piecing tutorial

Many people ask me how I make my art quilts. It's hard to explain with words, so I'll show you.

Basic Principles

First you start with a drawing or photo. This is what I'm currently working on.

Then you enlarge it to working size. Sometimes I use the grid method, sometimes I use an opaque projector. I tend to get too tangled up in the fine details when I use the projector.

Once I get the drawing roughed out, I trace it onto freezer paper and draw the shapes that will become the templates. Below is a section of the background. Depending on the design, I may need arrows to tell me which way is up, or I may need registration marks to fit the pieces together. Here the black border line can serve as my alignment guide.

Let's string some pieces together. I can use this little scrap a couple of times, so I keep every scrap. I iron the freezer paper template to the fabric. I don't have to bother with grain.

I cut the fabric around the template, with a 1/4 to 3/8 inch seam allowance. Rough-cut, not exact.

I dip a Q-tip in water or spray starch, "paint" the seam allowance of one side, fold it over and press it down.

I take it over to the sewing table where it joins its neighbors, and I glue-stick it into place. Just a tiny dab, to hold it until you sew it. When the quilt is finished, I'll spritz the whole thing with water--or put it in the washing machine--to get the glue and starch out. Be sure to use water-soluble fabric basting adhesive. You can get it at Jo-Ann Fabrics or Hancock's online. It is repositionable, unlike Elmer's, which actually works in a pinch, but I don't recommend it.

I can feel with my fingers where the joint is, or I can hold it up to the light, but it doesn't have to be all that precise. You can see how the black border line helps align the pieces.

I use monofilament thread and very fine (60 wt) thread in the bobbin. I use a small needle (65/9), but any needle will do as long as it's sharp.

I set my machine on basic zig-zag, with a stitch width of 1.0 and a length of 1.5, and a tension of about 2, which I have found works well with monofilament thread. A straight stitch is okay too.

Let's take a close look at the sewn seams. The tiny white dots you see are actually the flash reflecting off the monofilament thread. Here I am using green bobbin thread, so you wouldn't see it even if it popped, which it won't because of the small needle size and loose tension. If you only get one spool of fine bobbin thread, get a spool of taupe--it disappears on practically every fabric. 

I could just use one piece of fabric for the background, but many different patterns and fabrics are more visually interesting. And I love each and every fabric, so more is more.

It does seem rather painstakingly fiddly when you spell it out. But it's really just assembly-line sewing, and it goes pretty fast once you get the hang of it. The above strip took me about thirty minutes, and I stopped for picture-taking. It's a whole lot easier than trying to piece curves the conventional way. In my opinion. 

Let's look at another piece.

I cut the next piece (I do 4-6 at a time), press the freezer paper to the fabric, trim the seam allowance and stick down the side that will overlap. With curves, there are convex curves and concave curves. I call 'em hips and waists. Hips take care of themselves, but waists need a little help. In the below picture, I fold the seam allowance of the waist and, if the paper pulls up, I know I need to snip it so it will lay flat. To be honest, I just snip all the waists; I'm on autopilot.

This one I needed to snip. Notice I did not snip all the way to the paper. If you do, you won't get a smooth curve.

These three pieces are waiting to be joined together. You can see that the fold is on the same side of them all, in this case the top of each piece. It is not necessary to have them all marching in the same direction, I'm just OCD.

Next Steps

Let's go back to the drawing for a moment. Here I have drawn the elephant in greater detail and mapped out the pieces. This is a very complex drawing, you don't need to go this deep. Start small and simple. I work out all the design issues in pencil then finalize it with a Sharpie pen. 

Then I trace the drawing onto freezer paper, which will get cut up. If something happens to a template--either I change my mind about a fabric or the piece falls into the wastebasket--I can refer back to this drawing and make another one. Below I have started to cut into the lower part of the drawing. I work from the background forward.

Below are the results of my piecing so far. You may have noticed the finished quilt is reversed from the drawing. Once I get a section of pieces together, I am ready to lay them down. This is when I remove the template paper and iron the section down to a stabilizer called Totally Stable, which will hold everything in place until I finish the piecing. Totally Stable is like freezer paper in that it has a paper side I can draw on and a plastic side that sticks to fabric when heat is applied to it. It also sticks to your iron, so use a piece of parchment to protect your iron from the stabilizer.

In the above photo, the tan wedge on the front leg was bothering me, so I replaced it. It's easy enough to do. I carefully run a blade under the offending section and lift it out. 


Hints and Tips

Work from the background to the foreground.

Use two different scissors; one for fabric and one for paper. The paper scissors won't cut fabric and you'll turn your fabric scissors into paper ones in no time.

I find it's easier and faster to draw a single line to align the pieces. It is more precise, too.

Resist the urge to remove the freezer paper until you are ready to stick down a whole section. 

A magnifying glass makes the work easy. Don't look at the needle when you are sewing, look at a spot about a half-inch in front of the needle (red arrow). Keep that line in the center. If you miss a few stitches, just reverse and go back.

I adjust the presser foot pressure to very light so I can navigate the curves. I use needle-down.