Essential Guide to English paper piecing (EPP): all you need to know

We love English paper piecing (EPP) for its accuracy, portability and the mindfulness of slow stitching. It’s ideal for keeping our hands busy when we’re kept away from our sewing machines: be it on the train, visiting friends for a craft night, taking the children to swimming lessons or simply relaxing in front of the television. (Our Technical Editor Laura even took her EPP on holiday to the Philippines recently to stitch on the beach!).

If you’re new to this type of patchwork, read on as Laura guides you through the basic techniques to get you started. Once you’ve learnt the basics, we’ve got the perfect project for you to practise with! Sew up Laura’s EPP pincushion with our free tutorial. You’ll be hooked in no time!

Clockwise from top left: 1) Kristyne Czepuryk’s EPP cushion in issue 15 2) Try it for quick fabric greetings cards too 3) Laura Pritchard’s Fussy cutting workshop from the 2016 Festival of Quilts 4) Carolyn Forster’s hexie placemats from issue 7.

Gather your supplies!

Paper pieces

You can draft paper pieces yourself, cut them from downloadable sheets or buy pre-cut shapes.

If you make your own, a slightly thicker paper than usual will give you a firm edge to fold the fabric over. The size is usually measured along one side, so that the edge of a 2in diamond would fit next to a 2in hexagon for example.

Fabric

Quilting cotton, Lawns and linens are all good choices for EPP. If you choose to pre-wash your fabrics make sure they are dry, and ironed flat before you start cutting. Starch can help keep the fabric really flat and give it some structure for basting for a crisper result.

Threads

For basting you can use anything you have, the stitches will be removed or hidden so use up something old or cheap. The thread for stitching the shapes together is more important. Use a colour that matches your fabric closely, or a neutral shade such as grey or taupe that will act as a shadow and sink into the fabrics without showing up. A 50wt is a good choice.

Other

You will also need a needle; whatever you’re comfortable with, some pins or binding clips and some scissors for both fabric and paper. An optional supply is a fabric glue pen, which can be used for basting. A pouch or tin is really useful for transporting and keeping your shapes in order, ready for stitching on the go.

Preparing the shapes

Step one: You will need to cut the fabric 14in larger around all sides of the paper piece. This can be done by making templates for ‘fussy-cutting’ or by using an Add-a-quarter ruler. For more about fussy-cutting see our Fussy Cut Kaleidoscope EPP Pattern booklet, FREE with issue 23. If you are not fussy-cutting, you can cut your fabric more roughly.

Step two: Place your paper piece in the centre of the fabric and pin or attach with a spot of fabric glue. Some paper pieces, like our Issue 23 gift, have a hole punched in the centre, which can be used to pin through. If you are fussy-cutting, use your cutting template to make sure this is properly centred.

Step three: Baste your fabric to the paper using one of the three methods below. Each side of the fabric will need to be folded over the paper one at a time and secured, before moving on to the next.

Through the paper piece

With a knotted length of thread on your needle sew elongated running stitches through the fabric, paper piece and seam allowance to hold the layers together. Finish with a small backstitch to secure. This is a quick method but stitches will need to be removed at the end as they show on the front of the work.


Through the seam allowances

Fold over the first edge, and then the second and hold in place with your thumb. Work a backstitch through the two seam allowances to hold the corner folds in place. Fold over the next edge and repeat. Finish with a small backstitch to secure. With this method you can leave the basting stitches in at the end. Choose a thread lighter than the fabric colour to ensure you won’t see it through the fabric.

Glue basting

Swipe a line of glue along the edge of the paper piece and then fold the fabric over the edge. Any washable glue will work but fabric glue pens are easiest to use. If you are glue basting and find that the fabric is stuck firmly when you come to remove the papers, dampen the fabric a little and it will peel away.

Note: When basting diamonds or triangles there will be little ‘dog ears’ of fabric at the sharp points. Fold the edges of the fabric for each piece so these ears all point in the same direction. This will make it easier to piece them together as they will lie flat and nest together to not leave a hole in the centre.

Ways with binding clips EPP

Piecing the shapes together

There is more than one way to stitch the shapes together. Some people use ladderstitch but our preferred method is whipstitch, sometimes referred to as oversewing.

Step one: Hold the pieces right sides together aligning the two edges to be sewn. Bring a needle and knotted thread through the seam allowance at the tip of the first corner and take a couple of stitches in place. Working right to left (or the opposite direction if you are left handed), take tiny stitches approximately 116in or one needle width apart, front to back through the folds of the fabric. Pick up just a few threads of each fold as this will help keep your stitches invisible and avoid stitching through the paper.

Step two: Continue to stitch over and over as you work along the seam. Finish by backstitching a couple of stitches, then tie off.

Step three: Repeat to add additional shapes to complete the block. Where shapes meet to create ‘Y’ shaped seam, you will need to bend shapes in half in order to line up the edges, and pivot at the inner corners.

Finishing

Once your pieces are attached on all sides, the paper can be removed. Use a cocktail stick or similar to ‘pop’ them out. If your shapes have a punched hole, you can simply place the stick through the hole to easily flick the paper out.

There are a few ways to finish an EPP block:

  1. To piece the edges of a completed EPP shape, place the block on a square of paper the same size as you want the finished block. Trace around the edges and then cut along your drawn lines. Use the remaining edge shapes as paper pieces to complete the outer edges of the block.
  2. A finished block can also be attached to a background as applique. Top stitch your block onto a background using your machine, or hand stitch it down with invisible applique stitches.
  3. To add mitred borders to a finished block, measure your patchwork exactly and draw a line on paper this length. Decide the width of your border and draw a parallel line this distance away from the first, and this much longer at each end. Line up the 45-degree marking on a quilt ruler and draw an angled line from the short edge out to the longer edge. Repeat on the other side. Make four paper border pieces, cut out and baste using your preferred method. Add to the block in the same way as the other paper pieces.

Find the pattern for Laura Pritchard’s Kaleidoscope EPP wall art, FREE with issue 23.