7 Tips for Appliqueing with multiple fabrics

  • By: joleenllorence
  • Date: September 30, 2022
  • Time to read: 8 min.

All but the simplest of applique designs use multiple pieces to build up the design. The most common design is to apply fabric shapes in layers, so pieces overlap those below.

In this post I’ll talk about some of the things to think about when appliqueing with multiple fabrics, and in particular when trying to layer them.

But first, I’ll just explain what I mean by layering fabrics, and how that differs from building a design in separate pieces.

Layers in applique versus pieces

Applique designs made up of several different sections can either be constructed in layers, where one piece of fabric is appliqued on top of others, or assembled in separte pieces, like a jigsaw.

The most common is a design built in layers, like the umbrella applique shown below (left) – the centre panel is sewn on top of the full umbrella shape. This works well for adding small details such as eyes, or complicated shapes. It also give a subtle 3D effect, with lower layers suggesting pieces of the design that are further away.

An alternative is a design that has several pieces sewn next to each other, like the kite (right). Here, there is no obvious piece that should be in front of another; all four segments are at the same depth. This works better for simple shapes – it can be difficult to cut and piece complex shapes together snugly.

(By the way, you can download free templates for both the umbrella and kite designs.)

1. How to avoid colours running

If you’re using different coloured fabrics in your design, you might need to worry about colours running, particularly if you have a mixture of dark and light colours. Reds in particular are notorious for running, but it can occur with any colours – it’s all to do with the dyes and dyeing process.

There’s a limit to how much you can protect against this; it depends mainly on the dyes used in the fabrics. The colour can either run onto other fabrics in the applique, or onto the finished item itself.

Identifying the colour-run culprits:

  • To test a fabric for colourfastness wet it with hot water, place a piece of scrap white cotton on top and iron it. The cotton will soak up any colour run.
  • Synthetic fabrics are generally less likely to run than natural fabrics, as the colour is added when the fibres themselves are being made.
  • Natural fibres are more likely to soak up dye than synthetics.
  • Test your threads as well as the fabric – choose good quality thread to minimise the dangers of the colour running.

In the sample below, the dye from the red applique layer has run both into the white background and the white top heart. All layers are 100% cotton.

Tips for avoiding colour run:

  • Avoid using fabrics that run badly.
  • Prewash fabrics separately before appliqueing; often dye run occurs in the first few washes.
  • Avoid washing the finished item if possible.
  • For small marks, spot clean carefully with a damp cloth, rather than immersing the full applique.
  • Wash on a low temperature as hot water is more likely to make the dye run.
  • Use colour run sheets in the washing machine.
  • Don’t leave appliqued items in soak, and lay them out flat to dry.

If your project does suffer from the colour run, then all is not lost. This link talks about how to remove colour run from an appliqued/embroidered quilt.

2. How to combine different types of fabric

I’m planning another post soon on appliqueing with non-cotton fabrics so I won’t talk much about this here. But here are some general tips until I get round to writing up my separate post:

  • Where possible try to use fabrics of a similar weight to each other.
  • Make sure your backing fabric (whatever you’re appliqueing onto) is strong enough to take the weight; it should be at least as heavy as anything you attach to it.
  • Try not to mix stretch and non-stretch fabrics if possible.
  • If you do mix stretch and non-stretch, then stiffen the stretch fabrics in some way (for example, use starch or apply woven interfacing to the back) and treat everything together as non-stretch.

3. How to choose the thread colour

There are several options for choosing the colour of the stitching, depending on the effect you’re after. Using the same colour for all pieces can help pull the design together, whereas using different colours can emphasise contrasts. You can also choose to match the fabrics, putting the emphasis on the fabric rather than the outline, or to contrast, which makes the outlines bolder.

  • You can use a different thread for each fabric, choosing a matching (or contrasting) thread for each piece. This has the effect of emphasising the edges of the shapes, but if you have a lot of different pieces and colours it can look a little busy.
  • Use a neutral colour that blends with all fabrics eg cream, light grey or a colour common to all the fabrics. White and black tend to be too strong if you’re trying to blend into the background, although they can work well for contrast – see the next point.
  • Use the same contrast colour for everything: this pulls the design together, but sometimes it can be difficult to find a colour that contrasts well with all the different fabrics. Black and white can work well for this – the effect is a bit like the strong outlines you get in a children’s colouring book.
  • Use invisible thread – the thread will blend into the pieces so you can’t see the stitching at all.

You can also mix these ideas, to give emphasis to certain parts of the design, whilst allowing other elements to fade into the background. In this football applique, for example, the white stitching around the black pentagons fades into the background, while the black stitching emphasises the design lines.

Stitching with 2 Strings has some more detailed thoughts on how thread colour can be used to create different effects.

4. How to applique a design built up in layers

A good applique template should clearly indicate the order to sew the pieces, but if it’s not clear you should work from the back of the design to the front. Cut all the pieces first and layer them in position without stitching to check you have the order correct.

Work with each layer in turn:

  • Attach the piece in place (eg using fusible web).
  • Sew round the edge of the piece. If you’re using a bulky stitch like satin stitch, you may want to only sew the edges that will be visible in the finished design. Otherwise, the stitching can create bumps under thin fabrics.
  • Press the layer well before sewing the next layer.

I prefer to build layers directly on top of each other like this, unless the fabrics are particularly bulky. However, the Cafe Blog demonstrates an alternative method of layering.

5. How to convert an applique design from layers to pieces

An applique design built up in layers is usually more effective and easier to work with than one in jigsaw-style pieces, but there are some situations when you might want to convert parts of your design to separate pieces.

The easiest way to do this is to work in paper.

  1. Cut your applique templates out of paper and layer them in position.
  2. Draw round the edges of top pieces to create the new cutting line on the lower layer.
  3. Cut along the lines.
  4. Check the paper pieces fit together properly.
  5. Use the paper shapes as your new templates.

You can see how this works with the umbrella design below. The original consists of two layers, the light green layer on the bottom and the dark green layer on top. After drawing round the edges and cutting along the lines I have three new template pieces that fit together side by side, with no layering.

6. How to avoid fabrics showing through layers

If you have thin, light-coloured layers on top of darker ones, you may find that the underneath colour shows through. There are a number of things you can do to avoid this:

  • Where you have a choice of colours avoid placing light on top of dark fabrics.
  • Use a thicker fabric – for example, I like to use white felt for eyes, rather than white cotton.
  • Try using a double layer of the lighter fabric to make it thicker: attach two layers of fabric together first (eg using fusible web, or some other adhesive) and then cut the applique piece treating the double layer as one.
  • You could convert the layers to pieces (see Tip 5), although this can be tricky for complex shapes.

In this heart design you can see the difference between a single layer of the top fabric (right side of the white heart) and a double layer (left side). You can see the red fabric through the single layer, while the double layer keeps it white.

7. How to avoid bulk in thick layers

Multiple layers can quickly create bulk if you’re using thicker fabrics.

  • Use thinner fabrics if possible – if you don’t have a particular reason for using thicker fabrics, the easiest solution is to avoid it.
  • Cut away some or all of the lower layers to reduce bulk.
  • Convert layers to jigsaw-style pieces (Tip 5) so that all fabrics are on the same level.

In this monster applique I particularly wanted to use fur for the body. This causes several problems:

  • The right foot overlaps the body – because of the thickness of the fur body if I simply layer it then the foot layer is uneven, with some of it higher than other areas.
  • The hair layer is fur as well, creating a lot of bulk – although in this case I want to keep some of that bulk for effect.
  • The felt eyes on top of the body can be difficult to sew smoothly through so many thick layers, especially the fiddly pupils.

To overcome these problems, I did the following:

  • I cut away the area of the body where the foot overlaps, so the foot piece is all on the same level.
  • I cut out the centre of the eyes from the body to reduce bulk, especially when sewing on the pupils. I left a small overlap so I still get the effect of the eyes on top of the body rather than sunken in.
  • I trimmed back the body under the hair a little.

While there’s a lot of information out there on combining different fabrics for making clothes, there’s a lot less that deals specifically with appliqueing. This post aims to fill that gap – let me know if you found it useful!

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