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Needle Turn Appliqué

By Barb Bergquist

Needle Turn Applique Block

On occasion, I find myself looking for quilting hand work, which is not bulky and is simple, to pass time.  Needle Turn Appliqué fits the bill, and when you finish, you have a fabric masterpiece.  To me, appliqué is painting with fabric.  Though there are a variety of ways to appliqué, I am focusing on Needle Turn Appliqué in this article.

The supplies you will need specifically for this appliqué process are the stencil(s) of the pieces that you will appliqué, the fabrics for the appliqué pieces, marking pens or pencils, scissors, pins, needles, and threads.  You can use any needles, threads and pins that you have available to you if you wish, but if you want to know what the experts say you should use, read on.  I was taught to use a 10 Betweens needle for Needle Turn Appliqué, but many suggest you use a Milliner needle.  I suggest you try the 10 Milliner needle first and then experiment with others if you want.

You can also use any pins that you have on hand but if you are working with small pieces, you might find that you prefer to use ½”- ¾” pins.  And for thread, most recommend a fine (i.e., lightweight) thread but the weight that the different experts suggest are based on the brand of thread.  The one common factor is that you use a good quality thread.  I agree with the experts about that, and I always recommend a good quality thread no matter what you are doing.  The savings in money is never worth the frustration you can experience with a lesser quality thread.

Before we get started, I want to talk briefly about the marking pens or pencils you might use.  Because the line you draw will be the turn line, you should not see the line when finished.  But to be safe, I suggest that you choose marking pens or pencils that are dark enough to show on the fabric, but not so dark that if you miss the turn on the line by just a bit, it won’t show much.  The same holds true for dark fabrics and light tinted marking pens or pencils – keep them close in color yet visible.  In addition, pick marking pens or pencils that will wash out, again so any small bit of line that doesn’t get turned will wash right out.  If you are not sure whether your marking pen or pencil will work for you, test it on a small piece of the fabric before you begin.

In the project that I am demonstrating, I am making a simple flower.  The pattern is actually one that I’ve seen in a floor tile, but it is the perfect design for my project.  The first step I took was to draw the stencils for the appliqué, but if you have a pattern you are following, your stencils are usually included with the pattern.  If not, then use what means necessary to produce any stencils you will need.

Stencil for Applique Piece

I had already chosen my fabrics and so I am ready to jump into my work, but if you have not done so, then start by choosing the fabrics you will use and cut the background of the piece to be appliquéd to the required size.

With all the preliminary work done, now you will start the steps specific to Needle Turn Appliqué.  The first step is to transfer the outline of the stencil to your fabric.  You can do this one of two ways.  If the fabric you are using is light enough to see the outline through it, simply place the fabric over the stencil and trace the outline onto the right side of the fabric.  If you have a lightbox, that may help you see the stencil through the fabric.  And if you don’t have a lightbox, tape or hold the fabric and stencil to a window, and the light through the window works just like a lightbox!

Tracing Stencil for Applique PieceApplique Piece with Traced Stencil

If the fabric is darker, then you will need to cut out the stencil, place it on top of the fabric and trace the stencil on the right side of the fabric.  If tracing multiple pieces on the same fabric, leave at least ¼” outside the stencil line for each piece.   That means that you should have at least ½” between stencil lines.

With all the pieces stenciled, the next step is to cut out the pieces.  Each piece will be cut out ¼” beyond the stencil line.  If you’ve been quilting a while, you probably already have an eye for ¼” and can just cut out the piece no more than ¼” outside the stencil line.  If you prefer, you can draw a cutting line ¼” beyond the stencil line and cut along the line.

Stencil Applique Piece Cut Out

One more preparatory step to go.  If you have a piece that has an inward curve, you must clip up to the stencil line often enough to be able to easily turn the edge under.  How frequently you clip is decided by the curve itself.  The tighter the turn inward, the more clips you will need.  A slight curve inward may only need a few clips.  In my pieces, all my curves were outward so I didn’t need to do any clipping.

Okay, pieces are ready.  Now we will place the pieces where they go on the right side of the background.  If you have overlapping pieces, then place the lower pieces first.  I would suggest that you follow the remaining appliqué process all the way through on the lower pieces before working with other pieces that are placed on top of them.  If your appliqué pattern is as simple as mine with no overlapping pieces, then you have got it easy!  Once you have laid out the pieces where they go on the background, you can pin or baste them into place.  If basting, then be sure to baste more than ¼” inside the stencil line so you can easily turn the raw edges under later.  The same holds true with pins – pin so that you can easily turn under at the stencil line without having to reposition your pins.

Applique Pieces Pinned onto Background

Finally, you are ready to sew the pieces.  Pick where you want to start.  I find it easiest to start along a straight edge but if it is a circular piece, then I start anywhere along the curve.  Fold your piece under at the stencil line.  As you hold it in place with one hand, pick up your threaded needle and insert it at the underside of the background fabric so that you will come up just under the edge of the fold.  As you come up through the background, catch a few threads in the edge of the fold, trying to keep just under the edge of the fold.  The idea is to hide the stitches as much as possible, hence the reason that you only catch a few threads and keep just under the edge of the fold.  It takes a lot of concentration and will be slow going until you get used to it.

Start Stitching Applique Piece to Background

The next and subsequent stitches are made by going back down into the background fabric just under the folded edge.  You will bring the needle back up no more than ¼” from the previous stitch.  If you are stitching a tight curve, you may want to shorten your stitches to ⅛” or even ⅟16” to get a smooth curve.  Again, you catch a few threads just under the edge of the turned fold.  You will repeat this process all the way around until you get to the end where you will tie off the thread on the wrong side of the background piece.

Stitching Rest of Applique Piece

If you have a corner in your piece, then you will place an extra stitch in it to secure it.  Nothing special about it – it is just extra one stitch in place.  That simple.

One last little tidbit of information – this process got its name, Needle Turn Appliqué, because you can actually use your needle to help turn under the raw edge.  You can use your needle to catch and tuck/turn the raw edge under as you are working.  I find that I often smooth out a curve with just a little extra tuck of my needle.  Cute, right?!

With all these words describing this appliqué process, you might think it is complicated.  But if you’ve worked it as I’ve described it, I’m sure you now agree that it isn’t complicated.  It is easy – a little tedious maybe, but easy.

Finished Applique Piece

So maybe you can prepare now for the next time you find yourself faced with a long wait and want something to do with your hands.  Ahead of time, you can stencil and cut out pieces, maybe even pin or baste them, and put everything you need into a plastic storage bag.  If it is small enough (or your purse is big enough), then the next time you find that you have a long wait somewhere, you can pull it out and fill that time with a little creativity with Needle Turn Appliqué.

Happy quilting everyone!


Barb Bergquist along with husband, Ron, own A Block Away Quilt Shop.  A dedicated quilter with more than 25 years of experience, she is now actively sharing her love of quilting through the work in her shop.

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