Hand Applique:

My appliquéd copy of a driftwood owl made by an artist friend of mine, Lisa Hooper.

What is Appliqué?

Appliqué means the application of one fabric to another fabric. This can be done using not only stitches, but glues, starches and fusible materials. Appliqué is also  a set of techniques. There are three main methods of appliqué and each one has it’s own look and particular advantages. The methods are raw edge (the edges are not turned under), prepared edge (they are turned under before sewing) and needle turn (they are turned under as you sew). Appliqué can be both machine sewn and hand sewn but as this blog is about hand stitching, I will be sticking with that. Machine appliqués is faster (though not necessarily easier) and is most useful when your project is going to get a lot of wear, for things like children’s quilts  or picnic blankets. Hand appliqué is slower but has a different, more natural and less ‘manufactured’ look, but even within hand appliqué, the particular technique you choose will affect the eventual look. For example, prepared edge appliqué has a flatter, harder look than needle turn appliqué . Needleturn creates a bit of height at the edges which gives depth and a softer look. The outer edges on fusible appliqué look sharper and stiffer. Have a look on YouTube for  videos of different appliqué techniques and see what you think! It’s worth finding out about and trying out each technique, because occasionally one is more useful for a particular project than another, even though you will probably end up choosing one as a favourite

What’s the Purpose?

The main objective of appliqué is to achieve not only a pleasing decorative effect but also an appearance of neatness. Small even stitches are what you are aiming for. However using thread to match your appliqué and sewing ‘blind’ or’ invisible’ stitches will hide any irregularities in your stitching until you become more expert. These stitches, because they do not show on the outside and are not exposed to wear, will last a long time. There should be no wrinkling, puckering or frayed pieces showing once stitched. Make sure all fabric edges are smooth and unraveled before you begin, that easy piece lies flat on its background.

What are the best fabrics to use for appliqué on quilts?

Soft, close or medium weight woven fabrics such as gingham, calico and percale hold seams well and the fabric edges will not fray easily when cut. 100% cotton is best because it is easy to work with, does not slip and move around easily and wears better than most other fabrics. If you are going to wash your fabric frequently a small amount of polyester in the fabric will increase washability as long as it is no more than than 30% synthetic. Poplin weight quilting cottons fray less which makes them especially suitable for difficult shapes.

You can mix solids, small scale prints and large scale  prints in appliqué, just as you would in your quilt. However, shapes are easier to see on a quiet background. It is easy for them to get lost on a busy one.

Keep all your scraps, they go on being useful for small details!

Your background fabric (the fabric you are attaching your appliqué shape to, should be of the same type, ideally both quilting cottons. If ravelling looks as if it might be a problem cut the background fabric larger, or use pinking shears around the edges.

Chambray makes a lovely background fabric  as it is not quite solid and has an interesting texture.  Tightly woven linen is also attractive as a background fabric (you will need to prewash it if your project is going to be washed) . Personally I can’t get on with linen; it creases easily and the creases are hard to get out even when ironing it damp.

Fabrics that are pre-shrunk and colour fast seem ideal to me, so you might want to consider pre washing your fabric. That said, many people prefer not to prewash. They like the way it looks and feels as it is and, if your project is a fabric picture that is not going to be washed, it’s hardly necessary.  Reds and blues so often run, especially among cheaper brands of fabric. I have used Moda fabric for years and only once have I had a dark colour run in the wash and it was a rather unusual shade of green.

Pieced cotton hexagons that can be appliquéd on to anything.

Is Applique just used for cotton quilting?

No, the same techniques can be used on felted wool and silk,  for fabric art and collage.

Prewashing Fabric 

Prewashing removes chemicals, shrinks the fabric if it’s going to shrink and removes excess dye. If you are washing several pieces at once, group them into lights and darks and wash each group separately. Wash them in bowl of hot water one at a time to check how much dye runs. Some will not run much at all. Others will bleed a lot. For those that do, wash and then rinse until the dye disappears. Then spin, dry naturally and iron while still a little damp. Washing by hand reduces fraying and frayed threads can be cut off fairly easily once the fabric is dry.  I fold the fabric in half and half again and then cut the layers of stray threads easily along the layers of the two edges without folds. Washing also removes the sizing that is in the fabric and makes it more malleable, especially for needle turn appliqué.

Adding embroidery

Embroidery gives depth, texture and life to many appliquéd blocks. Pearl cotton or six stranded embroidery floss can be used in a colour that co-ordinated or contrasts with the fabric. Simple outline stitches are easy to learn and can really lift the look of a block. You may want to use a hoop for embroidered details but it isn’t necessary.

For floss, pearl cottons and wool threads use embroidery needles (the small ones are called embroidery needles but the larger ones are called crewel needles) Crewel size 2 is nice for embroidery. Chenille needles (much larger) are good for whipstitching edges on wool appliqué.

Some Useful Tools for Hand Applique

(in no particular order of importance)


  • Needles – Sharps (medium length needles)are good all purpose household needles but they are suitable for appliqué work. They are easier to use than the skinny Betweens but small needles do make finer stitches. Some people like to use the longer Milliners/Straw needles. These needles have a round eye and long thin shanks that glide through fabric, even several layers, easily.  Size 10 straw needles are great for the small stitches needed for needle turn appliqué.

Some Hand Appliqué NEEDLES to Try:

Richard Hemming and son – Size 10 or 11 Milliners/Straw needles

Clover – size 12 Black Gold Sharps needle. No 11 sharps needles can be used for all hand applique. ( Size 9 is sturdier and perhaps best for beginners while 11 is very fine.

Jeana Kimball  – Use Size10 straw needles for cotton but 11 for batik which has a higher fibre count.

Roxanne needles – slim but sturdy and much prized by experts. They may be pricey.

  • Pins –    Clover appliqué pins with small white bobble heads are a joy to use. Foxglove Cottage 3/4 inch pins are another possibility. Flower head pins are flat and don’t get in the way when holding an overlay in place.
  • Thread – The ideal thread type and weight varies according to the appliqué method used and whether you are stitching by machine or not.  For hand stitching, any high quality mercerised cotton or polyester thread is suitable but a lightweight silk thread (size 100) is a dream to use. It glides smoothly through fabric and is almost invisible. Six strand embroidery floss can be used for hand appliqué  on wool or raw edge cotton. Strands of floss as well as pearl cottons are also lovely for adding decorative details.

Some Hand Appliqué THREADS to Try:

DMC cotton 50 is durable , fine, and comes in lots of colours.

Aurifil 50 weight cotton is another choice. Start with soft green, grey or beige which blend well with most colours.

For basting –   Received wisdom says use white but I like to use a colour that shows up well and is different from all the other colours in my project. That way I don’t leave little bits in the fabric with noticing.

Silk thread is good, fine with a reflective quality that easily blends with cotton fabric. It buries itself and is hardly seen. Use a fine weight thread which is a 2-ply 50-60 wight. The higher the thread number the finer the thread weight. YLI silk thread or Kimono Silk thread are often recommended. Gutterman silk thread is a good, less expensive thread to experiment with. Or tryMettler Metrosene silk finish cotton thread 60 weight (green label).

  • Marking Tools: One for light and one for dark fabric .Generals Pastel chalk pencil in dark grey or white is great for tracing onto background fabric A mechanical chalk pencil with a 9mm refill made by Sewline or Bohin also comes in white and grey. Use these to draw around templates onto fabric. Test on a scrap. I also wouldn’t be without a water soluble marker. A Sharpie ultra fine pen works on clear or frosted vinyl overlays. TheFaber Castell quilters pen Set from  C&T publishing are erasable on vinyl.
  • Tracing Tools: Freezer paper is good for stabilising fabric, tracing and creating templates and stencils.  Waxy side down it will adhere to fabric when lightly ironed. It comes in a roll as well as in 8 1/2 x 11″ sheets that can be run through the printer which eliminates hand tracing. Use tweezers to remove freezer paper after it has been appliquéd to a background.
    Scotch removable magic tape is useful to to tape fabric while you trace a design on to background fabric. It will not rip the paper or fray your fabric. Pattern Ease is lightweight transparent interfacing material that works well for tracing the pattern.
  • Overlays: These come as clear vinyl, or frosted  flexible medium weight from upholstery fabric stores online or there is Quilters vinyl for positioning overlay. Frosted is transparent on fabric. If it comes with tissue make sure you keep it.
  • Stiletto:  I think these are a bit too pointy – you don’t want holes in the fabric. I find a toothpick is just as good to help hold pieces in place or to tuck  narrow edges under at points and curves. The texture of wood holds fabric. Check out Appliquick rods, too.They were expensive when they first  came out and don’t seem to be getting any cheaper.
  • Templates: Some useful templates are Perfect Circle templates made of Mylar (Karen Kay Buckley) or Circle templates made by Creative Grids. Or use a compass to make your own. Make temples from clear single-sides heavyweight self-laminating sheets from office supply stores (not the pocket type).
  • Light box: Great if you are appliquéing without templates as it makes tracing and design marking easier.  Alternatively you can use a window on a bright day, a bright computer screen, or a glass table with a small lamp under it. ‘Globox’ makes inexpensive light boxes.
  • Glues & Starch: Most useful is a water soluble glue stick from Sewline or Lapel Stick, a temporary fabric adhesive in stick form for glue basting seam allowances.  Use a liquid glue with an applicator for double thick appliqué such as bias stems.  Mary Ellens Best press spray starch can be used as an alternative to firm fabric and make cutting easier.A Mini tack gun will hold applique pieces. And Fray Stop spray will do just as it says.
  • Seam Ripper
  • Notebook: Plain pages for ideas and designs, ring bound so it lies flat
  • A small pillow to put on your lap, under your work.
  • Zip lock bags to keep your pieces clean and organised
  • Portable daylight light lamp for table or floor. Ott-Lite is one possibility
  •  Bias Markers in various sizes to make stems and vins. It’s great because the bias strips emerge with the edges turned under.Spray and Fix adhesive for fabric,to stabilise and prevent fraying  and to allow repositioning of motifs.
  • Scissors – A pair of medium large scissors are useful for cutting out larger pieces of fabric – Karen Buckley Serrated large scissors are good for cutting out  – the serrated edge prevents raw edge from fraying and their large handles are comfortable. You will need a separate pair of embroidery scissors that are only used for cutting paper. Paper will dull your fabric scissors. In addition, small sharp embroidery scissors are essential for tiny pieces and stray threads. Fiskars are a good brand. Gingher maker 4” hand embroidery scissors have a very fine point for clipping.There are also appliqué scissors that have one ordinary blade and one large curved blade which are especially useful for reverse appliqué.
  • Beeswax or silicone wax is available in a block form and is used to coat threads to help prevent tangling and knotting. You can also get silicone coated threads.I find this is not needed when silk thread is used.
  • Sandpaper board (12″)  to grip your fabric and stop it moving while you trace onto it – ‘Essential Sandboard’ from’ Piece O’Cake Designs’. Or you can make your own by using a sheet of very fine weight sandpaper glued to a board.
  • Mini Iron (Clover) with a small pointed plate for precision pressing  after the seams have been turned in or for bias stems.  Use a damp press cloth to make sharp edges. A Teflon or other non stick pressing sheet is useful to keep sticky residue from your iron and ironing board if you are doing fusible appliqué and to protect delicate fabrics from your iron. A sheet of silicone based parchment paper can be used as an alternative. If you are using a steam iron a padded surface (white towels on your ironing board) keeps your work smooth. Press from the back or use a press cloth to protect fabric and do not hold the iron in place for too long, or wiggle it about. Gently press in one place and then another.
  • Press Cloth of soft, preferably see through cotton, to guard embroidery stitches from being smooshed by the iron.
  • Interfacing for Appliqué: Freezer paper can be used as a support for appliquéd motifs. Fine Vilene Stitch no Tear can be put underneath a foundation fabric to stabilise and prevent puckering. Wash away appliqué sheets are transparent enough to appliqué designs onto – washes out or can be left in for a dimensional look. These are printable, water soluble, single sided and fusible. You draw your appliqué design on, fuse paper to fabric , sew down, and wash away after stitching.
    These are great for English Paper Piecers who want to leave their ‘papers’ in and they will just wash away.
  • Stabilisers for Appliqué: Vilene Bondaweb/Wonder Under – double sided, iron-on, adhesive. This is a  very light web which has a fine layer of heat activated adhesive on both sides so you can fuse two fabrics together. It’s great for appliqué as it’s very easy to use.  One side is paper backed so you can design your shape and then cut out easily. This can then be ironed over on to your appliqué fabric, the backing paper removed and the appliqué shape ironed on to the base fabric. It is suitable for most fabrics and even cardboard at low temperatures and is available  in various sizes. It is washable in temperatures up to 60 °C or dry cleanable.

For clarity, here are the Instructions for using Vilene Bondaweb/Wonder Under:

1. Draw the motif on the paper side of Bondaweb®. Cut out roughly. Place Bondaweb® with the rough side on the wrong side of the fabric. Iron dry, wool setting for 5 seconds.

2. Cut the motif out precisely, remove paper backing. With the coated side down place on the fabric.

3. Cover with a damp cloth and lightly iron each area for about 10 seconds, iron wool-cotton setting. Allow to cool flat for about 20 minutes, so that the adhesive can set properly. You can stitch the application with a zig-zag stitch to finish.


Vilene H250 is another possibility, a medium weight fusible interfacing. Popular for Appliquik method of appliqué.

Heat and Bond Lite is a paper backed, heat activated adhesive for appliqué shapes on quilts or wall hangings. Draw onto the paper back to design appliqué pieces.  It has a short pressing time.

Heat and Bond Ultra is a Fusible web designed to b used on its own without sewing down the appliqué after fusing.

Of course there are probably lots more tools and materials out there to make life easier but these are some suggestions that I hope will be useful to start with. I can’t vouch for them all as I have only tried some. However, I have tried to list everything that others have found useful or recommended  but you must decide for yourself.  Try out a whole range of needles, threads etc to find what you like to use. You don’t have to have exactly the right thing to get started. Experiment and have fun.

Here are some books that I have found useful:

  • The Quilters Appliqué Workshop  by Keven Kosbab
  • Modern Appliqué by Alison Glass
  • Contemporary Appliqué by Julia Triston and Rachel Lombard