Skill Builder Series: Part 14A – Foundation Piecing

Woohoo! It’s finally here! There are so many blocks that become easier with (or are just plain impossible without) foundation piecing. I call it foundation piecing, although it’s also called paper piecing because the most common foundation used is paper. I took a class with Jane Hall (one of the masters of foundation piecing) and she was very adamant about the word “foundation,” so it kind of stuck.

There are several different ways to foundation piece. Check out Jeanne’s post on foundation piecing with regular paper. If you decide that foundation piecing is your new favorite method, also check out a fantastic book called The Expert’s Guide to Foundation Piecing. It contains variations on foundation piecing from fourteen different quilters, all putting their own spin on the process.

Mini Kayaks String blocks

Foundation piecing comes in many forms. Any block where you sew fabric to a piece of paper or other fabric used as a stabilizer is foundation piecing. String quilts, crazy quilts and even some log cabins are foundation pieced. If you see an antique log cabin quilt with teeny tiny quarter-inch logs, it was foundation pieced. Many quilts were pieced to use up every scrap of fabric, and those scraps were often cut on the bias, or were so small that it was difficult to piece with them. By sewing the scraps to a foundation, you created stability and allowed smaller pieces to be used. Foundations can be used to create geometric designs, as in the Crossed Kayaks mini quilt above, or to create “pictures” as in the flower mini quilt below.

Spring Flowers

Paper is the most common foundation today, whether it’s regular copy paper, special foundation paper made to go through a printer, or leftover newsprint. If you can get your hands on unprinted newspaper paper (?!) I hear that’s fantastic for foundation piecing.

Another option, and my preference, is freezer paper. With regular paper you sew through the paper, which is more stabilizing but also means that you have to print, copy or draw a separate foundation for every block or component you make. With the freezer paper method, you fold the paper back and sew along the fold. Because you never sew the fabric directly onto the paper, you can peel off the foundation and use it again and again.

I first saw this method on an episode of Simply Quilts (a show that unfortunately is no longer airing on television). Judy Mathieson demonstrated a Mariner’s Compass block using this technique, and I immediately had to go try it. This was my first experience with foundation piecing, and it’s still my favorite.

Create Your Foundation

First you need to get your design onto your foundation. I use freezer paper sheets that are made to go through your inkjet (NOT laser because of the heat) printer, such as Quilter’s Freezer Paper Sheets from C&T Publishing or C. Jenkins Freezer Paper Sheets. You can find it at some quilt shops or JoAnn Fabrics, or you can buy it online. Sometimes the design is too big to fit onto 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper, so I’ll draw it on regular freezer paper. For now, print it on regular paper and trace it onto regular freezer paper. If you like the method you can look into other options later.


Regardless of the foundation you use, most foundation piecing (except string or crazy quilts) requires you to first print, draw or copy the design onto the foundation. It is absolutely essential that you do this at the correct scale! If you print it from a PDF, make sure that the Page Scaling is set to None (it might default to Fit to Printer Margins – this is wrong). You’ll see this option in the Print window.

Some patterns have a 1″ test box right on the pattern. After printing or copying, measure this to be sure it’s still exactly one inch. Don’t skip measuring it. Trust me, you’ll regret it eventually.


Simple foundation pieced designs can be created with a single foundation, but sometimes you need to join multiple sections together to create the finished block. For example, this block can be made from one foundation:

Foundation T block

While this block requires two separate sections that are joined together later:

Foundation 2 Piece block

When I print the foundations from EQ7, it automatically numbers the segments so I know what order to add fabrics. There’s room for a little change on some blocks, but some must be done in the exact order shown. Here’s the first, single foundation block with numbering:

Foundation T block screenshot

Here’s the second, two-piece foundation with numbering:

Foundation 2 Piece block screenshot

Notice how this one has two separate sections, one numbered A1, A2, etc. and the other B1, B2, etc. (You may need to click it to view it larger.) Also, it shows the quarter inch seam allowance for the outer edges. You can see where you would cut the foundations apart for individual piecing.

By the way, these are screenshots, NOT accurate foundation patterns. You do not want to print the photos and try piecing them because scale and sizing may be off. If you want to try either of these, here are downloadable PDFs for 6″ blocks:

Foundation T Block PDF

Foundation 2 Piece Block PDF

They’re not “real” blocks, just things I sketched up quickly to illustrate the points. Although the second one does make kind of an interesting pattern when blocks are rotated:

Foundation 2 Piece layout

Freezer Paper Method

Once you’ve printed or traced your foundation onto freezer paper, trim the excess paper away. It’s okay to leave a little extra around the edges, but you don’t want a lot of paper getting in your way.

Next, crease the fold lines – the “sewing” lines. The best way is with a paper or rotary cutter with a scoring blade, which looks like a regular rotary blade but has a dull edge. An old pizza cutter would probably work. You can also use the edge of your acrylic ruler – place it flat with the edge along the line, pull the paper up along the edge, and use your fingernail to crease along the underside of the paper. Remove the ruler and fold it the rest of the way over, creasing to make it sharp. Having a sharp edge makes the fold crisper and more accurate.

1 Crease Foundation

Repeat with all of the fold lines (not the outside edge).

3 Foundation with Creases

Some people like to cut their fabrics into the approximate shapes they need, only slightly larger. Sometimes I do that, as in my Icicles quilt, but mostly I just grab a scrap and go. Choose your first piece of fabric and iron the freezer paper to the WRONG side of the fabric so it covers the entire section plus about 1/4″ all the way around. In the photo below, I’m placing fabric for the tumbler shaped piece in the center. (This method works best if you have an iron right next to your sewing machine so you don’t have to get up every time you sew a new piece on.)

3 First Piece

A strong light, a light box or a window are all helpful because you need to see both the lines on the paper and the fabric placement through the paper.

Some people prefer to trim after sewing the seam, but I like to do it before. Fold the paper back along the crease to reveal the excess fabric. Use a rotary cutter and ruler to trim 1/4″ beyond the edge of the paper.

4 Fold Back Trim Edge

You can also use scissors if you like – the seam line is determined by the foundation, so it doesn’t have to be a perfect 1/4″.

Place the second piece of fabric right sides together with the piece ironed to the foundation. If possible, line up the straight edge of the new fabric with the edge that you just trimmed. With the foundation still folded back, make sure the new fabric completely covers the area on the foundation. Here you can see green lines that show the edges of the new piece of fabric. There is a lot of extra space on the left, but the right side is very close to the line. There was just barely enough room – I should have moved the fabric to the right before sewing.

5 Check for Coverage

Sew along the edge of the foundation, as close as you can without perforating the paper.

6 Sew Along Edge of Paper

Flip the fabric and the paper back into place and check that the fabric covers the area. Do this BEFORE you iron it in place and trim it! The green arrows show the corners of the section – remember, you need 1/4″ extra fabric all the way around the section. I cut it very close.

7 Verify Coverage

Press to adhere the fabric to the freezer paper, fold back the next section, and repeat. Continue until the block is complete. It doesn’t look all that nice at first – there’s a lot of excess fabric.

8 Sewn

9 Cutting Lines

You can see the darker square around the outside of the block that indicates the sewing line, with a lighter cutting line 1/4″ outside of that. Use your rotary cutter and ruler to trim on the outer cutting lines. Be careful – it’s easy to accidentally cut on the wrong line! Also, since you’re cutting through paper, don’t use a cutter with a brand new blade if you can avoid it.

After you’ve trimmed it you can peel the freezer paper off and use it again!

11 Done and Reuse

If you’re doing a block with multiple pieces, leave the freezer paper on and fold back the 1/4″ seams, then use the paper as a guide when sewing the two pieces together.

So that’s freezer paper foundation piecing! Any questions? Do you have another way of doing it that you’d like to share?

If you’d like to practice a few different, but fairly basic, foundation pieced blocks, check out the series of heart blocks on my Patterns page. When you’re feeling really adventurous, try the cow! There’s also a short PDF of an earlier version a Freezer Paper Piecing tutorial.


Jumping on the bandwagon

I’ve read a couple of blogs recently (crazy mom quilts and Quilt Dad) about an incredible flying geese quilt. There’s a Flickr group for those who would like to participate, and I’ve joined. I’m going to do it using the one seam dimensional flying geese method (tutorial here), but I recreated a couple of the blocks in EQ6 for anyone who would like to foundation piece them. Here’s a foundation for two regular triangles, and two others for skinny triangle options. Personally, I like the freezer paper method.

(There, I think I set a record for number of links in a single post.)

Anything Goes swap

I’m participating in my first swap with the Swap Til You Drop group on Flickr. It’s a mini quilt swap – 15″ or smaller. I’ve only made one mini quilt, but I’m looking forward to working small. Here’s a look at the fabrics I’m planning to use:

Anything Goes sneak preview

I played around with possibilities for the design – a curved edge quilt, a distorted star, but when I stumbled upon my final idea, I knew it was right. I drew it up in EQ6, colored it in, and now I’m all ready to sew! I even have tomorrow off, so I can dedicate some serious time to sewing. Sorry, can’t tell you what it will look like. I’ll wait until my swap partner gets it. I can tell you that it’s foundation paper pieced (I’m using the freezer paper piecing method, of course), and the colors were inspired by a photo I found in Flickr. I searched for “Wisconsin November” because my swap partner lived in Wisconsin for a time, and it’s our November swap.

Just in time for winter

The Icicles quilt top is done, quilted, and being bound as I type. (It’s nice to have a mom who enjoys binding.) Photos tomorrow, hopefully. I struggled with this one for far too long, trying to come up with an easy way to make it without foundation piecing. Silly me! Foundation piecing is easy, especially this pattern, and I should have looked at it as an opportunity to spread the foundation piecing joy. Mom went to the quilt shop that first expressed interest in the quilt, and took the top with her. Kathy (the owner) was very happy with it, and offered to quilt it on her longarm for free if she could have the quilt for an indefinite period as a display. Of course I said yes! They used an overall snowflake pattern, which I think compliments the icicles theme very well. Mom’s going to finish the binding today and take it to the shop tomorrow. I sent my preliminary pattern to Kathy so she can start her own Icicles quilt. She is considering using it in her retreat in a few weeks, and needs to make the quilt herself so she can teach it. How cool is that?!

As part of the pattern, I put together a one page PDF Freezer Paper Piecing Tutorial. I really think it’s the easiest way to foundation piece, and it wastes much less paper. Check out the tutorial and let me know what you think – do I need to go into more detail, or does that cover everything? I tried to keep it to one page, for the sake of printing costs, but I could expand it and post it here. Also, do PDF tutorials work for you, or do you prefer to see tutorials in the body of a blog entry? I chose to do PDFs because when I find a useful tutorial I want to be able to save it on my computer for future reference. Is that just me, or do others like PDFs, too?

Heart Hug Quilt

A little over a year ago, my mom, aunts and I made a quilt for another aunt whose husband was seriously ill. We made a variety of paper pieced heart blocks in shades of blue and alternated them with neutral squares. We finished the last block and a few minutes later she called to tell us that he had passed away.

Hugs Quilt

This photo is taken on a hotel room bed. We assembled the blocks, quilted it on the frame, machine sewed the binding on, then took it with us to finish hand sewing the binding. The quilt was completed about an hour before the funeral. Losing someone is never a good experience, but I felt settled, like the work that we’d done on this quilt kept a connection alive.

I’m bringing this up now because my aunt just called asking for the pattern. Her daughter-in-law would like to make one. Since I’m going to be writing out the information, I thought I could post it here, too. Unfortunately, I can’t really give an exact pattern. We worked from several different foundation pieced heart blocks. We made finished 6″ blocks, and there are several different versions.

I prefer the freezer paper foundation piecing method because you can reuse your foundations many times. Instead of sewing through the paper, you iron your fabric to the freezer paper and fold the paper back along the sewing line. Place your next piece of fabric then sew along the folded edge. Flip the fabric and the paper forward, press, then fold back your next line. When you’re finished you just peel the paper off. I saw Judy Mathieson demonstrate this freezer paper piecing method on Simply Quilts and Betty Reynolds has an excellent tutorial . If you’re comfortable paper piecing using other methods, you can certainly do so.

I found an assortment of paper pieced hearts here, and recreated them in my EQ6 program then printed them on 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheets of freezer paper. The link has foundation piecing PDFs, but they will make 4″ stars. The CompuQuilt website has a free 6″ foundation pieced log cabin heart block in PDF format. Click on the following blocks to download 6″ PDF foundation piecing patterns.

You can see some of the blocks a little clearer in the photo below, or you can click here for a larger view of the center of the quilt.

hearts closeup

Mom had an angel fabric that she worked into three central hearts.

love peace happiness

If you prefer, you can trace the blocks on to regular freezer paper. Since you will be able to reuse these half a dozen times or more, it isn’t quite as awful as it sounds. If you have access to the 8 1/2″ x 11″ freezer paper made to go through your printer, it does make the process a lot easier. There are a couple of different brands – Quilter’s Freezer Paper Sheets by C&T Publishing, and 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheets or an 8 1/2″ x 50 foot roll by C. Jenkins.

In order to keep the quilt scrappy but organized, we cut off chunks of fabrics in various shades of blue and sorted them into shoebox size bins. We had gray blues together, aquas over here, clear blues over there, etc. Buttercup and Ru helped.

Cats Helping

After we assembled all of our heart blocks, we laid them out on the floor and placed alternating plain blocks between them. We added a couple of borders to finish it – I think the red border was 1 1/2″ and the outer border was 3″. You could make this quilt larger or smaller just by adding or removing blocks. You could also play with the layout – sashing instead of alternating plain blocks, for example.

If you don’t want to foundation piece, there are a few pieced heart block patterns out there.
Shadowed Heart Block
Patchwork Heart Quilt Block from – this one gives instructions for a full quilt, too
Heart Quilt Block from BellaOnline (available in 6″, 8″ and 12″ versions)
CHD Awareness Heart Block

Good luck, and let me know if you make a heart quilt – I’d love to see it!

Here’s another freezer paper piecing tutorial. Also, you can see a clip from Simply Quilts where Judy Mathieson demonstrates the technique. Go to the Simply Quilts Video Center on HGTV and search for Mariner’s Compass (be sure to use the Video Search on the left side). You’ll see about six choices – you want the regular Mariner’s Compass, not the star. Clip 1 shows how to prepare the freezer paper and the fabrics – I do it a little differently, printing my patterns directly on the freezer paper, and just cutting of chunks of fabric as I need them. Clip 2 is the star of the show – she demonstrates how to iron and sew the pieces.

Git ‘er Done, Part 3

My first really ambitious project was a Storm at Sea. I found the pattern in the More Quilts from the Quiltmaker’s Gift and I just loved the colors used in one of the samples. I cut all of those tiny little triangles, starched the heck out of them, pieced everything so carefully. I foundation pieced the diamond pieces using the freezer paper method. The Storm at Sea pattern is usually done using only partial blocks, so the repeating pattern flows differently. The instructions in this book were for the more complicated “full” block. I like both, but the other way would have been quicker. The satisfaction I felt when I sewed the twelve blocks together was wonderful… until I spread it out and looked at it. It was so tiny! It’s only about 3 feet by 4 feet. If I’m going to put that much work into something, I want it to be bigger, more impressive looking. I plan to (eventually) make some more blocks and add to it, but for now it sits on a shelf.

Storm at Sea

If you aren’t familiar with the books, The Quiltmaker’s Gift is a children’s story book written by Jeff Brumbeau and beautifully illustrated by Gail de Marcken. Scholastic later put out a couple of quilting instruction books by Joanne Larsen Line called Quilts from the Quiltmaker’s Gift and More Quilts from the Quiltmaker’s Gift. They’re fantastic! With about 20 patterns in each book, they have instructions for making the blocks featured in the story. There are illustrations from the book, photos of at least three different quilts for each block, charts for doing the quilts in several different sizes, well illustrated piecing instructions, design challenges to help you make it your own, histories of the blocks, and close ups of the quilting for each block. They even have photos of the quiltmaking process, featuring quilters of all experience levels, even children. If I were recommending just two pattern books, these would be my choice. Other books give great instruction, but these provide so many inspirations and options along with great instruction.

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