A Beginner’s Guide to Applique

I’ll admit it – I am a chicken.  If there is a sewing technique that my Grandma didn’t teach me, I’m afraid of it.  She has given me plenty of appliqued things, but we never sat down to do it together.  Ergo, the idea of appliqueing something was terrifying for me.  So much so that I made Monster a whole quiet book without using this method (suffice it to say I used more felt than I care to admit).

But there are so many cute projects out there that are appliqued!  So, I decided to put on my big girl panties and give it a whirl.  You know what?  It wasn’t so scary, or too hard!  In this post, I am going to share my methods, which I have developed from some trial and error.

The first thing you need to do is go out and buy 2 things:

1. Heat N Bond Lite.  You can buy it from the bolt, but I prefer the pre-packaged roll:


I’m pretty sure this is a lifetime supply

2. Iron-on Pellon (or other interfacing) of whatever thickness you want.  For this example I used the thicker variety, like you’d use in a quilt, but if you don’t want the bulk the thin stuff will work just fine.

Seriously.  Stop reading now, and go get those things.  If your Walmart has a fabric department, I recommend getting these items there – it’ll be about half the price of the fabric stores.

Now that you’re home, you’re probably wondering why I insist on this.  The Heat N Bond will act as glue to keep your applique pieces straight and flat – pins just don’t do the job as well because they are 3-dimensional.  It also fills the role of insurance for your project – if your sewing is less than perfect, or if your fabric starts to unravel a little, this glue will hold your piece together.  As for the Pellon, I’ve learned (from the error part of my trial and error) that if you don’t put some sort of interfacing on your “background” piece of fabric, you end up with ugly needle holes that pull and just don’t look good.  It also prevents stretching, which can make things look ugly.  You’ll need the extra structure that the interfacing will provide.

Now that you’ve done your shopping, you’re ready to start.  I am a terrible artist.  I’m great at math, but I would probably die if my life depended on me drawing anything but a lopsided stick person.  So, I’m going to share with you my cheater methods for making things look good.

The first step (after you’ve chosen what to applique, I’m not going to make that decision for you) is to use your Heat N Bond to make your applique piece.  The Heat N Bond has 2 sides: one side is a clear bumpy substance that you’re going to iron onto the back side of your material.  The other side is paper.  The paper is the perfect material to draw your pattern onto.  For symmetrical shapes, this is pretty darn easy.  My example applique starts with a circle (2 because I made 2 of the same project, but more on that in another post).  I traced the bottom of a formula canister.

IMG_2213However, if you’re doing something like a letter, where there is a definite forwards and backwards, it’s a little trickier.  As I said before, you’ll be attaching the bumpy side to the BACK, or wrong side, of your fabric.  So, you need to have the mirror image of your design on the paper side of the Heat N Bond.

As I mentioned, I’m a terrible artist.  So there’s no way I’m going to free-hand the letters I want to applique for this project – especially backwards.  This is where I take advantage of Microsoft Word text box.  Disclaimer: this process is easiest if you have a laptop.  It’s possible with a desktop, just more awkward.

So, open a new document in Word.  Go to Insert, and choose Text Box (just a simple one will do).  Type your text in the box, and choose the font you like (thicker letters are better because you have to sew around the edges).  Then play with the size until it’s the size you want ON THE SCREEN.  I will often pull out my tape measure and put it right up on my computer screen to make sure it’s the size I want.  Once you have the look you want, it’s time to flip it over.  Right click on the text box and choose Format Shape.  On the left, choose the 3-D Rotation tab.  In the X option, type in 180 (degrees).  Voila!  Your text has become the mirror image of itself!  It will turn gray (and there’s probably a box around your text), but that doesn’t matter.  Now, hold your Heat N Bond paper-side-up gently on the screen, and trace your letter (this is where having a laptop makes things a little easier – just open it all the way on your table and it’s pretty easy).  I usually use just enough Heat N Bond for the project – waste not, want not!

IMG_2215Once you’ve got your shape drawn, follow the directions on the Heat N Bond to iron the bumpy side to the wrong side of your fabric.  At this point, you can cut out your shape (technically you can do it before you iron, but then you’ll have to cut it out again from the fabric… not very efficient).  Then, just peel off the paper and iron onto your background surface.  Below, you can see I ironed my circle on the background, then my letter N on the circle.

IMG_2217Next you start sewing!  But NOT on your applique piece yet.  You want to make sure your stitches are just right.  I ironed some Pellon onto some cotton (same weight as my applique fabric) and started playing with the settings on my sewing machine until it looked the way I wanted it to.  I used the zigzag stitch with a very short stitch length and a narrow to medium stitch width.  It took a few tries before I got it the way I wanted it:


My scrap tester piece. I started at the left side, and decided I liked what was on the right.


This is where my machine settings ended up when the stitch looked the way I wanted it to. 04 is my zigzag stitch, 0.2 is the length and 2.0 is the width.

Now it’s almost time to start sewing.  Sew a stitch or two without fabric, either with your hand wheel or the pedal, and set your machine up so the needle is up, but the next stitch is going to pierce the fabric on the right.  Then, line up your applique so the needle will pierce on the right edge of it – just off the top layer.  I do this stage with the hand wheel and the presser foot up to get it just right.  (I know this picture is a different color – I didn’t get a photo at this stage of the first one I did)


See how the needle is just to the right of the yellow circle? And it’s in the right position, so the next stitch will move the needle to the left, into the circle. Click the picture to see it larger or to zoom in.

Then go for it!  My example is a curve, but it’s a good idea to try straight lines to start with.  Here are some tips for successful applique stitching:

  • Don’t be afraid to pivot.  I set my machine up so that the needle ends in the down position, making this easier.
  • If you are pivoting and turning your fabric counterclockwise (as in the photo above), do your pivoting with your needle on the outside, or right side.  This way, the stitches will overlap and you won’t be left with any gaps.
  • If you are pivoting and turning clockwise, pivot with your needle on the inside, or left side for the same reason.
  • If you don’t, you’ll get gaps.
  • Example of good and bad pivoting from a previous project:


Now you need to think about keeping your hard work from coming undone!  I usually clip the top side of the beginning thread as short as I can, and run about 3/8″ on top of it as I finish the shape, so the starting end is secure.  However, for the back end, you should either clip the threads short and use Fray Check (which I don’t like all that much because it can make the piece hard) or keep them long and tie them off on the back side.  To do the 2nd method, flip the piece to the back side and pull on your bobbin thread where you finished sewing.  You should see a small loop pull through from the front side.  I use a pin to pull this thread all the way through to the back, then tie the two threads in a knot to secure.


Pull the bobbin thread (click the photo to see it larger and zoom in)


Pull the loop all the way through


Secure with a knot

It’s a bit tedious, but you’ve done all that work already, why risk it coming apart?

After the circle, I stitched around the letter (lots of thinking about how to pivot), and voila!

IMG_2228The method I’ve shown you here is a tight zigzag stitch.  There are other ways to applique.  I’ve tried a looser zigzag (longer stitch length), with an example of a toy car carrier I made for my niece below:


Another example of not-so-great pivots, but also a contrasting thread to make the letter stand out

I’ve also seen a blanket stitch used (although have never tried this myself).  It’s all about the look you want!

So, the lesson of today’s post is: don’t be a chicken like me!  I’ve been looking at appliqued items with envy for years, and it was simple to learn.  It’s so nice to be able to personalize items with applique!


17 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Applique

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