Paper piecing in quilting refers to two distinct methods of using paper to stabilize fabric while sewing quilt tops. Paper piecing is used to create intricate designs that could not otherwise be readily sewn, due to the fragility, small size, or geometric shapes of the fabric pieces being sewn. Foundation piecing and English paper piecing are both traditional quilting techniques. Both methods have evolved considerably since their invention.
Foundation vs. English Paper Piecing
Paper piecing can be either foundation piecing, in which small pieces of fabric are sewn to each other on a paper foundation, or English paper piecing, in which fabric pieces are first sewn onto separate pieces of paper to form simple geometric shapes, then joined to each other.
Examples of English paper piecing have survived from the 18th century, and many foundation-pieced quilts exist dating from the 19th century. Many quiltmakers used paper piecing to create quilts made out of fragile clothing scraps, such as silks, which could not have easily been pieced in any other way. Later, as easier-to-sew cottons became the norm for clothing, quiltmakers used the techniques to design with ever-smaller pieces, creating enormously detailed quilts made from very tiny scraps in the mid-to-late 19th century.
Foundation piecing starts with a design drawn or printed on a sheet of paper. Fabric pieces are then sewn onto the paper, and joined to each other, in a precise order, normally working from the center out to the edges. In contrast to traditional piecing, foundation piecing allows the use of very small design elements, which can be carefully controlled, since they are sewn to the firm foundation of the paper. Complex designs may cover several sheets of paper, the separate parts of the design are then sewn together to make the whole design.
English Paper Piecing
English paper piecing begins with geometric shapes, most often hexagons, cut from paper. Fabric is then placed on top of the shape and the edges folded under to the bottom of the shape. The quiltmaker then bastes the edges around the underside of the paper, according to online quilting resource Womenfolk. The fabric pieces are then sewn to each other using a small whipstitch.
Uses of Paper Piecing in Quilting
The popular design grandmother's flower garden uses English paper piecing, as it is a highly complex design incorporating the interplay of color with thousands of individual pieces. Many traditional log cabin and pineapple designs are made with foundation piecing, as are detailed landscapes, florals and abstract patterns.