Paper piecing for perfect points: 7 smart tips (+ giveaway!)

Detail of Spinning Waterwheels quiltDebby Kratovil is a quilter’s quilter. For 14 years she was known as Quilt Magazine’s “tip lady,” designing hundreds of patterns for their readership. She’s had nearly 30 of her quilts make the cover of quilting magazines (and jokes that she’s a regular cover girl). She’s designed quilts for fabric companies, published quilting books and calendars, and taught countless quilters through classes and workshops. But when a new technique began gaining ground in the quilting world, Debby read up on the method and came to a realization:She did not like the idea of paper piecing.

Being a quilter’s quilter, however, Debby surrendered to piecing pressure and gave that new technique a try. And after making her own brand of tweaks, she was hooked.

Detail of Seeing Red quiltFlash forward to 2013. Not only has Debby embraced paper piecing—she loves it. Why? One reason is that quilt points—and we’re talking super-pointy-points here, like the kind you need for Mariner’s Compass—are a breeze to achieve. With Debby’s techniques for how to paper piece, classic designs that were once thought of as too difficult to even start (much less finish!) are now in the sights of any quilter who wants to give paper piecing a shot.

Today we’re thrilled to have Debby as a guest blogger here at Stitch This!. Below she shares seven smart tips for paper piecing quilts—some you may have never come across before. But first let’s start with her backstory, which reveals her initial skepticism about the technique. Can you relate?

Debby KratovilMy inspiration comes from traditional quilts. I love quilts from an era when the maker didn’t have computers. Only a pencil, paper, and a clever brain! Antique quilts give me the most pleasure and I stand in awe of what these (mostly) women did with minimal tools. Because I mainly sew for publication, my quilts need to photograph well. I let the fabrics do most of the work. If you look at most of my patterns, they really are yesterday’s blocks with today’s fabrics. I also love to take a difficult block and streamline it so any quilter can make it using today’s tools.

I came early to paper piecing quilts only because I worked on the editorial staff of Quilt Magazine and was asked to design hundreds of patterns to share with readers. At first, I was not impressed with the technique. It seemed slow, and I didn’t want to spend all that time on little, bitty, tiny blocks with a zillion pieces! I saw the process that popular teachers used and I just didn’t get the appeal. Hold your pattern up to the light? Cut large fabric pieces and hope they cover the patch intended? Leave the paper on when you join units? No thanks!

Nevertheless, I jumped in, designing and trying out a few blocks—with a few changes:

  • First, I supersized my blocks from 3″ and 4″ to 8″ and 10″.
  • I streamlined the process by precutting squares, rectangles, and triangles to correspond with the patches. That way, you could sew knowing that you wouldn’t have to unsew an inadequate unit. Instead of “sew, then trim,” the process became “trim, then sew.”
  • I realized that using a ruler to trim a patch to ¼" before adding the next patch assures perfect alignment.

After tweaking the technique in these ways, I actually began to enjoy paper piecing!

Fern Fancy quilt
“Fern Fancy” by Kathryn Wager Wright

My new book, Paper Piecing Perfect Points, started taking shape several years ago. I began to see Mariner’s Compass–type blocks as doable with paper piecing, and I set out to draft them on my computer.

I learned early on to design using Adobe Illustrator. I taught myself how to create blocks that radiate from the center, based on the 360 degrees of a circle. I designed a block, and then sewed up several. Designed another. Sewed some more. After about two years, I realized I had enough to fill a book. Not all the quilts in Paper Piecing Perfect Points are based on Mariner’s Compass, but they all have sharp points and odd angles that really can only happen with foundation paper piecing.

Beginner's Mariner's Compass quilt
“Beginner’s Mariner’s Compass”

I’ve taught hundreds of students in the classroom and thousands more via my patterns. I’ve learned many things along the way, and my students have given me great feedback. Here are some of my best paper-piecing tips!

1. Always paper piece a sample block before you cut out an entire quilt. You may find the patches don’t work, you don’t like the block, or that your colors aren’t pleasing to you. It’s not a waste to “test drive” a block before committing to an entire quilt.

2. Choose your foundation paper carefully. The type of paper you use DOES make a difference. I like thin paper (newsprint or tracing paper). Martingale makes awesome papers for foundation piecing and it’s all I use. I introduce my students to it in every class—I give them one or two printed patterns so they can see the difference. Computer paper is a bit too heavy; if you use it, you can tear out your stitches when you remove the paper.

3. Shorten your stitches, but not so small that you can’t unsew them. When I need to unsew, my method is to save the seam and sacrifice what I call the “Patch of Shame.” What? That’s the fabric patch that doesn’t quite cover the space it’s supposed to cover. You have to sacrifice it for the good of the project. To unsew it, trim the Patch of Shame away with a pair of sharp scissors, as close as you can to the seam. Then grab the remaining seam allowance and peel it away. Everything’s removed except for the seam stitches.

Toile Garden Medallion quilt
“Toile Garden Medallion”

4. Begin stitching lines by sewing off the paper. Begin and end your seams outside your seam allowances whenever possible. You need stitching in the seam allowances, just as you do in traditional sewing.

5. Remove paper from a finished block or unit before joining it to other parts of the quilt. I don’t enjoy removing tiny pieces of paper in seam allowances, but even more than that, fabric sewn to paper has absolutely no give. You must remove the paper in order to join a paper-pieced unit to a curved background unit. These have to work together on the bias.

6. Use thin pins. My favorites are small silk pins with no heads. You won’t be able to fold the pattern and trim with a ball-head pin getting in the way.

7. Follow the lines and numbers! The most confusing part for a beginning paper piecer is that there’s this opaque piece of paper sitting between her and her fabrics. She can’t see where she’s going. Just remember, you are always sewing from the wrong side, just like you do in traditional sewing.

Paper Piecing Perfect PointsI came early to the Internet with one of the first quilting websites. I even helped bring Quilt Magazine online as the first quilting magazine with an Internet presence. But I only recently started blogging—reluctantly! I wasn’t eager to jump in, but it’s a place for me to share my hundreds (yes, hundreds) of quilts, tips, techniques, and lessons. Lately, I’ve been highlighting Paper Piecing Perfect Points by recreating many of the blocks in the book with new fabrics. It’s true: you can change the personality of a block or quilt with completely different fabric choices. Check out my blog to see what I’m up to.

Debby, thank you for sharing your tips, and your paper-piecing journey. You’ve inspired us with your words and your beautiful quilts! You can see all of Debby’s quilts from her new book in the slideshow below.

Where are you on the paper-piecing spectrum—beginner, intermediate, expert…or resister? Share your answer in the comments and you could win a copy of the Paper Piecing Perfect Points eBook! We’ll choose a random winner one week from today and let you know by email if you’ve won. Or, pick up Debby’s book now and download the eBook instantly for free.

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Thanks to all who entered the drawing! The randomly chosen winner is Susan, who writes:

“I guess I’m an intermediate resister, I’ve made a number of quilts with this method. I love the results, however, I don’t like the waste and slowness of paper piecing. Debbie’s book, however, looks amazing and worth spending the extra time and fabric. I really hope I win this, and I thank you for the opportunity.”

Susan, we’ll email you about your free eBook. Congratulations!

Katie's Points of View quilt

"Katie's Points of View"

Sunflower Blossoms quilt

"Sunflower Blossoms"

Casablanca Sunrise quilt

"Casablanca Sunrise"

Descending quilt


Diamonds and Blooms quilt

"Diamonds and Blooms"

Hosanna quilt


Red Mango Tango quilt

"Red Mango Tango"

Seeing Red quilt

"Seeing Red"

Silk Compass quilt

"Silk Compass"

Spinning Waterwheel quilt

"Spinning Waterwheel"


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