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Needle Turn Applique

Needle turn applique

This tutorial was written by Stephie Boon, artist and pattern designer.  

Needle-turn applique is one of the simplest traditional methods of hand stitching fabric shapes onto a background to create a unique design like the one above (which is going to be embellished with some hand embroidery and quilting). You can use this technique for quilt making or to decorate clothes and accessories. You need little more than a needle and thread, which makes it an ideal project to carry around with you to work on wherever you are. Let’s get started! Please read right through the instructions before you start.


Cotton fabric according to the pattern/design you are working on (quilting weight is recommended)
I used mixed Kaffe Fasset scraps for the bird and Pretty Potent by Anna Maria Horner for the flowers.

Cotton sewing threads to match your applique pieces (not your background fabric)

Tacking thread


Needles for hand sewing (I recommend Crewel embroidery needles )


Scissors: fabric, embroidery and paper


An iron and ironing board

Positioning your applique design

Mark the centre of your backing fabric. You can follow this simple method (assuming it is square or rectangular):

Fold it in half right sides together. 


Fold in half and press again. 

Now fold it diagonally into a triangle and press. 

Open it out right side up. 


You should now have central creases on the fabric which will act as a guide for laying out your applique pieces. The design I’m working on in this tutorial has a circular design, so I have marked that using a compass and pencil.

Layout pieces for applique

Using the creases as a guide, draw the finished design centrally on to your backing fabric with a pencil.  In a simple design like the example here, you can simply cut out the design and draw round it, or for more complicated designs you can place your backing fabric over the design and trace it through. It can help to do this over a light source (or up at a window) so that the design is easier to see.

Decorative hand applique

Cutting out your applique shapes

In this design I am using two methods to create my applique shapes: one is to use a motif from a piece of fabric, which is simply cut round and stitched down, the other uses templates for more unique designs.  A typical applique design is made up of several layers; in this example:


Layer 1: 3 fabric motif flowers and the bird tail template

Layer 2: 1 fabric motif flower and the bird body template

Layer 3: the bird’s wing template

Cut out your template pieces from paper, write the layer numbers on them if required. Place the templates on your selected fabrics right side up. Draw around the templates in pencil. Cut out the pieces adding a 5mm (1/4 inch) allowance all round.

Cut out any motif pieces (the flowers in this example) with a 5mm (1/4 inch) seam allowance all round.


Layer 1

Using the pencilled design on your backing fabric as a guide, position your layer 1 applique pieces into place and pin.  Baste them into position using tacking thread ensuring your basting stitches are 5mm (1/4 inch) away from the pencil line.  You can use fairly large stitches.

Hand applique

Needle-turn Applique 

Trim the seam allowance to 2.5mm (1/8 inch) with embroidery or applique scissors as you work (if you cut it all in one go it may fray) and stitch down as described below.

Turning a shape under for hand applique

Trim a few centimetres of your seam allowance at your starting point. 

Fold the 2.5mm (1/8 inch) seam allowance under along the pencil line (or along the edge of the motif) for a few centimetres and crease with your fingernail. 

Stitch this section down using blind stitch:


Blind Stitch 

Using a thread that matches the colour of your applique fabric (not your backing fabric), begin stitching: make a small knot at the end of your thread and bring your needle up from underneath through the creased edge of your applique fabric. Make a small stitch through the backing fabric next to where you initially came up. Make your next stitch a couple of millimetres ahead in the same way: up through the creased edge of your applique fabric, back down through the backing fabric next to where you came up as per images 4 and 7. Continue in this way around your shape. Fasten off with a small backstitch or two on the reverse of the fabric backing.

Blind stitch for applique

Continue trimming, folding, creasing and stitching around the entire shape. Use the tip of your needle to sweep the seam allowance under as you work and to help shape any curves or points (hence the name needle-turn!).  Stitch down all pieces in the layer.

Remove the tacking thread.

Press from the back

Stitching hand applique

Layer 2

Position and stitch down your layer 2 pieces as described above and shown below.

Hand sewn applique

Layer 3

Position and stitch down your layer 3 pieces as described above.



Always begin stitching along a smooth edge, not at a point or in the dip of a sharp curve.

Trim your seam allowance to approximately 1/8 inch with embroidery scissors as you work around each shape and sweep the seam allowance under with the tip of your needle, crease and hold in place with the thumbnail of your free hand as you sew.


Layering hand applique pieces

Use the tip of your needle to coax the seam into smooth curves.

There’s no need to clip the curves unless they are especially sharp (as in the tail feathers and wings in this example and the image above). In this case in can be helpful to make a couple of slightly larger stitches over the crease (rather than through it) to prevent fraying.

Instructions for needle turn applique

Don’t stitch through a sharp point (eg the beak) as this can flatten/fray them, instead make a small stitch either side.

Where one piece of fabric lies under another (eg the top of the tail piece under the main body) , there’s no need to make a seam, as this will cause excess bulk. I prefer to stitch it down with a some small running stitches.

Reverse side of needle turn applique

Don’t worry too much if your applique shapes don’t quite meet up with your pencil lines (like in image 9), as long as you have a good shape, the pencil will always wash out!

Finally, the back should just be lines of quite small, fairly neat stitches as pictured above.

That’s it; simple isn’t it?!   Once you’ve finished your applique you an use it in a quilt, or turn it into a cushion cover like I did (pictured below).

Hand applique project

I very much hope you enjoyed this tutorial and are ready to give the technique a go.  

Happy Stitching!


Text and images ©Stephanie Boon, 2014

Hand applique tutorial