Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Applique A Tiny Bird's Eye

Several people have asked me to do a blog post about how I manage hand appliqué on a tiny bird’s eye. And they keep reminding me. (These things take time!) So here it is.

First, enjoy shopping for just the right fabric for your bird’s eye! On antique Baltimore album quilts, a daisy-like flower might be cut out and sewn as a bird’s eye. I appliqued this tiny flower which made a 1/8” circle – quite challenging!

This fish’s eye was the center of a large flower. His upper lip was appliquéd with the technique explained below.

Polka dots are great if you find just the right size. Circles and ovals provide a nice guideline to appliqué. This eagle's eye seems to have eyelashes.

Here's a wild bird eye! Wish I had more than a scrap of this fabric....

The little block design below was clipped from the full-size block in my Baltimore Garden Quilt book, for a workshop on basics of appliqué with freezer paper on top, tricks and techniques for leaves, skinny stems, stuffed cherries, and a tiny bird’s eye.

The black polka dot is the perfect size for my bird’s eye, and its white background allows me to include a white eye-ring which shows up nicely against the bird. But it’s still really small to applique! Here is the trick: Usually I cut an appliqué seam allowance about 3/16 inch. However, for tiny appliqué, cut out the appliqué fabric with a HUGE seam allowance. Knot a thread, and baste all around the eye. End the basting thread with another knot.

If a white eye-ring is desired, use a circle template to mark a bigger circle. Depending on your fabric, you might not need that, such as the eagle with eyelashes shown above.

Clip out one or two basting stitches – just enough to trim a LITTLE BIT of the HUGE seam allowance down to 3/16 inch (or less) for ONE STITCH of appliqué. The remaining basting stitches will hold the fabric in place while you begin to sew.

Thread the needle with appliqué thread and knot the end. Insert the appliqué needle under the eye fabric (so the knot will be hidden) to begin the first appliqué stitch. Turn the seam allowance under and send the needle to the back of the block. Pull the thread taught and then park the needle.

That first appliqué stitch is now holding one side of the eye in place while the remaining basting stitches are still holding the other side.

At that point, you must clip out more basting, and trim more seam allowance away before you can continue around the circle. The appliqué stitches must be very close together. Instead of the usual horizontal appliqué stitch, send the needle straight up and down vertically for each stitch. You might call it a stab stitch. 
About halfway around, all basting will be gone, but the eye will be stable. From there on, trim carefully and appliqué until the last bit is turned under. This is probably the most difficult part. The seam allowances have to be very small – all the seam allowances have to be cut narrow enough to fit under their its part of the circle.

TIPS: On this tiny appliqué, concern yourself with only one single stitch at a time. Trim only enough and turn under only enough seam allowance for that one stitch. Use the needle to wipe the seam allowance under. Slide the tip of the needle under the circle to smooth the gathers. If too much is pushed under, flattening the circle, use the tip of the needle to coax it out a bit before taking the stitch. Push in any bumps with a fingernail or a toothpick. Hold the block at the eye between your finger and thumb and press to flatten the gathered turnunder (finger press).
Finished! If there are a few bumps in the applique, you can still push those bumps in with the needle, a toothpick, or a fingernail, and take an extra stitch or two.

In my book Baltimore Garden Quilt, there are more ways to make use of this method. Try this technique on a bird’s eye, or any small appliqué piece. I would love to see your photos – visit me on Facebook. And watch for a future post on embroidered bird eyes.

Keep Stitching!
Barbara M. Burnham


(c) 2015 Barbara M. Burnham. All rights reserved. Reproduction of any kind is expressly prohibited without prior written authorization.


  1. thank you for such great tips on tiny pieces like that!

  2. Thank you so much for this Barbara! I always cheat and use french knots or a small bead for an eye. Now I'm anxious to try a needle turn eye -- I have just the Redbird to do it on too!! Much appreciated. Karen

  3. Lovely pictures, Barbara. I do my bird's eyes in a similar way. Thery are such fun to do!

  4. Thank you so much for the useful tips . I struggle with tiny pieces.

  5. Great tutorial, Barbara! Thank you! Tiny circles are quite a challenge and you have provided some very useful tips to help conquer them :)

  6. Wow, thank you for sharing this :-)

  7. Thank you so much for this tutorial! The first appliqué block I made had cardinals with tiny eyes and I embroidered them-- just assumed they were too small to appliqué. Thank you also for sharing the fabrics you look for with eyes in mind. Seeing only the finished appliqué, it's so hard for a beginner to know what to look for at the fabric store for these special details. I do have your book, by the way, and I love your work!

  8. Thank you for the tip on stitching the eye. I like that you have basting stitches to hold the fabric in place. Never would have thought of doing the tiny circles in this way.

  9. Amazing how you can see eyes in the fabrics. Surely will keep looking for inventory :)

  10. Barbara - Thank you so much for sharing this. I have been quilting for years, but these little tiny pieces have been such a challenge that I have shied away from them. Thank you for helping build my confidence.


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