Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rebecca and the Back-Basting Applique Brouhaha

Still Life with Applique and Morning Latte
Greetings, stitchy friends (and non-stitchy friends)!  I've been working sporadically on Applique Block 4 of Erin Russek's Jingle Block of the Month quilt.  You can see my progress in the photo above -- stems embroidered, pomegranates and center circles appliqued, all of the regular sized leaf shapes prepped, glue-basted and pinned in place.  The leaf on the bottom right, without a pin, has already been stitched in place and I'm about halfway around the leaf just to the right of the little gold frog magnet (holds onto my needle so it doesn't get lost and end up in someone's foot).  There are also two ridiculously tiny little leaves that go on top of each pomegranate, but I'm still fretting over the best way to approach those.  Stay tuned...

I would have finished this block sooner, but after getting impatient with the amount of time it takes to prepare applique shapes using Erin's recommended Starch and Press method, I decided to investigate other techniques for hand applique for this block in hopes of speeding things up a bit.  I've learned that a medium-to-low iron setting is safer for my fingers and less likely to warp my little plastic templates than a hotter iron, but it takes SO LONG to starch and press all of these little pieces before I can stitch them down.  The applique part is fun, but the prep work, not so much.

Availabe on Amazon here
I had heard some buzz about an applique method called Back-Basting, so I ordered Barbara J. Eikmeier's Back-Basting Applique: Step by Step, by Hand or Machine from Amazon and decided to give it a try.  Eikmeier's instructions and photos are very clear, and it seemed like the back-basting method could be used sucessfully for fairly intricate applique shapes, based on the cover photo.  Instead of turning and starching the raw fabric edges of each shape at the ironing board before stitching, with this method you overcut each shape, baste the shapes in place along the turning line FROM THE BACK (either by hand or by machine), and then trim all but a turning allowance of 1/8" to 3/16" around each shape prior to appliqueing it in place.  You clip away an inch or so of basting stitches just ahead of you as you stitch the applique, and the basting stitches (done with a largish needle and fairly heavy thread) are supposed to perforate along the turning edge to facilitate needle-turn applique.  It looked really easy in the book.  No more iron!  No more paintbrush!  No more glue!  Instant portability!  Wahoo!
Traced Design on BACK of Block, Placing Applique Fabric with Light Box
So, here you can see that I've lightly traced the reverse image of my applique block design on the back of my block background in ordinary pencil.  I had already hand embroidered my stems and appliqued my center circles and most of my pomegranates in place using the starch and press method, so I was just experimenting with leaves here.  I used my light box to trace the design onto the back of my block as well as to place each applique fabric so that there was plenty of fabric all the way around the drawn edge of each shape for a turn under allowance.  So far, so good.

Basting Leaf in Place Along Drawn Pencil Line, from Back of Block
Now, I didn't really dig the idea that I was going to sew these leaves down first with a basting thread, and then I was going to have to rip out those stitches and sew them down again, so I decided to try the Machine Basting method, using a 90/14 Topstitch needle, 40 weight quilting thread in the needle, and 50 weight cotton thread in the bobbin.  For the first leaf I attempted to stitch along the drawn line with my feed dogs down and the free-motion foot on my machine, but as you see in the photo above, that resulted in a bit of a wobble.  Eikmeier's book warns that the finished applique is going to end up exactly like the line of your basting stitch, so I switched to using an open-toed applique foot with my feed dogs up, pivoting after each stitch as I neared the point to ensure a perfectly smooth basting line around the shape of each leaf.

Basting Along Pencil Line with Open Toed Applique Foot #20
I got much better results with the feed dogs up and the open-toed #20 foot.  It didn't take long to baste all eight leaves in place by machine.

Front of Block After Basting Leaf Shapes
Here you see the block from the front, with all of the leaf shapes basted in place.  At this point I was feeling pretty optimistic about this back-basting method...  But then I started the actual applique process.  This is one of those processes that is difficult to explain in words, but instantly makes sense when you look at a picture:

Needle-Turn Applique Along the Broken Basting Stitch Line
See?  You clip partway into that turn allowance to get started, pull out about 3/4" of basting stitches, and then use the tip of your needle to swipe the fabric allowance under as you stitch exaclty along the line where the basting stitches were, which is visible due to the large holes created by that 90/14 Topstitchig needle I used when I machine basted.  Sounds easy enough, right?  Except that I REALLY don't like this method!!

Two Back-Basted Leaves Appliqued: Meh!
If I had never tried any other applique method, I might be satisfied with those two "beginner" leaves and stuck with the back-basting method.  They aren't THAT bad, right?  But, with the starch and press method that I've gotten used to, all of the work of shaping the applique pieces is done ahead of time, and by the time I'm appliqueing shapes in place I have perfect points and perfectly smooth, lovely curves on every piece.  Stitching perfect little shapes in place while visiting or watching television with my family is relaxing and enjoyable, and because I have a crisply pressed and starched edge on every shape, it's easy to precisely position my needle so that it grabs just two or three threads of applique fabric and then disappears just beneath the edge of the applique, as invisible as possible.  Like magic.  Fun! 
With the back-basting method, though, you are trying to create a smooth curved edge from wimpy, floppy fabric that doesn't want to cooperate with you at the same time you are stitching it down.  For me, this method resulted in less perfect shapes, more visible applique stitches, and increased swearing and scowling throughout the applique process.  Not fun!

Two Back-Basted Leaves at Left, Lots of Prettier Starch and Press Leaves at Right
See the difference?  This cardinal block on the right was my very first ever attempt at applique, using the starch and press method.  Compare those first leaves -- smooth, plump, and invisibly stitched -- to the two leaves I appliqued using the back-basting method, on the folded block at the left side of the photo.  Blech!  So I got out my seam ripper and removed the remaining six overcut leaf shapes from my block.  Then I had to remove the two misshapen leaves I had already appliqued in place, which was VERY difficult to do and which prompted me to wonder whether there was such a thing as applique stitches that are TOO small and TOO closely spaced?

My Applique Stitches -- Should My Stitches Be Longer?
Initially I was concerned about making sure my applique stitches were small enough to be invisible and closely spaced enough to securely hold the applique in place for the life of the finished quilt.  Now I've gotten into a hand stitching rhythm and this is how my stitches come out automatically, without thinking about it.  I didn't think tiny stitches could be a problem until I realized that I couldn't fit the tip of my seam ripper into most of my stitches, and removing the stitches at the points of my leaves, which I had secured with a few extra stitches, was an extremely precarious undertaking.  If I had accidentally cut into my background fabric at this point it would have been a disaster!
Jubilation!  My Leaf Is Lovely Again!

I did manage to remove the leaves safely, and then I made eight new starch and press leaves for my block.  I glue basted them in place, using the needle holes from the machine basting stitches as placement guides, and added a little 1/2" applique pin to each one for added security.  Now I can get back to the fun part again!
I've pretty much decided that back-basting or traditional needle-turn applique is not going to be for me, but there are other methods for preparing pre-turned shapes for applique that I have not yet written off.  For instance, in Harriet Hargrave's invisible machine applique class, she had us preparing applique shapes by ironing freezer paper templates to the wrong side of the applique shapes, cutting around the templates with a turning allowance, and then using fabric glue stick to turn and secure the edge.  Then we basted the shapes in place with fabric glue sticks prior to stitching the applique.  With that method, it was faster than the starch and press method and even easier to get smooth curves and sharp points.  My only concern is the added resistance to my needle as I'm hand stitching through three layers of fabric, glue stick, and a piece of freezer paper.  Of course, this method also requires you to cut into the background fabric afterwards so you can pull out the freezer paper templates.  I think I might give it a try anyway, and see how it goes.
Happy Tuesday, everyone!  Enjoy that sunshine while it lasts.


Anonymous said...

Rebecca, years ago I learned a technique in a class using a non-fusible web called Do-Sew. Trace your shape onto the Do-Sew, cut out larger. Place on the right side of your fabric piece (don't think it has a wrong side). Sew on the traced line with a shorter than usual stitch. Trim around the fabric and the Do-Sew about 1/4" OUTSIDE the sewing line (probably could trim smaller on smaller pieces). Cut a small slit in the Do-Sew, turn the piece right side out. Use a chopstick or such to run around the inside of the seam to get all the fabric carefully pushed out. Set the piece on your ironing board Do-Sew side UP, set your iron to STEAM, hold the iron over the piece an inch or two. Hit the shot of steam button on your iron a couple times. This actually slightly shrinks the Do-Sew and gives you a small amount of fabric that naturally turns to the back, like needle turning. I can't remember if we trimmed the center of the Do-Sew out before pressing the edges flat or after; maybe try a sample oval both ways on the same piece to see if it makes a difference. We left about 1/2" of the Do-Sew after trimming (I just dug out a sample and checked). Of course on very small pieces you would leave less. It is so light I can't detect it from the front and because it's not fusible, the appliqué piece isn't stiff. I searched and searched the Internet for this method and everyone else uses a featherweight nonfusible and the same technique EXCEPT the shrinking part, they just say turn right side out and press, making sure to roll the fabric edge to the back. The little bit of shrinking with the Do-Sew automatically rolls the fabric edge to the back. I thought this was the coolest thing since sliced bread but confess I never made anything other than the class samples. Another tip I learned was to trim the backing fabric out from behind the appliqué pieces. This allows the batting to "expand" into the appliqué and gives it a fuller look rather than flat. On something as small as the berries, you could cut a small slit, insert a round piece of batting or a bit of fiberfill and hand stitch the little opening closed. Add a dab of Fray Check if you're worried about fraying. Similar to trapunto, maybe, never tried that either. I think I bought the Do-Sew at JoAnn Fabrics; a more common use is for pattern tracing. Anyway, I hope you like it if you give it a try; it gives a beautiful edge in my opinion. Oh, and I love the work you've done on your blocks so far! Lovely! ~~Regards, Dar Welch (p.s. not trying to be anonymous but I don't know how else to post. LOL)

Marjorie said...

So, another possible method is sort of a combo of what you've talked about. And I do it with a pressing board across my lap. Press the freezer paper to the back of the shape, then use a soft paintbrush to brush starch around the seam allowance edges and a mini-iron to shape the fabric turned across the edge of the freezer paper. In fact, you may want to press two pieces of freezer paper together to make your shape so it is thicker and gives you a better edge. That way the fabric isn't stiff with glue, but you have a sharp edge. I'm with you, turned edge applique has always been a challenge. And yes, your stitches are very tiny :)

Rebecca Grace said...

Thanks, Dar-Who-Isn't-Really-Anonymous! :-) So, with the Do-Sew method, you're sewing the Do-Sew to the RS of the applique fabric with the sewing machine, or by hand? Once your shapes are turned and ready to go, were you appliqueing by hand or by machine? I made my berries with Karen Kay Buckley's Perfect Circle templates and put a layer of thin batting in them to puff them up a little prior to appliqueing them to my block. Hmmm... Your method sounds like it might be a good option for the little tiny leaves that I still need to make for this block. Thanks!
Dagmar -- the book I mention in the post DOES show how to do this completely by machine. She explains how to hand baste/hand applique, how to machine baste/hand applique, and how to machine baste/machine applique. I just didn't read the machine applique part because the hand applique part is my favorite. If you are comfortable with and enjoy machine applique, you might do better with this whole back-basting thing than I did.
Marjorie, I have seen/read about the starch and press method with freezer paper, too, but I'm not sure what the advantage is there. With the heat resistant template plastic I only have to make one template that I reuse again and again instead of cutting out a bazillion freezer paper templates. Also, don't you have to cut the backing to remove the freezer paper afterwards? I'll probably cut away backing on my largest shapes once the blocks are done, but I'm not sure I want to be obligated to slit the backing behind every single tiny little leaf. Are you able to use a hotter iron to speed up the process with the freezer paper? Also, what kind of mini iron are you using? I have one of those little Clover mini irons with the triangle head at the end of a hot stick and I have not bonded with it. Maybe I should try that again for those tiny leaves coming up. Are my stitches TOO tiny? My husband says bigger is better, but that's because he is 6'8" tall and has size 15 feet. ;-)

katiemedarlin said...

Seems to me that you and I are going down the same path with this BOM. I've been using the starch method with very good results. But it is time consuming. However, I love that when I actually stitch, I don't have to pay meticulous attention, I can just sew.

So I decided to try the back basting method - I even ordered the very same book you did off Amazon. I tried it with less than stellar results.

One thing I hated was that the starch method took so long to prep and I worked isolated in my sewing room (a good thing some times, but not always). So I made an 18" padded board and now I sit downstairs with my hubby and watch tv while prepping the pieces for my Jingle BOM.

One thing I did learn though, was that if I made the starch solution a bit too strong, my pieces got HARD and were difficult to sew. Just thought I'd mention it.

Good luck with your Jingle BOM. It's such a pretty BOM that I just can't wait to finish mine.

Chris said...

Yikes!! After reading this, I'm sticking with my resolve to never do any applique other than iron-on and machine stitching the raw edge. I taught elementary school for years, and can be extremely patient. But for this, no way. Thanks for sharing!

Alison said...

I have been appliqueing for years and have excellent results with my method - people tell me it is double handling, but then they admire my smooth curves and tight points.

I trace the pattern onto paper using a light box, number each piece, mark it if there is an underlap etc, then laminate it. I cut out each pattern piece and use this to trace around onto photocopy paper. Now I have paper copies of each pattern piece that I need, I then mark the underside with a cross or similar so I know which is the right side. I pin the paper piece onto the wrong side of the fabric with the cross facing me and cut out the fabric leaving a small seam allowance. I then tack the fabric by folding the seam allowance over the edge of the paper to the back, easing around corners etc. I start with a knot on the right side of the fabric and finish with a double stitch. My piece is then ready to be stitched onto the background. The paper edge allows me to pick up the tiniest of fabric with each stitch. Just before the end I pick out the tacking thread, pull out the paper with stamp collectors tweezers, and finish off. I get a very slightly
rounded effect which is lovely. I make circles with a light cardboard template, cut the fabric larger, do a gathering stitch near the edge,pull up and starch before ironing. When cool I ease back the gathering stitch, remove the cardboard template and re-pull up the thread. When I sew these on I insert a small whisp of teased out polyester batting (with tweezers) just before I finish stitching. This stops the circle sagging into itself.

Maybe this might help. And yes, your stitches are too close together, ease them out just a little.

Happy stitching

Alison - in New Zealand

Anonymous said...

Rebecca, The RS of the appliqué piece and the Do-Sew are machine stitched together by machine all the way around on the traced line, more stitches to the inch than normal. This was part of a machine techniques class, so it was blind applique by machine using Superior Threads Mono Poly thread on top and Bottom Line in the bobbin. I loved the technique, but at the time my machine wouldn't cooperate with the top thread so I never went anywhere with it. I looked again at one of my samples and there is a beautiful small edge of fabric turned to the back and should yield a lovely edge for hand applique. Your handwork is very nice. Yes, your stitches are tiny but so are the pieces you're working on. If you have a nice comfortable rhythm when working, that's what counts. It's been years since I did any handwork so I don't remember if there's a general "stitches per inch" to aim for. You might Google it. Looks to me like you'd be good at hand piecing as well, another portable project to do while waiting at music lessons, etc. :-) ~~ Not-Anonymous-Any-Longer Dar

Rebecca Grace said...

Katie, we ARE kindred spirits! I got my husband to move the flat screen TV out of the gym (which houses rather dusty exercise equipment, ahem!) and mount it in my sewing room instead. I've been streaming old Woody Woodpecker cartoons from YouTube for my kids in there, so they will keep me company while I'm working on my little shapes. And yes, I also have a little 12" x 24" homemade press board that I brought down to the kitchen counter yesterday along with a little mini iron so I could work on making leaves in between laundry loads. In hindsight, though, I shouldn't have had my husband use MDF for it because it's ridiculously heavy and if I drop it on my foot, I'm definitely going to lose a couple of toes.
I couldn't find liquid starch so I've been using Mary Ellen's Best Press instead. I got the lavendar fragrance so it's like aromatherapy, and even using it full strength it doesn't get my pieces too stiff. In fact, I added a squirt of Niagara regular spray starch to my little bottle of Best Press a couple of days ago because it wasn't quite stiff enough, but now it's perfect. Thanks for stopping by!

Rebecca Grace said...

Alison, your method sounds like English paper piecing? Which I've never tried, so I could be totally wrong! I don't have a laminating machine, though, and the current project has every block different so there aren't as many repeated shapes (other than LEAVES...) To clarify, when you turn and baste the edges to your paper pieces, you are just finger pressing, no starch, glues, or iron?
I'm doing my circles similar to your method, except that I'm using precut circle templates instead of cardboard and I put the little bit of batting in under the template before I pull the gathering thread and starch. Hmmm.
Agreed, I'm going to try to increase the stitch spacing a smidge. Trouble is, I'm working from the RS and can barely SEE my stitches so sometimes I put one almost right on top of the previous stitch, especially when I come to a stiff point and switch to stab stitching.

Rebecca Grace said...

Hi, Dar! I'm going to look for that Do-Sew stuff and keep it in mind for another project. I took an invisible machine applique class a few months ago and we were taught to use fabric glue stick and freezer paper, then to cut away the backing to remove the paper afterwards. I will probably trim away backing fabric beneath the largest applique pieces at the end, but I don't like the idea of having to trim the backing behind even the tiniest little 1/4" leaves. So your Do-Sew sounds like a great alternative for machine applique, but I worry that at the edge of each applique piece I'd be stitching through two layers of applique fabric, two layers of Do-Sew (due to the seam allowance) plus the backing fabric, and that would have to be a lot of resistance to a hand needle, don't you think?

Barb E said...

Hello Rebecca,
I came across your post while looking for something else. Thanks for getting my book and trying Back Basting Applique. Admittedly, it isn't for everyone and I think you gave it a fair shake and represented it well in your blog. It sounds like you are ready to add Back Basting Applique to your "been there done that list" but if you decide to try again I will tell you that I occasionally have a student with tiny applique stitches like you described (If you can't get your seam ripper under the stitch, it's tiny!). When I show my students to lengthen their applique stitch length a bit they actually get smoother needle turn results. I also wonder if you tried trimming your seam allowance to different widths. It's hard to tell from your photos but I might trim the seam allowances a bit narrower. Every needle turn applique stitcher seems to find their happy place with seam allowance width so it's hard to say what might work for you.

If your needle turn edge isn't turning easily, you might try a spritz of spray starch (after basting) and iron it dry (from the back if you're worried about iron shine.) It seems to set the holes that were made in the basting step a little more. Another trick that sometimes helps, especially with leaves, are partial snips on outside curves. Put a little snip in the seam allowance, not all the way to the turning line, in the outside curve of the leaf. While snips in outside curves are usually not necessary, it may relieve some of the tension we sometimes fight against in needle turn applique. This is especially helpful with batiks.
Whether you like needle turn, back basting, freezer paper, or starched shapes enjoy your applique projects. Your work is beautiful.
Best Regards
Barb Eikmeier
Author, Back Basting Applique Step By Step

Rebecca Grace said...

Barb, thank you so much for taking the time to give me those additional pointers! I went back to the starch-and-press method for my current project, but I have not completely written off back-basting yet. I'm spending SO much time preparing all of those little pieces...

I'll bet there are a numbers of factors at play here -- I did NOT like doing the basting by machine, for the same reasons I don't like doing machine applique, probably. So I will try basting by hand next time. The starch sounds like a good idea, too, because I prewashed all of my fabrics for this project and they don't have any body at all until I starch and press the edges around my templates. I would love to learn an applique method that minimizes prep time and is completely portable. I plan to go back to your book and try again -- and if you're ever doing a workshop anywhere near me, I'd love to take a class with you in person!