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How to Machine Stitch Eyes

How to Machine Stitch Eyes

Did you know you can use a standard sewing machine to machine stitch eyes on your applique blocks?

You can!

The eyes are often the most difficult part of any of my appliqué patterns.

It can be tricky stitching around those small pieces!

(Tips – shorten your stitch length, go sloooooooooow, raise your presser foot often to spin the piece in tighter turns.)

But with the new Paper Doll Quilt I have reached new lows in tiny eyes.

These eyes are too small to appliqué. Don’t even try it.

So what to do?

You have a few options for the Paper Dolls quilt.

1. You can draw on the eyes with a marker. This is totally ok to do! But please test your marker first – and test it on every fabric you’ll be using because the results can vary. For bigger eyes (like all my animal quilts) I like my Marvy fabric markers. For smaller eyes like these paper dolls I get the best results with a small Sharpie. The worst bleeding I’ve ever had was with official “laundry” markers – go figure. (I share my favorite markers and paints here.)

2. You can embroider the eyes by hand. I really like this stitch for eyes. If you’re using Quilt As You Go you won’t even need to worry about a visible thread carry between the eyes because the batting should completely block it – even with a light color background block and skin color.

3. You can machine stitch the eyes. By machine! And you don’t need an embroidery machine, though it will need to have some fancy stitch options.

(Update – if you DO have a fancy embroidery machine, there are some free downloadable files for embroidered eyes here.)

See all my different eye options here.

I’ve heard from a lot of you who have arthritis and appreciate as many machine options as possible – so I think a lot of you are really going to like this method. I loved it!

Here’s how I did mine. . .

Scroll through your decorative stitches and find one that is a series of round or oval satin stitches.

How to Machine Stitch Eyes

On my Bernina it’s stitch #407. My much-less-fancy Pfaff has an identical stitch #26. Most machines with decorative stitches will have something like this.

Now comes the slightly tedious part. Start playing around with the length and width of the stitch until you find one that’s right for your project. Once you find the settings you like – write them down! I actually make a little sample of the stitch on white fabric and write the settings directly on the fabric.

How to Machine Stitch Eyes

I stitched up one eye and made a note of the stitch number, the length and the width. See how this matches the settings on the screen above? Now I can make eyes all the same size whenever I want – and skip the playing around with settings step. 🙂

I have a whole stack of these swatches for any decorative stitch I think I might possibly use again.

When you’re ready to machine stitch eyes, you’re all set!

  1. Check to make sure your bobbin is full. You don’t want to run out in the middle of an eye.
  2. Put your block in the sewing machine and carefully lower the needle right into the top of the eye.
  3. Lower the presser foot.
  4. Stitch one oval. Watch carefully and stop stitching when it gets to the bottom of the oval. Backstitch just a stitch or two and remove it.
  5. One eye done! Pause to admire the neat (easy!) stitching and be excited that we live in a time when such wonders are possible. 🙂
  6. Repeat for the second eye.
How to Machine Stitch Eyes - one face from the Paper Dolls quilt pattern

Troubleshooting tips. . .

The combination of fusible adhesive and batting behind the block makes a great stabilizer. If you’re not using those (of if you find the fabric is bunching up under your eyes) use a stabilizer behind your stitching. It can be as simple as layering a piece of tissue paper behind the block. You might also need to adjust your tension.

Don’t push or pull or hold back the fabric going through the machine. You really need to just let it go through on its own or you might find that you are making the eyes longer or shorter than what the stitch really should be – and it will be nearly impossible to match every time. Just let those feed dogs do their thing. 🙂

That’s it!

Peekaboo Mouse applique pattern cover showing a cat and two mice

The examples in the post are from the Paper Dolls quilt pattern – but you can use this method to machine stitch eyes any time the eyes are really tiny. In the cover image for the Peekaboo Mouse pattern you can see I used applique eyes on the cat, and machine stitched eyes on the little mice.

Here are links to all the posts showing how to applique with fusible adhesive – my favorite method. It’s fast and easy and (with the right materials) it holds up beautifully to rough use and repeated washing.

Here are links to special posts about eyes.

Here are links to some extra fun things you can do with your applique.

Other Applique Methods

Finished with this topic?

Return to the Let’s Make a Quilt main Table of Contents.

Move on to the lessons about outline stitching.

Happy stitching!


  1. Ginette Rostedt SAYS...

    Thanks for the tip. Almost patiently waiting for the Paper Doll quilt……..

    • No more waiting! It’s here! :-)

  2. Jacqueline Lee Lambie SAYS...

    You’re the best! Thank you for the eye instruction.

      • CAROL Lawrence SAYS...

        What a brilliant idea! Thank you.

  3. Thanks Wendy for the great tutorial.
    It’s amazing how a little fear almost causes paralysis and we never start a project.
    You do inspire me and give me a necessary push to just go and get started.
    Fingers crossed.

  4. Thank you for the tutorial on machining the eyes on things. I’ve been doing it the hard way because I couldn’t find a way to use the period (“.”) stitch on my machine reliably. It never occurred to me to adjust length and width on a zigzag oval shape! Duh. I feel so silly not thinking of this. I have a Janome Horizon and #70 (mode 1) seems to be perfect! Applique is my favorite type of quilt-top-making so this has been a real burr under my saddle. You are so helpful Wendy! I love all your tutorials and tips! I’m restarting my quilting biz (Heirloom in the Making) and hopefully be able to afford to buy a bunch of your patterns really soon! I’ve been eyeing the cats for soooo long (since 2016 I think, was it out then?)

  5. LIZ Bryenton SAYS...

    Am maing a few baby bibs for World Down Syndrome Day – 21 March. Have the bear but would like the cat for a more feminine bib. Can you help me please

  6. Lydia SAYS...

    I appreciate the how-to on stitching eyes. I had a Santa ornament which needed eyes and a nose, and was able to find one of the satin stitches to do the job. And, I used the feature to do 1 pattern stitch bounded by lock stitches – just had to line them up and stitch! So easy and with 20 Santas to do, it was a life-saver (but I had considered the Sharpie approach before I found your how-to).