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.
For appliqué, I use:
- fine sewing needles
- thread (I use good-quality cotton or silk)
- small, sharp scissors
- freezer paper or templastic
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?