A World of Quilts
THERE IS A SIMPLE restorative pleasure in sewing by hand. You just need yourself, some fabric, a needle and thread – and a little concentration. No gadgets, no noise, nothing else.
English paper piecing is sewn completely by hand and is one of the first recorded quilt- making techniques. Some English quilts date back to the 1770s and the oldest American version dates back to about 1810. In the eighteenth century the importation of Indian cotton and chintz to England and France was restricted, which meant that fabric became very precious and every piece really had to count. The method of English paper piecing allowed every scrap to be used and all types of fabric – silk and velvet, as well as cotton – were gathered to create these tactile treasures. Women created a wide variety of quilts, table coverings, throws and cushion covers from the tiny hexagons, as there really was no limit to the designs they could create. As a sewing technique, it was a perfect teaching device for young girls. Both simple and portable, it was an extremely respectable pastime to illustrate stitching prowess.
Although usually in hexagon form, English piecing also used other tessellating geometric shapes to create quilts, including diamonds, octagons and triangles, to great effect. These shapes provided an easy way of creating complex geometric patterns, such as Tumbling Blocks and Flower Garden, which are some of the most recognized quilt designs of all. This style of patchwork was known as an all-over design, rather than the latterly more common frame or block designs, and every piece had to be considered within the overall design of the quilt. Although paper-pieced quilts were simple to execute, they required great patience. The great number of pieces in the quilt – often thousands – and their small size became a matter of pride for early quilters.
Paper templates were used as fabric stabilizers to ensure accuracy when hand-sewing the complex angles together. English pieced quilts were not padded or quilted, so the paper templates were often left in the quilt for additional insulation and to ensure that the shapes stayed flat. The templates themselves are often important pieces of history – plain paper was scarce, so they were usually cut from old letters, newspapers, bills or journals. Thus we can catch a glimpse of the lives of the makers, not only through their fabric and design choices, but also through their letters and other written records.
I would love to make a whole quilt from English pieced hexagons – and one day, in the very distant future, I will. I love the handmade aspect of this technique as much as using complex shapes to such fantastically simple effect. A few rows of hexagons are achievable for all and offer a wonderful way to use the tiniest of scraps for a strikingly graphic result.
150 x 150cm when trimmed and bound. All seam allowances are 1cm and are included in the cutting sizes.
Your quilt top requires a base cloth with a finished size of 152 x 152cm. Once you have chosen your fabric for this, you can easily work out
the amount you need by the width
of the fabric you are buying. For example, if you choose a wide fabric, you will need only one length at 155cm. If you are buying standard- width fabric, then you will need 310cm. You will have wastage from this but you can use it on the backing and binding, or for other projects.
You will also need approximately 0.5m of fabric scraps for your hexagons; each scrap needs to be a minimum of 10 x 10cm square.
I used a fine organic cotton as my base cloth and a selection of Indian and French block-printed cottons
in reds, natural tones and shades of indigo for my hand-stitched pieces. I wanted to make this quilt appealing for a little girl, but I also wanted it
to be something that she would still love once she had grown out of the customary pink phase.
You will need approximately 2.5m of fabric. The finished size should be at least 170 x 170cm, so you can use any fabric that is left over from the front base cloth to make the backing, or quickly freestyle some other fabric pieces of your choice together to the required size.
I did just that, piecing lemon, indigo and vintage printed cotton together to create a graphic backing.
You will need approximately 0.5m of fabric. You can use scraps from the quilt top if you have any left over, or use the binding as an opportunity to introduce a new fabric.
I bound my quilt with a mixture
of plain ivory cotton and one of the block-printed cottons – just because I had some left over and I thought it would look fun.
WADDING of your choice,
170 x 170cm.
SEWING THREAD 100 per cent cotton all-purpose thread is best, in a neutral colour.
QUILTING THREAD 100 per cent cotton quilting thread in a colour
of your choice.
TEMPLATE PAPER such as baking paper or tracing paper, and a pencil.
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CUT YOUR FABRIC
Start by tracing the hexagon. I generally use baking paper, as it is easy to sew through and there is always some in the kitchen drawer. You need to cut out 66 hexagons, so you can either trace the hexagon 66 times, or create a cardboard template that you can then draw around.
Press all your scrap fabrics and, with the fabric wrong side up, pin the paper templates to them. Make sure that one edge of each template is sitting on the straight grain of the fabric.
Using a ruler and pencil, draw a 1cm seam allowance around the outside of the paper templates. Cut out all of your fabric hexagons using scissors or a rotary cutter.
Turn the seam allowance to the wrong side over the edge of the template. Hand-sew tacking stitches along each side to hold it in place, folding the corners neatly and stitching through the folds to keep the corners sharp. Repeat for the remaining 65 templates. This is a very portable sewing technique, so you can easily do it while watching television or travelling.
SEW YOUR QUILT TOP
To join the hexagons into one long block, follow the shape on the diagram. Stitch the pieces together using the following technique:
Place two shapes with right sides together. Knot your thread and hand-stitch two edges together using very small stitches. Do not sew through the paper. Once you have reached the end, backstitch over the last few stitches and knot. Cut the thread.
Continue to add hexagons in one row until you have joined 25 together. Your central block is complete.
Repeat this technique for the side blocks, taking care to stagger the hexagons in rows of 1/2/1/2, and so on. The left-hand block is made up of 17 hexagons and the right-hand block 24.
Once you have completed these, stitch them to the central block. The left block is joined to the central block at pieces 7/8/9 and the right block is joined at 14/15.
Join your base cloth fabric together until you have a piece measuring 152 x 152cm. Press this well. Place your base cloth right side up on a clean surface – I find a table is best for this quilt – and use masking tape around the edges to keep it straight and taut. Steam press your hexagon blocks so that the edges are crisp.
Lay the hexagon block down on the base cloth, matching the ends to the edges of the base cloth. Use the diagram for guidance. Use a long metal ruler and your quilter’s ruler to ensure that the block stays straight.
Start at the top of the quilt and remove the tacking stitches and paper template from the first hexagon. Pin the edges of the fabric hexagon to the base cloth. Continue removing the tacking stitches and templates and pinning the hexagons to the base cloth. Use your rulers to check that the block stays aligned as you work. This is fiddly, but it will be easier if you have pressed the block well.
Once you have pinned the whole block to the base cloth, simply slipstitch the hexagons in place, using tiny (as invisible as possible) stitches. That’s it – your quilt top is finished.
SEW YOUR QUILT BACKING
Your quilt backing needs to be a minimum of 170 x 170cm. Simply join your choice of fabric together until you have a backing the right size. Press all the seams, trim away any excess threads, and your backing is complete.
BUILD YOUR QUILT
Put your quilt sandwich together in your preferred way. After you have marked any necessary quilting lines, machine- or hand-quilt using your favourite technique. Trim the backing and wadding so that the edges are even and your quilt is square. Finally, make and attach your binding.
MAKE IT YOURS
Once you understand the principle of the English piecing technique, you can create your own design, increase the size
of the hexagons, or increase
or decrease the size of the quilt top itself. As most of this quilt
is hand-stitched, you can make
a large number of hexagons and then decide on your design when you are ready. You could, of course, make a whole quilt out of these hexagons. This would be a long-term commitment
but with a very beautiful result.
‘It is a rare delight when we get to sit quietly and make with our hands, but we always feel all the better for giving ourselves the time.’