Paper Foundation Piecing (PFP)


Foundation piecing is a flip and sew technique in which the fabric pieces making up the block are stitched to a paper or fabric foundation. A paper foundation is subsequently torn away whereas a fabric foundation is usually left in place.

Paper Piecing

I know of two main types of "paper piecing."
Foundation paper piecing
As described above
English Paper Piecing
Pieces of fabric are folded over a slightly stiff paper foundation. The pieces are then whip-stitched together by hand.

The biggest single benefit of PFP is precision. Sewing a quilt block on a paper foundation enables one to construct complex blocks with tiny pieces very accurately. It is also a good method to use for blocks of any size with unusual shapes that are hard to cut using rotary cutting methods. Some of us become hooked on the accuracy and use PFP for all but the simplest blocks.

Of course, sewing through paper and then tearing it away creates it's own set of problems to be solved.

Read on to find links to great paper piecing instructions as well as hints as to what I have discovered works well for me and others. I don't believe in hard and fast quilting rules. Try various approaches and use what works best for you!

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My Paper Piecing Workstation

cutNpress board

When paper piecing, I set up a workstation next to my sewing machine. I use a bedside table on castors that I can wheel it into place "up close" when needed. On this table, I set up:

A small cutting mat and rotary cutter
My cut and press mat works great for this.
Small rotary ruler
Any small rotary cutting ruler with a quarter inch seam line will work. I love the convenience of my Add-A-Quarter ruler. The 1/4" wide lip at the ruler's edge makes it easier to line up my seams for trimming. You can also make your own Add-a-Quarter Ruler.
My finger pressing tool
A piece of wood from a wooden clothes pin makes a great pressing tool. (They tease me because I use clothes pins for everything lol!!) Of course, you can also purchase a pressing stick made especially for this purpose, although I don't think that it's necessary.
A portable ironing board
An empty fabric bolt topped with left over cotton batting and covered with muslin makes a handy, lightweight portable pressing surface. I have an Omnigrid Fold Away on my wish list.
A mini iron and holder
mini iron One day when I was tired of my mini iron falling off that flimsy stand it came with, I stood the hot end of my iron in a heavy ceramic beer stein. It works. (I have one of those nice wooden mini-iron stands on my wish list, though.)

I find that paper piecing can be time consuming. Having this workstation set up right beside my sewing machine minimises the "jumping up and down" and makes it go much faster.

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Copying FPF Patterns

You have just found a terrific FPF pattern in a quilting magazine. What is the best/easiest way to copy the pattern?

Photocopy Machine

Though our first thought is to just photocopy as many as we need, this is not the best method. Photocopy machines are not calibrated to copy patterns with the accuracy required for quilting. The pattern measurements will likely be off and the block may not even copy square. Make only one copy and carefully compare it to your original by layering them to ensure that the pattern has copied accurately. (It most likely will not be accurate.)

Computer Scanner and Printer

This is an attractive alternative. Make one copy and compare to ensure accuracy. If the copy is not accurate, calibrate the scanner as outlined in the instruction manual or manufacturer's web site. I have had great success with my scanners. I recently purchased a scanner/copier combination at a very attractive price.

Copy the Pattern with your Sewing Machine

Because I like lightweight newsprint paper for FPF and my computer printer doesn't like this paper, I often copy patterns using my sewing machine. I use this method when I want a large number of identical blocks. It works best for simpler blocks that do not contain a large number of tiny pieces.

denim needles

To copy the patterns, I staple about 10 pieces of newsprint paper to the master pattern, using a couple of staples each on all four sides of the pattern to prevent shifting. Then I use a size 14-16 denim needle and a fairly long stitch length to carefully sew through all the lines of the pattern. I like this method better than printing the patterns because the perforated pattern is visible on both sides of the paper.

Be sure to note which side of the paper is the right side so that you don't inadvertently make mirror image blocks! On the other hand, if you do need mirror image blocks, you have no need to create additional patterns. Just turn over this pattern and place the fabric on the opposite side.

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It's awkward holding those first two pieces of paper in place for sewing.
Try using a small dab from a fabric glue stick to hold that first piece of fabric in place. (Don't use too much glue or the paper will be hard to remove.)
If you are using freezer paper, you can iron the first piece in place.
vinyl paper clips It's awkward pinning two sub units together for stitching
When joining two paper pieced units, hold them together with vinyl coated paper clips instead of pins. The pieces will line up better than if they are pinned. Remove the paper clips as you sew.
The paper is hard to tear away.
Try inexpensive newsprint or a lightweight drawing paper. (See paper discussion below.)
You can also purchase paper designed for foundation piecing.
Use a slightly larger needle (try a size 14) to make bigger holes in the paper.
Use a slightly shorter stitch length. (2.5 mm/18-20 sts to the inch works well.)
The stitching came apart when I tore the paper away.
Use a slightly shorter stitch length. (2.5 mm/18-20 stitches per inch works well.)
Stitch 1/4" or so beyond the end of the stitching line.
Increase sewing machine top tension slightly.
After I tore the paper away, my seam pulls apart a bit.
The thickness of the paper can leave the stitching a bit loose after the paper is torn away. To solve this problem, tighten the top tension a bit when stitching through paper as well as fabric.
When I rip out a stitching mistake, the paper tears.
The paper makes a difference. If the paper is too flimsy, it is impossible to remove stitching. See the paper discussion below.
If you need to remove a line of stitching, work from the fabric side, not the paper side. With your seam ripper, cut a stitch every quarter inch or so. Then the thread on the paper side should come away fairly easily. There might be some small tears the pattern should still be usable. I will use scotch tape to repair a foundation pattern if need be. Even though the taped foundation will be a bit harder to remove, this usually less work than re-sewing the whole block. (BTW, this has become my standard method for removing stitches because it does not distort the seam.)
All those tiny pieces don't lie flat and are stretching out of shape.
If you are making an intricate block with many tiny pieces, be sure to starch your fabric and consider using freezer paper. The pattern is printed on the dull side and the fabric is sewn on the shiny side. After seam trimming, when a piece is pressed into place, it sticks to the freezer paper so that it cannot shift out of position when you add the next piece. Be sure that your machine tension is firm and your stitch length short so that your stitching remains intact when you tear the paper away. For more information, take a look at Debby Kratovil's Accurate Paper Piecing with Freezer Paper.
Stopping to press all those tiny seams is sure a nuisance.
Press on a portable pressing surface next to your sewing machine. See Workstation above.
Try finger pressing instead. You can starch your fabric to make finger pressing easier.
Aside: I'm a great fan of starch - either spray or liquid. Not only does it make finger pressing easier; it also stabilizes bias edges to help blocks keep their shape. The liquid is less expensive - I dilute it 1 part starch to 3 parts water and put it in a small spray bottle. Make up small amounts and wash the bottle thoroughly when making a new batch. This starch mixture supports mould and mildew growth so it does not keep for a long time. For the same reason, it's not a great idea to store starched fabric. Starch it just before you use it instead.
Trimming every seam at my cutting board after sewing is very time consuming
Save time by setting up a workstation next to your sewing machine. See Workstation above.
The blocks I made didn't turn out "square."
Everyday photo copying machines almost always distort an image. Better yet avoid photocopiers - see copying blocks above.
My blocks didn't come out the right size thought I carefully steam pressed after sewing each piece.
Using steam when pressing your block can cause some paper to shrink and distort. It is best to press with a dry iron when paper piecing.
Help! My fabric is stained with printer ink!
I've heard that baby wipes often remove printer ink. Better yet, is to prevent the problem!
I use my printer's "draft mode" when printing foundations. This uses less ink and so ink staining is less likely to occur.
Also, newsprint and some drawing papers are fairly absorbent so the ink does not rub off these papers.
If your block is not too complex, and you will be using very light coloured fabric, consider copying the pattern with your sewing machine instead.
I want to print my PFP patterns on ordinary computer paper because it's easy, convenient, and inexpensive. How can I work with this paper?
I often piece using ordinary printer paper. The specialized papers make it easier to learn if you are a beginner but if you are truly "hooked" on paper piecing, you can make just about any paper work. Just be sure to use a shorter stitch length, larger needle and tighten your tension if you find that your seams are separating. And if you press your pattern, put a piece of muslin on your ironing board to absorb any printer ink that may rub off. (And print using draft mode!)
When I need to print on paper that is too lightweight for my printer, I trick the printer into thinking it is printing on heavier paper. First, I cut the paper to size, if required. Then I fold over about half an inch on the top of a piece of regular paper and slip the tracing paper under it. I put this into the paper tray with so that the fold enters the printer first.

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"The Best" Paper for PFP

Different quilters have different preferences with it comes to the choice of paper to use for PFP. Complex blocks with many tiny pieces require a different approach than simpler blocks. Though my own favourite is newsprint or inexpensive drawing paper, I have happily used tracing paper and foundation paper purchased at my local quilt shop (LQS.) Here are a number of suggestions for you to try. Again, use what works best for you.

Inexpensive drawing paper
At my local dollar store, I found a pad of drawing paper (40 pages for $1.00) that feels like lightweight construction paper. This paper works really well because it is stiff and stable but tears away very cleanly -- and my printer handles it just fine. I do have to cut it to 8 1/2" inches wide. Also, I feed this paper one sheet at a time because it has a rough surface and the pages stick together otherwise. The only drawback is that this paper is very opaque so you cannot see through it to place your fabric pieces. For a complex pattern, a more transparent paper would work better.
Pads of news print paper are available at stationery stores or the trusty dollar store. I find that some printers will handle newsprint and some will not - you have to try and see. Newsprint is not as crisp as the drawing paper but it is more transparent and it does tear away quite easily. I have ripped stitches out of this paper and re sewn after patching it with tape. Most pads of newsprint are 9" x 12" so they will need to be trimmed to fit into your printer. Some printers "eat" newsprint paper - see tip above.
Tracing paper
Tracing paper is available in a wide range of qualities. The less expensive kinds are not much heavier than tissue paper and are not strong enough to withstand much sewing. They are great if you are going to trace a pattern and reinforce it with interfacing. The heavier kinds that I have found at art stores work well but are quite expensive for this purpose, IMO.
Foundation paper from the LQS
Paper piecing paper I have had considerable success with the foundation papers especially designed for paper piecing. They were strong enough to withstand careful ripping out and re-sewing but still tore away without leaving tiny pieces to remove later. And I could see through them to position my fabric. This is not an inexpensive option but I would HIGHLY recommend these for beginners or when making a very complex block with many small pieces.
Freezer paper
quilters' freezer paper Many quilters swear by freezer paper for foundation piecing. The design is printed on the plain side and the fabric is sewn from the shiny side. The biggest benefit to using freezer paper is that when you press down each piece, it sticks to the freezer paper, preventing shifting of the pieces. This is particularly valuable if you are making a complex block with tiny pieces. On the other hand, freezer paper is fairly heavy so it is very important to use a smaller stitch length and perhaps tighten your upper tension when using freezer paper. For more information, take a look at Debby Kratovil's Accurate Paper Piecing with Freezer Paper. Freezer paper is available in 8 1/2" x 11" sheets for use in your printer.
Other alternatives
Some people have had success using baking parchment paper. I have not yet tried this but when I do, I will post my experiences here. (BTW I use this parchment paper as a substitute for an appliqué pressing sheet but I digress!)

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Although many quilt blocks can be made using PFP Techniques, some projects are ideal for PFP. I hope the following links will give you some ideas. PFP Techniques are great for labels or for blocks that can be sewn onto clothing or blocks. Here are some pattern links - most are freebies but some have a mixture of free patterns and patterns for sale.

The Frugal Quilter's Paper Pieced Blocks Here is a great collection of designs by Debby Kratovil.
Ula's Quilt Page Gorgeous PFP Patterns from Germany
Piece by Number PFP Pattern Archive A wonderful collection of blocks by Beth Maddocks.
Paper Piecing Patterns by Christine Thresh Some free, some for sale - a great collection by Christine Thresh.

Carol Doak's PFP books can't be beat. If you are a beginner, check out her Easy Machine Paper Piecing. This book contains over 60 designs plus an excellent set of Foundation Paper Piecing instructions. More experienced PFPers might prefer her 40 Bright & Bold Paperpieced Blocks or 50 Fabulous Paper-Pieced Stars.

I have barely scratched the surface of the wealth of PFP resources available on the web. I will add more links and resources to this page as time goes by. In the meantime, if you are hooked on PFP, you might want to get together with other devotees at the FP Quiltlist - a Yahoo Group of Foundation Piecers.

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