Hand Piecing Tutorial April 15 2017
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
- Straw needles or other long, fine needles with a small eye - I use a size 11.
- Thread - I prefer Aurifil 50 weight in a neutral color.
- Scissors - Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Scissors are my favorite—I like the serrated tip that holds the fabric. They should be fine tipped and sharp.
- Template plastic, pattern, and Jen Kingwell’s Simple Seam Wheel, or acrylic templates
- Sand board or sandpaper
- Flatter fabric relaxant
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
I hope you enjoy making precise hand pieced blocks. Happy sewing!
About 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.
Follow Donna at fbcottagequilts.com.