By Erica Spinks
Jazz Hands by Sarah Fielke, photography by John Doughty for Material Obsession Two.
Are you inspired when you see complex pieced quilt blocks but then feel disappointed because you think they are too difficult to sew? Well, that’s not true! Hand piecing is a skill that makes those tricky blocks simple to stitch – and can also help you on your way to creative bliss.
Why choose hand piecing?
Hand piecing is an easy technique to learn – after all, it’s just a straightforward running stitch with few backstitches thrown in. All you need are fabric pieces, a pencil and ruler for marking, a sewing needle, thread, scissors and, if you desire, a thimble. Can’t get much more basic than that!
It’s also easily portable. Once you’ve cut out the pieces for your blocks, keep them together in a small resealable plastic bag, perfect for transporting. You can sew with your friends, at quilt group meetings, in the car, or even while watching your kids play sport. Socialising while sewing certainly helps your fingers fly.
Hand piecing lets you stay close to your project. Many sewers love the feel of fabric in their hands. It’s the tactile nature of stitching a quilt that has attracted generations of quiltmakers. You can control the stitches that you make and the fact that you don’t sew to the end of the pieces means you can press the seams in any direction.
You’ll also find that the act of stitching creates a rhythm that becomes quite meditative. While your hands are busy creating simple stitches, your mind is free to roam. It is a relaxing action that invites reflection.
Although pieces for many blocks can be rotary-cut with rulers, some of the more challenging blocks are usually cut with the aid of templates. You can either trace the templates from pattern sheets onto template plastic or purchase sets of thick acrylic templates like these, from Victorian Textiles.
Curved star templates
These particular templates allow you to mark small dots on the fabric to assist with lining up the pieces. The ¼-inch seam allowance is also clearly marked and can be transferred to your fabric with a pencil. Cut the fabric pieces with a small rotary cutter, or trace around the templates and cut the fabric with scissors. The see-through acrylic allows you to fussy-cut pieces to create beautiful secondary patterns in your blocks.
These templates make a Curved Star Hexagon block like this:
You will need hand-sewing needles. The type of needle is a personal choice, depending on how you like the way a needle feels in your hand. You could use sharps, straw needles or applique needles. Use cotton thread in a neutral colour – light grey or beige are good colours for light to medium fabrics or choose darker shades for darker fabrics.
Remember that you do not sew to the end of the fabric when hand piecing – you only sew to the dots. Line up the two pieces you want to join and pin the pieces by matching the dots at the end of the sewing line. To start, you may like to pin along the sewing line at closer intervals. After a little experience, you will find that this won’t be necessary.
I always tie a knot at the end of my thread and start the seam with a small backstitch as well. Start sewing with running stitches and stitch a backstitch every four or five stitches. I find this adds strength to the seam. Finish stitching at the marked dot with a backstitch. Finger-press each seam as it is completed and only press the block with an iron once you finish all the piecing.
There are some useful tips for hand piecing at Jinny Beyer’s website, including how to set in pieces and how to sew curves.
Tricky blocks made simple
Even though piecing straightforward blocks such as Four Patches by hand is enjoyable, you will appreciate the technique most when sewing complex blocks. Here are some blocks that, although stunning, are often thought daunting to construct.
All these blocks can be hand pieced with wonderful results.
Ready to hand piece?
Start with a simple block so that you can establish your stitching rhythm and gain confidence. Once you complete that, try a more challenging block to understand the construction techniques. Soon after, you’ll be a convert to the blissful art of hand piecing forever.
In her book, Quiltmaking by Hand, Jinny Beyer covers everything you need to know about hand piecing. Try your local library for a copy.