Use the basic methods—hand-turn, machine-sewn, and iron-on—to adhere motifs onto fabric.

By Alexandra Churchill
June 26, 2020
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Johnny Miller

Although appliqué probably has roots in the practical need to patch holes, it has long been celebrated in textile design for its decorative possibilities. And it's no wonder: The two-dimensional surface of appliquéd pieces are pleasing to the eye and variable in texture, inspiring you to consider small patches of material in new ways.

With a name that derives from the French appliquer ("to apply"), the technique involves placing shapes that have been cut from one fabric onto another fabric background to create a picture or pattern. Usually the fabrics contrast with one another, whether in color or texture, but you can also appliqué pieces of the same fabric for a subtle effect. Sometimes, the decorations are used to embellish the top layer of a quilt, or are finished with embroidered details. In all cases, these fabric shapes—or motifs, as they're called—can be as playful or elegant as you like, and can be cut from almost any type of fabric. Close-woven linens and cottons are easy to work with, as are non-woven, non-fraying fabrics such as felt and Ultrasuede. After you've practiced with these, you may want to experiment with looser-woven materials.

Once applied, the motifs bring visual and textural interest to all manner of household items, including pillows, bed linens, and curtains, as well as to apparel and accessories, such as shirts, scarves, and tote bags.

Tools and Materials

To start your appliqué kit, you will need the following basic supplies: fusible web, transfer paper, tracing wheel, disappearing-ink fabric pen, needle and thread, and small pointed scissors.

Using Templates

In most cases, an existing template will include information regarding how much you will need to resize it (if at all). This may require enlarging it using a photocopier or computer; most of the ones in our projects, however, are included at 100 percent. Practically any flat object can be used to create a template. From an online source, download, print, and cut out copyright-free art. If desired, make it smaller or larger with a photocopier or computer. From clip-art or typography books, trace or photocopy the design onto tracing paper, altering the size as needed. Of course, shapes can also be drawn by hand, then cut out to make templates.

If you will be tracing the templates onto fabric, cut them from heavy card stock. If you will be pinning them to fabric and cutting around them, regular weight paper should do. (Some crafters like to print onto regular-weight paper and then trace the template with tracing paper, which is easier to pin to fabric.)

Appliquè Methods

The three basic appliqué methods—hand-turn, machine-sewn, and iron-on—are all easy to tackle. Hand-turn appliqué is quick, easy, and done in slipstitch with needle and thread. Machine appliqué uses the zigzag or satin stitch on a sewing machine to attach the motifs while binding the edge. The iron-on appliqué method is the most beginner-friendly and uses adhesives in the fusible web to prevent fabrics from fraying—that said, it's best suited to fabrics that don't need frequent washing such as curtains. In our tutorials, you'll be introduced to each technique, with step-by-step photographs to illustrate them. There are several attractive projects that make good use of appliqué, including one that includes a special technique for attaching precise shapes such as circles. Look for inspiration in bits and pieces—patches of fabric, small amounts of yardage, or remnants—and remember that any imperfections in your appliquéd motifs will only enhance their handmade appeal.

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