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Sewing Inset Circles

There's a lot to love about circles. At least for me. But what I don't love is frustration. Or stitch-picking. Or circles that don't turn out round - Ugh! I think a lot of people end up making applique circles because they seem so much easier. But there are a couple of ways to sew inset circles that are not painful. And the circles are round.

I learned to make inset circles pretty early on when I bought a book called Pieced Curves: So Simple in 2005 by Dale Fleming. It's an amazing book, and it's still really helping me realize some of my quilty dreams. It's a method I go to again and again. She calls them 6 minute circles, but I feel like it's become second nature to me, and it only takes me about 3 minutes. I was going to share the method here, but then I realized that since it was not developed by me, but Dale Fleming, I cannot really do that ethically. So I am going to suggest to you that you buy the book (it's on Amazon for $45 )which is a little bit pricey but you can get it cheaper - just google it) to learn this particular technique, and further down, in this blog I've given you some pointers for it that I've learned in my copious use of the technique, to help it go a wee bit faster.

First, I'm going to share another method for sewing inset circles that is for me, a little more difficult, but it's worth sharing because everyone is different; what doesn't work as well for me may work better for you. It's mostly pinless, and it's really quick and requires very little in the way of materials.

All you need is your fabrics, circle templates, pins, an iron, and a marking pen(maybe). Here's how it goes:

1.Using a template, cut your circle out of the background fabric and the inset fabric.

2. Fold the background fabric in half, and press sharply. You may still want to mark the press marks with a marker if you're using dark fabric. Fold in half again, and press again, so that you have four creases that are exactly opposite each other on all four sides.

3. Take the inset circle you have cut out and fold in half and press, then fold in half and press again.

Now you have matching quarter marks on both your circle and your background.

4. Put the circle, right side up, on your sewing table. The put the background fabric on top of the circle, wrong side up matching one of the press marks. If the press marks are difficult to see, you can just mark them with chalk or a removable pen, as I have below.

5. Start at any press mark. Place the background piece on top of the circle, right sides together, matching at press marks and put the two pieces of fabric under the presser foot. Take a couple of stitches and stop. Now match the fabric on top to the curve of the circle to the next press mark, trying not to pull the fabric. While doing this, put the fingers of your left hand on the curves to hold it all in place. Match the press marks and put a pin in the fabrics at the second press mark. Slowly sew from the first press mark to the pin, maintaining the curve, with a 1/4 inch seam. Below are two videos, the first one shows how to place the background fabric onto the circle and the second shows how to sew.

6. When you get to the second press mark, stop. As you did before, pin the fabrics at the next press mark, position the fabrics on top of each other and sew to the pin again.

7. Continue sewing around the circle in this way until you have completely sewn the circle into the hole in the background fabric.

8. Press the seams open on the back, and then turn to the front and press again.

This method is quick, and it works well for many people, but as I said earlier, for some reason I have difficulty with it, as you can see from the above picture; even though the circle is nice and round, there are waves in the background, which you don't want to have. I probably just need more practice, but I'll admit this is why I j use the 6 minute circle as my go-to. It takes a little longer, but i have more success with it, so it's easier for me.

Again, please don't let my inability to master this technique scare you off. I do think it works well, and its definitely worth a try as it will be quick.

However, if you are wanting to try the Dale Fleming method, and have the book, here are some tips to help it go more quickly and to make it even easier. I've been doing this for many years, so I've figured a few things out...

They aren't necessarily in any order, but I do think they will help you if you choose this method.

  1. Dale uses flat glue sticks. I think it is much easier to use Roxanne glue baste because it comes with a skinny little applicator that allows you to put a tiny drop of glue precisely where you want it on the fabric. It's also completely washable so you won't see any evidence at all of it if it gets outside the circle.

  2. I do NOT tack the petals to the freezer paper. I only glue them to the background fabric. You can use starch to flatten them down securely if you're having problems with the petals. ( See tip number 5.) You might use starch while you are learning to sew the circles. I used to use starch when I was first doing these, now I don't really need it.

  3. Larger circles are easier to do. Anywhere from 4 to 10 inches is easy. Smaller and larger than 10 inches get a little tricker. So start with 4 or 5 inch ones until you get the hang of it, but you can do all sizes. Just practice on the 4 to 8 inch range until you are pretty good at it before moving to smaller or really big ones, like in Hot 'N Cold.

  4. You don't really need to use starch. Just push back the petals around the circle with your fingers before you iron them, then iron them as flat as possible.

  5. If you DO use starch, use the liquid kind and pour a small amount of it into a little bowl. Dip a Q-tip into the starch and put a dab of it onto each petal before you iron them backwards. If any leaks onto the paper, use the iron to dry the paper BEFORE you iron the petals open. If it's wet when you iron it, it will fold and then your circle won't be round.

  6. When you ARE sewing smaller circles - from 2 inches to smaller, set your stitch length smaller. It takes a little more time to go around it, but it's easier to be accurate.

  7. Make sure you are moving the background fabric (the piece into which you are sewing the circle) out of the way every inch or so, so it doesn't get caught. You can go a little farther with larger circles and you'll need to go less with the inch or smaller little circles. (It's a little more tedious with smaller circles, but it's worth it, so don't NOT make smaller ones - you can add soooo much visually and fun-wise to a piece with those smaller circles! Just wait until you feel confident with medium sized circles before moving on to small.)

  8. Don't pull the fabric on the bottom too tightly as you sew around the circle. This often makes it so you can see the stitching on the front, and you don't want this - it's just not pretty! So just hold it loosely and guide it as you need to.

  9. If you have a foot that lifts up when you stop sewing, use this setting. You have to move the upper fabric out of the way often, so it just helps a lot to not have to lift the presser foot manually every time.

  10. When sewing the smaller circles, cut the petals much narrower, and don't leave a 1/2" seam allowance, it can be much smaller. With the larger circles you can make them about 1/4" or a little wider, but with the smaller ones, they need to be less than that. If you don't, there will be straight edges around your circle instead of a nice, round smooth edge. The smaller the circle, the narrower the petals will be. With the really small ones, you dont actually remove any fabric, you just cut the petals. Turn your circle over after pressing. If you see straight lines instead of smooth circle, you need to cut narrower petals.

  11. Fold the freezer paper in half to cut the circle template. It's really challenging to get a perfect circle all the way around; its much easier to cut an accurate half-circle. Make sure your fold is really crisp and grasp the paper tightly so it doesn't move around.

  12. If you want a fussy cut circle or a specific area to show, fold your background fabric in half both ways and mark the back folds with a Frixion or other disappearing marker or chalk. Also fold your circle template in half both ways and mark with a non-disappearing pen or pencil. Last, fold your circle fabric in half both ways after cutting and mark with a Frixion pen on the back side. Match the circle template with the background fabric, then match the circle fabric with the marks on the template and your circle will be exactly where and oriented exactly how you want it.

  13. Another reason to use Roxanne baste glue is if you aren't happy with the way your circle turned out. Before you do any sewing, you should flip your glued circle over to the front and look carefully to see if it looks right - no petals sticking out from the circle or no areas where the lines are straight instead of round. But - if this happens and you are using Roxanne glue baste, you can pull the offending petals off and reposition and re-glue them. After the circle is finished, you can dab it with a damp cloth to remove any glue residue.

  14. When trimming the excess circle fabric, pull the background fabric up like you do when you are sewing and make sure you are looking at the petals, so you can see where to cut. I once made a hole in my quilt because I was trimming from the back, using the sewing line. Yeah, I saw the sewing line, but I caught the background fabric in my scissors, too. That was not fun. Also, if you're putting bright colored circles in a white or light background, trim a little closer to the sewing line so the color won't show through. I've had that happen, too and it's also no fun.

  15. Press the circle you have sewn from the back first, before trimming, then from the front. It will lie much flatter.

  16. If you didn't sew perfectly around the circle, just remove the part that isn't right and re-sew it. You can mark your sewing line with a removable pen or chalk if it's hard to see to sew on.

  17. If you want to do a circle within a circle, you have to go from smaller circle to larger. So first, you put the smaller circle into the larger circle fabric, then you put the larger circle into the background fabric.

  18. Try to leave the same amount of space all the way around your petals - about 1/16 of an inch. I use a really sharp pair of snips an eyeball it really carefully. This helps eliminate those straight edges.

So that's a lot of tips for the 6 minute circle, and it may make you think this is a drawn-out, complicated method. But like I said, once you master it, it really just takes 3 or four minutes per circle. And it really works. I really think it's worth giving the method a try, because I have more success with this way than the other way, but again, we are all different, so you do YOU!

And - have fun making circles! I know I love curves and circles and I want everyone to have it in their skillbox. It opens up a lot of possibilities!

Here is a recent finish called Dancing Bubbles that has many inset circles in it, and another one that I'm not sure I named, which also uses inset circles, and one called Tinker Toys. I could share more because like I said, I do it A LOT, but as you can see - the possibilities are endless with inset circles...Can't wait to see what you make.


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