Just thought I might write a little today about the process of English paper piecing, following a couple of enquiries last week. This is my favourite kind of patchwork, although it does take longer than piecing without paper. It requires little equipment, after the initial preparation, and is portable enough to be carried around anywhere so that you can stitch on the move. Freezer paper is really good for this method. It generally comes on a roll, as above, and is meant to be interleaved between burgers etc to stop them sticking together in the freezer. Whoever came up with the idea of ironing it to fabric is a genius. Anyway, you’ll see that one side of the freezer paper is shiny, and the other more matt. The shiny side is coated with some sort of wax or plastic, which can be temporarily softened with a warm iron to create a non-permanent adhesive that will stick to fabric. I measure, mark and cut out squares (or rectangles – or any shape you like, really, as long as it will tessellate) from the paper, and then iron each square, shiny side down, to the wrong side of a fabric scrap. I use a setting somewhere between silk and wool, and press lightly for just a second or two. If your iron is too hot, or if you press too long, the waxy/plastic coating on the paper will melt completely and it won’t stick.
You can probably see that the foremost square has been re-used, as you can see evidence of previous tacking holes. Freezer paper templates can be re-used several times if you are careful. The rectangle shown is 1″ x 2″, and the squares are 1″. The fabric generally needs to be at least a quarter of an inch larger than the paper so that you can complete the next step. (However, if you’re using very tiny 1/2″ squares, you can sometimes get away with 1/8″ seam allowance, depending on the type of fabric.)
You can either press the edges of the fabric around the freezer paper template, or you can tack them down. I prefer tacking, because this secures the paper better and preserves the shape more accurately. Tacking also helps to set uncooperative fabrics – like satins or other synthetics – that don’t hold a crease very well. I tend to prepare patchwork like this when I don’t know what else to do, so I often don’t use the patches immediately. Once they have been tacked (and I believe the word is basted in the US) you can store them pretty much indefinitely.
Once your shapes are tacked, you can begin stitching them together. Holding them right sides together, making sure the corners match up, you can take small oversewing stitches to attach them together, being careful not to sew through the paper. I just catch one or two threads from the fabric on each side. You can also see, by the way, that I oversew from left to right, and from front to back, which is not ‘correct’, but that’s what has always worked for me. I use a John James ‘gold ‘n’ glide’ quilting needle no. 9 for piecing. The needle looks huge in the photo, but is actually just 7/8″ in length, and a short fine needle like this really helps to keep stitches small and reasonably even. Where possible, I match the thread to the fabric – so I use silk thread to piece silk patchwork – but often patchwork is made from bits of everything, in which case I usually use fine machine cotton thread for piecing.
And from then on, it’s just a matter of joining shapes together. This little sample is 2″ square in total, where the smallest squares in the top left are 1/2″. Freezer paper really helps when using tiny pieces like this, as the paper doesn’t slip around while you are trying to tack the edges down. You can piece shapes together in rows, or in blocks, depending on what you intend to make. Once you’ve stitched the shapes together, you can give the whole thing a quick press, using a pressing cloth if you’ve used anything fragile, and carefully remove the tacking stitches. You can then turn the work over and carefully slide out the papers. They will look a little crumpled, but you will find that they can be re-used and will press flat the next time you iron it to a new fabric scrap.