Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Tutorial: hand-piecing a hexagon quilt with a running stitch


It's come as quite a shock to me to be hand piecing a quilt by any other method than English paper piecing; the last time I tried sewing with a running stitch was back in 2013 and I've always retained memories of enjoying that experience, but for whatever reason I've never really dabbled in it again until now. But, I've been happily hand-piecing together hexagons since the late August and I wanted to share some of the things I've learned and do a quick tutorial on how to make a similar quilt (or a completely different-looking one - as long as you're using hexagons, this tutorial will work - I'm aware most people may not want same-colour rows like I have here). It's written very much from one new running-stitch piecer to another, but if you're an old hand and have things to add, I'd love to hear in the comments.


I began by drafting a much more complex design, but when I started to cut out the pieces, I realised that the self-made templates that I usually use for EPP just weren't working so well for hand-piecing and that continuing down that route would make me fall out of love with hand-piecing with a running stitch before I'd even picked up a needle. So, I stripped things back to basics and went with a shape where I could use a pre-cut template, which now feels like the right decision as I've loved every minute of making this quilt so far and will undoubtedly have more patience when I eventually return to those self-made templates.


Note that I refer to sewing with a running stitch as hand-piecing for the duration of this tutorial, which shouldn't be confused with English paper piecing.

I made my quilt with the same fabric used in each column, but you can mix it up completely, or do columns where you change the fabric of every other hexagon...whatever you fancy. Let's begin.

**For reference, the templates I used (discussed below) gives a hexagon where each side measures 2" finished. I'm using 400 hexagons placed into 20 columns, with 20 hexagons in each column, which will give a finished quilt top of approximately 58" wide x 67" high (despite it being 20 hexagons x 20 hexagons, it won't make a square quilt because the height and width of a hexagon isn't the same).**


1. My quilt is made from Liberty Tana lawn, which is quite a fine fabric. So that the fabric plays less beneath the pencil when I'm marking on seam allowances, I used Mary Ellen's Best Press, which is a starch alternative (I usually use Soak's Flatter spray, but I wanted something that would make the fabric a little stiffer for this project).  


2. Let's talk about templates. Years ago, my friend Lorena who does a lot of hand-piecing, specifically recommended Marti Mitchell templates to me for hand-piecing with a running stitch and now that I've used them I can see why - Marti's templates are really thick, making them easy to cut around speedily with a rotary cutter and the slightly rough underside stops them from sliding around on the fabric. She also punches holes in each corner, so that you can mark the seam allowance easily and the templates have the grain line marked on too (although with a hexagon, four sides will always be left on the bias). My hexagon comes as part of a set of shapes (set G) that can be combined together.

So, with all that said, place your template on the fabric and cut around it with a rotary cutter. The photo above doesn't show it, as it was controlling the camera, but you should place a firm hand on the template to keep it in place. I prefer small tools, so use a 28mm rotary cutter instead of the standard 45mm, but either is fine.


3. Next, make a mark in each hole to indicate the seam allowance. I tried to keep the pencil straight up when doing this to increase accuracy. 


I experimented with what to use to mark fabrics and found I liked Sewline's pencils best, which have a ceramic lead - it's easy to poke through the holes to leave a nice, visible dot, and it's also capable of drawing a crisp line. I experimented with lead colour and found pink shows up on nearly everything, with grey being a good alternative on pink fabrics. I seem to remember being told years ago that a silver gel pen will also do a nice job - it will, although not on Tana lawn as the fabric is fine, so the ink will bleed through. I used a short 1" wide ruler to join the dots up. Again, it's possible to just eyeball the seam allowance and sew dot-to-dot, but I like having a line to sew on. 



Here's the fully marked hexagon (above). 



5. Place two hexagons with the right side of the fabric together. Place a pin to line up the two dots at each end. Check that it's going through in exactly the right place on the reverse side too - don't worry if this means the edges of your fabric don't line up perfectly as it's more important that the sewing lines are correctly aligned. 


I place more pins along the sewing line, making sure my seam allowances are carefully lined up with the pin going through them on both sides.


Here's the reverse side too. I am possibly over-photographing here, but this is the kind of detail I wanted to see when I was first piecing my hexagons, so I'm offering it up for the delight of fellow show-me-every-detailists.  


6. It's now time to begin sewing! I messed around with needle size, experimenting with much shorter needles that I've seen some hand-piecers using, but I preferred a slightly longer straw needle, possibly because I'm so used to using them for EPP that they now just feel right in my hand. A shorter needle felt fiddly to me. 


Start stitching at your first dot by making a few securing stitches (sewing over the same stitch a few times) and then sew along the sewing line until you reach the end dot - you don't sew the seam allowances down for this.


I imagine everyone develops their own stitching technique that works for them, but when doing a running stitch, I tend to keep my needle still and use my finger beneath the fabric to move hills and valleys of fabric onto the needle, before pulling it through. Sadly, I can't photograph myself doing this, but the hill and valleys comment will probably make sense once you start sewing yourself.


Here's a finished line of stitching. You only need to leave a short tail of thread at each end.


Initially, I found my workflow felt quite stop-starty, taking pins in and out of my pincushion constantly, but then I went to Sussex Sewing Club and sat next to my friend Carolyn, who has years of hand-sewing experience, and she let me borrow her 'finger pincushion' for the day and it transformed things for me. I'm right-handed, so the pin cushion sits on my left index finger and transferring pins and needles in and out of the cushion now barely interrupts my stitching (imagine my right hand holding the needle in that photo). Carolyn shares a pattern for this finger pincushion on Page 24 of her book, The Handmade Quilt, so the moment I got home I made one of my own. I pieced one of the simple quarter-square triangle blocks from her book first, so that I could incorporate two fabrics into my pincushion, although it's a ten minute make if you skip that step. I am really, really happy with this little thing - I think I may make several more so that I have a whole wardrobe of them. 


I started by sewing all my hexagons into columns. I sewed 20 columns containing 20 hexagons in each, so my quilt contains 400 hexagons in total. Sewing things into columns is really easy sewing and a happy way to break yourself into a good rhythm for hand-sewing.

I know lots of people don't press the piecing until it's all joined together, as you need to the nudge the allowances up again at the ends to sew through them, but I chose to press my hexagons at this point as it's easier to press these all down now and at least give the seams the memory of which way you want them to fall, than do it from scratch once they're attached on all sides, when it can all get a bit finger-burny. It's personal preference though (I really love everything to be pressed, so my personal preference is always going to be to have everything nicely flattened as though a steam roller has passed through).


Above is one column of steam-rollered hexagons (although actually, I always press with a dry iron, so imagine the roller powering through with no steam at all).

7. It's now time to sew the columns of hexagons together. This bit is a little trickier than piecing the columns, but really not much once you've done it a few times. The key thing to remember, is that you're never sewing a seam allowance down like you might with a machine-made quilt. 


The photo above shows the wrong side of the fabrics and how the hexagons will fit together. Note that in both columns, I have my seam allowances pressed downwards. You can actually have them in whatever direction you want, but for consistency later, I like mine to all go in the same direction. 

In the photo above, I've started to pin the first two sides to be sewn together, placing the fabrics right-sides together. You can see on the left hand side, I've folded aside the seam allowance and the fabric of the hexagon that's not being sewn together, so that I won't accidentally sew any part of that hexagon into this seam - it's now safe to place the second pin through the other other dot. Remember - you don't want that pin to go through even the tiniest bit of the fabric of the surrounding hexagons, as it will lead to puckery points on the right side of your quilt. Likewise, not placing your pin in just the right place (on the dot you've marked, or right at the top of a sewn seam allowance), will lead to undefined, soft points at the corners of your hexagons. 


As before, I then place several pins in between to make sure my stitching lines are perfectly aligned. 


Now, simply sew between the dots, as before, making securing stitches at the beginning and end, but there's no need to cut your thread at the end of a line of sewing, as you can carry on sewing the next seam with it once you've aligned them. 

You'll come across two types of seam when sewing hexagons - (a) those where you can just turn the fabrics, pin and carry on sewing and (b) those where you'll need to pass the needle through a few pieces of fabric to get your thread and needle into the right place. We'll tackle both below - let's start with the former. 


(a) Simply turn your fabrics so that the new seams to be sewn are aligned and pin in place, being sure to exclude any fabric or seam allowances from surrounding hexagons (you can see in the photo above, that the turquoise hexagon on the right of the photo is being kept out of things). 



The photos above show this seam pinned and then sewn, with hexagons to either side folded away so that they don't interfere with your line of stitching. 

Now, let's tackle (b). 


You can see above, that I've pinned my next seam, but that the needle and thread are stranded on the wrong side of the seam, where you left off sewing earlier. 

This doesn't involve a complex rescue mission - you just need to pass the needle through the exact point where the seam allowances converge. I pass it through to the back of the seam I want to sew (above) and then bring it through to the front, one stitch ahead of the dot, which puts me in the right position to sew backwards and do a few securing stitches.  


It's now just a case of continuing to join the other twenty columns of hexagons together. 

When you've finished a few columns, you might like to explore how to press the hexagons.  


Above, is some piecing with only that first seam line pressed down from when they were individual columns.


With a little coercion, you'll find that the seams naturally fall so that at the point where three seams converge, a little hexagon is created from a small diamond of each fabric. Although it's a bit of a fiddle to press them this way, it will mean that your quilt top looks perfectly smooth and free of lumps on the front side, but more importantly, it's just totally thrilling to press them this way - it makes me so happy to see these little hexagons forming. You can use a tailors awl to minimise finger burning.


I try and press my seams in the same way across the quilt so that there's a pattern to my pressing.


Here's how my pressing looks across a bigger area. The two horizontal seams are always pressed downwards and the top two sides of each hexagon are pressed outwards and the bottom two seams are pressed inwards.


And this is how that looks from the front. And below is a close up. 


I haven't actually finished my quilt top quite yet, although I'm not too far off - a week if I sew quickly and a year or two if I become distracted. 

In the meantime, here it is looking like a curtain with the sun shining through it. 


And here it is, sunless. 


Nine million photos and hyper-detailed instructions later, I think we're finished. I hope you find this tutorial useful if you've got to this point. 

Florence x

11 comments:

  1. It’s looking stunning! I can’t believe how well you’ve managed to sew the corners of the hexagons to one another. I’ve never actually tried handsewing other than English paper piecing but this looks like such a lovely project. Thank you for the tutorial!

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  2. Beautiful quilt, love your colour combo in this! And thanks for the detailed tutorial, interesting reading & comparing to how I do things!

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  3. Beautiful quilt!

    I've been hand piecing with running stitch (using self made templates) for a long time. They key is NOT to rotary cut around the templates, but to make your templates to finished size and trace around them on the wrong side of the fabric. Then I just cut around the line with scissors, eyeballing the seam allowance (it's fine if it's a little off, and also fine if the edges of the fabric don't quite line up as long as your sewing lines do).

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    1. I don’t use a rotary cutter either. I much prefer to draw the outlines, then the stitching lines, and then use scissors to cut the pieces out. I also use tiny Applique pins, and only one or two for short seams. Sometimes I just put the pieces together and don’t use any pins at all. I just keep checking that the stitches are on the line on the back as I go along.
      When I took a class with Willyne Hammerstein she said Dutch people don’t bother drawing the stitching line, they just eyeball it.

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  4. A great tutorial! I really like posts where I have step by step explained how to do something. Thank you! Of course, your job looks great! Congratulations, good job. I am waiting for more such good blogposts

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  5. Interesting tutorial using a running stitch to join the pieces. I have done some English paper piecing but it needs a lot more concentration. I am going to try out this method which might be much less stressful.

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  6. loved your tutorial, I've always basted hexagons with card templates and then stitched together. You've used my new favorite tana lawn as well x

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  7. Lovely tutorial, great detail, you can never, ever have too many photos when detailed explanations are needed! You are a great teacher, thank you for all the work you put into this post.
    I'm contemplating an English paper pieced project while my feet are in casts next month but have not ordered the papers. What's holding me back is drafting a few rosettes into a wall quilt vs a huge quilt a la Willyne. Must do some more research!
    Thanks again for your detailed post. Jo.

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  8. Thank you for all the details! It's been awhile since I hand pieced, but I'm saving your tutorial for when I try it again! Such a lovely, lovely project!

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  9. A few years ago I sewed together 3 inch hexagons for a table runner with the same method in your tutorial, except that I figured it out myself. The previous year I stitched baby blocks for a lap quilt. I love to hand stitch while on a trip. This year I'm doing Lone Star type six pointed stars. Thank you for the Liberty tips. I'm building my Liberty stash VERY slowly to someday create a 'summer quilt'.

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  10. Great tutorial Florence! I have to say, that I have really fallen in love with hand-piecing over the years - not entirely sure why, I think it's partly that because the fabric isn't folded around templates, it remains lovely and soft, which is great when you're trying to fit lots of bit together! My only tip that I've started using (and not all the time, depends on the construction) is that where I know two sides are going to be matched, I only draw the line on one piece of fabric, eg. if you were joining the columns together, you could do half with all the lines on and the other half with lines only on sides (working left to right around the hexagon) 1, 2, 4 and 5. Then you just need to match the corners. It feels slightly rebellious at first, but I found it works and saves a little time on all the drawing! Hope that makes sense!!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a message - it's always really lovely to hear from people.

I now tend to reply within the comments section, so please do check back if you've asked a question or wish to chat.

Florence x

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