Sewing is an inherently creative activity. You take thread and fabric and create something new from it. There are times, though, when perfectly hidden seams and sharp corners seem limiting and you have the urge to just throw some color or a cute drawing on top and call it good. Enter Appliqué ! Appliqué is sort of like the construction-paper-craft-zone of the sewing world. This technique allows you to cut out any shape and stitch it on top of another fabric. You want a bumblebee on your pillow? No problem! Can’t find a good fabric with a spaceship for that duvet cover (and don’t you hate how hard it is to find a good spaceship)? Appliqué one! With appliqué, you’re free to incorporate any kind of graphic into your project. There are a variety of different ways to execute this 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. Clip art translates into great appliqué. Basic drawings, like those found in children’s books also work well. Searching for appliqué designs on the web yields a wide array of sites that feature designs – some of which are free. Of course, you can always sketch your own appliqué designs. If you do, just be sure there aren’t lots of tiny little turns and corners … at least your first time out. Remember: you need to stitch around any shape you choose, so the less pivoting and sharp turning you have to do, the easier it will be.
As with nearly any technique you undertake, there are a variety of specialized tools avaialble to make appliqué easier.
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 exacto blade or a pair of craft scissors. It comes in sheets of various sizes, and you can find it in any craft or sewing store. Tracing patterns is easy because it’s translucent, and the see-through nature also allows you to fussy cut your fabric easily. While ‘official’ template plastic is probably the best substance for creating appliqué patterns, you could also use heavy cardstock or recycled cardboard from a cereal box – it’s just harder to use something you can’t see through.
Fusible web comes in a few different forms, under a variety of different names, and in various weights. You’ll find it with names like Steam-A-Seam, Stitch Witchery, or our favorite, Janome’s Appli-Fuse. You adhere 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. We recommend laundering your fabrics before using fusible web, and make sure you follow the specific manufacturer’s instructions. Here are some basic instructions for using it:
- Cut out a square a fusible web just a bit bigger than your appliqué design.
- Trace the appliqué shape onto the paper side of the fusible web square.
- Using an iron, adhere the back of the web (the non-paper side) to the back (the wrong side) of the fabric you are using for your appliqué shape.
- Cut out the fabric shape following the the drawn lines on the paper.
- Peel the paper backing from the fusible web.
- Arrange the appliqué shape on your background fabric.
- Fuse the shape in place using an iron.
- If additional stitching lines are necessary besides those to stitch down the appliqué (such as the veins in a leaf design), sketch them onto the front of the appliqué shape with a fabric pencil.
- Stitch the appliqué and any detail lines with your machine.
A pressing cloth is a special cloth you use when adhering fusible web to your fabrics, or adhering your appliqués to your background fabric. It protects your iron from the sticky adhesives used in these substances. Check out our article on this handy tool here.
There are a few options for special feet to make appliqué easier. Each brand will offer slightly different versions, but check with your dealer to find those that accommodate your brand.
One foot is an Open Toe Foot. This foot has an open space in the front, so that you have a clear view of your work.
Another helpful foot is an Appliqué Foot. This foot is shorter than the average foot, making turning and pivoting easier. It also has a special configuration in the back, to accommodate the stitches used for appliqué, like the satin stitch, which is bulky.
Finally, the Satin Stitch Foot, which is a standard accessory with many Janome machines, is great for appliqué. This foot is clear, so that you have a better view of your stitches. It also contains a special bevelled bottom, so it can travel over the dense stitches of a satin stitch.
Of course, there are all kinds of other tools and gadgets for appliqué, but the ones we’ve listed above are what we feel are essential to the task.
Now that we’ve explored the preliminaries, let’s explore the task itself. There are various methods for appliqué. Each is slightly different, and you may find you favor one over another. Additionally, one may be more suited to the overall effect you are hoping to achieve in your work. Experiment, and enjoy this liberating new skill.
We’re not entirely sure ‘regular appliqué’ is an actual sewing term. By ‘regular’ we mean using some sort of decorative stitch to secure the edges of the fabric when adhering to a background fabric. In most cases, this decorative stitch is a very close zig zag stitch, also called a satin stitch. You may find your machine has other decorative stitches that hide and protect the fabric edges from fraying. A blanket stitch or a herringbone stitch is often suitable. (For more on decorative stitches, see our articles Decorative Stitches – Sewing Outside The Lines and Decorative Stitches: Part Deux.)
The easiest way to do regular appliqué is with a satin stitch. To create a satin stitch, choose a zig zag stitch, 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 Selecting Machine Stitch Length.
Next, arrange your appliqué on your background fabric, and secure it in place using fusible web (as described above) or another method of your choice. 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. 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 useful for the turns and pivots you need to do.
You may choose to use other decorative stitches to secure your fabric in place. If you choose other stitches, just be sure the stitch is able to truly cover the seam between the two fabrics, so the appliquéd fabric cannot fray. Below we show a sample using a decorative Blanket stitch.
In raw-edge appliqué, you don’t hide the seams of the appliqué pieces, but secure them with a simple straight stitch. This leaves the edges of the fabric open to wear and tear, and allows them to fray. The frayed edges achieve a signature effect for projects finished with this technique. Some people call it ‘French Country’ or ‘Rustic’ … you can call it whatever you like; I suggest ‘Tom.’
To create raw-edge appliqué, you can position the appliqué shapes on your background fabric using fusible web or simply pin in place. Thread your machine with matching, contrasting or invisible thread, depending on how visible you want you 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 and wear as the project is used and especially if it is laundered.
Appliqué with a Straight Stitch
Some machines don’t come with a zig zag stitch, but you still want to have finished edges on the sides of your appliqué. You can create a finished edge on your applique shapes by sewing two pieces right sides together, then turning them right side out. The same way you finish edges in many other sewing projects.
- Start by cutting two mirror images of the same shape.
- Then sew them with right sides together, leaving a small opening for turning.
- Turn the shape right side out and press it flat, turning in the remaining unsewn opening edge so the folded edge is flush all around.
- Position the shape on your background 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, you can use something as common as a glue stick.
- Finally, sew the shape in place with a straight stitch, using matching or contrasting thread. Be careful to catch the remaining unsewn edge of the shape in the stitching as you sew.