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Hawaiian Quilting 101

Hawaiian Quilting 101

  • Briefly: For Beginners, this eBook teaches traditional needleturn appliqué and Hawaiian quilting Read more
  • Type: E-books
  • ISBN: 978-1-99-116800-9
  • Author: Nancy Chong
  • Skill Level: beginner
  • Techniques

    Hand Applique, Hawaiian Quilting

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  • Tags: applique, applique design, Ebook, hand applique, Nancy Chong

  • Regular price $19.99 USD
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    • Description
    • Requirements

    Hawaiian quilts are visually striking because of their sophistication, symmetry, and strong contrasting colors. They look difficult to make and yet are surprisingly easy. Nancy shows you each stress-free step, as you create this 20" breadfruit block.

    Traditionally it is believed that if your first quilt is a breadfruit, you will be certain to make many more quilts, and we want you to get off to a great start! This is an ideal way to learn the needleturn appliqué method. No previous appliqué experience is necessary.

    In this ebook, you will learn how to transfer the design to the fabric, cut it out, lay it open on the background fabric, baste, and hand appliqué the design. You will learn to mark echo-quilting rows, hand quilt, and bind your project. Along the way, Nancy will share some of the history, superstitions, and traditions surrounding Hawaiian quilt making.

    Originally presented as an online workshop, this class is now available as a printable ebook.

    Your supplies are listed by part so you can be sure to have the right supplies when you need them.  For each part, there may be a more in-depth discussion of certain items, such as thread, needles and batting.  Some items may be used in more than one part.

    Part One:  Preparation

    • TWO cotton fabrics – 22"-24" square, contrasting in color or value with each other.  You will also need approximately 1/4 yard of one of these for binding if you make a wall hanging.  (Please read my in-depth discussion below about fabric choices.)
    • iron and ironing board or pressing mat
    • paper scissors
    • fabric scissors good enough to cut through 8 layers of fabric.  If you will be making more Hawaiian quilts, I suggest you invest in a good quality pair of 8" dressmaking shears with metal handles.  I used Ginghers, but there are also other good quality shears.  They cut through 8 layers of fabric like a hot knife through butter.
    • thread to match your appliqué fabric
    • ugly colored thread that looks awful with your fabric choices
    • basting needle -- this is just any needle you have that you like to thread.  Not too thick and not too thin.  You want the basting to be fun and relatively quick, so any needle you like is fine.
    • masking tape
    • marking tool that will show up on your appliqué fabric.

    Part Two:  Appliqué, the Needleturn Way

    • needle for appliqué (see discussion below)
    • thread to match appliqué fabric (see discussion below)
    • thread snippers
    • basted quilt top
    • ruler (any)
    • chalk marking pencil


    I prefer using a long, thin needle known as a "straw" needle or also known as a "milliner's" needle, size 10 or 11.  They are thin enough to go through the fabric easily, and their length makes my needleturn techniques easier to perform than if you use a shorter needle. Here in the US, the packages may be labeled either Milliner or Straw but they both have the same needle inside, so buy what you find. In Europe, I believe they are labeled Straw needles. (These needles were originally created to make straw hats.)

    If you have not tried a Straw needle before, I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how easy you can do needleturn appliqué with a longer needle than you might have used before.  When considering the size of a hand sewing needle, the higher the number, the thinner the needle.  I use a size 10 straw needle when appliquéing regular cotton fabrics, and I use a size 11 straw needle when using batiks and other tightly-woven fabrics.  These needles are longer than other needles known as "sharps," "hand applique," "betweens" or "hand quilting" needles.


    The most important decision you will make in appliqué is which needle to use.  The second most important decision is the thread that best matches your appliqué fabric.  I always take my appliqué fabric with me when choosing thread.  I lay one strand of the thread against my fabric to make the best decision.  Do not lay the entire spool of thread next to the fabric; you are only seeing the thread lay against itself.  If you find a perfect match, great.  Often, you are not that lucky.

    If you find two spools that are close, but not perfect, here is a helpful hint about which spool to select.  Take into consideration the value of your background fabric.  If you have a darker background than your appliqué fabric, choose the thread that is slightly darker.  If your background fabric is lighter than the appliqué fabric, select the thread that is slightly lighter.

    I prefer to use 100% cotton thread, not because I am a purist about fiber content, but because it is easier to thread the thin needles I use.  If I find the perfect thread color in a poly-cotton thread, I will use it, but I will change my needle to a No. 10 Milliners/Straw needle so the eye is a little larger.  My favorite thread is a fine cotton thread.  All-purpose sewing thread (50/3) works fine, but I prefer a thinner thread. As with needles, the higher the size of the thread, the thinner that thread is.  I prefer using a 50/2 (Aurifil) or 60/2 (Mettler) because they are thin and are easier to thread into the tiny eyes on the thin needles I use.

    Part Three:  Echo Quilting

    • 24" square backing fabric (Using a print that coordinates with the colors you chose for the top is a fun way to finish off your project. )
    • 24" square batting (See discussion below)
    • ugly basting thread
    • long basting needle, again, a needle that you like to hold that makes basting go quickly & easily.
    • old tablespoon to help with the basting (optional) This spoon will get scratched, so use an old, inexpensive spoon.
    • masking tape (any type will work)
    • 14", 16" or 18" quilt hoop (wooden, round or oval hoop works well)
    • hand quilting thread (See discussion below)
    • hand quilting/Between needles (I prefer size 10, but you may use whatever size you prefer)
    • your favorite thimble (I will discuss hand quilting using your finger to push the needle, as well as an option of using your thumb to push the needle.  You will want to have a thimble that protects whatever digit you use for quilting.)
    • thread snippers
    • chalk marking pencils for marking quilting lines
    • small ruler or device that easily and quickly shows 1/2" (I like to use the Dritz Ruler With Sliding Guide. )
    • old scrap bias tape, elastic band or stretchy fabric for quilting near hoop edge
    • straight pins


    Batting is an important issue with Hawaiian quilts and I want you to be happy with your results.  The Hawaiian quilters I know like to use 100% polyester bonded batting for their quilts.  This type of high-loft batting retains its loft between the many rows of quilting.  The light and shadows cast on those rows create the personality of the quilt and really brings the quilt to life.  If you choose a flat batting, you will do the same amount of stitching, but there will be less personality to the finished quilt.

    Choose a batting that has a high loft – between 4.5 oz and 6.0 oz in weight, and one that is between 45" - 60" inches wide.  I know you only need 24" square for this project, but the batting I prefer usually comes on a large roll that is 45" to 60" wide.  If you only have battings available that come in a bag, I have found that Hobbs Cloud-Loft© batting is a suitable weight for your Hawaiian quilt.  If your store does not carry it, any other high loft batting will work.  For this first project, any relatively puffy batting you can find will work better than any of the very thin, needlepunched battings that seem to be so popular now.

    There are some polyester battings that have a very stiff bonding agent and I avoid those.  When I shop, I check the end of the roll of batting (I usually find the rolls in the back of chain fabric stores, like JoAnn's and Hancock Fabrics in my area).  Their labels usually indicate a weight.  The weight is how much one yard of that size batting weighs.  For example, if you have a roll of batting that is 54" tall, one yard of that batting will weigh X ounces.  That is the weight.  So if it is 54" tall and weighs 4.5 ounces, then it is an appropriate weight for a Hawaiian quilt.

    The high loft batting that you are probably familiar with is believed to be impossible to quilt by hand, but it is not.  I have been quilting with it for over 35 years and never had a bearding problem, and it is quite wonderful and drapes wonderfully when it is completed.  It appears impossible to quilt by hand at the very beginning because it still has all of the air between the polyester fibers.  Once you begin to quilt (in the center of the quilt), you begin to squish the air out (just like rolling up a sleeping bag).  Each successive row of quilting squishes out more air, and the fibers are condensed and it gets easier and easier to quilt.  

    I have avoided bagged battings for years because in general, they are not very consistent in their thickness.  Some spots have double batting, while right next to that spot there is hardly any batting.  The Hobbs brand seems to do the best job lately in making even batting.  My sister and I have been using this batting for years now and we are both very pleased with the drape of the quilt while we are quilting and when we are finished.  I know this is a foreign concept to most quilters, but what you have heard is probably from people who hadn't used the batting itself; they are just passing along what they have heard from others who have not used it either. 

    If you cannot find high loft polyester batting in your area or online, or if you choose to use a lower loft batting, please choose any polyester batting (medium or low loft) instead of using a cotton batting.  Avoid "needlepunched" battings as they are very flat and will not show off the quilting you do.

    Wool batting (any brand) is another nice option.  Wool provides a decent loft to show off the quilting, but is very easy to quilt.  For all battings, be sure to read the instructions for pre-shrinking/washing options.


    I prefer to use hand quilting thread because of its strength.  I have used 100% cotton thread, and cotton-wrapped polyester thread, and I like both.  Just be sure to use the same type of thread throughout the quilt.

    You have color choices to make when choosing your thread. 

    1) White thread would be the traditional choice.

    2) Match appliqué fabric: Choose thread that matches your appliqué fabric. The quilting stitches will not show as much on the appliqué, but will be featured on the background.  In the project I am working on for this ebook, I chose to use blue quilting thread over the entire surface of the quilt.

    3) Match background fabric: Choose thread that matches your background fabric. The quilting stitches will show more in the appliqué than they will on the background fabric.

    4) Two colors - matching: In my sample quilt, instead of using just one color thread, I could have chosen blue thread on blue fabric and white thread on white fabric.  Your stitches will not show very much at all, but the light and shadows will still draw attention to the loft between the quilting rows.

    5) Two colors - opposing: In my sample quilt, I could also have chosen blue thread on white fabric and white thread on blue fabric.  All of your stitches will show and add another dimension to your quilt.  I use this choice often as I think the opposing colors of thread make the contrasting colors of fabric appear to belong together.

    6) Third color:  You will not see this choice often, but it can be striking.  Let’s assume you love red, white and blue.  If you have made a red and white quilt, you could choose to quilt it with blue thread.  It will look different from everyone else’s quilt, and you have made a creative choice that pleases you.

    This block project will not use much thread.  One spool will be plenty.  If you were making a queen or king-size quilt, however, you might use up to five spools of thread for the quilting.

    Backing Fabric

    Make sure the backing fabric is a few inches larger than your quilt top.  Wash your backing fabric to make sure that the dye will not run and the fabric is pre-shrunk.

    Part Four:  Finishing the Ulu Block

    • yard stick or 24" ruler
    • chalk marking pencil
    • rotary cutter or sharp scissors
    • sewing machine
    • thread to match binding fabric
    • fat quarter or regular quarter for binding fabric (this should match either the background or applique fabric, rather than introduce another color fabric).

    Comments About Fabric Choices

    Hawaiian Quilts are very striking because of their sophistication, symmetry, and their contrast.  Your choice of two contrasting fabrics is the most important decision you will make for the success of your project.

    Traditionally, Hawaiian quilts were made using two contrasting solid-colored fabrics.  The advantage to using solid-colored fabric was that the echo quilting rows showed off very well, adding a distinctive personality to the quilt.  However, now that the beautiful batiks and textures and hand-dyed fabrics are available, many Hawaiian quilters are switching to those fabric choices.  Just be sure you maintain high contrast between the background fabric and the appliqué fabric. 

    Remember, if either fabric you choose has a highly contrasting print, such as a floral or geometric design, you will not be able to clearly see the appliqué edge or the quilting lines, and some of the visual drama will be lost.  That does not mean you cannot buy your favorite fabric and use it in a Hawaiian quilt.  It just means that your favorite fabric may not show off your quilting efforts as well as a more solid-looking fabric.

    If the appliqué fabric and background fabric are too close in value, you may lose the dramatic effect of a Hawaiian quilt.  For this first Hawaiian quilt, please choose an appliqué fabric that contrasts STRONGLY with the background.

    Below is an example of a quilt made by Jacky Thomas, of Morgan City, Louisiana.  Jacky intended for her Hawaiian quilt "Polynesia" to have some low contrasting fabrics.  In her words: "There are great subtleties in a forest as well as bright contrasts.  In my quilt, I sought to convey this subtlety in some of the blocks (e.g., looking through dark foliage to a misty area or into water). "  Jacky went on to admit that those low-contrasting blocks were visually harder to applique because it was sometimes very hard to see where the applique fabric ended and the background fabric started.

    You get to make your decision now.

    Polynesia by Jackie ThomasPolynesia by Jackie Thomas