English Paper Piecing (EPP) has had a huge renaissance over the last 10 to 15 years. Try searching on Instagram for #englishpaperpieceing and you will see a wealth of different styles and paper shapes being used to create a myriad of different patchwork layouts.
English Paper Piecing today is not at all limited to making hexagon quilts. (In fact, many hexagon quilts are no longer assembled with EPP.) Books of various quality and skill levels have been published around the topic and lots of kits and alternative techniques for EPP have been proposed. Some of these techniques include fusing leave-in interfacing to the back of the fabric instead of using a removable paper template, and technically this is no longer English Paper Piecing.
If you are new to the EPP world, knowing which tools and supplies to buy can be a little confusing. Do you buy the hexagon leave-in interfacing? How about plastic foundations instead of paper? They seem practical, right? Does it matter which thread you use? What needles do you use for English Paper Piecing? Are they all the same? Do you need glue for basting?
I don’t want to claim that there is only one set of tools that will work for EPP and only one variation on the technique that can give good results. However, I do believe in keeping things simple and avoiding gimmicky tools and supplies. Below is my favorite list of tools for every English Paper Piecing project out there.
What are the must-have tools for English Paper Piecing?
This is the most basic tool for sewing and also the most necessary one. I find that the enjoyment that comes with any type of hand sewing is highly dependent on having good hand sewing needles. And hand sewing needles aren’t all the same. Having great sewing needles saves your hands from unnecessary muscle strain while sewing. This allows you to sew for a long time without wearing out your hands.
In my 20+ years of hand piecing, applique, and EPP, I have not found any needles that I like better than the Clover Black Gold applique needles. They are sharper than almost anything else out there and the micro-serrated shaft makes the needle glide easily through fabrics. I baste my EPP shapes by sewing through the paper foundations and these needles are the only ones that let me do this easily.
While teaching EPP and applique workshops, I have occasionally heard participants claim that these needles are too expensive. They usually run around $7 for a pack which is granted a little more than dollar store pricing. However, when it comes to needles, you get what you pay for and the Clover Black Gold Applique needles are simply a mile above everything else out there. I use size 10 most of the time, but size 9 is also a great option for EPP.
One thing to keep in mind about the Clover Black Gold needles is that the eye of the needle is TINY. Getting a cheap little steel wire needle threader may be a good investment.
Where to buy: https://amzn.to/3BYD1Ma
EPP can put a fair amount of stress on the sewing thread. I recommend that you choose a slightly thicker thread than the Aurifil 50wt that has been the gold standard for machine piecing over the last few years. My two favorite threads for EPP are Mettler Silk Finish 50wt cotton thread as well as Aurifil Mako 40wt Cotton thread. Both are excellent choices for hand sewing of all kinds.
For thread basting your fabric to your templates, you don’t need a fancy thread. This is after all thread you will be removed again. If you have old spools of thread sitting around and don’t know what to do with, basting your EPP may be a great use for them.
No matter which thread you end up choosing, make sure it is a strong 100% cotton thread. If your thread breaks regularly while doing EPP, chances are your thread is too thin or low quality. If you choose a thread that is too heavy (like the Guterman thread often used for garment sewing) your stitches may look bulky and will not hide as easily in your fabrics.
Lastly, pick a neutral thread color for your project.
Where to buy:
Thimbles seem to be a highly personal choice for people. Some people like the traditional steel cap on the finger, others like the thimbles the shape of a leather band. Personally, I only use the leather thimble pads from Colonial Needle. The “thimbles” are little suede stickers that you put on the point of your finger where the needle repeatedly hits. To a certain extent, they are reusable although the glue on the back will wear out over time. Essentially, these thimble pads end up being consumable but I find them to be a key ingredient in a pleasant EPP experience.
Where to buy: https://amzn.to/3tEugUI
4. Paper Foundations
Over the years, many types of EPP-style templates/foundations have come and gone. I once made the mistake of buying some made of plastic which was really awful to work with. In the end, the technique is called English Paper Piecing for a reason. Paper, or rather, lightweight cardstock is by far the best material. You can make your own templates for sure, but it is much more time-efficient to purchase them from a company that specializes in them.
If you do try to create and cut out your own templates, be aware that even tiny variations in the size of your paper pieces will make the templates much harder to piece together accurately.
There are several companies that sell a variety of EPP paper foundations. Here in the US, the biggest company is probably Paperpieces.com. They have a great selection of sizes, shapes, and even paper piecing kits for some amazing quilts.
5. Acrylic Template for Cutting Fabrics
This is an optional tool, but it can come in really handy, especially if you are in any way “fussy-cutting” your fabric. (meaning you are trying to make sure specific parts of the fabric design are included in the shape you are preparing).
Acrylic templates are also handy because they allow you to cut your fabric to the correct shape and size to baste onto the corresponding paper foundation. However, for paper piecing like making hexagons, you don’t necessarily need to cut your fabric to a hexagon shape beforehand. You can often get away with rotary-cutting square pieces of fabric to baste onto the paper foundations. In the end, whether you choose to purchase an acrylic template to go with your paper pieces will probably depend on personal preference and whether you are planning on fuzzy-cutting fabric for your project.
EPP is a relatively time-consuming technique and most likely an EPP quilt of any size will end up being a bit of an heirloom. I suggest that you be a little particular about the fabrics you include in a project like this.
Make sure your fabrics are all 100% high-quality quilting cotton unless you are making a silk quilt of course. EPP lends itself well to showing off high-quality “precious” fabrics and you can also easily work with thinner fabrics like voile or lawn weight fabrics.
I recommend that you steer clear of the cheap “quilting” fabrics that you often find in chain hobby stores. I used to include them in my quilts but after watching them 15 and 20 years into their life in a quilt that gets used regularly, I can tell you that they tend to fade much faster than their high-end peers. In some cases, the discount fabrics have literally disintegrated whereas the high-end quilt store fabrics in the same quilt are still bright and intact. Save the discount fabric for dog beds and utility quilts and use the best you can afford in your beautiful EPP heirlooms.
7. Basting Glue
This is an optional tool for most EPP. Some EPP enthusiasts prefer to glue their fabric onto the paper templates rather than baste it with needle and thread. Personally, I find gluing to be more time-consuming for most EPP projects. The only shapes I recommend glue for are curved shapes where getting the fabric to lay neatly can be a bit tricky. Examples are apple-core templates and clamshell templates.
If you want to try the glue method, I recommend that you use high-quality fabric basting glue. You definitely don’t want a permanent glue or one that is so strong that it becomes difficult to remove. You also want to make sure the glue is archival grade so that chemicals in the glue won’t erode your fabric as time passes. The best glue I have found for most fabric work is the SewLine glue pen. Be aware that glue basting uses quite a bit of glue and that the refills will become an expense that adds up in large projects.
Where to buy: https://amzn.to/3E6LIG8
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