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Caring for Antique Quilts

Well….the Met Gala is over. 

I did not receive my invitation this year…again.

I know what you’re thinking.  “What does the Met Gala have to do with quilts?!”

In and of itself, nothing.  But if you watched the Red Carpet introduction or caught some of the news headlines afterwards, this iconic dress

Made a sudden, and in most cases, unwelcome appearance on the carpet.  This iconic dress is the one Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy.  The dress is as iconic and once-in-a-lifetime as Marilyn herself.  It was purchased by Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum for $4.8 million in 2016 and is worth at least $10 million today.  And Kim Kardashian wore this dress on the Red Carpet at the Met Gala.

The following day Twitter and YouTube were lit.  I mean completely on fire with conservationists and dress historians who were livid – not so much at Kim – but at the museum for loaning the dress out.  The rhinestones on the dress were hand placed on a chiffon fabric which is highly flammable. So flammable that now the fabric is no longer sold.  Marilyn had to be sewn into the dress and it was made to fit her and her only.  In the following days, many heated discussions went on about the harm Kim did by wearing this dress. The dress was too long.  The hem drug along the floor.  The dress had to be manhandled in order to get it on Kim.

Which brings me back to quilts – sort of.  Hang on.  I promise we’ll get there.   Historically and currently, textiles must prove they’re worthy of preserving.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume and Textile Department receives no federal funding.  The building it’s housed in does receive 10% of its funding from New York City, but what’s inside has been purchased or loaned from public appeals and fund raising.  The Gala is put on to help fund and preserve collections – and part of the collection is clothing and costumes and textiles (RE: quilts).  And as far as art collections go, textiles are pretty low on the totem pole with almost any museums.

Why?

Because historically sewing these items was considered women’s work and women’s work has always (and still is in many cases), not valued as much as the other art forms (thus Kim could pay to “borrow” Marilyn’s dress and wear it willy-nilly with no thought to the consequences).  Yes, many museums have a textile section, but generally these are much smaller in comparison to other collections and a great number of the items have been donated.  Conservation and preservation may be spotty and incomplete at best and non-existent at the worst.  Thank God the United States has several quilt museums that do a wonderful job at taking care of these uniquely American art forms. 

So, with all that buzzing through my head this week, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us have antique quilts in our collection and are we doing enough to properly take care of them?  And are we taking the right steps in preserving tomorrow’s heirlooms we’re creating today? According to various quilt conservation web sites, there are six steps we need to work through in order to give our antique quilts a long and well-preserved life. 

The first step is analyze the quilt.  This is important because determining what fibers were used in constructing the quilt will help us make the best decision on how to treat and clean the quilt.  We tend to think of quilts as being made from all cotton fabrics, but this is not always the case – especially after 1910.  It was then the fabric market was flooded with man-made material.  The fabric which makes up the quilt depends on when it was made, the region it came from, and the financial background of the quilter.  Quilts can be constructed from wool, silk, sateen, velvet.  Quilts from the late sixties and through the seventies may contain polyester material – a time when it was almost impossible to find 100% cotton fabric.  Knowing the fiber content is the first step in conserving our antique quilts.  If we know the type of fabric, we know how to treat it.

The construction method is also important to know.  Is it hand pieced or machine pieced?  Is it hand quilted or machine quilted?  Is it a combination of both?  Is it tied?  Is it all applique or is it pieced or a combination of both?  A hand quilted or a tied quilt usually requires a bit more delicate handling.  And while you’re analyzing the construction, be sure to look for loose or missing stitches and weak or frayed fabric, especially around the binding or along fold lines.  Identify decorations such as embroidery (hand or machine), painted or inked work, and metallic thread.  All of these figure into the construction method and it’s important to take note of these things. 

Lastly, identify soil and stains.  One glance at an antique quilt may tell you nothing more than it’s dirty and needs a bath.  However, if you can identify stains, you know how to correctly treat them – it’s kind of like doing regular laundry.  An oily stain has fuzzy edges.  Water-based stains can form a ring.  Dirt or soil can be caked on.  Aged starch discolors some fabric.  Fold lines are often yellowed.  While not all of the stains can be removed completely, it’s critical to identify them because in some cases they can cause continuous damage to fibers and dyes or attract insects.

One thing I have found helpful at this point is to make a rough sketch of my quilt.  On this sketch I draw the soil and stain locations and number them.  Beside the number I list what I think the stains are.  This is invaluable as you try to clean your quilt because what you use on a water-based stain is different than what you use on an oil-based stain.

Once this is done, the next step is cleaning the quilt.  And this can really open a can of worms.  Many quilt conservationists believe washing a quilt can take ten years off its life.  But many times washing a quilt is one way to get rid of stains which can shorten a quilt’s life more than ten years.  However, it’s important to remember not every quilt needs to (or should) undergo an immersive water bath.  There are options.

If the quilt smells musty, consider airing the quilt.  If you have a room in your house which is well ventilated and you could spread out the quilt and allow it to air out undisturbed for a few days, this is the best-case scenario.  You’re avoiding direct sunlight, bugs, and temperamental weather changes. 

If you don’t have a spare room, the next best thing is to allow the quilt to air all day outside.  Lay a sheet on the grass, ground, picnic table, etc., to protect the quilt from the surface.  Do not, under any circumstances, hang the quilt from a clothesline.  This pulls on the fabric and stitches, causing severe stress along the folded area.  After the quilt is spread out, also lay a sheet on top of it.  This will protect it from leaves, pollen, and the occasional paw print from a critter.  Turn the quilt over several times during the day.  One day of outside airing may do the trick, but if the musty smell lingers, a second or even third day may be needed.  If more than one airing day is needed, be sure to bring the quilt in at night and then put it back out the next day. 

If the quilt is lightly soiled or you think it’s too fragile for washing, vacuuming may be your answer.  If the quilt is lightly soiled or just dusty, it’s easy to think a quick shake of the quilt outside may take care of the problem.  However, shaking can put stress on stitches and fold lines.  Vacuuming the quilt is the better option.  If this is your choice, the first idea to dismiss is the way you vacuum floors or upholstery.  Yes, you can use your regular vacuum cleaner, but you need to place a square of fiberglass or nylon screen (you can get this at your local hardware store) on the surface of the quilt.  Place the upholstery attachment on your vacuum hose and begin to vacuum.  Just allow the attachment to touch the screen and don’t press down.  Be sure the dust is not being redistributed on the quilt surface from the collection bag and don’t vacuum over any painted designs which are peeling or cracking.

Wet cleaning is tricky option.  If there are deep stains, heavy soil, water damage, or old starch discoloration, you have two choices:  You can either learn to live with the stain or you can wet-clean it.  If you opt to wash the entire quilt, part of it, or only in stained areas, know any type of wet cleaning is not easy and has the possibility of damaging a quilt beyond repair.  Quilts become heavier when they’re wet, which strains the fabric and can cause stitches to break.  They’re also heavier for you to handle, which can strain your back, knees, and arms. 

However, wet cleaning offers some benefits, too.  Dried out fibers may become more flexible.  Cotton and linen fabrics which may be acidic as a result of aging or improper storage can regain their neutral pH.  Fold lines and creases may relax in the water, improving the overall appearance of the quilt.  And while not all dirt and discoloration may be removed, they will at least be lessened. 

The dangers of wet cleaning an antique quilt are about the same as washing a quilt you just finished.  Dyes can run. Inks can dissolve.  Any glazing is removed.  Silk quilts are especially vulnerable to wet cleaning due to their production process.  Metallic salts are often added to silk to increase the body of the fabric.  Wet cleaning removes these salts, leaving the silk extremely fragile. 

So, wet cleaning is really a crap shoot.  You have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of it and decide if it’s worth it.  And if you decide wet cleaning is the route you want to take, there are a few steps to go through before you immerse the quilt.

  • Blot test the darker colors – Drop a few drops of water on the darker colors and allow the water to absorb and sit for two to three minutes.  Blot with a clean towel.  If no color appears on the towel, you’re good to go. 
  • Test the same way with the detergent you plan to use – More on detergents shortly.
  • Check for weak or damaged areas – Sometimes these may not hold up to the washing process.  The added weight may stress them out even more.  Consider “mending” the holes by tacking net or tulle over them.  Can you sew down loose patches or applique pieces?  If the backing has some compromised areas, hand stitch some fabric over those spots to support it.

There are two ways to wash your quilt – the bathtub or the washing machine.  In the past, we were told to avoid top-loading washers due to the agitator.  Even on delicate cycles, the quilt could get wrapped around the agitator and this could cause added stress on the cloth fibers and stitches could pop.  Some of the new washers no longer have agitators, so now many top loaders work just fine.  Use a delicate cycle, cold or warm water (not hot…never).  Once the water has drained from the washer’s tub, lift the quilt out and roll it up in a sheet (if it’s a bed-sized quilt) or towels if the quilt is smaller.  Get as much excess water out of the quilt, then lay flat to dry.  Do not hang or drape over a drying rack.  This can cause stress on the fibers and the stitches.

If the bathtub is chosen, be sure to clean it first to remove any oils from body wash or shampoo.  If the quilt is bed-sized, it will be heavy after washing and difficult to remove from the tub.  You may want to enlist the assistance of a fellow quilter or other friend to help you get it out of the tub.  Since most bathtubs are not “quilt-sized” (and if you have one that is, I am super jealous), the quilt will have to be folded to fit.  As one section is cleaned, you’ll need to refold the quilt to expose another part.  It’s much easier to do this when the quilt is still floating in the water, as the water will help support the quilt and you won’t have to tug and stress your back or the quilt.  Once the quilt is repositioned, drain the water, refill the tub, and proceed until the entire quilt is cleaned.  When you’re satisfied with the process, fill the tub with clean water to rinse out the detergent.  Then drain the tub one more time and then gently press the quilt with your hands to get out as much water as possible.  The quilt will be heavy (especially if it’s a bed-sized quilt) and it’s a good idea to have some help at this point. Lift the quilt out of the tub, supporting it to take as much stress as possible off the fibers and stitches.  Lay it on a sheet and roll the quilt up in the sheet to get rid of as much excess water as possible.  Lay flat to dry. 

With either washer or bathtub, the job is easier if you vacuum the quilt before either process.  This can get off quite a bit of dirt and soil, so the washing won’t be quite so arduous.  Stains should also be treated before washing.  I think every quilter out there has his or her own favorite stain remover.  I can tell you what I prefer, but you will want to do your own research to see what works best for you.  I start with the gentlest remover and then proceed to the harsher ones. 

  1. A make-up sponge, water, and blue Dawn dish detergent.  I use a sponge because they won’t do as much damage as a brush – even a soft toothbrush
  2. Hydrogen peroxide and a make-up sponge
  3. Oxyclean Max and a make-up sponge

Try using an up-and-down motion with the sponge instead of a rubbing it across the surface.  If the stain is heavily set or the soil is caked on, you may want to try removing the stain several times before washing.  Rust stains are particularly difficult to remove.  The only thing I’ve found which will remove most of those stains without harming a quilt is Rit Rust Remover.

And whatever you do, avoid straight chlorine bleach like the plague.  It can harm fibers.  If chlorine bleach seems like your only answer to remove a stain, dilute to three parts water to one part chlorine bleach.

Now let’s talk about detergents.  We’re used to laundry detergents which do lots of things to our clothes.  They can brighten colors and whites.  They can lift and remove stains.  They can infuse our laundry with scents which last for weeks.

You don’t want any of that in your quilt.  The object of washing a quilt is to remove the dirt, stains, and soil and return the quilt back to a neutral pH.  An all-natural detergent is best.  Charlie’s Soap, Quilt Soap, Mrs. Meyer’s, Orvus, Lacey, and Quilter’s Rule are all wonderful detergent brands to use. 

Avoid any detergent that’s loaded with chemicals or brighteners.  The object of all detergent (which is a base) is to turn a stain (most of which are acidic) into a salt so it washes cleanly away.  You will also want to reduce the amount of detergent used.  The rule of thumb is five tablespoons of liquid detergent to 4 gallons of water.  This ratio of detergent to water will clean the quilt, but won’t be so sudsy you have to rinse the quilt numerous times.

If, after you take all of these wet-cleaning steps, there are still stains on the quilt you can’t seem to remove, there is always the possibility of dry cleaning the quilt.  Before any quilt conservator faints (because dry cleaning involves chemicals and chemicals aren’t good for antique quilts), let me add this is the very last resort, you want to shop your dry cleaner, and it may not involve the entire quilt – just the heavily stained area.  You would only employ the dry-cleaning process if the quilt was stained with oil, grease, paint, or tar. 

Let’s talk dry cleaners first.  Google dry cleaners in your area which work with wedding gowns.  Those dry cleaners are used to handling heirloom textiles and may be your best bet in a successful quilt dry-cleaning process.  Whoever you decide to entrust your antique quilt to, be prepared to communicate clearly what you need, and if they can’t promise to do what you want, move on to another dry cleaner.  Specifically, this is what you want them to do:

  1.  Pre-treat the soiled area.  This may be all you need to remove the stain.  If the pre-treatment leaves a circle, the entire quilt will need to be dry cleaned or wet cleaned.
  2. Ask the cleaner to use a clean supply of solvent in the dry-cleaning machine.  Dirty solvent can redeposit even more soil on your quilt.
  3. Request shortened cycle times and cabinet drying to lessen the stress on the quilt.
  4. Specify the quilt shouldn’t be steamed, pressed, or treated with any finishes after cleaning.
  5. Ask that the quilt be rolled on a large diameter rube rather than folded after cleaning.

So far (fingers crossed), I’ve had wonderful results washing my quilts.  There is only one I had to work with a dry cleaner with.  I purchased a Sunbonnet Sue quilt several years ago from a thrift store at North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  At some point, this sweet quilt hit a flood zone, because you can see where the flood water marked the quilt.  I washed it twice, and regular wet cleaning improved it.  Fortunately there is a dry cleaner in my area who is familiar with treating heirloom textiles, and he was able to get a bit more of the stain out without harming the quilt.  At this point, I think “it is what it is” and the stain will remain – lighter, but still visible.  A testimony in part to the quilt’s survival.    

This is a lengthy topic, so I’m breaking it into two parts. Next week, we will continue to discuss how to care for your antique quilts as well as how to treat the heirloom quilts you’re making today so they last for generations to come

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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Going Around in Circles

I love old cars.  My preferred vintage automobile is a 1965 Mustang.  What do old cars and quilts have to do with each other?  Bear with me for a few paragraphs and I’ll explain.

I’m a retired high school educator.  If you took any of my classes, invariably at some point, you would write a research paper.  I was trying my best to get these kids ready for college.  I had a student who was as passionate about old Volkswagen Beetles as I was about old Mustangs. 

Her research paper covered the history of the VW Bug and for her senior project, she and her father rebuilt a Volkswagen from the frame up.  She drove it to school the day she presented her project.  Years later, I am still in awe of the paper and the project.  It was one of those rare occurrences when the teacher learned far more from the project than the student did. 

I learned the Volkswagen Beetle was designed by Ferdinand Porche (yes…that Porche…the same one who created the snazzy sports car).  He wanted the car to appeal to everyone, so he did a little covert research.  He would station himself outside at a café or park at a table.  On the table he would place shapes … squares, rectangles, circles, triangles, etc.  Then he would ask the folks passing by which shape they liked the most.  The majority of them liked the circular forms.

Thus, the rounded shape of the VW Bug was born.

The tie-in between old cars and quilts is this:  Circles.  Automakers like circles.  So do quilters.  Circles are attractive shapes no matter what you’re making (like cookies…most cookies are circles…so are pies and cakes).  Circles are everywhere – the bakery, in the middle of some flowers, the sky, the playground, cars, jewelry, architecture, etc.  Circles are the third most appearing shape in nature (the first is the hexagon). Half-circles appear as arches in architecture.  Chances are, no matter if you’re a piecer or an appliquer, you’ve made or seen quilts with circles.  Circles can seem challenging, no matter if you’re piecing them or appliqueing them.  However, don’t let the absence of corners or points intimidate you.  If you know how to handle the curves, circles are no harder to applique or piece than their square-ish counterparts.  This blog will deal with applique circles.  I’ll write one on pieced circles later.

We worked with raw-edge applique circles earlier this year (go here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2022/04/13/the-final-steps-in-raw-edge-applique/ ).  Generally, these circles are straight forward:  Draw the needed size circle on the fusible, cut it out, fuse to the wrong side of the fabric, cut the fabric circle out, fuse into place, then either zigzag or buttonhole stitch around the circle.  Larger circles with gentle curves are easier.  Small circles with tighter curves sometimes have to be sewn one stitch at a time. 

Finished-edge applique circles – no matter whether if they’re to be sewn down by hand or machine – seem to have nearly endless construction possibilities. 

Seriously.

Endless. 

In this blog, I will attempt to cover ten ways to make these circles, but keep in mind there’s probably more ways to construct circles than I have in this blog.  Every time I think I have learned all the methods available, I find out there’s more. 

Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Circles

These circles come in two sizes – small-to-medium and large.  Karen also has Perfect Ovals, if you need a more elongated type of circle. 

These forms are made from heat-resistant plastic.  The original set of circles contains 15 different sizes (7/16-inch to 2-inches), with four plastic templates of each size. 

The larger circles are also made from heat-resistant plastic and range in size from 2 ¼ to 4 ½-inches.  Besides use in applique, these are great for constructing the Mariner’s Compass and as a template for Drunkard’s Path. 

Perfect Ovals (which are great for making flower petals), are made from heat-resistant plastic, and each pack contains 20 ovals in 10 sizes, two of each size. 

This system is the circle-making-method I was introduced to when I began applique. I take the plastic circle disk, and trace around it on the wrong side of the fabric. 

Then I cut the circle out.  Don’t cut directly on the drawn line but leave about a ¼-inch fabric margin around the line. 

Thread a needle (helpful hint:  hand quilting thread works GREAT here)  and hand sew a running stitch around the circle, between the outside edge and the drawn line. 

Insert the plastic disk in the center of the circle and pull thread up around it. 

On the wrong side of the fabric-covered disk, and using a small paintbrush, I dampen the edges with starch or a starch substitute, then press with a small iron. 

Once the fabric has cooled, I remove the plastic disk.  I may have to re-shape the circle a little, if removing the disk makes the circle a little wonky.  Between any needed reshaping and sewing then it down, the circle comes out about as perfect as possible.

Like everything, Perfect Circles/Ovals have their pros and cons. The pros are:

  • You can make more than one of the same sized circle at a time.
  • The heat-resistant plastic is sturdy and holds up to some serious abuse.
  • These can be found on Karen’s website, at your LQS, and on quilting websites.
  • They’re not terribly expensive.
  • Karen Kay Buckley’s products come from a woman-owned business.

The cons are:

  • You are limited to the sizes available in the packages.  If I can’t match the size Perfect Circle to what I need, I either go with the next size up or down.  However, in some quilts, this is not possible.  I’ve needed some fabric circles as tiny as 3/16-inch and the Perfect Circles are not this small.
  • You are limited in how many circles you can make.  The original Perfect Circles have four of each size and the larger Perfect Circles have two of each size.  If you’re constructing a quilt with lots of circles, it may take you a long time to make the number of circles you need.
  • Whether you’re making three circles or thirty circles, this process takes time.

Applipops

These little circle-makers are the new kids on the block.  Applipops are a set of nesting metal washers.  They’re easy to use.  You find the washer which corresponds to the size circle needed, then find the washer one size up from this, so the two will nest snugly together. 

Cut a square of fabric larger than the washers and place it right side down in the larger washer.  Insert the smaller washer inside.

Trim away the excess fabric.

Then with a small paint brush and some starch or starch substitute, thoroughly wet the edges of the fabric.  Immediately press the fabric edges in, towards the center of the Applipop.

Once the metal washers have cooled (because they will be really hot), you can pop them apart and admire your circle.

The Applipop Pro Set (which is what I have) makes eight circle sizes – 3/8″, 1/2″, 3/4″, 1″, 1 1/4 “,1 1/2″, 1 3/4″,  and 2”. 

Here are what I consider the pros and cons of the Applipop Method.

Pros:

  • Because the Applipops are constructed from metal, they conduct the heat from the iron really well.  This means your circle edges are sharp and don’t get out of shape easily. 
  • I find these easier to use than the Perfect Circles…and this is a difficult thing for me to admit, because I adore Karen Kay Buckley.
  • They come with a holder, so it’s simple to keep them organized and all together.
  • This method is pretty fast so you can make your circles quickly and easily.
  • If you have lots of scraps, this method works well to turn those scraps into super-nice circles.
  • Applipops is a woman-owned business.

Cons:

  • You can only make one size circle at a time unless you have the Applipop Pro Set or two sets of the regular Applipops. 
  • While the metal conducts heat well, it also retains heat—which means you need to let everything cool completely before removing the Applipop.
  • They are pricey, the costs running anywhere from $35.00 to nearly $60.00 depending on what kind of set you purchase and where you buy it from.  However, unlike heat resistant plastic which may warp over time and use, the metal lasts forever. 
  • You are limited to the sizes available.  Unlike Perfect Circles, the Applipops have bigger “jumps” between sizes.   To get the needed size, it may not be possible to use the next size up or down – there may be too much of a difference.
  • It’s easy to get pleats on the front of your circle if you’re not careful.

English Paper Piecing

This method is definitely “old school.”  You’ll need some card stock, a pencil, a pair of paper scissors, a hole punch (optional), needle, thread, starch or a starch substitute, a small paint brush, small iron, and something to make your circles – a compass, a circle template, drinking glass, coffee cup – any circular shape which is the same size as the needed circle. 

On the card stock, draw a circle the same size you need for your project.  I use a hole punch to make a hole in the template.  The hole makes it easier to remove the template from the circle after it’s made. 

Place the template on the wrong side of your fabric and trace around it.  A small piece of double-sided tape may come in handy here to keep the cardboard template in place.

Cut out the fabric circle about ¼-inch away from the drawn line.  With a hand sewing needle and thread, sew a running stitch between the fabric edge and the drawn line.  Insert the cardboard template in the fabric circle and gently pull up the thread so it gathers around the cardboard and tie off the thread to hold the shape.  With the paintbrush, apply starch around the edges of the fabric.  Using a hot iron, press the edges until dry to help the circle hold its shape.  Allow to cool.  At this point, personal choice can be used.  If you want to make enough cardboard templates for every circle, you can leave the templates in until you’re ready to applique the circle down.  If not, you simply pop the cardboard circle out.  Here’s where the hole in the middle comes in handy – you simply insert a seam ripper, a stiletto, or my personal favorite – The Purple Thang – and remove it without a lot of fuss or the fabric circle losing its shape.

For reference, this is a Purple Thang. It’s truly a great all-around sewing tool and they aren’t expensive.

There are a couple of ideas to be aware of with this method.  First, if you have any kind of scan and cutter, such as Brother Scan and Cut or Cricut, many times these can be programed to cut the size circle needed.  You can make an entire 8 ½ x 11-inch sheet of circles with a touch of the button and repeat the process until you have all you need.  If you have an Accuquilt cutter, there are circular dies, but the sizes are limited. Still, it’s faster than cutting everything out by hand.  Second, it’s awfully tempting to use left-over lined index cards or those cardboard inserts that come in magazines or clog your mailbox. 

Please don’t.

The ink from the ruled lines or the advertising inserts may transfer itself to the fabric when you wet the edges with starch.  And that makes a mess ask me how I know.

Here are what I consider the pros and cons of the English Paper Piecing Method.

Pros

  • You get the exact size circle needed.
  • You can produce as many as you need in an assembly-line fashion.
  • If you have some type of electric scanner and cutter, you can produce as many templates as you need with a touch of the button.  Easy and accurate. 

Cons:

  • Most of the card stock templates will only hold up to a few uses, so you must plan on making lots of templates.
  • This method is probably takes the longest because there are so many steps you must undertake by hand.  Even if you have a scanner and cutter, this type of circle-making takes time.
  • I don’t think you get the crisp edges with this method that you do if you use Applipops or Perfect Circles.

Apliquick/Glue and Orange Stick Method

If I have to make a lot of circles, this is my preferred method.  I find it both quick and accurate.  I will add a caveat to this:  I’ve used this the Apliquick technique for a long time.  If you’re new to this method, you may find it takes a little while to get used to it.  For this method, you’ll need some fusible interfacing or stabilizer, the Apliquick tools or two orange sticks, a circle template in the size needed, pencil, scissors, iron, fine grit sandpaper or a sandpaper board, and a glue pen such as Sew Line.

On the non-fusible side of the interfacing or stabilizer, draw the number and sizes of circles needed.  Cut out on the line.

Fuse the circles to the wrong side of the fabric, leaving about ½-inch between circles and let cool.  Cut the circles out, allowing for about ¼-inch fabric margin around the circle. 

Place the circles on the sandpaper (this helps keep them in one place while you’re turning the edges) and using the glue pen, add a line of glue to the stabilizer.  Hold the circle in place with the Apliquick tool that looks like a fondue fork or one of the orange sticks.  Use the other Apliquick tool or second orange stick to turn the edges over and press so the fabric sticks to the glue. 

It works better to do a small section at a time and it’s okay if the fabric on the wrong side of the circle has some pleats – these won’t show on the right side.  You may need to smooth the edges just a bit with a fingernail.

Pros

  • You get the exact size circle needed.
  • This method lends itself to assembly line production
  • It is scrap-friendly
  • It’s fast

Cons

  • If you don’t have a few of these notions already in your applique toolbox, this method can be a bit pricey.  I don’t recommend purchasing the Apliquick tools until you know you really like this method and will use it.
  • This method takes a while to get comfortable with.  If you need lots of circles quickly, you may want to use a technique you’re familiar with until you’ve practiced a bit.

Needle Turn

Tale as old as time … that’s what needle turn is to applique.  This is probably one of the oldest, if not the oldest hand applique method out there.  You will need a circle template in the size needed, a fabric pen or pencil, applique thread to match the fabric, and applique pins. The method is simple.  Draw a circle the size needed on the right side  of the fabric.  Cut it out, with about ¼-inch margin of fabric around it. 

I also draw the circle on the background fabric as a reference. It’s helpful.

Pin or baste in place.  Then using the needle turn method, applique into place, making sure to follow the drawn line.

That’s it.  Easy-peasy.

Pros

  • This probably the easiest method of circle production
  • It requires no fancy-smancy tools
  • It’s a fairly quick method of circle-making.

Cons:

  • If you don’t constantly follow the drawn line, the circle will come out wonky.  Most of the time if I use this method, I will also draw the circles on my background fabric.  This way I have both the line drawn in the circle fabric and the one drawn on the background fabric to go by.
  • The edges of these circles are not as crisp as the ones made by the other methods.
  • I find making small circles via needle turn difficult and no matter what, they don’t come out smooth.

Freezer Paper

Most of us appliquers are familiar with the freezer paper technique.  Either we’ve used it ourselves, or we’ve heard enough about it to be familiar with it.  That said, I’ve never been particularly successful using freezer paper in the circles.  I always use it on top of the right side of the fabric.  For this method, you’ll need freezer paper, pencil, paper scissors, a circle template in the size needed, and an iron. 

Using the circle template, draw the size circle needed on the non-waxy side of the freezer paper.  Cut out and press to the right side of your fabric.  Now cut out the fabric circle out, leaving about ¼-inch of margin. 

Pin into place on the background fabric.  Using the freezer paper template as a guide, turn under the fabric and applique down (the same way you would for needle turn). 

Pros

  • Most of what you need should already be in your applique toolbox
  • Most freezer paper circles can be reused several times before the waxy underside loses its “stickiness.” 
  • You can “assembly line” several circles at a time
  • This method makes any size circle possible

Cons

  • Like needle turn, smaller circles are more difficult to make smoothly
  • You must follow the form of the freezer paper circle closely or your circle will turn out wonky.  Like with needle turn, if I use this method, I also draw the circle on the background fabric as an additional guide.
  • The edges are not as crisp as with other methods

Lined Circles

I use this method the least, because I find it only works best with large-ish circles.  Lined circles use a piece of sew-in interfacing and a sewing machine.  For this method, you’ll need a circle template the size of the needed circle, medium weight sew-in interfacing (you can use fusible interfacing if careful), a fabric marker, your sewing machine, and hand sewing supplies.

Using the template, draw the size circle needed on the wrong wide of the fabric and cut it out, with ¼-inch fabric margin.  Then with the same template, draw a circle on the interfacing and cut it out, again leaving a ¼-inch margin. 

Place the fabric circle and the interfacing circle right sides together.  Using a small machine stitch, sew around the drawn circle. 

To turn the circle inside out, cut a small slit in the interfacing and use that to turn the circle. 

Once the circle is turned right-side out, press it.

Pros

  • You can make a lot of circles fairly quickly
  • Most the supplies are probably already in your quilt studio.  Those which may be needed are inexpensive.
  • You may find sewing the circle on top of a piece of stabilizer will result in a smoother edge.

Cons

  • I have only had success with this method on large-ish circles.  Smaller ones tend to get eaten by the feed dogs or are too fiddly to sew well.
  • Sew-in interfacing works best.  Fusible can be used if you press carefully and make sure the fusible side is next to the wrong side of the fabric.  Otherwise you’ll fuse the circle to your ironing surface.  And it’s easy to get wrinkles you can unfuse with fusible interfacing.

There are a few “non-traditional” methods to make circles.  I’ve always said outside of the LQS, a quilter’s best shopping spots to find things to use are office supply places and hardware stores.  For circles, you may want to plan a visit to your local hardware.

Metal Washers

These are the types of metal washers I mean:

If you like the Applipop method, but find they don’t come in the sizes you need, a stroll down the nuts, bolts, and washer area in your local hardware may produce some substitutes.  These can be used in the same way Applipops are, however, there are a couple of factors about regular washers to keep in mind if you chose to use them.  If push comes to shove and you can’t make them work with the Applipop method, you can still use the metal washers, just treat them the same way you would Perfect Circles.

  • Make sure the washers are made from stainless steel.  The washers will get wet from the starch used and regular washers will rust.  Stainless steel ones won’t.
  • These washers may be thicker than the Applipops.
  • The inner circles on these washers are smaller than Applipops and the outer rim is fatter.  Make sure they’ll nest properly.

Pros

  • You can make lots of circles in all different sizes
  • This is a fairly inexpensive method, and the washers can be reused

Cons

  • You may have difficulties finding stainless steel washers which will nest
  • The thicker washers may not give the desired look.

Mylar Washers

Mylar washers look like this:

And some of them are heat-proof – which is not the same as heat resistant.  Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Circles are heat resistant – meaning you can use an iron on them, and they won’t melt or warp (at least not for a long time or unless they’re in continual use).  Heat-proof mylar washers may melt or warp from the direct heat of an iron.  So how do we use them to make circles if we can’t use an iron?    Use the same method as Perfect Circles, but instead of pressing the edges with an iron, saturate them with starch or a starch substitute and let dry overnight.  If I use this method and need my circles in a hurry, I have employed the aid of my blow dryer.

Pros

  • This is a relatively inexpensive way to make lots of circles in all sizes
  • These are easily assembly-lined
  • Mindless prep – plan to binge watch something while constructing them
  • Mylar washers can be reused

Cons

  • May not produce as crisp of an edge as desired
  • Circles may need re-shaping after the washers are removed
  • Must be completely dry before removing the mylar washers

Nails

I’ve used this method before I discovered how to use Apliquick to make small circles.  This is a great way to make lots of tiny circles.  As with the metal washers, be sure to use a nail which won’t rust – such as aluminum or stainless-steel nails. 

Aluminum Nails

For this method, you’ll need nails which have the same size head as the circle you need, aluminum foil, starch or starch substitute, and nails.

Cut the circle the size of the nail head, plus ¼-inch.  Completely saturate the circle with starch or starch substitute. 

Cut a square piece of aluminum foil large enough for the circle to rest on, plus about ½-inch margin.  Lay the fabric circle on the foil.

Place the nail head on the circle.

Then crimp the aluminum foil around the nail shank and let dry overnight. 

Pros

  • You can make lots of circles at the same time
  • This method lends itself to assembly line prep
  • This is a good way to make lots of small circles
  • The nails can be reused
  • Again…plan on something to binge-watch

Cons

  • Watch out for the nail points…
  • The circles may need reshaping a little after the nail is removed
  • The fabric should be completely dry before removing the circle from the nail

With both the mylar washer method and the nail method, I plan to let my starch-saturated fabric at least dry overnight.  This means a little more advanced planning if you use either of these methods. 

From left to right: Perfect Circle Circle, English Paper Piecing Circle, Applipop Circle, and Apliquick Circle
From left to right: Freezer paper circle, lined circle, and needle turn circle

Just like with the VW Beetle, circles are great shapes to use in a quilt.  They are used in so many applique quilts.  You see them in flower centers, grapes, oranges, and berries.  They appear as bubbles and balls and balloons – and the list goes on.  If you applique at all, chances are, you’ll have to make some circles at some point.  With so many different methods available, I encourage you to find the method which works best for you and perfect it as much as you can.  However, I think it’s also important to have several methods in your applique toolbox.  I use different methods depending on the size circle I need to make. 

Just remember, if circles could make a car famous…imagine what they can do for your quilt.

Until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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Stuck on Glue

Today’s blog topic is glue – more specifically, fabric and sort-of-fabric glue (I’ll get to the “sort of” later).  I know this sounds like one of the most boring topics I could possibly write about concerning quilting, but hang with me because there’s a lot more to glue than just stick-to-it-ness.  And if you’re strictly a piecer and don’t think you’ll ever use glue because you think glue is only for applique, you may be wrong about that.  There are a few great ways to use glue when you’re piecing. 

First, let’s talk about what glue is. According to Simple English Wikipedia, glue is a sticky material (usually a liquid) which can stick two or more things together. Glue can be made from plant or animal parts, or it can be made from oil-based chemicals.Throughout our lives, we come in contact with all types of glue, from the basic Elmer’s School Glue which saw many of us through our elementary school crafting projects, to a type of adhesive called mastic which may hold our flooring securely in place.  As people who work primarily with fabric – most specifically cotton fabric – our glue world is filled with all types of glues, some which work great and others that are not-so-great.

The first time I heard the term fabric glue was in a beginner’s quilting class around 2000. Before I made only garments – most specifically, heirloom French garments or smocked clothing for children.  Glue was not used, mentioned, or suggested for either of these.  When the quilting teacher threw out fabric glue as one of our optional notions, I was just a tad skeptical.  I was a purist.  Sewing involved pins, needles, fabric, and thread.

Not glue.

However, as I learned to love applique, I also discovered fabric glue could be a great, little tool to have tucked away in my sewing kit.  It worked a lot better than pins – even the applique ones.  If an applique piece was glued down, I didn’t have to wrestle with my thread getting tangled up around the pin heads and points.  I could adhere all my pieces at once and then spend lovely hours hand sewing them into place.  Short of needle turn or back basting appliques, glue worked with everything else from machine to hand stitching.  In less than a year I went from turning my purist nose up at fabric glue to embracing this notion with a religious fervor. 

But…

The chemistry teacher and the heirloom sewing instructor in me continued to have a tickling worry in the back of my mind.  Could glue damage my fabric?   Not immediately, of course, but in the years ahead, could it in some way harm my quilts?  In my quilting world I have two types of quilts – the type which is “used up,” and the type I want to last forever (or at least as close as it can get).  The kind of quilt I want to get “used up” are those made as play quilts, snugglers, lap quilts, and some bed quilts.  Even a few wall hangings.  Quilts which are reduced to a pile of loose fabric and stitches have obviously been appreciated, loved, and used almost every day.  The wall hangings which become hopelessly faded means the person adored having them on a wall in their home. `

Yet there are a few quilts – quilts which I’ve put a lot of time and effort in or made specifically for a really special occasion – I want to have as long a shelf life as possible.  These are the quilts I’ve made for births and weddings or as memory quilts for grieving loved ones.  Some of these quilts have been entered in shows and took home ribbons.  I’ve dubbed these quilts my “heirloom collection” and I hope they’ll be around (intact) for many years to come.  Needless to say, I don’t want anything – from fabric markers to glue – to come back and leave holes or spots.  And while much has been written about the pros and cons of fabric pens and pencils, not a great deal has been recorded concerning the long-term ramifications of fabric glue on quilts.

And to be honest, in my research, I found literally nothing about any long-term ramifications of fabric glue on quilts.  What I have done in this blog is pull together what I know about heirloom garment preservation and what I know about pH balance.  I’ve combined that with the most popular fabric glue brands and have hypothesized about the glue and fabric future. 

One of the issues I covered as chemistry teacher was pH.  This two-letter term is thrown out on everything from shampoo to cosmetics to feminine hygiene products.  We tend to think of the term “pH balance” as something which only pertains to the human body.  To a large point, this is correct, but lots of man-made substances also have a pH.  This term stands for the potential of Hydrogen, or the concentration of the hydrogen atoms in a substance.  Scientists have a pH scale which runs from 0 to 14.  Any material from 0 to 6 is considered acidic, and the closer the pH is to 0, the more acidic it is.  The number 7 is neutral – neither acidic nor alkaline.  Anything from 8 to 14 is alkaline, and the closer the number moves to 14, the more alkaline (or base) it is.  Just the term “acidic” lets you know any substance with a pH from 0 to 6 would probably be bad to have near your quilt.  And this is correct.  It would seem you would want to run as far away from the acidic scale as possible with any fabric – to the point anything with a 14 pH would be great for your fabric. 

This is also incorrect.  Strong alkaline or base substances are just as bad as strong acidic ones.  Quilters need products with a 7.0 to a 7.45 pH balance to protect their quilts against any harm.  Lucky for us, cotton fabrics, thread, and batting are largely neutral.  Even if you’re a pre-washer, by the time the detergent is rinsed from the fabric, it’s back to a 7.0-ish pH.  Battings can be a bit iffy, because the pH balance may be directly affected by how the batt was finished. 

The heirloom French sewing instructor in me is constantly referring back to one of the reasons we spend so much time and effort in making something:  we want it to last and be handed down for generations.  A good chunk of my sewing instructions dealt with the preservation of the garment, how to care for it, and the correct way to store it.  These topics dealt with pH balanced soap, padded hangers, folding the garment in acid-free tissue paper, and storing in acid-free boxes.  While quilts are vastly different from kids’ heirloom clothing, the principles remain the same:  the less the quilt comes in contact with anything acidic, the longer your quilt will survive and be passed down for generations to come. 

Which brings us back around to our topic of glue.  Generally, it’s the applique quilter who uses glue more than any other type of quilter.  We use it to hold patches in place and to secure turned under edges for finish edge applique.  It’s used in some freezer paper processes and definitely in Apliquick-type techniques.  The one characteristic of all of the fabric glues used in quilting is this:  It’s meant to be a temporary bond.  So none of the glues we will look at are permanent fabric glues.  They all should wash out with water.  However, even if they are water-soluble, it’s important to know if they leave any residue, and if so, what could this do to your quilt.

Aleen’s Tack It Over and Over

This glue can be used for a myriad of crafts, not just quilting.  You coat the back of whatever it is you need to adhere to fabric, and set it in place.  Even after the glue dries, you can reposition the applique patch if needed.  I have used this glue and it is thick.  I usually dilute with a little water (about a 1:1 ratio).  It is acid-free and will wash out.  It’s also non-toxic.

Let me be frank at this point.  I use Aleen’s glues for lots of craft projects.  Quilting generally is not one of them. If I need to move an applique piece I’ve glued down, I have found the Tack It Over and Over does leave a residue, even if I’ve diluted it.  And the residue can be difficult just about darned near impossible to remove completely. 

Roxanne’s

Let me also be honest here:  I love this glue.  It comes in almost any type of application possible.  Roxanne’s has glue in bottles with little spouts, glue in bottles with a needle-tip, glue in tubes with a sponge-tipped dabber, and (my very favorite) in glue stick form.  It is pH balanced (as are Roxanne’s fabric pencils) and dissolves completely in water – your quilt doesn’t feel stiff after washing.  I like it because it holds your applique piece in place pretty firmly – including the glue stick.  I have found it can be difficult to move a patch if you’ve used any of the liquid glue forms.  However, if the glue stick is used, the applique can be repositioned easily.  It contains no chemicals, dyes, or waxes and dries quickly.  Roxanne’s Glue Baste-It is a popular quilting notion and most quilt shops (and even some big box stores) keep it in stock.

Sewline

Sewline is technically not a glue stick – it’s a glue pen which you can easily refill.  It is water-soluble, and while the glue is blue, it does dry clear.  The pen form can be easier to control than a glue stick.  Sewline is advertised for use with English Paper Piecing, but this is my go-to glue for the Apliquick applique method.  It doesn’t gum up your needle.  It will hold applique pieces in place, but I’ve found it doesn’t have as strong of a bond as Roxanne’s. Sewline is archival quality and pH balanced – meaning if you use this glue in your quilt, you don’t have to worry about it harming the fabric short or long-term.  It contains no chemicals, dyes, or waxes.  The pen is easily refilled, and the leftover glue tubes are great storage places for needles.  Sewline is very affordable and found in a lot of quilt shops and on Amazon.

Quilter’s Select

This is also a glue pen, which means you can refill it.  This glue is colored yellow, but it does dry clear.  It is completely water-soluble, but I have no idea if it’s pH balanced or not – my research never distinctly said one way or another.  This is my second  choice for Apliquick.  I have found this glue a bit more “gummy” than Sewline, but the bond is stronger and seems to hold the applique pieces down better.  It is advertised for both English Paper Piecing and applique.  I’ve only found this glue in quilt shops or quilting websites.  It is not on Amazon. 

Bohin Glue Pen

This glue pen is pink, but dries clear.  Those of you who have worked with Apliquick may recognize it as one of the technique’s glue of choice.  This glue pen is refillable, and the glue is completely water-soluble.  It is pH balanced and contains no chemicals, fillers, or waxes.  I think it glides on easier than the Sewline or Quilter’s Select, and the bond will hold applique pieces firmly in place, but you can still reposition them without too much trouble.  It’s comparable in price with the other two glue pens

Apliquick Glue

Apliquick has used two different types of glue under their name brand.  Until 2017, they used a yellow, refillable glue pen much like Quilter’s Select.  Now they have a wider, non-refillable glue stick (not pen).  This glue stick is about 3-inches long and 5/8-inch wide and is transparent.  This is a pretty soft glue stick, and it takes anywhere from five to eight minutes to dry.  It doesn’t leave your fabric stiff and it’s easy to push a needle through.  However…if you’re used to a glue-pen or longer glue stick, you may find this glue uncomfortable to hold as it is really short.  It costs around $20 for two tubes, so it does hit the pricey range for glues. Many Apliquick aficionados have told me the glue stick doesn’t last as long as the pen – since the tip is wider, you use more glue.  However, it’s pH balanced and is easily removed with water.

Fons and Porter Glue

This type of glue is available in pen form and can be refilled.  It glides on as blue, but dries clear.  It’s water soluble and costs about the same as the Sewline, Bohin, or Quilter’s Select.  I could not find out if this glue is pH balanced or of archival quality.

Sew Daley Glue

Sue Daley Glue comes in two forms.  The first is a glue pen.  This one goes on pink, but dries clear.  Amazon buyers gave this glue 4.6 stars out of 5 and touted that it was great for working with English Paper Piecing.  The second type is in a squeeze bottle with a tip, making it easy to use for finished edge applique or needle turn. 

I could not find out if this glue is pH balanced, but it is water-soluble.  And for you Lori Holt fans, this is her preferred glue.

Jillily Glue

This glue is acid-free, pH neutral, and water soluble – so it checks all the boxes quilters need to feel good about using it.  It has a tapered top, which allows you to put the smallest drop possible on your prepared edge applique.  The tip is made of nylon, so it won’t rust, and it can twist off if you need to clean it.

I had never heard of this glue before researching this blog, so I have never used this glue in my studio.  A Google search on this product returned no reviews (not even on Amazon).  It appears to be a wonderful product and definitely has no longevity issues.  It was developed by Jill Finley, who is a Master Designer for Aurifil Thread and a Bernina Ambassador, as well as a fabric designer for Riley Blake. 

Quilter’s Choice

This is a clear, odorless liquid glue which comes in a squeeze bottle.  It is water soluble, nontoxic, and comes with a precision spout.  Two ounces cost around $10, which makes it a little pricier than the glue pens, and throws it in the same price-point range as Roxanne’s glues.  I could not find out if it was pH balanced or not, and this is the preferred glue of Kim Diehl.  Keep in mind that since Quilter’s Choice is a liquid glue, you must allow time to let it dry before stitching, unlike stick glue or glue pens which require little to no drying time.

I’ve used this glue.

I was not impressed.

The bottle is hard to squeeze and for those of us older quilters who have some arthritis in our fingers and hands, this can be a deal breaker.  I found it dried somewhat stiff and it was difficult to push a hand sewing needle through.  My sewing machine didn’t like it much, either.  My advice, if you have a bottle stuck back somewhere and you want to use it for applique – use the smallest dab possible to adhere your applique pieces.  Like other basting glues, Quilter’s Choice states it doesn’t permanently bond fabric.  However, I did find it was not as water soluble as other basting glues and even after washing, my applique was stiff. 

Nevertheless, this glue does hold one special place in my life – emergency hem repairs.  This glue will hold up to some serious abuse.  When I travel, I always keep a bottle of Quilter’s Choice with me in case I need to fix a hem on the fly.  At home, I’ve grabbed it and did the same thing.  The hem will stay in place for days. 

Elmer’s School Glue

This is the sort-of-fabric glue and before any glue-basting purists turn their nose up at this one, hear me out.  This glue meets every one of the characteristics of a great basting glue.  It’s water soluble and it’s pH balanced.  It will hold an applique patch in place and (unless you’ve applied the glue super-thick), it will also allow you to reposition it if you need to.  The one caveat you must be careful about is it must be the school glue.  Elmer’s has a myriad of types of glue, but the school glue is the one which may find its place in your applique toolbox because it’s water soluble.  Not all of the other Elmer’s are.

Elmer’s School Glue comes in both stick and liquid form.  Personally, I like the purple glue stick best because I can see where I’ve applied the glue.  The white glue sticks go on transparent.  The liquid glue may need a little special handling.  The tip of the glue bottle isn’t exactly conducive to the accurate glue placement needed for small pieces or tight places.  A quilt teacher (who uses Elmer’s religiously) recommended getting these:

Which are available for a few bucks on Amazon.  Fill the small bottle with Elmer’s and the tapered nozzle will allow you to place a drop of glue exactly where needed. 

By far, this is the most economical “basting” glue available, and you can pick this up almost anywhere – from a convenience store to the grocery to the drug store to the office supply place.  You can even purchase it by the gallon.

At this point, I’ve written nearly 3,000 words about glue.  And most of them apply to those quilters who enjoy applique.  However, I did promise to talk about how glue can be used for those who strictly piece.

 It can help you match or make perfect points. 

We’ve all had that one quilt in our lives with lots of points or triangles.  Either the points need to meet perfectly, or the tips of the triangles need to remain intact and not chopped off.  In either situation, most of us pin our fabric in place, slow down our stitching speed and hope for the best.  However, pins can slip out of place.  But I’ve found if you put a dab of glue where the points should match or where the triangle point should be and then heat set the glue with an iron, nothing shifts.  Points come out perfectly and the tips of triangles remain intact.

It can hold the binding in place, so you don’t have to use pins or clips.

Once you’ve sewn the binding to the front of the quilt and folded it over to the back, use a series of glue dabs to keep the binding in place.  I’ve tried this and it works great – there are no clips or pins to tangle your thread around.  For me, a liquid glue worked best. The bond is a bit stronger than a glue pen.  And Elmer’s is my go-to for this technique.

It can hold matched-up paper piecing seams in place.  This works in a similar way as matching points.  With paper piecing, the sections need to line up as accurately as possible.  Use a dab of glue to at the matched seams and heat set it.  Between the glue and a walking foot, your paper piecing should look perfect. 

It makes sewing curves super-easy. 

If you’ve made blocks with curves (like the Drunkard’s Path) you know how tricky it can be to get the curves sewed down smoothly.  It requires a lot of patience and the judicious use of pins.  You need to sew slowly and remove the pins before sewing over them.  I found glue basting the curves instead of pinning them makes life much easier.  The glue will hold the fabric patches in place and there’s no need for stop-and-go sewing to remove pins.

It tames the flannels.  Quilters are used to cotton fabric, which is generally not “slicky.”  Even the high thread counts cottons generally stay in place pretty well.  Quilting flannels are an entirely different animal.  They are not 100% cotton, but have some spandex and rayon incorporated in the flannel.  As a result, flannels are soft, stretchy, and sometimes difficult to hold in place.  I’ve found a glue stick comes in handy with them.  Instead of pinning the pieces together, I glue baste them in place.  This actually works better than pinning.  Often flannel and similar fabrics will “creep” out of place, even if pinned.  Glue basting takes out the “creep” factor.

If you are an appliquer, you probably already have some type of fabric glue in your sewing room.  For you, I hope this blog gave you some useful information about what to look for in a glue and what type of glue – either pen, stick, or liquid –will work best for you.  If you’re strictly a piecer, I hope this blog showed you how basting glue is a good tool to have in your quilt studio, too.  No matter if you’re a piecer, appliquer, or both, just remember it’s important any glue which touches your fabric be pH balanced and water soluble.

Until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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A Moment of Brutal Honesty

Okay…let’s have a moment of complete honesty here….

How many of you purchased fabric during the Covid lockdowns?  Can I see a show of hands?

How many of us have sewn all that fabric up?  Again, a show of hands, please.

How many of us have more fabric than we probably won’t sew up in the remainder of our lifetimes? 

I’ll be the very first to admit, I bought quite bit of fabric during 2020.  And in the spirit of complete honesty, I didn’t need any of it.  I purchased it because I wanted to do something to help keep quilt shops up and running during lockdowns.  The quilting arena had already lost far too many brick-and-mortar shops before Covid, and I didn’t want to see any more of those, or the web-based shops, close.  I did what I could to hopefully keep their bottom line in the black.

I sewed a lot during Covid.  I made hundreds of masks and eight quilts (completed – down to the last stitch in the labels).  But did I make a dent in my Mount Stashmore?

The answer to that is a hard no.  No, nope, not a chance, didn’t happen.  So, I thought for this blog, we’ll take another look at our stash – what it is, how valuable is it, how to manage it, and what does it need to look like.  I know I’ve touched on this topic before, but that blog was written several years ago, and truthfully the subject needs to be discussed again. 

In general, “stash” means a back-log supply of something – money, clothing, craft supplies.  It’s an inventory of items you may need for future use.  Quilters often refer to their “fabric stash” (or just “stash”).  This is the extra fabric we have left over from projects or fabric we’ve purchased because we liked it, or it fulfilled one of the “basic” needs for quilting.  The guidelines for procuring a fabric stash vary, but one very important idea to keep in mind is your stash should be compatible with your fabric storage space.  In other words, your house shouldn’t look like an episode of Hoarders with fabric filling every room in the house.  I know some quilters whose stash is limited to a couple of dresser drawers and other quilters who have floor-to-ceiling-come-to-Jesus stashes.  The amount of stash you have may also depend on what generation you fall in.  Boomers tend to have more stash than Millennials. I’m Generation Jones.  Besides being tech-savvy, adaptable, and more ignored than Generation X, our stash seems to fall somewhere in the middle.  And despite the fact most quilters made or started numerous quilts during lockdown, it seems our quilt output did not keep up with our stash input. 

In other words, most of our stashes are fairly large.  And this begs the question, just how much is all this fabric worth?  In 2014, the National Quilting Association surveyed hundreds of quilters about this very question – how much fabric did they have on hand and on average how much did they spend a month on material?  After crunching the numbers, the NQA stated the average quilter’s stash was valued at $6,000 in 2014.  Allowing for today’s inflation, the average 2022 fabric mini-hoard is worth $6,472.26. 

That’s a nice chunk of change.  While you may think nothing about adding a yard (or two) of fabric here and there, it’s important to keep in mind your stash’s overall worth and how to make it work for you.  Here’s where it’s very important to understand what kind of quilter you are because this will not only affect what kind of fabric you will add to your stash, but also affect how much.

The first question to ask yourself is, “Are you primarily a piecer or an appliquer?”  I realize many quilters (including myself) are quite comfortable working in both categories.  It may be difficult to decide what kind of quilter you are because you like making both kinds of quilts.  The easiest way to discover which quilting camp you fall into is: 1). Look at the quilts you’ve made and those under construction.  Are they primarily pieced or appliqued?  And 2).  Look at your quilt patterns and books.  Are they primarily for pieced quilts or appliqued ones?  Whichever technique has the most patterns, books, and quilts – that’s the kind of quilter you are.  For me, it’s applique.  And how I keep, purchase, and manage my stash will be diametrically different than that of a piecer.

Piecers tend to need and purchase larger pieces of fabric.  It takes yardage to produce pieced bed and wall quilts.  Between the borders, neutrals, focus fabrics, and additional lights, mediums, and darks, several yards of fabric are actively involved in a pieced quilt.  Piecers can use a variety of different fabric forms for the yardage.  Jelly rolls, layer cakes, and fat quarters may be part of a piecer’s stash, as well as traditional yard cuts.  Inevitably, once the quilt is cut out, there are leftover scraps.  How the piecer handles his or her scraps depends on if this quilter also likes to applique.  If they enjoy either machine or hand applique, they may want to keep their scraps.  If not, they may be left with large-ish chucks of fabric they’re not sure what to do with.  I encourage piecers to ask themselves the following questions:

  1.  Is there enough leftover fabric to make a smaller version of the quilt – a wall hanging, cuddle quilt, or miniature – and would they actually do this?
  2. Would they make an “after quilt?” An after quilt is a quilt made from the scraps.  This quilt may not look anything like the original quilt, but it uses up the leftover material.  These make great charity quilts or gifts.  The trick with after quilts is to make them immediately after the primary quilt is completed – otherwise the leftover fabric may languish in their Mount Stashmore for months.
  3. Can you use it to sew a quilt back?  The back of a quilt can be just as creative as the front.  It can incorporate leftover blocks as well as leftover fabric.  It just needs to be four to six inches larger than the front of the quilt.
  4. Do you have an active scrap sorting system?  By this I mean, do you take the leftover fabric and sub-cut it into blocks, rectangles, or strips?  The most common sizes are 5 ½-inch squares, 6 ½ -inch squares, 4-inch squares, 3 ½-inch squares, 2 ½-inch squares, and 2 ½-inch strips.  These are the sizes used in most quilt patterns.  You can use these to make four-patch units or half-square triangles or quarter-square triangles.  When you have enough of these, you can make a scrap quilt…which brings us to this question…
  5. Is there a scrap quilt in your future?  If there is, save those scraps and plan to purchase some white quilt fabric in the future when you can find it on sale.  In my opinion, white fabric makes all the different colored scraps play nicely with each other.

If the answer to these questions is “No,” and you’re not into appliqué at all, honestly you may need to periodically clean out your stash and give some of it away.  This can be difficult.  It’s hard to give away fabric you’ve spent your hard-earned cash on.  On a small scale, there are quilt guilds.  If you are a member of a guild, there’s a good chance there may be a “Freebie” table at guild meeting.  You can leave your fabric there with the peace of mind knowing it will find a good home where it will be loved and used.  If you don’t belong to a guild, try Googling sewing and quilting groups where you live.  If the group has an active charity program, they may eagerly take the left-over stash off your hands.  If neither one of these options appeal to you, there’s always Facebook Marketplace and Craig’s List, which may allow you to recoup at least some of your money.

Applique quilters are different.  While, yes, they do need yardage – there’s always background fabrics and borders to deal with – smaller amounts of material are needed for the applique pieces.  Like piecers, applique quilters can (and often do) work with pre-cuts.  The difference between the two quilters starkly shows in the yardages purchased.  Most applique quilters have yards of background fabric in their stash.  For some appliquers, this means creams, ecrus, grays and blacks – the true backbones of the neutral category.  However, we know the definition of “neutral” has changed completely in the last 10 years or so.  This means there may yards of other fabrics (solids, tone-on-tones, and low-volume prints) which can be used as backgrounds.  But by far, the majority of the stash consists of  fabrics for the applique process.  This means an applique quilter’s stash will have every color of the rainbow and then some.  And speaking from personal experience, I can tell you as an applique artist, I look at fabric a bit differently.  For instance, all green material has the possibility of becoming stems and leaves.  This means even unattractive greens may find their way into my fabric mini-hoard.  I can see the possibility in even the ugliest of fabric.  Take for instance this one:

This fabric – as much as it may make your eyes bleed – has wonderful potential for flower centers and petals.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  All the unattractive, unsellable material on the clearance table for a $1.99 a yard?  That can be where I do my best buying.  I can get great bang for a few bucks.  It all has potential if you know how to look at it.  However, here’s where the dark side is – we don’t need a great deal of fabric for applique.  This means we can purchase one yard of material at a time and use it for several quilts.  Instead of our stash being limited to larger pieces of yardage like the piecers, quite often ours is full of one-yard and smaller cuts – and there’s a lot of them.  It’s difficult to manage.  I know most quilters tend to sort their stash either by color or designer.  As an applique artist, I sort by texture and then by color.  Those fabrics which can be used in flowers go in one stack and then are sorted by color. Material which can be used for landscape quilts are in another area and are sorted by fabric for pebbles, bricks, roofs, water, walls, etc.  My Feedsack reproduction fabrics are kept separate, as are my Civil War Reproductions.  Holiday fabrics (which is my smallest stack) are in another area. 

Like piecers, applique quilters have scraps, and these can be our biggest downfall.  Every scrap has the potential to be used in another quilt.  My first applique teacher encouraged us to keep every scrap.

Yes.

Every.

Single.

One.

Since I was a newbie and didn’t know any better, I did.  By the end of my third year of quilting, I had a pillowcase full of scraps of every size and color.  I had so many scraps, I honestly did not really know what I had.  So, one day I dumped them all out on my dining room table and took a hard look at my scrappage.  My eyes fell on a slightly-less than one-inch square of green.  And I thought to myself, “What are the chances I will make one leaf out of one color of green?”

Answer:  Slim to none.

I came to the decision I wouldn’t keep any scraps less than 8-inches square.  I could get several applique pieces from a piece of leftover fabric this size.  I do sort my scraps according to color.  Each color is kept in a separate bin, with special bins for busy fabrics with several colors, landscape fabrics, and border prints. 

Applique quilters need to ask themselves these questions:

  1.  How small is too small?  What is the tiniest piece of scrappage you’re willing to keep?  Decide what that is and stick to your guns – don’t keep any smaller than you’re able to work with.
  2. How much background fabric do you realistically need?  If you’re a typical applique quilter, chances are the number of applique quilts you’ll complete will be fewer than a piecer, because applique (either by hand or machine) takes longer than piecing.  If you can complete two or three quilts a year, then chances are you don’t need yards and yards (and yards to infinity) of background fabric. 
  3. When looking through your applique stash, is there one color you seem to have a great deal of?  Is there a color you need to add to?  If this is the case, you may be able to swap some scrappage with another applique quilter.  She may need at least 25 of your 50 blues and you may need 30 of her brilliant oranges.  A fair swap can usually be worked out. 
  4. Like the piecers, can you use some of your leftover fabric for a quilt back, an after quilt, or a smaller version of the quilt you just made?  Any and all of these will help you shrink your stash and manage it better. 
  5. Do you need to Marie Kondo some of your stash?  If it no longer brings you joy, if the fabric is hopelessly outdated, or you honestly can’t see yourself appliqueing it in a quilt, it’s time to move it to a new home.  Leave it on the free table at guild, give to an organization that may use it for charity sewing, or see if you can sell it. 

So why all the reflection about my Mt. Stashmore?  There are several reasons.  First, I am concerned about quilting’s carbon footprint.  It can take up to five months for cotton fabric (as well as other all-natural, plant-based fabric and silks) to decompose.  Meanwhile, as it’s gradually transitioning to this final stage, it’s taking up space in landfills when it could be used elsewhere.  It’s super-easy to just toss scrappage  — even what I would consider salvageable left overs – in the trash and just keep moving.  There may be another quilter who can use what you have.  The good news is that if you can get your cotton scraps down to small enough pieces, they work well in a compost pile.  If you don’t compost, maybe you have a friend who does.  Bonus in this – if the compost pile is outside in the open, birds may decide your scraps are just what they need to make the inside of their nests all nice and cozy. 

Secondly, we’re transitioning – my husband and myself.  We’re both sixty.  Our children are in their thirties and show no signs of returning home other than to visit.  We live in a 3,200-sf house on about four acres meant for a family of four.  We have no desire to spend our free time mowing the grass, tending the flowers, or cleaning the house.  We’re downsizing.  We haven’t found a new home, but we’re looking…which means we have to move.  If you’ve read my older blogs you know my quilt studio is the largest room in my house and it has an adjacent, large, walk-in closet.  And while my next studio may be just as large as this one is, I have no desire to move all my fabric.  I’m working through my stash as fast as possible. 

Inevitably, the last question is “Will all this stash management hurt my LQS?”  Let’s have another moment of brutal honesty here:  Unless the establishment is a huge fabric only retail outlet, the answer is no.  True fact – fabric stores of all types make the least money on fabric itself.  Generally, most LQS’s are lucky if they break even on quilting cottons.  Patterns, machines, notions…it’s this sort of merchandise or the side gig of long arming or classes which produce more income.  In the future I would really like to see the culture of quilt shops change a bit.  I believe (and this is just my opinion), the quilt community may be better served if shops could see the quilter through to the end of the project. For instance, a new quilter enters a shop and wants to make a quilt.  She or he is still fairly new to the quilting world.  The salesperson tells the new quilter about their beginner classes, which charges a nominal fee.  The quilter signs up, pays the fee, and purchases all the needed supplies from the quilt store.  He or she shows up, takes the classes, and makes the quilt top.  Then the salesperson mentions the store has longarm classes so the new quilter can quilt the new top.  Excited because the top is finished and looks lovely, the new quilter signs up for the long arm class, pays the class fee, and purchases the needed backing and batting.  The quilt is quilted with an easy pantograph design.  Now the salesperson tells her new quilter about a binding class or quilt group who can show the new quilter how to bind her quilt.

Within a period of a couple of months, the new quilter has a completed, beautiful, new quilt in which they’ve put in every stitch.  If the quilting bug has bit – and it usually does by this point – the quilter will sign up for additional classes, purchase additional supplies, show up to add to his or her stash, rent the long arm, and the LQS has become the new quilter’s touchstone for his or her quilt world.  This would help the shop build a strong customer base and produce quilters who can handle every quilting step. 

I know lots of us quilters decide not to buy any more fabric.  We may make New Year’s Resolutions about it or come to this conclusion after purchasing a large haul from a fabric sale.  We believe our stash should go on a diet and reduce itself.  I can say largely from personal experience the decision to completely stop purchasing fabric doesn’t work.  I think the easiest way to deal with your stash is to learn how to manage it.  Determining if you’re a piecer or applique quilter is the first step.  This determination gives you the mental freedom to feel okay about how much yardage you’re purchasing and the ability to not over purchase.  Don’t exceed your stash storage capacity.  If your fabric mini-hoard is growing too large, give some of it away or sell it.  If you need smaller chunks of fabric, see if you can’t do a fabric swap with some fellow quilters.

Like Mt. Rushmore, your Mt. Stashmore is truly a beautiful sight, as long as you don’t let it get out of hand.  Learn to manage it.  The last thing I want to see on an episode of Hoarders is a quilter whose stash has taken over her entire house. 

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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Happy Birthday to Us

I think, quilters as a whole, are people who tend to sew their very soul into whatever they’re making.  When I wrote my blog on quilt labels, I told you the label was the holder of the quilt’s story.  It gives dates and locations and occasions.  However, a quilter’s quilts are the mile makers on his or her journey.  They are the beginning, middle, end … the entire plot of the quilty book.  When I look back on my own quilts, I can immediately tell you two things: What I learned from the quilt and the story behind it. 

In so many ways, quilts tell a quilter’s story.  They show progress.  Techniques learned.  How practice made quilt stitches even and color choices better.  When I look at my quilts I remember where I purchased the fabric – was it at my LQS or on a trip to Paducah or Lancaster?  I recall why, where, and who I made it with and for.  They are the silent testimonies of hours spent in my studio with needle, thread, fabric, and usually some Netflix binge-watching and a glass of wine.  They are the result of hours of patient cutting and sewing, ripping and re-sewing.  Second guessing color choices, text messages with my quilting BFFs, and maybe even some swearing and tears thrown in for good measure.  It’s good to look back on those quilts – to see how far I’ve come and realize just how far I still have to go.  I love them, mistakes and all.  They’ve taught me valuable lessons and are the witnesses of many tears (of both joy and fear) and prayers.

I have an equal admiration and affection for quilters.  If you’ve read my earliest blogs, you may remember I didn’t start quilting to make quilts.  I began quilting to meet quilters.  After receiving one of my great-grandmother’s quilts, I wanted to understand these women and what drove them to make quilts.  And in the process of knowing quilters, I fell head over heels in love with quilting.  I still count the women I quilt with (my “unofficial” sisters) among my closest friends.  I quilted with various bees from 2000 until 2012.  It was then several of us High Point quilters got together and formed the High Point Quilt Guild.

Words cannot adequately express or explain what this group means to me.  It’s more than monthly meetings and quilt education.  It’s fellowship of the mind and spirit.  It’s inspiration and education.  It’s a sharing of burdens and fears.  If I am facing one of those painful “life milestones”, these are the folks who call or text first.  I’ve learned so much from each member and have always felt it was a special honor for them to choose me as the first guild president.  

As the calendar clicked over to January 2022, it dawned on us that it was our 10th Anniversary.  And we decided to celebrate accordingly.  Since January is always such an “iffy” month for weather in North Carolina, we planned a party for April.  A call to the church we originally met at confirmed we could rent the fellowship hall and sanctuary for April 2.  Invitations and RSVP cards were sent to all past and present guild members.  Those became a mixed bag of emotions.  The returned invitations allowed us to make sure we had current addresses on all members.  However, in researching some of the current addresses we learned a few former members had passed away.  Some former members we really hoped would attend, did not show up.  Still, when the final count was rendered, almost 70 members RSVP’d in the positive.

Cupcakes were ordered and punch was made.

On April 2, folks began to arrive. Each member – both past and present – was asked to bring five quilts.  These were spread out in the sanctuary for a “Show and Tell.”

Almost 60 members attended.

The Sanctuary was full of quilts.

All of the past presidents except one was in attendance.

There was laughter and hugs and conversations which went on for hours.  Friendships were renewed.  Some former members rejoined.  Some signed up for the spring and fall quilt retreats.  Quilts were admired.  Raffle quilt tickets were sold.

By 4:30, we closed the party down, leaving an exhausted but happy group of anniversary party committee members picking up stray punch cups and emptying garbage cans.  As the last leftover cupcake was stored away and cars were loaded  with quilts, a decision was made:  We needed to do this again on our 15th Anniversary.

A look back on how far we had come as a guild, the quilts we have made, and the friendships renewed, was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  And it made us plan, with great anticipation, what we will do in the future.

Happy birthday to us!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam….and the High Point Quilt Guild

Photos were made by my wonderful husband and outstanding photographer, William Fields. 

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Stabilizers

As promised in my applique blogs, this post is about stabilizers.  Broadly, a stabilizer is a material which supports the fabric while maintaining weave and grain. It also provides body, gives a firmer hand to the fabric, and prevents fraying. Interfacing only provides body, shape, and weight to a specific area. And although stabilizers are used in nearly all types of sewing, quilters are familiar with them for use in two areas:  Applique and Machine Embroidery.  I have an embroidery machine but am a novice when it comes to machine embroidery.  I use my Baby Lock Spirit for making quilt labels and that’s about it.  I am much more familiar with the stabilizers quilters use for machine applique, and it’s those types of stabilizers which are featured in this blog. 

First, stabilizers have been used for centuries.  They’re not remotely recent quilting notions.  Some textile historians believe ancient Egyptians used stabilizers way back in BC.  The stabilizers used then and up until twentieth century were not the familiar rolls or sheets of the material we recognize as stabilizer.  No, back then stabilizers were made from everyday common food items such as sugar, honey, flour, eggs, gelatin, and water.  These were used in varying combinations to make fabric stiff or water resistant.  They were used on rugs and carpets to extend their life.  Fashion trends owe their life to stabilizers.  Items such as the bustle, parasol, panniers, crinolines, masks, circus costumes, bow ties, spats, poodle skirts, and ruffled collars would have never held up (literally) to the passing of time without them.  Even if a dress incorporated hoops, it was a stabilizer which gave the skirt a smooth look.

Dress with Panniers

Before we jump headlong into all the stabilizers, let me give you some general information about them.  And remember this blog is about those incorporated in quilting.  Quite a few of these stabilizers can be used for both machine embroidery and quilting, but always…always…always read the labels to make sure it’s a two-track notion.

  • Stabilizers and interfacing are similar  but are not the same thing.  Both are used in quilting but generally are not interchangeable (more on this at the end of the blog).
  • Stabilizer is a notion, not a tool.
  • Stabilizer supports the fabric while maintaining the weave and grain.  If you know how much “needle abuse” both machine embroidery and machine applique dish out, you understand why it’s important to use a stabilizer.  It also provides body, gives a firmer hand to the fabric, and prevents fraying.  Interfacing only provides body, shape, and weight to a specific area. 
  • Typically, stabilizer is applied to the wrong side of the fabric.
  • Stabilizers prevent warping or twisting of the fabric weave
  • Not all stabilizers come on a roll or in sheets.  Some are liquids.
  • Even within one category, there can be several types of stabilizers.
  • Fabrics with an open weave – such as burlap, netting, or tulle – require special stabilizers. 
  • Fabrics which are delicate or slippery (like chiffon, silk, and taffeta) are easier to cut and stitch when a wash away stabilizer is applied first.
  • Stabilized fabric is ideal for creating shaped fabric objects and design elements.

There are four broad categories of stabilizers:  Tear away, cut away, wash away, and heat away.  Even a liquid stabilizer will fall into one of these four groups.  The group name also tells you how the stabilizer is removed once the project is complete.  And within these four categories are myriads of weights and forms (fusible, self-adhesive, non-fusible, spray on, tapes, etc.).  It also must be remembered not all projects require the stabilizer to be removed as well as some stabilizers can’t be taken out. 

A subgroup from these categories also exists – toppings.  I have never used a topping stabilizer in applique.  There may come a time (such as if I were constructing an art quilt) when I may need to employ a topping.  Toppings are used on the right side of the fabric and come in all kinds of weights, forms, and types.  Some stabilizers can be used as both a topping and the “regular” kind which goes on the wrong side of the fabric.  Some toppings are also permanent.  Let’s take each of the four categories and break them down.  Hopefully this will help you understand how each stabilizer is used and when to use each kind.

Tear Away

This stabilizer is removed exactly as it’s named – it tears away from the stitching.  It is suitable for stable fabrics without any stretch, such as quilting cottons, batiks, canvas, poly/cotton fabrics, and duck cloth.  Some can be used on vinyl and leather.

  • This is a cloth or paper-like substance available in rolls or sheets
  • It’s available both in fusible and non-fusible types
  • The weights can vary from sheer to heavy
  • It’s meant to be temporary
  • Some brands tear away more easily than others
  • May be used as a topping
  • It’s usually a non-woven
  • Nine times out of ten, this is the kind I use

Cut Away

This stabilizer can be used with fabrics which stretch, including knit, loosely woven fabrics, and denim.  It can handle denser stitching than tear away. 

  • This is a cloth or paper-like stabilizer available in rolls or sheets
  • The weights can vary from light to heavy
  • It’s typically a sew-in stabilizer
  • Adds strength to the fabric
  • Those used as toppings are usually cut away
  • Thickness and weight vary between brands
  • Available in both woven and non-woven
  • Heavier is better for denser stitching (such as satin stitch machine applique)
  • Prevents you from seeing through the fabric
  • Should be soft in areas next to the skin

Wash Away

Wash away stabilizer should be used when all of the stabilizer must be removed from the project.  It is used in cutwork, freestanding lace, and reverse applique.  When used as a topping, it prevents stitches from sinking into the fabric.

  • This group dissolves when wet
  • Available in film, liquid, cloth-like, or paper-like forms
  • Found on rolls more often than sheets
  • The thicker wash away resembles vinyl
  • The thinner wash away looks like plastic kitchen wrap
  • Available in weights from super sheer to medium
  • Good choice for a topping
  • Liquid wash away is applied via spray, brushes, or soaking
  • Great for specialty fabrics or fabrics with a high nap (such as velvets)
  • Best choice for working with lace

Heat Away

This stabilizer is usually removed with a hot, dry iron.  It’s the fiddliest to remove, and the heat reduces the stabilizer to flakes, which must be brushed away or removed with a lint roller. 

  • This stabilizer is available in film, cloth-like, or paper-like form
  • It’s offered in sheets or rolls
  • Film is the most common form
  • Extra care should be taken when removing a heat away stabilizer
  • Great for dry-clean only fabrics
  • Seldom used as a topping
  • Typically removed with a dry iron
  • More difficult to remove than the other types of stabilizers
  • It is not liquid friendly – avoid having any water at all in your iron when removing it.

With machine applique – either raw edge or finished edge – the choice of stabilizer will depend on the types of fabric used.  If batiks and quilting cottons are your choice for applique, a light to medium weight stabilizer can be successfully used.  The type – tear away, heat away, or cut away – becomes personal preference.  I tend to reach for the tear away simply because I really like it.  Stabilizers aren’t super-expensive, so I suggest trying a couple of different types and brands to see what works best for you.

All of this changes if specialty fabrics are used (such as in an art or landscape quilt).  The type of fabric dictates which  type of stabilizer and fusible webbing should be used.  If chiffons, lace, or taffetas are incorporated in the quilt, the stabilizer choice should be one which works specifically with these fabrics.   Read the stabilizer labels carefully and be sure to choose the one which will work best for the material involved.  In some quilts, you may find yourself using several different types of stabilizers.

One kind of quilt which needs careful stabilizer consideration is the T-shirt quilt.  These quilts have their own special category and need some additional planning.  Like some art and landscape quilts, T-shirt quilts employ a fabric which is not a “traditional” cotton fabric.  T-shirts are made from interlocking fibers – this is what makes T-shirts so comfortable to wear.  Even if you’re using cotton t-shirts, the weaving process used is not the traditional warp and weft.  As a result, t-shirts don’t play nice with quilting cottons.  Once the shirt is “de-boned” (the crew neck and sleeves are removed, the shirt is cut apart from the front and back, and the front has been cut down into the desired size rectangle), the edges of the shirt fabric want to curl. This makes piecing them with cotton fabric quite a challenge.  For the long armer or machine quilter, even when the t-shirt quilt is sandwiched, the t-shirt fabric doesn’t want to play nice in the quilting procedure.  In order to make the t-shirt blocks cooperate in the piecing and quilting process, the backs of those blocks need a stabilizer.  The issue which should be kept in mind is the stabilizer will remain in the quilt.  It needs to be firm enough to give the t-shirt material some body, but soft enough so the quilt doesn’t feel stiff or impede the quilting process.

I have always used this interfacing as a stabilizer in my t-shirt quilts:

This is soft enough the quilt doesn’t feel stiff.  It’s light enough it doesn’t interfere in the quilting process, yet still helps the t-shirt blocks lie flat.  There are also these:

The stabilizer sheets are pre-cut with both of these products, saving you a little time and the hassle of working with a bolt of interfacing.  I have not tried either of them, but the Stabil-Tee received 4.5 stars on Amazon and the June Tailor project received five out of five stars. 

And for those of you who may have a t-shirt quilt in your future, I’ve found applying the interfacing to the front of the de-boned t-shirt before I cut it down to the desired size really helps to make your cutting accurate – the shirt won’t curl up around your rotary cutter. 

If you have an embroidery machine, you probably already have several different types of stabilizers on hand.  And while they work differently in applique than in embroidery (in applique they prevent tunneling and keep the fabric from getting off grain), you may find some of what you have can work for both applications.  Just check the labels or do a little Googling on the brand and type.  It’s also interesting to note that stabilizers also come in black, which comes in handy if the fabric involved is dark.  If some of the stabilizer must stay in, it won’t show through the dark material.

While stabilizers are definitely used far more with machine embroidery, they do have a place in the applique toolbox.  When used, they make the stitching process go smoother, as well as make the stitches themselves look better.  They also help keep your fabric on-grain and prevent tunneling and tucks.  Stabilizers don’t cost a lot, so keep a couple of types in your studio for machine applique or t-shirt quilts.

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt, Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

PS I finished the Rose of Sharon block I used as an example in my machine applique blogs.  Now I just have to trim it and decide what to do with it!

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Roll, Roll, Cotton Boll

Have you ever come across a quilt block which completely captivates you?  One that not only holds your attention, but makes you question its history and wonder how difficult it would be to construct it?  I’ve had several of these types of blocks cross my quilting journey, but the first one – and the one which still makes me stop and give it a second look – is this:

North Carolina Cotton Boll Quilt

The first time I saw this block was back in the early 2000’s when I attended a quilt bee at Hancock Fabrics.  A spin off from the earlier quilt classes Hancock’s offered, our group continued to meet despite the fact no “official” classes were held.  At the beginning of each year, we would peruse different quilt patterns and decide on one to make as a group.  One year, we chose this quilt pattern:

Which included this block.

Once glance at the block told me it would challenge me.  It had leaves and stems and was all curves and points.  There was no piecing involved – it was all applique.  Fortunately, it wasn’t the first block.  If it was, several of us may have run screaming for the hills.  However, the block – with all its challenges – fascinated me not only for the skill needed to make it, but also for its name:  Cotton Boll.

I made the block.  It’s in my Southern Album Quilt.  Since then, I’ve made other quilts, took other classes, and attended other bees.  I honestly hadn’t though much more about it until I was performing a little Googling research for my raw-edge applique series, and I saw it again.  Once more I was mesmerized.  And it didn’t take more than the click of a mouse and I fell down the rabbit hole of Cotton Boll quilts…and this time I’m taking you with me.

The Cotton Boll has a distinctive look.  There is really no other quilt block which looks like it.  This led me to believe (wrongly, I soon found out) it would be a fairly easy process to find lots of information about it.  You can imagine my surprised when I Googled Cotton Boll quilt block, I came up with this:

All pieced, no applique and it bore no relationship to the block I knew as Cotton Boll.  Thinking it had to be a mistake, I opened my EQ 8 software, which has Barbara Brackman’s Block Base.  I typed Cotton Boll into the quilt block search bar, and again, this is what I found.

Not one to doubt Barbara Brackman and her research, I figured it had to be me, mis-remembering the block I made years ago.  After a little searching, I found my Southern Album Quilt pattern book and flipped to the page with the block on it.  Sure enough, here’s what it said:

Well.  I had remembered correctly (Go Me!).  Where was the disconnect?  It’s easy to see why the pieced block was named Cotton Boll.

The block and an open cotton boll look a lot alike.  But this still didn’t explain the differences, nor did it help me find the block I was looking for.  I decided to do what I normally do when I’m looking for a quilt block and can’t find it.  I put out an APB to some quilty friends.  One of them led me further down the rabbit hole of Cotton Bolls.  A quilt with those exact blocks at one time was exhibited at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston Salem, North Carolina.  This museum is kind of like a warehouse for early Southern crafts.

For those of you who are not from North Carolina or may not have visited my wonderful state, Winston is not far from where I live in Jamestown.  As a matter of fact, this museum sits right outside of Old Salem (which is in Winston Salem).  Old Salem is North Carolina’s version of Williamsburg, but on a smaller scale.  I’ve been to the museum several times but had not seen the quilt there.  However, an email to them resulted in a positive reply.  Yes, the quilt had been displayed there.  No, the quilt was not there now.  And yes, the name of the quilt was Cotton Boll.  “However,” the email went on to state, “this block also has been called Chrysanthemum.  It was called Cotton Boll primarily in the South and most significantly in North Carolina.  It was a pretty popular pattern among the Quakers.”

Bingo.  At least I hadn’t imagined the whole Cotton Boll quilt enigma. And as of that moment, I was super-lucky in two aspects.  First, sitting on my bookshelf in my quilt studio was the book, North Carolina Quilts, which resulted from the NC Quilt Project in the mid-eighties. It surely had some information on the Cotton Boll I was looking for. Second, Guilford County has quite a few Quaker churches as well as a college.  Between these two resources, I felt I was sure to get an answer as to where this quilt block came from and why the appliqued version differed so drastically from the pieced one. 

And I did.  I learned there are three schools of thought about this block. 

  1. It’s really just a Chrysanthemum Block.  Quilters quilt what they know.  No doubt quilters all over America were familiar with this flower and decided at some point to make it into a quilt block. 
  2. It’s neither a Chrysanthemum nor Cotton Boll, it’s an Anthemion.  Anthemion is the ancient Greek word for flower.  Anthemions are depicted in furniture and architecture as this:

And this symbol was all over 19th Century furniture and architecture.  Since Cotton Boll quilts enjoyed popularity primarily between 1840 and 1860, this actually makes more sense than the first school of thought. 

3.  Did some quilter somewhere take a long, hard look at the Anthemion and decide it looks very much like an unopened cotton boll? 

Then they made the block and called it Cotton Boll.

Now let’s look at each school of thought and decide which one – if any – are true.  And my first point of research is always Google. 

When I Googled Chrysanthemum Quilt block, two pieces of information repeatedly showed up.  A quilt block like this:

Or fabric with Chrysanthemums on it.  None of the blocks returned in the search looked remotely like the Cotton Boll quilt I was looking for.  Even when I looked for antique Chrysanthemum quilts, nothing popped up which resembled the Cotton Boll.  Instead, this block showed up:

Which I’ve always known as Bride’s Bouquet or Cornucopia.  Assuming Barbara Brackman may be a better research option than Google on quilts, I typed Chrysanthemum in EQ8’s search bar and these blocks were returned.

None of which are my Cotton Boll.  However, when Cornucopia was searched, this block popped up.

I honestly think the first school of thought – that the cotton boll block is really the Chrysanthemum block – completely erroneous. 

Now onto the second school of thought:  The block is really Anthemion.  This isn’t quite as clear cut as the Chrysanthemum.  When Anthemion was searched, hundreds of images were returned.  The Anthemion was found in architecture, carpets, textiles, and jewelry.  There is no doubt that 19th century quilters were familiar with this symbol.  However, the only quilt which came up was one from Barbara Brackman’s blog about Cotton Boll quilts.  Likewise, when her block base was searched in EQ8, it returned no blocks by the name Anthemion.  So, the chances of this quilt block actually being the Anthemion block are slim to none.

However… I think I’d take the third school of thought – that quilters looked at the Anthemion and decided it looked like an unopened cotton boll – to the bank.  This seems the most likely and it sounds like something I would do. 

There were quite of few quilters in North Carolina who made this quilt – several of them from Randolph County.  All of these quilts registered with the North Carolina Quilt Project are only referred to as Cotton Boll Quilts. There are also a few Cotton Boll  quilts found in Minnesota.  Many of these are attributed to Quaker quilters.  There are several schools of thought on those Quaker Quilts, too, but that’s another blog for another day.  What is important is the consistency of all of the quilts’ appearances.  All of them are distinctive.  There are four bolls.  Their stems cross in the middle of the block.  The bolls are made of separate, curved leaves along the sides which point upwards.  At the top of the block there is a non-curved leaf, which may be larger in appearance than the ones on the side.  Sometimes the curved forms alternate color, with a few of them even appliqued with green fabric.  Occasionally the block will contain small circles, indicative of berries or buds.  Over time, the sharp points at the end of the curving leaves and top points softened into a curve, producing more flower-like blocks.  Some have pieced sashing and cornerstones.  Others have simple sashing and no cornerstones.  And a few have no sashing at all.

They all are challenging, allowing a quilter to show off his or her finest needle skills.  They are beautiful and distinct.  However, I have no memory whatsoever of any of my quilty friends making a contemporary version of this quilt.  The Cotton Boll may become one of those quilt patterns, while fondly remembered and beautiful in its antiquity, eventually fades into obscurity. 

I sincerely hope not.

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt, Yours,

Sherri and Sam

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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

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. 

Points

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

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Most Applique is Like Ogres — It Involves Layers (or How to Begin Raw Edge Applique)

This week, after all the discussion of fusibles and stabilizers, threads and needles, we’ll get down to the nitty gritty of raw edge applique.  I chose this pattern:

Layers

To begin our raw-edge adventure.  Why this particular one?  First, it met the criteria beginners need to learn before they attempt any other pattern.  There are curves, points, valleys, and circles in this block.  This pattern also has “layers.” Like some ogres we know…

What this means is some parts of motifs are behind other motifs.  If you take a look at the line drawing of the pattern below, you can see what I mean.

Part of the stems are behind the pomegranates and another part falls behind the flower – which also has layers.  The larger, lighter flower is on the bottom and the smaller, darker flower is on top.  The center is on top of the darker flower.  Many applique patterns are like this, and a good pattern will number the applique pieces, so you know which shapes are fused down first.  I only plan on making one minor change to the pattern.  Look at the flower again.  You’ll notice the center has lots of little wavy edges.  If you’re new to the raw-edge applique game, all those curves and dips may be difficult to maneuver. Instead of making the flower center like the one on the pattern, I’ll use a circle, which will go well with the rest of the circular-ish shapes.  This quilt block is also large – 14-inches square.  A block this big means the fabric applique motifs aren’t so small they’re easily lost or difficult to stitch around.  It also allows the block to be used as a center medallion for a small quilt or wall hanging or made into a really nice pillow.

Fabric

This is my fabric pull for the pattern:

I went with all batiks (except for the background), which is usually what I do with raw-edge applique.  Remember, batiks have a high thread count – much higher than regular quilting cottons.  They won’t fray, or at least very little.  The only issue I think I may have with any of these fabrics has to do with the yellow batik, as the darker pink may shadow through. 

In the end, the darker pink didn’t shadow through the yellow, so I didn’t have to line my circle at all.

Right now, some of you may be thinking, “Why don’t you use the dark pink as the outer flower and the light pink in the middle?”  Because flowers don’t bloom that way.  If you look at a pink flower:

You notice the outer edges of a petal are light and the flower grows progressively darker the closer it gets to the center.  However, I have a couple of different strategies in mind to avoid the shadowing.  First, I could line the yellow fabric with either another piece of the same yellow fabric or a piece of white fabric.  Second, I may choose to cut away the center of the dark pink flower so that only the edges of the yellow center rest on the darker fabric.  Or third, I could make the center a prepared edge circle via Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Circles.  This will give me a little extra fabric on the wrong side of the circle, and this may be all I need.  I’ll decide which strategy I’ll use when I get to this part of the pattern. 

Why I Make Two Copies of My Layout

While we’re talking about fabric, let’s also discuss why I make two copies of my layout pattern.  And I’ll be frank with you on this point – this is a Sherri thing.  You may opt to only use one copy of your pattern.  By now, you probably realize you need one copy of the pattern to use as you lay out your applique pieces.  So why do I need two copies?  I use the second copy to audition my fabrics.  If, like the pattern I am using for this raw-edge demo, I pull it from EQ,  I can colorize the pattern and print a copy of the colored edition.  I can change and re-colorize the pattern with a click of the mouse.  I can continue to do this until I’m happy with the results.  However, with a pattern you purchase or draw out yourself, this is a bit more complicated.  I’ve used that second copy as a “coloring book page.”  I take colored pencils and play color placement, tints, and tones until I’m happy.  Then I glue or tape my chosen fabric swatches down to the same piece of paper to remind myself what fabrics go where.

Marked Up, Working Copy of Pattern

This may be overkill with a simple applique project. However, if you’re working on something as complicated as a Baltimore Album Quilt, it can a lifesaver – especially if you set the project aside for a while and your memory is as bad as mine.

One last fabric issue before we move on to the templates:  the background fabric is not a batik.  There is a little more leeway on background fabric.  It doesn’t have to be a batik, as it doesn’t hold the fray-factor as much as the motif fabric does.  However, just like with the hand applique background, I do cut it larger than the finished project – more on this later. 

Dealing with the Templates

Now on to how to handle the templates.  I wish I could tell you all applique patterns are truly, perfectly wonderful.  I would like to tell you they all number their pieces and that all the patterns are reversed.  I want to tell you every applique pattern actually has templates, and you don’t have to draw your own from the black and white line diagram of the applique piece. I would like to tell you all of these are in every applique pattern you’ll purchase.  But if I did, I would be lying.

Not all applique patterns are created equal.  With some, you’ll simply get a line drawing and from this, you’ll have to reverse your own templates.  Others will have the templates already drawn out, but they’re not reversed.  Some are numbered.  Some are not.  There are no absolute standards for publishing applique patterns.  Here’s how to handle the template situation.

  • Read over the pattern carefully to see if the pattern is already reversed.  If it is, this is probably either somewhere in the instructions, written on the template page, or on the templates themselves.  If the templates are reversed, you’re good to begin tracing.
  • If you’re printing a pattern from EQ, when you access the print dialogue box, there’s a line directly under the print preview of the pattern which reads “Mirror Block.” 
  • Check this and your templates will print in reverse.  Word of warning – this will not return to the default after you print.  The next time you print from EQ, and you don’t need the block reversed, be sure this box is unchecked. Ask me how I found this out. 
  • If the pattern has templates, and they’re not reversed, you’ll need to reverse them manually.  The easiest way to do this is with a light box – either one you make or one you’ve purchased.  This is super-easy to do.  Flip the pattern over so the right side is against the surface of your light box.  Position your fusible over the paper and trace.  If you have a difficult time seeing the templates through the fusible, you may want to trace over the templates with a fine-tipped, black Sharpie.
  • If there are no templates and the pattern itself is not reversed, you’ll need a light box.  Flip the pattern over so the right side is against the surface of the light box.  Then trace each individual applique motif.  If you have a difficult time seeing the pattern, you may want to trace over it with a fine-tipped, black Sharpie. 

Lastly, let’s talk patterns which multi-task.  And honestly, the longer you applique, the more adept you’ll become at picking up any applique pattern and altering to the technique you want to use.  However, some patterns you download or use off EQ will have templates which look like this:

There will be two lines.  With EQ templates, there’s a solid line and a dotted line.  Any pattern with a template which has two lines is set up for either raw-edge applique or finished edge applique.  For raw-edge applique, you are cutting your applique pieces out true-to-size, so use the inside line.  We don’t need a margin to turn under like for finished edge applique.  So, ignore the second line – in this case the dotted line – and trace the solid line, or the smaller applique motif. 

The Fusible of Choice

The next step is tracing the applique templates on the fusible.  Since I’ve already written a blog on fusibles:  https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2022/02/09/sticky-situations/ I won’t get into the nitty gritty fusible options here.  What I will do is walk you through the process of deciding which fusible to use.  I’m not using any specialty fabrics such as a sheer material, so I don’t need a specialty fusible like Misty Fuse.  There’s a bit of layering, but not a lot, meaning a light-weight fusible isn’t necessary.  With all of these factors figured in, I will stick to my preferred fusible, Soft Fuse.  It should do the job just fine.  Now I can trace the templates to the fusible.  I position the pattern paper with the templates on them on my light box, lay the fusible paper on top (rough side touching the pattern) and trace with a soft lead pencil.  As you trace, be sure to leave at least a half an inch between templates.

After all the templates are traced, I “chunky cut” them from the fusible. 

Don’t cut them out directly on the pencil line but leave about ¼-inch paper margin around the drawn lines.  Position the templates on the wrong side of the appropriate fabric and press. 

Love me a lime-green batik!

Let cool – and while this may seem obvious, cutting the applique motifs out before the fusible has a chance to cool and set can dislodge the fusible web as you cut.  After everything is cool to the touch, cut out on the drawn line.  Leave the paper in place for now.

Prepping the Background Fabric

There are a few background concerns which should be addressed before fusing the applique motifs in place.  The first is the size of the background piece.  This particular block finishes at 14-inches square.  This means we need to add a half inch seam allowance all the way around, which would bring the block to 14 ½-inches.  However, it’s important to remember no matter what type of applique technique you’re using, the background generally pulls up a little as you stitch down the motifs.  I usually add an extra inch to allow for this shrinkage, so I’ll cut my background fabric 15 ½-inches square.

Another concern is fraying.  The fabric will be handled, moved around, twisted, and turned beneath the needle.  Some fraying will take place, but you don’t want it to be so bad it alters the size of your unfinished block.  There are a couple of actions you can take to prevent excess fraying.  The first is use a batik as a background.  Sometimes this works since batiks have a higher thread count and are more closely woven.  However, my background is not a batik, so I can either take one of three steps.

  1.  I can stay stitch the edges of my fabric – stitch a small straight stitch about 1/8-inch in from the edge of my fabric.
  2. I can run a zig-zag stitch around the edge of my fabric.
  3. I can use a product such as the one below around the edge of my fabric.

Whichever you use, remember the block will be trimmed down to 14 ½-inchs before it’s sewn into a pillow or quilt, so the edge finish will be removed.  It’s also worth mentioning some applique artists like to use spray starch or a starch substitute on the wrong side of the background fabric before fusing the motifs down.  If my background was prewashed, I definitely do this to give the fabric a little more body.  However, if it’s straight off the bolt, I usually don’t.  This is a personal preference issue and there is no right or wrong answer.  It’s whatever works best for you.

Now we have to think about how we will place the applique pieces on the background.  Since we have to use heat to fuse the those into place, we can’t use a heat-erase pen, such as a Frixion marker, to draw the pattern onto the background fabric.  The lines will disappear as soon as the heat from the iron gets near them.  Neither can we use a water-erasable pen because heat can permanently set them in the fabric, and they will never disappear.   

To be honest, this is one of those steps in raw-edge applique that everyone seems to have an opinion on.  And I think the more you work with this type of applique, you’ll find the layout process which works best for you.  I’ll walk you through the ways I make my layouts and hopefully you can take some of what I know and use it in the ways which work best with you.  There are three methods I use, but all of them start out the same way:  Find the X and Y axis of the piece of background fabric.

There’s a simple way to do this.  Fold your fabric in half.

Then fold it in quarters.

And finger press it.  As tempting as it may be to use an iron to set the creases, don’t.  Sometimes the heat-pressed creases never relax, and you have this ridge in your background fabric.  After you’ve found the center of the background, find the center of your pattern.  You can mark the pattern’s center with a pen or pencil.  Then place the fabric over the pattern, lining up the center markings. 

You may find it helpful to tape or pin down the fabric and the pattern, so they won’t shift while you’re laying the applique pieces out.

Next week we will finish up this block and for the very first time in the history of my blog, there will be video, because no matter how hard I tried to explain the process in written words, videos did it so much better. This is the very first time I’ve filmed my own video work and edited it. Woooo-boy.

Until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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Raw-Edge Applique Supplies

Last week, we explored what kind of fabric is needed for raw edge applique.  This week we’ll explore the tools which are essential to perform this applique technique.  Fortunately, if you’re a machine-piecer, you probably have most (if not all) of these gadgets in your sewing area.

First, let’s define exactly what raw-edge applique is.  Last week I explained there are two broad categories of machine applique – raw edge and finished edge.  Raw edge is exactly as it sounds.  Raw Edge Applique is a technique in which the motifs to be appliqued to the background fabric are cut the exact size needed and the edges are kept “raw”, meaning the edges are not turned under to the back.  These applique motifs are stitched to the background fabric with either a zigzag or buttonhole or blanket stitch stitch…which brings us to the first tool needed for raw-edge applique … your sewing machine. 

Neither raw edge nor finished edge applique require a sewing machine with a lot of fancy stitches (but if your machine has a few extra posh ones, don’t hesitate to try them out on your applique).  As long as your machine can do the basics, it’s good to go.  In next week’s blog we’ll explore the stitches, their lengths and widths, and tension.  For now, just know as long as your sewing machine can do a single stitch zigzag and you have the ability to change the length and width of the stitch, you’re ready to start.  If your machine can make a buttonhole or blanket stitch, you’ve got lots of raw-edge applique options.  And one more piece of information at this point:  A buttonhole stitch and a blanket stitch are the same stitch.

This is the blanket/buttonhole stitch

Sewing machine manuals call them different names, but for my blog, I will refer to this stitch as the buttonhole stitch.  The standard sewing machine rules apply:  Make sure it’s cleaned, oiled (if necessary) and in good working order.  You will probably want to clean your machine after completing a raw-edge project, too.  All the fabric and stabilizer can cause lint build-up in the bobbin case and surrounding area.

In keeping with the sewing machine theme, the next notion to consider is your sewing machine needle.  The needle needs to be sharp and thin, so it will cleanly pierce the fabric and not leave a noticeable hole behind.  For most   applique fabrics, a size 70 or 75 will work nicely.  If burlap, ultra-suede, denim, or other fabrics which are not quilters cotton or batiks are used, please consult a needle guide to determine which sewing machine needle will work best.  I wrote a blog about sewing machine needles https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/01/20/most-of-what-you-need-to-know-about-sewing-machine-needles/.  It may be handy to refer to this if you need to. 

My favorite applique needle is Schmetz Microtex.

It’s thin and sharp.  I use it for almost everything – piecing, applique, even quilting on my M7.  A few years ago, Schmetz came out with their Super Nonstick Needle in size 70/10. 

And I must admit, as far as machine applique goes (of either type), this needle is pretty awesome. 

These needles are coated with a  non-stick coating of NIT (Nickel-Phosphor-PTFE).  The NIT performs like Teflon in a pan – nothing sticks to it – which means neither the fusible nor glue used with machine applique rubs off on the needle.  With a regular needle, eventually a gucky build up will coat the needle shaft, making it difficult to stitch.  You’ll need to change regular needles more frequently, especially if it’s a large applique project under your needle.  If you quilt on a domestic or (some) mid-arms and use basting spray, the fusible spray also won’t stick to the needle.  The Super Nonstick Needles aren’t expensive.  You may find they’re a welcome addition to your machine applique tool kit. 

Two different types of scissors are needed – the pair you use to cut paper and a pair to cut fabric.  My favorite type of fabric scissors for machine and hand applique are Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Scissors. 

I’ve talked about how much I love these in other blogs.  The blade edges are micro-serrated, meaning not only do these scissors grip and then cut your fabric, but the micro-serration works like tiny pinking shears – they help keep the applique fabric from fraying.  Paper scissors are needed to cut the fusible web, which (with the exception of Misty Fuse) is backed by paper.

Obviously, thread must have some careful consideration.  Most of the time, it’s the co-star of raw-edge applique, but there are times when it plays front and center.  This all depends on the look you want.  The raw-edge applique from the 1930’s (which was done by hand), used heavy black thread – usually embroidery floss.  So, if you’re constructing a 1930’s applique reproduction quilt, you may want to opt for black thread in order to make the quilt look historically correct.  If a matte finish is the look you want, then cotton thread may be what you need.  A polyester or rayon thread will have more sheen and may compete with your fabric.  But if you are making a quilt with shiny objects, such as snowflakes, fairies, lights, and stars, you may want to reach for one of those to complement your applique pattern.  With either the cotton, rayon, or polyester thread, most of the time the thread should match the fabric … which brings us to the issue…

What if a lot  of different fabrics are used?  If I have an applique block such as this:

Quilt, appliqued, detail view. Baltimore Album Quilt. TE*E363155.

I’ll may change thread hundreds of times!  This takes time!  This takes thread!  There’s got to be an easier way!

And there is.  There are three ways to approach this issue:

  •  Fuse down all the applique pieces in the block.  I know some applique artists do bits and pieces at the time, but if you can, lay out the entire block and fuse everything down.  If you can’t fuse all the applique down at once, at least try to break the block into sections.  Then stitch around all the fabrics which are the same color – stitch around all the greens, then all the pinks, then all the yellows, etc.  This way instead of changing thread a dozen or more times, you’ve reduced the amount to only the number of colors used. 
  • Use a variegated thread.  This is one of my favorite go-to tricks when I’m working with floral designs – especially for leaves and stems.  A variegated green seems to blend in effortlessly amid a ton of different greens in my fabric foliage.  Same thing with pinks.  My personal preference is Aurifil 50-weight variegated.  There is no “white gap” between the different shades and hues on the thread (sometimes there is a noticeable length of white thread before the colors begin to repeat and this sticks out like a sore thumb on your applique). And the 50-weight assures the fabric will be showcased, not the thread.
Aurifil 50-weight variegated
  • You can use monofilament thread.  Now, huge disclaimers about the monofilament thread.  First, it may require special handling, and I’ll have more about this later.  Second, it’s important to remember what your thread is supposed to do with raw edge applique:  Encase the outer edge of fabric to help prevent fraying.  Monofilament thread doesn’t do this as well as regular thread.  Third, some monofilament thread becomes fragile as it’s exposed to light, heat, and age.  All of that said, I have a love/hate relationship with monofilament.  It can be fiddly to sew with, I must give it more attention than normal thread, and it’s not going to last forever.  But if I’m working on a quilt like this:

I definitely consider using monofilament.  However, due to some of its drawbacks, I wouldn’t use it on a quilt which may regularly see the inside of a washing machine.  Certain detergents can also degrade this thread.  Since we’re here, let’s discuss some of the characteristics of monofilament and some steps you may want to take in order to have a successful relationship with it.

Monofilament thread comes in two colors – smoke and clear.  The smoke is used on darker fabrics and clear on the lighter ones.  Lots of thread manufacturers offer monofilament thread, but my one word of caution is stay away from the super-cheap, badly manufactured ones.  I know my regular readers remember I’m a thread snob, but seriously…do yourself a favor and purchase from a good thread manufacturer.  My favorite monofilament threads come from YLI, Superior Threads, and Aurifil. 

Once you have good monofilament thread, the next step is to look closely at how it’s wound on the spool.  Usually, it’s straight-wound – the thread is stacked in horizontal rows.  If this is the case, then you will need to use the vertical spool pin on your sewing machine. 

Often this is a separate spool pin included with your machine.  Consult your manual to see if you have one and where it’s located.  If you don’t have a vertical pin, this is not a problem.  Vertical thread holders can be ordered from nearly any sewing website or Amazon and they’re reasonably priced. 

Full confession time here. My Janome M7 has a vertical spool pin. However, I’m a fairly frugal quilter and have found it cheaper to purchase thread on cones instead of spools and do so as much as possible. I use one of these for my cones. They’re not expensive and can be found in many quilt shops/sites as well as Amazon.

Use regular cotton thread in your bobbin and proceed to test your preferred raw-edge applique stitch on scrap fabric.  The stitch should look completely normal.  If you find the monofilament thread looks like it’s just sitting on the fabric, adjust your top tension a bit.  Loosening the tension should fix this, as well as any puckering you may see. 

If your monofilament seems to be too tightly wound – it curls like crazy as it’s coming off the vertical spool holder and this makes it difficult to feed smoothly through the machine – you may want to put some distance between the thread and the machine.  Put the thread on a stand alone vertical holder, in a cup, or a bowl (really anything with high enough sides the thread won’t roll out of) and move it several feet away from your sewing machine.  This extra space allows the monofilament to relax a bit and easily feed through your machine.

My last word about monofilament concerns the fabric used with it.  Remember monofilament doesn’t cover the edge of the applique motif as well as other thread, so the fraying factor is an issue.  Because of this, I only use batiks when I raw edge with monofilament.  Batiks have a high thread count, so they don’t fray much anyway.  This gives me  a little more piece of mind when stitching my piece out with monofilament.

There are a couple of more machine applique notions you will want to have.  Both finished edge and raw edge applique can employ a single-stitch zigzag, and most machines come with such a stitch and a foot for it. 

Typical Zig Zag Foot. This may also serve as your “standard” sewing machine foot.

The buttonhole stitch requires a foot which has an open slot for the needle to move both horizontally and vertically to complete the stitch. 

Blanket stitch or button hole stitch foot

Either of these feet can be used for raw-edge applique, but because of the feet’s construction, it’s difficult to get a clear view of your stitches.  If your machine has an open-toe embroidery foot and you can use it for these stitches, I would recommend it.  This type of foot makes it so much easier to see the needle’s path.  I was really excited when I found out my M7 not only has an open-toe foot, but this foot:

Janome Machine Applique Foot

Which is specifically made for machine applique.  It’s made from clear plastic, and the two toes do not extend out very far from the stitch slot.  This foot is smaller than most feet, giving me a lot of viewing area around my applique motif, the needle, and the stitches. 

You may also want a Goddess Sheet, or some other Teflon infused surface.  These will give you the ability to assemble some applique pieces off the background.  The Teflon keeps the pieces from sticking to your ironing surface when you press them together.  A piece of parchment paper will also work in a pinch.

The last few items are also pretty handy:

Bias Tape Makers and/or Bias Bars

The gadgets are used to make stems and vines.  I have both bias tape makers and the bias bars.  Which ones I use depends on the look I want, and the size of the stem.  The largest bias tape maker can produce 2-inch-wide stems, and the smallest can make ¼-inch ones.  For the novice machine or hand appliquer, this is probably exactly what you need.  However, as you become a more confident applique artist, you may want narrower stems than ¼-inch.  This is where the bias bars come in handy. 

These can be used to make super-skinny stems and vines.  The stems made with the bars also have a bit of height to them (due to the seam in the back), so they do add a little more dimension to your applique project.  I plan to write a blog on these tools (as well as the other ways I make stems) in the future.

Stiletto

I’ve mentioned this tool before.  The pointy end can be used to hold applique motifs in place as you stitch them down or press them in place.  Personally, I own a small horde of stilettoes.  They’re in my hand sewing kit, in my pressing area, and near my sewing machine.  Yes, I use them a lot!

Fabric Glue

Once in a while, the fusible behind your motif may loosen it’s grip on the background, and a dab of fabric glue can hold everything in place until you get it stitched down.  I generally use Roxanne’s either in the bottles with the tip or in glue stick form.  However….in a pinch, I’ve also reached for Elmer’s school glue.  A dap of this works just as well.

Circle Templates

No one knows how hard it is to draw a really good circle until they try to do it.  They come out lopsided and lumpy and pretty awful.  There are a number of wonderful circle templates out there.  In the art section of many big box stores Hobby Lobby or on Amazon, you can find these:

These are architectural gridded circles used for landscape or building plans.  However, they work fine and dandy for quilting.  Creative Grids also has this template:

Which is also very nice.

If you think either finished edge applique or hand applique may be in your future, you may want to opt for Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Circles (they come in two sizes) or Applipops. 

Perfect Circles
Applipops. These may look like regular washers, but they’re not.

A blog on how to make circles will also be published in the future.

While we’re on the subject of templates, if you find the applique bug bites you hard, you may want to begin collecting templates.  Templates are an easy way to change up an applique block and make it more your design than the pattern’s.  Have a beautiful wreath, but you’d really like to add a bird?  There are bird templates.  Need some leaves?  There are templates for those, too.  Applique templates are heat-resistant, meaning you can use them for both types of applique.  For raw edge applique you simply trace around them on the paper side of the fusible.  For finished-edge applique you can press the fabric’s edge over the side of the template for either hand or machine stitching.  I have purchased a lot of template sets from Piecing the Past Quilts (https://www.piecingthepastquilts.com/).  They have sets of templates called Simplique and they are awesome. 

Next week I’ll talk about stitch length and width and discuss how to lay out your block.  Then we’ll move on what’s the best way to stitch around the motifs.

Until next week, May Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam