Thursday, February 07, 2008

How to Make Patchwork

There are many kinds of patchwork. I'm hooked on the kind that uses expensive top-quality printed cotton, fancy tools such as rotary cutters and self healing mats, and involves very precise measuring, cutting and sewing - a single thread-width too wide or too small can make the difference between a lovely quilt and a lumpy wonky disaster.

But there is another kind of patchwork (actually there are several) more suited to recycling used clothing, upholstery fabric, and so on. It uses paper or card templates to ensure accuracy, even with fabrics of different weights or stretchiness. It's called English paper piecing and my mum taught me to do it when I was very young. I'm going to teach it to you now.

1. Measure a square accurately and cut it out of heavy card. Use this as your template to cut lots more squares of waste paper or card. If your fabrics are quite heavy, card is better. Paper is adequate for lighter fabrics such as cotton. You can use any size of square. Bigger squares mean less sewing and your quilt will be finished quicker. Smaller squares make better use of your fabric with less waste. 4" squares is a good compromise.

drawing of a scrap of fabric and a square of paper2. Cut pieces of fabric that are larger than your papers all around. You need at least 1/4" overlap at all points. Place a paper square on to the wrong side of the fabric scrap, then fold the edges over and secure.

drawing of a scrap of fabric folded over a square of paper3. Traditionally you secure the fabric on to the papers with large tacking stitches, and this is what I always do. But Gabrielle from Permaculture in Brittany uses masking tape, and Stephanie from A Roker Artist once used staples (she was using very heavy upholstery fabrics - staples would make big holes in finer fabric so I don't recommend them). Check that the pretty side of the fabric is showing - if the grotty side is showing you've tacked your fabric on upside-down.

drawing of a scrap of fabric tacked onto a square of paper4. When you have a stack of tacked (or taped) fabric squares, lie two of them face-to-face and stitch them together with small neat stitches. Just nip the edges of the fabric. Try not to sew through the paper, although it can't be helped sometimes. Open your pieces out flat - they should lie nicely and the stitches should be unobtrusive.

drawing of two squares sewn together5. Keep sewing squares together. Don't remove the papers until the square is entirely surrounded by other squares.

6. That's it. You can stop when you run out of fabric or when your patchwork is as big as you want it. I'll write another post soon about how to turn your patchwork into a quilt. But you could also turn it into a tablecloth (just hem the edges), curtains (there are instructions all over the internet for how to make curtains), clothing, a duvet cover, or anything you like.

Other shapes you can use are hexagons (if you arrange the colours carefully you can make the traditional pattern known as Grandmother's Flower Garden), diamonds (careful colour placement makes the traditional pattern known as tumbling blocks), rectangles, lozenges or any other shape that tesselates.drawing of tesselatinng hexagonsdrawing of tesselating diamonds

This is Part 1 of a three part series. Part 2 is Another Way to Make Patchwork and part 3 is How to Make a Quilt.


Anonymous said...

That's pretty cool. I like that you can sew as you go and not have to wait until you have enough scraps to do the entire layout. If you have a scrap that looks good next to this other scrap, sew 'em together and build as you go.

I do prefer the lumpy, wonky, disaster tho. Maybe that's because that's how mine tend to turn out. :D

Moonwaves said...

Hi Mel

I remember my sister starting to learn to do this in school and helping her however she lost interest very quickly and so I never found out how to finish it. I'm still not sure from your description. So, when do you take the paper out? And what happens if you have sewn through the paper - in fact, how do you manage not to sew through the paper (this is possibly where my sister was going wrong and thus lost interest but I was only about 7 at the time and don't remember). If the material is folded all around the paper, how do you manage to sew anything without getting the paper? You can just imagine to yourself that a very clueless seven year-old is asking these questions as really, that's where I am in terms of sewing.

I did a workshop a couple of years ago at the Knitting and Stitching show to learn patchwork and it was a similar technique except that we used cardboard, ironed the material over the carboard and then removed the card before starting to stitch. So, I've still not figured out how to do it with the paper still in there.

Melanie Rimmer said...

Good questions, Moonwaves.

When do you take the papers out? You can leave them all in until the end and take them all out together when it's finished. Alternatively (if you don't have enough papers and want to reuse them) you can take the paper out of any square that's already surrounded by squares. Does that make sense?

How do you not sew through the paper? You make very litle stitches. Imagine that instead of papers you used thick card. You couldn't possibly sew through the card. So you'd use your needle to pick up a little bit of the fabric at the edges of the card and sew that. Does that make sense? If you accidentally sew through a little bit of the paper now and then (and you will) you'll have to rip the paper slightly to get the paper out. It doesn't matter. Just be careful not to tug roughly and rip the stitch instead of the paper. The point is that you shouldn't be taking great big stitches that go 1/4" into the patch and through the paper, because if you do, when you try to fold the patches apart they won't lie flat, and your squares won't be square.

The ironing method sounds like it would work. The whole point of this technique is to get accurate squares that fit together perfectly. Fabric is stretchy and floppy, but paper is stiff and rigid. There are all sorts of similar techniques - in the USA they have a product called freezer paper that is coated with a plastic layer. When you iron it onto fabric it sticks temporarily. I've cut that into squares or hexagons and used it to do EPP (English paper piecing) without tacking. I've also used spray starch and then ironed patches, which makes them stiff like paper. You can sew starched ironed patches accurately, and then wash the starch out at the end.

Do ask if anything else isn't clear.

Linda aka Crafty Gardener said...

I have a quilt made using this method. I'll have to get some photos of it. It was made about 30 years ago out of all recycled material. I think I still have the templates that I used.

Anonymous said...

The recycled fabric quilting is by far my favourite. Thanks for showing us this old technique.

esto es nuevo para mi said...

thanks from Spain!

Anonymous said...


I am new to patchwork. My interest in patchwork was due to the amount of clothes that I see thrown away and the need to use this material in one way or another. I normally enjoy doing things with my hands so I believe this is the solution to my old clothes. Your instructions seem very straight forward so I will give it a try. Will let you know how it goes.

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