Appliqué is a great way to add a personal touch to loads of items, transforming them from everyday into something more special. I like to use it a lot, both to adapt things I make and in my patterns – it’s a great way to add details.
This post is a tutorial for the basic method of machine appliqué using fusible web. In subsequent posts I’ll be focusing on more of the details, such as sewing round curves and using fancy fabrics. I’ll also be posting some free appliqué designs for you to play with, starting with a selection of hearts in different sizes.
There are a number of different types of appliqué; this introductory tutorial will look at raw edge appliqué with fused edges using fusible web, and sewn by machine. You can use this method to appliqué by hand as well, although you might prefer to use a method that finishes the raw edges better.
- an appliqué design or template
- fusible web
- background fabric
- cotton fabric scraps to form the appliqué
- good quality thread – embroidery thread gives a nice finish, but you can use normal thread if you prefer
You can find appliqué templates on the internet (there are some good free designs at Wee Folk Art) or you can draw your own.
If you’re designing your own, keep it relatively simple with a small number of not-too-fiddly pieces. Children’s colouring books often have bold simple designs which are a good source of ideas, but be aware of copyright.
For appliqué using this fusible web method your designs will come out in reverse, so make sure you design your templates backwards (this is particularly important if you want to include lettering of any kind).
I’m using a simple heart shape that I drew myself. If you’d like to use it, this heart appliqué template includes four different styles of heart in three different sizes.
Fusible web is the generic name for a thin fusible layer that sticks two fabrics together. It’s sold by various brands under various names depending on where you live: for example, Bondaweb (also called WonderUnder), Heat ‘n’ Bond Lite (not the regular version), Steam a Seam. You can think of it as the fabric equivalent of double-sided sticky tape. There’s usually a paper backing (occasionally two) that gets removed, and the thin fusible layer itself:
If you feel it, one side is smooth (the paper layer) while the other feels slightly rough (the fusible side).
I like it for a number of reasons. Firstly it holds the shapes in place while you sew them down, so you don’t need to use pins that can shift or distort the pieces. The adhesive stays there, so your final shape is attached twice – once by the stitching and once by the fusible web for extra security. Secondly, it gives the appliqué shape more support and stability which makes it easier to sew. Finally, it fuses the edges of the shape which helps prevent fraying.
The purpose of a stabiliser is to give the backing fabric some support, and to prevent the often dense stitching from puckering and distorting the fabric.
Appliqué tutorials on the web are divided on whether to use stabiliser or not, but unless you have a very heavy duty backing (for example on a quilt) I find you get better, smoother results if you use some kind of stabiliser (if you look at the samples in the next section, in the straight stitch image I forgot to use stabiliser – you can see it looks more bumpy than the others). If you use stabiliser, the worst case scenario is that it makes no difference. You can use two or even more layers of stabiliser if you need to – test out on some scraps first. You’ll need more stabiliser for:
- denser stitching
- thinner backing fabrics
- more layers of appliqué
Again, there are a number of different types; look for a tear away or cut away stabiliser. Cut away is the firmest available and will give the most support, but will be visible on the back.
If you don’t have any stabiliser, you could use interfacing, or even a layer of cotton fabric underneath – anything to give the backing fabric more support.
You can use any kind of fabric for appliqué, but if you’re new to this, you’ll find it easiest to stick with cottons – they’re not too thick, too stretchy, too unravelly (is that a word?) or too slippery.
Likewise for the backing – avoid anything too flimsy. I like a nice medium to heavy weight cotton; I’m using cotton drill in this tutorial. You can appliqué onto stretch fabrics like jersey, but you’ll need stabiliser otherwise it will go all ripply (plus remember to use a ballpoint needle). In this basic tutorial I’ll concentrate on non-stretch fabrics.
Step-by-step basic appliqué
Step 1: Trace the design onto the smooth paper side of the fusible web. Anything you draw will come out reversed, so if you’re doing lettering you need to draw it backwards at this stage.
Step 2: Roughly cut out the fusible web shapes and iron them onto the wrong side of your scraps, following the instructions for your fusible web.
Step 3: Cut out the shapes and peel off the backing paper.This can be tricky – if you can’t find an edge to start peeling, use a pin to tear the paper in the middle of the shape and then peel from there.
The fusible layer is quite thin, so you may be worried that you’ve pulled off the entire thing, not just the paper; you probably haven’t as it sticks pretty well – the fusible surface should feel slightly grippy.
Step 4: Place the appliqué shape in position on the backing fabric right side up, so the fusible layer is between the two, and iron again, to fuse the second side to the backing fabric.You can use a pressing cloth here to protect your fabric, especially if you’ve used delicate fabrics. This also protects your iron from any of the adhesive on the fusible web.
Step 5: Place the stabiliser underneath the backing fabric, and stitch round the edges of the shape to secure it.Cut the stabiliser a little larger than the appliqué design. Instead of backstitching at the beginning and end, you can get a neater finish by pulling the threads to the underside and tying them off.
Step 6: Tear or cut away the stabiliser from the stitching, and press from the front.
What stitch to use?
This is the very close band of stitching you tend think of with appliqué. You may have a satin stitch on your sewing machine; if not you can get the same effect with a very close-together zigzag stitch. Adjust the stitch length so that each stitch is just alongside the previous. I prefer to sew a satin or zigzag stitch so that about two thirds of the stitch is on the appliquéd shape and a third off – this covers more of the raw edge. Choose the stitch width that suits you; you want it wide enough to cover the raw edges, but not so wide that it dominates – so the smaller the appliqué shapes, the narrower the stitching.
Satin stitch covers the raw edges of the appliquéd shapes well to prevent fraying. However, it can be quite dense and stiff in some situations, and it can be difficult to get a clean look around detailed curves and corners.
This is a more relaxed version of the satin stitch. It has less coverage of any raw edges, but is also less dense and stiff, so a good all-purpose choice. Too large a stitch can look a bit homemade, so try a narrower, tighter stitch. Play around with the stitch length to get the effect you want.
Applique stitch/Blanket stitch
Another popular choice is to use a reverse blanket stitch, sometimes known as appliqué stitch. You want the straight part of the stitch running along the edge of the appliqué shape, and the bar going into the shape.
Again, play around stitch length and width to get the effect you want; I like it quite small.
This doesn’t cover the edges as well as zigzag or satin stitch, so is best for fabrics that don’t fray too much (felt is great) or won’t require frequent washing. Alternatively, it works well with a finished edge appliqué method.
A single or double row of straight stitch can look very effective. If you want a clean finish, then use it for situations where the appliqué edges have been finished or with non-fray fabrics.
Alternatively you can leave the edges to fray – this gives a deliberate shabby chic effect. You can encourage this look by picking at the raw edges with a pin.
It’s a bit trial and error when it comes to adjusting machine settings – it depends on your machine, the stitch you’re using, the look you’re after and the thread and fabrics you use. For all these reasons, it’s best to do a test with scraps first – use scraps of a similar type of fabric and remember to use stabiliser as well.
Keep the speed slower than you would usually use, and stop with the needle in the down position to adjust the fabric.
You may need to reduce your top tension a little as well, to cope with multiple layers. I like to adjust it so that the bobbin threads pull the top threads slightly to the underside; that way I can use a neutral bobbin thread that won’t show. If you have one, an open-toed appliqué foot is the best choice as it allows you to see what you’re doing. But if you don’t have one, you can use your standard zigzag foot, although you’ll need to take extra care.
Appliqué is a great technique for your toolbox, which gives you lots of scope for personalising and adapting items. Like any skill it takes practice. I’m working on a series of more advanced appliqué posts that focus on particular areas, so let me know in the comments if you run into any problems and I’ll try to address them.
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