How to Paper Piece a Quilt

A Beginning Quilter's Guide to Paper Piecing

How to Paper Piece a Quilt
Janet Wickell

You've probably heard quilters talk about paper piecing, even if you are brand new to the craft. The term is a bit confusing because paper piecing is just one of the names used to describe the broad category of foundation piecing, where patches are sewn directly onto a foundation template — an exact replica of an entire quilt block or portion of a block. 

Foundation piecing is a traditional method that's had a dramatic rebirth since the early 1990s.

Miniature quilt enthusiasts were among the first to rediscover foundation piecing, because when the method is done correctly, blocks are perfect every time, even when they are sewn with tiny patches.

  • The term paper piecing became popular because many of the templates used to sew a quilt are printed onto paper foundations.
  • Flip and sew and sew and flip are two more terms often associated with paper piecing. Both describe the actions you'll take when sewing a foundation pieced quilt.
  • Don't confuse the paper piecing method described here with paper piecing — that's a completely different technique.
  • String piecing is a popular freehand version of foundation piecing.

How Do Quilters Paper Piece a Quilt?

For one paper piecing method, fabric is positioned on the unprinted side of a foundation, with edges overlapping drawn lines. The fabric's placement is easy to see by holding the foundation up to the light.

Seams are sewn on the front (printed side) of the foundation template, directly on the lines, and the overlapped edges of fabric on the back become seam allowances. If you position fabric carefully and sew on the lines, your blocks will always be perfect.

Foundation templates can be drawn or printed on paper, fabric or another material.

The only seam allowance on each template is the one that surrounds the outer perimeter of the block or partial block.

It's more difficult to describe paper piecing that to actually do it. You'll find that it's one of the easiest techniques you've ever tried, even if you don't quite understand the process at first.

Foundation Materials

Foundation templates can be permanent or temporary.

  • Permanent foundations stay in the quilt forever.
  • Temporary foundations are usually removed after the blocks are joined, but before the quilt is sandwiched with batting and backing.

Pros and Cons of Permanent and Temporary Foundations

  • Permanent foundations add an extra layer that can make hand quilting difficult.
  • Permanent foundations add bulk to seam allowances where blocks or other foundation pieced units are joined.
  • Permanent foundations remain to stabilize patches, so you can use up bits and pieces of your stash without regard to fabric grain placement.
  • Temporary foundations are sewn with short stitches that help perforate the template for easier removal and keep seams stable when foundations are pulled away. Short stitches can be difficult to remove if you must rip out a seam to correct errors.
  • You can use longer stitches on permanent foundations.
  • It takes time to remove most types of temporary foundations, especially when patches are small.

Permanent Foundation Choices

Lightweight muslin and other cotton fabrics are traditional choices for permanent foundations. Woven fabric has a tendency to stretch during handling, and the stretch can create skewed blocks. Moisture enhances stretch, so use a dry iron to press quilt blocks during assembly.

It's easy to print on fabric when you back it with freezer paper. Many companies offer pre-treated and pre-backed fabrics made especially for quilters.

Non-woven interfacing is another foundation option. It's sheer, doesn't stretch, and template lines are visible from both sides to make fabric placement a cinch.

Temporary Foundation Choices

Smooth vellum can be used for temporary foundations and will feed through most laser printers.

Blank newsprint is another choice and it pulls away easily after sewing.

Commercial foundations are also available. Many are made so they will pass easily through inkjet and laser printers.

  • The Electric Quilt offers precut sheets of temporary foundation material made from a non-woven, rayon polyester blend.
  • Collins' Wash Away Foundation Paper is designed to dissolve in ten seconds when the finished quilt is placed in water.

Other plain and pre-printed foundations are available at quilt shops and from mail order suppliers.

Permanent foundations are a good choice for projects where a stiffer appearance is desired, such as items that will decorate clothing or accessories. They're also perfect if you are making a string quilt or don't need to worry about the extra weight foundations add to a hand quilted project.

Stitches and Needles for Paper Piecing

  • Use 15-20 stitches per inch when sewing on temporary foundations. Use the higher stitch count for minis with short seams to keep them from unraveling when foundations are removed.
  • Keep stretch to a minimum by making sure the fabric's straight grain lies along the outer perimeter of a block when using temporary foundations.
  • Begin each project with a new needle. Needles must pierce multiple layers of fabric and paper, so they become dull more quickly.

Paper Piecing Seam Allowances

  • Trim back seam allowances to an even width after you sew each seam or you'll end up with thick bunches of unruly fabric on the back of your quilt blocks.
  • Don't worry if the raw edges of fabric don't match exactly when you're positioning patches to sew a seam — you'll trim them back after sewing.
  • If paper piecing is new to you, cut your patches a little larger than necessary. Add roughly 3/8" to each finished edge instead of 1/4". Once you're accustomed to the technique you can reduce the seam allowance.

See the Miniature Oddfellows Star quilt pattern to sew the quilt illustrated on this page.

How to Remove Little Bits of Fabric

Keep a pair of tweezers on hand for removing small bits of temporary foundations from your paper pieced blocks.

Have fun with paper piecing and remember that patch sizes in most patterns are estimates so use larger scraps if you wish. For slightly smaller scraps, position the fabric with less of an overlap at seams to create narrower seam allowances.

Still not sure about paper piecing? The method will make more sense after you practice paper piecing a log cabin block.