McTavish Quilting Studio
& Fabrics

Quilting Free-motion Appliqué Quilts


notes from Karen

Appliqué has a soft spot in my heart. When I started quilting in 1997 I was obsessed with appliqué and turned to experienced quilters to teach me what they knew about the variety of techniques traditionally used. I learned about machine appliqué, needle turn appliqué, prepared edge appliqué, and raw edge appliqué. Every technique requires a different time commitment and entails a different set of skills.

I started with hand appliqué and learned from many instructors how to achieve beautiful stitches through patience and commitment.

Quilting an appliqué top can be challenging. I researched historical approaches to appliqué. In the beginning, I would try to replicate what a hand quilter would traditionally do such as stitching in the ditch around all the appliqué elements to create a sculptural effect. I felt it was really important to add machine quilting inside of the appliqué as well as outside of the appliqué.

When I first started quilting a lot of the machine quilters would just barely come up to the edge of the appliqué and not stitch in the ditch. For example, they would not stitch all of the elements inside of a flower. They would just leave the whole flower puffy. I felt that didn't provide the full dimensional quality that was needed.

I started mirroring on my machine what I saw hand quilters doing. I always try my best to maximize the rich structural aspects of the quilt while respecting the original appliqué stitchwork. One of the tricks that I use is to stitch in the ditch with nylon thread that is very clear. This can require quite a lot of work. In the end all of those stitches are almost invisible to the eye but the result has impact. All of the time and effort provides a strong physical support to the appliqué forms.

Instead of going stitch-regulated, which is what a lot of people would do when they're stitching in the ditch, I turn my regulator off. This gives me a bit more control and precision as I work my way around the complex shapes I encounter.

In the beginning when I would get an appliqué quilt from a customer it was very intimidating. I understand that an appliqué quilt can feel a little intimidating and a little scary. Quilting an appliqué quilt can take a lot more time than say an Irish chain.

It is important to have the mindset when you are quilting an appliqué quilt that you are going to do the hardest thing. It is going to take a long time.

How long does an appliqué quilt take to quilt? It varies widely. The time commitment is based on size and on the amount of appliqué that is on the quilt. I try not to worry about the time. If it takes me two weeks to finish, then it takes me two weeks to finish! An appliqué quilt could have taken up to a year or more for the piecer to finish. So if somebody sends me an appliqué quilt that took three years to hand appliqué, I feel comfortable dedicating two weeks to it.

If I only dedicated 6 hours the result would not be balanced. It would look like the machine quilter didn't have the care that the appliquér had. I always say , "do the hardest thing. Try to do what a hand quilter would do." I try not to take a shortcut.

Below I have included a list of tools that you will see throughout these videos. These include disappearing chalk pencils and invisible ink marking pens. I switch between these depending on the color of the fabric. For example, I use a thick chalk pencil for dark fabrics. There are so many different marking products out there. I use the same products over and over because over the years they have never hurt any of the many quilts I have worked on.

I try very hard not to get a quilt wet if I don't have to. I generally let the air erasable pen do its job and it's usually gone within 24 to 48 hours. With a chalk pencil I will just take a damp sponge and remove it while the quilt is on the frame or I can wipe it off gently with my hand.

I thought it would be nice to have a custom drawn border that would fit this quilt perfectly. I used a pencil to sketch out a curved scalloped edge and then added some scrolls. After cleaning up the pattern, I outlined the pencil marks using a black, thick sharpie pen. I then flipped over the paper to get the mirror image and with the help of a light table, I used the sharpie pen to mark the other side as well. This piece of paper then shows one direction on one side and if you flip it over, you get the mirror image for the other direction. I can then use this pattern on both left and right borders.

After stitching in the ditch around all of the appliqué elements with clear nylon thread, I switch to Glide Thread by Hab & Dash on top. I use a magnetic, pre-wound bobbin below.

Throughout the quilting I make use of a variety of curved and straight rulers as well as several stencils. I augment this with areas of looser, freeform stitching.

I often use two layers of batting. The first of these can be any kind of dense, flat batting. I then add a wool batting on top. This gives me a nice, trapunto-like appliqué quilt look in the end. The result has the texture and the sculpture that I am looking for.

As I begin each section of the quilt, I quilt down the edge of each side. Doing this helps stabiize the quilt and keep things square. This takes a bit of practice but in the end these stitches will get hidden in the binding.


Watch the appliqué: tools video above

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stitching in the ditch

Watch the appliqué: stitching in the ditch video above

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related footage

slow train series: appliqué is a long-running unnarrated video that shows Karen working from start to finish on a small appliqué quilt. Extended close-up shots show the rhythm of Karen's work and let you study her approach.

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loading a quilt using 2 layers of batting provides a deep dive into loading a quilt onto an APQS longarm machine.

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This video is made possible through the generous support of Bobbie Edds in memory of her late husband Sidney Edds.

Video production by Kathy & Karen McTavish
Music by the cosmic pit orchestra (Richie Townsend, electric guitar & Kathy McTavish, cello)
Opening sound by free dissonance (Mags David, voice & Kathy McTavish, cello)
Opening image by Wolfskull Creative

Longarm machines: APQS Millie (sales, service and training by Karen McTavish) authorized showroom in Duluth Minnesota. For more info: APQS

Piecing credits: Eileen Zube of Bellevue, Washington

Pattern designer: Modified/redesign of "Spring Bouquet" by Laundry Basket Quilts.

Corsage pins: Wedding Bouguet Pins

Wool pin cushions: Gypsy Quilter Wooly Bun Pincushion Notions

Batting: Quilters Dream Wool and Quilters Dream Poly Deluxe

Nylon thread: Whisper Touch .006 clear thread

Glide thread: by Hab & Dash

Straight rulers: 8 inch Ideal Quilt Angel Edition

Curved rulers: Ronda's Rulers

Quilting stencils: from the Stencil Company

Eraser Product (to remove markings without washing): Blue Line Eraser Products

Chalk Pencil: from Bohn

Purple Disappearing Ink Marking Pen: from Dritz

Blue Water Soluble Marking Pen (submerge in water to remove!): from EZ Quilting

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