Quilt It First?

I love to applique.  It was one of the first quilting techniques that I learned after I was introduced (and had somewhat mastered) piecing.  I really like taking bits of fabric and creating pictures.  I find myself pulling from both the right and left side of my brain with this process and enjoying then mental “high” it puts me on.

I love hand applique – needle turn, freezer paper, back basting, Mylar, and Appliquik.  Each of those produce a different look, depending on the mood you want your quilt to evoke.  You want a softer look to your quilt?  Try needle turn or back basting.  Want your edges sharp and leaves to have a perfect point?  Freezer, paper, Mylar, or Appliquik all work well.  Or toss several techniques together for variety.

For years I only did hand applique – and for a couple of reasons.  First of all, once it was prepped, it was extremely portable.  It was perfect to throw in the car and take with me as I waited for my kids at ball practice or dance lessons, or to keep me busy while we were on a trip (as long as I wasn’t driving). It also was the only method I had been taught, so it was the only method I knew at the time.   However, as with any handwork, hand applique is inherently slower than anything that can be produced on machine.  And from what I had heard from “applique purists,” machine applique wasn’t anywhere nearly as pretty as the applique produced by hand.

So, I did it all by hand – until a few years ago when I had the wonderful opportunity to take classes with Sue Nickels and Kim Diehl.  Both of these ladies do beautiful machine applique using two completely different techniques.  Sue does primarily raw-edge applique (the outside edges of the applique pieces are not turned under, but the pieces are fused into place and the edges are finished by either a zig zag or blanket stitch).  Kim uses a technique loosely called “It’s done on machine, but it looks like it was done by hand.”  The edges of these applique pieces are prepped much like freezer paper applique – the edges are turned under and the pieces are glue basted into place.  Then a modified machine hem stitch is used to sew around the edges.

I fell in love with both methods.  And while I still nearly always have some kind of hand work in progress, I have begun doing more and more of my applique on Big Red (my Janome 7700).  And yes, it is faster than hand applique, but it is also different from hand applique and helped me gain another set of skills.  However, once the piece was completed, then I had to quilt it.  And if you look at pictures of the quilting done around applique, a lot of the background is cross hatched.  This is a picture of basic cross hatched quilting.

Cross hatched quilitng


You can see it’s like a grid and while most cross hatching is done on the diagonal – so the squares are set on point like diamonds – it can be vertical and horizontal so that it looks like a lot of tiny squares, all lined up in rows.  It’s great for open spaces and since there tends to be open space around applique blocks, a lot of quilters use cross hatching as their “background” quilting stitch. Including me.  I like it.  It’s neat, clean, unobtrusive, and quietly elegant.

However, I admit when you’re trying to line up all those stitches around your applique pieces and quilt around them, it’s a real pain.  But there is a technique I use that gets eliminates that problem.  I did not “invent” this method.  I’m not sure who did, but I’m pretty sure this method did not originate with me.  And as I was using this method last week, I wanted to share it with you.

You may remember that the first vice president of my local guild issued a challenge to our members to make one small quilt for each month of the year.  I chose to take the challenge, so every month I make a 13 ¼-inch square quilt to hang on a tabletop stand that I have in my entrance way.  There is always an additional challenge thrown in with each quilt – such as use a certain color, employ a certain block, etc.

For the month of April, Matthew’s challenge was to use embellishments.  It could be as simple as a fancy machine stitch, hand embroidery, machine embroidery, beading, etc.  Other than that, we were left to our own devices.  Since my little quilts are the first thing you see when you enter my home, I wanted my quilts to echo each month’s theme – such as April Showers Bring May Flowers (now guess what is going to be on my May quilt…).

Let me also confess at this point, that I am a huge Sunbonnet Sue fan.


I know that among quilters there are generally two camps – those that love her and those that hate her.  I love the innocent little girls who wander into a world of everyday adventure with  large hats (usually  sunbonnets) pulled over their faces so you can’t see their eyes.  I just love the simplicity and warmth of this quilting character.  I collect quilts with her on it…sewing tools with her on it…

But I’ve never found time to make a quilt with her on it.  And I have two patterns with her on it I really, really want to make.  So, I decided that for my April quilt, Sue with her huge bonnet, would take center stage.  And the quilting technique I was going to employ was “Quilt It Before You Applique It.”  I know, I know, usually the quilting is almost the last thing you do.  So, this may be new to you, but I think you’ll really enjoy employing this skill from time to time.  I am going to take it step by step, and this will continue over at least two blogs.

This is a great technique to use if your applique block is really busy.  You can get all those grid lines in before any applique is put down, so there is no stopping and starting to get over anything.  I will admit that I’ve never used this skill set with hand applique, only with machine.  I think it may almost be too thick to perform well with any hand applique.  You’ll see what I mean as we go along.

The first step is to determine how large the finished block needs to be and cut your foundation fabric larger.  My mini-quilt had to finish at 13 ¼-inches square to fit on my quilt rack.  So, I cut my foundation fabric 14-inches square.  I do this because I know that as I quilt, the fabric will draw up a bit.  If I cut the foundation fabric the same size as I needed the finished quilt to be, by the time I finished quilting, it would more than likely be smaller than what I needed. Let me also mention the fabric I use as the “foundation fabric.”  For some blocks, such as Baltimore Album blocks, the “foundation fabric” will be the background fabric.  In my case, this was the pattern I was basing my little quilt on:


My “foundation fabric” was not the background fabric. I was creating the background fabric – sky, grass, trees, mud puddles, etc.  If you’re working through the same process, it would seem to be perfectly fine to pick a fabric that is of inferior quality and not worry if it is on grain because that fabric is not seen.  That is not a good idea.  Poor quality fabric, especially if it’s not on grain, will make your block (or in my case, my quilt) unattractive. Even though it’s not seen, such material will not enhance your block’s appearance.  Chose a quilt-shop quality fabric – even if it’s muslin – and make sure you put it on-grain.

The second step is to starch the foundation fabric.  I find regular starch, not Best Press, works best.  It gives the fabric enough “umph” to withstand any abuse this technique is going to give it.  Once your foundation fabric is prepped, if you’re making a landscape, such as is the case with my mini-Sunbonnet Sue quilt, you’ll begin to layout the background.  If the foundation fabric is your background fabric, then you can omit the next several steps.

There are a number of landscape fabrics on the market, sold in various quilt shops and on-line venues.  These are the textiles that look like sky, leaves, water, etc.  It is very important when you prep the material, you cut it the way it should be seen.  For instance, I had a fat quarter of “sky” material.  If I didn’t cut it the correct way:


The clouds would be on their sides.


So be careful when using these fabrics that you orient your pieces the way they need to be seen.

After placing the sky, I needed to add the grass and background hills.  I decided early on in this monthly challenge to only use the fabric in my stash.  I pulled out various mini-bolts until I came up with these three greens – a light, medium, and a dark.  The lightest will be used on the hill positioned furthest away from Sue, the medium at the next position, and the darkest at the closest point.  This works to give my background some depth.   If all the hills and grass were the same green, the block would look flat and one-dimensional.



Now comes the quilting.  I also decided to challenge myself to do “micro-cross hatching” with Sue.  This is tiny cross hatching, about ½-inch square.  If you decide to try this “quilt it before you applique it” technique, I wouldn’t recommend you go that small with your first project. Also, I did not quilt this on Loretta the Long Arm.  With small pieces such as this,  I still  work those out on either my Janome 7700 or my Juki 2010Q. I have found that by the time I spend several long minutes loading  such tiny pieces on my long arm, I could already have it at least half way quilted on a domestic machine.    That, and I still have a long way to go to perfect my ruler work on Loretta.

Mark your grid on your background fabric.


This step should be take no matter what your background fabric is.  Then make your quilt sandwich per normal – backing, batting, and top.  Finally begin quilting.  I begin mine by making an “X” across the entire surface, running diagonally from corner to corner to stabilize the sandwich, and then begin to fill in all the lines. No matter what domestic machine I’m using, I always have a walking foot on it for this process, as that foot feeds all three layers through the machine evenly.


This will take some time.  Be patient and have fun with it!  I’ll explain more next week!

For those of you that have texted, emailed, or messaged me about Meagan, I would like to give you an update.  Her surgery is scheduled for March 27.  It will be a radical hysterectomy.  Her pelvic lymph nodes will be biopsied during the process and if they are clear of any cancer cells (and they appear clear on the MRI), she will not have to have any radiation.  If there is any chance the lymph nodes may contain cancer cells, then she will under go at least one round of radiation – no chemo.  While I am incredibly thankful that she’s at stage 1 and not 4, I am anxious.  Continue to keep Meagan, our family, and the cancer team in your thoughts and prayers.


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


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