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Applique Techniques

Applique techniques

This two-part guide to applique techniques has been written by quilting author and blogger Kerry Green. Part 2 can be found here.

Applique techniques part 1

This is the first in a two-part guide to applique techniques. The techniques of fusible web applique, needle turn applique, freezer applique and techniques for circles using foil and gathering techniques are covered in this first part. To learn bias tape applique and quick turn applique please see part 2 of this series. 

How to do applique

Fusible Web Applique

 Using paper backed fusible web like Bondaweb for appliqué is a quick and easy method that fuses a fine double sided adhesive web on to the appliqué shape.  This can then be secured with machine or hand stitching which also creates a decorative effect.

 Using a pencil, trace around your motif on to the papery side of the paper backed fusible web.   If your shape isn’t symmetrical you will need to reverse your motif by flipping it over and then tracing.  Cut around the edge of the shape leaving some extra space all around; at this stage the shape is roughly cut out.

How to do Bondaweb applique

Place the rough cut shape onto the wrong side of the motif fabric.  With the paper side on top, and checking the fusible web manufacturer’s instructions, use your iron to press the paper side; the fusible side is on the reverse of the motif fabric.  Allow to cool.

Carefully cut around the shape through the paper and fabric.  Gently peel the paper away from the fusible web.  Your motif is now ready to be fused to the background fabric.

Take your background fabric, make sure it is pressed with no wrinkles.  Work out where you would like to place the shape.  It helps to fold your background fabric lightly in half lengthways and widthways to create guidelines.  Take the motif and place the fusible side onto the background fabric. Following the fusible web manufacturer’s instructions, use your iron to press the shape for around 5-10 seconds and fuse it to the background fabric. Allow to cool.

Applique techniques

  Stitch around the edge of the shape either by machine or hand.  A closely spaced zig-zag stitch works well on the machine. 

What stitch to use for machine applique

Check where your needle falls each side of the stitch to enclose the raw edges neatly. If stitching by hand, blanket stitch is a good option.  The fusible web can be quite tough to sew through by hand so a sharp needle helps!  Different thickness and types of thread creates different effects, experiment to find out what works for you.


Needle Turn Applique

This is a hand sewing technique that uses the tip of the needle to turn or stroke the seam allowance around a shape inwards and which is then stitched into place. There are variations on this theme and lots of different ways to manage the different angles and curves on a shape. Appliqué, straw or milliner’s needles are good for appliqué, they are fine and long with a little flexibility. Use a fine, strong thread- cotton like Aurfil 50wt or 80wt, or polyester like Superior Threads Bottom Line, or silk, or whatever works best for you, they each have different qualities.

Needle turn applique tutorial

 Take your template, which could be card or template plastic, place it on the right side of the fabric and draw around it using a light pencil or removable fabric marker.  The marker needs to produce a fine line which makes the fold line for the seam allowance, the drawn line will not be visible on your finished appliqué.  It helps to place the fabric on a sand paper board to stop the fabric slipping or distorting as you draw around the shape.  This is easily made by sticking a piece of fine sandpaper on to a piece of thick cardboard with double sided tape.

Cut out your fabric piece adding a scant 1/4” seam allowance around the edge of your motif.  You can also use a seam wheel to draw the scant 1/4” seam allowance before cutting if you find that easier.

What is needle turn applique?

Place your shape on the background.  This can be done using fold lines on the background to help with positioning. Or, some designs with lots of shapes and precise placement can be lightly traced onto the right side of the background fabric using a light box or window with pencil or removal marker.

Applique tips and tricks

Secure the shape using either pins (small appliqué pins make it less likely to catch sewing thread), tacking/basting in place, or using tiny dots of washable basting glue placed at least 1/4” in from the seam fold line.

Needle turn applique step by step tutorial

It can help to gently pinch the seam allowance along the drawn line all around the shape to create a fold memory ready to turn in and sew.

Hand applique techniques

To start sewing needle turn appliqué, cut a length of fine thread – elbow tip to longest finger is a good measure- and knot the end.  It is best to match the thread colour to the motif rather than the background.  Start on a straight section or an outward curve and away from any corners or sharp angles.  Slide the needle through the back of the appliqué motif and direct it to the wrong side of the seam line so the knot is hidden.  Use the side and tip of the needle to gently roll the seam allowance under for a short distance (approx. 1/2” or so), hold the turned edge with the thumb of your non stitching hand.

How to do needle turn applique

Insert the needle into the background against the folded edge and opposite where the thread came out.  Turn the needle point upwards as it travels a little way under the wrong side of the background fabric and comes out to catch the folded edge of the appliqué approximately 1/8” further along.

Easy needle turn applique

Pull the thread away from the fabric edge and the stitch should almost disappear. Continue a straight or gentle outwardly curved edge stroking the fabric under and towards you as you sew and making small stitches.  How close your stitches should be depends on the part of the shape you are sewing.  On a straight section or gentle curve stitches can be a little further apart but less than 1/4”.

When stitching close to a outer or inner point, or an inner curve, stitches will be a lot closer together.  Concentrate on a small section, turning over only  a maximum of 1/2”-1” seam allowance at a time. 

How does needle turn applique look from the back?

On the back of your work, the stitches should look like small, straight and close together running stitches.

Once the appliqué motif is sewn, secure and knot off the thread on the back of your work.

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Sewing Outer Curves

In the example above the outer curve is along the bird’s belly. Outer curves are relatively straightforward in needle turn appliqué. Smooth the fabric edge under using the needle tip as shown above. If there seems like there is too much fabric, trim the seam allowance a little.

Sewing Inward Curves

How to sew inwards curves when doing hand applique

In this example the inner curve is along the bird’s back. Use small sharp scissors to cut the seam allowance along the inner curve in small cuts that stop just before they reach the marked seam line.

Sewing curves when doing applique

Use the tip and side of the needle to swing the fabric edge under in one smooth sweeping movement with the needle.

Sewing Inner Points

How to sew inner points when doing needle turn applique

In this example the inner point is at the top of the pink heart. Stitch to approx. 1/2” from the inner point, then cut clip seam allowance so the cut almost reaches the seam line at the base of the point.

How to sew curves and points when doing needle turn applique

Use the needle to swing the seam allowance towards you turning the seam under at the point and beyond.  This is quite a tricky manoeuvre as there is barely any seam allowance at the inner point and you often only get one good go at this before the fabric starts to fray! 

It can help to use a dampened wooden cocktail stick, instead of the needle to swing the seam allowance under, the dampness catches any stray fabric threads.  Hold the turned seam allowance in place with with the thumb of your non stitching hand and sew with close together stitches, stopping just before the base of the point.  Then take a deeper stitch taking a slightly larger ‘bite’ of the appliqué shape fabric, then straight down into the background, angling the needle under the turned in edge.  Pull the thread carefully, then continue with closely spaced stitches working away from the inner point.

Sewing Outer Points

How to sew outer points when doing needle turn applique

In this example the outer point is the bird’s beak.  Stitch using needle turn up to the point, your stitches should get closer together as you approach the point.

Intermediate needle turn applique tutorial

Make a stitch at the point, pull the thread, then swing the seam allowance under with the needle and hold in place with the thumb of your non-stitching hand and pull gently on the thread to ensure the point is still held tight and continue stitching. 

Sewing an Acute Outer Point

How to sew an acute outer point when doing needle turn applique

This method is for a very narrow outer point like the bird’s tail and is an alternative to the outer point technique.  An acute outer point can be worked in three stages. Firstly, stitch within 1” of the sharp point and then trim the seam allowance around the point to just over 1/8”.

Sewing points when doing hand applique

Next, fold the fabric across the top of the point, then use your needle to turn the seam allowance up to the point and stitch to the point.

The needle turn applique technique

Finally, use the needle or the tip of your scissors to push the seam allowance under to the point and about 1/2” beyond. This is quite tricky, there will feel like there is a lot of bulk in a small place!  Hold in place with your non-stitching thumb and continue to sew.

 Circles – Card and Foil Technique

How to applique circles

In this example, the technique has been used with the larger circle. You will need a card template and some foil.  Place the card circle template on the wrong side of the fabric and draw around it with a pencil. Cut out adding a scant 1/4” seam allowance around the circle circumference. Take a square of foil,  this needs to be larger than the circle.  With the duller side facing upwards, place the fabric circle right side downwards, then the card template on to the wrong side of the circle.

How to hand applique circles

Wrap the edge of the foil over tightly so the fabric and the foil turns towards the centre of the circle template, smooth the edges.  Use a warm iron to gently press the foil wrapped edge of the circle.  Allow to cool.  When you are ready to add the fabric circle, unwrap the foil and the seam allowance will be turned in ready for you to sew.


Circles – Card and Gathering Technique

Gathered applique circles tutorial

In this example, the technique has been used with the smaller circle. You will need a card template and there is an option of using some liquid starch and a fine paint brush.  Draw around the circle template on to the wrong side of the fabric. Cut out adding a scant 1/4” seam allowance around the edge.  Take a needle and thread with a knotted end and hand stitch a small running stitch in the circle seam allowance beginning and ending the thread on the fabric right side.

How to applique circles onto a quilt

Place the template circle on the fabric wrong side and inside the pencil line,  gently pull up the stitches and secure the thread to enclose the template circle.  Paint a little liquid starch on the seam allowance and the turned edge (this is optional) and press briefly with a medium hot iron. Leave to cool with the template circle in place until you are ready to add it to the appliqué design. Snip some of the running stitches and pop out the template before appliquéing the circle on to the finished design.


Freezer Paper Applique Technique

Freezer paper applique tutorial

In this example, the applique technique has been used with the bird’s wing. You will need freezer paper, a card template, some liquid starch and a paint brush.  Place the template so the right side is against the paper side of the freezer paper and draw around it in pencil (this reverses the template).  Cut out the freezer paper shape. 

Place the waxy side of the freezer paper shape against the wrong side of the motif fabric. Press with a warm iron so the freezer paper ‘sticks’ to the fabric.  This is only temporary, the paper will peel off easily.  Cut out the shape adding a 1/4” seam allowance around the edge.  Take to an ironing station, paint the fabric edge with a little liquid starch and use the tip of the iron to turn the seam allowance in over the paper shape. This is quite fiddly and it can help to use a tailor’s awl to hold the fabric in place for the iron rather than your fingers! 

How to do applique with freezer paper templates

When you are ready to use the shape, carefully unpeel the freezer paper from the wrong side of the fabric.

To learn bias tape applique and quick turn applique please see part 2 of this series. 

For Kerry’s other quilting tutorials please visit her Simple Sampler quilt series.