I am no natural when it comes to being organized. I am a dyed-in-the-wool all day in my pjs, leave the dishes till the morning, follow my whims and regret it later, kind of chaos monster. But! sometimes we are the best kind of chaos monsters to take organization advice from.
Naturally organized people will say things like, “all you need to do is get up half an hour earlier and put a load of washing on before your morning walk,” as if a daily load of washing and morning walks are givens and easy. It's really the same as saying "work harder." Which sometimes, perhaps, is something worthwhile saying, but I would never say anything like that here. We are not here for work, we are here for joy!
All of my advice comes from living with my chaos until a moment of inspiration strikes, and I realize this new way will make it easier to make progress and enjoy my quilt-making even more. Keep reading to learn my best tips to organize for English Paper Piecing (EPP)!
Understand Your Time
Even though EPP is super portable and interruptible, one of the most important things I’ve realized about my EPP process is that different parts of the process require different amounts of thought, light, and space.
Ever come to a complete stand-still with your quilt and can't understand why? Maybe it's because the next section requires choosing colours, and you've only got evenings to work on it. Or perhaps you've just got little moments through the day, and you need to give it a big chuck of time to get it to the next easy stage.
I’ve found it helpful to put some thought into what each part of the EPP quilt-making process requires, and how that might correspond with my life, so that I can keep enjoying progress when I want to. Here’s some helpful categories to consider.
Interruptible vs Quiet Time
I find it very difficult to make decisions on my quilts in company. I can stitch, baste, cut, in amongst all the noise of life, but if I'm putting colours together, I'm not really available for anything else. If I make sure I carve out some uninterrupted time for planning, making decisions, prepping, then I can happily make progress all through the week.
Time of Day - Light vs Dark
I don’t like making colour decisions at night. My lighting isn’t good enough, and I second guess myself. If I don’t have time during the day to prep my next batch of blocks for stitching, I will at least make little piles of colour combinations that I can cut and baste in the evening. But even then, I like to spread out, rather than sit on my stitching couch, so that takes me to the next category…
Spread out vs Contained
You can take a zip lock bag, a needle, and thread almost anywhere! So, I always make sure I have a bag of basted shapes when I take the kids to swimming, or even when I do the dance pick-up. In the evenings, I like to sit in my favourite chair, next to my small coffee table, and stitch prepared blocks while I watch TV or chat to Tim.
Often, when I’m choosing or cutting fabric though, I like to take over the whole dining table. It’s the only space where I can fit my cutting mat, and spread out my colour combinations. Once I’ve cut a block, I put it in a pile to keep the colours and prints in mind, while I move onto the next one. Once I’ve made a batch of blocks, I put them in little zip lock bags. I’ve found Saturday or Sunday afternoons perfect for this! I spend a few hours giving a quilt my attention, and I usually prepare more than enough to keep me stitching through the week.
Sort Your Scraps and Stash
Scraps are either a quilter’s best friend, or a scary sea monster, waiting to swallow you whole. A few years ago, my scraps were definitely the latter! I kept every tiny piece, had tubs for every colour, and a huge bin to catch scraps as I made them, with the intention of sorting them later. I rarely did.
Then I decided to give my scraps my proper attention, keeping only what I would use, and organizing them in a way that suited my personality, rather than what I’d seen on Pinterest or Instagram.
I merged all substrates together (linens, lawns, and quilting cottons), sorted by colour, and put them in small baskets. The more baskets you use, the more you can split your colours, and the more usefull they'll be.
I threw out anything I can't fit around a 1 ½" diamond or a 1" hexagon. I very rarely use anything smaller.
- I got rid of anything I didn’t like. I know that part of the joy of scraps is that the ugly bits hide, and can still be used. But, I would still mostly turn to my favourites. Then my scrap tubs would be left full of fabrics that didn’t inspire me, and I wouldn’t use them. Now my tubs mostly just hold the last little bits of favourite or useful prints that are too small to be folded in the fat quarter (FQ) drawers.
I keep the rest of my stash in a chest of drawers that I got from Ikea. I have 3 drawers for fabric cuts between a fat 8th and half a yard, and 2 drawers for yardage - fabric I've bought on sale to use for backing. I don't sort according to designer or collection, but only by colour. I used to have a much bigger stash, and piles of collections around the place, but since shrinking my stash to only what I use, merging it into one, and going through it often to cut into and to move smaller pieces into my scrap baskets, I use it all the time. My stash has become an inspiring, familiar painters palette that supports my making, rather than an overwhelming monster.
Organize Your EPP Work in Progress (WIP)
I look at this photo above, and I still can’t believe these organized Cherish blocks were mine! I am not that person! But, because I am the person who likes to keep my hands busy, and not really need to think about what I’m making all the time, I’ve learned that putting thought into it beforehand really pays off.
Project Bags/Zip Lock Bags
Zip lock bags or see-thru project bags are perfect for basted shapes for blocks. They allow you to prepare blocks in batches and work through them at your own pace. They’re easy to see and choose depending on how much time you have or what you’re in the mood for. I love that I can grab one on the way out the door, or pick a few to join me on the couch in the evening. If I’m interrupted, they go back in the bag safely for next time.
Prepare your EPP in Batches
I always make block quilts in batches these days. By block quilts, I mean quilts like Sunshiny Day or Cherish that have multiple rounds of colour. If I’m making a simple shape quilt, like a hexie or diamond quilt, I just baste as many shapes as I need, and then keep them all in a tub to sew together at random.
Here are two ways you can batch make your blocks.
1. Plan a whole block at once
This is how I’ve organized Cherish in the photo above. I planned the whole block at once, and planned several blocks in one sitting. I actually cut and basted my entire Cherish Quilt before sewing it together. I did this because I wanted to make sure I used every print in the collection, and had an even spread. When I prepare and then stitch one block at a time, I generally keep reaching for the same favourite prints.
2. Plan several blocks one round at a time
The second way works well for me for blocks like Sunshiny Day that have tiny pieces, or like Mandolin with several rounds. Instead of choosing the prints for one block at a time, I choose the centre piece for several blocks, baste that, and then choose the next round.
The reason I’ve started doing it this way is that sometimes, especially with tiny pieces, the block looks much different once sewn together, than it did in four pieces of fabric. If I make a block gradually by stitching it one round at a time before choosing the next fabric/colour, I can choose something that settles it if the previous round was busier than expected. Or, if a particular round stands out, I can assess if I need to adjust the contrast. If I do this to 8 or 9 blocks at a time, I can also be on the lookout for a good spread of colours and prints.
Finally, I put the unfinished block, and the next round in a zip lock bag, and then sew that section of the blocks during the week.
Organize Your EPP to Increase Your Joy
These are ways that I've discovered over the years to decrease friction in the making process and increase joy. My goal is not to be quicker or make more. It's not a race or competition! My goal is to relax into my sofa in the evening after the kids go to bed, and know exactly what I can work on next (it's kind of like having a favourite show or book that you're in the middle of, as opposed to getting to the end and needing to find something new to get into!), or to have something easy to throw into my handbag so that if I find myself stuck waiting somewhere, it's not such a drag.
English Paper Piecing is so easy to bring into your life and have it fill tiny moments with colour, but if you find yourself stuck, hopefully these organization tips help you get back in the flow.
Want more EPP tips? Head to my EPP for Beginners page to learn more!