How to Foundation Piece: Step-by-Step Photos
To make precisely pieced, intricate blocks, you can sew together fabric pieces on a paper pattern, or foundation. Some quilters find this technique to be freeing because precise cutting isn't required and grain line direction is not a worry. However, it requires you to think about piecing in a different way.
Next page: Tips for Making Foundation Piecing Easier
To foundation-piece, you stitch fabric pieces to a foundation paper with the marked side of the paper facing up and the fabric pieces layered underneath. The resulting pieced units will be mirror images of foundation papers. The diagrams and photos that follow show the right and wrong sides of an arc as it is being constructed.
1. To make a foundation paper, trace the desired pattern onto tracing paper or the foundation material of your choice, including all lines, numbers, and dots. Repeat to make the desired number of foundation papers.
2. Cut out the traced foundation papers roughly 1⁄4" outside the dashed outer lines.
3. Roughly cut out fabric pieces that are at least 1⁄2" larger on all sides than the area on the foundation they will cover. Note: For this example, red 3×7" and tan 5×7" rectangles were cut to cover the triangles on the foundation paper.
4. Aligning long edges, layer a tan 5×7" rectangle atop a red 3×7" rectangle.
5. Place a foundation paper atop the layered rectangles, positioning it so that the rectangles' aligned edges are 1⁄4" beyond the stitching line between positions 1 and 2 and at least 1⁄4" beyond the foundation's top and bottom stitching lines (Diagram 1). To check placement, pin on the line between positions 1 and 2, then flip the red rectangle open. Make sure it completely covers position 2 and extends into position 3 at least 1⁄4". If it doesn't, reposition and recheck until it does.
6. Working with the marked side of the arc foundation paper up, sew on the stitching line through all layers, extending the stitching past the beginning and end of the line by a few stitches (Diagram 1 and Photo A).
7. Press the rectangles open, pressing the seam toward the red rectangle (Diagram 2 and Photo B). Trim the red rectangle only (not the foundation paper) to about 1⁄4" beyond the stitching line between positions 2 and 3 pieces (Diagram 3 and Photo C).
8. Align a tan 5×7" rectangle with the trimmed red piece so their right-hand edges are about 1⁄4" beyond the stitching line between positions 2 and 3 (Diagram 4). Sew on the stitching line (Photo D). Trim the seam allowance if needed; open pieces and press seam toward tan rectangle (Diagram 5 and Photo E). Trim the just-added rectangle (not the paper foundation) to about 1⁄4" beyond the next stitching line.
9. Continue adding red rectangles and tan rectangles in an alternating pattern, trimming in the same manner, until you have pieced an entire arc (Diagram 6 and Photo F).
10. Trim all fabric layers and foundation paper on dashed lines to complete a foundation-pieced unit (Diagram 7 and Photo G).
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If you are new to foundation piecing, test different foundation materials to determine what works best for you.
- A foundation material can be permanent or temporary. Permanent foundations remain part of the quilt, while temporary foundations are removed before the quilt is layered for quilting.
- Permanent options include muslin, flannel, and sheer cut-away stabilizer. Tracing paper, freezer paper, lightweight newsprint, translucent vellum, wash-away foundation paper, tear-away stabilizer, and typing paper are examples of temporary foundation materials.
Foundation Piecing Needle Tips
- When foundation piecing, use a tiny stitch length (12–16 stitches per inch) and a larger needle, such as a size 90/14, so the foundation will easily tear away from the assembled block. Return to a regular stitch length to piece rows of blocks together.
- Sewing through multiple layers (including your foundation material) can dull a needle quickly. To avoid sewing with a blunt tip, change your needle every six hours of sewing.
5 Helpful Tips for Foundation Piecing
TIP: Even though you can use the tiniest of scraps for foundation piecing, you need to have fabrics large enough to cover each section. A minimum of 1/2" larger than the piece to be covered is recommended. Because the foundation will stabilize your fabric, there's no need to worry about grain lines when you cut the fabric. The fabric pieces don't need to be cut perfectly, as any excess will be trimmed away after each piece has been stitched.
TIP: Because foundation piecing requires a lot of pressing, setting up a pressing surface close to your sewing machine will increase your productivity. The optimum location for your iron is one you can reach without getting out of your chair.
TIP: When inserting paper-pieced units into blocks with other non-foundation pieces do not remove the foundation paper until after the block is complete. Doing so will help maintain the unit's shape and stability as you sew the shapes together. Remove the paper after the block is complete.
TIP: If you've used foundation paper, it helps to start in the center of the block to remove it. Spritzing the paper lightly with water will soften it and help in removal. Running a pin or the tip of a seam ripper along the stitching line makes the paper easier to remove, too. Avoid tugging, as it will loosen your stitches. If the paper won't come out of a small area, use tweezers to gently pull it free.
TIP: When you've completed your block, you can stabilize it by spraying it with fabric finish or starch. Press and let it dry on your ironing board to avoid distortion. Trim the block and don't forget to add a 1/4" seam allowance to the outside edges. Often it's marked on the pattern but pay attention to which line you need to cut on.
Fix Common Mistakes
The two most common mistakes in foundation piecing are not cutting your fabric large enough to cover the next section, and putting a right and wrong side of fabric together. To unstitch a seam, slide the point of your seam ripper flat along the stitches. Cut a few along the seam every 1/2" or so, pulling out the ones in between. This will keep the paper from ripping. Press your fabric open fully so that tucks don't form. Having a small ironing mat and rotary cutter on your sewing table will make your piecing quicker and easier.