I have never been drawn to the hexagon as a shape but like most English Paper Piecers, it is the shape I started with. The above picture shows my first attempt at ‘Patchwork’, which is what we called it then, this circle of hexagons around another in Laura Ashley fabric which was so popular at the time, the late 70’s and early 80’s. I have not sewn a hexagon since and, as you can see, the above practice piece never developed into anything. It languishes in a box with other practice pieces. I moved on to the diamond, which became my first completed quilt in 1982 and then I stopped.
It was to be more than 30 years before English Paper Piecing returned to my life. I went abroad, got involved in the lives of my children and in writing. Then after the death of my parents and my brother and a move to Scotland, I felt I needed to find something slow and healing to do in my spare time. Short Story writing was about other people’s, often dismal, experiences. I wanted to replace it with something more joyful and to learn a new skill.
I didn’t return to the hexagon or the diamond. This time I began with simple squares and rectangles but found, in time, that I was less drawn to patterns than to pictorial quilts, though these might have a pattern as a background. I was hungry to learn as much as possible about EPP, everything that could be achieved, and yet I found only the hexagon over and over. I couldn’t understand why, when there are so many shapes to use. Books on EPP do cover a few more shapes but I have seen almost nothing on animals, human figures, pictorial themes, landscapes, or improvised modern shapes using this technique.
I belong to an English Paper Piecing online group that brings piecers together from all over the world, many of whom enjoy working with hexagons. I asked the group what drew them to the hexagon (also known as hexie) shape in particular, when there are so many other shapes they could make using this technique. What follows is a selection of what they said, followed by their names:
“I discovered EPP when i found a quilting and patchwork magazine 2 years ago. It had 1000 free hexagon papers and that was the start of my journey. I have discovered that they are very forgiving and i am hooked. I am in very poor health and my attention span is very low so i find great pleasure in hexies. I have now made them in 3 different sizes and i use the method of drawing, cutting, basting and sewing together as mindfulness to calm my mind. They are soothing and enjoyable and personally i dont think it matters what shapes we choose. We are all at different skill levels and at varying times in our journey. I am in awe of members talent and dedication but for me, for now, hexies get me through each day. I EPP almost every day and i cant relax fully without them. Its a wonderful new hobby.” (Fiona keel)
“It’s a very satisfying shape as all the sides and corners fit round without sticking out when basting. They fit together perfectly without thick clumps of backing at the corners. A bit of tradition, feeling you are carrying on a piece of history that goes back hundreds of years.” (Michelle Beard Pearson)
“For me, it’s the way the corners naturally tuck under. I can mindlessly baste hundreds without a plan and when the ‘perfect ‘ pattern comes up … I’m ready to join. I do the other shapes but my first love is the hexie.” (Irene Paulus)
“I’ve done lots of other shapes but there’s something very soothing and satisfying about hexagons. I particularly like doing them in modern fabrics and colours; traditional with a twist. ” (Pippa Wellard)
” I love hexies as there is so much you can do with them . . they fit together so well and because they can be based round the 360 degrees of a circle they can be made up of so many other shapes (hexies, triangles(equilateral, right angled, isoceles), squares, rectangles, kites, trapezoids/half hexies, diamonds/parallograms, jewel . . the list is almost endless) . . you only have to look at the new hexagon blocks :0)” (Riva Mollison)
“One reason is that I can cut the papers myself. Some of the patterns are hard to cut and expensive to buy.” (Cindy Barratt)
“Fiskars has an extra large hexagon punch. It makes a one inch hexie. I make my own, from junk mail cardboard. We take long camping trips and if I run out, I can always grab a few brochures from the rest areas, etc. ” (Donna Becker)
“Hexagons are considered the most efficient building shape in nature, which is why bees use it. Probably not why it was used all those years ago but it most likely was fashionable at the time. I use them because of tradition and they’re easy to find templates for.” (Brittany Duncan)
“I don’t know why I like them so much, but I have two quilts made. One is a GFG, and the other just random. I have hundreds of hexies completed and in boxes. Not sure why I keep making them, but it is relaxing hand work when I just don’t want to sit at the machine anymore.” (Sharon Dickman)
“I think it’s that it’s the most easily recognized and you don’t need to buy patterns or books and more templates, etc, so easier and more economical to do. After you get your feet wet, and the bug bites you, you can move on to another. Lack of materials available in some areas, too. Not everyone shops the web!” (Colleen Karels Barber)
“I have used many different shapes but always come back to hexies, hate the little ears e.g. diamond shape make.” Nicolette Mathee
“It’s an organic shape. Straight from nature and honeycombs. I always have hexagons on the go.” (Sue Morgan)
“Readily available as a starter and you can do a design such as grandmother’s flower garden with just hexies.” (Brit Staven Eddy)
“I’m in Australia, and the family I married into have made a load of EPP quilts, all hexies— so for me, I continuing the tradition” (Hayley Smyth)
A number of people said carrying on a tradition was an important reason, though I found it interesting that they appeared to be referring to an EPP tradition that had grown up within their own country rather than the original English tradition, which did include other shapes.
There were several references to the shape of the hexagon being common in nature (honeycombs, snowflakes, organic molecules, quartz crystals etc) as being a reason to find it attractive; someone suggested that I should Google Brian Cox talking about hexagons ( https://www.youtube.com/watch/?v=kxDEcODUEP0); another mentioned the ‘The Honeycomb Conjecture’. This states “that a regular hexagonal grid or honeycomb is the best way to divide a surface into regions of equal area with the least total perimeter. The conjecture was proven in 1999 by mathematician Thomas C. Hales.” (Wikipedia)
“Ahhhh yes! The Honeycomb Conjecture! I’d forgotten that. I adore bees and hives and skeps and was drawn to hexagon EPP over the other shapes. Now I know why! 😃 (Viki Sprague)
So, in sum, people find the hexagon attractive for its natural shape, for ease of making because materials papers and patterns for it are more readily available. Moreover, it is easy to sew. The fabric wraps around a hexagon paper very neatly and leaves no protruding ‘ears’ as in many of the other shapes. You can get into a steady rhythm making them, while watching TV or travelling. And you can add many other shapes to them, if you choose to branch out a little eventually. It all makes perfect sense. So now I know, and you do too 🙂
On a slightly different subject (!), I have acquired a Mallard duckling.
I now have yet another time consuming thing to distract me from everything else. One of my cats brought it in and dropped it, unharmed, in my living room. It was too young to put back outside, so it has joined our family. My husband is busy making it a home and a run, while I wake at dawn fretting about whether it is eating or drinking enough and whether it is warm enough.
Until next time…..(perhaps there will even be some stitching done!)