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How to applique with sewing machine – A Beginner’s Guide (12 techniques)

Step-by-step instructions on how to appliqué, a sewing technique that involves attaching fabric pieces onto a base fabric to create decorative designs, using a sewing machine.
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Applique is a beautiful fabric embellishing technique in which fabric pieces are layered over the fabric to create beautiful designs. The fabric pieces are stitched to the background fabric with several decorative stitches like zig-zag, satin stitches, or buttonhole stitches. You can do applique work by hand as well as by machine.

High-end Embroidery machines and digitized applique designs have made applique rather easy for those who have these machines. But for those who do not have them, there are several simple methods for doing this beautiful work.

When to do Applique ?

The best time to do applique design on the fabric which is meant to be made into garments or accessories is before you have cut the pattern pieces and after you have marked the pattern. This way you can easily move around the applique pieces and stitch comfortably.

If you are sewing the applique after the garment is finished there are limitations in the extent of stitching you can do- like if you want it on the sleeve head or the pocket, the machine applique may be impossible. You will have to do hand applique in this case. Check out this post on Hand Applique for more details.

Which material is used for doing Applique?

You need two types of fabric – one is the base and the other applique pieces.

Applique pieces – these are the design pieces. You can cut your own applique pieces from the fabric you have or buy precut applique pieces.

If you are cutting your own applique pieces, you can choose any material for the applique pieces. The way you applique will depend on the material of the applique pieces. For, eg. beaded applique pieces are easy to sew with hand applique stitches rather than machine applique.

Printed fabric can be used to bring an interesting element to the whole design. If you have a floral printed fabric try to find a full flower with an outline which you can use for the applique or identify an interesting shape in your fabric for cutting

The experts use die cutters or cameo cutters. If you do not have them You can use the old-fashioned way of cutting with fabric scissors after tracing the figure you want. 

Background fabric/ foundation fabric – This is the fabric on which you will be attaching the applique pieces. A firmly woven fabric is best as the background fabric for doing applique designs

Denim is my favorite for doing applique. For me, solid colors work best but I have seen some stunning applique in printed clothes as well. If you know your colors and patterns it is easy to make a striking piece.

You need to ensure the compatibility of applique pieces and the foundation fabric. You should not be appliqueing too heavy applique pieces onto the very thin loosely woven background fabric. It will sag. Also, maintenance of the fabrics should be compatible. A dry clean only applique pieces appliques on a simple to maintain cotton background will give you a headache over how to maintain it inexpensively. Shrinkage and bleeding should also be taken into consideration.

What supplies are needed to do Applique

✔ Thread

Regular Cotton sewing thread is used to do machine applique. Sometimes I like some glitter and shine. Then I use either rayon thread for its luster and metallic thread for its glitter. Embroidery floss is used for doing hand applique

The color of the thread – For the  Needle thread (top thread)  you can choose a similar color as the applique pieces rather than the background piece or contrasting color. For the bobbin thread, I have seen white or grey used everywhere or the same color as the foundation fabric. I use the same color as the top thread.

Sewing machine for machine applique – For doing the applique all you may need is a straight stitch machine but a zig-zag machine is best.

✔ Interfacing

The types of interfacing used in applique can vary – iron -on, soluble, tear away, adhesive, cut away or mesh stabilizers.

Interfacing is used under the background fabric to give it some stability when the stitching is done when doing machine applique. The tear-away stabilizer is my preferred one for this- the tear-away stabilizer can be torn away after the work is done.

Interfacing is also used under the applique pieces – lightweight iron-on fusible interfacing is used; it gives a neat and crisp look to the finished work.

✔ Needles

For machine applique – for light to medium-weight fabric a 11 sharp needle can be used.

For heavy-weight fabrics like denim use 14 -16 sharp machine needles.

✔ Pins.

This is needed to keep the applique pieces in place. You can baste stitch as well.

✔ Applique Scissors.

You will need sharp scissors for clipping threads. Curved scissors are best for trimming fabric edges close to zigzag stitching and the background fabric.

✔ Seam ripper.

For all your mistakes.

✔ Iron.

Good steam iron is needed to adhere to the fusible web, interfacing.

✔ Tracing paper and carbon sheets and markers

These are used to copy and transfer designs.

✔  Fray check

This is an optional tool . You can use this to stop the fraying edges of applique pieces if you find any after you have done the applique.

✔ Press cloth or applique pressing sheet.

The press cloth or the special applique pressing sheet will be saving your iron from all those ugly fusible web marks. The press cloth will also prevent the shine marks on fabric. Read more on pressing cloth here.

What designs are best for applique ?

You can use very simple designs or very complex designs with multiple layers. Large designs without too much details are best for a beginner attempting applique. Checkout this post on 10 inspirations for finding designs for your applique. 

Checkout this post on turning a photo into an embroidery work – you can make your photo into a line drawing this way and cut out the designs

Checkout this post on making Applique letters.

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Ensure that you are not infringing on anybody’s copyright when copying designs. This is especially important if you mean to sell appliqued products. For eg. Disney characterers are almost always protected by copyright.

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How to prepare the fabrics for applique

Prewash the fabric, especially for cotton and other natural fabrics – this will remove sizing from the cloth. If sizing remains, it will cause the fabric to pucker and look all wrinkly afterward.You can wet the fabric thoroughly and let it dry naturally.

Prewashing is also necessary to know that the colors will not bleed. If the applique pieces bleed onto the background, it will be a disaster.

Some prefer the crisp look of appliqued pieces with interfacing; in that case, apply it to the back of the fabric, especially if it is a loosely woven fabric. Some apply spray starch.

Cut the fabric applique pieces from the straight grain of the fabric . ie parallel to selvedges

Do not forget to iron the applique pieces smoothly before using them.

Cut the design pieces for machine applique without any seam allowance. For hand applique you need some allowance (1/4 inch) to turn under the edges

Stitches used for Applique 

Straight stitches

If you are using knit fabric for the applique fabric pieces you can use straight stitches to applique as the fabric would not fray.

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Satin stitches

For all other fabric a closely done zig zag stitch is used.

If you have a plastic satin foot or an applique foot (shorter than the satin foot) you should use this instead of the all purpose zig zag foot.

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Change your stitch type to zig zag and shorten the stitch length to near zero. This will usually create a very closely spaced zig zag stitch which mimics satin stitch. (Your sewing machine manual will give you the correct stitch length for close zig zag appropriate for applique designs) 

  • Use narrow zigzag for small designs.
  • Wider zig zag for big designs.
  • Use narrow zig zag for firmly woven fabrics and for fine fabrics.
  • Use wider zig zag for loosely woven fabrics and for coarse fabrics.
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The stitch you make should give you a good satin stitch along the applique edge which are not bunched up because they are too close or which are too loose that the fabric edges are visible from between. Tough call?

When you want to turn a corner while doing the zig-zag stitching, keep the needle in the fabric at the outer edge of the applique and then pivot.

If you are using zig-zag stitches, remember to backstitch 3-4 straight stitches at the beginning and end of the stitches so that the thread is firmly anchored. Some skip this backstitching and leave thread tails at the start and end, and then when the stitching is finished, tie them together at the back of the fabric.

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In hand applique you can use buttonhole stitches or satin stitches to applique the pieces onto the background fabric – blanket stitches, slip stitches are mostly used. In Madeira Applique pin stitches are used along the turned under edges.

Related post : How to sew a blanket stitch.

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Different ways of doing applique

Basically applique follows a standard procedure as outlined below

  • Place the stabilizer under the foundation fabric & Hoop the foundation fabric.
  • Draw the design on the applique fabric and the foundation fabric
  • Make a straight stitch on the foundation fabric over the design so that you are clear on where to place the design.
  • Keep the applique fabric (without cutting) on top of the placement stitch you have made. Pin in place.
  • Make a securing stitch ( straight stitch) around the applique.
  • Cut around the design (outside the securing stitch).
  • Work a zig-zag stitch ( loose) over the securing stitch.
  • Make the final outline with closely placed zig zag stitches(satin stitches). Checkout this post on satin stitches for some tips  on doing it with your sewing machine.
  • Trim any excess thread outside the design area with applique scissors.

The methods given below are variations of this basic technique. For more details on applique using hand stitching checkout the post on how to do Hand applique work 

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Method 1. Satin Stitch Applique with fusible web

Using the fusible web (2-sided sticky – also called fusible adhesive) to adhere the applique pieces onto the background fabric is a good way to secure the designs. This way, the pieces would not shift as you sew.

The fusible web will come with a paper backing that can be peeled off before sticking it to the applique pieces and background fabric, bonding them together.

Trace the design on the paper side of the double-sided fusible web (remember that when you are tracing to the fusible web like this, you will be getting a mirror image of the design). You need to cut the fusible web in the shape of the whole completed design. Mark the design on the back of the fusible adhesive with a paper backing. Cut it out.

Apply the fusible web on the wrong side of the applique pieces. 

Now peel off the backing and keep this sticky side down on the top of your garment. Use a hot iron to press this on the fabric.

Keep a tearaway stabilizer under the background fabric. Pin in place

To do the satin stitching along the edges of the applique pieces – Use a foot with enough space underneath to allow the dense satin stitching to pass under the foot easily. Stitch the close zig zag stitch all along the edge of the applique piece. Ensure that the fabric edges are not peeking out. If yes, go back and be thorough.

Cut away the tear away stabilizer from the back after all stitching is done. You can make a small tear to take the paper away.

For me, this is the easiest method of doing applique.

Method 2. How to applique using facing

The advantage of this method is that you can use straight stitches to attach the applique pieces to the background piece. The edges are enclosed inside and would not fray.

Decide on your design. Mark this design on the paper side of the fusible interfacing

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Layer the fusible interfacing on top of the applique piece rightside up.

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Stitch along the marked design lines. Cut with a 1/8 inch seam allowance.

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Clip the seam allowance all over. Make a small hole in the back (on the interfacing)

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Turn the applique inside out through the opening. Press the shape flat. You can stitch this shape to your fabric with a blind stitch on your sewing machine or a straight stitch just along the edge. 

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Method 3. How to applique by turned edge / basting method

This method is also called needle turn applique when done by hand.

Trace the design onto the right side of the fabric. Cut out the applique piece with a 1/4-inch seam allowance all around the edges. 

Fold the seam allowance to the wrong side. You should use sharp scissors to clip seam allowances every often so that it curves nicely where it should. You can use a cardboard template in the shape of the design to do this so that you will get a neat edge. Hand-baste this folded edge in place. Do the applique by machine or by hand.

Method 4. Applique using freezer paper

First, the design is traced onto the paper side of a freezer paper. Cut out the shape. (Freezer paper has a paper layer on one side and, on the other side, a plastic layer. The design is drawn onto the paper side; this plastic layer – which is shiny- will adhere to the fabric if you iron it onto it. After you have used it, it is easily removable from the fabric. Just peel it off).

The freezer paper is ironed onto the right side of the fabric for applique (applique pieces). Mark around the freezer paper template 1/4 inch all around the edge. Cut the fabric. Clip the seam allowance every 1 inch. Turn under the seam allowance around the edge of the freezer paper. The freezer paper edge gives you a crisp outline and neat edges. Pin in place. Use basting stitches to further keep the applique shape in place if you want to.

Use an invisible hand stitch ( slip stitch) or zig zag stitching to attach the applique.

Near the end of the stitching, you can pause and pull off the freezer paper from inside the applique piece and continue stitching. If you do not want to pause, you can continue stitching. To remove the freezer paper, you will have to make a small hole in the back of the applique though after the stitching is done, though. Remove the basting thread.

Method 5. Applique using flour paste

This is a method I have seen done by a lady who sells appliqued bedspreads and sheets. She is a successful businesswoman who sells around 500-1000 appliqued bedsheets a month. She applies a thin layer of flour paste to attach applique pieces to the background fabric and does the design. Afterward, the flour paste is removed by washing the whole fabric.it is easily removable with a simple wash. Another method is to use a simple glue stick. This is used for small design pieces.

Method 6. Frayed applique

A frayed edge applique looks great. You can get this look by using an easily frayed fabric to cut the applique pieces. Remember to cut the pieces slightly larger so that the frayed edge will not take away from the design. 1/4 – 1/2 inch all around would do well.

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Do not use any interfacing for the applique pieces. Applique around the original design outline. Now put the garment/fabric into the laundry. After a nice tumble, the edges of the applique will fray to a nice look.

Method 7. Shadow applique

This method uses a sheer overlay over applique piece. Cut two fabric pieces for the applique design – one in a regular fabric and one in sheer fabric like voile, tulle or sheer organza. Applique as usual treating both the fabric as one. You can add sequins or beads inside the sheer overlay for a glittery look

Method 8. Using non-fray fabrics

Applique is easy with this method. You will be using nonfraying fabric like knit or felt to cut the applique pieces. These can be pinned onto the foundation fabric, and the edges attached using buttonhole stitches or straight machine stitching.

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Method 9. Using Fusible web thread

This is a method of attaching the applique pieces onto the fabric using a thread that will fuse onto the background fabric.

This thread is supposed to be used in the bobbin. I have read about this method, and it sounds easy and simple. After drawing the design, the outline is stitched. Regular thread is used as the top thread, and the fusible thread is used in the bobbin.

Cut out the design close to the stitching line. Use an iron to fuse the design ( the design will fuse to the background along the stitching line). Remove the top thread. Do the applique stitches. .

Method 10. Reverse Applique

Reverse applique is a different take on applique. It creates a cutwork look by attaching the applique to the back of the background fabric.

After the applique stitching is done, the background fabric is cut away, revealing the applique piece underneath. You can learn 4 ways to do reverse applique here.

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Mola Applique from Sans Blas in Panama is a different style of reverse applique technique. This method involves cutting the pattern on layers of brightly colored cotton fabrics and laid on a piece of black fabric. 

Method 11. Raw edge Applique Using Flower Motifs (Broderie Perse)

This method involves flower motifs from printed fabric to source the applique pieces. They are cut with 1/4 inch all around the motif. This method uses free-motion stitching to secure appliqués in place. Start by fusing or bonding – either temporarily or permanently – fabric shapes to the background; and then the design is appliqued after adhering interfacing to the back (if the fabric is thin).

Lower the feed dog and attach your preferred free-motion presser foot before straight stitching around the edges of the motif 3-4 times. You can also use close zig zag stitching along the edge of the motif with the sewing machine.

Method 12. Inlaid Applique /Using fabric tubes as border

This method uses thin roulette loops (check out the post on making thin fabric tubes) made with bias tape to border the outlines of the design so that a stained glass effect is achieved. The roulette loops are made of black fabric and are attached to the outline of the design with straight stitches.

In Inlaid applique, the pieces are carefully cut to the shape of the pattern and placed side by side, and framed with the cord /tube, etc.

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Author: Sarina Tariq
Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.
1 thought on “How to applique with sewing machine – A Beginner’s Guide (12 techniques)”
  1. Linda Minshall
    This information is very helpful. Thank you! Reply
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