Introduction, Patterns & Tools
I found out about foundation paper piecing (FPP) a couple of years ago. On Instagram I came across beautiful small-pieced blocks with so much detail and decided to investigate how it was done. I was determined to sew something so gorgeous and delicate. I couldn’t fathom for the life of me how all the little pieces we so perfectly sewn.
I am an extremely practical person and my dyslexic brain’s super power is to visualize things in 3D and work out how things go together, so I was not daunted. I found out it was a process called FPP and I downloaded and printed my first pattern, read a quick tutorial (no idea which one sorry!) and had a go.
I was hooked and didn’t struggle but soon learned others were intimidated or confused by the process. I love encouraging and teaching my ‘in-person’ friends to sew, so it only feels right to try to help you online too.
I am going to go into a lot of detail, as most tutorials make it look simple and gloss over the tricky bits. I hope you will find it useful.
There are 4 parts to this series:
- Introduction, Patterns and Tools
- Basic Principles and Piecing a Section
- Joining Sections
- My Top Tips
How patterns typically look…
An FPP pattern tends to have a page of written instructions describing the order the sections should be sewn together. The designer may include diagrams to help explain how the block goes together and a colouring page (line drawings for you to test your colour combinations). At the end of the document will be a number of pages containing the sections of the pattern to be printed at 100% and cut out.
The sections combine to make the whole block. Some patterns will have more than one block. For example, my “Nice Iced Ring” pattern you can get here contains a front and a back block. Each section is labelled with a letter, and within each section are several smaller areas that are numbered. You sew the fabric onto the paper in numerical order. Patterns assume you know how to do this – it is a generic method.
How to FPP is usually the same in principle but there are many variations. I recommend reading and watching various tutorials, as each person will explain it slightly differently. You can try the tips and tricks to see what works for you. Ingrid of “Joe June and Mae” has a good example using a simple star pattern. Berene Campbell of Happy Sew Lucky has a good You Tube channel. Phoebe Moon Quilt Design also highlights the difficulties of FPP nicely in their Seven Deadly Sins article.
The essential items to FPP are;
- Sewing machine with thread (set to straight stitch & length to 1.5).
- 5-10 pins and at least 6 wonder clips (in the photo above between the roller and rotary cutter – NOT A SPONSORED LINK)
- A pattern and instructions for putting sections together – whether a PDF to print or a book with them in to trace or photocopy.
- Access to a printer or photocopier if you’re not tracing by hand.
- Fabric – from your stash, bought on a special shopping trip or reused fabric (cotton ideally but silks can be very effective – fabric should be about quilting cotton weight).
*** I suggest if this is your first go at FPP to start only using solid fabrics. Fabrics with 2 different sides (ie prints) add a level of confusion. With solids it doesn’t matter which side you sew.
The nice to have items are:
- A Rotary Cutter & Cutting mat. You can eyeball seams to ¼ inch and cut with a pair of scissors, but I find I cut the fabric too small as paper and fabric move when not pressed against the cutting board.
- An Add a Quarter ruler (yellow in above image – pink in link as charity version -NOT A SPONSORED LINK). This makes trimming the seam allowances to a good size super easy with a rotary cutter. The ridge on the reverse helps to hold the ruler in the right place when using the cutter.
- A seam roller (NOT A SPONSORED LINK) to flatten the seams as much as possible – alternatively you can press open with your fingers and iron.
NOTE: my seam roller was bought as a gift and as such is actually for wallpapering and not aimed at sewing – sewing ones tend to be wooden and have a slightly rounded barrel. I find mine works well but I do need to be careful if I don’t evenly press the fabric as it can dig in – but these marks do disappear after ironing and subsequent sewing into finished items.
- Foundation paper to trace or print the pattern onto. This is specialist paper which allows you to see through it and tear it off easily. In the UK I recommend Foundation Paper by Pattern Trace (NOT A SPONSORED LINK). I will do a review post for this paper in the near future. Note: I don’t recommend drawing tracing paper as it rips too easily once sewn and may come off before you want it to, especially if you have to unpick and redo a seam.
I have provided links to example products and I encourage you to buy from independent sewing shops where possible.
Printing the pattern from PDF
Increasingly it’s become more popular to download these patterns online as they are relatively inexpensive and easy to deliver. Plus printing them is a lot quicker than tracing.
Patterns are almost always in a PDF (portable document format), one of the easiest file types to view and transfer without losing data/detail. I use Adobe Acrobat Reader, a free downloadable software, which allows me to view and easily print these documents. Printing the pattern at 100% scale should be very similar in whichever software you use.
Once you have the pattern file open, go to file and print or click on the printer logo. In the command box select “Actual size” or “100%”. You can also select just the pages containing the pattern sections if you don’t need to print out the instruction pages.
Do a test print of just one page. Patterns tend to have a 1” reference box so you can double check with a ruler that it’s the correct size. Once you are happy print all pages required.
Copying by hand
If you have a book or one copy of a paper pattern you can trace the section pieces onto more paper as many times as you want. You may need to tape your paper to a window to see the lines. Ideally use pencil so no marks are later transferred to the fabric and make sure you copy the lines as accurately as possible.
If you are working from a book you can photocopy the pattern pages multiple times (on your preferred paper type) but again make sure the copier is not scaling down your pages. Test print as above.
NOT PRINTED AT 100%
If this happens don’t panic and waste paper printing it again immediately. If you are doing a stand-alone block (not matching it to full size blocks) you can still go ahead and use it, it will just be a slightly different size to that advertised.
Double-check your print settings, and try other programs (most internet browsers can handle PDFs as well). If needs be, you can always scale up/down in the print settings, but be warned it is tricky to get the size precisely right this way, so it should be a last resort.
Once you have got the hang of FPP it’s actually really fun to print the patterns at different scales to produce smaller or larger versions. Just be careful when you go smaller as the pieces can become too small and the seams get too bulky to sew or quilt. Equally, making a block too large can make it look overly simple.
Finally, you need to cut out all pattern pieces (this doesn’t need to be done exactly) and check you have all sections required in the pattern instructions. I also like to have a copy of the instructions in paper format to easily check what I’m doing. I pop anything I’m not working on in a folder or box as they can be little and get easily lost in a pile of fabric or scraps.