Welcome to a new term here at Quilt School! We’ve got some great techniques lined up to share with you in the months to come as the latest in our online series of free tutorials. Let’s get started with oh-so-soothing hand piecing…
Whether you’re looking for a refresher or you’re new to quilting and testing out new skills, we’ve created this Quilt School series is for you. In this post, our in-house tech expert Sarah Griffiths takes you through the basics of hand piecing patchwork – a handy technique for when you’re on the go and the perfect excuse to enjoy a spot of hand stitching after a long day!
Once you’ve swotted up on the basics of hand-piecing in this post, head to our free cushion patchwork project to show off your new hand-stitching skills.
Once you’ve read our photo walkthrough, practise your hand piecing skills by trying our patchwork cushion project before you move on to making a full quilt.
Use this tutorial to piece your quilt top an then head to our How to Quilt section to read the rest of the steps for turning your quilt top into a quilt.
Let’s go! Your step-by-step guide to hand piecing
Cut a card or plastic template for each type of piece in your pattern, at full size with no seam allowances. If you have mirror-image pieces, you can make one template and label one side. Use your templates to trace the pieces onto fabric, using a fine pencil.
Cut out each piece, adding ¼in seam allowances. Cutting the seam allowances exactly makes sewing the pieces together a lot easier. You can eyeball the seams, but you’ll have to be more careful checking your sewing lines later on.
Start with two pieces right sides together (RST), pinned in place. It’s a good idea to pin at the beginning and end of the seam first. For short seams, these two pins will be enough, but you may want to add more in between for longer seams. Bring your needle up on the marked line, about 1⁄8in from the start of the seam. Make sure your needle is going through the line on the back and the front, especially if you didn’t cut exact ¼in seams around your pieces. Work two backstitches on top of each other.
Hold your fabric pieces in both hands, so your thumbs are on top. Rock the fabric up and down to pick up three or four stitches on your needle before pulling through. Your needle should be flat against the fabric. Keep an eye on the other side to ensure you’re working along the line. Work a backstitch every 2in and finish at the end of the line with a double backstitch, knotting off and trimming your thread. Don’t stitch into the seam line or press your seams until you finish your block.
To stitch a Y-seam, stitch the first seam and backstitch at the end as normal, but don’t cut the thread. Pin the second seam in place (a). Push the needle through to the back (b), then through the back seam allowance (c). Bring the needle up at the beginning of the new seam (d) and sew together as normal.
Work smaller blocks first, then add larger pieces to join up blocks. Once finished, press the entire block. Press all seams to one side, which will help to protect the more delicate line of hand stitching. Also, since you haven’t sewn into the seam allowances, it will be easy to nest the seams, as we’ve done on this four-patch block.
Designing a block
You can easily adapt existing patterns, or make your own blocks for hand piecing. Make thumbnail sketches of your ideas first. Think about how you want to break up a block to make it easier for sewing. To start with, stick to shapes you’re familiar with before using other ones. When you’ve decided on a design, make up a full-size drawing of how you want the finished block to look.
You can use quilt rulers and graph paper, or a computer program to print out your design. Then use your full-size design to make the template pieces. Decide what order to sew your pieces in – sometimes it’s best to work from the centre out (for hexagonal or circular designs), sometimes it’s best to work in rows (more like traditional piecing). Try piecing smaller sections first and then joining them together.
Stock up on these handy supplies
There are a variety of hand-piecing templates available to buy, if you don’t want to make your own. These will come in various shapes, with a small hole at each corner of the piece for marking seam allowances. Simply cut around the template and mark the piece through each of the holes with a fine pencil. Then use a ruler to join each mark and create your stitching lines.
Piecing needles These needles are thin, with the eye stamped into the shank, so it’s not larger than the rest of the needle. A no 9 is the standard size for hand piecing. If you’re not comfortable working with this smaller needle, start with the smallest size you do feel comfortable with and drop down as you get a better handle on the technique.
This handy little tool has a ¼in lip for adding seam allowances around your templates quickly and consistently. It also provides a straight edge for a rotary cutter. Once you’ve used an add-a-quarter ruler, you’ll never want to be without one again!