A tutorial: A Shortcut for English Paper Piecing

In late Autumn, I designed something for an empty wall in our house that I fell utterly in love with. I often have a vociferous inner critic at my side, questioning: 'is this any good?', 'are the colours quite right?', 'should the shapes be tweaked?', but with this, every time I opened the file on my computer and looked at it, I just felt happy (in as much as you can when the piece also has a sentimental meaning that causes your eyes to spontaneously overflow whenever you think of it - more on that in another post). But despite my enthusiasm, I somehow couldn't bring myself to start cutting fabric for it; I felt so overwhelmed by the task ahead. My English paper piecing projects often seem to take up to a year to finish, often as much because I stall or lose interest because they're taking long, as because they are so labour-intensive. Although I love the process, I felt frustrated by how long it would take to get this up on the wall and how it would monopolise all my hand-sewing time to get it finished.

Feeling slightly traitorous to my beloved EPP, I explored whether it could be done using foundation paper piecing on my machine, which would have been much quicker. But, as I'd suspected, I found that this wasn't the right pattern for that method, involving sewing Y seam after Y seam and doing what felt distinctly like 'bodging' manoeuvres in order to piece them together.

I then tried hand-piecing with a running stitch, but found that I missed the crisp lines English paper piecing lends and that are intrinsic to how I wanted this piece to look. I'd pretty much decided to abandon the project entirely, which pained me as it felt a hard one to let go of, when I woke up in the night and realised that if I mixed machine piecing and English paper piecing, then I could speed up the making process substantially. I thought I might share the method I've been using here, in case anyone else might find it useful. It has the bonus of requiring all the machine piecing to be done first, so that the meditative and portable process of English paper piecing is left unaffected by this shortcut.

This is my basic block that I'm using - focus on the half-diamonds for this tutorial! For pieces like this, which are separated by a straight vertical line, I've found it's easy to piece the fabrics together on the machine and then wrap the shape as though it's one piece rather than two, meaning that instead of cutting, wrapping and hand-sewing 13 pieces for each block, I only have to sew together 9. Using the same method, I'll be able to reduce the pieces that will join these blocks together from 8 to 4. Over the course of an entire quilt or large wall-hanging, that economy actually makes a huge difference.

This method won't work for all projects - it's easiest when you're not fussy-cutting particular motifs (although you could always use fussy-cut prints on the surrounding pieces) and it will only work with certain shapes. I think it would work really well on my Perpetual Spring EPP pattern, which uses similarly divided shapes. Whatever, it opens up options for leapfrogging through at least part of an English paper pieced project.  Here's how:

Cut two pieces of fabric that are about 1/2" bigger on all sides than the half-piece you're hoping to cover. If you're using the same two colours throughout your project, you can cut a much longer length of each fabric to speed up the process further! Sew these together on the sewing machine along the long side, reducing the stitch length to 2 to give extra seam security once cut. No need to make securing stitches at the beginning and end if you'd like to chain piece them.

Trim the seam allowance down to reduce bulk. I've taken off a hefty 1/8" here as my piecing is headed for a wall, rather than a quilt. You may prefer to take off a little less if your piecing is going to have to withstand a life of being snuggled under and washed frequently.

Press open the seam with an iron (you can use a tailor's awl if you're keen to avoid singeing your fingers)!

Place your template on your pieced fabric (it doesn't really matter whether this is on the right side or the wrong side) and v e e e r r y carefully line up the point of your template with the seam line. (Nb. your template for cutting fabric should always include a seam allowance, so that the fabric shape is big enough to wrap around the corresponding paper piece).

Now cut around it with a rotary cutter.

You can see from the line on my paper piece that I'd normally cut this shape in two and wrap each half individually...but not now :) Take care to keep the points of your paper piece perfectly in line with the seam when wrapping it.

You now have a wrapped piece. This may seem like quite a few steps to get to this point - I know it would leave me questioning if it's actually quicker, but once you're working in bulk quantities, it's really quite speedy and I've torn through my hand-piecing as a result.

In the picture above, note the folded coral fabric at the bottom left. I've seen Kate mentioning how lovely Cloud 9's Cirrus Solid fabrics are and subconsciously wondered what made them so lovely, without ever actively trying to find out. To my shame, I only finally trialled them because I needed to fill a few gaps in my collection of solid fabrics, but it now appals me to think that I could have carried on bypassing them forever. They are ridiculously soft and drapey and I'm dreaming of making a whole quilt from them - if you're familiar with Kaffe Fassett's shot cottons, then they're like that, but softer, I think. They have a really subtle colour difference between the warp and weft, which doesn't show up so well in photos, but which gives them an appealing 'alive' look.

The piecing above uses a mixture of Free Spirit solids, Oakshotts, (unbranded) silks, Art Gallery Fabrics Pure Elements and Cloud 9 Cirrus solids. As it stands, I can see that this looks quite dull and certainly not worthy of hours of EPP, but there are many more blocks and colours to be added and I'm hoping that once it's viewed as a whole, it will justify the hours it's gobbling up.

My husband has now had flu for nearly two weeks, giving me much a milder version that left me feeling too unwell to do much, but well enough to have something akin to an EPP lock-in - I pieced these blocks and tore through four series of When Calls the Heart on Netflix! If you are ever in need of the televisual equivalent of a comforting bowl of macaroni cheese, this is it (if you're craving any other type of television food, realistically, it's probably not going to be quite right for you).

Wishing you a wonderful week,
Florence x


  1. I so whish I’d thought of this while English paper piecing my perpetual spring block! Thank you for both a lovely tip and gorgeous photos! Have you ever considered making an online course on how to use digital software to make English paper piecing patterns? It’s something that I’ve always longed to do but have no idea how to approach on a computer, and I haven’t seen any patterns as stunning as yours!

    1. Me too - it would have sped up the process by a few months, I think!

      That's so kind - thank you! I use Adobe Illustrator to design all my patterns, but it's also great for creating illustrations and practically any other graphics thing you might want (such as creating logos etc), so worth the investment if you have an interest in those things. It's probably not one of those packages that most people have on their computers at home though, like Word/Powerpoint etc, as it's expensive and quite specialised, so any tutorials I could write would probably only appeal to a very few readers.

      If you're interested in learning Illustrator, in my husband's old job, if anyone new wasn't familiar with one of the software packages that they were using, I remember him saying that Lynda was a great online resource and they'd often get someone to use that: https://www.lynda.com - I think it offers tutorials and lessons that you can work your way through. They do charge a fee, but it's a useful skill to have - I find myself using it for so many different things.

      I hope that helps. x

  2. I love the idea of pieced sections for EPP. Your project looks fabulous!

  3. I love the colours that you're using in your blocks Florence - they're really beautiful.

    1. Thank you, Laura - I'm really looking forward to the point where I can start putting all the blocks together.

  4. These are absolutely stunning Florence, and that's such a great tip. I am already thinking forward to my next EPP project that I hope will be a wall hanging and I love the crisp accurate edges this gives you (and the idea of speeding it up a bit!) can't wait to see the finished piece x


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Florence x