Tutorial: Eric Carle quilt square

As I mentioned the other day, I’m doing a quilt square for Silas’ favorite book around his birthday each year. I just completed the one for his one-year-old favorite, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I used freezer paper applique, a technique that was new to me, and I wanted to write a little tutorial about it. Please forgive the quality of my photos; I do most of my sewing after dark.

I wanted to replicate the collage feel that Eric Carle has in his illustrations, so I decided to do this with layers of fabric. If you look very closely at the cover of TVHC, he’s used overlapping pieces of paper–the different segments of the caterpillar’s body aren’t separate. I decided to do this with the fabric, too, to give it some interesting dimensions.

I began by climbing into my cluttered storage area to use my light table. If you don’t have a light table, a window would do. I took a print-out of the book cover and some freezer paper. I numbered each piece of the caterpillar on the print out, and then traced them onto the freezer paper, including the piece number. Keep in mind that the image will be the reverse of whatever you draw on the freezer paper, since you’ll want to draw on the rough side. I turned the cover image over so that I was able to trace it from the back.

My husband poked his head into the crawlspace to ask what I was doing and how I managed to get back there. Considering that I’m quite pregnant, the latter question was a good one. At this point, I realized that I had forgotten the muslin square I needed for the next step, and so had to figure out how to get out and back in and out again.

I traced the outline of the caterpillar, along with the text, onto a square of muslin. I could have–and maybe should have–traced all the individual pieces, but the outline served me well enough, and I found I didn’t need more than that.

I set that aside for a while.

I cut out all of the freezer paper pieces. I just used scissors, but I’ve seen people recommend an Xacto knife, and that would work well, too. Then I ironed each piece onto fabric, shiny side down. The plastic on the shiny side of the paper stuck to the fabric–not so strongly that I couldn’t pull it apart, but enough that it stayed there.

I cut around each piece, leaving a 1/4 inch or so, and clipped the curves. I learned not to clip the curves too closely, but just a bit. At this point, I know that some people press the seam allowance under the piece, but I found it pretty easy to just tuck it around as I sewed, and my fingers didn’t get burned that way.

Here are all the pieces with the original. I chose to use a variety of fabrics from my stash, but tried to match, at least somewhat, the colors Carle used. He used a lot of different greens, from teal to forest, which is one of the things that I think gives the caterpillar a lot of personality. This was fun, too, because as I was picking fabric from my scrap bag, I found lots of pieces that had memories attached to them. Including them made me really happy. Among other things, I found some fabric from a pair of pants that I made for Silas, a cape that I made for Lillian, and some decorations my mom made for my room when I was in middle school. The head is a piece that I bought with the intention of making something for the baby. Maybe that will get done soon.

After that, it was time to sew. I lined each piece up with the outline, pinned it in place (the pieces were so small that I only needed one or two pins), and sewed it on there, tucking as I went.

In this picture, you can see the piece of the seam allowance that I haven’t tucked under yet.

I used a blind stitch to sew the applique pieces onto the base. The freezer paper technique includes pulling the freezer paper out from under the fabric piece when you have an inch or so left to sew. Tweezers are good for this. I skipped this step because the crinkly feeling that the freezer paper gave the fabric reminded me of the crinkle books that Silas loved when he was one. Most people, though, take the freezer paper out.

I also was careful not to just sew the pieces on in order from one end to the other, which would have made the overlapping very predictable. It would have looked like dominoes. Instead, I sewed a couple, skipped ahead and did one, then came back to fill in the empty space.

Then I got out the embroidery thread and worked on adding detail and hiding the places where my blind stitch got sloppy (one of which, you can see in the above photo).

I sort of guessed as to the placement for the eyes and nose. I didn’t want to climb back into my crawl space again to use the light table, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to see much through the paper print out and a couple of layers of muslin, plus freezer paper.

I used a chain stitch for the eyes and the feet, as well as the line of gold that Carle painted along the caterpillar’s back and the title and author text. His antennae have a chain stitch outline and satin stitch to fill in. For his ridge of fuzz (not shown in this picture), I just used long stitches. I suppose they’re technically a bent running stitch, but it feels weird to call them that because they aren’t in a row.

Finally, I took it off the hoop and pressed it and…voila! He looks a bit manic, but given the story, I suppose that makes sense.


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