Appliqué is the process of stitching a small layer of fabric, usually in a unique shape, onto a larger base fabric. It’s a great way to personalize your project while also adding unique color, texture, pattern… or all of the above. Would you like a bumblebee flying across your pillow? Does your little boy want a spaceship on his duvet cover? How about adding initials to the front of a pretty tote? If you can imagine it, chances are you can appliqué it! With appliqué, you’re free to incorporate any kind of graphic into your project. There are a variety of different ways to execute the technique; read on to find the one that’s right for you.
How do I find a design?
An appliqué design can be nearly anything, but choosing a simple shape will make the process easier when you’re starting out. Cartoon style art translates well as do basic drawings, like those found in children’s picture or coloring books. As with all patterns and designs, be aware of any copyrights – especially if planning to create multiple items to sell versus a one-off for personal use.
Larger stencils are another option for tracing. And, searching for appliqué designs on the web yields a wide array of sites that feature designs – many of which are free. Of course, you can always sketch your own appliqué pattern. If you do, remember you’ll need to stitch around any shape you choose. Avoid lots of tiny little turns and sharp corners your first time out.
As with nearly any technique you undertake, there are a variety of specialized tools available to make appliqué easier. Of course, you’ll run into other tools and gadgets, but the ones we’ve listed below are what we feel are essential to the task.
Template plastic is simply a sheet of translucent plastic strong enough to withstand tracing appliqué patterns, but thin enough to be cut with a regular X-Acto blade or a pair of craft scissors. It comes in sheets of various sizes, and you’re likely to find it in any craft or sewing store. There are also options with an overprinted grid to help keep your drawings even and well-balanced.
Tracing patterns is easy because template plastic translucent, and its see-through nature also allows you to more easily isolate a specific motif to fussy cut. While template plastic is probably the best substance for creating your own appliqué patterns, you could also use heavy card stock or recycled cardboard – it’s just harder to work with something you can’t see through.
In our opinion, the easiest way to handle appliqué is with a fusible/transfer web. You adhere the fusible web to the back of your appliqué design, then peel away a paper backing to reveal a heat-activated sticky substance. This allows you to temporarily adhere your appliqué design to its background fabric, making the stitching part of appliqué far easier. Fusible web comes in a few different forms, under a variety of different names, and in various weights. We like Pellon’s Wonder Under.
It can be hard to lift up the edge of the paper backing from the fabric, and aggressively picking at it can cause the edge of your fabric to fray. Instead, as shown in the photo below, insert a pin into the center of the design and start a small tear. Continue tearing up and around to remove all the paper backing.
If your finished project will be laundered, we recommend pre-washing the fabric(s) prior to adhering fusible web.
A pressing cloth is a protective layer you use when adhering fusible web to your fabrics, or adhering your appliqués to your background fabric. It safeguards your iron from the sticky adhesives used in these substances. It also protects the fabric and thread of the finished appliqué from the heat of the iron, preventing unwanted shine.
You can buy specific pressing cloths or make your own from a heavyweight, light-color cotton.
There are a few options for presser feet to make appliqué easier. Each machine brand will offer slightly different versions, so check with your sewing machine dealer to find those that accommodate your brand. The examples shown below are the most common Janome presser feet.
One option is an Open Toe Satin Stitch Foot (at the left in our photo). This foot has a very wide opening in the front, so you have a clear view of your work. The bottom is very slightly recessed so it can easily travel over a dense satin stitch.
Another helpful foot is an Appliqué Foot (at the center in our photo).This foot is shorter than average, making turning and pivoting easier.
Finally, the basic Satin Stitch Foot, (at the right in our photo) which is a standard accessory with most Janome machines, is great for appliqué. This foot is clear, so you have a better view of your stitches. The slightly recessed bottom is the same as its Open Toe cousin. And, the bright red arrow at the front of the foot provides an excellent stitching guide as you twist and turn.
Needles and Thread
The type of needle and thread you choose should be based on your fabric. We have a good overview of Choosing a Machine Needle as well as an explanation of the Various Thread Types. If you’re just starting out, you may want to go with a 40 wt embroidery thread. It’s more forgiving and will create a smoother and fuller line of stitching. Traditionally, this thread type is rayon, which means you’ll get a slightly shiny finish. A standard bobbin thread is usually best in combination with any upper thread you choose. This finer thread allows the upper thread to pull more completely to the underside.
Satin Stitch Appliqué
- The most common way to do appliqué is with a satin stitch. To create a satin stitch, choose a zig zag, then alter your stitch length to a very low setting – until there is barely any space between the stitches. For more on this, read our article on Selecting Machine Stitch Length.
- Cut out a square a fusible web just a bit bigger than your appliqué design. It’s important the web goes all the way to the edge of a cut design in order for it to adhere properly. You will be stitching over the cut edge with a zig zag, but the web helps prevent fraying, especially where the design gets very narrow.
- Trace the appliqué shape onto the paper side of the fusible web square.
- Following the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific product, fuse the web onto the wrong side of the appliqué fabric, positioning the web directly behind any specific motif(s) you wish to include inside the appliqué.
NOTE: Always place the fusible web face down, away from the iron, or you’ll be cleaning sticky gunk off your iron for the next six months! Remember this appliqué sandwich: fabric first – face down, then the fusible web – paper side up. You can also opt to layer on a pressing cloth.
- If you choose this traditional method, remember your images will be reversed on the right side of the fabric (because you’re working on the wrong side of the fabric with the fusible web). You can simply flip over your template, tracing it backwards so it will be going the correct direction when viewed from the front (just like working with any paper pattern). Or, see our notes below for working with freezer paper and creating an appliqué window in order to work from the right side.
- Cut out the fabric shape following the drawn lines on the paper backing.
- Peel the paper backing from the fusible web. As mentioned above, start your tear in the middle and work out to the edges of the design.
- Place the appliqué shape in position on your background fabric.
- Fuse the shape in place.
- If accent stitching lines are necessary, such as the veins in a leaf design or the eyes, beak, and feathers of our chickadee, sketch them onto the front of the appliqué shape with a fabric pencil.
- Select a small zig zag stitch (for example: 3.0 width and 1.5 length).
- Zig zag once around the design, using the edge of the design as the center guide for your zig zag. This first round of stitching is optional, but creates a smooth edge for the final stitches that follow.
- Re-set the machine for a tight satin stitch (for example: 4.0 width and 0.4 length). Stitch around the design again, which will cover the zig zag with a pretty satin stitch. Position the edge of the appliqué under the needle so half of the satin stitch falls on the appliqué shape and half falls on the background fabric.
NOTE: Our stitch width and length settings are suggestions. As with all techniques, test and practice first with scraps to make sure you have the look that’s best for you.
- Stitch around all of the edges of your appliqué. If your machine is equipped with a needle-down function, you’ll find that setting very handy. Use it when you stop to adjust your fabric as needed, keeping it centered for the turns and pivots you may need to do.
- When done, fill in any detail lines. You can continue with the satin stitch or switch back to a straight stitch
Working right side up with freezer paper
- This is a quilter’s trick for keeping the edges clean and helping transfer the designs smoothly from the cutting table to the ironing board.
- Cut out a square a fusible web just a bit bigger than your appliqué design. Following the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific product, fuse the web onto the wrong side of the appliqué fabric, positioning the web directly behind any specific motif(s) you wish to include. Set aside.
- Using your template, trace the design onto the non-waxy side of freezer paper. Cut out the image, giving yourself plenty of space around the design.
- Place the freezer paper onto the right side of your appliqué fabric (remember, you should have already applied the fusible web to the back of the fabric in the correct position). Because you’re working right side up, it is easier to place the image exactly where you want it on the print of the fabric.
- Using a cool iron, lightly press the freezer paper in place. The melted wax isn’t a permanent bond like the fusible web, but it will secure it through the next steps.
- Carefully cut out the image through the entire freezer paper-fabric-fusible web sandwich.
- When you’re ready to place the appliqué(s), simply tear away the freezer paper from the top, peel the paper from the fusible web on the back, iron the appliqué(s) into place on the base fabric, and satin stitch in place. We used this technique on our Tea Time Napkin set.
Working right side up with an appliqué window
- As a third option, you can carefully cut out a printed design with an X-Acto knife and use the resulting window to determine your cuts.
- Slide the window around on your base fabric until you frame the exact spot you want your appliqué to be. Tape the window in place on the base fabric.
- Trace around the inside edge of the window. The appliqué stitches will cover theses fabric pencil/pen lines.
- You now have an exact position to place your cut and fused appliqué. We used this technique on our Tea Cozy.
Decorative stitch appliqué
- Your machine has other decorative stitches that hide and protect the cut fabric edges from fraying. A blanket stitch or a herringbone stitch is a classic option. We used a blanket stitch in the photos below.
- As described above, place the fusible web on the wrong side of the appliqué fabric.
- Cut out the design(s).
- Position the designs and fuse in place.
- Depending on the weight of your fabrics, consider using a lightweight interfacing on the back of the base fabric to help stabilize. A firm base produces the nicest look when doing decorative stitching.
- Align the edge of the appliqué to best match your chosen stitch, and stitch around all the edges.
NOTE: As with all decorative stitching, test first on scraps to get the length and width of the stitch to your liking and to test the left-to-right swing the needle against the edge of the fabric.
- In raw-edge appliqué, you don’t hide the cut edges of the appliqué pieces, instead securing the fabric with a simple straight stitch. This leaves the edges of the fabric open to wear and allows them to fray. The frayed edges achieve a shabby chic or rustic effect for projects finished with this technique.
- Following the same steps as above, adhere the fusible web.
- If you want the piece to have a super-ragged edge, you can skip the fusible web and simply pin the design in place or adhere it with a glue stick, keeping any glue away from the outer perimeter of the design.
- Cut out the design.
- Position the appliqué shape on your background fabric and fuse in place.
- Thread your machine with matching, contrasting or invisible thread, depending on how visible you want the thread to be.
- Select a straight stitch on your machine. Determine how much you want your appliquéd edges to fray. Stitch very close to the edge of the appliqué fabric if you don’t want them to fray too readily. Leave a larger gap if you hope to achieve a more ragged edge.
- Stitch all the way around your appliqué shape. The edges of the appliqué will fray as the project is used and especially if it is laundered.
Finished edge appliqué
- For the opposite effect of raw-edge appliqué, you can create seamed shapes with finished edges. You create a finished edge on your appliqué shapes by sewing two pieces right sides together, then turning them right side out. The same way you finish edges in other sewing projects.
- Start by cutting two mirror images of the same shape.
- Place the two pieces right sides together. Pin in place.
- Stitch all around the outer edge, using a ¼” seam allowance.
- Clip any corners and/or points and press open the seam allowances.
- Pull apart the two layers and snip a small slit in just the back layer.
- Turn right side out through this opening.
NOTE: By using this method rather than leaving an opening in the seam, the outer edge of your shape is perfect and more secure all around. The small slit will be hidden against the base fabric.
- Press flat.
- Position the appliqué shape on your base fabric.
NOTE: You can certainly use fusible web for this step, but generally shapes made in this manner are fairly stable and don’t need the extra weight of the fusible web. If you want some extra help securing the shape, use a glue stick or a small piece of fusible seam tape.
- Finally, sew the shape in place with a straight or decorative stitch, using matching or contrasting thread,
- There’s no rule that says you can’t continue to layer appliqué on itself for even more interest and dimension.
- Adhere fusible web to the wrong side of a small section of fabric that includes some bold motifs. You need just enough web to carefully cut your motif.
- When layering, work from the top to the bottom. Appliqué the smaller pieces on place on the main shape, then appliqué the layered shape onto your base fabric. We used this pretty technique on our Tea Time Apron.