Speedy skinny stems

Quilt centerpiece with this skinny stem technique. Click to see it in large format.

I’ve done a number of really skinny stems and I wanted to take a minute to give you some tips.

Because I like to do things efficiently, and because, to me, it’s pointless to hand applique both sides of stems, I developed a method that allows me to sew one side of the stem down by machine.

While it can’t be used in every situation, I’ve used this method to lay down many stems.  I’m hoping this short tutorial will help you speed up your applique and improve the quality of your work.

If you need an example where this technique will not work, look at Midnight Blossoms.  The vine that wraps around the larger stems at top right and bottom left cannot be applied using this technique.

I am going to recommend you try this technique with scraps before you apply it to any project you intend to finish.

This instructional can be paired with Accurate Applique to make complete works of art.

Pin the bias batik strip to the background fabric.

If you are building skinny stems, make sure the stem fabric is a good quality batik. In these examples I’m using left over dark green binding bias which I cut in half lengthwise.

Use a good quality background.  It does not need to be batik.

If you need an absolute placement of your stem, you may draw a line on the front of your background as a guide, but this step is completely optional.

You will need to cut a bias strip for your stem.  It is essential the stem be cut on the bias.  This allows for the smallest seam allowances when building skinny stems.

Lay your batik bias strip over your stem location and pin it down.  You may run the pins directly on the sewing line as a guide if you choose, just remove the pins as you get to them as you sew.

Stitch the bias strip down.

With your sewing machine threaded with matching thread (I’ve used contrasting to make the process more clear), sew the stem fabric to the background using a regular stitch.  Do not baste as this line of stitching is permanent.

Note that I have stitched quite close to the edge of the bias strip.  This saves me having to trim this selvage as I work.

If you have a single curve (as opposed to the double shown here), you may find it easier to keep the background from puckering if your initial stitch-down is done on the outside of the curve.  The two examples below are stitched on the outside of the curve which puts a bit more stress on the background fabric.

Second line of stitching

Now flip the stem fabric over the stitch line and press it so it covers the seam selvage.  The fold needs to be at the line of stitching you just made.

Once you have the bias fabric pressed over to the same side of the stitching line as the seam selvage, it’s time to define the finished width of the stem.  If you’re working on a pattern using the accurate applique technique which uses machine basting, this is the point where you baste the pattern to the back of your background fabric.

The machine pinning line of stitching will be easiest to work with if it is a color in contrast to the stem fabric.  I’ve used off-white.

Don’t change the stitch length.  The stitch length can be longer but it will be much easier to turn the fabric on the stitch line if the stitches and needle holes are fairly close together.

As with nearly every image on this site, you can click the image to see it enlarged.

A sharply curved stem with the to-be-appliqued edge trimmed ready to turn under.

Now it’s time to trim and stitch down by hand.  In this example I have trimmed the entire length of the stem, but this is optional.  It may be better for you to trim a small amount ahead of your work.  When you get to the narrow end of the stem, make sure you trim the seam allowance to just less than the width of the stem.  Make sure both seam allowances are narrower than the width of the stem.  This will keep the stem from getting bulky.

Beginning the laying down.

To applique the edge down, unstitch 3/4 to 1″ of the visible row of stitching, turn it under on the seamline and applique it down.

Continue unpicking the seam, turning the selvage under and appliqueing it down.  You will find the material folds easily on the stitching line as you work, making the work easy and the edge smooth and faithful to your original design.

A single strategically placed pin will hold the stem fabric turned under as you work.


Very skinny stems with tips

If you are doing very skinny stems which must have a tip (not covered by a flower or leaf), make sure you use a few backspace stitches at the skinny end of the stem to lock the stitching when you first stitch the stem fabric to the background.  This will keep the end stitching from coming undone as you start turning the excess fabric at the tip and stitching the open side of the stem down.  When you begin turning the open edge under, start at the tip, trimming judiciously and folding and stuffing the seam fabric under at the tip.  With practice you will be able to do quite small stems and pointy tips.

One more tip.  If you can do a good quality quilting stitch (rocker stitch), you can replace both the machine stitching of the stem as well as the machine pinning with this hand stitch though it will take longer and require more care to preserve accuracy. For the machine pinning, the fabric won’t break as easily for turning under.

The initial stitching to lay down all of the stems on the Web Quilt shown at the top of this page was done using a rocker stitch. It didn’t take long to figure out machine sewing them down was faster, easier and cleaner and all the skinny stem applique I did after that quilt was done by machine.

3 thoughts on “Speedy skinny stems

  1. Be forewarned, the current feed will be things other than quilting as I am currently sans a cutting table and eschewing quilting for the moment. I’m hoping for better in future, but now is what it is.

  2. I am anxious to try your method. It does seem to speed it up, and make it easier. Have avoided turned under applique for that reason.

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