Fish 'n' Ships by Pauline Lindsay
Fish 'n' Ships by Pauline Lindsay

This is the best method for producing complex block patterns like Mariner's Compass that have lots of small, sharp angles or for miniature work, and it can be done either by hand or machine. It is ideal for piecing stylised images of animals for example. Foundation piecing can also be combined with other techniques to create blocks such as New York Beauty.

Plenty of materials can be used for the foundation depending on whether you want to remove it so that only the fabric remains or leave it in to add strength to the block. The foundation can be fine white or pastel fabric (you have to be able to trace through it) or any of the following:

After Sun by Gaynor Messenger.
After Sun by Gaynor Messenger.
  • Greaseproof paper
  • Typing paper
  • Freezer paper
  • Specialist foundation paper (tends to be letter size not A4)
  • Butter muslin
  • Sew in Vilene
  • Stitch and Tear
  • Nappy liner

Try them out to see which you prefer using.

If the foundation is left in the extra layer together with all the seams can make hand quilting very difficult. Paper foundations should be removed if you intend to lanunder the finished quilt. Keep samples in your folder using different foundations showing hand and machine quilting and keep notes on which you found easiest to use.

Some points to remember

  • You always work from the back of the block, which is a bit strange the first time you do it but does become easier with practice.
  • Always use small stitches, especially if you intend to tear the paper foundation away afterwards.
  • If you don’t have a light box to use to transfer your design, tape it to a window and trace in daylight.
  • When using a pattern from a book or website if there are little hash lines on one of the seam lines then you have to join the two pieces of fabric before attaching them to your foundation.
  • If you are making several blocks the same and are using paper, Vilene or Stitch and Tear you can produce repeat patterns by layering several sheets together and then use your unthreaded sewing machine to mark the stitching lines.
  • Avoid using directional fabrics to start with.
  • The design created will be reversed after construction as you are working from the back.
Tropical Bungalows by Mavis Haslam
Tropical Bungalows by Mavis Haslam, using a commercial foundation pattern by Dutch designer Maud von Bergh-Arnoldus.


Do remember that all the sewing is done from the back of the block.

If you follow the conventional marking rules of a solid line at the edge of the block and a dotted one for the seam allowance it will make your own patterns easier to use. The fabric pieces need to go right to the edge to cover the seam allowance so that you can join the blocks together (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Foundation pattern
Figure 1 Foundation pattern - back of block
Figure 2 First piece of fabric pinned in place
Figure 2 First piece of fabric pinned in place
  1. Hold the patchwork fabric against the first number on the pattern with the WS of the fabric against the unmarked side of the foundation, checking against a light to ensure that if covers the patch fully, pin in place (Figure 2).
  2. Place the second piece of fabric onto the front of the block, RS together with the first piece, matching the seam line between 1 and 2 on your drawing and checking against a light to make sure that it is big enough.
  3. Sew from the back of the foundation on the solid line using small hand or machine stitches (Figure 3). Fold the foundation back, away from the seam, and trim excess fabric from the seams.
  4. Turn the work over to the RS and finger press the second piece of fabric in place and pin down. Following the sequence of numbers, repeat steps 2-5 until the block is completed.
  5. Trim block to shape, using the dotted line (Figure 4). Carefully tear away the foundation if you want to remove it, making sure that you do not rip open any seams, or if leaving in place, press and sew the units together.
Figure 3 Second piece of fabric stitched in place (from the back)
Figure 3 2nd piece of fabric stitched in place (back)
Figure 4 Completed block trimmed to shape
Figure 4 Completed block trimmed to shape

Designing your own blocks

  • Start by creating simple blocks, experiment to see which blocks can and can’t be foundation pieced. Try to break them down into smaller units that can be joined together.
  • The numbering for construction has to start from a central point and work outwards.
  • Where a long piece goes across the ends of several others, remember that you need to sew all the underneath pieces first.
  • Allow a 1⁄2in edge (drawn with a dotted line) for neatening the outside of the blocks and for joining them together.
  • Once you have drawn your design, use a colouring pencil to colour in the blocks in the order in which they would be sewn to check whether your numbering sequence works.

You may have a particular image to foundation piece based on one of your design themes but if not then why not set yourself a challenge? Try something representational like a boat, house or animal but remember that you cannot include curved seams.

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 12 Number 3 March 2004