You've got your needles and thread and scissors and fabric all ready to make a beautiful quilt. But does the paper you use for your templates matter? I think so! I used everything from cereal boxes to copy paper before I started manufacturing my own English paper pieces. Read on to find out what I think is important when looking for paper pieces for English paper piecing (EPP), whether you're buying pre-cuts, or cutting your own.
A Brief History of English Paper Piecing
When I think of the history of quilting, my mind often first turns to Mary and Laura learning to quilt in the Little House series (one of my favourite series to read with my family!). They would have used thick paper stencils or wooden blocks to mark the fabric, which was then sewn along the seam lines by hand. These quilts were mostly made of square-based blocks, and when sewing machines were invented in the 1850s, many women simply transferred their quilt making to machine.
In Britain, however, patchwork seems to have served a different purpose. Instead of a craft for the common folk who were coming up with creative ways to upcycle their worn clothes, patchwork was a pastime for the upper classes (think Emma with her painting and embroidery). Patchwork was used for decoration, as tablecloths, wall hangings, and of course, bed coverings. These decorative works of art were made with English Paper Piecing, and in many cases, the papers were left in! We know a lot about some of these amazing pieces, because the makers used old newspapers, helping us to date the work, and learn where it was made.
Newspapers from the 1800s were not the paper we know today (if you're old enough to know a newspaper! ;P). Old paper was made from recycled cloth, linen, and hemp. It was very strong and durable. Paper started to be made from wood pulp in the 1900s when the demand for paper outstripped the supply of second hand cloth.
How I Chose My English Paper Pieces
This sweet quilt above was my first full EPP quilt, made for that sweet baby girl! I bought myself a 1" hexagon hole punch and cut cereal boxes into hexagons, which I then thread basted with this lovely, soft voile. The result was a very slow and painful quilt making experience. Cereal boxes are SO THICK (around 450gsm), and the whole point of EPP is that templates keep the fabric and seams in place so you can sew around corners without juggling Y-seams. But every time I went around a corner (which is a lot in a hexie quilt!), I had such a hard time folding the cardboard exactly where I wanted it. It pulled on my threads and fabric and was so difficult to wrangle as it got bigger.
I had this exact experience in mind when I started to try different papers for my own manufacturing. Here is the list of concerns I had in mind while researching paper.
I wanted my papers to be thicker than copy paper but thinner than cardboard. I settled on paper that's around 100gsm. Copy paper is 80, and regular card stock is around 230. At first I was a little concerned that it was too thin, but I made a couple of whole quilts from this weight before settling on it as my paper of choice and I was sold. It bent easily, it didn't create extra strain on my stitches or fabric, and it kept the quilt lighter as the quilt top grew. In the last 8 years, I've never been tempted to change my papers, and in that time I've made over 100 EPP quilts.
What I bring to market is essentially a disposable product. You can reuse it a couple of times, but eventually you'll throw the used papers out. So it was important to me that my papers carried some of the tradition of early English Paper Piecers. I wanted the paper to have had a past life. Many paper products that say 100% recycled are actually just made leftover wood pulp from timber mills. And while that's a great use of timber waste, sometimes those timber mills are cutting their timber from old forests, and there's no way of knowing from the packaging. If I was going to bring a new paper product to the world, and hope that as many people as possible bought it, I didn't want to have an ounce of unease about growing my business on the back of unsustainable manufacturing processes. So I chose paper that is 100% office waste.
One of the unfortunate things early wood pulp paper makers discovered was that their paper wasn't very durable. It was acidic, and the acidity caused what was called a ‘slow fire’. The paper would eventually turn to ash! These days we have a lot of acid free paper options, which is especially important when choosing papers for EPP templates. Acid not only degrades paper, but fabric too! In a quilt that might be a work in progress for several years, it was essential to choose a paper that would keep its shape over the long term, and not affect the fabric quality.
I love my paper manufacturer. They are a small, Sydney business, making paper from office waste, with a deep concern for the environment. From their factory, to my friends, Cut Once Templates, who laser-cut, package, and ship your order, I know every part of my papers' manufacturing. The work put into making them is just as much a benefit to the workers, as it is to you.
Choosing English Paper Pieces
I love my papers, and I love having them turn up pre-cut for me to dive right into basting! But there are situations where you may decide to, or prefer to, make your own. Perhaps customs is a killer, or you want to make a quilt with shapes I don't sell. Whatever your reasons, I'd love to help you enjoy your EPP with the papers you choose. Here's some things to keep in mind.
- Cardboard is NOT king. When I got into EPP, everyone recommended cardboard. But it's torture for your hands! Go with something much softer. Your fabric will still fold over the fabric and keep in shape, but you won't need to fight with the cardboard to bend it as you sew.
- The little bit of grit that you get with recycled paper helps the glue stick better so you don't need to use as much.
- If you're using old, unloved books, keep in mind that some pulp fiction isn't printed on acid free paper.
- If you're buying paper by the ream, look for paper that's around 100gsm, used for fancy invitations and certificates.
- Think about how your hobby impacts your world long term. Try to choose paper made from sustainable forestation practices.
"I can't use any other papers now that I've used yours! You've ruined me!" - Michelle, NSW
A lot has changed since the old days of patchwork. We have sewing machines and plastic templates and laser cutters! And with new technology comes new options to set up our craft in a way that suits our preferences and our values. What works best for YOU? My goal here will always be to help you find joy in your making by discovering what suits you. I hope the information here is helpful!
Would you like to try my English paper pieces for yourself?
Try one of the kits below!