Many, if not all of the blocks in The FLOCK depicting birds involves a tiny bit of applique – or should I say a bit of TINY applique! To capture, eyes, beaks, and skinny legs on a variety of the bird species in the collection, we’re going to go small. Very small!
Small machine applique shapes can present a challenge. Along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two to make sewing these small details more successful for the completion of your blocks.
My subject for this tutorial is the Gray Catbird Block. It was one of the earliest blocks released to the folks beta testing the systems involved in delivering The FLOCK before the membership program was even released.
First things first. Let’s be sure to have the proper equipment on hand. Remove the straight stitch needle plate if you’re using one, and install the decorative stitch needle plate – it’s the one that has a wide space to accommodate the needle movement back and forth for anything other than a straight stitch. Plus, find a good set of tweezers.
Next, locate and select the decorative stitch you prefer for securing applique. Most folks like to use a zig-zag stitch, satin stitch, or the button hole stitch (my favorite). On my BERNINA 750QE, that’s stitch number 1329. Crank the stitch width way down to about 1.5 mm. For the button hole stitch, I also like to set the stitch length at 1.5 mm as well. Your stitch length may differ, based on your machine and its capabilities, but try to be in this neighborhood.
Generally speaking, select a thread color that matches the applique shape. For my example, the applique shapes for the Gray Catbird eye and beak are black, but I rarely use jet black thread – it’s hard to see! I prefer to use a dark charcoal gray almost always over choosing black.
Using two small pieces of scrap fabric, test your stitch. Check that the stitches are even, nicely spaced, good tension.
Mine looks pretty good, so the sewing machine is ready. Now let’s set up the fabric.
Take a good look at the photograph on your pattern. Notice nearby seam intersections. How are the applique shapes placed – horizontally straight or do they have a little tilt? Is the eye perfectly round? If not, how is it oriented on the sample? Where is it placed on the bird’s head? Near the beak? Closer to the top of the head?
Now find those same ‘landmarks’ on your block.
Use the landmarks to place the applique shapes on the block. Use the tweezers to position the shape. Take your time. . .
Be sure the paper backing is removed, then fuse with a hot iron. I really like the Clover Mini-iron for this job – it helps me keep an eye on any shape-jiggles that might be missed with a full-sized iron. But be careful. This iron gets plenty hot, and doesn’t have a automatic shut-off (at least my model doesn’t). To remind me to turn off the iron at the end of a block session, I like to put an elastic bracelet on my wrist. If I’m still wearing the bracelet at the end of my sewing session, it reminds me to turn the iron off!
Sink the needle into the fabric at the very edge of the shape. Make sure the next stitch is along the line of the button hole, not the stitch/grab to the left. Hold on to both thread tails (one is underneath the block – keep it there for now) to the back and right and begin sewing. Proceed slowly and deliberately. Rotate the fabric around curves, stopping and lifting the presser foot if you need to. Set the sewing machine to stop with the needle down to avoid having the block move when you don’t want it to.
Once you have progressed to the opposite side of the shape from where you started, stop. Leave the needle in needle down position, and retrieve your seam ripper. Give a little tug on that top thread end, and look for the loop of thread from the stitching near the block’s surface. Grab the loop with the seam ripper and pull the second thread end on top.
Why didn’t I do this when I first started? I dunno, you could, but the shape is so small, and the foot is kinda in the way at that point, that I prefer to wait, get a few stitches in place, then bring both threads to the top.
Now, I can see both threads, and I gently pull them out of the way while I finish my button hole stitch around the shape.
When I reach the end. Stop! Lift the needle into ‘needle up’ position, lift the presser foot, pull the block away. Give yourself a long bit of thread, then snip.
This will create a third tail on the top of the block. The first two, then the third. Which one goes with which??
Turn the block to the back and you’ll find a single thread end. Give it a gentle tug. . .
Look for the thread loop, and pull the thread from the top to the back. Tie the two thread ends in a square knot. . .
Using a self-threading needle, double back stitch and pull the threads through one layer of the applique shape or a nearby seam allowance. Be careful to keep threads from peeking through to the front of the block.
Flip the block back to the front. Square knot the two threads that remain on top, pull them through to the back, right at the point of the start of the stitching, then double backstitch the thread ends into a nearby seam allowance.
Follow the exact same process to secure any additional pieces, including eyes, feet, legs.
Here I go, contradicting myself already. Yes, normally, I try to match the thread color to the applique shape, but sometimes, the bird’s characteristics could be enhanced with a contrasting thread color. The eye on a real robin has a tiny light-colored rim, so why not suggest that color variation with the thread used to secure the applique shape? Avoid really high contrasting colors – they can look stark be distracting.
Okay, yes, I know you can skip all the stuff with the thread ends if you use your machine’s thread cutter. I guess I’ve simply never gotten used to using the thread cutter on any of my sewing machines. In part, I don’t like the little thread nests that *can* sometimes form on the bottom of the block. Also, the lock or stay stitches can add bulk to already-small spaces and tiny applique shapes, so I feel that I have better control over where the thread ends up when I play with the long thread ends. If you like your method better, that’s perfectly fine!
The tiny applique shapes aren’t difficult, but they are small, which can be intimidating.
The key to success is to take your time and test your stitches before you begin. Be prepared to work in small spaces – tools like awls, seam rippers, and tweezers can make working in those small spaces a little easier.