The History of Modern Foundation Piecing

by Debby Kratovil

This is a CORRECTED version of the article of the same name in the latest issue of Miniature Quilt Ideas, whereby I had incorrectly represented the work of Carol Doak. My apologies to Carol and many thanks to her for supplying me with the information necessary to set the record straight.)

(See links below for free paper piecing patterns on the web!)

What we call "paper piecing" today is technically "foundation piecing" so as not to confuse it with traditional English paper piecing. And foundation piecing is very old indeed. It was used over a 100 years ago as evidenced by a recent visitor to The Virginia Quilt Museum who told me about a quilt top on exhibit. It was dated January 1889 and the papers had been left on. They were old letters!

For many decades quilters have used newspapers, magazine and catalog pages as foundations for string piecing. But it has become something quite sophisticated in the past fifteen or so years. It's a wonderful technique for handling odd angles and very small pieces that don't lend themselves well to traditional template piecing. Its new popularity is due in large part to Lesly-Claire Greenberg.

"Guilty as charged," was her answer when I asked her to confirm a persistent rumor that she is the "mother of modern day foundation piecing." Her development of the foundation/paper piecing technique began as early as 1976 because she couldn't sew log cabin blocks straight. She tried everything possible but she still couldn't do it! So she traced the sewing lines onto a piece of muslin and sewed on the lines. At the same time she was producing a line of patterns and to help her students' complete the designs as close to the original design as possible, she had them trace the patterns onto a muslin foundation and then lay out the fabric patches on top of the patterns. It was just a matter of time before they were turning the paper over and sewing right on the line!

It was a long process that was an evolution of little steps. "It was doing all those log cabin blocks. They were my nemesis!" She still had one problem, though. She was losing track of the order and so she began numbering the patches. She refined the block technique in 1981 and began teaching it. A rubber stamp was developed because students got tired of tracing the same pattern twenty-six times! Her book "Sewing On The Line" is due for republication in February of 1999.

Soon thereafter several quilt teachers around the country were teaching their techniques - Mary Golden and Adrienne Johnson from New Hampshire were teaching and selling foundation papers for log cabins, kaleidoscope, houses, and other patterns. Quilt magazines were publishing patterns for miniature Flying Geese using foundation piecing. Brenda Groelz taught a class at the 1992 Houston Quilt Festival entitled "Minis For Klutzes" which showed students how to draft their own miniature blocks for foundation piecing on paper.

Carol Doak was also teaching at the 1992 Quilt Festival, though not her wildly popular foundation piecing classes of today. That would come very soon, indeed! During that same summer Carol wrote her Tricks of the Trade column for< "Quick & Easy Quilting Magazine" featuring sewing to paper foundations. She described the sequencing of simple straight seamed designs which could be drawn onto graph paper and then pieced by sewing. She offered three different tree designs along with a house and boat designs for the readers to create for themselves with her method. It was in August of 1992 that she purchased a copy of The Electric Quilt design computer program which encouraged her to design her first 160 paper foundation piecing blocks. Some of these designs became the basis for her first paper piecing book published by That Patchwork Place.

Carol's book, "Easy Machine Paper Piecing: 65 Quilt Blocks for Foundation Piecing" (which has sold over 127,000 copies worldwide and is still a best- selling book) has helped replace the term "paper foundation piecing" with simply "paper piecing".

Dixie Haywood and Jane Hill followed soon with their two books on foundation piecing. Then Shirley Liby's books became popular because the designs were so unique. Brenda Groelz ( of Gray Wind Publishing has been teaching the technique since 1991, and offers many beautiful original patterns for sale.

Soon there were all sorts of self-publishing quilters creating their own patterns through magazines and at quilt shows. Rubber stamps with simple foundation piecing blocks were very popular. Granny's Nanny's, Thoroughly Modern Minis, Mini Works - all focusing on the wildly popular quilting sensation. They didn't have the complicated patterns of today, but many like the log cabin, sailboats, pineapples, candle in the window, square in a square, flower blocks and simple graphic designs.

Today, there are many other companies producing patterns for paper foundation piecing. The Foundation Piecer is a quarterly magazine dedicated to this quilting technique and offers breathtaking patterns that would be impossible to make except by using foundation piecing. I don't think it's a fad that will go away nor do many quilters want it to. They are truly addicted!

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