How to Appliqué with Tricky Fabrics – Part 1

  • By: joleenllorence
  • Date: August 15, 2022
  • Time to read: 5 min.

Last year I did a string of posts on appliquéing, and I promised some tips for dealing with tricky fabrics. So far I’ve demonstrated all my appliqué techniques with cotton fabrics – a nice robust cotton drill in the background and stable, well-behaved quilting cottons for the appliqué shapes.

But there are times when for example you want to appliqué onto a stretch jersey T-shirt, or when your appliqué design is crying out for a bit of sparkly organza for maximum fairy effect.

I started off writing this post, and it just grew and grew! So I’ve cut it into two parts. This is Part 1, where I talk generally about how to deal with tricky fabrics. In Part 2, I’ll give tips for dealing with specific tricky fabrics.

What kinds of fabrics are tricky?

Specifically, the kind of fabrics I’m going to look at that can cause problems (either as the background fabric or the appliqué fabric) are:

  • Fabrics that fray easily (for example, silks and satins)
  • Fabrics that are stretchy (for example, jersey or lycra)
  • Very thick, bulky fabrics (for example, faux fur or fleece)
  • Transparent or see-through fabrics (for example, organzas and chiffon)
  • Fabrics that can’t be ironed (for example, oilcloth or leather)

Any of these mean that you will need to adapt the basic appliqué instructions. Of course, some fabrics are even more of a hassle when they combine several of these characteristics – organza is see-through and frays easily; fleece is both thick and slightly stretchy.

So first we’ll think about a basic approach for tackling any fabrics, and then I’ll show how this applies to the specific problems mentioned above. (Or if you’re impatient you can skip straight to the tips for dealing with tricky fabrics.)

Basic Approach for Appliquéing with any fabrics

The main steps for appliquéing are:

  1. Stabilise the background fabric.
  2. Stabilise the appliqué fabric and treat the edges.
  3. Attach the appliqué to the background.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

1. Stabilise the background fabric

The background fabric does a lot of work, supporting both the extra layers and the stitching. So it needs:

  • To be strong enough to support the appliqué layers:
    The more appliqué layers you add, the stronger the background needs to be. Thinner fabrics require permanent support – they need to continue to support the weight of all those additional layers.
  • To be strong enough to support the stitching both whilst sewing and once the item is finished:
    Appliqué can be quite heavy on the stitching, particularly if there are a lot of pieces or if you’re using a dense stitch like satin stitch. Heavy stitching can distort pieces while sewing or weaken the finished item, especially if the fabric has a loose weave.
  • To not distort or stretch whilst sewing:
    You want to keep the background stable while you sew so that the pieces don’t shift, and attach smoothly without bumps or puckers.

Heavier or thicker fabrics, such as home decor, denim, heavy cottons etc offer good support in their own right. For flimsier fabrics, you may need to add extra support. In the list above the first two require permanent support, while the final one may only require temporary support whilst actually sewing.

Temporary support

  • Tear-away and soluble stabilisers are both good choices to add temporary support while sewing. They can be removed afterwards; soluble will wash out completely, while tear-away may leave stabiliser in some small areas.
  • You can stiffen a fabric before sewing using starch: soak with starch, air dry and then iron. Alternatively you can make your own fabric stiffener with a mixture of cornflour and water (see more details on DIY fabric stiffeners). This will stop the fabric stretching, curling or distorting while you sew, and can be washed out afterwards.

Permanent support

  • Cut-away stabiliser is a permanent stabiliser, which stays in place after sewing.
  • You can use a second layer of fabric as a stabiliser. If your background fabric is relatively stable just a little thin, you could double up the fabric. For flimsier fabrics, use a good heavy cotton as a backing. Either way, layer the two fabrics together and treat as one.
  • You can add other support, for example wadding in a quilt, felt or fusible fleece.
  • Loose weave fabrics may benefit from fusible interfacing as well, to help hold things together, and help prevent heavy stitching from weakening the fabric.

Stabiliser is a great tool for making these fabrics behave; you can find out more about using all types of stabiliser from Threads magazine.

2. Stabilise the Appliqué fabric and treat the edges

You need the appliqué fabric to be stable so that the appliqué shapes don’t shift or distort while you’re attaching them, and to support the stitching – but it’s okay for the appliqué layers to be lighter than the background layers.

Ways to stabilise the appliqué fabric:

  • Wash away stabiliser will support the shapes while sewing and wash out completely afterwards.
  • Using fusible web helps to keep the shapes crisp, although it doesn’t offer lots of extra support.
  • You can starch the appliqué fabric as described above.
  • You can use a double layer of fabric and treating the two layers together as one – if you do this, it’s usually easiest to stick them together, either using fusible web or temporary fabric adhesive.
  • If you use fully turned edge appliqué, this will give extra support to the shapes, and finish the edges neatly.

I talked about finishing the raw edges in a previous post, but to summarise:

  • Fusible web seals the edges of the fabric to some extent.
  • Stitching over the edges using a satin stitch helps cover the raw edges.
  • Fray check on the edges helps stop them unravelling.
  • Turned edge appliqué techniques finish the shapes neatly so their are no raw edges.

3. Attach the Appliqué to the background

This step includes two aspects. Firstly, you want to temporarily hold pieces in position so they don’t shift as you’re trying to sew, and secondly you need to permanently sew the shapes in position.

Some options here are:

  • Tusible web – it helps to stabilise the shapes as well, but you need to be able to iron the fabric.
  • Temporary adhesive fabric spray eg 505 spray – usually marketed at quilters, but useful for all kinds of other sewing projects.
  • Glue stick – a cheap kids’ glue stick holds pieces lightly in place and washes out easily.
  • Pins – not the best option as pieces can still shift once you start sewing.
  • Hand basting – offers the greatest control, but be careful the pieces don’t shift as you sew.

For attaching the shapes, I showed some examples of different stitches before. These include:

  • Hand sewing stitch
  • Satin stitch
  • Straight stitch
  • Stretch stitch
  • Invisible stitches

The principles here will allow you to work with any fabric. You can see that some things crop up in several places – for example fusible web can help in all three areas: stabilising the appliqué fabric, sealing the edge and holding it in place while you sew.

In Part 2, I’ll pull together tips for some specific types of tricky fabric, and you can see how these ideas work in practice.

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