The History of English Paper Piecing

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English Paper Piecing (EPP) is a trend in modern quilting that shows no signs of abating, yet its origins go back centuries, transcending time and cultures. Given its popularity today, I wanted to explore its roots, understand more about how the technique came about, and who the early quilters were who made quilts in this way. I invite you to come on this historical journey with me! This is the first in a series of articles, exploring the history of EPP and then looking at how it's evolved to become a method that we know and love in modern quilting today. Finally, I shall be considering how hand stitching can be a form of therapy and mindfulness, enabling us to slow down and stitch slowly as an antidote to our often very busy lives.
 

What is English Paper Piecing?  

What I have learned already from my research is that EPP is also referred to as mosaic patchwork. A fabric that's a quarter inch bigger is wrapped around a paper template by tacking/basting down and then oversewing or whipstitching the shapes together by hand. Once the quilt top is complete the papers are then removed. Initially, English paper pieced designs primarily featured squares and half square triangles, but in around 1790, geometric shapes such as hexagons, octagons, and diamonds started to appear. This method was popular because it allowed for greater accuracy than regular piecing and these shapes tessellate beautifully, often creating intricate and secondary patterns. For this reason, many of these shapes are still used today.    

 

English Paper Pieced Hexagons

It's the hexagon shape that's been predominantly used throughout the centuries. EPP was popular throughout Europe and specifically England, and it became exceptionally popular in the USA towards the late 18th Century when anything English was thought to be highly fashionable. Even today, the ubiquitous hexagon is usually the starting point for many quilters embarking on their EPP journey.  
 

The earliest known American made hexagon quilt is dated 1807 while the oldest coverlet to include English Paper Piecing is the 1718 Coverlet, which is the earliest patchwork in the UK Quilters' Guild collection. This beautiful silk coverlet contains several geometric blocks that are paper pieced, allowing for greater accuracy and precision amongst the detailed appliqué motifs. Although the maker of this quilt is unknown, the maker has stitched her initials EH into the piece but her identity still remains a mystery, the use of expensive papers in this quilt tells us that the family were of a good social position, and that there was a lot of leisure time for honing skills, as the quilt is pieced accurately and with 15-20 stitches per inch. While as far as we know this is the oldest coverlet using this technique, there are likely to be many more earlier undated examples, which may not have survived to today.

 

Who made English Paper Pieced quilts?

But who were these quilters who used these methods to make such accomplished pieces? Usefully, as with the 1718 Coverlet, many EPP quilts maintained their papers, either as a way of providing an additional layer of insulation or because the quilt top remained unfinished and they had yet to be removed. The paper was often recycled, sometimes from a letter, poem, shopping list, newspaper, or children's handwriting practice, helpfully providing many clues as to the background of the quilt maker, her family, how wealthy, travelled, and stylish she may have been. There are also clues in the fabric; often velvets, upholstery fabrics, silks and dress cottons were used, taken from a fabric stash that may span years or even decades. This suggests that patchwork was a fashionable pursuit for the ladies of the gentry and upper middle classes in the eighteenth century. This is contrary to many beliefs that quilts were made for utility and practicality. Although this was often the case, EPP in particular was more of a leisure activity due to the time it took and the complexity of the geometric shapes.  

 

How did English Paper Piecing spread around the world and gain in popularity? 

In the first half of the nineteenth century, EPP quickly spread as people started traveling more. As British officials began taking their families to the colonies, the quilts went with them and the women not only were able to feel a connection with home through their craft, but would be able to teach their skills to new audiences. In 1835, Godey's Lady's Book published a Honeycomb quilt design and this is thought to be the first pieced quilt pattern published in America. The article boldly proclaimed “Perhaps there is not patchwork that is prettier or more ingenious...than the hexagon or six sided: this is also called the honey-comb patchwork.” The English loving American's loved to emulate English culture, and so this technique and pattern, now in a mainstream periodical of the time, became very popular.
 

It wasn't long before a pattern called the Grandmother's Flower Garden emerged, which comprises of colours arranged in flower shapes, made from several rows of hexagon, with a solid 'garden path' border of white or green running between them. This has become one of the most easily recognisable patterns, and grew in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s most likely because it can easily be made with scraps, which was such an important factor during the Depression era. Even today this is a popular pattern, not only because it is so pretty but simple in design and construction, but perhaps because it is a connection with quilters of the past, who also gained great pleasure from such a simple yet pleasing design.  

 

English Paper Piecing Templates  

One thing we take for granted when we work on an EPP piece is the easy access to templates in so many wonderful shapes and sizes, allowing for greater accuracy and precision. So often these templates are free with magazines, or can be purchased inexpensively, often with a choice of sizes to choose from. Nineteenth-century templates were cut from oak, tin, and card; others were made from zinc, pewter, silver, brass, and copper. These were often homemade by the men of the household, and although it may seem archaic compared to todays acrylic and plastic templates, brass and copper were excellent choices because they are so hard wearing and durable.
 

We also enjoy ready availability of pre-cut papers that we baste our fabrics to. Again, these are often free with magazines, can be readily purchased or even printed from a home computer or cut with a home laser cutter. No such luxuries existed in the past, and although there is no record of when papers first began to be used, there have not been any examples of English paper piecing dating earlier than 1700. Templates had to be made by hand, using a pair of compasses and a protractor, with precision being the key. I'm not sure many quilters would relish the prospect of having to do this today!
 

So there we have it. We call ourselves modern quilters, yet we are using the exact techniques that quilters were using centuries ago. What makes us 'modern?' That's a debate for another time. What we do know is that through English Paper Piecing we are honouring those who came before us, and that we are still finding joy, creativity, and solace through slow mindful stitching, exactly as quilters did then.

 

References:

All Points Patchwork ( 2015) by Diane Gilleland

Classic Quilts from the American Museum in Britain (2009) by Laura Beresford and Katherine Hebert

www.eqsuk.com

Flossie Teacakes' Guide to English Paper Piecing (2018) by Florence Knapp

Patchwork (1958) By Avril Colby

Patchwork and Quilting in Britain (2013) by Heather Audin

Quilting on the Go...English Paper Piecing (2017) by Sharon Burgess

www.sewandquilt.co.uk/english-paper-piecing-history

www.womanfolk.com

 

 Historical quilt images kindly provided by The Quilter's Guild Museum Collection

Photos by Sarah Ashford