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Let there be light! And other things, too.

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

There are affiliate links in this post. If you purchase something through one of my links, I’ll give you a socially-distanced high-five from my mega-yacht (purchased with affiliate revenue, of course). Here’s my full affiliate disclosure.

I want to share a little more foundation paper piecing fun. I've met quite a few people who would argue with the "fun" designation, but really ... FPP can be your friend once you handle just a few basics, and it definitely gets easier when you add a few key tools to the mix. People are often confused by why I like to FPP so much. One word: precision. When you want to get something to line up just exactly right, foundation piecing definitely helps achieve that goal.

So ... what basics and what tools? Let's tackle that from the perspective of what you want to avoid--wasting time and fabric. To avoid wasting time, you need to make fewer errors and avoid rework. To avoid wasting fabric, you need to make fewer errors and avoid rework. I'm starting to see a theme here!

Let's take this step by step.

Place your first piece, making sure that it covers the entire area it's supposed to, including 1/4" seam allowance on every side, and that the wrong side of the fabric is touching the wrong/unprinted side of the pattern. Pin in place if you like, or use a spot of washable glue. I often just hold mine with my fingers, but it depends on the size of the piece and the pattern.

It can be difficult to see through your paper to be sure that your fabric covers properly or that it's aligned as it should be. That's where having a light box makes FPP a whole lot easier. You can use the light box to audition fabric pieces for each section of your pattern. You can see the difference in the first two pictures below. There are a lot of DIY methods to make a lightbox, mostly involving various clear-ish containers and lightbulbs, but there's really no need to go to all that extra work. It's the 21st century; gorgeous lightboxes are available for very reasonable prices. I have a nice large one that sits permanently to the side of my cutting mat. Click here to get the one I use and enjoy in a variety of sizes.

Once you have a good candidate for piece #1, pin it in place and fold the pattern on the line you are about to sew (that's the line between piece #1 and piece #2). You can see in my pictures above that I'm using the narrow edge of my Add-a-Quarter Ruler to make the fold. The other edge is just as awesome; stay tuned--we're going to use it next! Once you have folded back your paper, turn your Add-a-Quarter ruler around to the other side, snug the indented edge of the ruler up against the paper, and trim to create a beautiful 1/4" seam allowance edge. What's that? You don't have an Add-a-Quarter Ruler? You should. I love mine and recommend them wholeheartedly. Pick up a 6" and 12" ruler pair.

Now it's time to add the fabric for piece #2. Use your lightbox to audition pieces to make sure you have coverage. Place the piece #2 fabric right side up on the lightbox. Move the pattern with piece #1 pinned to it on top of piece #2. With the pattern still folded over, move piece #1 and the pattern so that all of piece #2 on the pattern is covered by the piece #2 fabric (with seam allowances, of course). For this step, you're looking at the top piece of folded paper. There are two pieces of paper and two pieces of fabric in play here, which is why a good lightbox is such a fabulous tool. It makes seeing those coverage lines a breeze. Once you have piece #2 in the right spot, you can carefully pin the pattern, piece #1, and piece #2 together to secure them for the journey to the sewing machine. Or you can use your fingers with a death grip. I use both methods interchangeably.

At the sewing machine, unfold the pattern so that it lies flat and completely open. Stitch along the line between piece #1 and piece #2 on the pattern. Start and stop a couple of stitches beyond the line. Backstitching at the beginning and end of the line will add extra security for when you remove papers, but I'll be honest ... I forget to backstitch more often than I remember, and I rarely have a problem removing papers. If you used a ragged edge piece for piece #2, you can fold back both sides of the paper and trim a nice 1/4" seam allowance.

The final two pictures in the gallery below show the importance of auditioning fabric with the piece folded over. At first glance, the pink floral looks like a good fit for piece A4. It has a square end that covers the corner, and an angled corner that would cover the point. However, when we fold the piece over and audition the fabric on the lightbox, right sides facing, we can see that the piece doesn't have the coverage needed for A4. The corner of the block extends far past the edge of the fabric.

After you stitch ANY line, press the piece open. Don't forget this step. If you do, you'll mess up the piece you just added when you trim. So, press the seam open. Use a hot dry iron. Steam can make your paper damp enough to warp and distort your pattern. I use two irons: a small portable one on the wool pressing mat next to my sewing machine, and a truly wonderful cordless full-sized iron at my main ironing spot. I tend to use the mini iron while building the FPP block, and then the full sized one for the final press before trimming the block to size.

Then fold on the next line you are going to sew. You just added piece #2, so fold the line between piece #2 and piece #3. Use your Add-a-Quarter Ruler to snug up against your folded pattern and trim a lovely 1/4" seam allowance. Don't get confused and trim off the piece you just added because you accidentally folded the line you just stitched between 1 and 2. I've done it. I think it's a FPP rite of passage.

You've now done all of the steps for successful foundation piecing. Yay! What follows is just ... more pieces! When you're all finished, you can choose to remove the papers before joining blocks ... or not. It's a matter of personal preference.

A recap of the things to remember:

  • Audition fabrics with the piece you're adding folded over to make sure you get perfect coverage, including seam allowances, and placement.

  • Check to make sure that your pieces are always right sides facing when you add them. It can be easy to mix them up looking into the light of the lightbox.

  • Sew with a tiny stitch length (1.2mm-1.6mm) to make removing your paper easier at the end.

  • For every piece after the first one, chant the steps in your head: fold > place > stitch > press > fold next piece > trim. Or make a sticky note. Whatever works for you!

If you're a visual learner, I've included some photos to show more of the block construction. And, of course, there are many excellent videos (and some not-so-excellent ..) on YouTube that show FPP basics.

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