English Paper Piecing (EPP) is one of the oldest piecing techniques and simply means using paper as temporary backing in order to get precise seams. You can create any number of shapes with this technique, but there's a reason that the humble hexagon is so popular - hexagons fit together in a number of pleasing combinations and the corners make for easy basting. The small size of the hexagons can put a surprisingly rapid dent in your scrap pile.
If, like me, you've been attracted to the look of hexies, but fear the hand sewing, I want to reassure you that it's an easy and fun technique to learn. I've put together a simple tutorial that, I promise, will have you knocking out hexie flowers in no time. Because the pieces are so small and you can make up a portable kit with very few materials, you'll find yourself stitching on the couch, on transit, watching a movie, at the park. . . . But do pack a couple of extra needles in your kit because quiet, enjoyable public sewing tends to attract bystanders who will long to try it for themselves.
Ready to give it a try?
Welcome to the tutorial! To make a hexagon (or, as it's more affectionately known, a "hexie") flower, you will need:
- card stock weight paper
- a pencil
- paper scissors and fabric scissors
- scrap fabric
- needle (I've been using a quilting sharp)
- thread (hand-quilting cotton because it tends not to shred)
Step One: Get Yourself Some Paper Hexagons
Traditionally, these would have been drawn by hand and then hand-traced onto paper. But you have other options. You can search for a hexie template online (there are many free printables in a variety of sizes) and print off sheets to cut out. You can make a hexagon shape in a word processor and print that out. You can trace them using a template you've made. . . lots of options!
Here's a tip though: if you're printing these, cut out a few and stack them to test that they line up no matter what their orientation. Each hexagon should be the same no matter which way it's turned and sometimes a printer freebie might not be true. No big deal! Just test it before you print four pages on card stock.
Ask me how I know this. . . .
Remember that you will need two sizes of paper hexagons -- the size that you want the finished, sewn piece to be (cut out lots of these - several dozen is not a crazy amount) and a larger hexagon with about a quarter inch seam allowance added all the way around. (You won't need many of these -- technically just the one, really, but I have a few in case anyone stops by my table and wants to cut out scraps. Wishful thinking!)
Technically, you can cut your paper templates out of any kind of paper, but card stock is sturdy and can be reused lots of times.
Step Two: Cut Out Some Fabric
Trace around the big hexagon and cut that sucker out! I try to keep as much on the straight grain as possible, but as I'm dealing with scraps, I've turned the hex a little to maximize fabric use with no ill effects so far.
Commercial, plastic templates are transparent and that means, of course, that you can do some fussy cutting, but you know what else works?
Even the frugal can get a perfectly placed doggie.
Cut out fabric hexagons until you're good and bored.
Step Three: Baste Those Hexies!
Thread a needle and tie a knot in the end of the thread, and then. . .
Fold the fabric over the first edge of the paper template and then the second edge to make a neat little corner.
Without piercing the template, take a stitch through the corner and then take another stitch to secure it.
Make your way around the hexagon, folding over the fabric and taking two stitches at each corner to secure. You want to pull the thread tight enough to keep the hexagon shape formed, but not so tight that you "gather" the hexagon. This might take a little practice, but you'll get the hang of it. Go right around until you reach the last unfinished corner.
Use your fingernail or the needle to tuck the last little bit of fabric under so that your corners all go the same way. Make the two stitches that you normally make, but on the very last one, run the needle through the "loop" so that it forms a knot. Trim off your thread.
You basted one! Now baste lots!
Step Four: Join Your Hexagons into a "Flower"
When you have seven hexies basted, you can make a flower shape. I'll show you how I join the yellow dotted hexagon to its mates.
First, with your thread tucked into the seam of the green hex, line up the corners at the outside edge of the flower. Stitch right through both corners without piercing the template. There should be just enough fabric so that you can whip stitch the edge without catching the paper.
You can see here how I hold the pieces together, even bending the paper a bit, to get a nice, match-y edge.
Keep whip stitching until you get to the bottom edge.
Don't worry if you have a little gap at that bottom edge! It happens all the time and it's not a big deal.
Eliminate that little gap by taking a couple of stitches to pull together the three corners. Hand sewing lends itself to this kind of precise manipulation.
Whip stitch the yellow/blue seam the same way you did the yellow/green seam. The stiff paper makes this a little trickier, but feel free to bend the paper a bit. I generally find myself "pinching" the two templates together to get them where I want them.
When you reach the end of your seam, run the needle up through the yellow seam allowance to that you can start to attach the next hexie at the top corner.
Repeat until you have a complete flower.
Pop out the paper templates (I generally get them out by getting my fingernail under the inside edge and bending until I can grab them) and give your flower a press with a hot iron.
Because this method doesn't pierce the templates, you can reuse them many times and you can leave the basting stitches in place forever.
UPDATED TO ADD: All of the pinching and bending and whatnot will make your paper template look a bit worse for wear, so when you're ironing your fabric, give the templates a good press too. They'll be magically flat again!
Even my inexpert hand stitching looks fine.
You can use matching thread or experiment with ladder-stitching the seams to eliminate visible stitches on the right side. But I find I really like this visual reminder that these pieces are hand sewn.