Meet my latest little quilt, which I finished making last weekend. I've called the quilt 'Grandma's Suffolk Garden' because I've used a traditional Grandmother's Flower Garden patchwork pattern, and the fabrics are the Suffolk Garden collection designed by Brie Harrison for Dashwood Studio:
Many people love the idea of making an English Paper Pieced (EPP) hexagon quilt, but not many seem to do it. I think there are several possible reasons for this: that they're just not sure how to do it – will it be complicated; are there things they need to know that they don't know about; will it take forever? All these unknowns can add up to a whole lot of doubt, that can soon have you thinking that it just isn't worth the massive investment of time needed, when you don't even know if you can complete it.
Well, I'm happy to tell you that you absolutely can do it, if you want to. It isn't difficult – you might need to learn one or two new techniques and there are a few tips you need to know to make things go smoothly. I'm not gonna lie about the time you need to invest – it is quite a bit, but if you make a crib or lap sized quilt, it is totally manageable!
I thought I'd share the story of how I went about making my latest little quilt (it's 36 by 27 inches / 91 by 68cm), in the hope that it may also give someone reading this the confidence to jump in and make a hexie quilt of their own. Failing that, it will hopefully entertain you for 5 minutes at least 🙂
Most of the quilts I make begin with the fabric. I'd been admiring this particular collection for some months and knew that I wanted to make something with it:
When I got the urge to make a quilt in early April, this gave me a great opportunity to use the collection, and there really did seem only one possible pattern to use. I quite often use the EPP technique for all kinds of makes and I've made several quilts with it over the years, with varying degrees of success! I've only made one other Grandmother's Flower Garden hexie quilt and I used a pattern published in a 1980s Laura Ashley decorating book:
You can really use any size of hexagon to make up the quilt, but to get a nice crib or lap sized quilt, I used a one and a half inch hexie (the measurement refers to any one side of the shape). I use the traditional template method, which involves cutting out the fabric using the outside of the template and the paper backing from the inside of the template. The paper backing is therefore actually one and a quarter inches and since you stitch the fabric onto and around the paper, this is the measurement of your final hexagons. You can make your own templates using card, but I'd strongly recommend buying plastic or wood templates of good quality, so that you can be sure that every hexagon you make is exactly the same size. This is a key step to avoid a melt down later, because if any of your shapes are only very sligthtly out of size or shape, you will not have fun trying to piece them together. The template I used is made by Clover, which comes in a pack of geometric shapes and is readily available:
This quilt calls for around 250 hexies, so using this method, you're going to need to cut 250 hexies from fabric and another 250 from paper. Amazingly, it doesn't take that long and is a great job when you don't want anything too taxing to do – just put on an audio book or some music and get on with it. Alternatively, there are plenty of places online that you can buy the papers from, and even ready cut fabrics – Liberty fabric hexies are widely available, for example (I can highly recommend Ali at Very Berry for both). This definitely isn't the most cost effective route to take, but if that's not a major concern for you – go for it! Better still, if money isn't an issue, buy yourself one of those swanky die cut machines and make your own paper and fabric hexies:
I opted for marking and cutting my papers while watching (read listening to, and occasionally glancing at) TV and my fabrics at the desk in my studio, listening to an audio book. Don't entirely switch off your brain – make sure that you're paying attention to your fabrics and placing the stencil down in the right way to work with any pattern direction on the fabric – you don't want sideways or upside down flowers on your quilt top (unless you're purposely using the pattern that way – in which case, watch out for bias misshaping). I made them all over one or two sessions and it really didn't feel like it took long at all. Next, I hand basted or tacked my fabric hexies to the paper backings and then gave them a press with the iron before packing them into neat little boxes in a completely OCD manner so that everything was super neat (note to self: get out more):
I'm not going to go into detail about how to complete these stages – there are loads of tutorials on the web. The method I like to use is securing two opposite edges of the hexie shape with paperclips and then stitching the fabric to the paper. Some people don't worry about the shape of the fabric – they just baste scraps that are large enough to cover the paper and don't worry about messiness on the back side. Some people don't even stitch the fabric to the paper so that they can reuse the papers (see Lori Holt's excellent series of tutorials on making up hexies) and some refuse to hand stitch at all and use basting glue. I don't understand the mindset of the basting glue – if you don't like hand stitching, why are you making anything that's English Paper Pieced?! Do have a good look around at the different approaches online and then try a few out before settling on what works best for you.
Once all the hexies were made up (another task undertaken on the couch, in front of the TV), I got onto piecing them together. I started with all the rosettes or flowers that made up the quilt and pieced them together in a particular order, as recommended in my trusty Laura Ashley book:
I find that this piecing order works really well for me. I only stitch one edge of the hexies together first until I have hexies 2 through 7 stitched to the centre hexie, and then I join all the side seams so that I have my first flower. I then repeat this same process with the outer 'petals' until the whole rosette is done, keeping in mind all the time the pattern of the fabric and making sure that each hexie is right side up as you join it in. What I tend to do is write on the paper back of each hexie which fabric pattern letter it is and also draw a little arrow so I can see at a glance which the right way up is:
There are a lot of different opinions about how best to join hexies together and I'd say from what I've read that whip stitch is by far the favourite approach. I used to use whip stitch myself but changed to using ladder stitch a year or so ago (thank you Natalie at Sewing Room Secrets!) and absolutely love it. Once you've mastered the stitch, you'll find that it is twice as quick, lays beautifully flat and is almost completely invisible on the front side of your quilt – what's not to love about that!
As I complete each rosette, I make a note on the paper backing about which one it is, which saves time when you come to joining them together. Before you know it, you'll have all the rosettes made and all the little top and bottom edge pieces. You can see how it comes together in my very first ever swanky slideshow thing:
Next comes the part I can't say I'm overly fond of – adding the path around the rosettes and joining them all up. As recommended by my Laura Ashley book, I started with the centre panel, bringing all three rosettes together, then the top panel and the bottom. Once your main sections are together, you can add the top and bottom edges – enter 2nd swanky slide show thing:
The reason I don't enjoy this is that it is quite unwieldy, especially when you add in the last section and the quilt is getting larger. Because you leave in your papers until all of the quilt top is together, the unwieldy quilt is also as stiff as a board and awkward to keep moving about so that you've got the right angle for stitching. You can take the papers out as you go, but I've found that leaving them in gives a better final finish – no pain, no gain.
Once those side edge hexies are joined on, you can whip out those papers and do a very happy dance before taking your quilt top to the ironing board and giving it a good press on both sides so that it is super smooth and neat and tidy:
Now it's time to bring the quilt sandwich together and start quilting. I saved my very favourite print from the collection for the backing and binding of the quilt, which was also quite a practical decision, since it is quite a large print that you wouldn't see the best of, if used in hexies. I adore the little birds in this print, especially because, like real little birds in the garden, you don't immediately see them hidden amongst the flowers:
My preference for making up the quilt sandwich is to first pin the layers together and then hand baste a four inch grid across the quilt top. I find that this gives a lovely smooth surface to quilt on and there are no pins to get in the way. I do sometimes use quilters safety pins on smaller projects, but anything over a 10 inch square will be hand basted. I have considered trying out basting spray to see if that gives a smoother finish, but I really don't like the idea of introducing any chemicals to a quilt, plus it feels like it would be going against my traditional / heirloom making approach. You can just about see my big basting stitches here on the unquilted right side, although the colour is quite light and difficult to see against the print:
I took to my big studio desk and put on an audio book to do the hand quilting over several sessions (Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant – not my usual kind of book, but very enjoyable). I really do enjoy hand quilting and am often surprised at just how quickly this stage is completed as I kind of get lost in it, once I've decided on an approach. Possible approaches are a little bit limited when it comes to hexies. For this quilt, I decided to quilt the rosettes first, starting with the centre one, then the top bottom, and finally the side ones. I quilted the whole inner shape of the central hexie and then took a path around each of the two radiating layers of petals, keeping to a little over a quarter inch from the seam line throughout:
The middle side rosettes were a little different as they don't have one hexie centre, so I fully quilted the two centre hexies and then took the usual path around the petals on the outer rounds:
The yellow fern pathways were next and I opted to follow the seams again but, this time, on both sides. It may be a bit fanciful, but I think this quilting approach really brought the flowers to life, the shape of the lines it makes creates a kind of reverberating shiver to the rosettes:
Next, I quilted around all of the edge sections to create a kind of frame to the quilting and then pressed the quilt before squaring it up and trimming so that I could add the binding. This is one part of the process where I always bring out the sewing machine to stitch the binding onto the front of the quilt. I have done this by hand before, but the machine gives a much better finish and helps the binding lay super smooth. It also makes the quilt a little more robust where it matters, since the binding is going to be securing all the raw edges from everyday wear and tear. I never machine stitch the back of the binding though, I always do this by hand using an invisible whip stitch:
Finally, I wanted to add a label to the quilt – something that I've only recently started to do. Previously, the labels I've made have been homey hand embroidered ones, but I'm keen to develop a more signature type of label for my quilts, so I decided to design something cohesive that I could adapt to each quilt and that I could print directly onto fabric using freezer paper (check out this tutorial although there are loads more on the web). I'd never tried this before but it works brilliantly! The secret is to use a nice fine fabric (I used white tana lawn) and to empty your paper tray before you put your freezer paper / fabric sandwich in there if you don't want to create a paper jam (ahem…):
The great thing about this approach is that I can still personalise each label to each quilt. For this quilt, that meant cutting the label in a hexie shape. Because the lawn is so light, I also added a fusible hexie shaped lining to the back before pressing back the seams and stitching it to the back of the quilt using the same invisible whip stitch that I used on the binding. I love how it looks – it really does feel like it adds a finishing polish.
Making this new quilt has definitely given me the enthusiasm to get on and finish another of my quilts that has been languishing in a drawer for almost a year. One big drawbook of a lot of hand stitching that I've always struggled with is the damage to my hands – it makes your skin very dry and those super sharp quilting needles are savage on the soft pad of your middle left finger that sits underneath the quilt and acts as a cushion for the needle. While making this quilt, I was trying out a new hand care routine and found that it was so fabulous that all this hand stitching had virtually no negative effect on my hands – thank you so much Kirsty Jane Calvert for introducing me to the delights of Coconut Oil, which I apply to my hands every night before bed – it's a miracle!
I hope that sharing my story of making this little quilt will give someone the confidence to jump in and make themselves a quilt using English Paper Piecing techniques – even if it is a doll sized quilt! If you are inspired to make one yourself, or if you've got any questions about any part of the process, please do leave a comment below. Or, if you're not a stitcher yourself and would like to buy this quilt, you'll find it in my Etsy shop 🙂
As usual, all pictures by him indoors.