Have you ever tried machine applique? Machine applique is a fun and easy technique to add to your quilt making. Many quilters stay away from applique altogether, thinking it looks difficult or time-consuming. However, this is not necessarily the case at all. On the contrary, applique can be a really fun, easy, and simple way to add pizzazz to your quilts.
What is Machine Applique?
Machine applique is simply the process of sewing down fabric shapes on top of a solid piece of fabric, like a quilt block, with a sewing machine. Machine applique is a great technique to add to your quiltmaking repertoire because it liberates you from the straight lines of most pieced quilts. By learning how to machine applique, you can easily add curved shapes, animals, trees, hearts, layered landscapes, buildings, symbols, and curved lettering to your quilts.
How To Do Machine Applique?
There are two basic forms of machine applique. In turned-edge machine applique, applique shapes are pre-prepared much like some hand applique techniques. The edges of the applique shapes are folded under and there is often freezer paper or other medium used in the applique shape to keep it stable. Usually, the machine sewing aims to be “invisible” to mimic hand applique.
The other applique technique, and the one we will concern ourselves with here, is fused raw-edge machine applique. In this technique, we add a heat-activated fusible on the back of the applique fabric. We then cut out the shape we want and attach it, with a hot iron, to the background fabric. The raw edge of the applique shapes are left exposed and the sewing machine is used to cover the exposed raw edge of the applique shapes.
The most common stitches used for this is a form of applique are blanket stitch, zigzag stitch, or sometimes a satin stitch. The goal of the stitching is to secure the raw edge, but also to outline the applique shape. In raw edge applique, it can be helpful to think of the stitching as a part of the design, rather than just as a way to fasten the fabric.
Of the two machine applique techniques discussed here, raw-edge machine applique is probably both the fastest and the easiest. Moreover, because we don’t have to turn under edges, we have more freedom to create very sharp points, curves, and angles that would be very challenging in any turned-edge applique technique.
Although raw-edge machine applique is easy to master, there are some tricks and tools that are often overlooked by those new to applique. Below you will find 5 tips that will help you be successful in learning raw-edge machine applique.
Machine Applique Tips
1. Always use a stabilizer for raw-edge machine applique
This is a topic that comes up in almost every applique workshop I teach. Why use a stabilizer? A stabilizer is a fabric-like or paper-like substrate that you put underneath your fabric for several types of sewing machine work. Anybody who has tried machine embroidery will be familiar with the jungle of different stabilizers out there. For raw-edge machine applique, you want an iron-on non-woven stabilizer that you can tear away after your quilt block is complete.
The stabilizer is important for machine applique because it keeps the fabric laying very flat and even while you sew. It prevents puckering in the fabric and creates even and beautiful stitches. Sometimes I hear people complain the stabilizer is one more thing they have to pay for, and that it seems like a waste of money since it will be removed after sewing. However, using a stabilizer is however one of the best investments you can make for great-looking applique.
2. Consider adjusting the thread tension on your machine
This is an area where all machine brands (and probably individual sewing machines) will differ. Some machines will default to better settings for applique than others. The most common issue I see when I teach workshops is that the bobbin thread gets pulled to the surface, especially in curves during machine applique. To fix this issue, make some test applique patches (with stabilizer on the bottom) and set aside a little time to once and for all learn how your machine likes to be adjusted for applique. Once you figure out the settings for your machine, write it down.
For many machines, increasing the tension in the bobbin a bit is ideal. For example, on my Bernina sewing machine, I increase the tension of the bobbin thread for applique. This pulls the top thread all the way to the bottom and the bottom thread runs almost like a straight line with the top thread showing on the bottom. (it is still tight, no loose loops) This is not something you would ever want while piecing, but for applique, this works great. In fact, sewing this way resembles machine embroidery. Nobody is going to see the underside of the applique in a quilt, so as long as there are no loose loops of thread, having the top thread show on the bottom may be ideal.
The other reason you don’t want the bobbin thread coming up at all is that as your applique projects become more complex you will need to change colors on the top thread as you move between shapes in your project. By making sure the bobbin thread stays completely invisible on the backside of your project, you eliminate the need to change the bobbin thread every time you change color on top.
3. Slow down and enjoy the ride! (especially in the curves)
In every machine applique workshop that I have taught, there are always at least a few participants who start out sewing “pedal-to-the-metal” as if they were in a car chase. In machine applique, and especially starting out, this is rarely a path to success. It turns out that many of the speed-racers are experienced piecers.
When we piece, especially strip piecing and chain piecing we can often sew at very high speeds and still get our perfect ¼-inch seam allowance. When we switch over to machine applique, the rules of the game change a little. Whereas machine piecing a quilt top is more often than not about straight seams, raw edge machine applique is generally about curved lines, sharp points, and overlapping shapes.
When learning how to machine applique, one of the keys to success is to slow down. I typically do my raw-edge machine applique with a small blanket stitch, and not only do I generally sew pretty slowly (compared to piecing), but I also stop frequently.
In order to get the stitches to lay beautifully and for the curves to look like smooth curves, I frequently stop and make micro-adjustments. One tight curve can mean a stop-and-adjust on every one or two stitches. On straight edges, I sew faster, and overall raw edge machine applique is still a rather quick technique.
Machine applique is a bit like driving a car. On the long straight stretches, you can drive faster, but on the tightly curving back roads, you want to slow down and really pay attention to staying on the road. Just like driving, when you start out with machine applique, your first attempts will likely not be smooth. Your curves will look like a series of straight lines strung together and maybe your stitches will not always align perfectly with the shape of your fabric. However, as with everything else, practice makes perfect eventually. Machine applique, once you practice it a few times, becomes a relaxing and focusing process.
4. Sew with a small stitch
Novice applique quilters often assume that sewing with a really wide zigzag or blanket stitch is the best way to make sure their applique shape is held securely in place. But big stitches are not necessary for the integrity of the applique project. With the use of a quality fusible web, it is pretty unlikely an applique quilt will ever fall apart. Sure, the stitch along the edge is there to hold the applique in place and to protect the raw edge from unraveling, but it is also there as a design element. Overly large blanket and zigzag stitches can look messy and swallow up much space in an applique design. It is also much harder to get the stitches to look neat when they are large.
For example, for a blanket stitch to look neat, the inward part of the stitch should be at a perpendicular angle to the edge of an applique shape. (This is why we stop and make mini turns so often.) The longer the inward part of the stitch is, the more obvious it is when it is not perpendicular. This is especially true on curved applique shapes. My favorite applique stitch is the blanket stitch and on my Bernina, I generally favor a stitch that is 1.4 wide and long. For machines that will only let you adjust the length in half steps, try 1.5 widths and length. I use the same size if I am using a zigzag stitch.
5. Start practicing with simple shapes
It is easy to be wowed by all the amazing machine embroidery applique designs out there. Raw edge machine applique is a very versatile technique and virtually all applique patterns can be adapted to machine applique no matter which technique the original designer used. However, when you start out experimenting and learning how to do raw-edge machine applique, it may be beneficial to look for a simple pattern – preferably with lots of repeating shapes. Nothing makes for good applique like lots of practice.
My first raw edge applique quilt consisted of a quilt with a huge amount of circles. I got really good at outward curves, but not at all at inward curves or points. Hearts are another fabulous starter shape. Hearts contain inward points, outward points, curves, and straight lines in a simple shape. Our FREE Valentine Applique Pattern could be a great beginner raw-edge machine applique project. Star shapes, simple folk art style shapes, and alphabets are all great examples of good starter shapes.
Complex designs like houses with roofs and windows, sunbonnet Sue motifs, etc are not necessarily any more difficult to sew but they do require that you can think about the order of layering the applique pieces as well as more accurate placement of your applique shapes. These types of projects may be better as a second project than the first one. However, I have seen confident beginners tackle “advanced” applique projects without a problem. If you want to try some simple layering, our FREE little house quilt “Where Love Lives” may be a good place to get a feel for layering and placement.
Make your first applique quilt pattern something you enjoy the look of. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and if your first attempts are a little wonky, love the quilt anyway because of what it taught you.
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