Guest Blog

Hand Piecing Tutorial April 15 2017

Hand Piecing Tutorial

The Joy of Hand Piecing by Donna Fitzpatrick

Why would anyone want to hand piece?  When I was learning to make quilts, one of my first projects was a sampler quilt that could be either hand pieced or machine pieced. After making a couple of blocks by hand, I came to the conclusion that hand pieced blocks weren’t as durable and took too long to make.  Since then, I have learned to love this technique for a few reasons:

Hand pieced blocks are more precise. It is easy to allow pieces to shift when you are machine piecing, but you are holding everything in place when you piece by hand.

Curves and Y-seams are a lot easier to do by hand.

Handwork is relaxing!  Like the slow food movement, I am seeing a resurgence of slow quilting. Getting a quilt completed in a day may be fine when you are a beginning quilter, but it gets expensive and you end up with a pretty big stockpile of quilts if all of your projects are quick strip quilts and you are turning one out every few days.

Handwork is portable.  Watching TV, waiting in a doctor’s office, long trips in a car, boat, or plane are all places you can easily work on a handwork project when you can’t piece by machine.

My opinion of the durability of hand pieced blocks has changed as I have practiced it more, especially if I am quilting the finished project densely by machine, so here is how I do it.

Materials you will need

Tracing and Cutting

Although tracing templates is time consuming, fussy cutting can give you a great look and can be very addictive.  Once you have done this for a while, you never look at fabric the same again.  Templates may be made by tracing from a book or pattern onto template plastic or purchased as a set.  Just be mindful whether the edge of the template is the sewing line or the cutting line.

Trace the template onto the wrong side of the fabric.  I like to use a mechanical pencil for this.  The right side of the fabric should be face down on a piece of sand board or medium sandpaper to keep it from slipping while you trace.  If you are using a template with an edge that is the sewing line, you may just 'eyeball' the quarter inch seam allowance when you cut, or use Jen Kingwell’s “Simple Seam Wheel” to add a quarter inch for the cutting line.

Hint: Take care to use the thickest template plastic you can find and press down firmly. I have trouble with my template shifting or the wheel sliding under the template if the plastic is not thick enough.

When using purchased templates, I add several sticky dots of non-slip grips, (Figure 1) and place them on both sides if the template needs to be flipped for mirror image pieces.

Hand Piecing Tutorial - Figure 1

If you are using a template in which the outer edge is the cutting edge, you will need to draw the sewing line.

Hint: For straight edges, I like to turn the template around (Figure 2) so that the seam line of the template is on the cutting line of the fabric to get a perfect seam allowance.

Hand Piecing Tutorial - Figure 2

If the piece is curved, I mark the dots of the seam allowance corners and move the template into the seam allowance to connect the dots (Figures 3 and 4).

Hand Piecing Tutorial - Figure 3 Hand Piecing Tutorial - Figure 4

When fussy cutting multiple identical pieces for a kaleidoscope effect, I trace a design element from the fabric onto the template to assure I align it the same for all the pieces. Pay attention to the grain of the fabric when tracing your pieces, as pieces cut on the bias will stretch more, which may be desirable for curves and undesirable for edges.

Once you have your pieces traced, cut on the inside edge of the cutting line to cut off your marking.


I prefer to piece with a straw needle, as it glides through the fabric more easily with multiple stitches on the needle. I use a 50 weight Aurifil thread because the seam lies flatter than a heavier thread, but this is a personal preference and some prefer a heavier thread depending on the end use of the quilt and how it will be quilted.

To begin piecing, I pin two pieces right sides together, sticking a pin through the sewing line to make sure it lines up with the sewing line on the bottom piece. I do this with the corner dots and several places along the seam line. I use a piece of thread about eighteen inches long, and I like to coat it with a thread conditioner such as Thread Heaven. This makes it glide more easily and reduces tangling.

The stitch used for hand piecing is a simple running stitch (Figure 5).

Hand Piecing Tutorial - Figure 5

I start with a quilter’s knot at the edge of a seam, but I try not to put a know where several pieces will meet. I use a rocking motion to get four small stitches onto the needle, then push through with the thimble on the middle finger of my right hand.

The trick is to now take a single back stitch before continuing on to the next set of four running stitches. This locks the running stitch in place and adds strength, and if the thread breaks it keeps the seam from undoing itself.

When I reach a seam in one of the pieces, rather than sewing the seam allowances down, I pass the needle through the seam and then continue sewing on the other side (Figure 6).

Hand Piecing Tutorial - Figure 6

When I get to the end of a seam, I take a few small stitches and a back stitch, but then add the next piece without knotting off if I can, so that the junction of several pieces will not have several knots or be a point of weakness. When I reach the end of my thread, I make a loop that I pass the needle through twice (Figure 7). I like to finger press as I go with a stylus, then press the block using Flatter spray fabric relaxant.

Hand Piecing Tutorial - Figure 7

I hope you enjoy making precise hand pieced blocks. Happy sewing!

About Donna Fitzpatrick

Donna Fitzpatrick

Donna has been sewing since she earned her sewing badge in Girl Scouts.  She made her first quilt in 1986, but most of her sewing for the next twenty years consisted of counted cross stitch, smocking, and garment making.  She picked quilting up again when her youngest child went away to college in 2007, and has enjoyed all forms of quiltmaking since then.  In 2016, she started Forest Beach Cottage Quilts, making custom quilts, binding, and teaching sewing and dyeing lessons.

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Big Stitch Quilting Tutorial February 01 2017

Big Stitch Quilting by Charlotte Noll

I have been machine quilting for many years.  My first quilts were hand quilted.  When I had children, it was too time consuming so I purchased a sewing machine with free motion capabilities and never looked back.

As a member of the South Florida Modern Quilt Guild I have learned some new to me techniques.  Several of my modern quilting friends were big stitch hand quilting using thicker threads. The guild had presentations on this technique, and I decided to add some big stitching to machine quilted modern quilts. It looked nice...very easy, forgiving and fun to do.

Then, Jen asked me to make a sample from her Mark Maker kit and to big stitch the entire 54 inch by 90 inch quilt. The supplies included lovely Sue Spargo Eleganza Perle Cotton threads and plain cream fabric for the backing. That made me nervous because my stitches on the back were never very even, but I decided to work on this issue and do my best. Happy to say I found an easy way to make the back stitches look almost as good as the front - keep reading and I will share what I have learned with you.

Mark Maker Quilt

Materials you will need:

  • Basted quilt ready for quilting - start small but don’t be afraid to go big!
  • Quilting thread
  • Needles
  • Thimble if desired
  • Marking tools
  • Small scissors to cut thread

My Current Project

While attending a Heather Jones Design workshop, I created a quilt pattern from an inspiration picture I took of stacked chairs. I pieced it as a mini and will big stitch it with Sashiko inspired stitches in a grid format.

1) Thread
    • Choose thread color(s) to blend or contrast. Sometimes I do both. The thicker the thread the more it will be seen but too thick can be hard to stitch.
    • My favorite is the Sue Spargo Collection - Eleganza Perle Cotton Size 8 - Solid and Variegated.  Very smooth to stitch with and a beautiful presentation.
    2) Needles
    • Sturdy needle with a sharp tip is the best.  My favorite is Big Stitch Quilting Needle Pack.
    • Eye Size : Use the smallest eye of the needle that the thread will go through smoothly so that it doesn’t unthread easily or shred the thread as you stitch. For Perle Cotton 8, I use the smallest needle in the Big Stitch Quilting Needle Pack.  This needle pack has 3 different sizes so you can find the best fit for the thread you are using.
    3) Thimble
    • Personally, I need to use a  thimble on my right middle finger to push the needle.  I don’t care for a big thimble so I love this small sticky metal dimpled Thimble Crown. You can also use the Thimble-It sticky ovals.
    4) Quilting Design
      • Create an outline drawing of your quilt and sketch the quilting design if desired.
      • For no marking, pick a design and direction then stitch  for free hand stitching designs.  Echo stitching around patchwork or baptist fans are perfect for this method.
      • Or use your favorite marking tool to create your design on your quilt top.  Don’t mark the entire quilt at once - do a section you are comfortable with.
      • I only use marking tools that I’m positive will not remain on the quilt top. Hera marker (makes an indent on the fabric to follow), chalk or masking tape (my favorite).

      For Mark Maker I quilted interlocking triangles and diamonds. I used masking tape around shapes and then stitched inside the tape. To quilt interlocking circles I used a plate as the template.

      For Stacked Chairs, I used masking tape to outline the grid sections and stitch lines inside each grid according to my sketch outline.

        5) Stitching
        • To hoop or not to hoop?  Some hoop the area they are working on.  Others lay the quilt on their lap. I don’t use a hoop.  If it is a large quilt, I spread it out on my sewing table to support the weight.
        • Thread length. Cut a piece of thread that is enough for one shape such as the circle above.  If there are no distinct shapes then approximately 20 inches is a good length - hand to shoulder if you don’t have a ruler handy.
        • Starting Knot (quilter’s knot).  Make a small tight knot by wrapping the thread once around the needle and guiding it down to the end of the thread and pulling tight.  Bury the knot by entering the back up through the batting and a seam (if possible) so the knot is held firm.  Pull the knot through the back fabric into the batting listening for a little pop.  You might need to put your fingernail on the fabric near the knot to open the threads.  Trim the thread tail.

        • One Stitch at a Time

        This is where I had a hard time...wanting consistent stitches on top and back without requiring the tedious work of separately stabbing down and then up.  And by consistent, I don’t mean perfect.  If a few are smaller or bigger that’s fine as those slight variations give your quilt a true artisan look.  I usually piece the backs and want it to look almost as nice as the front.

        Starting with the knot buried and threaded needle up through the top:

        • Stab straight down into the quilt your desired stitch length. About 1/4 inch is good, but you will get a feel for the length you are happy with.
        • This is the trick: with your other hand under the quilt, extend the needle much further out than the desired length of the back stitch. Then using your underhand forefinger and thumb drag the needle tip back along the backing fabric and bring it up though the top at the spot you desire.  This will position the needle point exactly where you want it to create the stitch on the back.  Pull the thread and look at the back to admire your work!
        • Make one stitch like this at a time, but you can pull the thread every 3 or 4 stitches.  I tried loading several stitches on the needle at the same time but never liked the results.
        • There are times when you might need to stab down then up separately, especially if you are stitching through bulky seam intersections.  I use the Wacker hammer to help flatten those seams if possible.

        • Ending Knot
        When you get close to the end of the shape or thread you need to prepare to knot.
          • Space out the last few stitches of a shape to be as consistent as possible.
          • Stop with the threaded needle at the back with room for one more stitch.
          • Make a small tight knot by wrapping the thread once around needle and guiding it down close to the fabric the length of the last stitch and pulling tight.  Put the tip of the needle in the loop to help guide the thread into a knot at the desired place.
          • Take the last stitch to even out the design and pop that knot into the fabric.  Just to be sure it’s secure, take another very small invisible stitch at the end of that stitch and bury 1/2 inch of the tail in the batting trimming close to fabric.
          • Repeat step #5 until the quilt is evenly quilted throughout.

          Once you get the rhythm, big stitch quilting is relaxing and sometimes much easier compared to maneuvering a big quilt under a standard sewing machine.  It may take more time depending on your quilting design, but it’s time well spent.  Read the batting instructions for maximum distance between the lines of stitching for washing purposes.  I washed and dried a big stitched full size bed quilt on the delicate cycle without a problem.

          Still stitching Stacked Chairs at this writing.  You can see progress and my other work on Instagram if you wish:

          Hope you enjoyed this tutorial and find it useful.  Do you have any big stitch quilting tips to share?

          About Charlotte Noll

          Charlotte Noll

          Charlotte has been sewing since she was a young girl and made all her own clothes.  She made her first quilt when she moved to Florida in 1980 and needed something for her king-size waterbed.  She's been hooked since!  Charlotte loves fabric, thread, buttons, and beads!  She can't pass up a challenge or call for entry.  Charlotte has made many traditional and art quilts but now her eye is tracking the modern style.

          Find Charlotte on PinterestInstagram, and Facebook.