33 tips to help with intricate Paper Piecing Quilts

33 tips to help with intricate Paper Piecing Quilts

Here you go.

You've got it. You have the idea for the quilt. You're super excited about the prospect of creating what could be one of your most beautiful works of art, and you're already imagining where you could display it 👍.

But now, as you're about to dive in, these questions are slowing down your project.

Am I capable?
How much time will it take me?
How much will it cost me?
How do I manage the organization, the space for this project?

I will answer all these questions throughout this article.

The most frustrating thing is to juxtapose the excitement you feel about undertaking a project of such technical and emotional magnitude with all these barriers that, I know, make you postpone the project for later, to give yourself time to gather all the reassuring and comforting resources 🙂.

I know.

When I started quilting (in 2023, not that long ago), I only had a few pouches and bags to my name. I felt relatively comfortable with a sewing machine, but even to this day, I don't know how to assemble convex and concave curves.
That didn't stop me from sewing my first complex quilt. I wanted to do it, so I did. I made lots of mistakes. I ripped out a lot of seams and started over. Some lines didn't match up. Sometimes, I completely messed up the color by using black where I was supposed to use white. But it didn't matter. For a first result, I was very proud of my achievement, and that was all that mattered 🙂.

Today, having made these mistakes, I am able to give you a detailed overview of the points you need to be vigilant about when embarking on an intricate quilt like a portrait. Because I think it can reassure you to know exactly what to expect on this type of project, which is more accessible than you might think.
It is not necessary to have 10 years of experience in quilting/patchwork or to have a sophisticated sewing machine like a long arm. I make mine on a small domestic Necchi q132a in my kitchen, I sew at my own pace, and I take my projects piece by piece, taking the time to enjoy every stitched point 👍.

Here is now an avalanche of tips that will help you throughout your project.

Evaluate your abilities and resources.

Before you dive in, take a few minutes to ask yourself these questions:

  • How much time can/want to spend on my project each day?

The complexity of the quilt can be adjusted according to your needs. Indeed, I will not propose the same level of complexity for someone who wants to spend 1 hour per day and achieve a finished result in 2 weeks, as for a quilter who can dedicate entire afternoons and has several months ahead of them.

Furthermore, I know that for some of you, physical conditions come into play. Some need to spend time with family or take care of loved ones with health issues. Others have difficulty quilting due to arthritis or mobility problems. These factors should be taken into account if you want to derive maximum enjoyment from your project. Which is the primary goal 👍.

It is entirely possible to achieve a result faithful to what you want to represent while reducing the number of details and therefore the time spent. Defining this upfront in the project will partly relieve you of the pressure felt facing such a task.

  • What is my budget for this project?

This is an inevitable question, and answering it before starting anything will benefit you in two ways: First, it will ensure you know the exact quantities of fabrics you can afford to buy and the budget you can allocate to your pattern. Secondly, it will emotionally commit you to completing your project.

Depending on the desired size of your final quilt, you can already estimate the quantity of fabrics needed. For example, at Fat Quarter Shop, for 0.5 yard of Kona Solids at $3.75. For a quilt of 20x20” with 10 different colors, count on a width of 45” and an average of 10x3.75 = $37.5. +15% for errors and seam allowances, so budget around $43.

Then, there is the price of the pattern. A complex quilt needs around 6 to 12 hours to be set up, from the drawing to the final export with corrections, adjustments, close ups, cutting and mounting steps tutorials, and color matching references. It depends on the plan you choose: the more details you need/wish, the more the time spent increases, and so the price. There is more details on this page.

  • Am I competent enough to embark on such a "big" project?

I know it scares you. There are many pieces. It seems like an endless project. Some pieces seem very small... even tiny. Will you be able to sew them? How will you manage the thicknesses? I will answer these questions a little later. But for now, just ask yourself if you are capable of sewing in a straight line. If the answer is yes, then in principle, nothing prevents you from making such a patchwork piece, because my patterns only consist of straight lines 🙂.

As explained above, I don't know how to sew convex/concave curves. So, I simply don't include them in my patterns for customers. The only difficulty you might encounter in a complex pattern is the size of the smaller pieces, and therefore, the fabric thicknesses that may result. This too can be managed 👌, and I will explain how later.

If this is your first time doing paper piecing and you want to concretely reassure yourself, you can download a free eye pattern just here. It is quite quick to make and will allow you to gauge your skills. And even if you are new to paper piecing, with the plethora of tutorials available on the internet, the one I offer for free in the pattern, I am not worried at all about your ability to complete it.

Furthermore, I remain available to assist you via email during your project. If you have any questions, you can contact me, and we'll figure it out together. My goal is for you to finish your quilt with a smile and a great sense of pride.

The 7 essential tools for quilting a portrait quilt.

You don't need to be over-equipped to get started. I began with a Necchi sewing machine for $260, a thread cutter, a seam ripper, my domestic iron, and my kitchen table.

Then, as I practiced, I realized that some very accessible small tools made all the difference in my quilting ease. Here's a short list.

1. Pattern wheel

Equipped with small teeth, it is invaluable for marking the folding lines of the pattern. Sometimes we can be imprecise at this stage, and the wheel, combined with a ruler, allows for precise marking and useful pre-cutting at the weeding stage (when removing the paper from the finished quilt). I can't do without it anymore, and it costs around $5.

2. Tweezers

For weeding, precisely. It will help those of you with the most fragile fingers, and it will help you remove the smallest pieces of paper in the corners.

3. Fabric hammer

I'll talk about it a little later, but it's very useful for flattening the inevitable thicknesses on a complex quilt in the smallest areas. It can allow you to reduce thicknesses by almost half in some places and significantly improve the overall aesthetics of your quilt 👍.

4. Thread cutter and seam ripper

For the seamstresses among you, this is obvious, but I mention it here for the most beginner quilters. Complex quilting requires detailed and precise work, and these tools are essential.

5. A budget sewing machine

Yes, I dare to say it 😂, but I know that some of you feel intimidated about starting such a project because you see your favorite (and very experienced) quilters working with big, expensive machines. And indeed, long-arm machines are necessary for very large quilts, but not for the quilts I propose, which fall more into the category of "mini quilts." The largest one I've sewed is 30x40”, and I had no difficulty making it with my little Necchi q132a.

6. A bottle of spray starch

Facilitates the positioning of the fabric pieces of your quilt and gives a really impeccable finish to your final result. You'll have well-pressed pieces from start to finish, and that's very satisfying.

7. A travel mini iron (without steam)

This also changed everything when I acquired one. Especially for the smaller pieces, it allows for more precise work. It's less powerful than the domestic iron in cotton mode, but it's more than enough to flatten the medium cotton patchwork seams. Don't forget to lock the steam function to avoid wetting the pattern paper.

7 tips for effectively managing your fabrics.

Before you start, I advise you to check if your usual fabric store offers solid cotton fabrics in many colors, including "skin tones." This is the most difficult to find because for the portrait, it is necessary to find shades close to skin tones to create volumes of shadows and lights.

But know that I systematically provide the exact fabric references on all my patterns in this regard. I usually find them at Robert Kaufman or Moda Fabrics because they have very beautiful, vibrant shades of high quality, and they are quite easy to find. I also provide direct links on these patterns so that you can directly access the store that sells them. I adapt to your shipping country to avoid exorbitant shipping costs 👍.

  1. When you receive your pattern, you not only get the fabric references but also the quantities needed to request from the cutting. Always plan to add an additional 10 to 15% to cover any potential errors.

  2. Before starting sewing, I recommend numbering your fabric pieces following the pattern numbers. I use small sticky notes that I pin to my different colors, so I don't need to think while I cut and sew. It removes mental burden and allows me to fully enjoy the pleasure of sewing.

  3. Once you start your project, I advise you to take it piece by piece before cutting everything to avoid losing pieces.

  4. Start preferably with a simple area to warm up, then move on to an eye. I recommend this approach because you quickly feel satisfied with making a recognizable part of the face right away, triggering additional motivation to continue.

    So cut out the piece of your first eye, as well as the corresponding fabric pieces, then set the rest aside for later. Stay focused on this eye and don't start another piece until you've finished it.

  5. For perfect pressing and ensuring that the fabric folds well at the seam, I use starch on each piece before sewing. It absolutely changes everything about the final result 👌.

  6. If you're working on a piece with very small areas (less than ½”), reduce your seam allowances from ¼ to ⅛.

  7. Even with reduced seam allowances, excess thicknesses can still occur when assembling pieces smaller than 1/2". When this happens, I use a plastic hammer to flatten the seams. Place a piece of fabric between your project and the hammer and position yourself on a hard surface. You can reduce thicknesses by half with this technique.

5 tricks for those with limited space at home.

Quilting requires space. Quilting creates a lot of mess. And you quickly find yourself overwhelmed by a mountain of scraps, threads, and paper, so much so that even a cow would lose its calves 😂.

I live in a small two-room apartment of about 50m2. And I quilt in a space no more than 12 m2. I manage. It requires a bit of organization, but at the end of my day, I've managed to quilt, save my project where I left off, and tidy up my living space to serve dinner to my son 🙂. It takes a bit of organization, but since I don't have time to completely tidy up, I've developed a few tricks that I'll share with you right here.

1. I number all my fabric pieces with a pinned sticky note. This way, there are no mistakes in shades when they're closed to each other.

2. I have a dedicated drawer for my ongoing project. At the end of the day, since I've numbered all the fabrics and only cut the pieces I needed, I just stack everything and store the entire block in this drawer. That way, I don't lose anything, and when I resume, I just take everything out again 👌.

3. I pin my ongoing project to the wall. I use a blank canvas where I pin my project up high. This saves space, and I can admire my magnificent work while having dinner 😂. It could also be a decorative corkboard.

4. I work in a "T" shape. I've arranged my space to minimize movement. I have my sewing machine in front of me, and on a small dedicated table, perpendicular to it, I have my ironing space. Next to this side table, I place a chair where my numbered fabrics are, and that's it. Everything is within reach, and I can work efficiently.

5. I work in zones. I know I'm repeating myself, but it's essential when working in a small space. I keep the pattern pieces I haven't cut in a transparent pouch and focus only on the current piece. I don't open my pouch until I've finished this piece, and it has two advantages: Firstly, it's reassuring because I don't look at the mountain of work my project represents, and I don't get discouraged. I simply progress step by step with the sole goal of producing a well-made small piece. Then when I'm satisfied, I move on to the next one. The second advantage is that I don't scatter and clutter my visual space, which is also a comfort when quilting.

4 tips to spend less time quilting.

Quilting requires patience and resilience. But spending time on it doesn't mean wasting time. Even if you're passionate about your project, there may be moments when you're tired, when it's a bit more challenging because you've used the wrong color and need to redo, or when you simply want to take a break and spend time with your loved ones.

Here are some tips to optimize the time spent on your quilt and thus derive more pleasure from it. Because when you're efficient, you feel confident, absorbed in what you're doing. And this feeling is an integral part of the quilting process.

1. Work in batches: When I choose a piece to work on, here's how I do it: First, I cut out my piece, then immediately mark it with a pattern wheel and pre-fold my lines. Next, I cut out all the fabric pieces needed for this piece, and I starch/iron them to be ready before putting them aside. Finally, I quilt them in series/cut the margins.

By doing this, I estimate that I save between 20 and 30% of time compared to a typical process where I mark, cut the fabric, starch, sew, iron, and then repeat over and over again. My results arrive faster, so I'm happy more quickly 👍.

2. Arrange 3 work zones side by side: One major time-waster is movement. By arranging my space in a "T" shape, I've managed to optimize my movements to the bare minimum (for drinking and going to the bathroom). But this can take another form depending on your workspace. Just keep in mind to partition 3 work areas: one for cutting, one for sewing, and one for ironing. I imagine it from left to right in that order, with a rolling chair to easily move between them. Like a craftsman's workbench. This way, you save time and energy.

3. Collect my larger scraps at the end of the sewing session and put them in a pouch. This way, I save time on my next cuts and reduce waste.

4. Prepare several bobbins in advance: Quilting requires a lot of thread. And your bobbins will empty faster than you can say it. By preparing several bobbins of the same thread in advance, you save time on this reloading step.

3 tips for fixing mistakes 👌

Errors are almost inevitable in a quilting project, even for the most experienced among you. It only takes a moment of inattention, a misreading, or even an error in the pattern, I want to be completely transparent about that. It's human.

I've prepared some tips to reassure you on this point because an error is always fixable.

1. Anticipate the mistake of the wrong number:

Always check after sewing one piece, those that come after it.
To do this, look at the numbers. Sometimes we feel like we're following the order, but when we gain confidence and go into autopilot, some pieces may be skipped. The problem: if the order is not followed, you'll get stuck.

2. You've sewn black instead of beige.

And you only realize it 6 pieces later. There's no need to rip everything out, here's how I approach it: take a preview of your pattern and color the area that's wrong with the same color you've sewn (here, black). If it doesn't disrupt the overall drawing, doesn't change the structure of the face, then simply continue your project. Nobody will know (except you 😱).

If, however, it creates a problem, you have 3 options:

- either unpick the current piece and reprint it to redo it.That's why I also recommend finishing all the pieces separately before assembling them.

- either recut a piece of fabric in the correct color and sew an appliqué.

- or paint over it with a fabric paint marker like the Posca brand.
It's a bit of a crude technique, but it saved my Jimi Hendrix quilt when I started (look at the right eyebrow above the blue... it was white 🧐). Once ironed at a very high temperature, this paint doesn't come off and can even be washed.

3. What if there's an error on the pattern?

Pause the project and contact me immediately to let me know where the mistake is. I'll send you the corrected piece within the day and thoroughly check the neighboring pieces to make sure there are no other errors hiding there.

4 bonus tips.

1. Set your stitch length to the shortest setting:

I set my sewing machine stitch to 1. Always less than 1.5 to ensure I can sew the smallest seams. And then, when it comes to tearing off the sewn pattern at the end, it's much easier, it comes off like peeling a stamp.

2. Opt for a not-too-thick cotton thread:

There's no need to choose a reinforced thread. First, because the overall assembly of the quilt is quite resilient, and second, because the accumulation of thicker threads adds to the thickness of the fabrics.

3. Choose a medium gray thread color:

It may seem counterintuitive, but when quilting very different shades together, including skin tones, it's a good compromise for a "non-visible" color in transparency 👌.

4. Print your pattern on thin paper:

I recommend printing on 80g/m2 paper as much as possible. It's the basic printer paper you find in supermarkets. It will be easier to remove at the end of your project.

There you have it.

In this article, we've covered everything you need to know before starting your super project. If there are still questions I haven't addressed, feel free to let me know in the comments, and I'll update this article.

Indeed, I've discussed here the most important questions I asked myself when I was a complete beginner. These are the same questions that reappeared throughout my projects, and I hope these tips will reassure you about the feasibility of yours.

Although complex quilt paper piecing may seem very daunting at first glance, I still believe it's accessible, even to inexperienced quilters.

I say this because I consider myself to be one. I only started quilting in May 2023. As I write this article, it's not even been a year since I started. So I sincerely believe that a beginner but motivated quilter can do it. Otherwise, I wouldn't talk about it. I'm not even talking about the more experienced among you, who can literally create true masterpieces 👌.

If you still have doubts about starting your personal project, remember that I offer you a free trial pattern clicking here.


It will allow you to truly confront everything I've discussed in this article and finally determine whether or not you're capable of quilting something that really matters to you 👌.

PS: Don't forget to send me a photo ;)
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