Embroidering and Embellishing Paper Pieced Blocks

A few touches of embroidery, beads or buttons often make a paper pieced quilt block come to life. Markings for these elements are usually shown on the foundation patterns.

embroidered spider web on quilt

from Escaping Bugs
Bottle Quilt pattern

This spider’s legs were machine satin-stitched after the block piecing was completed. Can you imagine trying to paper piece all those legs?! But they were very easily added following the markings on the paper foundation, and tapering the satin stitch to a point at the end of each leg. The web was machine embroidered with a straight stitch in metallic gold thread, after the quilt top was completed.

Plan your embellishments a bit in advance.  Will you be doing any of them by machine? If so, consider printing or tracing the block pattern on tear-away stabilizer for machine embroidery, as I did with the spider block. Since you won’t be able to remove every bit of foundation material from beneath the embroidery, especially satin stitching, a stabilizer foundation is better than paper for heirloom quality projects. Do a test block first to see how the stabilizer handles during the paper piecing process (especially pressing, since some stabilizers are designed to degrade with heat or moisture).

On the other hand, a regular paper foundation will be fine if your project is meant to be used, such as a child’s quilt or a garment, or if you will be adding all your embellishments by hand.

Transferring the Markings

Here are two of my favorite methods for transferring embroidery markings to the paper pieced block:

  1. By machine: This works particularly well for marking lines, such as spider legs or whiskers. Thread your machine with colors that blend well with the background fabric, as you don’t want them to show too much.  Place your piece under the needle foundation-side up, and follow the pattern’s embroidery markings using a short straight stitch. When you come to the end of a particular marking, just lift the presser foot and move the piece to stitch the next marking. When you’re finished, trim any connecting threads close to the stitching (you don’t need to knot them as they will be covered up by your embroidery).
  2. By hand: Use regular dressmaker’s tracing paper and choose a color that will show up on your fabric without too much contrast. Lay the tracing paper with the chalky side up on a table or other firm surface, and place the pieced block fabric side down on the tracing paper. With a waterproof ball-point pen (such as a laundry pen), firmly follow the embroidery lines on the paper foundation. After the going over the first line, check if you’re pressing firmly enough to get a good mark.

Embellishing by Machine

Once all markings have been transferred, the fun begins!  Thread up your machine with the embroidery thread on top.  For the bobbin thread, I recommend regular sewing thread in the same color as your background or the embroidery thread. Adjust the tension so the top thread is a little looser than normal to minimize pull-through of the bobbin thread.

Practice your planned stitches on a scrap of fabric backed with the same foundation material as your block before starting on your block. Adjust thread tension as needed, or try a different bobbin thread, until you get the desired effect. Also, don’t overlook that it may be time for a new needle in your machine.

Once you’re satisfied with your practice samples, position the block under the machine’s needle with the fabric side up. Machine embroider as you wish with satin stitch or other fancy stitches, following the markings. Pull loose threads to the underside and knot. Tear off the foundation only after sewing the finished block to other blocks, sashing or border.

Embellishing by Hand

To embroider by hand, carefully remove the paper foundation from only the areas to be worked after all markings are transferred by your preferred method. If the block will be sewn to other blocks after embroidery, leave as much paper foundation as possible, especially around the edges, and remove entirely only when the top is completed.

Consider adding beads and buttons only after the entire quilt is completely finished, so the batting and backing can help support these heavier embellishments. As always, remember to use beads and buttons on items only for children older than 3 years, to minimize any choking hazard.

Now stand back and admire your beautiful work!  What techniques have you used to embellish your paper pieced blocks and items?