Finishing Your Photo Applique

Okay… If you have your supplies and your sewing machine is in good working order, it’s just about time to start having some serious fun. 

First give your quilt top a good press on both the right and the wrong sides.  This will not only make sure it’s wrinkle free, but also ensure all the applique pieces are still firmly attached.  Square up all the corners and then layer your quilt (backing, batting, top) and pin, spray baste, or Free Fuse into place.  Be sure your batting and backing is at least two inches larger on all four sides than your top.

Second, let’s talk about your sewing machine’s tension.  Every sewing machine comes with its tension pre-set at the factory, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change it.  And chances are, you may have to, especially if the thread on top of the machine and the thread in the bobbin are two different weights.  Adjusting the tension will not hurt your machine – just remember to return it to its regular settings when you’re through.

The key with any tension is you don’t want the bobbin thread to show on the quilt top and you don’t want to see the thread used on the front to pop through on the back.  Usually your tension is factory-set in a neutral position (generally somewhere between four and five).  When you move the number higher, you increase the top thread tension and when you lower the number you decrease the top thread tension.  To change the bobbin’s tension you must work with the bobbin case.  Normally with this type of applique quilting you only need to worry about the thread on top of your machine, since it will be heavier than the thread in the bobbin.  I have used a 12-weight thread on my machine – which is pretty thick – and I’ve lowered my top tension to almost zero.  Which is fine.  The main idea is to keep the tension between the top and the bobbin thread even.  If you see “pops” of bobbin thread on the top surface of the quilt, lower the top tension gradually.  Sudden moves with tension adjustment are not a good thing. 

If you’ve lowered the top tension as much as you can, and you still see the bobbin thread peaking through, you may need to switch to a heavier thread in the bobbin.  Usually if the same thread weight is on top and in the bobbin, the tension issue goes away.  However, there are always exceptions to this and if even after you’ve played with the tension and changed bobbin thread and you’re still seeing “pops,” you may want to check your needle to make sure you have the correct size and type inserted.

So….what if the opposite is happening?  What if the top thread is showing on the back of the quilt?  You reverse the process.  Slowly tightened the top tension, number by number, until the tension evens out and there are no more “pops” of top thread on the back of the quilt.

Now we’ll get to the part of the actual applique quilting (it’s a type of thread painting, but don’t let that term may you anxious).  If you’ve free motion quilted on your domestic machine before, you can skip over the next couple of paragraphs.  If you’ve never free motioned, have only done it a few times, or it’s been a while since you’ve tried it, stick with me here.  Before you begin working with your “real” quilt – the one you’ve spent hours of effort on – let’s make a practice sandwich and try work on it first.  Take a square of fabric at least 12-inches square (it’s helpful if you have a scrap about this size of the actual fabrics used on your “real” quilt) and fuse a few leaves and petals on it.  Using the same batting, make a quilt sandwich.  Drop the feed dogs on your machine and practice free motion quilting.  Get comfortable controlling the speed of your stitches, quilting the background, outlining the petals and leaves, and making sure your tension is correct.  Once you’re satisfied with your quilting, load up your “real” quilt. 

Stitching in the ditch. It’s straight quilting stitches done by a walking foot or regular sewing foot as close to the seam as you can get. Do not stitch in the seam, as this weakens the piecing stitches.
  1.  Step One – If you have added borders, put your walking foot on your machine (a regular straight stitch foot will also work if you don’t have a walking foot) and stitch in the ditch near the seam where the border joins the background.  If there is a second (or third) border, stitch in those ditches, too.  This will help anchor the quilt layers together.  Even if I don’t have borders, I stay stitch the edges my quilt to add some stability to them.  I also stay stitch the outer edge of the last border.  
Stay stitched edges. This is simply a line of straight stitches about 1/8-inch from the edge. Sometimes it’s called edge stitching.
  •  Step Two — Remove the walking foot or straight stitch foot from your machine and attach the darning foot/free-motion presser foot.  Make sure you have the correct size needle inserted and the feed dogs dropped.
Almost ready to rock and roll….but first I add this….
A Supreme Glider. This fits over the bed of your sewing machine and makes the surface super-slick and smooth so it’s effortless moving the fabric. It comes with a hole cut out for your feed dog area. In my opinion, this is a “must have” for free motion quilting on a domestic machine.
  • Step Three – The edges of the applique pieces need to be sewn down first.  Thread your needle with a color of thread which will blend with the shapes in the middle of your quilt (because that’s where we begin). 
  • Step Four — Lower the presser foot and if your machine has a needle-down option, engage it. 
  • Step Five — Position your needle over the edge of a piece of the applique.  Using the handwheel or the needle up/down function, lower the needle and then bring it back up.  A loop of thread from the bobbin should come up with the needle.  Pull the bobbin thread up to the front of the quilt.  Then holding both the top thread and bobbin thread behind the presser foot, take a few stitches in place to lock the threads.  Then clip the thread tails behind the presser foot off, even with the quilt top.  If you repeat this process every time you change thread, you will avoid those ugly “thread nests” on the back of your quilt.
Outline stitches around applique pieces.
  • Step Six — Begin sewing around the edges of the applique pieces to permanently adhere them to the quilt top.  There are a couple of thoughts to bear in mind as you do this.  First, these stitches may be a bit longer than you’re used to.  This is fine, but you don’t want them as long as basting stitches.  Second, speed is not your friend.  If you’ve watched videos of quilters quilting with their domestic machine or long arm, you know it appears they are quilting super-fast.  This is not the case.  The videos are sped up on purpose.  Watching someone quilt for longer than 10 minutes can get boring.  Video producers speed up the quilting in order to keep viewers’ attention and to move the video to the next part.  You do want your hands to move at the same rate as your needle (remember your feed dogs are down and you’re moving your fabric).  If you’re uncomfortable with the speed, take your foot off the petal and allow the machine to come to a stop.  Then try again.  Give yourself a few minutes, but soon you’ll pick up a rhythm and be happy with it.
Pull the bobbin thread up by lowering the needle and then bringing it back up. Stitch in place for a few stitches to lock the threads, then snip the tails.
  • Step Seven — When you’re finished with tacking down the edges of the first piece of applique, stop with the needle in the down position.  Lift the presser foot and use the handwheel or the needle up/down button to raise the needle to its highest position.  Gently pull the quilt towards you so you can see where you stopped sewing.  Tug on the top thread so it pulls a loop of bobbin thread to the top.  Clip the top and bobbin thread off.  This will prevent the threads from forming a “nest” of threads on the back. 
  • Step Eight — Continue working around each piece of applique in this manner, until each piece is tacked into place.  Always work from the middle of the quilt out towards the edge and change thread as needed to match the fabric. 
I used varigated thread with the entire piece. This meant I only had three thread changes: Pink, green, and the goldy-brown I used over the flower centers.
I purchased a yellow eyelash yard, thinking I might use this to couch the center, but decided it actually detracted from the flower, so I didn’t use it.
I’m pretty satisfied with this little quilt. I still have to echo quilt the flowers or meader around them (haven’t decided which one I’ll use). And also need to determine how to quilt the borders. I know it looks as if this quilt has a pink and a black border, but the black is actually black batting.
  • Step Nine – Once all the pieces are tacked down, now it’s time to add highlights, shadows, and other details you can’t add with fabric.  This time begin working from the outside edges in and concentrate only on what’s under your needle.  Don’t worry about any other area of the quilt.  Go over the area as much as you need to in order to make it look like you desire.  Change thread colors as needed, being sure to bring the bobbin thread to the top of the quilt each time so there won’t be any thread nests on the back.  Use darker thread for the shadows and lighter thread for highlights.  When you’re working on petals, follow the curvature of the shapes.  At first, you may need to mark the areas with a chalk pencil or Frixion Pen.  For the leaves you can quilt in veins as well as add highlights and shadows. 
  1.   Step 10 – Once the appliques are tacked down and detailed out, now we must quilt the background.  Generally I tackle this in one of two ways.  I will either echo quilt the applique by stitching about ¼-inch away from the shapes and then without lifting the presser foot or cutting my thread, stitch another ¼-inch away from the first stitching.  I’ll continue echo quilting this way until the background is filled.  Or I may decide I want to meander quilt the background.  Sometimes the process I decide to use depends on my mood…at other times I’m way more practical.  If I have a lot of open space, I usually echo quilt.  If everything is tightly spaced or the piece is small, I tend to meander quilt. 
Echo Quilting
Meander Quilting

And that’s it.  That’s all there is to applique quilting.  Once the quilting is complete, you’ll need to square the quilt up (trim off the extra batting and backing and make sure the corners are 90 degrees), press it, and bind it.  Then add a label and a hanging sleeve and step back and admire your handiwork. 

I hope you enjoy this process as much as I do.  If there is any quilting technique where you can truly make the quilt you want to make and enjoy adding all the details to, it’s this one.  I encourage you to give it a try.   I would also advise beginning with medium sized wall hanging.  A small one can be difficult because it takes some time to realize what details you need to keep in and what you need to leave out. A small space just compounds that problem.  A large quilt may be too taxing for the first attempt. 

Until Next Week, Remember the Details May the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


One reply on “Finishing Your Photo Applique”

Sherri, this is AWESOME! Have you used your photo appliqué technique with human faces or animals, or primarily with botanicals? I just started playing with a software app for Mac (compatible with Apple laptops and desktop computers only, not with iPhone or iPad) called PhotoSketcher that will convert photographs to “drawings” and my head is spinning with ideas. One photo-to-insta-drawing that came out particularly well features my husband and sons and I was amazed by how much MORE comes across in their facial expressions in the “drawing” than in the original photograph. I sent it to Spoonflower to have it printed on a fat quarter and I should get that in a few days. I’m planning to experiment with adding some color to the “sketch” with Inktense permanent water color pencils. maybe adding some three-dimensional texture with embroidery stitches, and then using it in some kind of appliqué collage piece. I will say that I was disappointed by how small the “photo sketch” was when I uploaded the JPG into Spoonflower; I’d love for the drawing to fill the entire 45″ width of fabric and I’m not sure whether it was the resolution of the photo I started with, some size limitation of the sketches generated by the PhotoSketcher app I was using, or something that happened to the file when I uploaded it to Spoonflower. I hadn’t thought of asking a copy shop to just blow it up and print it enormous for me, but that would open up lots of additional creative possibilities. I’ll have to check out the other programs you mentioned as well –I am writing them down!!

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