Embellishing crazy quilt blocks

Embellishing crazy quilt blocks

This is a return and the final in an ad hock series of posts on crazy quilting. I have been side tracked in the last 2 months but still had in mind to cover embellishing the block using techniques other than stitching. So I have dusted off the draft, cleaned it up, added some more images I suggest you make yourself comfortable with a cuppa and read on.

Before I start chattering on I would like to stress that there are no hard and fast rules in crazy quilting so anything I say is simply in the category of advice. This series has simply been the process that I use to work a block and many people create wonderful crazy quilts using other methods.

I add visual texture to a crazy quilt block with the liberal use of lace, braids, ribbons, buttons, beads and charms. One of the key tips I can give out is that from the start when you are piecing the block think of the block as a whole. I add lace, ribbons and braids to cover the seams of a crazy quilt block as I piece.

After embroidering all the seams, motifs, lace and braids on a crazy block its time to add what I call the ‘hard’ embellishments. By hard I don’t mean they are hard to do just that as elements they are physically hard. Things like charms buttons and beads. If you add them too soon to a block you will find that as you do your embroidery your thread will constantly catch on them and tangle. So for me embellishment is last phase of a block.

There is lots of eye candy today if you click on the images it will take you to the original block so you can see the embellishment in context.

Lace and Braids
Braids ribbons and bands of lace can create very strong lines in a block and can use these linear elements to guide the viewers eye around the block you want to guide the viewer around the block but not have them speed along a line so fast that they don’t stop to look. This is one of the reasons that I like to place embroidery along the side of braids and lace it will slow the viewers eye down as they look at the detail.

Lace also sets up a contrast of texture yet is light and interesting to stitch. Embellishment on top of lace such as stitching or beading areas deepens the visual texture. It creates a deep texture both literally and visually and will act to slow the eye down as it lingers over the area.

The same applies to adding beadwork and embroidery to lace the complex texture acts to slow the eye down as people make sense of it. It’s like walking along a path, and you don’t want people run like a bunch of kids chasing a ball but to walk at an easy mature pace, and take notice of what is going on. If the line is long and simple the eye will simply zip by, running down the path too fast. You need to slow the viewers eye down – you want them to stop and look so you need to give them something to stumble over. Interesting embroidery along the side of a braid or lace will in part do this. It will do this more if you include beads as it makes the area richer visually. The other thing you can do is give people something interesting to look at just off the path so they deviate for a moment and then return. A slight visual side track can be a charm or a button tucked into a corner, or a lace motif close to the path.

There are also what I call ‘meandering’ embellishments and curved lines. Sections of doilies can be incorporated in a crazy quilt block at the piecing stage. Often you can use one to break a long seam line. Simply place it to overlap slightly the problem line and emphasise it with beading or button clusters and the curved line will swing the eye off in another direction.

Ribbons can also be used to soften a line. Firstly a ribbon can meander about a block and a flowing curved line will slow the eye down. Ribbons can be tied in bows and added to a crazy quilt block with the tail of the bow flowing elsewhere on the block.

When working with ribbon don’t forget ruching as it is simple an easy to do and easily embellished further with stitching and beading.

You can also easily couch down ribbon and rick rack using buttonhole stitch, Zigzag chain stitch (great for using on rick rack) herringbone stitch, or cretan stitch . This technique will add texture to the line created by the ribbon and as a result slow the eye down because texture is interesting.

Hankies and doilies:

Another form of motif in crazy quilting is to use the corners of hankies. These are stitched in as I piece the block as the shape is angular. Angles will act like arrows and point the eye in a particular direction. So when using the corners of hankies I incorporate them from the very start of the block.

Doilies can act to accentuate a curve and as you do with hankies incorporate them from the very start of the block. You can add further embellishments of buttons, ribbon work and beading to them.

Both hankies and doilies can be used to break a long seam. Long seams in a crazy quilt block can be a problem because the eye will just scoot along them. A well placed hankie, doily or lace motif can stop the eye and turn it off the long seam to another area of the block.

Prairie Points
Another embellishment I add at the piecing stage is Prairie Points. Once again however these are angular elements and will act visually as arrows. If you don’t know how to make them Rosemary Eichorn and Ranny Martin have written instructions in Easy Prairie Points and here are some further tips

Lace Motifs and single dodads:
Unlike bands of lace, ribbon or braids, I add lace motifs last along side buttons, charms and beads as lace motifs on a block add points of interest in a block that can also act to attract the eye and draw the viewer around the block. I often add beading to them to add a little extra emphasis if its required.

Ribbons too can be made into single motifs to act as a point of emphasis. Often ideas can be adapted for instance Offray has published directions on how to make a little Christmas decoration from ribbon in the shape of fan which can easily be adapted for crazy quilting.

Don’t forget your other skills with a needle for instance if you crochet, there are numerous small patterns for baskets, flowers and the like that can be added to a crazy quilt block. I don’t know who is responsible for this tip but I know I read it on one of the discussion lists I am on. You can make a flower basket from half a small doyley, the smaller the better. Using your sewing machine you run two seams across the centre, and cut between them. When you place it on a block add a cord to represent the handle then fill your basket with embroidered flowers or silk ribbon work. As you work cover the cut seam with embroidery.

Tatted motifs are also wonderful in crazy quilting Suffolk Puff flowers are easy to make and add dimension to a project particularly when you incorporate beads. Beads can be wired into spiders or used as the body of dragonflies. Even the cheapest beads work well for projects like this.

Buttons and charms:

The size and colour of beads, charms, buttons, and lace motifs not only add interest but because of their nature they will influence the composition of a block. These elements will attract the eye from a distance and also act to draw the eye from one point in the block to another.

As I have said before in this series of posts the name of the game is to get the eye to wander around a particular area of the quilt and then have it move on to the next area. The more a person looks the more they see and take pleasure in the work. So you need to set up a way of leading the eye around the block and using buttons, lace, beads and charms as points of emphasis will create a little pathway between areas for you. For instance you might have buttons in the top right hand corner of a crazy quilt block. When a person firsts sees the block the their eye will land on that area, now you want them to look at it but give them somewhere else to go. To do this put something interesting on the left hand side, towards the bottom of the block. By something interesting like a special charm or a cluster of buttons. This second section does not need to have the same visual dominance or weight as the first but it does need to be strong enough to drag the eye in that direction. This second area could also be a finely worked motif with beads and a smaller charm tucked into it or a spray of flowers.

Then you want lead the eye elsewhere so I might put something such as lace motif somewhere else on the block to lead the eye. The person who is looking t the block takes in different stitches and textures as they travel along the paths you have set up and then returns to the original point of emphasis and the whole process starts again – their eye moves over the block – up and down and around enjoying it!

The size of buttons charms and beads is important as one very large button in a corner will draw the eye to it. A cluster of large buttons will do this even more. Vary the size of buttons and charms to change the dominance in a particular area or balance it with another area on the block. I usually add buttons and embellishments in odd numbers. For instance I will select 3 or 5 buttons, not 4.

Using shank buttons:
In button clusters I often use shank buttons many quilters don’t like them because they are floppy. There is a number of ways to stop this. I often tuck the edge of a flat button slightly under a shank button so that the shank button sits up straight. The other thing I do is to place a decorative shank button in the hole in the centre of a crocheted motif.

I have also been know to pick up a pair of needlenose pliers and squash the back shank so that it sits a little flatter on the surface of the quilt. You have to be gentle when you do this as you do risk breaking the shank. I know button collectors will have a fit at that piece of advice but it is what I do. I would not so it to a vintage button but some of the modern cheapies I have no hesitation but they have to be metal as plastic just breaks. The other thing I have done particularly when the button is vintage, as it does not damage the button, is to make a small hole with an awl and push the button shank through to the back of the block. Sew the button from the back side of the block. If you are worried that the fabric might fray, use fray check around the hole. If the button will still not sit flat cut a small circle of felt the size of the button pierce the centre. Pierce the block with an awl as I described in the previous method push the shank of the button through the hole and then push the felt circle on to the shank then stitch the button on. Stitch the felt down around the edge with small stitches that do not show on the front of the block.

Other button ideas
You can easily combine buttons and beads into clusters of rich embellished texture. Since these buttons do not have to function as buttons you can add beaded tassels and drops to the centres or pile seed beads in the middle.

Beads not only attract the eye because most of them are shiny but they add emphasis because they are a contrast of texture with thread and fabric.

When beading a crazy quilt block the size of the beads is an important choice to make. If you just want to add a little zest to an area use small seed beads. On the other hand if you want to draw the eye to a particular area on a block add larger beads or novelty beads. If you really want to attract attention to an area use a whole trail of them!

Some crazy quilters use little in the way of buttons and lace but love beads. For a crazy quilter who makes heavy use of beads take a look at Nancy Eha ‘s gallery (scroll to the bottom).

For more ideas take a look at these Beading samplers on the bead wrangler site.

Shisha Mirrors
Shisha Mirrors are often incorporated in contemporary crazy quilting. If you are not sure what I am talking about Janet Stocker has published an article that covers the types of Shisha Mirrors and how to tell them apart. If you need to know how to stich them on to a project the Embroiderers Guild UK has provided information on shisha stitch. Traditional Shisha is thin glass, hand cut from a large sheet. You can still buy shisha but you can also make your own from old CDS you can simply cut them with a good strong pair of scissors. Tip – don’t use your good scissors!

Cigarette silks
Cigarette silks used to come with the pack of cigarettes or tobacco in early 1900’s and they were incorporated into quilts as this article about American Quilting points out. The practice diminished by World War I. But it had established the pattern of making decorative items from them. A well researched article online about these novelty items is Textile Tobacco Inserts and Premiums used in American Quilts, and Related Household Articles by quilt collector, historian and quilt maker Laurette Carroll.

Anyone who takes a passing glance at crazy quilting could assume that crazy quilters are a nostalgic lot living in the past. Contemporary crazy quilters are mad about reproducing a novelty items such as Cigarette silks using digital technology. Crazy quilting may invoke the past but they are very much about the present as now they are reproduced using digital technology. You can also buy reproduction cigarette silks from firms such as Maureen Greeson & Co .

The cost of embellishments
Embellishments for use in crazy quilting can be expensive if you have not been gathering this sort of material. In fact everything associated with crazy quilting can be expensive but there are ways to do it cheaply. Firstly don’t forget that recycling old after five garments picked up in charity stores is a perfectly reasonable way to go. To wash or not to wash is a question that is often raised. Everything I buy from second hand shops gets tossed straight in the washing machine as soon as I come home. I figure if it can’t hack the pace I don’t want to spend hours stitching on it. All you lose is possibly a few dollars and who wants to spend time on fabric that will shatter. Better shatter sooner than later in my book. Many put their items through on the gentle cycle, to be honest I don’t I am a heavy duty wash cycle person and I have only lost one garment doing this. This includes silks, brocades, satins the works.

My tip is to become a hunter and gather, always check out the charity stores for jars of buttons. Normally they are full of buttons that they have trimmed from clothing. Usually there is a good percentage of buttons that are suitable for use in crazy quilting. Sometimes you will find some real gems and you can find some interesting vintage buttons this way. They are not necessarily in sets as a button collector would want, but they are ideal to embellish a crazy quilt block. While poking about in charity shops and markets don’t forget to keep an eye out for old jewellery which can be pulled apart and used.

Drag out your old pots and set about dyeing things. Many people start out using Dylon. If you enjoy the magic of dyes you can expand your skills by exploring other dyes such as Procion dyes but for many Dylon is perfectly suitable to and don’t forget to dunk the odd bit of lace into the pot and many buttons will take dye too.

The quilt will be heavy
If you have a lot of embellishments such as buttons and beads on a Crazy quilt, it will be heavy and sag from the weight when you hang it. What I do is to use batting and I add some stitching to join the back and the front of the quilt to prevent sagging. I often use buttons to hide the stitches. Or if buttons or beads are already on the block which with me they are, I simply add a few extra stitches underneath them sewing through to the quilt top, in other words through all layers. It hides the stiches and strengthens the quilt.

Anyone who is interested in learning more about crazy quilting to poke around in the crazy quilting section as there are lots of leads to links online relating to crazy quilting and how to do it there. Also read the blogs that are listed in my side bar under crazy quilting as there are some very talented women documenting what they do and why in their blogs.

The CQ Mag online is also a great resource. This ezine is written by practitioners who have a passion for crazy quilting. There are an extensive collection of articles including articles on the history of crazy quilts, instructional material on piecing, embroidery and embellishment of crazy quilts with lace, trims and beads.

Another key source of information is the discussion lists online. If you join them they will open a whole world of ideas and tip and tricks. If you live in Australia or New Zealand you will probably enjoy southerncrosscrazies. The three large global lists are CQembellishers and Crazy Quilting International which are both associated with Yahoo groups. The oldest list online is Crazy Quilt which you subscribe to via the Quiltropolis site. All the lists are great, and welcome beginners and old hands alike. I have learnt many a trick and had many hours pleasure from these lists over the years.

Hope you have enjoyed the series and as usual feel free to leave comments, questions or further leads to resources which people can enjoy.


  1. I love your embellishments, and the way you work with them. You did mention Prairie Points for a border edging, but I am interested in knowing where they originated. Do you have any information on this or know where it could be found?

    Pat Hobbs
  2. this blog is awsome. ive just started year 12 and its given me soo many ideas for my majour textiles project! i love the runching thing you did im definatley using it!!!! love your work!!!!!

  3. Fabulous information! You really should consider writing a book. This is the toughest part of learning to crazy quilt. With a little practice you can get the stitches on your own but for a newbie, it’s the design hurdle they can’t get across.

    Put my name at the top of hte list for advanced sales of your longed-for opus.

    Kim s.
  4. I love looking at your work. I’ve been a crazy quilter for a number of years and love looking at other quilters work…..gives me new ideas. I’m going to print out the whole post so I can look at it any time I want. Sharon your blog is the first I read every day…keep up the good work.

    Liz in central California

  5. Sharon, you do such a fabulous job of summarizing how to do crazy quilting, for beginners and advanced alike! I plan on printing this and attempting most of the stuff you mentioned (if I haven’t already!). The links are invaluable…as are you! πŸ˜‰

  6. Ok… I have to say this… I love you! Love your work, love your stitch dictionary, love your creativity! Thats it! I said it! Now back to the cuppa!

    Candida in SΓ£o Paulo, Brazil
    …. many ponds away, but so many stitches close… πŸ™‚


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