What is English Paper Piecing? Easy Hexagon Quilting Tutorial
By Natasha Hoover
How do you feel about quilting?
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!
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.
- A needle.
- 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!
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!
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!
4. After basting your hexes, trim away any excess fabric, as shown below.
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.
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.
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!
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