Regular Stems and Skinny Stems

It’s a fact of life. If you like to applique, at some point, you’ll have to deal with stems and vines.  In a world of thousands of applique patterns, it’s overwhelming floral.  And flowers denote the use of stems and sometimes vines.  Even some pieced blocks such as the Carolina Lily have appliqued stems. 

Quilt, pieced, Carolina Lily pattern, detail view.

Stems can stand straight and tall, while others are curvy.  Depending on the type of applique quilt under construction, stems may even form a circle – especially if you’re undertaking a Rose of Sharon type of quilt.  They vary in width, with some stems being wider than an inch and others as narrow as an eighth of an inch.  So, in an applique world where flowers seem to rule, how to you handle all these stems?

Like circles, there are multitudes of ways to make stems.  This blog deals with finished edged stems – raw edged ones can be cut to size and stitched down.  Finished-edged stems take a little more work.  And the way I construct them depends on the width of the stem and in some cases, the type of applique block.  But before we undertake stem construction, let’s talk fabric, bias, crosswise grain, straight-of-grain, starch, and non-starch.


In my opinion, stems (even more so than circles) go through some pretty rough prep work.  For this reason, tightly woven cotton fabrics or batiks work best.  Loosely woven fabrics such as Homespun or Peppered Cottons could fray extensively during the process. If I find myself in a situation where I absolutely must use a loosely woven fabric for stems, I pre-shrink the material in a hot water bath (do this by hand and not in the washing machine – you’ll have a ton of fraying to deal with if you throw it in a washing machine) and allow to air dry.  This process seems to pull the threads closer together and stop some of the fraying.  After the fabric is dry, I also press it with some starch, which adds an additional layer of fray prevention. 

Stretchy fabrics may also give you issues if used for stems.  They can stretch hopelessly out of shape during construction.  I avoid any type of knit, jersey, or fabric with rayon and/or spandex for use in stems, and this includes today’s quilting flannels.  If I am constructing a flannel applique quilt and the pattern calls for stems, I’ve found pressing some starch or starch substitute into the wrong side of the fabric before stem construction helps tremendously. 

Bias, Crosswise Grain, or Length of Grain

Those of you who are long-time readers of my blog may remember this little graph:

This illustration shows where the straight-of-grain, bias, and crosswise grain (also known as width of fabric) are located.  Most  of the time we cut material across the width of fabric on the crosswise grain – we fold the fabric in half length-wise, making sure the selvedges meet at the top, and then cut.  Fabric cut across the width of fabric has some stretch, but not a lot. 

Sometimes we cut along the length of the fabric, and this is called “straight -of-grain cuts.” Straight-of-grain cuts mean you are cutting parallel with selvedges and this type of cut has virtually no stretch at all. Hint: if the center of one of your quilts turns out a little wonky, try stabilizing the outer edges by cutting your binding along the straight-of-grain. Sometimes this will help a bit.

A bias cut is one made on the 45-degree angle across the width of the fabric.  Fabric which is cut on the bias has the most stretch and the least amount of fraying.  Bias cuts are frequently used in garment construction and also in quilting — both in quilt blocks and in some binding.

The individual attributes of each cut are important to keep in mind as you make stems and vines.  If the stems I need are straight, I have no problem cutting them on the length of the fabric.  Admittedly, length of fabric is my least favorite cut to make stems out of, but if I need a lot of straight stems and I have a piece of fabric which is longer than it is wide, I’ll cut them on the length of grain.  The ability to curve the stem isn’t needed, so the straight-of-grain works just fine.

If I need stems which curve just a bit, such as these:

I can cut my fabric on the crosswise grain.  This cut will give you some stretch, so you have the ability to curve your stems.  However, if the stems look something like this:

A bias cut is exactly what you need.  Cutting on the bias gives you the maximum amount of stretch needed to curve and twist the stem exactly how you need it.  Bias cuts also fray the least.  This is another important attribute to keep in mind if you’re constructing skinny stems.  Those stems can actually take the most needle-abuse, and if the fabric doesn’t fray, it will make your appliqueing life much easier.

Starch, Non-starch, and a Hot Iron

Two of these three items are vital to have on hand when constructing stems.  Starch or a starch substitute is needed in many of the stem techniques.  A hot iron is needed for all of them.  Steam is optional – whether you use a spray bottle or the steam mechanism on your iron. 

Let’s move onto making our stems.  I will go over six ways I make my stems, and the first two are the most common.

  1.  Bias Tape Makers

Bias tape makers look like this:

And depending on the bias tape maker used, can produce ¼-inch, 3/8-inch, ½-inch, ¾-inch, or 1-inch bias tape (and you have no idea how badly I wish they had an 1/8-inch bias tape maker).  These are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased individually or as a set.  You’ll see all kinds of fancy-smanzy kits of these available for purchase which will include pins and an awl and all kinds of other doo-dads, but seriously, the bias tape maker is all you need.  Everything else you have in your sewing studio.  Personally, I use the ¼-inch and 3/8-inch makers the most, but did find in my research it’s cheaper in the long run to purchase the entire set (Amazon had the set for $6.99 at the time of this blog’s publication).  Individually, they can sell from nearly $5.00 to over $7.00 apiece.

The bias tape makers include a small (oh, so small and so easy to lose) piece of paper with instructions on how wide to cut your fabric strips to feed through the maker.  Despite all my good intentions and attempts at organization, I always lose misplace my directions.  The rule of thumb is to cut your fabric strips twice as wide as the size needed.  So, if you need ¼-inch bias tape for stems, you will cut your fabric strips ½-inch wide, no matter if you’re cutting on the bias, crosswise grain, or lengthwise grain. 

There are a few guidelines to keep in mind during bias tape production.

  • Lightly starching the fabric before cutting out the strips really helps – especially if you’re a pre-washer.
  • Cut accurately.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Try to stay as true to the width needed as possible.  Otherwise, your fabric will “bobble” when it’s fed through the bias tape maker. 
  • There are two schools of thought when making bias tape.  One is to sew the strips together (the same way you do your quilting binding) and make one long piece of bias tape.  This way you can cut off  the lengths of stems you need as they are needed.  The other is not to sew the fabric together and make several strips of bias tape.  I fall somewhere between the two.  You have to keep in mind that if the strips are sewn together, there’s a seam.  The seam allowance can be trimmed away, and the seam pressed open, but this is still extra bulk which must be fed through the tape maker.  This can be problematic if you’re making the ¼-inch or 3/8-inch tape – the tape maker is narrow, and you may have issues with the seam feeding through smoothly.  If I’m making the narrower bias tape, generally I don’t sew the strips together.  However, if I’m constructing the ½-inch or larger strip, and I need a lot of the same color of stem, I’ll sew the strips together.  The larger sized makers seem to deal with the bulk of the seam better. 

Bias tape makers are easy to use.  The first step is to cut your strips twice the width needed.  For our example, I’m using the 1-inch bias tape maker because it’s easier for you to see.  Since I am making 1-inch bias tape, and my fabric strips need to be twice this width, I’ll cut my fabric strip at 2-inches.

Then I lightly spray the strip with starch and press.

The strip is much easier to feed through the wide end of the bias tape maker if you cut one of the fabric at an angle like this:

Insert the angled end into the back of the tape maker.  If you notice the top of the maker, you’ll see a slit:

Sometimes you’ll need to insert pin or stiletto here to help guide the fabric through the maker until the tip of the angle comes out.  Once I have about ¼-inch or so of the fabric exiting the narrow end of the maker, I pin it to the pressing surface.

My apologies….I didn’t take the time to clean off my wool mat before shooting pictures….

This holds the fabric in place while I take the handle on top of the maker and begin to guide it down the length of the fabric strip.  Don’t rush too fast and as more bias tape exits the narrow end of the maker, press it. 

After making a few inches of the bias tape, stop and take a good look at it.  The outer edges should be meeting in the middle and overall, the strip should look pretty straight and even.  If you find fabric sides which meet the in middle are not as flat as you’d like, lightly spray the strip with some additional starch (don’t soak it – mist it) before it’s fed through the wide end of the bias tape maker.  It will emerge from the narrow end of the maker still damp.  Once the moist fabric is hit with a hot iron, the edges should flatten out nicely. 

  •  Bias Bars/Perfect Stems

Bias bars (also known as Celtic Fabric Bias Bars) and Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Stems are another way to make stems.  These little gadgets are my preferred way of making stems.  This method is not as fast as the bias tape makers, but I think they make a prettier stem.  I also think it’s a little more forgiving – your cutting doesn’t have to be quite as accurate. 

Bias bars are made from heat resistant plastic or mylar or metal.  I prefer the metal ones because the heat from an iron is conducted better and the bars stay hotter longer, resulting in crisp edges.   

Normally fabric strips for the bias bars are cut either on the crosswise or bias grains.  If you need really curvy stems, cut on the bias.  To determine the width of the fabric strip, take the width of the bias bar, multiply it by 2, and add ½-inch (you can add a little more than ½-inch if needed).  So, if I were making stems from this ½-inch bias bar, my fabric strip width would be estimated like this:

(2 x ½ ) + ½ = 1 ½-inches.  I would cut my fabric strips 1 ½-inches wide.

After these are cut, lightly starch and press.

Then fold the fabric in half, wrong sides together and press again.

Insert the bias bar between the wrong sides of the fabric.

Zipper foot for my M7 Continrntal. Of all the zipper feet I’ve used in my sewing career, this is the best one.

Now using a zipper foot or edge foot, sew down open edge of the fabric strip, right along the side of the bias bar.  Since most bias bars are only a foot long, you’ll have to stop sewing (with the needle down) and gently push the bias bar further down the fabric strip.  Continue sewing and moving the bar until you get to the end of the strip. 

Once this process is complete, remove the bar and trim the seam allowance close to the stitching. 

Then roll the bias tape until the seam is at the back of the stem and press.  If I have difficulties getting the seam to lie as flat as I like, I starch and press the stem again. 

Bias tape makers and bias bars are the two most frequently used methods of stem-making.  Since the stems made from the bars have a seam allowance on the back, those add a little more dimension to your applique, as they stand up a bit off the background.  Which means they’re a welcome addition to almost any type of applique quilt except Baltimore Albums.  Traditionally, the applique on those blocks is completely flat.   

I use the next four types of stem construction for super-skinny stems.  While I would pay good money for Clover to produce a 1/8-inch bias tape maker or for a 1/8-inch bias bar, I don’t think they’re in the works any time soon.  Until then, I had to discover other ways to make super-skinny stems.  Disclaimer here before I get comments that Simplicity had a 1/8-inch bias tape maker.  Yes, years ago Simplicity did come out with a 1/8-inch bias tape maker.  However, this was a single-fold maker and it worked on their bias tape maker machine. And while this machine is still available in some places, the smallest tip it now has is ¼-inch.

Simplicity’s Bias Tape Maker. If you find yourself making miles of bias tape, you may want to invest in one of these.

Before we move into the methods of skinny stem applique, there are a couple of items to keep in mind before you start.  First, both the background and the stem fabric will be handled quite a bit.  For this reason, make sure your background fabric isn’t loosely woven, but a good quality quilting cotton.  For the skinny stems, in all honesty, batiks work best.  This fabric is firmly woven and doesn’t fray much at all.  Second, all skinny stems should be cut on the bias.  This minimizes fraying, and the fabric is much easier to manipulate when it’s a bias cut. 

  •  Needle Turn

The great thing about needle turned stems is you can cut the fabric strip a bit wider than needed and then trim it down as you sew.  Please also note, this is the way I handle needle turned skinny stems.  There are lots of other ways, so if my way doesn’t work for you, search YouTube and Google to find a method you’re comfortable with.

My first step is to lightly draw a line where the stem is supposed to be.  This mark will be covered by fabric, so a #2 pencil, water soluble pen, or a Frixion pen works just fine.

Next, from your stem fabric, cut a true bias strip roughly twice the needed width.  Finger press one length of the fabric so it folds over ¼-inch. 

Line up the fold of the stem fabric with the line drawn on the background fabric and pin in place.

At this point, a decision must be made.  You will need to stitch the stem fabric to the background fabric along the fold line.  This can be done by either hand or machine.  With me, this decision is made by the curve of the stem.  If the stem is straight or slightly curved, I’ll use my sewing machine to stitch along the fold.  I shorten my stitch length a little and sew it down.  If the stem has a lot of sharp curves or loops, I’ll hand stitch down the fold – it’s just easier and faster this way.

After the stem has been stitched down in the fold, finger press the remaining free edge ¼-inch.  Flip the stem over and begin to needle turn the stem.  If the ¼-inch seam allowance on the flipped over side is too bulky and makes it difficult to make the stem the width needed, trim it as you sew.

  •  Split Bias Tape

Admittedly, this is kind of like the needle turn technique, but the use of bias tape makers speeds up the process a little.  For this method, you’ll need the ¼-inch bias tape maker or 3/8-inch bias tape maker (depends on how “skinny” your stems need to be).

The first step is to make a strip of bias tape. 

This is 3/8-inch bias tape.

After the bias tape is constructed, using your rotary cutter or scissors, carefully trim off one folded side.

I find scissors work best for cutting off one of the folded sides.

Fold the remaining trimmed edge over to meet the other side in the middle, so it looks like normal bias tape made from a tape maker.

At this point, I use my glue stick and a hot iron.  I will run my glue stick along the trimmed edge and then fold it over to meet the other side in the middle.  Then I hit it with a hot iron.  Since the stem has been cut on the bias and glue and heat are used to set it, the fabric should cooperate fully with the process.  Always remember, you are the boss of the fabric – it is not the boss of you. Make it do what you want it to do!

After the stem has cooled and the glue has set, applique as normal.

  •   Apliquick

Skinny stems can be produced by the Apliquick method pretty quickly and easily.  Trace the stem shape onto the Apliquick interfacing (remember to reverse your pattern on the light box if needed). 

Cut out the stem along the drawn lines.

Press the interfacing to the wrong side of the stem fabric, remembering to place it on the bias.

Cut out, leaving ¼-inch margin.

Then using orange sticks or the Apliquick tools and a glue stick, turn the fabric edges over the interfacing.  Clipping the inner curves helps the fabric to hug the curves of the stem.  Helpful hint:  Apply the glue to the fabric first, then carefully clip. 

Helpful hint two:  A sheet of fine grit sandpaper on a clip board or a sandpaper applique board really comes in handy to hold the stem in place as you’re turning the fabric over the edge of the interfacing.

  •  Just Pretend There’s a Bias Bar in There

This method using the same steps as outlined in the section about Bias Bars, except you don’t use a bias bar.  First cut a strip of fabric twice as wide +  ½-inch.  For example, if you needed an 1/8-inch stem, your math would look like this: (1/8 x 2) + ½ = ¾.  Fold the strip in half, wrong sides together and lightly press.  Sew a ¼-inch seam along the long side, and trim off the seam allowance.  Roll the seam allowance to the back of the stem and press.

Now that you’ve made your stems, and you’re ready to applique them down, I’d like to share with you some of the techniques I use to curve and twist them as needed.

Because I taught Heirloom French Sewing, I am familiar with lace shaping, which looks a little like this:

All of this lace is shaped before it’s sewn into the garment.  A lace guide

Is placed on an ironing board, and the cotton lace is pinned in place on the guide.  The lace is then starched and pressed until it takes the needed shape.

I hadn’t appliqued very long until I began to wonder why couldn’t I handle my stems the same way?  I hypothesized I could draw the shape out, and then follow the same procedures I took with lace shaping, only just apply it to stems.

And it worked beautifully.  It worked with everything very well, even the bias strips I planned to needle turn.  I draw the curve needed on a piece of paper (use a pencil, the heat from the iron can transfer ink to your fabric), pin the stem into place, spray it with starch, and press it into the needed shape.

This process even works for stems with tight curves.

Before we end this rather lengthy blog on stems, I want to leave you with a few additional tips, which you may find helpful, especially if you applique a lot.

  •  If you decide you want to shape your stems “off the block” by starching them into the needed shape, you’ll need exactly that – starch or The “Other” Best Press Starch and Sizing Alternative (not the “regular” Best Press).  Either of these make the stems retain the desired shape in a way regular Best Press doesn’t. 
  •  All curvy stems – no matter how gradual or tight the curve is – work best if cut from a bias strip of fabric.
  • In my opinion, batiks make the best stems, followed distantly by firmly woven quilting cottons.
  • Store your shaped stems flat. 
  • If you are a fervent appliquer, don’t throw away left-over stems.  If you have five inches or more of stem length left, wrap it around a section of foam pool noodle and pin in place.  Don’t have a pool noodle?  An empty paper towel roll wrapped in a batting scrap works just as well.  I can’t tell you how handy it is to have some pre-made stems at your fingertips as you plan a project.  You immediately feel as if you’re halfway through your prep time.
  • I’m a quilt prepper – I like to have everything prepped before I start any quilt, either pieced or appliqued.  Which means I prep all my stems before I start.  Stems take a bit of time and care to make and make well.  However, once everything is prepped, the applique can be stitched down without having to stop and make more stems. 
  • If you are shaping your stems off the block, or pinning them to the background and ironing them down, be sure to use glass head pins.  Glass head pins are entirely heat resistant and unlike pins with plastic heads, they won’t melt and leave a sticky mess on your those stems you just spent hours making learned this the hard way with French Heirloom Sewing.
  • The narrowest stem I can successfully make is between 1/16 and 1/8-inch.  If I need anything narrower than this, I embroider it.
  • Always applique the inner curve first and then the outer curve.  Your stems will life flat and not pucker.
  • And finally – always, always remember – You’re the boss of the fabric.  The fabric is not the boss of you.  It may take a little coaxing and even some coercion, but eventually it will cooperate and do what you want it to do.  It just takes patience and good technique.

I hope you come away from this blog understanding how to make good stems and feel no intimidation about constructing skinny stems.   Try several of the methods to determine what works best in your quilting world.

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,


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