Last week, we explored what kind of fabric is needed for raw edge applique. This week we’ll explore the tools which are essential to perform this applique technique. Fortunately, if you’re a machine-piecer, you probably have most (if not all) of these gadgets in your sewing area.
First, let’s define exactly what raw-edge applique is. Last week I explained there are two broad categories of machine applique – raw edge and finished edge. Raw edge is exactly as it sounds. Raw Edge Applique is a technique in which the motifs to be appliqued to the background fabric are cut the exact size needed and the edges are kept “raw”, meaning the edges are not turned under to the back. These applique motifs are stitched to the background fabric with either a zigzag or buttonhole or blanket stitch stitch…which brings us to the first tool needed for raw-edge applique … your sewing machine.
Neither raw edge nor finished edge applique require a sewing machine with a lot of fancy stitches (but if your machine has a few extra posh ones, don’t hesitate to try them out on your applique). As long as your machine can do the basics, it’s good to go. In next week’s blog we’ll explore the stitches, their lengths and widths, and tension. For now, just know as long as your sewing machine can do a single stitch zigzag and you have the ability to change the length and width of the stitch, you’re ready to start. If your machine can make a buttonhole or blanket stitch, you’ve got lots of raw-edge applique options. And one more piece of information at this point: A buttonhole stitch and a blanket stitch are the same stitch.
Sewing machine manuals call them different names, but for my blog, I will refer to this stitch as the buttonhole stitch. The standard sewing machine rules apply: Make sure it’s cleaned, oiled (if necessary) and in good working order. You will probably want to clean your machine after completing a raw-edge project, too. All the fabric and stabilizer can cause lint build-up in the bobbin case and surrounding area.
In keeping with the sewing machine theme, the next notion to consider is your sewing machine needle. The needle needs to be sharp and thin, so it will cleanly pierce the fabric and not leave a noticeable hole behind. For most applique fabrics, a size 70 or 75 will work nicely. If burlap, ultra-suede, denim, or other fabrics which are not quilters cotton or batiks are used, please consult a needle guide to determine which sewing machine needle will work best. I wrote a blog about sewing machine needles https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/01/20/most-of-what-you-need-to-know-about-sewing-machine-needles/. It may be handy to refer to this if you need to.
My favorite applique needle is Schmetz Microtex.
It’s thin and sharp. I use it for almost everything – piecing, applique, even quilting on my M7. A few years ago, Schmetz came out with their Super Nonstick Needle in size 70/10.
And I must admit, as far as machine applique goes (of either type), this needle is pretty awesome.
These needles are coated with a non-stick coating of NIT (Nickel-Phosphor-PTFE). The NIT performs like Teflon in a pan – nothing sticks to it – which means neither the fusible nor glue used with machine applique rubs off on the needle. With a regular needle, eventually a gucky build up will coat the needle shaft, making it difficult to stitch. You’ll need to change regular needles more frequently, especially if it’s a large applique project under your needle. If you quilt on a domestic or (some) mid-arms and use basting spray, the fusible spray also won’t stick to the needle. The Super Nonstick Needles aren’t expensive. You may find they’re a welcome addition to your machine applique tool kit.
Two different types of scissors are needed – the pair you use to cut paper and a pair to cut fabric. My favorite type of fabric scissors for machine and hand applique are Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Scissors.
I’ve talked about how much I love these in other blogs. The blade edges are micro-serrated, meaning not only do these scissors grip and then cut your fabric, but the micro-serration works like tiny pinking shears – they help keep the applique fabric from fraying. Paper scissors are needed to cut the fusible web, which (with the exception of Misty Fuse) is backed by paper.
Obviously, thread must have some careful consideration. Most of the time, it’s the co-star of raw-edge applique, but there are times when it plays front and center. This all depends on the look you want. The raw-edge applique from the 1930’s (which was done by hand), used heavy black thread – usually embroidery floss. So, if you’re constructing a 1930’s applique reproduction quilt, you may want to opt for black thread in order to make the quilt look historically correct. If a matte finish is the look you want, then cotton thread may be what you need. A polyester or rayon thread will have more sheen and may compete with your fabric. But if you are making a quilt with shiny objects, such as snowflakes, fairies, lights, and stars, you may want to reach for one of those to complement your applique pattern. With either the cotton, rayon, or polyester thread, most of the time the thread should match the fabric … which brings us to the issue…
What if a lot of different fabrics are used? If I have an applique block such as this:
I’ll may change thread hundreds of times! This takes time! This takes thread! There’s got to be an easier way!
And there is. There are three ways to approach this issue:
- Fuse down all the applique pieces in the block. I know some applique artists do bits and pieces at the time, but if you can, lay out the entire block and fuse everything down. If you can’t fuse all the applique down at once, at least try to break the block into sections. Then stitch around all the fabrics which are the same color – stitch around all the greens, then all the pinks, then all the yellows, etc. This way instead of changing thread a dozen or more times, you’ve reduced the amount to only the number of colors used.
- Use a variegated thread. This is one of my favorite go-to tricks when I’m working with floral designs – especially for leaves and stems. A variegated green seems to blend in effortlessly amid a ton of different greens in my fabric foliage. Same thing with pinks. My personal preference is Aurifil 50-weight variegated. There is no “white gap” between the different shades and hues on the thread (sometimes there is a noticeable length of white thread before the colors begin to repeat and this sticks out like a sore thumb on your applique). And the 50-weight assures the fabric will be showcased, not the thread.
- You can use monofilament thread. Now, huge disclaimers about the monofilament thread. First, it may require special handling, and I’ll have more about this later. Second, it’s important to remember what your thread is supposed to do with raw edge applique: Encase the outer edge of fabric to help prevent fraying. Monofilament thread doesn’t do this as well as regular thread. Third, some monofilament thread becomes fragile as it’s exposed to light, heat, and age. All of that said, I have a love/hate relationship with monofilament. It can be fiddly to sew with, I must give it more attention than normal thread, and it’s not going to last forever. But if I’m working on a quilt like this:
I definitely consider using monofilament. However, due to some of its drawbacks, I wouldn’t use it on a quilt which may regularly see the inside of a washing machine. Certain detergents can also degrade this thread. Since we’re here, let’s discuss some of the characteristics of monofilament and some steps you may want to take in order to have a successful relationship with it.
Monofilament thread comes in two colors – smoke and clear. The smoke is used on darker fabrics and clear on the lighter ones. Lots of thread manufacturers offer monofilament thread, but my one word of caution is stay away from the super-cheap, badly manufactured ones. I know my regular readers remember I’m a thread snob, but seriously…do yourself a favor and purchase from a good thread manufacturer. My favorite monofilament threads come from YLI, Superior Threads, and Aurifil.
Once you have good monofilament thread, the next step is to look closely at how it’s wound on the spool. Usually, it’s straight-wound – the thread is stacked in horizontal rows. If this is the case, then you will need to use the vertical spool pin on your sewing machine.
Often this is a separate spool pin included with your machine. Consult your manual to see if you have one and where it’s located. If you don’t have a vertical pin, this is not a problem. Vertical thread holders can be ordered from nearly any sewing website or Amazon and they’re reasonably priced.
Use regular cotton thread in your bobbin and proceed to test your preferred raw-edge applique stitch on scrap fabric. The stitch should look completely normal. If you find the monofilament thread looks like it’s just sitting on the fabric, adjust your top tension a bit. Loosening the tension should fix this, as well as any puckering you may see.
If your monofilament seems to be too tightly wound – it curls like crazy as it’s coming off the vertical spool holder and this makes it difficult to feed smoothly through the machine – you may want to put some distance between the thread and the machine. Put the thread on a stand alone vertical holder, in a cup, or a bowl (really anything with high enough sides the thread won’t roll out of) and move it several feet away from your sewing machine. This extra space allows the monofilament to relax a bit and easily feed through your machine.
My last word about monofilament concerns the fabric used with it. Remember monofilament doesn’t cover the edge of the applique motif as well as other thread, so the fraying factor is an issue. Because of this, I only use batiks when I raw edge with monofilament. Batiks have a high thread count, so they don’t fray much anyway. This gives me a little more piece of mind when stitching my piece out with monofilament.
There are a couple of more machine applique notions you will want to have. Both finished edge and raw edge applique can employ a single-stitch zigzag, and most machines come with such a stitch and a foot for it.
The buttonhole stitch requires a foot which has an open slot for the needle to move both horizontally and vertically to complete the stitch.
Either of these feet can be used for raw-edge applique, but because of the feet’s construction, it’s difficult to get a clear view of your stitches. If your machine has an open-toe embroidery foot and you can use it for these stitches, I would recommend it. This type of foot makes it so much easier to see the needle’s path. I was really excited when I found out my M7 not only has an open-toe foot, but this foot:
Which is specifically made for machine applique. It’s made from clear plastic, and the two toes do not extend out very far from the stitch slot. This foot is smaller than most feet, giving me a lot of viewing area around my applique motif, the needle, and the stitches.
You may also want a Goddess Sheet, or some other Teflon infused surface. These will give you the ability to assemble some applique pieces off the background. The Teflon keeps the pieces from sticking to your ironing surface when you press them together. A piece of parchment paper will also work in a pinch.
The last few items are also pretty handy:
Bias Tape Makers and/or Bias Bars
The gadgets are used to make stems and vines. I have both bias tape makers and the bias bars. Which ones I use depends on the look I want, and the size of the stem. The largest bias tape maker can produce 2-inch-wide stems, and the smallest can make ¼-inch ones. For the novice machine or hand appliquer, this is probably exactly what you need. However, as you become a more confident applique artist, you may want narrower stems than ¼-inch. This is where the bias bars come in handy.
These can be used to make super-skinny stems and vines. The stems made with the bars also have a bit of height to them (due to the seam in the back), so they do add a little more dimension to your applique project. I plan to write a blog on these tools (as well as the other ways I make stems) in the future.
I’ve mentioned this tool before. The pointy end can be used to hold applique motifs in place as you stitch them down or press them in place. Personally, I own a small horde of stilettoes. They’re in my hand sewing kit, in my pressing area, and near my sewing machine. Yes, I use them a lot!
Once in a while, the fusible behind your motif may loosen it’s grip on the background, and a dab of fabric glue can hold everything in place until you get it stitched down. I generally use Roxanne’s either in the bottles with the tip or in glue stick form. However….in a pinch, I’ve also reached for Elmer’s school glue. A dap of this works just as well.
No one knows how hard it is to draw a really good circle until they try to do it. They come out lopsided and lumpy and pretty awful. There are a number of wonderful circle templates out there. In the art section of many big box stores
Hobby Lobby or on Amazon, you can find these:
These are architectural gridded circles used for landscape or building plans. However, they work fine and dandy for quilting. Creative Grids also has this template:
Which is also very nice.
If you think either finished edge applique or hand applique may be in your future, you may want to opt for Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Circles (they come in two sizes) or Applipops.
A blog on how to make circles will also be published in the future.
While we’re on the subject of templates, if you find the applique bug bites you hard, you may want to begin collecting templates. Templates are an easy way to change up an applique block and make it more your design than the pattern’s. Have a beautiful wreath, but you’d really like to add a bird? There are bird templates. Need some leaves? There are templates for those, too. Applique templates are heat-resistant, meaning you can use them for both types of applique. For raw edge applique you simply trace around them on the paper side of the fusible. For finished-edge applique you can press the fabric’s edge over the side of the template for either hand or machine stitching. I have purchased a lot of template sets from Piecing the Past Quilts (https://www.piecingthepastquilts.com/). They have sets of templates called Simplique and they are awesome.
Next week I’ll talk about stitch length and width and discuss how to lay out your block. Then we’ll move on what’s the best way to stitch around the motifs.
Until next week, May Your Quilt Yours!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam