Choosing Fabric for Applique

Published on Thursday, December 15th, 2016

Early Spring Wreath

Recently I received an email asking about how I choose and use fabric. As I composed my answer to I thought that others might benefit from my philosophy about fabric selection and color. Here is our exchange:

“Dear Jeana,

I admire your designs, skill, color and fabric selections and combinations, but mostly I enjoy your vision. Thank you.

I will begin my first project, a gift for an old friend, the Early Spring Wreath. By any chance is a kit available for the Early Spring Wreath applique?

If not: I know fabric design offerings change over time, but would you be able to advise me where to find similar colors and designs today?


Good morning Vivian. Of anything in the world to do, I love designing and stitching applique. It is nice to know that someone appreciates that.

Thank you for asking. I stitched that design (Early Spring Wreath, shown above) in the 1990’s, so, of course, none of those fabrics are availablenow. But I do have some thoughts about using color.

First let me say that everyone has an inner sense of color and their instincts will guide fabric choices, so you should first of all honor what your instincts say is right.

After that, I have learned a few things about fabric and using it. Briefly, here are a few suggestions.

Clear colors. Referring back to individual sense of color, a natural palette for me is clear color. That means that the underlying tone of the fabric is clean and clear, devoid of muted tones. It is a personal and easy choice for me to make. Everyone is not like me, so you should go with what appeals to your eye. However, the following suggestions will help enhance your natural palette.

I rarely use solid fabrics because I like printed fabric, but I choose fabric that “reads” as a solid from a distance. How that translates is the fabric I use is usually just two colors…background and a second color to create the print. The thing to remember about that is that if the second color is dark, or darker than the background, from a distance that fabric will look darker than it does up close. So to avoid the design becoming dark, watch for darkening prints.

Contrast is very important. Because we are sometimes hesitant about our fabric choices, we tend to stay neutral. It means that we tend to choose fabric in medium values only. To bring a design to life, it is important that there be both light, medium and dark values working together to maximize the design. So consider the complete spectrum of choices for every color you choose for a flower or its foliage.

Movement and sparkle complete the composition. For me, it important to move the viewer’s eye over the surface of the design. Repeating color across the design (and the quilt) keeps the viewer moving their focus so that the entire design is seen. “Sparkle” is something (usually a small something) that contrasts with everything else on the design so that the viewer notices it. It can be the element that moves the eye. (In this design it is the red and white plaid ribbons.)

I hope the above pointers will help you to choose fabric and its placement on your own version of Early Spring Wreath. At the very least it will give you something to think about as you choose and stitch your design!

Best wishes,


Bit Box Stars

Published on Sunday, September 4th, 2016

Most everyone that reads my journal knows that I applique and hand quilt, but not everyone knows how much I love scrap quilts. A great scrap quilt says “cozy” better than any impressive applique quilt with over-the-top quilting, and I love cozy. So when a few years ago the “star-a-day” idea reached the shores of the United States, I was ready because I have a very large Bit Box.

Let me tell you just what a Bit Box is. The quilting classes I now teach last a full year (2 hours each month, 10 lessons, and two parties in a year), once the basics of how I applique are covered and mastered, there is plenty of time to discuss more in depth topics, such as why does thread tangle when you are hand sewing, how to stop tangling, and fix it, etc.

Many years ago the topic came up in class about what to do with those odd-shaped scraps left over after applique shapes have been cut from a piece of fabric. I told them that I put all of those scraps and small pieces into a box that I call my Bit Box. Then whenever I am working on a scrap quilt I have a ready place to find an assortment of fabric scraps without having to sort through my fabric cupboards for just the right piece. The concept was met with mixed reviews in class, but not long after that, one by one my students started to talk about their Bit Boxes and how handy they had been when just a small piece of fabric was needed. Because applique is often cut from small pieces, we all find our Bit Boxes to be very useful.

So, back to the quilt made from small stars, as soon as I heard about it, I knew it was a perfect project for my Bit Box! I attend a weekly quilting group. In my small town there are not many of us, so we mostly bring our own projects and work for two hours while we visit and catch up. The tiny pieced stars are a perfect take-along project to work on. For the past two or three years I only work on my Bit Box Stars at our weekly quilt group.

I made a “Layout Keeper” that holds ten stars and I can stitch about one each week. My Layout Keeper is made from a flannel-backed plastic tablecloth that I bought from Walmart for around $5.  I cut an 8” wide strip from one side of the tablecloth. Then cut that strip into ten 8” square pieces. Layer these cut pieces with the flannel side up. On the top layer I added a ziplock bag for storing extra pieces, templates, etc. And, last, I stitched across the top about 1” in from the fold. I used giant hand stitches with doubled quilting thread. That’s it! It is DONE in a few minutes and ready to use.

With my Bit Box at hand I cut out several stars, arrange each star on a page of its own in my Layout Keeper. Then all I need is a needle, thread, scissors and a couple of straight pins and it is an easy take-along project.

I chose a different layout for my stars and, again, I can take it along and hand stitch the stars together.

I have worked on this project for a couple of years now and will continue for as long as it takes to make a quilt from the smallest leftover bits of fabric in my Bit Box.

Coverlet Continued

Published on Saturday, May 9th, 2015

The original English coverlet features four “vases.” There is one vase in each corner of the center square of the coverlet.

Enlargement of Original Coverlet First Corner

This photo is an enlargement of one of the corners. The vase and the flowers in it all look as if they were cut from fabric that had been manufactured for furnishings. Furnishings would be items such as curtains, cushion covers, anything fabric that would “furnish” a house with beauty.

In the back of her book, Mrs. Colby discusses the traditional stitching techniques used in coverlet construction. About applique, she said: “In applied (applique) work, hemming can be used on all patterns which will retain a good outline after a turning has been made. The shape of the pattern also depends on the worker’s skill in turning the hem…..” Today we would call this stitch a traditional applique stitch.

Next she says, “Herringbone is another stitch employed in plain sewing. It resembles cross-stitch in appearance….in applied work it is the means by which the patterns are attached to the foundation. The edges of the cut-out patterns are left raw….Herringbone stitch is then worked over the (raw) edges…this stitch can be used to apply almost any kind of pattern and is invariably worked in white or natural cotton or linen sewing thread. The latticed effect made by the herringboning softens the outline.”

Example of herringbone applique. From Kay & Lori Lee Triplett's book Chintz Quilts.

She also states that: “In applied work it (button-hole stitch) has been used as a traditional means of attaching patterns in which the raw edges are left unfolded. The stitches should be spaced evenly and yet be close enough together to hid the material underneath. They should on no account be crowded together, as this tends to cut the materials and cause them to pull away from the foundation.”

It is impossible to know exactly which stitching technique  was used on this particular coverlet because it cannot be examined closely.  However, Mrs. Colby does discuss the larger pieces of this coverlet, such as the vase and the larger heart-shaped pieces along the outside edges of this coverlet center.

She says that, “The patterns in early wood-block prints were sewn originally to the fine unbleached linen with loop-stitch (buttonhole stitch) with thin brown wool, but during many repairs (some as late as 1835), coloured silk and cotton thread have been added.”

Based on their dark outline appearance that we can see in the above photo, the dark brown wool was probably used for the stems and to outline the vase and the heart shapes at the base of the vase.

Although it cannot be proved, I would guess that the small details of the coverlet (such as the morning glories around the crown center and flowers along the dark stems) were attached with a herringbone stitch or a “hemming stitch.” I believe that using a heavy dark brown wool thread on these small details would have overwhelmed them.

When I set about to draw the pattern for this coverlet, I had two goals: 1) to create something that would reflect the era and the mood of the original coverlet and 2) to use applique shapes instead of cut out chintz motifs for the flowers that are so generously spread over this coverlet. I also decided to use my traditional applique techniques because I like the process. I am going to be working on this coverlet for a very long time, I had better enjoy the “journey.”

To make my applique shapes look like the chintz motifs that the original quiltmaker used, I studied chintz fabric from the era (late 1700’s to early 1800s) and drew my flowers from the flowers I found there. I then arranged my newly drawn flowers in similar vases.

With a nod to the original coverlet, I outlined my vase with buttonhole stitches in dark brown thread. (I used 2 ply Aurifil 28wt thread.)

However I did not use the dark buttonhole stitches on the heart shapes.

My peony blossoms were constructed of many pieces of fabric…reproductions of early 19th century prints. For the leaves I used dark browns to keep the dark look of the original coverlet stems.

These additional blossoms were inspired by printed chintz flowers.

And, finally, here is my first completed corner.

Whew! Are you still with me? That was a very long post…

I’ll be back next week with more…

English Coverlet

Published on Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

Averil Colby wrote many books about quiltmaking in the mid-20th century. In fact, she was a major authority on quiltmaking in the United Kingdom at the time.

In one of her books, Patchwork, she included a black and white photo of a coverlet that she felt was a good example of the type of quilting/applique being done at the end of the 18th century.

Coverlets at that period were medallion style…meaning a maker began with a single block (whether it be a preprinted panel, or a block of her own making) and then she added “frames”, or, as we would call them in the United States, “borders”. To increase the size of the coverlet, the seamstress kept adding frames until the size and the design suited her. She was then finished.

This particular seamstress constructed her “center” from an intricate pieced “compass” pattern. She then framed it with a row of appliqued circles.

Next, she added a row of pyramid shapes around the compass, which directs the eye to keep looking outward. To embellish the pyramids, she appliqued tiny morning glory flowers alongside each pyramid. These morning glories were most likely already printed on a piece of  chintz furnishings fabric. She cut them out and appliqued them into place.

Enlarged from original tiny photo

For my center, I simplified the compass a bit (to suit my preference) and added the appliqued circles.

Compass before it is appliqued into center panel

detail photo of the compass and appliqued circles

I then drew a tiny morning glory flower to be appliqued next to the pyramid shape, imitating the preprinted ones the original seamstress used.

Appliqued morning glory detail