Setting the Stitch
Paper piecing is done with a shorter stitch length than regular piecing. What the short stitch
length does is perforate the paper while you stitch, which makes it come off easily when you’re
finished. The length of the stitch you use will be a little different for each machine. If you aren’t
sure what stitch length would work best for you, a good place to start is 1.5 or 1.8 on your
machine. The shorter your stitch length is, the more easily the paper will come off at the end.
However, if your stitch length is too short, this can result in the paper coming off before you are
finished piecing the block. If this happens, a piece of scotch tape over the seam will put things
back together, then just lengthen your stitch until you come up with a good length that holds
together. Once you’ve experimented a little, you’ll know just where to set your machine for any
paper piecing project.
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Nobody wants to hear it, but I’m going to say it anyway. With paper piecing, ironing is crucial!
Because each piece of fabric you add is sewn to pieces already in place, it is very important that
every piece of fabric is well pressed to make sure it is the right size and shape before you add the
next piece. A quick finger pressing just doesn’t do it – it needs a good pressing with a hot iron
after adding each piece of fabric. A dry iron is best as using steam can cause the paper to curl.
If you do find the paper has curled, just flipping it over and pressing on the paper side will flatten it
back out again.
Because you need to press your fabrics open after each seam, I find it much faster and easier to
set my workspace up for this when I’m working on a paper pieced project. By lowering your
ironing board to half height, and putting it within reach of your chair, you will find you can sew
your seams and then just turn around to the ironing board to do the pressing. This saves quite a
bit of time getting up and down to press open the seams as you work.
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The easiest way to fold the paper pieces along the lines is to use a folding card. By placing a
piece of heavy paper or light cardboard so the edge is right along the line you want to fold, you
can then just bend your pattern paper right over the card and flatten it down. This ensures it is
folded straight and it’s much faster and more accurate than trying to fold the paper along the line
by hand. People use folding cards made of different things, including recipe cards or strips cut
from file folders. These will certainly work fine, but the very best thing I’ve found is a strip cut
from a piece of printer photo paper. Photo paper is heavy enough to fold your pattern over
without bending, and thin enough to give you a really good sharp crease. The biggest advantage
to using photo paper is that it just doesn’t wear out. The edges don’t get ragged or worn and you
can use the same folding card for many paper piecing projects.
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Taking Out Seams
Keeping a roll of scotch tape at your sewing machine will save much grief if you ever need to
“unstitch” during a paper piecing project. If you need to remove a piece of fabric that you’ve just
sewn on, just stick a piece of scotch tape over the length of the seam on the paper side first.
Then you can undo the stitching and your paper piece will still stay together. Just restitch the
seam right through the tape. Tape is safe to use since when you are pressing out your fabric
pieces as you’ll be pressing on the fabric side, not the paper side. The paper will still come off
easily when you are done piecing it.
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Using Add-A-Quarter Ruler
Add-A-Quarter rulers are great for paper piecing that is done on heavier paper, so if you have a
pattern that you’ve printed on your printer or have photocopied, the Add-A-Quarter ruler would
work just fine to trim your fabric down to ¼” from the fold of paper. If you are using a pattern that
is on newsprint like the Chili Pepper patterns are, this type of ruler isn’t a good idea. Because the
newsprint is very lightweight, using an Add-A-Quarter ruler can actually push the newsprint back
a little and when you trim your fabric and the seam allowance ends up being less than ¼”. For
newsprint patterns, I just use a regular quilting ruler to measure and cut ¼” from the fold.
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Assembly Line Paper Piecing
Assembly line piecing is great for paper! Rather than follow the instructions for each block one at
a time, it’s much faster to make all of a particular block or unit at the same time. This just means
that you can read the instructions for a step once, then follow that step for all the blocks or units
that are the same. If you are about to make 10 of a Unit 1 piece, for example, I would follow the
first step of the instructions for each of the 10 units, then move on to doing second step of the
pattern. I always sew the first seam of one of the Unit 1 pieces first, then press my fabrics open
and hold it up to a window or light to make sure my fabric ended up where I wanted it. Once I
know that I have the fabric placement correct, I do the same step for all the remaining Unit 1
pieces. Then I can press open the fabrics for all the Unit 1 pieces, fold the paper for all the Unit 1
pieces, trim the excess fabric for all of them and I’m ready to move on to the next step and add
another piece of fabric. Again, I would add the next piece of fabric to one of them, press it open
and make sure I have it placed correctly before doing all the rest. It cuts down on the amount of
time spent reading directions and there is much less chance of making a mistake this way.
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Same-Side Seam Allowances
In paper piecing, the direction of the seam allowances is always the result of the order in which
the pieces were sewn. Because of this, sometimes when you need to sew two blocks or units
together, you will find that the seam allowances are both on the same side and there is no easy
way to press the seam in the opposite direction. The easiest way to get a good match that I've
found is like this: Fold the last inch of one seam allowance in the opposite direction. Holding the
fabric in place, fit your seams together as usual. Still holding the one seam allowance to the
opposite side, pin through the remaining seam allowances along the length of the seam - so pin
straight for a straight seam and pin diagonally along a diagonal seam. Once the seam is pinned
together, let go of the seam allowance and let it fall back into place. Stitch the seam with both
seams allowances on the same side. This will give you the match of an opposing seam but will
leave your seams allowances on the same side so you won't get a turned seam lump in your
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When you have added all the pieces of fabric for your paper pieced block or unit and it’s time to
trim the block down to the right size, it is much faster and more accurate to do this with a rotary
cutter and ruler than with scissors. Using a rotary cutter and ruler ensures that your block is
pressed down flat when you cut, so it will be cut to the exact size. Just line your ruler up with the
outside (cutting) line of the finished block and trim away the excess on each side. For blocks or
units that have a curved edge, I still use a rotary cutter – it really doesn’t take much practice at all
to be able to cut the curves freehand.
Cutting through paper with a rotary cutter is about the fastest way I know to dull a blade, so I keep
a separate small rotary cutter for just this purpose. I don’t use this cutter for anything but
trimming the blocks and I just have a small blade sharpener that I use when the blade gets dull.
This saves my regular cutter for just cutting fabric.
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Removing The Paper
Once you have finished piecing a block or unit, it’s oh so tempting to just take that paper off so
you can see just how it’s going to look and how it’s going to go together. I strongly recommend
that you leave the paper in place until you are actually ready to start putting the blocks together.
Quite often, blocks or units are very similar in appearance, sometimes just mirror images of each
other or else the same block but with slightly different fabric placement. If you remove the paper
backing before you are ready to join the blocks or units together, it can sometimes be difficult to
tell which unit is which. It’s much safer to leave the paper in place until the pattern tells you to
I don’t recommend sewing the blocks
or units together with the paper still in place. It doesn’t
make matching seams or points any easier (it can actually be more difficult to match points with
the paper in the way), and it can be quite a bit more difficult to remove all the paper afterwards
since there will be little ¼” pieces along all the seams.
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