to piece a quilt. Because all the pieces are sure to fit together, you can bring a stack of hexes on a car trip without dragging the entire project along. I like to create sections about 1' across at a time to keep the project manageable. Then, I simply stitch the sections together to add to the larger section that stays safely at home.

There are many English paper piecing patterns available both for sale and for free online. One of the most popular quilts using hexagons is called Grandmother's Flower Garden because it is easy to make flowers with hexagons. For some great pictures and inspiration, visit the gallery section of Paper Pieces. Or, if you'd prefer, don't worry about a pattern! If you want to use your favorite fabric scraps to create something memorable, just place hexes where you want to create pretty, colorful patterns. This is what I love to do, as you can see. Bright colors and fun prints can create a beautiful quilt without any formalized pattern - just let your imagination run wild and create a fresh, new quilt the world has never seen before.

When you get to the end of your piecing, don't panic if you don't know how to quilt or don't own a sewing machine - you can actually send your project away to be quilted professionally. Sites like The Completed Quilt can help you turn your pieced quilt top into a new family heirloom.

I hope you enjoy this tutorial and, as always, please let me know if you have any questions!

Comments

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    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR

      Natasha 

      4 years ago from Hawaii

      You can trim it down a bit, but you do end up with a bit of extra fabric, which is fine by me!

    • profile image

      paxwill 

      4 years ago

      Brilliant! I imagine the quilt is warmer and thicker because you end up with more fabric overall.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 

      5 years ago from the short journey

      Piecing makes more sense to me now. I've done a little quilting but my mind hasn't wrapped around some of the amazing designs I see…it says "HOW?" I'm sure a class would help, but this technique certainly makes me consider doing hexagons. Thanks!

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR

      Natasha 

      5 years ago from Hawaii

      Oh, wow, I bet those diamonds are really cool! You're right, people act like it's nuts when you hand sew something! I've made entire historic outfits by hand and, yes, it takes longer, but I'm very satisfied with them. There are lots of cool historical sewing techniques you simply cannot replicate with a machine.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • profile image

      Franicne Keys 

      5 years ago from Slaton, Texas

      I am making 2 Grandmothers Flower Garden Quilts. One with solid colors and the other all prints. The solid is yellow centers, one shade of solid color for the next ring, the one shade of green for the leaves all around the are both to be put on black. The prints are yellow print in center and all the same shade print for next round, the a shade of green print for leaves. I am also working on a tumbling block quilt using 60 degree diamonds out of neck ties. It is a challenge but I'm determined to do it. Many people the me I am crazy to even try it. I had taken samples that were free from paperpieces.com but only 12 people were even willing to try it. Everyone is married to their sewing machines now days.

      What ever happened to the basics?

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR

      Natasha 

      5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you very much for your complements - it has taken me a year of studying and effort to learn how to format hubs well(ish)!

      In all fairness, I said it was easy, not quick. No way of quilting is quick, but at least using the paper pieces makes it easy to have accurately-sized pieces.

      Why did you blow my cover! of course im a crypto-Amish wnting to make quilting seem hip to the younger generation! =p

      All my life, I have been involved with activities with people fairly dissimilar from myself. Whether I chose hobbies typically practiced by folks decades older than me, guys, or both, I've always been the sort of oddball in the group.

      Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to leave such a lengthy and thoughtful comment.

    • Brandon Tart profile image

      Brandon Heath Tart 

      5 years ago from North Carolina Sculptor

      Hi Natashalh... voted up, and I was the one that marked this funny, but let me tell you why. No, there is not a comedic moment in this hub... in fact, the closest that you came was when you said "if you do, AWESOME, if you don't, just go to a specialty craft store."

      I think the hub is great. I think it is funny because it is so evident to a hubber how much effort it takes to piece not only the quilts together, but formatting your hub must be rigorous and arduous to say the very least!

      This may be the first and last time I'll ever comment on HUB formatting as a highlight to the hub. Only recently have I begun to break hubs apart and I must be honest - it makes me want to scream. The beauty of your hub format is best applauded by hubbers since they alone know they processes involved in formatting a hub. Teaches12345 is right, you do make it "look" easy. Moreover, it is beyond hilarious to see all that effort, all that time, all that work... pardon me - WORK!! go into something, and then look to the upper left corner of the comments and see your very nonchalant, friendly and overtly pleasant - WELCOMING SMILE!

      If I may, I say it's funny because after reading it, if I hadn't seen your profile before I began to read your hubs, I would expect someone with either a lot more grey hair and wrinkles, or a grim look on their face from being a workaholic. I think you might be one, and that picture was taken during a time when you were very drunk on work and loving it!

      The fact that this hub is about quilting makes my final comment perhaps all the more apropos -- I think that your work ethic can only result in one final and lasting conjecture.... ladies and gentlemen, Natashalh is a work-loving Amish woman, who is secretly fooling around online telling us about quilting. She's not supposed to have a computer, and I am worried she might get caught and shunned or excommunicated.

      Seriously, N -- Good hub. Funny because your smile makes it worth it.

      Although, I don't think I'll be making a paper quilt any time soon. At least now I can if I need to!

      Thanks!

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR

      Natasha 

      5 years ago from Hawaii

      I never knew I had it in me, either! Using the paper pieces makes a world of difference.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      5 years ago

      Natasha, you make it all looks so easy. Love the quilt instructions you have listed and very well done. My mom made lots of quilts for her children, I only wish I had her talent and patience in doing so.

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR

      Natasha 

      5 years ago from Hawaii

      My family has some heirloom quilts, but I'm afraid to use them! Those depression quilts made from flour sacks are really valuable now, and totally irreplaceable.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      5 years ago

      Nice hub with great instructions and photos. I have an old grandmothers flower garden quilt and it is fun to look at all of the different fabrics. Up and awesome.

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR

      Natasha 

      5 years ago from Hawaii

      And that's why you're awesome =)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very interesting Natasha! You have to understand, I do not quilt and I most likely never will, but I love that you know how, and your interest in the old ways, and hey, I can stop just to support you, right? :)

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR

      Natasha 

      5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for being my first commenter and I'm glad you enjoyed it =)

    • dbuddhika profile image

      dbuddhika 

      5 years ago

      Excellent article. Very Interesting!

      Thanks for sharing.

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