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Tips for Easier Foundation Piecing

Foundation piecing can feel like a lot of work, but it doesn't have to.

I love foundation paper piecing. I love the precise, accurate seams. I love the way it allows for complex designs. But compared to traditional piecing, it can feel like a lot of work.

Yes. Because it is.

Foundation paper piecing asks your brain to take on a significant cognitive load. Cognitive load is the amount of information that your brain's working memory can actively handle at any one time. With FPP, you're already working with a pattern that is upside down and backward. Then you add things like complex angles and frequent fabric color changes and your brain quickly gets exhausted. Did you know that your brain consumes more calories the harder it works? Foundation paper piecing is like a workout for your brain!

Let's think about the steps involved in FPP.

  1. Find a piece of fabric that's the right color for the first piece in a unit.

  2. Make sure that piece is big enough to cover the area of the patch.

  3. Find a piece of fabric that's the right color for the second piece in a unit.

  4. Make sure that piece is big enough to cover the area of the patch.

  5. Place the first and second pieces together, ensuring that each piece will still cover what it's supposed to when the seam is sewn and the pieces are pressed open. Pin and trim a 1/4" seam allowance.

  6. Sew the seam to join pieces 1 and 2.

  7. Press the seam joining the two pieces open.

  8. Double-check to make sure that each piece covers its patch with seam allowance all around.

  9. Identify the next seam to be sewn.

  10. Fold the pattern back along that line.

  11. Trim the fabrics for a nice 1/4" seam allowance.

  12. Repeat steps 3-11 for each remaining piece in the unit.

Whew! That's a lot, even when it's a simple pattern. When it's a complex pattern, you're doing all those steps for dozens of pieces in a single unit, and your pattern might have dozens of units. Chain piecing traditional blocks sounds fun right about now! But you can make foundation piecing a LOT easier with the right tools and techniques.

Tools: The Stuff I Use and Love

Lightbox: A lightbox makes it easier to see if your pattern piece has the coverage it needs, and avoiding errors and re-work will definitely make paper piecing feel less burdensome. I wrote about how a lightbox can help you avoid errors over in this post.

Flat Pins: Fine, flat head pins can really help keep everything aligned properly when you are moving to the sewing machine. I use these wonderful Clover 2505 pins, which have just the right amount of flex.

Add-A-Quarter Ruler: This ruler has a lip to snug up against your pattern and easily trim a 1/4" seam allowance. It's narrow on the other side and can be used as a folding edge if you wish.

Cardstock: I like to use a piece of cardstock from a manila folder as my folding edge for patterns. It's nice and thin and results in a good, crisp fold.

Double-sided tape: For patterns with pieces that need to be joined, I like to use tape, rather than glue. Glue tends to absorb a little into the paper and can warp your pattern piece.

And, of course, the usual supplies: a fresh or freshly-sharpened blade in your rotary cutter, a hot dry iron, and high-quality piecing thread. I use the amazing Glide 40wt thread that you can find in my shop.

Techniques; Work Smarter, Not Harder

Make it easy on your brain by organizing your materials and your workspace to support your process!

Workspace Layout: I use a linear layout in my sewing space. The arrangement of the layout helps with FPP. The process starts with placement on the lightbox on the left, then seam allowance is trimmed, then a little jump to the sewing machine. After sewing, I work back along the line, moving to my left. Any time I've just sewn a piece, it should land on the pressing station so that the pieces can be pressed open. (Yes, in the past I've trimmed off pieces I just added because I forgot to press the pieces open. Don't judge me. I think we've all done it at some point.) After pressing open, the unit goes back to the cutting table to trim for the next piece. Then it goes back to the lightbox for placement for the next piece.

I should also mention that I use standing desks for both my sewing and cutting tables, and I do almost all of my sewing standing up. My cutting is more accurate when I'm standing. I find it easier to move between stations. And it's actually easier on my back to just stay standing than it is to sit and stand repeatedly. The only time I sit to sew is when I need to use my lap for something ... binding, large piecing, etc. Do what works for you!

Fabric Staging - Overall: I have a large pressing board with a design wall side that I use to stage fabrics while paper piecing. I number my colors and, if I'm piecing from yardage, I cut strips to make it easier to manage my fabrics. I include my color key so that I don't have to think hard about which fabric goes in which spot. If I've changed the colors in a pattern and wound up with the same color fabric being used for two numbers, then I put the fabric in both spots. That means that I don't have to repeatedly translate the color change every time I encounter those two numbers on the pattern pieces. Having the fabric right in front of me also makes it easy to learn the color number associations as I work the pattern, and if I need to see if a scrap of fabric is one of two similar colors, I can just hold it up against the design wall to check.

Fabric Color Codes: Sometimes your pattern will already have fabric color codes marked. I prefer my patterns without fabric codes because I frequently recolor my patterns. If your pattern isn't marked, you should mark each patch on your pattern with your correct fabric color. Doing so saves time because you aren't constantly referring to the pattern key. Foundation patterns are always numbered within each unit so that you know the correct order for sewing the patches. For example, your A unit will probably be numbered A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, etc. If you are working with five different fabrics, you might be tempted to just number them from 1 through 5. In fact, that's exactly what I did in the photos above. I've numbered my fabrics from 1-13 and written those numbers on my pattern pieces with a green pen.

But, this method can be confusing because it results in a pattern unit numbered A1 and 3, A2 and 1, A3 and 1, etc. If you find yourself making errors because your brain got tired and you've mistaken color #4 for piece sequence #4 (or vice versa), take one set of numbers out of the equation and use letters instead of numbers for your fabric codes. If you have a pattern that uses all different colors, just use letters to represent the colors. R for red, B for blue, BG for blue-grey, etc. If you have a pattern that uses a lot of similar colors (3 pinks, 5 beiges!) then use the pattern itself for your fabric codes. Consider options like MC for the color used most often, BG for background, G for grass, SK for sky, or ST for stars. Your pattern will drive your selections, but your goal is to make it easier for your brain by NOT having two sets of numbers to deal with on the same patch.

Pre-Folding: As you work each unit, you'll be flipping back the pattern to check the placement of your fabric, and then again to trim the seam allowance in readiness for adding the next piece. It's a lot harder to fold your pattern accurately when you already have fabric attached to some of it, so pre-fold every sewing line on your pattern units before you start sewing. In a large complex pattern, this can take a while. It's a great TV task.

Fabric Staging - Per Unit: In addition to staging my fabrics for the overall pattern on my design wall, I often stage fabrics for a particular unit on my lightbox in the order that they're added to the unit. This step takes a minute or two ahead of time, but it makes assembling the unit go much faster once you start sewing. To stage fabric for a unit, use your lightbox to identify pieces that will cover each patch properly, remembering that each piece needs seam allowance around the perimeter. I use the green handwritten numbers (or letters) for this step. Then, during assembly, my brain is allowed to ignore the fabric notation on the pattern unit and only pay attention to the sequence numbering.

Scrap Management: One of the things to love about FPP is that it can be a great way to use up scraps. That doesn't mean you must use scraps. Letting your inner fabric miser have free rein ramps up the workload for FPP. You can find yourself spending long, aggravating minutes fiddling with a scrap of fabric, trying hard to make it work for a particular patch. Give your inner fabric miser the day off! You'll be amazed at how much easier FPP seems when you let yourself just cut another piece instead of wrestling with every scrap. On my table, I shove all of my cutting scraps off to the right into a big pile of fabric confetti. Periodically, I go through that scrap pile looking for pieces that are probably big enough to be used again, and then I stage those pieces -- in numbered order -- along the top of the cutting mat. When the confetti pile gets too big, there's a very satisfying moment of sweeping it into the bin!

Cutting table with lightbox, pressing mat, and design wall with fabric

These tools and techniques will make your foundation paper piecing feel like less work because it'll go faster and you'll make fewer errors. That saves you time, aggravation, and fabric. That's a win-win-win!

Do you have other tips to share? Let us all know in the comments!

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Staying organized seems to be the Key. Reading this inspires me to try again. I thought I had FoundationPaperPiecingPhobia, but maybe I can do it. Especially like the freedom of changing the numbers to letters and your step-by-step is really helpful. I'm curious though how you use the double sided tape and/or glue. I've not heard of that before. A future blog post?? 😃

That Expat Aussie
That Expat Aussie
Dec 30, 2021
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I'm so glad! Yes, organization is key, and having the same "ritual" for each patch you sew will also help. If you get interrupted while FPPing, take a heartbeat when you go back in to re-establish where you are in the ritual before you sew or trim anything.

You will really only need double-sided tape or glue if your pattern piece for a single patch is too big for the printed page and you need to piece it together for a single patch of fabric. You want that join to be as flat as possible so that your pattern isn't distorted at all. For that reason, I prefer tape to glue, just so that nothing soaks into the paper and…

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