Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Quilting Your Applique

     Ever get stumped when it comes time to quilt your applique project? Find ideas and techniques galore by studying historic quilts and today's applique projects!  

      When it comes to Baltimore Album Quilts, I'm so very fortunate to live in an area rich in quilt collections and quilt history. I live in Annapolis, Maryland, one point of a regional triangle which includes Baltimore and Washington D.C. Forty-five minutes in either direction and I'm walking into an amazing museum housing the most spectacular examples of antique Baltimore quilts. Among them, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Maryland Historical Society, the Lovely Lane Museum, the Smithsonian and Daughters of the American Revolution Museum, with many more smaller museums and exhibits in between and just beyond the Maryland borders. Recognize this familiar Baltimore Album block?

A block from the Mary Mannakee quilt made by Mary in Montgomery County, MD, dated 1850. Quilting 15-16 stitches per inch. DAR Collection.

     I love applique so I'm naturally drawn to the album quilts. But, applique is applique and whether you enjoy recreating historic album quilts or appliqueing a whimsical folksy design, a lot can be learned by just looking closely at these old Grande Dames. I could stand there basking in their radiance, studying every minute detail for literally hours. I'm always mesmerized, feeling in some way connected to the women who stitched them so many years ago. I can count on a generous supply of fresh ideas and motivation for my own applique each time I visit and I'm ever thankful for the chance to experience and appreciate them with my own eyes, up close.

     Is it any wonder I'm wide-eyed and breathless during my visit with Mary's masterpiece? This is how near I am to her incredible work. I rein in, examining every applique and I'm incredulous at the sight of her perfect, miniscule stitches.

     I know many a passionate applique quilter who would give a king's ransom to be able to see even one example of an album quilt block in person, so I thought about showing you a few of the photos I've taken (with permission), so you can have the opportunity to study them for yourself. (If you plan to copy or share any of this, I ask you to credit me with the photos and link to my blog post. Thank you.) Please understand that I'm not a quilt historian or a credentialed expert on Baltimore Album Quilts. Here, I'm sharing in good faith whatever information I could find or think would be of interest. Mostly, I'm offering my observations and opinions with a focus on quilting for applique. 

     With interest high these days in making historical quilts, lots of questions have come my way asking about how quilting should or could be done on quilts featuring applique. By way of example, I thought we might first take a look at some vintage blocks, followed by one of my own quilted applique projects.

     Here's a precious beauty appearing in a quilt made for the Reverend Roberts found in the Lovely Lane Museum, dated 1848. The maker of the block is Hannah Harvey. Hannah looked for opportunities to quilt in the limited spaces between and around the applique motifs where it is easier to quilt through the layers of the quilt sandwich. She then added generous quilting around the borders surrounding the flowers and the reticulated basket. There is little quilting done on the appliques themselves.    

The following detail photo shows the particular care Hannah took to fill the open areas outside of the basket with carefully spaced, diagonal rows. There is quilting between the basket ribs where the background is accessible for stitching. Even though the base of the basket is a large size applique, there is no quilting on it. My thinking is that most times quilters of this era had access only to white thread, making quilting stitches on the surface of appliques pronounced and distracting. Hannah is meticulous and probably wouldn't have liked this. Also, I imagine she would have found it difficult (as we do today) to execute  tiny, even stitches through so many fabric layers.  

This flower bud motif below shows clearly how Hannah quilted around each applique element. She went on to do the background fill areas. This quilt block happens to be exceptional in its workmanship, yet see how the white applique stitches are noticeable along the turned edge folds of each applique and reverse applique? I'm making a point to bring this to your attention because so many quilters find fault with their work and are afraid of doing applique because their stitches are not perfect. Back in the day, do you think Hannah and her friends concerned themselves with this? I believe they each did the best they could and totally enjoyed creating their quilts. They weren't worried about the show judge! Take a minute to look again at the first picture above, of the block as a whole. It is stunning and here we are 165 years later still admiring it.  

Here's another detail photo showing that even the large white applique flower wasn't quilted. Again, you can see that Hannah filled in any available background space with a bit of quilting. 

This last detail shot of Hannah's block reveals wonderful examples of reverse and multi-layered applique. Hannah knew to let the appliques stand on their own. She allowed the diagonal quilting to tastefully frame her applique design.  

      Next, I'd like to share a block from the Reverend Robert Lipscomb quilt also in the Lovely Lane collection. While each of the 25 blocks making up the quilt is signed, sadly I didn't get the maker's name.
     You'll notice the diagonal lines of background quilting boast the addition of flower motifs and feathers.      

     The detail photo below shows a blue flower which appears in the center of the block's floral arrangement just above the large white flower. You'll notice this maker chose to quilt both between the applique elements and occasionally on the surface of her appliques. Look closely to see the quilting stitches (in white) sewn around the flower center perimeter and between some of the petals. 

      When we look back at the Lipscomb block in its entirety, we can't help but to be taken in by its beauty. The appeal of the design transcends time, appearing in very many Baltimore Album Quilts...both in antiquity and in today's BAQ's. But somehow, along the way, we got the impression that every detail in the BAQs are perfect. We put pressure on ourselves feeling we also need to be as perfect when making them. No wonder some call applique the A word! But, now you can see for yourself that there are details, from a technical standpoint, that could be greatly improved upon. Ah, what a relief for us! For those who would shy away from the pleasures of the needle because they think they "can't", you can now relax (with the pressure off) knowing full well that you can ! ...and, probably better than great-great-great grandma.

     This next quilt block is from an 1850 Baltimore Album quilt in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. The maker is unknown. The hunt scene is a familiar block seen in today's album quilts, derived no doubt from this amazing creation. Notice the flower and leaf quilting motifs casually positioned and stitched in every available open background space. Totally charming!

     Below, this close up shows the incredibly well-executed, tiny stitches which form the creative quilting motifs. Beautiful stitches also surround each of the applique elements to give them dimension. Certainly, the quilter's tasteful choices illustrate that sometimes "less is more".

     Consistently, the quilter has selected to use quilting to define the perimeter of each shape. Notice in this example, that the delicate quilting stitches are placed slightly away from the applique edges. They are not done "in the ditch" here. I think it serves to raise the appliques a bit more and allows the lovely stitches to remain in full view. No quilting is added to the surface of the applique work. Don'tcha just love those trees and birds?! And, check out the eggs in the little nest. Too cute!

     The following fruit basket block appears in a Baltimore Album Quilt by an unknown maker, dated 1849. It is quilted simply with a crosshatch design. The quilter's skill in perfectly aligning the diagonal lines from block to block across the seam is no easy feat. A geometric grid of quilting works perfectly as a backdrop to the flowing curves of the applique flowers and fruit.  

     As we've also seen in previous works, this quilt artist has deliberately chosen not to add quilting details on the surface of appliques, even with the very large fabric patches making up the pineapple and cleft peach. Instead, perimeter stitching surrounds each applique element (...and, the answer for inquiring minds is: Yes, that means there's quilting around each grape...) with additional quilting relegated to the small areas between motifs. Subtle inking is used to further define the pineapple.

     Coming up next is another basket with abundant flowers, many of which are the paisley roses, so named because of the distinctive shape of their center petals. The block dates back to 1852, Baltimore. Elaborate quilting includes sunflowers created with crosshatched centers surrounded with feathers suggestive of petals. Quilted meandering vines, leaves, and a variety of flowers cover nearly every available free space in the background fabric. This block resides in the same quilt as the hunt scene block. 

Enjoy soaking up every delightful detail in these close up photos of the basket...

This quilter exhibits extraordinary needle skills as evidenced by the smooth curves, pointy points, perfect deep inside Vs and hidden applique stitches. Think about it...she didn't even have an OTT light!!! The beautiful quilting is kept once again for applique perimeters and background areas, but not on applique surfaces. Here, too, an intentional space has been left between the applique edge and the perimeter quilting.   

      Well, I think you get the idea by now... There are no special rules or must-do requirements when quilting for applique. It has been and continues to be guided by a quilter's individual and personal aesthetic sense. It is an art as unique as finger prints. So, relax and be playful and do what pleases you. Worry aside, you'll love the process and the satisfaction as much as you do every other step in making your quilt. This block from historic Williamsburg's Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum is currently on exhibit. Talk about eye candy! I wish I had a full view of the block but the special glass which shields the quilts from harmful light would only allow me to get a partial, angled shot to avoid glare. I'm so happy I could capture at least some of the intricate details of this masterpiece.
     I must admit I'm more than a little humbled following this act! But, I'd like to share some of the quilting and how I handled it in making an applique memory album cover (a present for myself) to keep photos and memorabilia about my own applique journey safe and in one spot. Here's the finished quilted cover which I slipped onto an expandable scrapbooker's memory/photo album which I found at a Michael's chain craft store.
     My album cover design features applique lettering with embroidery embellishment. It is then hand quilted. I'll tell you more about it with each detail photo below.

    Here's what the applique looked like before I quilted it:

     I began by basting together a quilt sandwich: my completed top, pre-washed Hobbs Thermore (very thin poly batting...easy to needle with a good drape, although it didn't matter with this project), and a cotton backing. I used quilting stitches around the perimeter of each of the letters and applique motifs. I quilted a little to the outside of the applique edges, leaving a space to make them stand out a bit. 
     I love the look of crosshatching with applique. It's easy and adds just enough texture to compliment the slightly raised applique layers. And, once you settle into a relaxed rhythm you can move along at a fairly steady pace. I used 1" wide painter's tape to designate my quilting lines making it easy to position my stitches along the edges (one line at a time) and working from the center out on both sides.

 Take a close look at this detail photo of the M to see how I laid in the quilting stitches just to the outside of the applique edges and embroidered flourishes. Inside of the loop that formed the letter e, I only had room for a couple of quilting stitches but they did the trick. You can also see how some of the crosshatching intersects or runs along side some of the perimeter quilting.

My last name is a good example of how the upper case cursive S and a variety of lower case letters look when quilted. The quilting makes them stand out in a pleasing way. I think it's very effective. Notice the quilting which outlines the other appliques. I like to leave just enough space for the quilting to show.

     Next, I want to point out some examples of what I call mock quilting. Look closely at the three leaves surrounding the red blossom with the pink center (just to the left of the bird's head). I actually did this "quilting" with color coordinated embroidery thread before I made the quilt sandwich. It creates a subtle contour in the leaves while stabilizing the applique, tacking it onto the background fabric. This is a great way to handle larger appliques and multi-layered motifs. 
     Now, look at the other embroidered leaf veins. Essentially, this is mock quilting too because I execute my embroidery stitches with a two-step stab stitch so the thread goes through all layers, creating a subtle relief. This fancywork is completed before making the quilt sandwich.    

    The embroidered French knots on this bud serve to tack down the applique, add a tad of dimension and an interesting detail all at the same time. Try it. You'll like it!

     All of the special lettering techniques, applique design, printable templates and complete directions for assembling the album cover are featured in my book, Simply Successful Applique.
     I've carefully selected the blocks and the project for this post hoping they would provide you with a good overview of ideas and techniques for quilting your applique. I hope you're inspired as well! Please take a minute to add a comment or ask a question if you have one. Maybe we can get a discussion going. The feedback would be great! Thanks!
Until next time...Stitch up a storm!
c/ Jeanne Sullivan 2013