Appliqué

I have been asked how I sew my appliqué so neatly, so I thought I would share my methods. This is not the ultimate guide to appliqué, merely a window into what I do. I took some photos on a stormy, rainy day as I sewed one of my Dear Jane border blocks.

When I first learned how to sew as a child, many of the early projects I made were with appliqué using a big, ugly satin stitch (zigzag) on a sewing machine to sew raw-edge shapes onto tablecloths and aprons for family members, who treasured my childish offerings no matter how hideous.

Years ago, when I took my first quilting class in Melbourne, I was taught needle-turn appliqué. I understood the bit about sweeping things under and massaging out the lumps and bumps with the needle, but I never got the neat result I wanted. I felt I needed more guidance or a sewing line on the fabric being appliquéd, so I would take my homework home and ‘cheat’ by finger pressing a sewing line. I did not like the idea of marking the top piece where drawn lines might be seen. Ever since, I have used my finger-pressing method. I have tried and been taught all sorts of things, but I still like this method as it enables me to sew symmetrical shapes and mirror images accurately by hand.

I love appliqué. I find doing it restful.

Equipment

For appliqué, I use:

  • fine sewing needles
  • thread (I use good-quality cotton or silk)
  • thimbles
  • small, sharp scissors
  • freezer paper or templastic
  • pencils
  • Frixion pens
  • a lightbox or window (for tracing)
  • an iron.

For my first big appliqué quilt, I repeated the same Whig rose block, made reusable plastic templates for each shape and then finger pressed around the plastic templates. Since discovering freezer paper two years ago, I have used freezer paper for all of my templates. Before learning about Frixion pens, I traced a faint pencil line on my background; now I use a Frixion pen. Other than that, my methods have stayed the same for years.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

I always keep my fine needles, thread, thimble and small scissors close at hand when doing appliqué.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

My favourite pins are the Clover extra-fine ones on the left. Small appliqué pins (centre) are also handy. Giant pins like the ones on the right, which I call ‘nails’, are unwieldy and unsuited to fine appliqué. (Those are not mine!)

Tracing

I start by tracing the design onto my background fabric using a pencil or Frixion pen. I always suggest using something that will wash out of your fabric when you have finished your quilt. Test your marker on a scrap as some fabric markers react differently to different fabrics. I am always careful to mark only where needed in such a way that my markings are mostly concealed by the appliqué even if they do stain or fail to wash out.

I find Frixion pens really handy, but I still tend to use them only where lines will not show. I have only recently started using them and have not finished or washed a quilt I made using one. I know that the pen marks reappear if you put your fabric in the freezer, so do not put your quilts in the freezer! (I know you were thinking of doing just that, right?) Residual ink should come out the first time you wash it, and then you can safely put it in the freezer. My sewing group heard this and tested it one day; we scribbled on a scrap of fabric, ironed it to make the lines go away and then shoved it in the freezer. A faint line reappeared after an hour of freezing. I have not tested washing a quilt and then refreezing, but someone I know did, using a restaurant’s freezer room. She said the lines did not reappear after washing. Did I mention that the temperature hardly ever drops below freezing where I live? I have no idea why we felt the need to play with this.

I also make templates by tracing the pieces onto freezer paper with a pencil. Then, I cut the templates out and iron them onto the back of my fabric.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

Templastic or freezer paper is great for templates. I use a pencil and a Frixion pen for tracing.

Preparing the appliqué pieces

I generally leave a seam allowance of about ¼ inch, but I trim off more fabric on small pieces and narrow points, such as the sharp ends of diamonds, where my usual seam allowance will not fit. Some people leave hardly any seam allowance on their appliqué, but as I started sewing by making clothes, I usually sew with the idea of making something that will withstand regular washing.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

Once I have ironed the freezer-paper templates to the back of the fabric, I trim the fabric, leaving a seam allowance of about ¼ inch.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

When trimmed, the pieces look like this. I usually store them in my project bag like this until I am ready to sew them.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

Just before I am ready to appliqué a piece in place, I clip the seams at inward-facing points and curves.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

I then finger press around each shape, creating a fold line that I use to guide my sewing.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

I keep finger pressing until the outline is crisp and clear.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

Even a little out of focus, you can see the fold line in this photo.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

When I am happy I have finger pressed enough, I peel away the freezer paper.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

I turn the shape over and start by pinning it in place at the points.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

Then, I add some more pins, just to stop it shifting about.

Sewing

I am lazy and tend to use one thread that matches the background colour for everything. It never seems to show much and makes my projects easier to transport as I only need to carry one spool of thread about. Some people swear that you must use thread in a colour similar to the piece you are sewing down. Do what works for you.

I use a fell stitch (I think that is what it is called) to sew my appliqué, but you can also use a ladder stitch if you prefer. Both will be hard to see if you sew them neatly. I sew about three stitches and then tug the thread to snug them up before sewing a few more.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

I tie a knot in the end of my thread and come up from behind on the sewing line.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

For each stitch, I put the needle into the background fabric immediately beside the thread. The needle comes out a little ahead, just catching the edge of the appliqué piece. The smaller and neater the stitches, the better.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

At the points, I sew an extra stitch on the spot.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

I sew an extra stitch at both inny and outy points.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

And then I keep sewing.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

Sometimes a curved piece does not sit flat and forms odd bumps. Wiggling the needle behind the appliqué piece and gently smoothing the bulk of the seam allowance into place with your needle will help massage the piece back into shape so you can sew it down.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

On the back, my appliqué stitches look like this.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

Then, I repeat the clipping and finger-pressing steps for the next piece.
You can already see that my marking lines are hidden under the edge of the appliqué, even before I use the iron to make the Frixion pen’s ink disappear.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

And so on.

Appliqué with Granny Maud's Girl

Until all the pieces are sewn down.

At the end, I give it quick iron, and it is done!

So, that is what I do. Have you ever tried finger pressing? What are your appliqué tricks and shortcuts?

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29 thoughts on “Appliqué

  1. Thank you so much, Carla. I have admired your beautiful appliqué so many times on this blog. I’m busy making the “Citrus sweet love” quilt from Treehouse Textiles and have left all the needle turn appliqué blocks till last. Now I will use this method to have a go at completing them !

  2. That’s awesomely neat, and only what I’d expect from you! Beautiful result. For small pieces, I make a thin card template and cut out a rough shape in the fabric with about 1/4″ seam allowance. I then take a piece of aluminium foil, lay the fabric right side down on that, lay the card template on top of that, and then wrap the foil back over the template firmly so the edges are smooth. Then I press the foil shape through a pressing cloth to protect the iron from the foil. Let it cool, unwrap the foil, take out the template, and your pressed edge is ready to stitch down. It works better where there are no inside curves, of course, but you can do it.

    • Oooh! Clever! The foil would both hold everything in place while you iron and help to conduct heat. I do not iron appliqué bits as I am not dextrous enough to get a neat edge and I know I will burn my fingers, but I can see how your method would avoid those problems. Very clever!

  3. Where do you get freezer paper from? I have only ever seen it at a few LQS, or the Craft Show, and they want $18 a box for it. I don’t think so, pals!

  4. Your stitches are flawless! Beautiful appliqué . Thank you for sharing your tips. Back when I started quilting, I loved appliqué but wasn’t very good at it. I used the freezer paper method but actually basted the fabric to the shape. After it was nearly sewn down, I removed the basting stitches and pulled out the paper then finished sewing it down. This usually resulted in loose stitches where I had started stitching. I gave up
    : (

    • I had heard of that method, but it always seemed fiddly and a bit frightening. How does it work for small pieces? How big a hole do you need to wrestle the paper through before you can finish sewing?

  5. You are so kind for putting this together. I can’t wait to try it! I’m currently working on Jen Kingwell’s Green Tea and Sweet Beans, so I know all of my blocks will start to look better once I implement your methods. My jagged edges will surely improve.

    I think I’ve decided to do a scrappy DJ, after all. Some background squares will be dark gray, some lighter, some white. Perhaps I’ll change my mind before I start, but that’s what’s floating around in my brain at the moment due to cost reasons. I’ll just buy a different shade of gray when I can and hope it’ll come together in the end. Ha! We’ll see.

    Thank you again for the tutorial! I really appreciate it. 😀

    • Thanks for asking me to write this post, Amy. It is a good idea to share techniques, and I would not have done it without your suggestion.
      That Jen Kingwell pattern is a beauty. I am sure what you have made so far is fabulous.

  6. Someone wondered where to buy freezer paper other than LQS or craft shows. In the US freezer paper is a grocery store item, found with things like aluminum foil, wax paper, and parchment paper.

    Thanks for the tutorial. It is very clear. Your pictures are well done, and !! your tiny neat stitches!

  7. Pingback: Jane A. Stickle Quilt row B: JAS-B07 – World Series | Sewn Up

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