For the last year and a half, I’ve been working on a needle-turn applique quilt with blocks based on the work of Charley Harper. It was completely hand-pieced and hand-quilted. I also made my own patterns for each block. Note that Charley Harper Studio sells quilt and needlepoint patterns on their site, but I did not use these. I started planning and designing in June 2016 and finished it in the middle of November 2017. I thought it would take a year to finish, but I’d never done anything like this before so I’m not surprised that my estimate was off. What matters though is that I loved making this and that I finished.
Since this was a major undertaking, I feel compelled to discuss the process I went through and offer some tips if you decide to try this too.
Designing the Blocks
I discussed my process for creating the patterns in previous blog posts (over-all design and individual blocks), so check those out for details. Mostly I would encourage you to keep your designs simple. Small pieces of fabric are very difficult to work with and at some point, it makes sense to complete some details with embroidery rather than applique.
Choosing fabric was mostly straight-forward since the colors tend to be solid in the reference work. Sometimes though, a piece had a textured or patterned background, like the calico cat on a leaf background. This was not easy to replicate, so I chose a fabric that was a mottled green and quilted leaf shapes onto the background to have a similar feel to the original.
Cutting & Piecing
A lot of my learning from high school geometry came in handy here. Finding the center of a block is easily achieved by folding the fabric in half. A square (a ruler with a right angle) is useful for making sure corners are square and measurements are made at 90° angles.
Do yourself a huge favor and cut your background fabric larger than you need it. There will be shrinkage as you applique and you’ll be much happier to have extra than not enough.
In general, be patient. Take the time to plan the order you need to add each piece. Sometimes I needed to applique smaller pieces to larger ones before they got sewn down to the background fabric. Did I have to rip things out occasionally? Oh yes! I even mangled up a few pieces of fabric so bad I had to cut new ones. Not a big deal. Be patient with yourself.
Piecing the Blocks Together
After all that applique, your blocks will rarely still be square. Yikes! What matters is that you get a straight seam when you put them together. Don’t worry if you’re having to get creative to make it work. In the end, no one’s gonna know.
By the time I got to quilting, I realized that I should follow the warnings online to make sure your batting and backing are bigger than the top to account for shrinkage as you quilt. Such a good idea!
Pinning also is helpful when you first start to keep everything together. However! Before you start to quilt a section, take out the pins and make sure everything is lying flat before you re-pin. Also, start your quilting in the center and work out to prevent uneven backing fabric.
I’ll tell you a secret: my backing isn’t quite flat. I had some moments of serious disappointment over this, but I realized that NO ONE CARES what the back of the quilt looks like. It’s also hand-made so there will be some hiccups. It doesn’t ruin anything. Obviously you don’t want huge puckers, but a couple of wrinkles or loose spots is not the end of the world. Mistakes on the back are less important than issues on the front.
Designing the background quilting was a big challenge. I had images of the original art to inform my block decisions, but the needs of the quilting sometimes didn’t fit. For example, I needed to have fairly evenly spaced quilting and not leave large areas un-quilted. But quilting added new lines that weren’t in the originals. In the burrowing owl block, I decided to add in parallel lines that corresponded with the lines on the owls’ heads. I’ve seen similar striping in other pieces from Charley Harper. For the dolphin block, I added more swooshes to fill in un-quilted areas. My goal was to provide stability to the block in a way that was visually similar to methods employed by the original artist.
I broke some more rules with the binding. After I quilted around the major figures in my blocks and the framing pieces and nothing was shifting around any more, I did my binding, then I finished off the background quilting. The batting and fabric on the edges was starting to stretch out and get in the way and it just made sense to handle the batting at that time.
Just have fun. Try not to sweat the small stuff. If there’s a mistake and you’re prone to worry about these things, ask yourself, “Will my friends and family notice this? If they did would they care?” or “In 5 years am I ever going to notice this when I use my quilt?” If not, let it go. The things that matter are issues that will affect the over-all life of the project like skimpy seams, frayed edges, or poor quality stitching. The rest is fine.
Break the rules. Ignore the videos and blog posts that tell you you’re doing it wrong. If the end result is what you want, it doesn’t matter how you got there. I never was able to turn my applique edges under with the needle. When I tried, I got a frayed mess. I used my fingers with much better success. Can you tell the difference? Nope. Use the videos and blog posts to get an idea of how to do things, but don’t worry if your version is a little different.
Share your progress. I planned to post about each block here on my blog, but ended up sharing mostly on Facebook in a public album. My friends and family enjoyed following the progress. Yours probably will too.
Above all, just try and do what makes YOU happy.