Paper Piecing Tutorial with Waterwheels

I came early to paper piecing only because I worked on the editorial staff of Quilt Magazine and was asked to design patterns to share with our readers. 

My Cloissoné Diamonds quilt on cover
I was not impressed because it was SLOW and I didn’t want to spend all that time on little, bitty, tiny blocks with a zillion pieces! I saw the process that popular teachers used and I just didn’t get the appeal - hold your pattern up to the light? Cut large fabric pieces (aka as mega-wads) and hope they cover the patch intended? Leave the paper on when you join units? No thanks!

I jumped in and tried out a few of the blocks I designed. First, I super-sized them from 3” and 4” to 8” and 10”!  Just like these paper pieced Palm Blocks in 10" size!

Sixteen paper pieced Palm Blocks in 10" size
I streamlined the process realizing that you can pre-cut squares, rectangles and triangles to correspond with the patches so you can sew with confidence that you won’t have to “un-sew” an inadequate unit. None of this “hold it up to the light and pray to the fabric gods for special dispensation.” It was “trim, then sew” and not “sew, then trim.” I saw that using a ruler to trim a patch to 1/4” BEFORE adding the next patch assures a perfect alignment. I actually began to enjoy this!

My inspiration comes from traditional quilts. 

Traditional, vintage Palm Block in today's fabric!

I love quilts from an era where the maker did not have computers. Only a pencil, paper and a clever brain! Antique quilts give me the most pleasure and I stand in awe of what these (mostly) women have done with minimal tools. This next quilt was inspired by a vintage quilt from the 1930s. I call it "That Spiky Thing."

Vintage quilt from early 1930 
I used large scale floral print for the centers and paper pieced those sharp, sharp points! These are 21" blocks (with the paper pieced units being 7".)
My updated version of that vintage quilt: Metropolitan Home Star
Because I tend to sew for the camera, I let the fabrics do most of the work. If you look at most of my hundreds of patterns, they really are yesterday’s blocks with today’s fabrics. I also love to take a difficult block and streamline it so ANY quilter can make it using today’s tools.

Here are some more samples of the Metropolitan Home Star (and then I'll get into the Waterwheels, I promise)

Single 21" Metropolitan Home Star block with added borders
Four blocks set in a staggered assembly using the Butterfly Dance collection. You can see my post and steps to paper piecing this block here: Butterfly Dance

Four stars using Butterfly Dance
I have taught hundreds of students in the classroom and thousands more via my patterns. I learned many things along the way and because my students give me some good feedback, here are some of the best tips!

1. Always cut and sew a sample block before cutting out an entire quilt! You may not like the one block; do you think you would like 16 of them even more?

2. Paper really does matter. Computer bond is too heavy. Consider tracing paper or any of the specialty papers on the market (my favorite is that put out by Martingale – fancy newsprint).

My favorite paper for foundation piecing
B . . U. . T! Listen up! You can buy cheap tablets of newsprint in the Dollar Store. Or the stationery aisle of the grocery store or Target or Walmart. Very cheap. Did I say cheap?

3. Shorten your sewing machine stitches slightly. It perforates the paper for ease in removal.

4. You can't use pins with ball heads; they will get in the way when you fold the patterns back to trim and can cause a bad cut. My favorite pins are short, silk pins without heads.

Notice the small, short pin without a head
5. The most confusing part of paper piecing is the paper! It sits between you and your fabrics and some people feel like they're driving blindfolded. I audition my fabric patches, laying them out on the foundation as they will appear when sewn. I sometimes indicate the colors, etc on the unwritten side (that's the side the fabrics show up on). The side with the writing is the side you sew on (sewing on the line.)

Shimmering Waterwheels foundation
6. Remove all paper outside the pattern; you can't paper piece on an 8-1/2" x 11" page when your pattern is only 5" in size. It will cause you to overshoot the placement of your fabrics.

Pattern trimmed to the outside seam allowance
 7. Once you cut out the pattern, fold along every line using a postcard. This will allow you to "see" the lines as you place the fabrics. 

Pattern folded along every line to help in placing fabric patches
8. After each stitched seam, fold the pattern back along the NEXT line and trim the just-added fabric, leaving a 1/4" seam. Now you have the perfect edge to align the next fabric patch. No guessing. Holding a pattern up to the light to hope you can place it correctly is primitive at best – a lot of mistakes happen with this technique.

Fold pattern back and trim fabrics, leaving 1/4" seam allowance
This is what it looks like on the front; no guessing as to where to add the next (red) patch

Easy to add the next patch - right along that nice, straight, trimmed edge

Stitched, folded/pressed and now ready to be trimmed
9. My patterns always give directions on pre-cutting squares, rectangles and triangles to best maximize your time and efficiency. I take the guesswork out of preparation. The precut patches are cut slightly oversized and assure the quilter that he/she will have adequate coverage on each patch when they sew.
Patches pre-cut, according to the size needed for each space on the pattern
 10. Consider using my "Patch of Shame" technique when you need to "unsew."  When I need to unsew, my method is to save the seam and sacrifice the “Patch of Shame.” What? That’s the fabric patch that doesn’t quite cover the space it’s supposed to. You have to assert yourself and sacrifice it for the good of the project.  Grab the Patch of Shame and with a pair of sharp scissors, trim it away as close as you can to the seam. Now grab the remaining seam allowance and it will peel away. Everything’s removed except the seam stitches.

11. Begin and end your seams outside the seam allowance; when possible, begin sewing off the paper. You need stitching in the seam allowances as you do in traditional sewing.

Red circles and arrows show how seams have to criss-cross in seams
12. Many of my paper pieced patterns involve sewing the curved pieced foundation to a curved background. You MUST remove the paper from the foundation before joining in order to have ample "ease" (remember setting in sleeves in garment sewing?) And while you're at it, go ahead and remove all the papers from your finished foundations before you join them to other blocks. Your seams are short and nothing is going to come loose.

Remove paper before joining to the curved background

Trimmed, paper removed and ready to join the curved background piece
 Can you see those awesome sharp, pointy-points?
Yes, these WILL fit together; sew slowly!
My best tip: notice the double pins at the straight ends to keep the ends STRAIGHT.
See those straight sides? My double pins held them in place.

Blocks ready for bottom triangles
Here is a picture of the original quilt made using this pattern. I call it Spinning Waterwheels. It appeared in my 2013 book "Paper Piecing Perfect Points" (Martingale). Now out of print, you can probably find it online somewhere.

Green Spinning Waterwheels
Then I decided to remake it in the black, red and white that you saw above. This is a popular workshop I teach. A lot of sewing, but very rewarding. Here is the center, which is an example of what I call "When 4 Blocks Become 5." These are 16 units that are arranged to make the center block to look like a fifth one!

Center of my Spinning Waterwheels quilt
And I kept going. What do you think? This is a 36 unit quilt.

Black and Red Spinning Waterwheels
This just needs a border. This center is 48" x 48". Yes, a LOT of piecing!


  1. Ok, Debby! I’m going to try it. You have never let me down before so I am quite sure, if paper pieceing is in my future... it is with your direction!!!! Miss you and hope to see you again.

  2. Your explanation makes sense. I also like the optical illusion the "5" and "36" blocks make.

  3. I love the Black and Red Spinning Waterwheels! Some of my quilting projects that I love the most have been paper-pieced. I figured out the "trimming to 1/4" after sewing" also, and that's the best way. Thanks for the tip about pressing the lines of the paper with a card! I'll try that on my next paper-pieced block.

  4. Your tip about not using pins with ball heads is great, and I didn't know about the pins without heads. I use hand sewing needles, which, I suppose, are a good substitute for me. Don't you just love foundations for piecing spiky points!

  5. Pretty projects and great idea,Thank you for the tutorial and for sharing !



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