Choosing Fabric for Raw Edge Applique

I promised earlier this year I would have a few blogs on applique.  This is the first one.  I’m not sure how often I will post them, but I will try to group the same styles of applique together in a series of uninterrupted posts.

Before we get into applique too deeply, I realize not all quilters like to applique and you may be one of these people.  I’m not trying to win hundreds of converts over to my side Who am I kidding?  Yes, I am.  but I would like you to keep an open mind about the technique and try it out at least once.  This year’s theme is “Make your quilt, yours!” and applique is an easy way to do this.  You can throw some applique in a pieced block or a border and suddenly the quilt you made looks vastly different than the quilt on the pattern.  You’ve made the quilt uniquely yours.  So, let’s take a broad, general look at the types of applique and then we’ll discuss raw edge applique – which happens to be a personal favorite.

In my mind, applique can be divided into two categories:  hand applique and machine applique.  The kind done by hand can involve the techniques of needle turn, back basting, Apliquick, freezer paper on the right side of the fabric, and freezer paper on the wrong side of the fabric– just to name a few.  Machine applique involves a sewing machine, matching thread or monofilament thread, stabilizer, and fusibles or glue.  As long as your sewing machine can perform a straight, zig zag, buttonhole, or blind hem stitch you’re good to go.  Most machines can minimally perform a zig zag and straight stitch, so there’s no need to purchase a special sewing machine for this technique unless you want to.  Again, in broad terms, machine applique falls into two categories:  raw edge or finished edge applique.  All fabric used in applique requires some consideration, however machine applique of either type needs to have a few special qualities.  Let’s talk about the background fabric first. 

Background applique fabric is the piece of material all the applique pieces are stitched down to.  Usually, this background is a neutral, and honestly the definition of a neutral has vastly changed over the years.  When I made my first applique quilt, the neutral was generally a tan, ecru, beige, white, or black piece of fabric.  Fast forward to now and I honestly think we need to either re-define the term “neutral” or toss it out altogether.  This realization smacked me in the head about ten years ago when I went to the AQS show in Paducah and the quilt which won best machine applique used chrome yellow as the background.  It was at this point, I knew the neutral “rule” had been stood on its head.  My next applique quilt had pink background fabric.  Since then, I’ve used whatever color worked best with my desired look, including black gingham.  There are some quilts you should probably stick with the traditional neutral as a background – such as a Baltimore Album Quilt – but for most of the others, I believe the sky is literally the limit.

On a personal note, I dislike solid-colored backgrounds (except for truly traditional quilts such as a Baltimore Album where a certain historical look is desired). I like movement in my fabric and some kind of print helps with this.  Whether it’s a tone-on-tone, shirting, or small print, I think this enhances the applique, not detract from it. 

Regardless of the type of background fabric chosen, it all should have a few common characteristics.

  1.  Usually, 100 percent cotton fabric works best.  I realize the exception to this is art quilts – which I’ve seen use burlap, velvet, and other fabrics as the background – but for raw edge machine applique, you may find the best bet is good quality quilting cottons. 
  2. Background fabric for machine applique should have a firm weave.  I’ve tossed this term around in several blogs lately, so let me define it just in case there’s any confusion.  A firm weave is the same thing as a tight weave and when discussed in terms of quilting, it generally means a quilting cotton.  Quilting cottons are a bit different from standard cotton fabric.  Quilting cottons are thicker and have more threads per square inch and is difficult to see through.  There are other cotton fabrics with a high thread count, such as twill and some linens.  The fabric for raw edge machine applique will have to withstand some serious needle abuse.  While a more loosely woven fabric may work well for hand applique, the same fabric may fray plenty during raw edge applique.
  3. Batiks are always a great choice for raw edge applique.  If you remember this blog:, you may recall that due to the dying process, batiks have a much higher thread count and firmer weave than quilting cottons.  This makes them a perfect choice not only as the background but also as the fabric for the applique pieces. 
  4. If you pre-wash your fabric, you will want to press some starch into the fabric to give the material a firmer hand…and now I would like to interrupt this blog with a commercial break…

If you’re a regular reader, you know the issues I have with this product:

Verses this product:

To me, regular spray starch has always been better for freezer paper applique, making bias tape, or adding stiffness back into a fabric which has been pre-washed.  The only drawback to regular spray starch is that it’s made from potatoes.  If the fabric is starched and stored, the potato factor can attract bugs which may like to either live in your fabric, or worse, eat your fabric.  Neither is a good scenario for quilters. 

Evidently, I wasn’t the only quilter who preferred spray starch over regular Best Press, because Best Press has now come out with this product:

The Other Best Press.  I purchased a bottle of it and have used it in place of my regular starch in the last five quilt projects I’ve made.  My verdict?  It lives up to everything it says it will do.  It gives fabric the same feel which regular spray starch does. It gets five out of five stars from this spray starch aficionado.  The only drawback is cost.  A 16-ounce bottle of The Other Best Press varies in price range from $12 to $15, depending on where it’s purchased.  A gallon of it can be ordered from Amazon for $47.99.

A can of Niagara Spray Starch is $2.99 at my local grocery store.

If you plan on starching and storing your fabric, the Best Press Starch Alternative may be the safest bet.  Personally, I can’t justify the cost points if I am immediately sewing the fabric into a quilt.  I’m just excited there is a starch alternative which works and feels like the real deal. 

Okay.  End of commercial break.  Now back to our regularly scheduled topic.

Before we move on from background fabrics, let me add this thought:  Try piecing your it.  Yes, it’s an extra step, but this really enhances your applique and gives your quilt some extra “zing.”  It’s easy to do.   For instance, if your quilt pattern calls for three yards of a neutral (however you decide to define your neutral), divvy that amount up.  If you decide to go with blue as your neutral, choose three blues and use one yard of each…or six blues and use a half yard of each.  You can simply cut rectangles and squares and sew them together like I did for this little quilt:

Or go completely wild, choose several colors, and sew them together randomly.

There is no rule that says background fabrics have to be boring.

Now let’s move on to the applique fabric.  And while I enjoy picking out my background fabric and am wonderfully excited to piece the background, for me the most exhilarating part is choosing the fabric for my applique pieces because the sky is literally the limit.  However, before you jump in with both feet and no life jacket, let’s go over a few ideas to keep in mind.

  1. If you’re a newbie to raw edge applique, it’s more important you get used to the rhythm of your sewing machine and the way your needle forms the zig zag or buttonhole stitch than anything else.  I wouldn’t try for “special effects” on your first project.  I am most concerned you be successful with the stitching aspect of raw edge applique.  It’s a good idea to stick with firmly woven cotton fabrics for the first time.  This choice simply eliminates you having to deal with extensive fraying.  Batiks are EXCELLENT choices for raw edge applique.  They are super-tightly woven to the point fraying isn’t anywhere in the raw edge equation.  Plus, the undulating colors are gorgeous.
  2. Once you’ve mastered the machine stitch, then you are more comfortable and confident about handling almost any fabric with this applique technique.  The range of fabrics you can successfully use is now wide open – from quilting cottons to tulle to ultra-suede to silk…it’s all yours for the picking.  The catch to effectively stitching them is found in the fusible you use.  If you’re interested in this applique technique and haven’t read, please read this blog before stitching out your first project.  One thing the fusible will do (besides keeping your applique patch in place), is help prevent fraying.  Your stitch will also help with this, but the fusible also plays a part.  The fusible should be compatible with the fabric chosen.  However, between the fusible and your machine stitch, you can pretty much use any fabric successfully.  I tend to run about 60/40 in fabric choice.  Nearly 60 percent of the time, I’m stitching quilting cottons or batiks.  The other 40 percent of the time, I’m reaching for fabric which will best give me the effect I want.  Fairy wings, dragonfly wings, icicles – I go for sheer fabrics.  I’ve been known to use burlap for flowerpots and bits of garment fabric for clothes.  Art quilt quilters do this all the time.  The only word of caution I would throw out here is this: Be careful about what you use if you think the quilt will be washed.  Sometimes the fabrics chosen for the effect doesn’t hold up well to even handwashing.  However, if the quilt is a wall hanging – no rules apply.

The last fabric which needs some consideration is the stabilizer.  Stabilizer is a fabric or fiber which supports the applique fabric so it will maintain the weave and grain while it’s being stitched.  It also provides a little extra body, gives a firmer hand to the fabric while appliqueing, and prevents fraying.  It’s applied only to the wrong side of the background fabric.  It is generally NOT interfacing.*  Stabilizers are usually removed after the stitching process is complete.  If you’re familiar with embroidery machines, you know there are just as many types of stabilizers as there are fusibles (maybe I need to write a blog on stabilizers?).  With both finished edge and raw edge applique, you will probably want to use a stabilizer because it maintains the fabric’s integrity, and it simply makes it easier to move the background fabric over the feed dogs.  When I first started raw-edge years ago, I used almost anything for a stabilizer  because at that point, there weren’t very many stabilizers to choose from.  I employed everything from coffee filters to paper piecing paper.  Flash forward to now, and there is a plethora to pick from. 

Stabilizers are like almost everything else with quilting – it comes down to personal preference.  My hands-down, reach-for-it-every-time is Ricky Tim’s Stable Stuff stabilizer.  It’s thick enough to protect your fabric from fraying and maintains the weave and grain, yet it tears away easily and cleanly.  If you have an embroidery machine and use stabilizer, most embroidery stabilizers can be used for machine applique. 

Over the course of your applique journey, you may hear some applique artists and teachers prefer not to use a stabilizer, but instead starch their background fabric stiff instead.  This will work for some applique projects, and I’ve been known to do this if I’ve run out of stabilizer in the middle of a project and it’s midnight and Amazon Prime can’t even get it to me in 24-hours.  In my experience, this works pretty well if the applique block doesn’t have a lot of pieces.  I’ve discovered the longer I have the unstabilized background under my needle and over the feed dogs, the more it “drags” and becomes difficult to maneuver. 

Background fabric, applique fabric, and stabilizer – those are the three fabric choices which have to be made before beginning either raw edge or finished edge applique.  In the next couple of weeks, the other notions used – such as thread and sewing machine needles – will be covered as well as how to use the fusible, stems, machine stitches, and how to get started on this applique journey.

*The exception for me to this interfacing-as-stabilizer rule is Pellon’s Easy Knit. If I’m appliqueing a triangle or any other background piece which has bias edges, I’ll use the Easy Knit on the wrong side of the background piece. It will keep the bias from stretch and act as a stabilizer. It’s also thin enough that it does not interfere with the stitching or quilting process.

Until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

PS — Disclaimer. I am not employed nor do I receive any type of compensation from any company when I mention products such as Best Press. You’re getting my complete, unadulterated opinion based on use and customer service.

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