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Accurate piecing without paper piecing

by Elaine

I have trouble piecing nice points without paper piecing.

I am working on a large quilt with small pieces and blocks so making many copies to paper piece is a problem.

How do you make nice points with regular machine piecing?


I'd better admit up front that I never met a paper piecing pattern I didn't like. Specifically because of the ability to use that technique to get pointy, sharp points that I don't cut off.

But with that admission out of the way, there are a couple of 'tricks' that I use to get pointy points without paper.

The Basics

Switch to a new needle (whose eye matches your thread and type matches your fabric) for every project. They're cheap, but so vitally important for creating nice, straight stitches in your seams.

Slow down your stitching speed. If you have speed control, use it! Sew deliberately when you're doing intricate piecing. You've got more control and are less apt to make mistakes...or make them for very long.

Switch to a 'single stitch' throat plate—it's the one with a small round hole (you may have to buy it separately.)

NOTE: If you move or adjust the needle position to create the perfect quarter inch seam allowance, you cannot use this throat plate. The needle will hit it and break. Not good!

If you can use it, I think it makes a better stitch. There's less chance of fabric to get pushed down into the hole. The bobbin thread has to feed up 'straighter' through your machine to make a stitch.

Reduce bulk everywhere you can...

Use a finer thread. It takes up less room in the seam allowance, making your piecing more accurate. I have used Aurifil 50 wt cotton for years, but find myself reaching more and more for Superior Thread's 60wt polyester, Bottom Line. There's less lint, too.

I can hear quilters gasp that I'm using polyester in my seams, but my rationale is twofold:

  • It's my quilt and I can do anything I want.--Remember as you plan your own quilts that there are no Quilt Police and that YOUR brain is perfectly capable of choosing the supplies you use to create your quilts. No apologies are ever needed.

  • I do a lot of quilting on my quilts, always ditch quilt to stabilize the sandwich and then add lots of free motion quilting, you know, the fun stuff! No single stitch or line of stitching is bearing a tremendous amount of stress so it's less likely that the stitches will pull on the quilt.

Press seam allowances open. Every single time?

No, that's not necessary, but there's plenty of places in a block where seam allowances pressed to one side cause a 'build-up' of bulk. You'll know these places when you see them, so try pressing them open. It is easier for me to 'finger press' seams open first and then with the iron.

I am a 'pinner' and find that matching seam lines is easier when the seam allowances are open.

Pins give
you control...

Pin, especially seams that matter.

Your sewing machine has feed dogs on just the bottom side of the fabric when you piece. The presser foot actually pushes the fabric just the teeniest bit towards you as you stitch along. When shooting for perfect points, even the smallest discrepancies can make a big difference over several pieces.

I use very fine pins by IBC or 'patchwork fine' by Clover. Because they're so fine, you'll use them up by bending them. You'll need to get a new box from time to time. You'll either find them at your local quilt store or be able to order them there.

Pin perpendicularly through the match point and then add a pin on either side. I'll do a bunch of pinning at one time, on a big project, emptying my pin box into the pieces and then sit and sew for awhile. I leave that 'matching' pin in until that piece is under the needle and remove it just before stitching through the match point.

I'll rip three times and if it doesn't get better, then I leave the seam in. Any more than that and I think you start to distort that fabric patch with all the ripping.

Starching your fabric

Starching your quilt fabric helps it feed purposefully through your sewing machine, almost like putting paper through. (Click here for information about how to starch quilt fabric.)

Starched fabric is easier to finger press seam allowances open on. It also helps control bias edges.

The down side to starch is that you've got to wash it out at the end, which means you'll want to, at a minimum, check for bleeding fabric before you cut your quilt fabric for your project. Finding a 'bleeder' after your quilt is finished is heartbreaking!

Pressing matters...

Once you sew a seam, press it, without opening up the patches.

This is called 'setting the seam', an old dressmakers tip. It helps the stitches 'meld' with the fabric. Then press your seam allowance, open or closed, based on whichever you feel produces a better result.

Another trick from tailoring is to lay something like a ruler on top of a freshly pressed unit until it cools.

OK, I know that sounds pretty lame, right?

Well, it works.

I saw this trick in a Sally Collins lecture (she's the 'Diva of Diminutive Quilting') and it really does do the job. The cooled pieces are much flatter and tend to stay that way. We've all got extra rulers lying around, and really, just the weight of a ruler on top of the piece is enough.

If you're wondering, I do use steam when I quilt, even when I paper piece, because I like the results better. Others use a dry iron and are happy. That decision is up to you.

Elaine, I hope these suggestions help you in your quest for pointy points.

Readers, do you have suggestions or tricks to add for better piecing? We'd love to hear from you. Just use the 'Comments' link below. Thank you.


Julie Baird

Comments for Accurate piecing without paper piecing

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Making better points.
by: Anonymous

Try using a glue stick to properly make good points on two connecting fabrics.

Thank you
by: Elaine

Your comments about accurate piecing without paper piecing was very helpful - way more than I expected.

Now another question. My quilt is a Storm-at-Sea block with a monochromatic theme. I have been over 3 years gathering over 100 fabrics. Each block is small - 3"x3", 6"x6" and then the diamond strip is 3"x6". I tried one set using paper-piecing which, of course, turned out beautifully but I would need over 100 paper forms.

Am I missing something with paper piecing. How does one make that many forms?

Thank you so very much, Elaine

From Julie: Elaine, Since this topic changes just a bit, I've answered your follow up question at Paper Piecing a Storm at Sea Quilt. Just click on the underlined words and it'll take you to the page.


PS I'm happy to help. Thank you for the compliment!

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