Five years ago I was terrified of foundation paper piecing and couldn't wrap my mind around the idea of putting fabric on the back of paper and then sewing on the other side of the paper. It was just weird. But after making a few foundation paper pieced blocks, it became one of my favorite piecing methods. Here is my beginner guide.
Foundation Paper Piecing
What is Foundation Paper Piecing? (sometimes called paper piecing) Foundation paper piecing is when the outline of a quilt block is printed on a paper foundation and fabric is sewn together on the paper using the outline as a sewing guide. When the block is complete the paper foundation is removed. Amazingly accurate piecing is possible with foundation paper piecing, even with the smallest of pieces. Each foundation pieced block is different, but same basic steps and techniques apply to all.
Step 1: Copy the Foundation
The first step is to copy or print the needed foundation. You can use regular printer paper or use specialty foundation paper. Foundation paper is a thinner paper which is easier to see through and tear off after finishing the block, but it is more expensive.
After copying, always check that the pattern has copied or printed to the correct size. There will usually be a line or box that is 1" square that you can measure to test if the foundation printed correctly. I like to provide the finished size for all paper foundations in the instructions. With my foundations, measure the foundation along the solid inner lines verify it is the correct size.
Step 2: Cut and Prepare Fabric
Each section of the foundation is numbered and a different fabrics will go in each section. Decide which fabric you wish to use in each section and cut all pieces as instructed. You may wish to write the color of fabric you will be using for each section on the foundation so you don't get confused about what fabric goes where mid-piecing. (Don't ask me how many times I have sewn the wrong fabric to the wrong section!)
If there are no cutting instructions with your foundation, cut fabric approximately ½” larger than the area the fabric will need to cover. You can also print an extra copy of the foundation, cut it apart, and use it as a 'pattern'. Cut around each pattern piece with a ½” allowance on all sided. If there are many different pieces, you may want to label them.
Step 3: Prepare Your Sewing Machine
The foundation paper pieced block will be sewn together on the bottom of a piece of paper. When the block is finished, the paper will be removed, and this is much easier if the stitch length is smaller. More perforations in the paper = easier tearing.
Prepare your sewing machine by reducing the stitch length to 18-20 stitches per inch. (Some people prefer even more stitches per inch.) This is a 1.5 setting on most sewing machines. The smaller stitch size will allow the paper to be pulled off easily when the block is finished. To determine what setting you should use, set your stitch length at 1.5 and sew on a piece of scrap fabric. Measure off one inch and count the number of stitches. If it is between 18 and 20 you are good to go. If not adjust the stitch length until you have the correct setting for your machine.
Step 4: Trim and Sew
When sewing the fabric pieces together, you will sew on the lines that divide the sections. For example, if you were adding piece 2 to piece 1, you would sew on the line between piece 1 and 2.
To start, place the wrong side of the fabric that will go in section 1 on the back side of the paper foundation. Hold them up to a light to make sure the fabric covers the entire area of section 1. It should also overlap the other sections by at least ¼” on all sides. Secure the fabric with a flat head pin or a dab of glue stick. (Ball head pins will not work well when it is time to trim.)
Locate the line that runs between section 1 and 2. Using a postcard or piece of cardstock as a guide, fold the foundation back along the line between section 1 and 2.
Line up the ¼” line on the ruler with the edge of the paper and trim the exposed fabric to ¼”.
Fold the paper back down and flip the foundation over to the backside. Place the second piece of fabric on top of the first piece of fabric, right sides together and lined up along the trimmed edge. Pin in place if necessary.
Flip the foundation over to the printed side. Double check that the stitch length is reduced and sew along the line between sections 1 and 2. Start a ½” before the line so the beginning of the sewing will be in the seam allowances. You can use the fold as a sewing guide until you hit the line. Continue sewing and stop ½” past the end of the line.
If you are making multiples of the same foundation, sew all of the 2 pieces onto the 1 pieces. Trimming, pinning, and sewing the same numbered section to all the foundations at the same time speeds the piecing process.
Set the seam and press piece 2 open. If the paper starts to curl up or brown, the iron is too hot and should be turned down.
After pressing, hold the foundation up to the light and make sure the 2nd fabric covers section 2 completely and overlaps the other sections by at least ¼”.
The paper side up, place the cardstock on the line between section 3 and sections 1 and 2. Fold the foundation back over the cardstock. Some fabric will come up with the paper. Simply pull the fabric down and off of the paper. Using the edge of the paper as a guide, trim the fabric to ¼”.
Fold the foundation back down, line up the 3rd piece of fabric with the newly trimmed edge, pin, flip and sew, remembering to start a ½” before the line.
Press piece 3 open.
Continue to repeat these steps for all sections of the foundation. The basic foundation piecing formula is trim, sew and press. It is that simple. As you go, hold the foundation up to the light to make sure the fabric covers all sections completely.
Step 5: Trim to Size
Once the block is pieced, trim the paper pieced unit to size by lining up the inner solid line with the ¼” line on the ruler. Then trim off the excess. I trim the blocks this way because it is difficult to be sure the ruler is lined up exactly on the outer dotted line and the trim is more accurate when measured from the solid inner line.
Step 6: Sew the paper pieced units together
To sew the foundations together simply line up the edges and sew along the line. There is no need to press the seams to the side with an iron. In fact, pressing can sometimes leave a “shine” on the fabrics because of all of the layers of paper and fabric in the seam. Instead, fold the paper along the stitching line.
If you are instructed to sew the foundation paper pieced unit to a traditionally pieced unit, simply leave the paper on and sew the units together as normal. Remove the paper only after the foundation is sewn to other quilt pieces on all sides. This will eliminate any possible stretching and distortion of the block.