If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, then you know it’s no secret my very favorite quilt technique is applique. In the past, I have written some fairly extensive columns on the joys of raw-edge applique by machine. However, I haven’t discussed hand applique in a while, and I promised a few blogs ago I would explain exactly how I worked my hand applique.
I love hand applique. Shortly after my friend and quilt mentor, Ellen, taught me how to piece, she introduced me to applique and it was love at first stitch. I was initially taught the needle turn method, but after a few years I branched out into the other applique types and eventually developed my own “hybrid” method that I use on most of my applique pieces. In this first of a three-part hand applique series, I want to define the different types of hand applique so you will understand what I mean when I throw out a term like “freezer paper method,” or “interfaced applique.” I also tend to “mix methods” – I’ll use more than one type of applique in a quilt to get the look I want, and I would like to tell you how I make those decisions. Frankly, some methods of applique are better for obtaining sharp points and others work better for curves. With most blocks, I like my applique layered so the block has more texture and doesn’t lie flat. There is no rule that you must use the same technique throughout the quilt. Trust me, if the quilt police would show up for this one, I’d still be in quilt jail.
The very basic definition of any type of applique is this: Appliqué is ornamental needlework in which pieces of fabric in different shapes and patterns are sewn or stuck onto a larger piece to form a picture or pattern. This definition applies to hand or machine applique. Since I’m only dealing with hand applique with this blog, I want to take this definition and break it down into the five general categories of that type of applique.
- Needle Turn Applique
This is a technique in which you cut a shaped piece of fabric and sew it to a background piece of material. You hand stitch the design and use your needle to turn the seam allowance under the design as you sew. This is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) method of hand applique, as it was used for hundreds of years before things like freezer paper and Mylar were invented. This type of applique tends to have a very “soft” look to it. For instance, while you can get sharp points on your leaves with this technique, those points are not as sharp as freezer paper or Mylar applique. I love needle turn applique on Baltimore Album quilts, most floral quilts, Mountain Mist quilts, and Sunbonnet Sue quilts. I think the softness and antique look it leaves on these quilts just fit the patterns. And while this technique used to be my hands-down favorite, it no longer is. I still love it and use it but prefer my “hybrid” method more.
- Freezer Paper Applique
I’m not sure what quilter looked at a roll of freezer paper and decided “Wow…this would work great in quilting!” but he or she was sheer genius. Readily available in most grocery stores (look on the aisle that has the foil and plastic wrap), it’s relatively inexpensive. As a matter of fact, Reynolds touts the fact that freezer paper can be used in quilting on the box their freezer paper is packaged. This paper can be used in paper piecing (more on that in another blog) and applique. The applique pattern is drawn out on the dull side of the paper, ironed to the wrong side of the fabric, cut out with about a ¼-inch seam allowance or less, and then a small iron and starch is used to press the seam allowance over the edge of the freezer paper pattern. There are even 8 ½ x 11-inch sheets of freezer paper (usually available in quilt shops or on-line) for patterns that can be run through an ink jet printer. The freezer paper is removed from the applique piece either before it’s sewn down (my favorite method), or after the hand stitching is completed, a small slit is made in the back of the piece and the freezer paper is removed through this. This ink-jet friendly freezer paper can also be used for making quilt labels.
Freezer paper applique tends to lie flatter than other applique techniques because the fabric edges surrounding the freezer paper template are constantly starched and pressed throughout the process. This method works well for larger applique pieces that may be awkward with needle turn applique and it is less expensive than Mylar applique. It’s really easy to make sharp points with this method, but I find it difficult to make small circles or pieces with tight curves with freezer paper.
- Mylar Applique
Some people use the word “Mylar” generically to refer to polyester film or plastic sheet. In reality, Mylar® brand is a registered trademark owned by Dupont Tejjin Films for a specific family of plastic sheet products made from the resin Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). The true generic terms for this material are either polyester film or plastic sheet. And that is probably more information about Mylar than you ever wanted to know. What is important to know about Mylar is there are two types: Heat resistant and non-heat resistant. You want to make sure you have the heat resistant kind for applique, unless you really enjoy cleaning a gooey mess off your iron.
Mylar applique is similar to freezer applique in one sense – the way you make your applique patch. You trace your pattern onto the Mylar, cut the piece out of the plastic, lay the template on the wrong side of the fabric, trace around the template and cut it out with a 1/4-inch seam allowance. Then use a small iron and starch to press the seam allowance around the edge of the Mylar (see why using the heat resistant kind is super important?), remove the Mylar and then stitch the applique piece down.
Like the freezer paper method, the applique pieces lie flat and you can get sharp points with it. Unlike freezer paper, I find Mylar difficult to use on large pattern pieces because it slips. It’s also expensive. One sheet of heat-resistant Mylar can cost as much as an entire roll of freezer paper (if not more). I use Mylar for shapes that I repeatedly use, such as circles or leaves. If you don’t want to cut your own Mylar pieces, Karen Kay Buckley has a line of pre-cut Mylar shapes for leaves, stems, ovals, and circles. If you love applique, these are worth the investment – especially the circles. Piecing the Past also has several sets of Mylar templates for flowers, birds, circles, etc., you may also want to look at.
- Back Basting Applique
When you boil this technique down, it’s simply another type of needle turn method, just as the Mylar applique is really an off shoot of freezer paper applique. There are three basic steps to back basting applique: Baste, trim, applique. The technique works like this – Start by drawing the full-sized design on the wrong side of the background fabric. Reverse the design if it’s asymmetrical. Place the applique fabric right side up, in position, on the right side of the background. From the wrong side of the background fabric, baste the pattern line with small, even basting stitches. Turn it over and look at the right side. The motif will be outlined with the basting stitches. Trim the applique fabric, leaving a scant ¼-inch seam allowance to be turned under. Remove a few of the basting stitches. You should be able to see the holes left by the basting stitches to use as a guide as you turn the seam allowance under and proceed to sew into place.
I like this method for a couple of reasons. In my opinion, this the most accurate applique technique available. If I’ve chosen a particularly detailed, exacting pattern, this is the method I use. I also like it because there are no marks made on the right side of the background fabric. I really don’t like to make any type of marks on the right side of my applique background fabric, as no matter what you use, these marks tend to come back and haunt you. Being able to mark your background fabric from the back is a lot safer. However, there are a couple of possible drawbacks to this method. First, like regular needle turn, points can be sharp, but not as sharp as those made by the freezer paper or Mylar methods. Secondly, because you’re literally cutting “chunks” of your applique fabric to fit over the design, it does use more fabric. However, like paper piecing, you’re trading fabric for accuracy.
- Reverse Applique
I get a mixed bag of reactions when I throw this out at workshops and classes I teach. It seems quilters either love it or hate it – there is no middle ground. The broad definition of reverse applique is an applique technique in which an outline is cut from a top layer of fabric and the raw edges are turned under and stitched to expose one or more layers of fabric underneath. This technique adds depth and dimension to your quilt. Reverse applique probably began as a way to patch worn areas on clothes. There are cultures that have taken this method to great heights, such the use of this method in many quilts originating from the Hawaiian culture and the Kuna Indian women from Panama.
I like reverse applique for a couple of reasons. First, it works really well with curved edges that may give you issues if you use one of the other traditional applique methods. For me circles, even small ones, are easier with reverse applique, as well as other curvy shapes as hearts, since it’s actually the background fabric that’s turned under rather than the applique material. The second reason I like it is that it adds dimension to my blocks. And while I can’t use reverse applique for every heart and circle, with a bit of pre-planning, it’s a technique I can use in some patterns.
- Apliquick Applique
Admittedly, I was introduced to the Apliquick method years ago during my first trip to the AQS show in Paducah. Previously, I had seen Alex Anderson and Kathy McNeil use this method on their websites. Cognitively, it seemed like an accurate way to applique. I purchased the Apliquick tools, glue, scissors, and interfacing. Back in my hotel room, I pulled them out and gave it a try. The two knitting-needle like sticks seemed heavy and awkward in my hand. After about 45 minutes of frustration, I gave up, put all the Apliquick tools back in my suitcase, and decided to try it again when I got home.
Six months later, they had made it no further than the box I keep my applique supplies in. I just simply couldn’t figure out the best way for me to use the tools. And in the great scheme of my work life, family life, and quilt life, I just never seemed to have the time to learn this method – or the inclination since needle turn, freezer paper and Mylar appeared to be working just fine for me thankyouverymuch.
However, I noticed this method being used more and more in award-winning quilts. The applique quilts that were taking ribbons – those that had the teeny-tiny, eye-crossingly small pieces – were using Apliquick. Not only were those little pieces eye-catchingly detailed, they also were amazingly accurate. Circles were smooth. Leaves had points so sharp they could pop balloons. Once again, I took those tools out, but still couldn’t figure out the best way to use them.
Enter my BFF, Janet. Janet likes to applique as much as I do. Janet had figured out how to use the tools. “Do you have these?” she asked.
“Yeah. Sure,” I replied. I knew she read the doubt all over my face.
“Then why the heck aren’t you using them?”
Janet is a former middle school science teacher. She can smell a lie or even a false euphemism a mile away. She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t know how.”
And because she is my BFF, she showed me how she worked this method. Her trick was to use a piece of sandpaper to hold the fabric in place while she used the tools and glue to fold the edges of the fabric around the interfacing. I had tried the method on my tabletop, and everything just slid all over the place.
The Apliquick method is everything it says it is: It’s accurate and fast. However, it is also an investment. The tools can cost between $29 – $40 depending on where you purchase them. Before you spend that kind of money, may I suggest you try a couple of orange sticks (those things you can use to push back your cuticles), and a glue stick that’s water soluble. Both of these items can be picked up from dollar or drug store. Try the method with freezer paper before investing in any of the interfacings or Apliquick papers. Be sure to use a sheet of fine-grit sandpaper as your work surface. If this method works for you and you know it’s a technique you will return to time and time again, invest in the tools. You won’t regret it.
There is one more reason I like the Apliquick method – I don’t burn my fingers. With the Mylar or freezer paper applique, a small iron must be used to with the starch to press those seam allowances around the edges of either media used. The smaller the applique piece, the more likely you’ll burn your fingers. With Apliquick, you’re using glue. No burned fingers.
Okay…so there are the six categories of applique technique as I define them. Admittedly there may be more, but those are the six I see and hear about the most. Couple of disclaimers here: First, my hybrid method may not be the best method for you. The best applique method for any quilter is the technique that works best for you and the one you look forward to using the most. Secondly, I’m not employed by any company that produces freezer paper, Mylar, or the Apliquick Tools, nor do I receive any type of compensation from any of these manufacturers. These are strictly my observations after over 30 years of quilting experience.
Mull over these types of applique. Google them. Search for them on Pinterest. Next week we’ll talk about how I work my applique method.
Until next week, Quilt with Passion!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam