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Whale Appliqué Hand Towels: Make Hand Washing Fun for Kids

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Wash your hands! As we move into cold and flu season, this is the strongest piece of advice from doctors to help prevent the spread of germs. Getting your little ones to follow this recommendation can be challenging. Make washing up more fun with these cute hand towels. We’ve created two adorable whale designs you can download for free. Appliqué them on store-bought hand towels, then let the kiddos know that when they wash and dry, they’re keeping themselves and the whales happier and healthier. Because you really don’t want to see a whale sneeze! 

Add a fabric binding and rick rack along the bottom hem of each towel so your whales have some ocean waves to swim upon. We show you how to fold, stitch, and wrap so the accent is finished on all sides.

Since these towels are so fun, they are also more likely to be used. Because of this, we recommend pre-washing the towels as well as the appliqué and accent fabric. Press the fabric after laundering so it is nice and flat – especially the appliqué fabric. If you adhere the recommended fusible interfacing (see below) following manufacturer's instructions, the interfaced fabric will launder fine once the project is complete. In fact, the interfacing should help keep the fabric from wrinkling against the towel.

We’ve summarized our appliqué steps below, but if you are brand new to the technique, take a look at our full step-by-step tutorial: How to Appliqué Like a Pro.

When choosing the fabric for the appliqués, keep in mind that the designs are on the smallish size. Look for bright colors with petite prints so the color and design show up, but don’t overpower the shapes.

Our Whale towels finish at 16" wide x 28" high, which is the exact size of the hand towels we purchased. Look for towels without banding that have as small a finished hem as possible. We found our towels at Target.

Sewing Tools You Need

Fabric and Other Supplies

NOTE: Supplies listed are for TWO towels

  • TWO apx. 16” wide x 28” high hand towels
    NOTE: The higher quality the towel, then denser and smoother the nap of the terry cloth. A smoother nap is easier to appliqué on and provides a nicer finished look.
  • THREE larger scraps or precuts of standard quilting weight cotton fabric; we used Fat Eighth pre-cuts for our sample; the water spout and heart are tiny and each main appliqué requires an approximate 5” x 7” rectangle
    NOTE: As mentioned above, we recommend a bold fabric with a smaller motif so there is plenty of color and design showing within the shapes.
  • ONE larger scrap or precut for the bottom binding; again, we used a Fat Eighth for this element as well; you’ll need an approximate 4” x 17” strip for each towel – we show you the steps to measure for your towel below.
  • 1 yard of medium rick rack; we suggest a blue rick rack to simulate the ocean waves
  • ¼ yard of lightweight fusible interfacing; we used Shir-Tailor® by Pellon
  • ⅓ yard of water soluble stabilizer; we used Super Solvy™ by Sulky
  • All-purpose thread for the bottom binding construction in a color to match the fabric
  • All-purpose thread in colors to match all the appliqué elements
  • Bobbin thread in white if using a white towel (if you choose another color of towel, you may want to use all-purpose thread in the bobbin to best match the towel)
  • See-through ruler
  • Fabric pen or pencil
  • Seam gauge
  • Seam ripper
  • Scissors or rotary cutter and mat
  • Super sharp, small scissors to trim appliqués
  • Iron and ironing board
  • Straight pins

Pattern Downloads

  • Download and print out the Whale Template(s) you wish to use. Each of our Whale designs fits on one 8½” x 11” sheet. These two sheets have been bundled into one PDF to make the download easier.
    IMPORTANT: You must print the PDF file at 100%. DO NOT SCALE to fit the page. There is a guide rule on each page so you can confirm your final printout is to scale.
  • Do not cut out the shapes until directed below.

Getting Started

  1. For each Whale Template, cut ONE piece of fabric slightly larger than the printed design and ONE matching piece of fusible interfacing. You want at least a full inch border all the way around.
  2. Following manufacturer’s instructions, fuse the interfacing to the wrong side of the fabric.
  3. Using a fabric pen or pencil, trace the appliqué designs onto the interfaced fabric. You can simply trace around the outer edge…
  4. … or you might find it easier to cut out the elements from the full page and then trace around the “window” left behind for each piece. We found this an easy option for the spout and heart elements as well as the “eyes” and “mouth.”
  5. Cut a square of water-soluble stabilizer a few inches larger than your fabric/interfacing piece. We used an approximate 10" x 10" square for each towel.

At Your Sewing Machine & Ironing Board

Create the facial features

  1. Prior to cutting out the appliqués, stitch all the facial features.
  2. Each appliqué should already have at least the one layer of fusible interfacing fused in place.
    If you are new to appliqué or have a hard time with “free form” stitching, you may want to add a second small layer behind the eye area and the mouth area for extra stability.
  3. Thread the machine with black in the top and bobbin. Set up the machine for a narrow and tight satin (zig zag) stitch. We used a 3.0 stitch width and a 0.3 stitch length.
  4. Stitch along each drawn crescent to create the two eyes for the Water Spout Whale (shown in the photos below) or the one eye for the Heart Spout Whale.
  5. If using the Heart Spout Whale template, you also need a mouth.
  6. Re-thread the machine with white thread in the top and bobbin.
  7. Re-set for a very wide and dense satin stitch. We used a 9.0 stitch width and a 0.3 stitch length.
  8. Stitch the mouth.
  9. Set aside the appliqué block(s).

Add the bottom rick rack binding

  1. Our hand towels were 16” wide with an approximate ⅝” hem. We wanted a bottom binding of about 1½”, which was more than enough to conceal the bottom hem. To figure our cut, we added 1” to the width to account for a ½” seam allowance along each side. For the height, you need to double your finished reveal and then add 1” to account for a ½” hem both top and bottom. In our sample that meant 1½” x 2 + 1 or 4”. We cut our bottom strips at 4” x 17”.
  2. Cut your rick rack into matching lengths. We cut two 17” lengths, one for each towel.
  3. Place the binding strip right side up and flat on your work surface. Pin the rick rack across the top raw edge. The center line of the rick rack should be ½” in from the top raw edge of the fabric. Pin in place.
  4. Re-thread with thread to best match the fabric. Re-set the stitch length to normal.
  5. Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch down the center of the rick rack through both layers.
  6. This seam line secures the rick rack and gives you a fold line.
  7. Fold the top raw edge along the stitch line. This creates a ½” hem along the top edge of the fabric with half of the rick rack showing above the fold, simulating the ocean waves.
  8. Fold back a matching ½” along the bottom edge of the binding strip.
  9. Fold in half, wrong sides together, and press to set a center crease line. You’ll use this crease as your guide line for the bottom of the towel.
  10. The photo below shows how the binding strip will eventually fit against the towel with the 1½” reveal in height. The strip should extend beyond the towel ½” on each side. This photo is just for positioning. Keep reading to see how it is cleverly stitched in place.
  11. Flip over your towel so it is wrong side up and flat on your work surface.
  12. Open up the bottom ½” hem (the side without the rick rack) of the binding strip.
  13. Place this side of the strip right sides together with the back of the towel. The ½” crease line of the opened hem should be 1½” up from the bottom finished edge of the towel. Pin in place, measuring at several points across the towel to insure your crease line is parallel with the bottom of the towel.
  14. Stitch across the towel in the crease line.
  15. Press the press strip down, again using your stitch line as a folding guide line.
  16. Fold the binding strip along the center crease line, right sides together. The top folded edge with the rick right should be aligned with the back seam line. The raw side edges, which extend ½” on either side, should be flush. You can see in the photo below that we made a small cut along the fold. This can be another helpful way to keep track of the fold line. Pin the side edges in place.
  17. Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch each short side seam. You should be stitching right alongside, but not on, the towel.
  18. Clip the corners and trim back the seam allowance.
  19. Flip the binding right side out, which will bring it around to the front, giving you finished edges on all sides. Pin in place across the front.
  20. Edgestitch across the front of the towel, keeping your seam as close to the fabric’s edge as possible.

Place and stitch the appliqués

  1. Place the water-soluble stabilizer over the towel, centering it at the bottom end. Place the main appliqué block over the stabilizer. The whale design should be centered side to side. This was approximate 4¾” from each finished edge on our towel.
  2. The bottom of the whale should be about 3½” up from the bottom bound edge of the towel.

    NOTE: your towel and/or binding width may be different. So, remember to center side to side and then set the design at least 1½” above the rick rack waves.
  3. Pin the appliqué block/stabilizer in place. 
  4. Thread the machine with thread to best match the appliqué fabric in the top and bobbin thread in the bobbin. 
    NOTE: As mentioned above, if you choose a towel color other than white, you may want to use all-purpose thread in the bobbin to best match the towel for the neatest look on the back of the towel.
  5. If possible, attach an Appliqué foot or Satin Stitch foot
  6. Using a small straight stitch, stitch around the entire shape, following your original traced outline.
  7. Here’s our Water Spout Whale stitched in place.
  8. The back looks neat and tidy too.
  9. When complete, trim away the excess fabric close to the stitching. Cut the fabric only, not the water soluble stabilizer.
  10. The stabilizer needs to remain to help control the nap of the terry cloth. Small sharp scissors, such as embroidery scissors, work best for this step. You want your scissors to kind of glide along the stabilizer so you do not clip into the nap of the towel.

    NOTE: By stitching the appliqué in place in this manner, you have better control to insure your shape stays exactly where you want it. A fusible web is traditionally used in appliqué, but is not the best choice for plush terry towels. The heat and pressure required with fusible webs to adhere the design to the terry can damage the surrounding nap. Our technique eliminates this possibility. 
  11. With the main whale shape secured, place the spout element(s). We recommend using the original paper template with the cut-out “windows” as a placement guide. Adjust the traced design as needed until it lines up exactly with the window.
  12. Remove the paper template and pin the spout element in place (water drops on our Water Spout Whale – a heart on our Heart Spout Whale).
  13. Re-thread with thread to best match the spout fabric in the top. Keep white (or matching thread if not using a white towel) in the bobbin.
  14. As you did with the main shape, stitch around the spout element(s).
  15. With the water spout, do one drop, stop and re-set, and then stitch the second drop.
  16. Go slowly and carefully; there are a lot of curves and turns.
  17. Your Whale and its Spout are secured and ready for the final appliqué stitching.
  18. Re-thread again with thread to best match the main appliqué fabric in the top with white (or matching) in the bobbin.
  19. Re-set to a dense satin stitch. We used a 2.5 stitch width and a 0.3 stitch length.
  20. Stitch around the full perimeter of the whale.
  21. Re-thread and repeat to appliqué the spout element(s) in place.
  22. Trim any excess threads and pull away any excess stabilizer. 
  23. Any remaining stabilizer can be removed with a spritz of water.
    NOTE: As mentioned above, if you are brand new to the appliqué, take a look at our full step-by-step tutorial: How to Appliqué Like a Pro

Contributors

Project Design: Alicia Thommas
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Kathy Andrews, What Sew Ever

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