For this clever technique, you’ll use fabric strips for appliqué, which can be used to represent straight or curved elements in a design, or to outline shapes or motifs.
What is Bias Strip Appliqué?
Bias-strip appliqué is a method of appliqué that uses narrow strips to add bold elements to a design. Cutting strips on the bias means that the fabric is able to curve more easily, allowing you to achieve fluid shapes.
Strips can most easily be created using commercial fusible bias tape, and these are available in different widths, with ¼in and ½in being the most common. You can also make your own bias strips, which will give you wider choices in terms of fabric and widths. Homemade strips can be made in any width, from 1/8in upwards.
Strips can be used in appliqué in various ways – from simple shapes to represent the stems of flowers, branches on trees, legs of animals and curling vines, to the more complex designs of stained-glass appliqué and Celtic appliqué.
This article describes the methods you will need to create bias strips for appliqué and how to apply them. It also suggests some design options. Next month we will take the technique further and look at creating stained-glass appliqué designs.
How to decide your strip thickness
When deciding on strip width you need to consider two main things.
- What width will work best with your design? It needs to be wide enough to show up well, yet not so wide that it overwhelms the design.
- How easy is it to make the strips? For example, if a design needs a 1⁄8in width but needs yards and yards then you might prefer to scale up the design so a commercial ¼in width can be used instead. Widths of ¼in and ½in are much more readily available in commercial tape.
You’ll see that the stitched samples in this masterclass show that bias-strip appliqué can be used to create naïve, folk-art inspired looks, or more elegant and sophisticated designs
Brought or homemade?
Probably the first decision you need to make is whether to buy ready-made bias tape or make your own. Some of the advantages and disadvantages are given here.
- Bias strips come ready to use, with the seam allowance already pressed in place.
- Some commercial tapes are backed with fusible web, which means that they can easily be fused into position.
- Widths of ¼in and ½in are readily available.
- Narrower widths, such as 1⁄8in are more difficult to find.
- Fabric choices and colours are limited, especially patterned ones.
- Bias strips can be made in whatever width you want, from 1⁄8in upwards. The widths can also be varied in a design.
- Making the tape yourself means you can use any fabric you like, be it solid or patterned, to work specifically with your design.
- You can add narrow fusible web to the back of homemade tape, to make it fusible.
- You can use a bias maker tool to make bias strips or a bias bar to make bias tubes.
- It is more time consuming to make your own tape.
How to make bias strips without gadgets
So, you’ve decided to make your own bias strips, giving you the best choice and flexibility. Depending on the size of your project, you will probably need bias strips with a finished width of 1⁄8in, 1⁄4in or 3⁄8in. If your project is a large one, then a 1⁄2in width might be needed. You can make these strips with just a ruler and rotary cutter, or you can make them using tools such as a bias maker or a bias bar. Let’s look at the no-gadget method first – I call this the “sides to middle method”.
Decide what width your bias strips need to be cut. The cut width needs to take into account the finished size of the strip, plus a seam allowance along each side, so there will be no raw edges along the long sides. The easiest way to create the seam allowance is to fold a strip in half along the length and press lightly. Then fold the sides into the middle, so the edges meet the centre crease, and press firmly with an iron.
- For 3⁄8in finished strips: cut strips 3⁄4in wide = 3⁄8in + 3⁄16in + 3⁄16in (Fig 1).
- For 1⁄4in finished strips cut strips: 1⁄2in wide = 1⁄4in + 1⁄8in + 1⁄8in (Fig 2).
- For 1⁄8in finished strips: cut strips 1⁄4in wide = 1⁄8in + 1⁄16in + 1⁄16in.
Now begin to cut strips from your fabric. Determine which way the bias grain is running on your fabric – it will be at 45 degrees to the selvedges and be stretchier than the straight grain. You can either use a pencil to mark parallel lines at the correct width across the fabric in the bias direction (Fig 3), or use the markings on a quilter’s ruler. Cut the strips with a rotary cutter and ruler.
Join strips together by placing two strips right sides together in an L shape as in Fig 4A. Sew across the corner and trim off the excess. Press the seam open.
Fold the edges of the strip in towards the middle, as described before (wrong sides together) and press into place (Fig 4B).
How to make bias strips with a Bias maker
Feed the fabric strip into the tool, as in Fig 5, guiding it in initially with a pin through the slit in the top. The fabric needs to be wrong side up, so as it emerges from the other end of the tool the edges will be folded over to the wrong side. Using spray starch on the fabric before you begin will create sharper creases.
Press the folded strip with an iron to set the creases and slowly pull the tool away from the iron, moving the iron along the folded strip. If you iron with your dominant hand and pull the tool away with your other hand you should find that a smooth, continuous movement works best.
Bias makers are available in different widths, with in and ½in being the most useful
How to make bias strips with a bias maker
Using a bias bar helps to turn bias-cut strips into a neat tubular form, which is really useful for appliqué, particularly for flower stems and narrow shapes that need to curve smoothly. The bars are made from metal or heat-resistant plastic and are usually available in a pack of different widths. Simply choose the width you need your finished strips to be. The advantage of creating a tube is that you can avoid tiny, fiddly seam allowances by cutting the allowance wider than you need and then trimming it down after the tube has been sewn (before the bias bar is used).
Examples of bias bars, with bias tubes created from them
Your bias fabric strips need to start off wider than the finished width: to calculate this double the finished width and add 1/2in for the seam. So, if you want the finished tape to be ¼in wide: ¼in + ¼in + ½in = 1in cut width. With right sides out, fold the strip of fabric in half along the length and sew a scant 1⁄4in seam along the length. Once sewn, if you are working with narrow widths, trim the seam allowance down to 1⁄8in.
Push the rounded end of the bias bar inside the fabric tube (it will be snug) (Fig 6). Turn the tube so the seam lies flat on the bar and press with an iron. If your strip is a long one, keep threading the tube on to the bar and pressing, slipping the pressed section off the other end. Once the bar is fully removed press the seam again to flatten it further.
When positioning the tube on the background, place the seam underneath, so it doesn’t show, and sew into place along both long edges.
Working with Bias Strips and Tubes
Once made, bias strips or tubes need to be attached to the base fabric or other appliqué motifs. Even if the strips have fusible web on the back, for a more durable result they will still need to be secured with stitches. These can be hand or straight machine stitches, or even a zigzag machine stitch. Use thread to match the fabric colour for an invisible result.
Starting and finishing
The start and finish of a line of bias strip needs to have the raw ends concealed so the ends do not fray. There are three main ways to do this.
- Whenever possible start and finish a line so the endings are hidden under other lines of bias strip.
- Starts and finishes can also be concealed by starting them at the edge of the work area, so they are later covered by piecing seams or binding.
- Sometimes, you will need to turn the end of the tape under and sew it in place. Turn at least 1⁄4in to the wrong side and press it. Position the tape wrong side down and sew in place (Fig 7). If the end of the tape has to meet another raw end, then make sure the two folded-under ends butt up against each other neatly (Fig 8).
Tight Curves & Corners
Bias strips and tubes have the ability to curve, but some designs have curves that are too tight so you will need to make small tucks in the strip to negotiate the curve. Use the point of the iron to nudge the tucks into place. For corners, you can either form a sharp fold by forming a mitre (Fig 9), or stop the tape with a turned-under end and cover the raw end with another length that has a turned-under end (Fig 10).
Ideas to try
Bias-strip appliqué can be used in many ways, limited only by your imagination. Here are a number of ideas for you to try.
- Apply strips to a well-known patchwork block to give the block more impact and a stained-glass quality. Two examples are shown in Fig 11. Applying bias strips in straight lines is a good way to practise making the strips and sewing them in place, before you move on to more elaborate designs.
- For a quick result, create your own simple block or design using squares and rectangles. In Fig 12 two square units, made up of different sizes and colours, are repeated in a four-patch design. The seams can then be decorated with bias strips to create a stained-glass look.
- You can use bias-strip appliqué for all sorts of appliqué scenes. The simple design in Fig 13 could be extended for a quilt border or made into a bag (as above).
- Why not explore the possibilities of freehand designs? You could choose an interesting background fabric and have strips or tubes curving and intertwining over the background (Fig 14).
- Seek out patchwork blocks that feature bias strips in their design – Fig 15 shows some examples.