A Complete Primer on Machine Appliqué

As with many sewing tasks, when adding appliqué to your projects, you can either go about it by hand or on your sewing machine. If speed is what you're after, machine appliqué is the best method for you!

Appliqué by hand vs. appliqué on a machine

Hand appliqué methods — like needle turn appliqué and freezer paper appliqué — give you neat finished edges because you'll turn the raw edges under. However, hand appliqué typically takes considerably longer than the machine-sewn method.

While machine-applied appliqué can't used a turned-under edge, it's usually quicker to stitch. Plus, you can finish the raw edges with decorative stitching, giving you a finished look.

What you need for successful machine appliqué

You'll need:

  • Appliqué fabric
  • Background fabric
  • Matching or contrasting thread
  • Fusible web
  • Pencil or pen
  • Appliqué template shape
  • Hand sewing needle
  • Sewing machine and your usual sewing supplies

Choosing fabrics for machine appliqué

An appliqué can be made using woven or knit fabrics, with prints or solids. So how do you choose?

Woven fabrics

Woven fabrics can be used as both the background and appliqué material. Woven appliqués can be easily applied to knit fabric backgrounds such as a T-shirt or minky blanket because the appliqué will not stretch as it is being stitched.

Knit fabrics

Knit fabrics can be used as the background and appliqué material with little trouble. You can also use knits for the appliqué. Since the edges of a knit fabric piece will not fray, it's ideal for a straight stitch appliqué (explained below). When using a knit fabric, it is best to apply interfacing to the appliqué or background to ensure it does not stretch during stitching. A tear-away stabilizer can also be used to create less stretch.

Choosing proper thread

The color and thickness of the thread you choose will make a big difference to your finished appliqué.

Choose a contrasting thread color to highlight the outer shape or a matching color to hide it. If the background is a similar shade, the thread color can blend the appliqué with your chosen background.

Thicker and thinner threads or embroidery threads can also lend shine and definition to the outer shape of your appliqué. You can even use invisible thread to hide the stitches completely.

When choosing a thread weight, keep in mind the weight of your fabric – thinner fabrics will applique best with lighter weight threads. Thicker fabrics such as canvas can hold up to stitching with thicker thread weights.

Prepare your fabrics

Pre-wash all fabrics before starting an appliqué. Skipping this step may cause one substrate to shrink differently than the other in the wash, ruining your project.

Machine stitches for appliqué

Which stitch should you use to sew your appliqué pieces to the background fabric? Well, you have a few options.

Satin stitch

The satin stitch is created by choosing a very close, wide, zigzag stitch where each wide stitch touches the previous one to create a solid line of stitching. It will cover the raw edges of an appliqué best and prevent the edges from fraying. When stitched carefully, a satin stitch looks the most professional, giving a finished product with a machine embroidery–like edge finish.

A satin stitched edge will be the least forgiving stitch, though, because each turn and pivot will show as you stitch around the appliqué area.

Zig-zag stitch

This stitch finish may fray a bit over a lot of time, depending on the quality of the fusible web you choose and how carefully you adhere it. A zig-zag stitch will be less professional looking because the raw edge of the appliqué will show underneath the stitches.

However, it's a lot more forgiving easier to sew than a satin stitch, and it adds a lovely handmade quality to your finished product. Stitches can be wide to medium width and the length can be adjusted to fit your desired look.

Blanket stitch

A blanket stitch is ideal when stitching around an appliqué and can create a hand-stitched look. The raw edges of this appliqué can be seen and may fray over time.

Straight stitch

For a unique project, stitch around the edge of your appliqué with a straight stitch. Raw woven fabric edges will be very visible and prone to fraying with each wash, creating a worn, comfortable project finish. This stitch is also the fastest appliqué type to complete if you are in a hurry.

Machine appliqué tutorial

Step 1: Create and prepare your appliqué

Create a shape using a printed-out template or trace a fussy-cut shape directly from your fabric.

Trace this shape in reverse onto the front side of the fusible web. Trim the fusible web, leaving about ¼" of space around the traced shape. It's especially important to reverse lettering, so it will appear correctly on your finished project.

Tip: If you have chosen a straight stitch appliqué method and want to encourage the edges to fray, first, trace the final appliqué shape onto the fabric. Trim 1/8" - 1/4" seam allowance from the traced shape of the fusible web before adhering it to the center of the appliqué fabric. This will leave the edges free from fusible and allow them to fray more easily.

Peel off the fusible web backing paper and fuse it to the wrong side of the appliqué fabric. Use a spare piece of fabric or a press cloth if you're concerned about getting the fusible web on your iron's sole plate.

Cut out along template edges.

Step 2: Adhere appliqué to background

Remove backing from fusible web.

Place appliqué right side up, shiny fusible side down on background fabric. Press following the fusible manufacturer’s directions, making sure to consider the heat the two fabrics can handle.

Tip: Press the fabric, do not iron. To press, put iron down on appliqué and press down gently without moving the iron. Now, lift and set the iron down again to press a larger area if needed.

Step 3: Pre-test your stitching

Ensure your finished product will look the way you want by testing your stitches. This will ensure a great finish and is worth the time!

When using a thin woven or knit fabric, you might want to apply or pin a tear-away or water-soluble stabilizer to the background fabric behind your appliqué to control the stitching and get better results.

Tip: It is best to use a brand-new needle in a size that matches the thread and fabric you've chosen. Denims and thicker fabrics require a larger machine needle, knits should be appliquéd with a ballpoint needle and regular cottons are best using a universal 80/12 sharp needle.

Step 4: Stitch around your appliqué

For the straight stitch method

Stitch around the inside of each raw edge of your appliqué, leaving long thread tails at the beginning and end. Sew around the appliqué about 1/8" to 1/4" away from the raw edge. The larger the seam allowance, the more fraying is likely to occur at the raw edge.
Pivot at each corner and sew slowly and evenly around curves. To sew even curves, sew a few stitches and then pivot a very small amount. Repeat until your curve is sewn. On this flower appliqué, I sewed 3 stitches at a time before pivoting to evenly stitch all the outer edges of the flower.
Do not backstitch (you'll secure the threads later).

For the satin stitch, zig-zag or blanket stitch method:

Set the stitch to your chosen length and width. Keep a long thread tail and begin stitching with the needle just outside the raw edge of your appliqué. Stitch around the appliqué slowly, following the raw edges. Don’t be afraid to manually turn the hand wheel forward so the needle is positioned precisely where you want it to be!

Stitching outside corners

If you reach an exterior corner, stitch to the very edge of the appliqué and stop at the right side of the stitch with the needle down in the fabric.

Raise the presser foot and pivot around the needle to continue stitching the appliqué with the left side of the stitch. The stitches will overlap at each corner.

Stitching inside corners

Stitch into the corner until the right side of the stitch is the width of your stitch away from the next raw edge. (This length is about double the width of your stitch.)

Pivot around the needle toward the next raw edge. Turn the hand wheel until the machine is about to stitch the left side of the stitch. Manually place the needle in the same hole it just came from. Begin stitching again.

Finish the appliqué by sewing to the beginning of your stitches. Cut your threads with a long tail.

Step 5: Secure the threads

This method will knot your threads without the need for a backstitch, ensuring an even professional and secure finish.

Thread the long top thread tails onto a hand sewing needle.

Use the needle to bring the top threads to the back or wrong side of your background fabric.

Gather all of the threads and tie them all together in a strong knot on the back of your project.

Cut the threads off neatly to finish your appliqué.

May 09, 2018
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A Complete Primer on Machine Appliqué