The Next Steps in Photo Applique

As promised, today we’ll get to the fun part of photo applique – the fabric.  Like I stated in the first blog about this process, the best thing about applique is it doesn’t take a great deal of fabric.  You don’t have to break the bank purchasing lots of yardage.  However, this also can be the worst thing about applique quilting.  You’re not buying huge amounts of fabric, but you may end up with forty 1/8-yard cuts.  I will tell you in all honesty, you do need a lot of variety for this process.  Keep in mind, you’re “painting” with fabric.  You will not only need a lot of colors, but you will also need some shades, tints, and values of each color.  Let’s review these terms before you start pulling fabric for your project.

Hue – This term is used interchangeably with the word color.  Hue is the purest form of a color and contains no white, gray, or black. 

Value – Value is the lightness or darkness of a color.  For this type of applique, you will need a good range of values in order to make it look more realistic and give it dimension.  Remember way back in the first blog on this topic, I told you to go for a walk and take pictures or examine photos on Google.  Go back and look at those now.   You’ll notice not all the leaves are the same color of green. Sometimes stems and stalks aren’t green at all.  Flower petals can run the gamut from the lightest value of a hue to the darkest all in one petal.  You will need a range of values to realistically reflect this. 

It’s also important to remember that value is relative to the fabrics surrounding it.  For instance, let’s say we have this stack of purple fabric.  We can see the stack has a nice range of values, from light to dark.  However, if we place one of the light purples next to a medium purple, the medium will actually work as a dark.  If we placed one of the lighter medium purples next to the darkest one, the medium could work as a light. 

Tint – A tinted color occurs when you add white to it.  Most of us call tints “pastels.”  I use tints to indicate areas where sunshine or another light source is hitting.  If I am working with fruit, a tint could be used to show unripen areas:

Tints will also make an object look closer.

Shades –  A shaded color occurs when you add black to a hue.  Shades are used to represent areas of an object distant or in the shadows.  Shades recede into the background, making the object look further away.  If you only need a slightly shaded hue, add gray instead of black.

Shaded Fabric

As you’re auditioning fabrics, it’s a great idea to have the original picture in hand, and keep imagining the photo in 3-D.  As you examine the photo closely, ask yourself these questions: 

  • What is the background?
  • What elements are in the foreground and most prominent?
  • What elements are in the background?
  • What are the objects between the foreground and background (if any)?

The elements which are most prominent will require the most detailed work, the objects between the foreground and background, not so much detail, and the background elements require little or no detail.  And in some cases, they can even just be hinted at, not directly dealt with. 

Fabric Choices

My cardinal rule of fabric shopping for any quilt is use what you have first.  If you have fabric in your stash which will work for a project, use it first, and then fill in what you need with additional purchases.  However, there are certain characteristics all the fabric needs to have, regardless of where it came from.

First it needs to be tightly woven.  The fabric will be subject to heat (sometimes through several pressings) and needle abuse.  A homespun or other loosely woven fabric will be difficult to work with.  They simply won’t hold up to the heat and quilting.  Because of this, one of the most ideal fabrics to use is batiks.  These are tightly woven due to the dye process used to create them.  And the undulating colors can give the impression of tints and shade all in one fabric.  Over the last several years I have discovered ombre fabrics, which are equally wonderful. 

Ombre Fabric

These are some apricots I appliqued for a quilt. Every one of them were cut from the same half yard of ombre yellow/orange fabric.

You can have several tints and shades in a single yard of fabric.  Other cotton fabrics work equally as well, just as long as they’re not loosely woven.

Second, generally speaking, a solid or a fabric which reads as a solid works best.  This means tiny prints, tone-on-tones, and small geometrics will work well.  Most of the work in photo applique is small.  Large prints would lose their integrity in such small places.  However, don’t count large prints totally out. Parts of the print can work really well.  For instance, several years ago I purchased this Tula Pink print.

Peek-a-Boo…see the elephant?

If you look closely, you’ll see elephants.  And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used the elephant ears as flower petals.  They work fantastic! 

The largest piece of fabric needed is the one for the background.  Just like with all other types of applique, you will want that piece to be larger than needed.  The applique process will shrink the background just a bit.  My rule of thumb is I like a generous inch of extra around the top, bottom, and sides.  If you’re piecing the background (which is a great way to add interest to your quilt), the same rule applies – make sure it’s bigger than needed. 

How much fabric to purchase is sometimes difficult to determine.  This is an easy question if you’re working with a pattern.  Someone else has done all the math for you and you know how much yardage you need.  Working from a photo is different.  You really don’t have a solid idea of exactly how much fabric you need.  This is where a flexible stash and knowing what type of photos you gravitate to come in handy.  If you know you like pictures of buildings or barns, you will want to collect fabrics which reflect those colors and textures.  If photos of lakes, streams, and oceans are your thing, blues and greens will probably dominate your stash.  I like animals and flowers.  I have fabric in lots of colors and textures, but I don’t have a lot of yardage.  I have found fat quarters are great for this technique and half-yard cuts are even better. 

However, if I had to pick a dominant color for nearly any of these, it would be green (unless you settle on applique portraits, which is an entirely different blog).  In my experience, I have found a large palette of greens is necessary.  Grass, stems, leaves, trees…so much green.  And these run the gamut from the yellow greens of early spring to the almost black greens of some evergreens and pines.  One other tid-bit about greens occurring in nature – most of them are shades of greens, not hues or tints. 

With your original photo in hand, pick out your fabrics and set them aside while we consider the last fabric issue:  Do you prewash or not?  My regular readers know I am pretty much a devout prewasher for several reasons – primarily to stop any fabric bleeding.  However, my stance about prewashing fabric for wall hangings is not so devout.  Wall hangings are usually not washed.  They’re vacuumed or wiped down, but not thrown in a washer.  They may get dusty, but generally not stained or heavily soiled.  Fabrics which are not prewashed are crisper, and for this applique method, you may actually prefer this over the softness of a washed fabric.  The only caution flag I would throw in would be this – do a test swatch of the fabric with the fusible webbing.  Sometimes the finishes manufacturers put on material keeps the fusible from adhering to the fabric securely.  If you find this happens, you may need to change fusible, prewash your fabrics and then starch and press them, or plan to use a little basting glue to securely adhere the applique pieces to the background.

The Process – Step One

For this first step you’ll need the original photo and one of your enlarged line drawings.  Remember earlier when we were discussing fabrics and I told you to think three dimensional?  You’ll need to do this again as we prep our applique pieces and see our quilt take shape.  This is easiest to do if you make your appliques in order, from the bottom to the top.  Start by making the shapes which will be fused closest to the background fabric and then work forwards to the ones in front.  Remember, nothing is permanent until you fuse it down, so if you need to adjust something or make an additional applique, you can. 

A light box is extremely helpful for this process. And I will walk you through the way I perform these next steps.  As you work with this applique technique, you’ll fine-tune your own method.

  1.  I cut my Steam-a-Seam into manageable “chunks”.  I use a lot of this fusible in my quilting, so I purchase it from Joanne’s by the bolt with a coupon.  Having a piece of that’s 5-inches x 18-inches is a lot easier than wrangling with the whole bolt. 
  2. Taking one copy of my enlarged line drawing, I place it on my light box with the right side of the copy facing the surface of the light box (you’re reversing the image).  I keep my photo and the second copy of the line drawing next to the box.  I start tracing the objects from the background out and numbering them in sequence (be sure to leave about a half-inch of space between pieces).  I write the number of the applique piece on the fusible and the second line drawing.  I continue doing this until I’ve finished making fusible drawings of all the applique pieces.
  3. After everything is traced, I rough cut the pieces from the fusible webbing.  I don’t cut directly on the drawn line, but about ¼-inch away from it, leaving some margin outside the drawn line.  I have found it’s easier and less confusing to do a few pieces at a time.  When you have lots of these fusible pieces laying around, it’s easy to lose one.
  4. I fuse the primary piece (such as a leaf or a petal) to the wrong  side of the fabric.  Once the piece has cooled, I then cut it out on the drawn line.  Then I repeat the process for all the detail pieces which go on the primary piece.  Once I’ve arranged all the detail pieces so that I’m happy with it, I press those into place.
I cut my fusible web pieces out with about 1/4-inch margin around the drawn line.
I press these to the WRONG side of my fabric and then cut out along the drawn line.

It’s easy to see why it’s important to have some kind of tag line on the back of the main piece to know which flower each petal belongs to or where each leaf is placed.  If you don’t, laying out your photo applique gets super confusing really quickly.  Once I have all the pieces for one unit (such as a flower) prepped, I bring out my Teflon pressing sheet.  I slide my second line drawing under the Teflon pressing sheet (most of these are sheer enough to see through), I carefully peel the paper backing from the first piece and lay it in place.  Then I proceed to the second, pressing with a hot iron as needed.  You can continue this way until the entire unit is made.  Let the unit cool completely before lifting it off the Teflon pressing sheet and set it aside.  Continue this process until you’ve made all your units.

Begin my pressing all the small, detailed pieces on the petals and the flower center.
This is the final line drawing of my coneflowers. Notice all the smaller details on the petals. Those will have to fused to the petals and then the petals fused together.
I have positioned the Teflon pressing sheet over the first coneflower. An opaque Teflon pressing sheet is really necessary with this technique. I know there are other great types of pressing sheets on the market, but in my opinion the Goddess sheets are the best.
I begin by pressing small groups of the petals together, overlaying them. I have personally found using a smaller iron, such as the one in the picture, gives you better control. A large iron can send everything flying off the pressing sheet.
After I’ve pressed the small groups of petals together, I fuse them together into the flower ring.
Then I add the flower center. The center is what holds the entire flower together, so it’s super important to make sure all the tops of the petals are beneath the center.
After the flower has completely cooled on the pressing sheet, you can carefully peel it off and move it somewhere else while you fuse your other units together.
This is the second cone flower.
  • The next step is to mark your background fabric.  Depending on the complexity of your design, you may only need registration marks or (if you’re OCD like me), you want a bit more preciseness and want to mark more details on your background.  First, mark the finished size of your quilt on the background fabric.  Remember, we’ve cut our background fabric at least one inch larger than the finished quilt.  This marking will serve as a framework for our applique placement – all the pieces should fall somewhere in the finished size marks. 
  •  Grab your light box and position the background fabric on it.  You may not be able to fit all of the fabric on it at once, so you may have to work in sections.  Anchor the background fabric with some tape so it won’t wiggle out of place.  Then place a piece of transfer paper (usually shiny side facing the background fabric – you want the side which will transfer the markings in contact with the fabric) on the background fabric.  On top of this, place one of the line drawings.  With an embossing tool or similar object, trace the main parts of your applique onto the background.  You don’t have to draw every petal, leaf, or feather – just a rough outline so you know where to place all the units.
  • Once the line drawing has been transferred, take the background fabric to the pressing area and arrange your units.  Press into place.  If some pieces don’t want to stay fused in place, use a little basing glue on the back of the piece and repress.  If you’re not a basting glue fan, you can always use glass head pins to keep them in place. 

Now you’ve got to make some decisions.  The first decision concerns borders.  If you decide you want borders on your quilt, now is the time to trim your quilt along the lines you drew on the background fabric in step 5 above.  Make your borders and sew those onto your background fabric.  If you’re not so keen about adding borders, you can trim your quilt now or wait until after it’s quilted.  It’s entirely up to you.  If you decide you want to wait and trim after it’s quilted, once the top is sandwiched with batting and a backing fabric, stitch along the framework lines prior to quilting.  Then trim after the quilting is complete.

The second decision we need to make concerns thread.  If you are a regular reader, you know I’m a thread snob.  I like long-staple cotton thread to piece with and micro thread to quilt with (usually).  However, this type of applique is different.  In this type of applique, the thread is a co-star along with the fabric.  The thread will serve as sort of a “paintbrush” to give your photo applique a finished look.  It will add shading, highlights, and details (such as the veins of a leaf), as well as hold the quilt together.  For this reason, you will want a heavier thread than you may normally use.  My beloved micro thread would get lost in this type of applique.  I generally use 40 weight thread or even lower (remember with thread, the lower the number the thicker the thread) and I have used polyesters and rayons to give glints of shimmer.  Also, unlike a lot of quilting, you will be switching thread colors.  So, just as you auditioned fabrics for this quilt, now you’ll need to audition thread.  Pick the colors which are in your applique units.  Unspool a few inches and lay them on your applique.  Thread looks so different when laying flat against the fabric.  Value is also important when choosing your thread, so pick lights, darks, and mediums of each color.

Audition as many spools of thread as you did pieces of fabric! Thread is defintely the co-star of this applique event and needs just as much consideration as the fabric.

If all this thread choice is a bit overwhelming, you may want to use variegated threads.  These swing throughout the values of one color on one spool of thread.  The only cautionary statement I would issue is this:  Avoid variegated threads which have large areas of white as they switch values.  This white will stick out like a sore thumb on your applique.  Allow me to name drop here – Tula Pink has some wonderfully gorgeous, variegated thread. 

Tula Pink Varigated Thread Set

You will need a lighter weight thread in the bobbin, and this thread should match your backing fabric (which we will discuss in detail in a bit).  I usually use 50-weight my bobbin.  This lighter weight thread allows me to wind a lot more on my bobbin than a heavier thread, which means I won’t be stopping to change out bobbins as frequently.  However, depending on the tension and your machine, you may have to use the same thread on top of your machine and in the bobbin.  You’ll find out if you need to do this in the sample we’ll work with before quilting the actual quilt. 

Along with your thread choices, you will need a few more supplies before we begin quilting the top. 

A busy quilt back hides a multitude of quilting sins.
  • Backing fabric – If you don’t remember anything else from any of these blogs, come away with this fact:  a busy quilt back covers a multitude of quilting sins.  Stay away from solid-colored backs or backing fabrics with lots of wide, open spaces.  These will show every stitch.  And unless you’re just a master quilter, you probably don’t want every quilting stitch to show.  Fabrics with strong color contrasts and geometric designs may not be the best choice either.

It’s really tempting, at this point when you’re so close to finishing this project, just to riffle through your stash and pick something – anything – just to be done.  Or to use the cheapest, available fabric option.  Let me encourage you not to do that.  A good backing allows your quilting stitches to melt into it and it will help your quilt hang better.  A cheaply manufactured backing won’t do either of these. 

  • Batting – Choosing batting for a wall hanging is a bit different than choosing batting for a show quilt or a one which goes on the bed.  With a bed quilt, I’m concerned about drapability and durability (if the quilt will spend some time on the inside of a washer).  With a show quilt I’m concerned about a batt which highlights the applique and stand up to heavy quilting.  Batting for a wall hanging should help the quilt hang flat against the wall and be thin enough it doesn’t cause too much bulk for a domestic machine.  For those reasons, I tend to lean towards 100% cotton batting for wall hangings.  One hundred percent cotton battings are generally low loft and work very well for photo applique quilts. 
  • Sewing machine – You don’t need a super-fancy sewing machine with 10,000 different stitches to work with photo applique quilts.  You do need a sewing machine with a good, straight stitch and has the ability to drop the feed dogs.  You will probably want to clean your machine before starting this process and again after it’s complete, as well as make sure it’s oiled (if it requires oiling).
  • Sewing machine needles – This depends a lot on the individual quilter.  Personally, I prefer 90/14 or 80/12 denim or topstitching needle.  The super-sharp point allows the needle to penetrate all three layers of the quilt sandwich without missing a beat and the wide eye easily accommodates heavier weight thread.  If I’m working with a photo applique top  which has a great deal of fusible webbing, I have used Schmetz nonstick needles – the fusible won’t stick to these.  If the applique has some specialty fabrics which may be a bit fussy in the applique process, I’ve turned to Organ’s silk needles.  If the needle in your machine has been there for a while, you will probably want to change it before beginning the quilting process.  And if the stitch quality changes, the needle begins producing large holes, or the thread starts breaking, stop and change it again.  Normally sewing machine needles are good for about eight hours’ worth of normal stitching (twice as long for titanium-coated needles), but this process puts some serious stress on the needle.  Just keep the picture below in mind as you stitch.
  • Scissors —  Curved scissors or embroidery scissors are handy to have with photo applique because they will let you clip threads close to the surface of the quilt.
  • Safety pins or Spray baste or Free Fuse – Again, this is a personal choice.  You will need something to hold the quilt sandwich together, so it won’t slip as you stitch.  Some quilters like safety pins, others like spray baste, and still others like Free Fuse.  There are no wrong choices here – it’s whatever works best for you.  Personally, for small quilts such as these, I reach for the spray baste or free fuse.  I dislike stopping to remove pins.
  • Free motion or darning foot – When I decided to upgrade from my Janome 7700, I was chagrined to find lots of different feet now claim these titles.  What you need is a foot which looks like this:

Or this:

You want a foot you can see around, but you don’t want an open-toed quilting foot such as this:

The toes will catch on the fabric edges and threads and make a mess.  If you machine didn’t come with a darning foot, google your machine to see if there’s one available.  Sometimes local dealers will carry them and generally you can always find them on a web site somewhere.  If your particular brand of machine doesn’t have a darning foot, you can order a generic one – just make sure you know if your machine is a high or low shank, so you’ll get one which fits. 

  • Quilting gloves – One more time with the personal choice disclaimer.  Some quilters find they can’t quilt without these, others never use them.  Personally, I find the gloves allow me to have a better grip on my quilt so I can manipulate it where it needs to go. Quilting gloves have something on their surface which allows them to hold onto the quilt sandwich better than just your bare hands.  Sometimes it’s the fabric the gloves are made of:

And sometimes it’s these plastic-y dots. 

Some quilters have told me they simply go to a dollar store and purchase gardening or work gloves and use those.  My personal favorites are these:

Admittedly these are a bit pricey, but they do allow my hands to breathe better and when I’m not using them, I can pull my three fingers out of the gloves and allow them to hang around my wrist (so no looking for the gloves when I go back to quilting).  I also use quilting gloves when handling yardage – such as when sewing on borders or blocks into rows. 

Get all this stuff together, because next week we start the quilting process. 

Until Next Week, remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


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