The Final Steps in Raw Edge Applique

We’re nearing the end of this raw-edge applique series. From this point on, we will work with layouts and stitches. This is the part which has video….so please be kind.

My layout technique varies depending on the complexity of the block. 

  • If the layout is fairly simple, has few pieces, and none of the motifs require a great deal of fiddly placement, I may opt to carefully look at where the applique pieces fall within the center lines of the pattern (maybe even make a few small reference marks with a Frixion pen) and eyeball it.  Instead of laying the fabric over the pattern, I will opt to place the background on my ironing surface and situate the applique motifs on it there, with the pattern close by for reference.
  • If the layout is complicated and I know correct placement is crucial, I will tape the pattern to a light box, place the fabric over the pattern, lining up the center creases, and tape down the fabric.  Then ever so carefully, I will ever so lightly trace the applique pattern onto the fabric with a pencil.  However, I will make sure my tracing lines are slightly inside the pattern lines. This way the applique pieces will completely cover the pencil marks on the fabric.
  • If the layout is somewhere in between fairly simple and complicated, and I don’t have a light box with a pressing cover, I revamp my pressing station.  I cover my ironing board or pressing surface with white fabric for visibility and position an overhead light if need.  Using straight pens, I securely pin my pattern to it.  Then I place the background fabric over the pattern, lining up my center folds, and pin it firmly in place.  Finally, I place the applique pieces where they’re supposed to go and lightly press the motifs in place (you may find using a pin or two in some of the motifs helpful to keep everything in place).  Once the fabric has cooled, I remove the pins and the pattern and give the background fabric and applique pieces a firmer press.
  • If you have a Cutterpillar Light Box and you don’t have one of these with it:

You may want to invest in one if you find you really enjoy machine applique.  I can place my pattern on my Cutterpillar, put this surface over it, then tape my fabric down, matching the center marks.  With a small iron, I can lightly press my applique pieces in place, then move the background fabric to a pressing surface and give everything a firmer, hotter press to hold it all in place. 

I really try to fuse down everything at one go.  It saves me time and I have found this to be more accurate in the long run.  To me it’s aggravating to have to keep moving everything back and forth to my lightbox and pressing area.  Also, one more word of caution – don’t remove the paper backing from your applique piece until you’re ready to fuse.

Stitching Everything Down

Finally, we’re at the fun part!  Grab some stabilizer and pin it to the back of your fabric.  Once several applique pieces have been stitched down, you can probably take out the pins.  However, before you place your applique piece under your needle, it is super important to test drive your stitches.  No matter if you’re using the buttonhole stitch or the zigzag stitch, I can just about guarantee the machine’s width and length default settings are too big. Unless the thread is truly the star of the show (and sometimes it is), the stitch needs to complement you applique pieces, not overpower them.  This means you may have to play with your stitch width and length throughout the raw-edge process.  You probably won’t like the way the stitch used on a large vase looks on a small flower bud.  The stitch on the vase will be a bit larger.  The larger stitch may overpower the bud.  You’ll shorten the stitch width and length on the bud.  Let me share with you how I keep up with my stitches.

Before I begin stitching any of my motifs, I analyze the applique piece carefully.  I guestimate how many widths and lengths I need.  With the piece we’re working on now, the pieces are large.  There aren’t any small pieces.  I anticipate I’ll need a medium stitch and a slightly-less-than-medium stitch.  Because I’ve performed raw-edge applique for years, I know my go-to buttonhole stitch is 1.8 width and 1.8 length.  This may work for you, it may not.  This is an entirely subjective, how-do-you-want-it-to-look issue.  For me this length and width firmly attaches the applique piece to the background and is an attractive stitch.  If this is what I decide to go with, I stitch out a few inches of the stitch with the thread I will use on some fabric, and under it I write the length and width.  Then I shorten the length and width a little to come up with a slightly-less than medium-sized buttonhole stitch. 

If you don’t have a buttonhole stitch on your machine, a single stitch zigzag works just as perfectly, and the steps are the same.  My favorite way to keep up with my stitch length and width is with scrap pieces of binding.  Whenever I bind a quilt, I always have a few inches left over.  I keep these rolled up and in a small plastic tub near my sewing machine.  Whenever I need a leader or ender, I reach for the leftover binding.  With raw-edge applique, I can cut a few inches of this binding, stitch my practice stitch, write the length and width on the edge of the strip with a fine-tipped marker and then attach it to my pin cushion with a straight pin.  It keeps all my needed information handy.

Once the stitches are decided, it’s time to begin appliqueing everything down.  I generally begin in the middle of the piece and work my way outwards.  I stitch down all of the same color at the same time – all the greens, then all the blues, then all the pinks, etc.  However, I use the same bobbin thread throughout – usually a light gray, beige or white (if my background is white).  You want to make sure your tension is balanced so no bobbin thread pops through to the front. 

It’s easiest to begin on a straight edge or gentle curve.  You don’t want to start in a sharp curve, a deep V (like the center of a heart), or at a point (like the end of a leaf).  Line the needle up with the edge of your applique motif and begin slowly stitching, letting the needle stitch forward, swing to the left, then back to the edge of the applique piece.  The straight stitches should fall in the background and the swing-stitch (or “bite” as it’s sometimes referred to) sinks into the applique.  Each bite should be perpendicular to the edge of the motif. 

Inside “Bite”
Once the inside “bite” is completed, the needle should swing back out to the right and line up with the edge of your applique piece.

In this technique, speed is not your friend.  Sew slowly so you have control over your fabric and your needle.  If you must stop to reposition the fabric, make sure your needle is down on the outside of the applique piece, and not at the bite.  When the needle is down, lift the presser foot and reposition your fabric. 

You may notice I didn’t tell you to knot your thread when you started.  I don’t knot mine.  I let the final stitches go over the first stitches, so they stay locked into place.  I do knot off when I finish stitching.  I pull my fabric out from under my needle, leaving a thread tail of a few inches.  I cut my thread, then with a hand sewing needle, thread the top thread tail and bring it to the back of the fabric.  Then I tie off. 

Shapes Which Require Special Attention

Circles, points, tight curves, and deep vees need a little extra care.  They’re not any harder than any other applique shape, but there are a couple of extra techniques you can use to make them easier to handle and look polished.


Circles are one of my favorite applique shapes.  They can be berries or buds or fruit.  They can be larger than a grapefruit or smaller than a dime.  They add movement and fun to a block. 

I’ll be upfront here and tell you the larger the circle, the easier it is to machine stitch, because the bigger the circle is, the gentler the curve.  And this means you can pretty much buttonhole or zigzag without too many hiccups.  However, if you notice nature, most of her circles are small – blueberries, cherries, grapes, currants, flower buds or flower centers – they all fall on the petite side.  These circles aren’t any harder, but may take you a few minutes longer to stitch than say…appliqueing a grapefruit. 

With every stitch, the bite still should be perpendicular to the edge of the motif.  However, the smaller the circle, the trickier this becomes.  When I stitch anything the size of a quarter of less, I take a Frixion pen and draw a smaller circle about ¼-inch away from the edge of the applique circle. 

The circle you draw doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s there as a point of reference to aim your needle.

This line gives me a place to aim my needle.  I sew slowly and stop with the needle down on the outside of the circle every time I need to reposition my fabric.  And with smaller circles, this happens a lot.  I’ve sewn circles smaller than a dime, and I literally used my needle up and down position to sew each individual stitch.  Yes, it took time, but when I was through, those circles looked really good. 

Small circles may seem like a real pain in the beginning.  But I can tell you from experience, the more you sew them, the faster you become.  While they’ll never be a shape you can Nascar through, they do become easier with time.  Put on some good music or audio book and power your way through them.  Don’t Netflix…you need to keep your eye on the needle. 


There are so many points in applique…roofs, buildings, triangles, and leaves.  No matter what the pointy shape is you’re stitching, there are a couple of hints to remember if you want those points to stay sharp and not turn up at the ends. 

The first word of caution with points is this:  Don’t begin stitching at the point. 

You want to approach the point gradually, and perhaps even shorten your stitch length and width if the point is narrow.  The closer you get to the point, the slower you should sew, maybe even take it a stitch at the time. 

When you get this close to the tip of your leaf, you will want to sew super-slowly or even take it one stitch at a time. You don’t want to overshoot the point.

When you get to the tip end, stop and make sure your needle is in the down position.  Raise the presser foot and reposition the fabric so the needle is perpendicular to the point and take a small stitch, making sure your needle is perfectly (or as close as you can) lined up with the point.  Take one bite stitch in the point and then let your needle swing back out. 

Pivot exactly at the point, take one “bite” stitch in, and reposition your fabric to sew down the other side of the leaf.

Leave your needle down, raise the presser foot, reposition the fabric and continue sewing down the other side.

This sounds really complicated, but it’s not.  Let me show you:

Tight Curves

It’s an unwritten applique law, if there’s an applique pattern made, it’s going to have curves.  Sometimes these curves are sloping and gentle.  Other times they’re tight and small.  As a matter of fact, it’s only the slightest bit of a slope which keeps them from making a deep V.  Like points, these curves aren’t difficult, but if you can keep a few ideas in mind, it will make appliqueing them down a lot easier.  First, speed should not figure into these types of applique motifs.  Slow and steady wins this race.  Don’t begin stitching in the narrow valley.  Begin on a hill and slowly stitch your way down to the base of the curve.  Then slow down a bit more as you ease into the base.  If the curve is really tight and narrow, I’ve taken it one stitch at a time until I’ve cleared the area and then resumed my regular (but slow) stitching speed.  I can also tell you this – if you’ve been kind of sitting on the fence about stabilizer, you won’t after sewing a few tight curves.  The stabilizer makes managing the curves and the feed dog traction much easier.

Deep V’s

If you’re a bit confused about what I’m talking about here, think about a heart.  Where the two top curves meet form a deep V.  There are lots of other applique shapes which do this, too – tree limbs, leaves and stems, and all kinds of right angles.  These are the “innie” to a point’s “outie” tip.  The method is similar to how you handle a point.  Sew your way to the deepest point of the V.  Slow down as you approach it.  When you get to it, stop.  Raise the presser foot and reposition your fabric to allow your needle to be next to the V, and perpendicular to the fabric.  Take one bite stitch in and then let the needle swing back out and into the background fabric.  Leaving the needle down, raise the presser foot and reposition the fabric and continue to stitch. 

And there you go.  Raw-edge applique isn’t difficult.  Personally, I think it’s a lot of fun.  You get to play with different fabrics and textures.  You can use almost any thread available.  It doesn’t take a lot of time.  I’d really like to encourage you to give it a try. 

I will cover finished-edge machine applique soon.  Blogs such as this take a lot of planning, photography, and videography.  Bear with me, and I promise we’ll get to it in a few weeks.

So, until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours (with machine applique!).

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

5 replies on “The Final Steps in Raw Edge Applique”

I don’t think any of the transparent or open-toe feet are too expensive. Personally, I prefer the transparent foot over the open-toed kind. I have more of an issue with “tunneling” with the open-toed kind. I can guarantee the transparent one will make your fiber life oh-so-much-easier!

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