Mini-Tutorial: Machine Applique

Penny Penguin paper piecing quilt block from Piece By NumberWith many animal blocks, it’s little things like eyes and mouths that take a design from so-so to so super-cute! Many newbie quilters don’t have much experience with embroidery or applique, however, especially if they’re self-taught. In this mini-tutorial, I’ll explain a quick and easy way to add a touch of machine applique detail to ANY project you choose.

As our example, we’ll use my Penny Penguin block, which was published in the Summer 2013 issue of Quiltmaker’s 100 Blocks. To add Penny’s eyes you’ll need, in addition to the fabric and thread needed to make the block:

  • a small piece of fabric for the whites of the eyes – this can be quilting cotton or any other fabric that can withstand your intended cleaning method (wash or dry-clean)
  • a small piece of paper-backed fusible web, such as Wonder Under®, about the same size as your white fabric
  • a piece of tear-away stabilizer, large enough to back the area you’ll be placing the applique on
  • two flat black disc beads the size needed for the black part of the eye OR a small piece of black fabric and similar size piece of paper-backed fusible web
  • white sewing or machine embroidery thread
  • a few small coins or disks in various sizes to use as templates
  • a pen or pencil
  • a sewing machine with satin stitch (zigzag) stitching capability
  • an iron and board

NOTE:  ALWAYS do a test sample with scrap fabric before trying a new technique on a project you care about!

0 marking for eyes watermarked First, completely paper piece at least the section where you will be adding the details, in this case the head.  Generally I prefer to complete the entire block first. Before removing the foundation paper from the block, mark the placement for the eyes using your sewing machine. With the foundation right-side up, sew directly on the lines marked on the pattern.  Pull the loose threads to the wrong side of the work and knot off. The photo at left shows what the stitching looks like from the right side – subtle but clear enough.  Wasn’t that easy?  Remove the paper foundation from around the markings, at least 1″ all around (it’s up to you if you want to remove it from the entire block at this time).

tracing around pennyNext, fuse the paper-backed fusible web to the white fabric piece according to the manufacturer’s directions. Let cool. Decide how big you want the whites of the eyes, and find an appropriate size coin or other disk to use as a template. For Penny, a 1 euro cent coin was perfect.  On the PAPER side, trace around your template to make two circles.  Cut them out carefully with scissors.  Remove the paper backing.

On the right side of your block, place the two circles over the eye markings (adhesive side down) and carefully fuse in place. Pin or baste a piece of tear-away stabilizer on the back of your block, covering the area to be appliqued. Now you’re ready to go to your machine!

Set the machine to stitch a satin stitch, otherwise known as a dense zigzag stitch – I like a width of about 3/16″ (4 to 4.5mm) for most projects. Thread the machine with white thread both on top and in the bobbin. Slightly loosen the tension of your top thread. Stitch a few inches on a fabric scrap to see if you like the look of the stitch, and make any necessary adjustments to tension, width or length. The stitching shouldn’t be too dense, just dense enough so you don’t see lots of fabric beneath the stitched line.

When you’re ready to start, place your block under the needle of the machine.  The needle should be ready to start stitching just to the RIGHT of (not in) the circle, as shown below.

starting to sew

You want to satin stitch around the circle so the right edges of the stitches fall just over the edge into the black fabric. Going verrrry slowly, begin stitching. Stop every few stitches with the needle down on the right side of the stitching, lifting the presser foot slightly to pivot the work and stitch a nice curve around the circle. This can take a little practice, which is why I heartily recommend trying this out first with scrap fabric.

halfway done

About halfway around now – keep going slow and steady…

one eye done

One eye done!  Pull or sew the threads from the front through to the back side and knot. Using a needle, run all four threads underneath the satin stitching about 1/2″ or so to secure (see photo below). Clip threads. Repeat for the second eye.

tucking in threads

Oops, I forgot the stabilizer when doing the first eye (left) – you can see the stitching on the back is not nearly as nice looking as the second eye.  Fortunately, it didn’t seem to make a big difference on the front (photo below).  But I still recommend using the stabilizer :-)

final result

To add the eye centers, you have at least two choices. The easiest is to simply sew black disk beads firmly into place (after first carefully tearing the stabilizer away). Use a double-threaded needle and pass through each bead several times. Knot off neatly on the back and secure the threads.

A second and far better choice for any project destined for a baby or small child is to applique the centers with black fabric, using black thread and following exactly the same steps above.  I love using Ultrasuede® for details like this – it looks great and washes up like a dream.  Black quilting cotton would work just as well, however, and is a lot easier to find.  (Why is Ultrasuede® so elusive? It’s such a great product for craft and needlework of all kinds!)

I hope you’re inspired to try this out! The machine marking technique described above is also great for embroidered details such as whiskers, mouths, or bug legs. After marking and pulling the threads to the back, back your work with tear-away stabilizer. Follow the marked lines using a machine satin stitch to cover them, and you’ll have beautiful whiskers, antennae, or other linear details easy as pie!