August 27, 2012

A Guide to Basic Appliqué

Some of my favorite quick-and-easy projects are the appliquéd tees I make for my kiddos. It makes them feel special to have something “Mama-made” to wear on big days, and I love that these are projects that I can almost always complete from start to finish in the span of a naptime.
Not so long ago, however, I was a complete sewing novice. I can recall so vividly one day in particular standing in the Hobby Lobby sewing section, wanting to buy the supplies necessary to make an appliquéd onesie for my oldest daughter. I had absolutely no idea of where to even begin, much less of the specific products that would work best for a simple appliqué project like that one.
If that overwhelmed feeling sounds familiar, take heart: In today’s post, I am going to share all of the tips and tricks I’ve learned for applique over the course of the last few years, plus some of my favorite product recommendations to help you achieve the best possible results for your projects!
This basic applique guide at Positively Splendid is full of great information for achieving more professional results. A must-read!

A Guide to Basic Appliqué Projects


  • Fabric (Scraps left over from another project work great here)
  • Fusible web (I use Heat’n Bond Lite)
  • Pencil
  • Sewing shears
  • Tear-away stabilizer
  • Thread
  • Additional embellishments: ribbon, buttons, rhinestones, etc. (optional)
  • Garment to be embellished

Step 1: Select an Appliqué Template

If you are particularly artistic, you can make a template of your own, simply by sketching a design onto paper. However, if the thought of that intimidates you, there are an abundance of terrific templates available for free on the web. For today’s appliqué demonstration, I am using one of my Free Mickey Mouse Appliqué Templates.

When you have made or found a design you love, trace or print it onto copy paper and cut it out. For a layered appliqué design (such as my Pirate Mickey here, which has a bottom Mickey Mouse layer and a top bandana layer), you will need a separate template piece for each layer.

Step 2: Select Your Fabric

It is possible to appliqué with just about any fabric under the sun, although it is important to remember that some fabrics tend to fray more than others. Standard quilting cottons will fray a bit after a number of washes, but not nearly as much as a plush minky fabric, terrycloth or flannel. One way to minimize fraying is to use a heavier weight fusible web product, however, I prefer to use a lighter weight fusible web for the overall wearability of the garment later on.
Great materials for appliqué, if a small amount of fraying isn’t a concern:

  • Quilting cotton
  • Jersey Knit
  • Twill
  • Corduroy

Great materials that eliminate fraying altogether:

  • Felt 
  • Fleece
  • Leather, Suede and Ultra Suede
  • Marine vinyl
Important Note: Using options from the no-fray category can present a challenge, as they tend to be synthetic and thus very sensitive to heat. For that reason, the fusible web process I outline below won’t work with these materials. Felt and fleece have a tendency to cling to whatever they are placed up against, so simply by placing them on your garment and securing with a pin or two before stitching, you should be good to go. For leather and marine vinyl, I recommend temporarily adhering the appliqué layers to your garment using a product called Wash-Away Wonder Tape. It works like charm!

Step 3: Apply Fusible Web to the Wrong Side of Your Material

To begin, cut a section of fusible web for each layer of your appliqué design. Important: Each section should be large enough to contain the entire design layer.

Remove one side of the backing from your fusible web sections. With the wrong side of your material facing up, apply the fusible web to the material. Your iron should be set at a cotton setting with no steam.

Step 4: Trace Appliqué Templates onto the Fusible Web Backing

With the right side of your templates facing down, trace each layer onto its respective fusible web-backed fabric piece. Important: You will need to trace a mirror image of your design so that your appliqué will display correctly once it’s affixed to your garment.

Step 5: Cut Out Appliqué Pieces and Iron to Garment

Using sharp sewing shears, carefully cut out each layer of your appliqué design. It is important to cut very carefully, as this edge will be visible on your finished garment. Remove the paper backing from these pieces, and then arrange them, starting with the bottom-most layer and working up, onto your garment in your desired configuration. Using your hot iron, carefully press these pieces to affix them to your garment. Be careful not to drag your iron across your design, as this could cause your appliqué design pieces to shift. Instead, lift the iron up and then place it down onto the next section of your design as you work.

Step 6: Pin Stabilizer to the Inside of Your Garment

This is a step that often gets overlooked in basic appliqué projects, but it is incredibly important and not to be skipped! Cut a piece of tear-away stabilizer (I love Sulky stabilizers) that is just larger than the entirety of your appliqué design. Pin the stabilizer piece to the inside of your garment directly behind your appliqué design. Why use stabilizer? It will prevent ugly puckering during the next step, which will give your finished project a much more professional look.

Step 7: Stitch Your Appliqué Design into Place

You have a few different stitch options for securing your design to your garment.

  • Satin stitch (the traditional option)
  • A zig-zag (this minimizes fraying)
  • A straight stitch (by far the easiest option, but does allow some fraying to occur)

There are some sewing purists who feel very strongly that appliqué can only be done properly when finished with a satin stitch, which is essentially very tight zig-zag stitch. If you find that look to be the most appealing to you, this is a great video how-to.

Although I tend to love the more traditional look of satin stitch appliqué, it is also possible to finish appliqué designs with a simple machine straight stitch. This method is far less time consuming and complex than a satin stitch, although the results are not as durable as a satin stitch would be. On boys’ garments, though, I think the fraying that occurs can actually add character to the finished project.

To finish with a straight stitch as I’ve done in my pirate Mickey, use a straight stitch set to a medium length (I set my machine at 3), and stitch all the way around your design, as closely as you can to the outer edge. Make sure to backtack at the beginning and end of your stitches so they don’t come loose later on. Work in sections as you stitch, stitching around each layer of the design as you go. Make sure not to try to work too quickly here: slow and steady is the way to go! If you find curves to be too challenging, stop your machine with the needle down, lift the presser foot, and carefully pivot just a touch. Lower the presser foot, stitch one or two times, and then repeat. Although this process does take a fair amount of time, this will allow you to have a steady, well-rounded line of stitches even around the most challenging curves.

If you prefer to use a satin or zig-zag stitch, stitch all the way around the perimeter of the design as you would with a straight stitch, making sure that the “zig” of the stitch falls within the design, and the “zag” of the stitch falls just outside of it. This way the entire outer edge will be protected from fraying. I think designs finished with a zig-zag have a more homespun, cozy feel.

An important note about thread: I firmly believe that for projects done with a satin stitch, there is no substitute for a high-quality rayon thread (some brands are Sulky and Madeira). The produce a lovely, shiny finish that just isn’t achievable with 1oo% cotton.

An important note about thread color: For appliqué beginners, I highly recommend using a thread color that matches well with the material in your appliqué design. For instance, in my Mickey shirt below, I used black thread to match the black fabric of the bottom layer, and white thread to blend well with the top striped layer. It is extremely difficult even for experienced sewists to make stitching look completely polished when using a thread color that contrasts considerably with the background!

Step 8: Tear Away Stabilizer

Once your design is stitched into place, turn the garment inside out and tear away the stabilizer. A pair of tweezers can be handy for getting rid of the any tiny pieces that remain.

Step 9: Apply Additional Embellishments to Your Design (Optional)

If desired, use a needle and thread to affix any additional embellishments to your design by hand. Great options here are bows, buttons and beads.

You are finished!
Now that you know the ins and outs of basic appliqué, why not try out one of these fun projects from the PS archives?


Amy @ Positively Splendid

Amy @ Positively Splendid

Having grown up in a home brimming with sewing notions and paintbrushes, Amy has a deep love for all things creative. On any given day, you'll find her knee-deep in her latest creative endeavor, with projects ranging from sewing and crafts to home decor and kid-friendly ideas. Amy believes that everyone, regardless of skill level or experience, possesses the ability to create something beautiful, and Positively Splendid was born of her passion for helping others harness their innate creative potential.
Amy @ Positively Splendid
Amy @ Positively Splendid

Latest posts by Amy @ Positively Splendid (see all)

Love this post? Let's keep in touch!

Subscribe for free to have PS delivered straight to your inbox.


20 Responses to A Guide to Basic Appliqué

  1. OksanaB August 27, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    Thank you so much for the tutorial! I’ve just began learning about applique and was wondering how to sew the pieces to a t-shirt or onesie–good to know about using a stabilazer.

  2. Christy August 27, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    Thanks so much for sharing. I was wondering if I could do it with just a simple sewing machine.

  3. Vanessa August 27, 2012 at 11:49 pm #

    HI, Amy

    These are awesome, I love the pillow case dress with Mickey. : )

  4. Eva {Tales of the Scotts} August 28, 2012 at 1:45 am #

    This is great! Thank you for the tips!

  5. Hildie August 28, 2012 at 1:49 am #

    I just bought my kids some nylon lunch boxes. They’re pretty floppy and I was wondering if an appliqué would work on them. What do you think?

  6. Amanda @ Serenity Now August 28, 2012 at 2:29 am #

    Awesome tutorial, Amy! 🙂 Love the “Pinable” graphic you made too…made it much easier to Pin this. 😉

  7. Sandy August 28, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    Great info! I just wanted to add that I use freezer paper as a stabilizer.. works great, and a huge box of it will last forever.I put the shiny side towards the fabric inside the garment and press briefly with an iron. Also, one way to avoid fraying is to use a zig zag stitch rather than a straight stitch.

  8. BonnieH August 28, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    I’m disappointed to see that you are only straight stitching the applique on the background. I’ve taught many sewing classes before and for a lasting piece, that won’t ravel out, I always taught to use a satin stitch (a very close zigzag) that covered the raw edge of the fabric. Try it…I think you’ll like it better and be happier with the results!

    • Stephanie Maurin January 12, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

      Actually the frayed look is very popular right now. I like to use a zig zag stitch on the edges to allow a tad bit of fray, and to give my pieces character, especially for little boys. It still holds up very well. The satin stitch is a more traditional look, and while it is very beautiful, sometimes a straight or zig zag looks better.

  9. nest of posies August 30, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

    Amy, you are amazing!

    such a great tutorial. love it!


  10. Bonnie and Trish @ Uncommon August 31, 2012 at 3:07 am #

    great tutorial Amy!! LOVE LOVE how your appliques look!!

  11. Kate September 5, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    One thing that I struggle with in my head… If I am appliquing onto a onsie or t-shirt, obviously you can’t turn the peice 360 degrees. What do you do?

  12. Alicia smith September 6, 2012 at 8:18 am #

    Thank you for posting this. I am also learning to cut fabric with my cricut and wanted to try my hand at appliqué but have been so nervous. I’m a newbie at sewing and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything. But this tutorial seems like I just might be able to do it!

  13. Rachael December 6, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    Great guide! I am a big appliquer and picked up a few great tools from this! Thank you!

  14. Linda December 8, 2012 at 11:29 am #

    I have never attempted it, but now I am going to. Thankyou

  15. dr michael obeng reviews April 20, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    Hi there! I know this is kind of off-topic however I needed
    to ask. Does running a well-established website
    like yours take a large amount of work? I’m brand new to blogging however I do write in my diary everyday. I’d like to start a
    blog so I can share my own experience and views online.
    Please let me know if you have any kind of suggestions or tips for
    new aspiring bloggers. Thankyou!

  16. lindsay November 2, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

    Hi Amy! Just found this tutorial and I love it, thanks! I am happy to see that it is “OK” to use straight stitch sewing for applique!! I also happen to like a little bit of fraying after a few washes!!

    I have a question and I hope you read this and can help! What do you do with the threads after you are done? I pull them through the back and tie them off, but sometimes I have trouble when I backstitch in the beginning and ending– sometimes the thread gets caught up or sewn into those stitches and I can’t find the loop to pull the top thread through to the back (if that makes sense?) Just wondering if you have any tips or do it another way?

    Thank you! 🙂 registered & protected

© 2009-2016. Positively Splendid. All rights reserved.