Applique By Machine and By Hand: The Verdict!


Hand Applique at Left, Invisible Machine Applique at Right
I was so excited about taking Harriet Hargrave's Invisible Machine Applique class at the North Carolina Quilt Symposium last weekend.  I have owned Harriet's Heirloom Machine Quilting and her Mastering Machine Applique books for about 10 years, and although I relied on her machine quilting book extensively with my first few quilts, I had never attempted machine applique until this class.  Since I had just started my very first hand applique project this year, I thought it would be great to try Harriet's methods for achieving similar results by machine to see which construction method I preferred.
 
Bernina 750 QE Packed in a Tutto 1XL Machine On Wheels Bag
I lugged my Bernina 750 QE to class in a spiffy red Tutto trolley case purchased 'specially for this occasion.  I was very happy with how well my machine fit in this case and how easy it was to transport this way -- but then, when I walked into the classroom and saw the itty bitty, TV-tray-sized "tables" that were each supposed to accommodate TWO students and TWO machines, I found myself wishing I had brought a smaller machine! 
 
For those of you who are also 750 owners, I can tell you that Harriet recommended using Stitch #3, the Vari Overlock stitch, instead of the Narrow Blind Hem stitch built into the machine's quilting menu, because there are fewer straight stitches between the V-shaped bites on the Vari Overlock stitch and she feels that Stitch #3 creates a much more attractive invisible applique.  She had me MIRROR IMAGE Stitch #3, reduce the length to 0.9, reduce the width to 0.4, and reduce the needle tension to 3.0 (with monofilament .004 nylon thread in the needle and 60/2 Mettler cotton embroidery thread in the bobbin -- no adjustments needed to bobbin tension).  After making those adjustments to the stitch, I also had to press that button on the leftmost side of the second row to put the needle back in center position, otherwise the stitch would form so close to the left toe of my #20C Open Applique presser foot that I couldn't see what I was doing.
Stitch #3, Length 0.9, Width 0.4, Catching 2 Threads of Applique Fabric
With those settings, I was able to get beautiful tension for machine applique and the left swing of the needle caught only two threads of the applique fabric.  With the Open Toe Applique foot and the super-bright LED lighting on my 750 'Nina machine, I had excellent visibility for this technique.  But, did I ENJOY it?
 
Well, compared to the hand applique that I've been working on lately, I have to say that I found machine applique to be incredibly stressful.  In order for the machine stitching to be invisible, you need that skinny little 60/8 needle to rub right against the folded applique fabric edge for the straight stitches, pivoting carefully around every curve, and the left swing "bite" part of the stitch is supposed to catch just two threads of the applique fabric and then land precisely against the fold on the background fabric.  I found myself holding my breath as I stitched, tensing my shoulders, and muttering curses under my breath every time the needle didn't land exactly where I wanted it to.  Hand applique is slower, but it's so much more relaxing and every single stitch goes exactly where I want it.  If a hand needle pokes through in the wrong spot, I just back it out and adjust it to where it needs to go.  It's easy to pull out a single hand stitch just by unthreading and rethreading the needle. The stitch length for this invisible machine applique is SO tiny that the stitches are like a string of knots, virtually impossible to remove. 
 
"Invisible" Machine Applique?  Well, Not On Batiks...

About those tiny stitches, though...  My applique shapes were all cut from densely-woven batik fabrics, which I thought would be fun and "painterly" for an applique exercise, and my background fabric was a "regular" cotton quilting print.  Even though I was using .004 monofilament nylon thread in a 60/8 needle, the smallest machine needle available, the needle holes are really obvious in the batik fabrics.  In the photo above, you can see every one of the needle holes on that line between the blue and pink hearts, even though the needle landed right where it was supposed to every time (on that little bit, at least!).  Where I was appliqueing the green batik stem and leaves to the "normal" weave of the background print, the stitches are much more invisible, but not so much with those batiks.  This photo was taken prior to cutting away the backing fabric and pulling out the freezer paper templates, which helps to turn that applique edge a little and helps to hide those straight stitches between "bites," and it's possible that the needle holes on the shapes themselves might close up and look less obvious after washing the finished quilt, but still -- I think I'll avoid batik fabrics next time I'm planning to do invisible machine applique. 
 

My Machine-Appliqued Tulip Block Sample from Harriet Hargrave's Class

I know this was a new method for me, and this was only my first try -- in unfamiliar surroundings, with distractions and pressure to finish so the class could move on, etc.  I'm sure it will get easier to machine applique with practice, and even running the sewing machine at a snail's pace is faster than stitching the applique pieces down by hand with a milliner's needle.  The verdict?  I think I might use machine applique for a project with large, simple applique shapes, for something I need to get done quickly for a gift, or something like that.  But I really like having a portable hand stitching project to carry around with me, and I love the way the little applique shapes puff up as I stitch them by hand.
 
Applique By Hand: Completed Jingle BOM Applique Block #2
I was able to finish up my Jingle Applique Block #2 (a Block-of-the-Month pattern designed by the faboo Erin Russek of One Piece At a Time) this morning, stitching the berries in place while I was watching Anders perform in his school talent show.  I couldn't have brought my sewing machine into the auditorium, that's for sure! 
 
See My Lumpy, Misshapen Berries?
I'm still trying to figure out how to deal with the smallest applique shapes, and I haven't mastered those sharp points without fraying.  My little padded berries, all made with the same 3/8" diameter circle templates, are ending up misshapen and unevenly sized by the time I stitch them down.  If I master the berry circles later on in this project, I might go back and redo the worst berries on the earliest blocks.  For now, however, I have one more applique block plus a pieced block that was just posted today before I am caught up...  As well as that big center applique medallion.  The applique stitch itself is easy, and although Erin's starch and press method for preparing the applique shapes for stitching takes some time up front, it's nice to not be obligated to cut the backing up so freezer paper can be removed after all the stitching is complete.  I love how the hand applique stitches just disappear into the applique fabric when the thread color is a good match.
 
 
I'm so glad I decided to give this project a try!  Next, I think I'll prep the applique shapes for the 3rd applique block so that's ready to tote around.  As for the next pieced block -- maybe that would be a good first project for Judy the Featherweight?
 
There are only FIVE days of school left before summer vacation, including Field Day, final exams in math and Chinese for both boys, and a science project that Lars and a partner are finishing up this weekend.  I have some Room Parent duties (such as creating an end-of-year Signup Genius for next week's party) to wrap up and I'm in the early stages of a client's nursery project as well.  Perfect timing, really.
 
Have a wonderful weekend!

12 comments, opinions & scuttlebutt:

Rosemary Dickinson said...

I have done lots of hand applique but never tried machine applique for all the reason you listed. I like how my hand applique looks and don't think I could duplicate that on the machine. It would be nice sometimes but I've always been too chicken to try! I think your machine applique looks really good though! It's so tempting but will stick with hand applique.

Jackie said...

Try Perfect Circles by Karen Buckley (I think). That notion will make circles so much easier!

Like you, I enjoy learning all the different methods of doing things and then I can use the one I like best. Looks like a great class!

beaquilter said...

So you like hand applique better? I like both, I do hand for certain blocks and sometimes even use mono filiment for that (what a pain! BTW it's so slippery) I've tried machine applique, I prefer a button hole stitch, but I'm also doing a vine on a quilt and I'll do raw edge on that one.

Jenny K. Lyon said...

It IS lovely though! Just a thought-I have an LED lighted magnifier on an accordian like extender that I use for close up work like this. It makes a world of difference and I thing might reduce your stress level on this intricate work significantly. Enjoyed your detailed review of Harriet's method!

Rebecca Grace said...

Thanks, Rosemary! I felt the same way about hand quilting, though – a needle in my hand and fabric in my lap just feels good to me! I’m thinking that the machine applique might be a good choice for a quick gift, or for whipping up some applique samples just so I can practice free motion quilting around the shapes and try out designs before starting on the “real” project – things like that. I'm looking forward to quilting, binding, and washing this little class sample, though, to see if the needle holes disappear. If they do, I might be doing a lot more applique by machine. The machine applique that I see in quilt shows is absolutely indistinguishable from hand work.

Rebecca Grace said...

I DID use those Perfect Circle templates, that exact brand! I followed Erin's directions and fused a circle of batting scrap in the center of each fabric circle, then ran a gathering stitch in the turn allowance, pulled it tight and smooth, wet the edges with my starch (Mary Ellen's Best Press) and pressed it dry, then took out the template and pulled the gathering thread tight again. I think my problem is that the batting I used was very wispy and didn't stay in the true circle shape the way I cut it, and maybe my seam allowance for turning was too wide? I ended up with padded circles that were flat on the TOP and convex curved on the BACK due to the bulk of the gathered fabric converging in the center. So when I went to stitch them down to the background fabric I was pulling the edges down to reach the background fabric with each stitch and that's how the perfect circles I started with ended up distorted and lumpy after they were stitched down. One terrific idea that Harriet shared in class was using those little felt circles they sell in hardware stores to keep knickknacks from scratching furniture. Those precut felt circles come in lots of sizes and have a nice edge to them, unlike the tiny circles I cut from batting. But I still don't know what to do about the bulk of the gathered fabric on the back side of the tiny berry circles!

Rebecca Grace said...

It's not a lighting issue, though -- the LED lights on my 750 machine are fantastic. It's the fact that the stitch width has to be so narrow to be invisible, and you have to drive around those curves so carefully, and it would be going perfectly until BLAM! I accidentally landed a string of tiny straight stitches on the edge of the applique instead of right beside it on the background fabric -- and as Harriet says, you do NOT want to try unpicking those tiny, knot-like stitches. Once you make an "oops" by machine, the "oops" is there to stay.

quiltfool said...

I think both your projects look wonderful. I would expect the needle holes to close after removing the paper and washing. I started a quilt with Harriet's method and was about four blocks in before I felt at all comfortable (and two of them were made more than once, so really six blocks in). After that it got easier...and then I put it away, so I'll have to learn all over again when I pull it back out. Be well. Lane

Lisa E said...

Rebecca, both are equally beautiful! I have done invisible machine applique for a long time, and your first block looks gorgeous! But there is a certain zen to hand applique. I just got my 750QE last month and I appreciate the stitch setting recommendation. I will try it this weekend!

Anonymous said...

Rebecca Grace, wonderful review. Both blocks are gorgeous. I think the needle holes will close in the batiks. And no one else is ever going to look so closely and critically at your work as you do! I also have the 750 and appreciate you posting your settings. I am working on blanket stitch applique now; will try the invisible later (but have taken notes from your experience).
Diane

Zoe said...

It sounds like the class was really helpful and interesting :)
You did really well, I have never appliqued before and I'm sure the stitches on the batik will be invisible from the distance most people would look at it!

Ewa Stieglauer said...

Hi, your machine applique looks really great, think what you could do if all the stress were gone, really lovely results, both hand and machine did a great job... u2.. ewa

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