If I were forced to choose one quilting technique over all the other, I’d pick applique.
I love hand applique. There’s just something rhythmic and soothing about pulling the needle and thread through fabric. It’s painting pictures with textiles. My first quilting instructor taught her beginning quilters how to applique, so unlike many first-time quilters, I was exposed to the art from the start. I fell in love with the technique, and I’ve only grown more addicted as the years rolled by. I think it had something to do with the fact it was portable – I could take it with me anywhere – and it was so different from piecing. I’ve appliqued by hand for 34 years. Over this time, I’ve amassed quite a few tools. Some of them I really liked, and others were total duds. What I want to do with this blog is introduce you to some of my favorite hand applique tools. I warn you this list is embarrassingly extensive. I also want to assure you if you decide you want to try hand applique you don’t have to purchase all of these before you begin. I’ll tell you which ones are necessary and which ones you may want to add to your tool box if you become an applique addict like myself. And the standard disclaimer applies: I don’t work for any of these companies nor do I receive any “freebies” when I recommend them. The following is my unbiased opinion. What works for me may not be what works for you. Also, this list is for hand applique, not machine – although some of the tools do work for both techniques.
I did an entire blog on how quilters use freezer paper: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/05/12/using-freezer-paper-in-your-quilting. I won’t re-hash the details again, but I keep the 8 ½ x 11-inch sheets and a roll of freezer paper in my quilt studio.
I rate freezer paper as necessary.
I’m kind of a glue snob simply because I’ve had nightmare situations arise from using the wrong glue or the glue not living up to all the hype the manufacturers advertised. I keep four kinds of glue sticks in my studio. The first kind is this:
This is a pretty tacky glue brand. I use it with the apliquick (a type of prepped edge applique) as it tends to hold the fabric to the stabilizer really well. This type of glue pen is re-fillable. I also use this type of glue pen:
This glue is not quite as tacky as the yellow kind, but works well in prepped edge applique, too. It is also refillable.
You’ll also find the standard Elmer’s School Glue Stick in my toolbox. I have used this in prepped edge applique, but I’m more likely to use it with needle turn applique. If I’m having trouble getting the points of leaves to play nice, or if my fabric is raveling just a bit too much, I can run my needle over the top of the glue stick and the additional tackiness this gives generally will make the fabric behave in the way I need it to.
The fourth glue stick is Roxanne’s Glue Stick. If you’ve been around the quilt block a few times, you are aware any of Roxanne’s products are stellar. They produce a bottled basting glue which is truly awesome. However, someone with a great deal of quilting wisdom decided to produce the basting glue in stick form. This glue stick has the same basting qualities as the bottled adhesive has, but I think it’s easier and more accurate. I tried one stick and immediately ordered six more. That’s how much I like it.
You need at least one glue source in your toolbox. So, a glue stick is necessary.
I’ve mentioned light boxes in a few blogs and wrote a blog on how to make your own: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2019/10/30/go-towards-the-light/. Personally, I use a Cutapillar Wafer Light Box and love it. However, you can plunk down some major bucks for one of these tools. I would rate a light box of some sort as necessary, but if you’re just beginning to applique, I’d hold off purchasing one until I knew exactly how much I used one. Make do with a window or one you can make yourself. However, if you decide you want a nice light box, this is a great gift to ask for at Christmas or your birthday.
I do not use quilting thread for my hand applique stitches – that type of thread will be discussed a little further down the blog. But I do find the inexpensive hand quilting thread you can pick up at Walmart or Hobby Lobby is a great item to use if you find you like the types of applique which require basting – such back basting applique. And I’ll be honest, if I have large applique pieces, I prefer to baste them down instead of using pins or glue. I use the cheap quilting thread for this.
Whether you need quilting thread or not depends on which types of applique you enjoy. So, this item is not necessary until you decide if you need it.
Most hand appliquers find they need something to help keep their thread from tangling. The first defense is not to use a thread length over 18-inches. However, sometimes additional thread-help is needed. There are thread conditioners, such as Thread Heaven which work well. My personal favorite is beeswax because it’s all-natural and has a track history of not harming either the thread or the fabric. Synthetic thread conditioners haven’t been around long enough to have a track record, but they are super-tacky and attract dirt. Try both and see which one works for you. Beeswax (or any other thread conditioner) is optional. This is a personal decision. I know just as many quilters who use at as those who don’t. It’s whatever works best for you.
I’ve written an entire blog about hand sewing needles here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2020/10/28/hand-sewing-needles-more-than-meets-the-eye/. I won’t repeat what I said there. I do think you need to know there should be two types of hand applique needles in your toolbox. The first is the needle you’re most comfortable using for hand applique. In my applique world, these are the Tulip needles in size 9 or 10. The two sizes are generally my go-to needles regardless of what brand needle I use. I prefer the Tulip needs because of the way they’re manufactured – they work with the grain and take stress off the fingers and wrists.
The second needle is the Clover Black Gold applique needles. I use a lot of batik fabrics in my applique. Batiks are tightly woven and are generally difficult to needle. I’ve found the Clover Black Gold work better than any other needle with batiks.
I also keep embroidery needles in my applique toolbox. These needles have large eyes and if I am using quilting thread to baste, they tend to handle this thread easily. If back basting applique is on your to-try list, you may want to pick up a pack of embroidery needles.
Needles are a necessity. Give yourself time to find which brands and sizes work best for you.
As a self-professed thread snob, I could literally write chapters about thread. So, allow me to be upfront with you about applique thread:
It’s a personal choice.
There are some appliquers who swear by silk thread. I swear at it. I’ve never been comfortable using it and it slides out of the eye of my needle no matter how well I knot it. However, you may try it and absolutely fall in love with it. Silk thread has the ability to literally melt into your fabric, so your stitches don’t show. However, I’ve heard horror stories about the thread pulling away from the fabric when the quilt was washed. I want to tell you my favorite threads for hand applique – and you may agree with me or may decide something else works better for you. And that’s fine. That’s why we have so many thread choices. Thread manufacturers make sure there’s something for everyone and every taste.
My go-to-always-in-my-applique-toolbox are these:
These bobbins are 50-weight, 2-ply, long-staple Egyptian cotton thread. You can find these at Superior Threads. This was the first type of hand applique thread I was introduced to and it has remained my favorite for its durability and its ability to match nearly any fabric I use.
My second favorite is Aurifil 80-weight, 2-ply, long staple cotton thread. This Aurifil thread comes in an array of colors. In the thread blog I published a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Aurifil uses different colored spools for different weights of thread. Their 80-weight thread is on brown spools, so it’s super easy to keep it separate from the Aurifil you use on your sewing machine.
I do realize that no matter how carefully you search, there will come a time when none of your thread blends in well with the fabric you’re using. When this happens to me, there are a few basics I fall back on. The following thread tends to melt into the fabric and work well no matter what colors are used:
DMC (on the spool) 50 weight #822
Wonderfil 80 weight #EF15 and #EF29
Aurifil 50 weight, 2 ply #2325 and #2900
And if applique push comes to shove, I use Superior Threads Microquilter Thread. This is a polyester thread, but it’s 100-weight. It literally disappears no matter if you’re using it for quilting or applique. However, finally – no matter how tempting it is – don’t use monofilament thread for hand applique. It doesn’t work well.
The point is this: Try different threads. You want your applique thread to match your fabric as closely as it can. Overall, thread isn’t an expensive item, so check out different brands and different weights until you find something which works best for you. Thread is necessary. Discover which brands and weights work best for the project you’re working on.
These can be reading glasses or items such as this:
Sooner or later, most quilters reach for one or the other. Whether it’s aging eyes or simply a desire to really see the stitches you’re making, at some point these may find their way into your sewing area. These are optional. Who knows? You may keep your 20/20 eyesight forever.
But probably not.
It’s a given. With hand applique, you will have to mark patterns and fabric. The trick is to find the marking tools which work best for you. I’ll be frank and tell you I have more than one marking tool in my applique kit, because I use different markers for different fabrics and different applications.
- Number 2 lead pencils – I keep both the mechanical and the standard you-gotta-sharpen-them pencils in my toolbox. Sometimes I need them to mark up a pattern. Other times I use pencils if I’m not sure if any of the other markers will work on the fabric I’ve chosen.
- Water-soluble markers – If I had to pick only one marking tool to use, this would be the one. I use them to trace around applique pieces or to mark spots I need to put in some embroidery stitches. Word of caution here – don’t iron over the marks. The heat will set the ink, so it won’t wash out.
- Frixion Pens – I’ve discussed these before here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/04/07/before-you-add-the-first-quilting-stitch/. I use them to trace around templates and other areas where the ink will be hidden or cut away completely. My personal favorite Frixion pens are Frixion fine liners.
- Chalk Pencils/White Charcoal Pencils – While all the above marking tools are great, they don’t work so well on dark fabrics. This is where these two pencils come in handy.
And let me throw in this consumer awareness tip: With the exception of the water-soluble marker, don’t buy any of these at a quilt shop/fabric store. Most of these can be purchased much more inexpensively in the art department of Amazon or a big box store (ie, Hobby Lobby or Walmart). Marking tools are necessary but not expensive. You’ll probably need more than one.
Apliquick Applique Supplies
I realize this applique method doesn’t work for everyone, but I really like it for several reasons. First, I can turn the edges of my applique pieces under without using an iron (no risk of burning my fingers). Second, because there is an interfacing under each applique piece, you’ve reduced your risk of “shading” – having one applique piece show through another. And third, since there is that interfacing, you can use Apliquick prepped pieces on dark background fabrics without lining your applique units. The interfacing keeps the background from showing through even with white fabric. These are strictly optional.
Roxanne Basting Glue
I know I mention the Roxanne brand in the glue stick section of this blog. I also keep a small bottle of the liquid Roxanne Basting Glue with my applique supplies. Sometimes you just need a small dab of glue in a tight place a glue stick can’t reach. When this happens, this is the glue I reach for. It doesn’t dry stiff and is water-soluble. A bottle of water-soluble basting glue is necessary.
Small Paint Brush
This can be purchased at a dollar store establishment. I find a small paint brush is needed for starched-edged applique. I also find it’s a handy thing to have if the tip of my glue bottle is hopelessly clogged. Simply unscrew the cap and dip the brush in the glue bottle. For me, a small paint brush is a must-have, but for everyone else I’d throw it in the optional category.
These everyday items prove to be amazingly versatile applique tools. I use them to turn under stubborn fabric edges, manipulate points, turn under the snipped edges of concave curves, and when a super-small dab of glue is needed, this is my go-to gadget. I use toothpicks for these jobs, but other quilters have used awls, stilettoes, and the Purple Thang. No matter what tool you decide to use, you’ll need something to help you at least manipulate points and curves. As a result, any of these tools are necessary, but it’s up to you to decide which one you like. However, I’ve been #teamtoothpick for over 30-years. A dampened toothpick just grips the fabric better than anything, in my opinion.
I have two sizes of fabric scissors in my applique tools. A small pair:
And one slightly larger.
The small pair has approximately 1-inch blades and the larger pair has blades which are about 3-inches. I use Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Scissors because I like the serrated edges. You may like another brand, but I would have a small pair (not snips) and a slightly larger pair available. If you find you’re trimming smaller pieces, generally the smaller scissors offer more control. The larger ones are better for cutting larger sections of fabric or larger applique units.
I also keep a pair of inexpensive scissors in my toolbox. I use these exclusively for cutting paper – any kind paper. These three types of scissors are necessary.
With this topic, you may be asking if the pins you already have will work. The answer is, “Yes…. If you’re willing to put up with the hassle of the thread tangling around the head of the pin.” Quilter use all kinds of pins
or at least they should. Most of us have the long flat head pins in our pincushions. I also have a stock of glass head pins and silk pins. And these will work if we use them to hold down an applique unit while we’re stitching around it. However, what I find aggravating about using these pins with any hand sewing is the thread catches around the head of the pins and you spend a great deal of time untangling it. There are a couple of different brands of pins which may help make your applique work a little easier. The first kind are these:
If you notice the heads on the applique pins are smooth and rounded. The thread slips right over top of them. The Little House Applique pins are similar but are thinner and sharper.
And Karen Kay Buckley has her Perfect Pins.
The Little House and the Perfect Pins are also longer than Clover’s applique Pins. Regardless of the type of pin you chose to use, pins are necessary.
I wrote blog on thimbles, so I won’t repeat it all the information, but if you want to read more about thimbles go here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2020/11/18/thimbles/. I use a thimble and find I sew faster with it than without it. However, using a thimble is a personal choice. Some quilters use them, some don’t. So, a thimble is optional. However, if you use one, make sure it fits.
Sewing of any type needs good lighting. My personal preference is Ott brand, but there are lots of great lighting options out there. Just make sure you have it because it’s necessary.
For years I held my applique solely in my hands. Then one Sunday I was watching Abby Cox’s YouTube channel and she mentioned how hand sewing on a flat surface was easier and faster than bunching it up in your hands. Now Ms. Cox makes historically accurate costumes by hand – not quilts — but it started the gears turning in my head. So, I tried hand applique on a table surface and was really astounded by how much easier it was. And since my hand applique tends to accompany me on vacations and road trips, I purchased this:
From Barnett’s Hoops to take with me. It has an adjustable surface, you can iron on it, it has a magnet tab for your needles, it’s padded, and it has spool holders. Hand sewing on a flat surface works for me, but it may not for you. It’s optional. If you want to try it, I do recommend using a TV tray or a table first before you purchase a portable flat surface.
We quilters use all kinds of non-quilty tools and sandpaper is one of them. This is a handy item to have if you’re working with prepped edge applique and you’re using the glue stick method verses the starch and iron method. The sandpaper will hold the applique piece in place while you’re using either the Apliquick tools, your fingers, or an orange stick to turn the edges over. To make a quick, inexpensive sandpaper board, put a sheet of fine-grit sandpaper on a clipboard. Recently, I was gifted this:
Which is also nice, but sandpaper and clipboard work just as well. If you like the glue stick method for prepped edges, this is a really nice tool to have, but it is optional.
Pre-made Applique Mylar Templates
Yes, if you like the template applique method, you can purchase heat resistant mylar and make your own templates. However, for basic shapes such as leaves, stems, and flower petals, some companies offer the heat-resistant mylar templates which have been cut with a laser. This not only speeds up the work process, but these templates are super smooth and super accurate. Karen Kay Buckley has a series of stems, leaves, circles, and ovals. Piecing the Past Quilts has a large stock of heat-resistant mylar shapes – everything from vases to stems to flowers to birds. I’ll be honest at this point and tell you the laser cut templates are a little on the pricey side. Most of the shapes are optional. If you’re an applique enthusiast, I do recommend you get Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Circles in both the large and small sizes.
Those are necessary in my opinion because you use circles in sooooooo many applique patterns. I realize there is a new circle system called Applipops, but I haven’t tried those yet.
Bias Tape Makes/Bias Bars
Many, many applique patterns incorporate stems and/or vines. Some quilters use the needle turn method to produce the vines – and I will use that technique if my stems and vines are narrow – my rule of thumb is if they’re less than a ¼-inch, I make them via needle turn. However, for anything ¼-inch or larger, I use either the bias tape makers or bias bars.
I use both methods for making stems and vines pretty equally – it all depends on the look I want. If I want them to stand off the background a bit, I’ll opt for the bias tape bars. If I want them flat against the fabric or I have to make yards and yards of bias tape, I grab the bias tape makers. I prefer the Clover Bias Tape Makers because the instructions are clear, and they have a handle to grab so you don’t burn your fingers when making the tape. It does seem to me the tape makers are faster than the bias bars, but you may find the opposite to be true for you. Anyway you look at it, one of these bias tape making systems is necessary.
Starch and a Small Iron
An iron is needed for any prepped edge applique that uses starch or the freezer paper method which requires you to press the edges of the fabric to the plastic-coated side of the freezer paper. I know some appliquers use a regular iron for this, but I always burned my fingers badly and didn’t feel like I had control over the fabric. A small iron works better for me. Small quilting irons come in an array of shapes, sizes, and types.
And some quilters use portable irons for this. The one you use is a personal matter – whatever feels best in your hand.
With most prepped edge applique, starch or a starch substitute is needed. Again, this is a personal preference. I use regular starch, but a lot of my quilting buddies prefer Best Press. I have a split verdict on these two items. Starch or a starch substitute is necessary. We use both for so much more than just applique. However, a small iron is an investment. They can run the price gamut from $50 to $30. Normally I steer quilters – especially beginning quilters – towards the lower-price end of things whenever I can. However, since an iron is necessary, I want to change this up a bit. If I were a beginning quilter, I would go for the small iron verses the mini-Clover applique iron. The Clover iron is less expensive, but the small iron has a lot more options. It can be used for a small ironing station near your sewing machine, and it’s easily packed up to take to workshops, classes, and retreats. It’s also good to take on trips to hit those wrinkles in your clothes – so even if you decide applique isn’t for you, this iron can still be used when a mini-iron would set idle.
All quilters produce stash. It’s a byproduct of what we love. Applique enthusiasts look at stash differently than strictly-piecers. That left-over piece of green? Stems and leaves. Swatches of yellow or pink? Flower petals. Unlike a pieced quilt where we purchase so many yards of each color, an applique quilt can use hundreds of shades, tints, tones, and hues of the colors we want. All the leaves don’t have to be the same color. Each cherry can be a different red. If you like to applique, keep your scrap stash, but manage it. Realize you can’t keep every scrap, so have some rules for yourself. With me, I don’t keep any scrap less than 8-inches square. I sort it into bins (purchased from Dollar Tree) according to color. I applique a lot, so I don’t have much trouble keeping the scrappage to a manageable amount. Regardless of how much you have and how you organize it, scrap stash is necessary if you applique.
There you have it! Those are my favorite applique tools. Keep in mind, I’ve appliqued over 30-years and I amassed these over a period of years, not weeks. When I began appliqueing, all I used was a couple of marking tools, quilting thread, beeswax, good needles, applique thread and a pattern. Don’t stress out about the tools. Depending on which method you learn, purchase what you need and then add to it as you decide what works for you. The first method I learned was needle turn, which in my opinion, is the purist version of hand applique. It requires the fewest tools, is extremely portable, and works for nearly every applique pattern. If you decide to try this method, I recommend Back-Basting Applique Step by Step by Barbara J. Eikmeier.
I don’t often mention quilt groups by name (other than the local guild I belong to), but if you really are curious about applique or enjoy it, I do recommend you consider joining The Applique Society (theappliquesociety.org). The membership is $25 per year, and there are monthly meetings via Zoom. These meetings have the best of the best applique teachers presenting their methods, their journey, and their quilts. There are also Zoom workshops which are simply outstanding. Honestly, it’s one of the BEST $25 expenditures I make. There are applique bees which meet monthly via Zoom. There may even be a local chapter near you for in-person meetings. This is an international group (we have members from all over the world), so if you don’t live in the US, no worries!
Until next Week, Quilt On!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam