Learn Needle Turn Appliqué for Portable Quilting Projects

Are you looking for a portable quilt piecing project? If so, needle turn appliqué might be the perfect technique for you.

What is needle turn appliqué?

Needle turn appliqué is a technique in which you cut a shaped piece of fabric and sew it to a background piece of fabric. You hand stitch the design and use your needle to turn the seam allowance under the design as you sew.

Unlike other appliqué techniques, no sewing machine is necessary for the needle turn method. There are no exposed raw edges, making finished needle turn appliqué more durable than other types of appliqué.

What can I make with needle turn appliqué?

Using needle turn appliqué, you can make quilts with curves and organic shapes that you wouldn’t be able to piece on a machine.

Years ago while in Hawaii I discovered needle turn appliqué, a traditional way to make Hawaiian quilts, and fell in love with the technique (and the quilt). For my Big Island Blossoms quilt, shown above, I used needle turn appliqué to make blocks and then machine pieced the blocks together. For more about the process of making this quilt and the inspiration behind it, check out my blog .

For my Double Wedding Knots quilt, I designed a template and machine pieced scraps together into the shape of the knots. I then applied the knot design to the white background fabric using needle turn appliqué.

I have also made small mini quilts (and then turned them into pillows) like my Think Big! Mini quilt using this method. Think Big! actually has two layers of appliqué: First I appliquéd the light pink layer of the brain on to the white background. Once that was secure, I layered the dark pink “outline” of the brain and needle turn appliquéd it on top. (If you'd like tom make your own, you can get the pattern here .

You can also use needle turn appliqué as an embellishment to apparel or accessories. The possibilities are endless!

What do I need for needle turn appliqué?

Here are the basic supplies to get started:

The basics of needle turn appliqué

Step 1: Prepare your fabric

I recommend starching your appliqué and background fabrics. I like to use spray starch. The starch will prevent the cut edges from fraying and stiffen your fabric, making it easier to handle while appliquéing.

Step 2: Draw and cut out your appliqué design

If you're using a pattern or template, you can trace the design from your pattern directly onto the fabric.

If you're drawing a design free hand, be sure to consider seam allowance. After you turn your edge under while sewing, your final design will be smaller by about 3/16". I always make my design about ¼" larger to account for this. If you’re new to needle turn appliqué, I recommend starting with a simple shape that doesn’t have any tight corners or curves.

Make sure you have a sharp pair of scissors that are dedicated to fabric. Dull scissors will make cutting fabric frustrating and often result in imperfect cutting.

Step 3: Pin your appliqué design to the background fabric

I like using appliqué pins. Their thick heads are easy to handle and they’re short, making them less likely to get caught up with your thread. I also find that I’m less likely to stab myself if I’m using them once I’m working with the fabric and thread in the next step.

Step 4: Baste your design

Basting is a great way to use up thread you’re trying to get rid of or spare thread on a bobbin. Use a color that contrasts with your design so that you can actually see the stitches. You'll remove this thread later, so don’t worry about things being ugly.

I typically use the same needle for appliquéing, but I encourage you to try different needles you have to see what works best for you.

To start, make a knot in your thread. Using your seam gauge, measure ¼" away from the raw edge and insert your needle through your appliqué design and background fabric.  Continue to stitch ¼" away from the raw edge all the way around, going through both layers of fabric.

Don’t pull too hard, otherwise the fabric may gather and not sit flat. Your basting stitches should be about ¼" to ½" long. If they’re not perfectly even, that’s OK. 

Step 5: Remove your pins

Once your design is basted, it is secure and you can remove your pins. Then it's time to appliqué!

Step 6: Get appliquéing!

Select a thread color that's a close match to the appliqué fabric so that your stitches are less visible. I like to use a quality 80-weight cotton thread (or 50-weight thread if I can’t find the right color in 80 weight. In my demonstration photos below, I used a yellow contrasting thread so you can see my stitches.

Thread your needle and make a knot, leaving a tail about 1" long.

Using your needle to help, turn the edge of your appliqué underneath itself so the raw edge of the fabric hits the basting stitch underneath. With your thumb, hold about a section about 1" long of that turned edge.

Position your needle between your background fabric and your appliqué fabric and have the needle come through on the crease. The knot and tail will be hidden inside the crease.

Bring the needle down into the background fabric next to where the thread is coming out of the appliqué fabric.

Then about 1/8" to ¼" away, bring the needle up through the background fabric and through the crease of the appliqué fabric, catching a couple of threads of the appliqué fabric on the crease.

Continue along the entire perimeter: Needle through the background fabric, then up through the background fabric and appliqué fabric 1/8" to ¼" away). Continue to turn your appliqué edge under, always having about 1” turned under ahead of where you’re working.

Your stitches should look like this (except with thread matching your appliqué fabric).

When you get to where you started, bring your needle to the back of the background fabric and tie a knot.

Once you’ve appliqued around the entire perimeter, you can remove your basting stitches.

This process takes time, but the results are definitely worth it. Be sure to check out my blog post of the benefits of handwork here.

Are you ready to give needle turn appliqué a try?


Sheri Cifaldi-Morrill is a designer, pattern writer and award-winning quilter. With the help of books and the Internet, she taught herself how to sew and discovered her love of designing and making quilts. As a trained and practicing graphic designer, her quilts start with a concept and research shapes the design. Her work is inspired by her everyday life and experiences. Sheri strives to make beautiful objects that inspire others to make and learn by providing clear instruction and encouragement. In 2016, she was awarded the first annual  Bluprint Quilt Designer Fellowship . Learn more about Sheri and her work at  wholecirclestudio.com  and on  Instagram  or  Facebook .

February 28, 2018
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Learn Needle Turn Appliqué for Portable Quilting Projects