The Ultimate Guide to Hand Applique – from beginner to pro

General Introduction to Hand Applique

Applique in quilt making is loads of fun! For me, it is simply addictive! It is visual and easy to make, best of all, it is the most free form creation – virtually anything goes… The following quilt I made using scraps that was started with a simple idea of a tree of life – it started to grow with the colors in my scraps into a stunningly beautiful tree oozing with life! That is the applique I am about to try to talk you into!

Introduction to sewing techniques of hand applique

While the image of your design will emerge with your creativity, a good master of applique sewing techniques are critical to save you from the frustration caused by ‘disobedient or misbehaved’ shapes and seams. This tutorial is about all techniques for Needle turn applique from easy to complex. This complete tutorial is all about the basic techniques no matter what styles and colors you prefer.

Blanket stitch for easy applique:

Blanket stitch is quite decorative way of applique for naive style and thick, soft and stretchy materials. You can use it on iron-on adhesive interfacing with raw edges of motifs or keep the project soft and cuddly (without adhesive) by folding the raw edges of motifs down or simply take advantage of raw edges on the bias of materials that don’t fray.

Tip: One distinctive merit of hand applique (vs. machine applique) is that you can applique before the quilt layers are sandwiched, or before background fabric attached or even after it is all quilted! Applique by hand gives you all the freedom and flexibility to create and sew.  Applique is a part of embellishment. 

Stitching technique:

Here I want to introduce a few decorative surface stitching that can be used in the place of Blanket stitch applique or as merely decorative stitches on hand pieced work or needle turn appliqued work that also reinforces your hand pieced work without adhesives.

  1.  Decorative stitching for hand appliqued quilt works:   —    —   —   —   —  3 back stitches + 3 gaps + 3 back stitches and so on so forth…
    hand applique
    Hand applique stitch that you can use in your quilt works.

    2. Decorative stitching for hand appliqued quilt works:   — –  — – — – — – —  three back stitches + 1 gap + 1 back stitch + 1 gap + 3 back stitches and so on so forth…

3. Blanket stitch for hand applique: most suitable for thick and coarse materials, such as wool. Try not to use adhesive or fusible web on the wrong side of the motifs when using thicker needles for decorative threads because accumulated stress from pulling and push thick needles will cause debilitating injury on sewing hands.

The above decorative stitches can also be used on the following layered applique or whole-cloth applique.

 

Introduction to layers and styles of hand applique

Behind the sophisticated appearance of multi-layered applique (as shown in pictures above) lays bare the simple truth: it is as easy as single layer applique because all applique designs are sewn one piece and one layer at a time no matter how many layers applied in the end. It is that easy!

Applique style is more about the cultures than the techniques.  For example, Hawaiian applique has a distinctive style: simple Island motifs spread across a traditional single layer fabric, stitched onto the background fabric. Baltimore Applique Album: meaningful American traditional motifs layout in block style and appliqued in multi-layers.

Guide to basic How-to applique by hand for beginners

Basic tools and materials for applique: The bottom line is hand applique is more enjoyable and least costly as it doesn’t need many tools or materials but a great imagination and a free spirit plus a thorough know-how.

Fabric Markers The tool used to transfer pattern onto fabrics. The marks must be erasable or removable. The essential markers for me cover all my applique needs, in fact, whether one applique, piece or quilt by hand or by machine.
Thimblelady’s seam folder can mark and fold your seam so neat and perfect like never before! I use it to fold seams by scoring around a template on the wrong side of the fabric. For quilting, mark on the right side after a quilt is sandwiched or pinned and stretched on your machine sewing frame – the mark leaves no chemical stains or residual of any kind! To erase or change any markings, simply spray a tiny bit of water on it, iron it or leave it dry before making new marks/folds. I haven’t bought any new markers since I have created this new seam folder because it lasts forever and no refills, no additional cost in the future. The steel needle tip marks fine and curvy shapes like no other!
The iron-off marker is also a handy marker for the sewing bag, a great option for marking both piecing and applique as well as quilting. Ironing or a simple wet-wipe will remove its marks. No usual hassles.
Is fabrics for applique different from that of quilting and piecing? Absolutely! It makes a great deal of difference if you choose the right fabrics for needle turn applique or any other forms of hand applique. The difference it will make is better workmanship and easier working process, ultimately more pleasure!
So what kind of materials are better and easier for hand applique? Fine cotton materials with perfect density of weave. The characters of such fabrics:
1. Fine fabrics that are woven with relatively thin yarn (50-80 yarn gauge)  has less bulk in seams – this makes applique points and indentations much better and easier;  Most materials on the market have yarn gauge 20-40.
2. Fine fabric woven relatively densely fray less – this alone can give applique beginners a leg up choosing dense weave fabric to start applique.
With this appreciation, I make Thimblelady rainbow colored fabrics in 100% cotton in both fine yarns and perfect density of weave. It is easy to needle though yet dense enough to withstand your handling. It is fine enough to minimize the bulk of seams under delicate design shapes yet, not so soft that it keeps fabric design motifs shape well. If you haven’t tried, try applique with Liberty Lawn, a fabrics great to hand quilt with but not so good to applique with. Once you try it, you will see what I mean. Most materials on the market are
I wouldn’t say a thimble is even essential in hand applique unless you use awful fabrics or adhesives, because all hand applique techniques are stitching stitch by stitch, unlike quilting or piecing that can be done in multi-stitches at a time where a thimble is essential to reduce physical stress. However, if you are an applique addict, a good comfortable thimble is a plus!
Thimblelady’s old style sterling silver sewing thimble is a work of art and hand crafted individually with love and care. Silver is a metal more human skin friendly. Although it is softer than steel or brass, hand applique is a gentle hand work and doesn’t wear a thimble out nearly as much as quilting and piecing by hand.
Applique needles:
I must say even though I would recommend Thimblelady brand of hand sewing needles, it is not because they are made for applique. Any needle can be used for needle turn applique or any other applique. Quilting needles and piecing needles or in betweens are fine for hand applique. What really matters isn’t what is written on the package by manufacturer or sellers but how you match needle thickness to the density of weave of fabrics. If you use loose weave fabric, any needle goes. If you use very fine fabrics (fabrics should match your design according to the fineness of the motifs) as your applique fabrics, then choose a finer needle so you don’t need to grip it hard and push and pull hard. Any size of the Thimblelady brand of fine sewing needles are great for applique, piecing and quilting depending on how fine the fabrics your design requires.
Threads choice varies according to the techniques you choose for your project. In general finer threads in matching colors to the fabric you use is the best for needle turn applique. Reasonably thicker thread in contrasting colors to the fabric you use is the best for decorative stitching. But too thick a thread against the density of fabric you use is no good because it makes it harder to needle physically for no better result. When threads are too thick for the fabric, it can also cause wrinkles or distortion of the project when large quantity of stitches applied.
The best threads for needle turn applique has its unique characters beyond the colors. It needs to be thinner than the usual threads for piecing and quilting because a thinner thread makes itself more “elegantly invisible” on the finished surface of the project even though most stitching are done sewing from the front of the materials!
Tip: When using fine thread for not so fine fabrics therefore not so thin needles, the pain coming with it is thread tends to slip off the eye when sewing with single thread. Use the following tip will solve the problem leaving you only the great pleasure of stitching applique.
A few basics before you start to applique/sew:
Although there are lots of tools and materials introduced for applique or make applique better, the following basics are the only must know!  This will get you started with any designs that touches your fancy!
Transfer/tracing designs onto fabrics:
Transferring or tracing designs onto fabrics couldn’t be easier and more straight forward. It is simply drawing the same shapes onto fabrics of your choice before cutting it off with reasonable seam allowance for you to turn and stitch onto the background fabric. With this purpose in mind, you will appreciate the time proven simplicity of achieving it.
Step 1. Make simple templates: print or draw or trace design motifs onto card paper (slightly stiffer than writing paper). This method is particularly effective for symmetric designs where same motifs are used multi-times in the same or different colors of fabrics – you only need one set of templates. After tracing or drawing, cut the motifs as is in different shapes, no need to worry about ‘adding seam allowance’.  Then number them so you won’t get confused which side is the right side or whether you have used the shape.
Question: Can I transfer design with carbon copy paper or plastic sheet or light box?
Answer: Of course if you prefer. But they are not easier but most costly in most cases. You can tape your design onto a glass top or window against light as a ‘light box’. I never use carbon copy paper – because I simply can’t see the sense of it. Plastic sheet is the same as the card paper except it is transparent and if that is what you need, get some from Office Depo.
Step 2. Trace around the each motif to make an outline of the shape: place each template piece on the wrong side of the fabrics if using a Thimblelady magic seam folder or on the right side of fabric if using an iron-off marker (or any marker, just remember to turn the marks under when stitching). Cut each motifs out of the fabric together with say, quarter-inch/0.5mm width of seam allowance if you want to have seams to be turned under.
Tip: Make sure you place your template in a way that most outlines will fall onto the bias of the fabric weave of your choice. This is most important no matter what colors or styles of applique design you love. 

Creating guide lines to position design motifs:
One major challenge of applique is all the beautiful creative works are done onto fabrics. So it is often ‘easy said than done’ because fabrics moves and stretches to compare with paper. My own experience is not to follow the traditional ways of tracing outlines of motifs onto the background fabric or using all sorts of adhesives, glues and pins… My hassle free way is simply create reference points and landmarks on the background fabrics as you go which yields better result and less laborious:

According to your design (whether the layout is a round by round or radius or row by row or block by block) structure, find the centre or centre line, fold your background fabrics accordingly to create landmark guidelines crossways, fold the background fabrics and dry iron the folds. Place your applique motifs according to the reference point you create. This way, you get the most accuracy with least work!

Basting fabric motifs:
Basting is to sew a few big stitches to keep the motifs where you want them to be before applique. The best way to baste a whole cloth applique such as a Hawaii design, I don’t use the traditional Hawaiian way which fold and cut the motifs out of the fabric as if it is easy. This old way leaves all the work for basting until your back sores, not to mention to frustration of frayed seams as you applique, particularly when working on a big piece. I prefer to take my time tracing with a marker. Then I don’t cut anything at all but baste with big yet minimum stitches to tack the top down onto the right side of the background fabric. This saves me all the basting and no frustration of fraying. This way, I start applique by cutting a few inches at a time as I stitch…  Instead of make loads of basting, I first applique shapes at KEY reference points, e.g. at the center and outside edge. then the highest point and lowest point before applying the rest. In multi-layered applique, I apply applique motifs at Key reference points before applying motifs in between. This way it is fast, easy and less work and most accurate! The simple truth is great work is usually the result of simplicity in techniques and process.
Tip: Sewing order of motifs is always the small onto the big when two shapes overlay onto each other:
Basting single piece of motif using thread basting:
Correct way: Leaving enough room from the basting threads to the folding mark so the seams can be turned under.
Wrong way: Too little room from the basting threads to the folding mark for the seams to be turned under.
Question: What about fabric glue?
Answer: You don’t have to have them. If you do want to replace the simple basting with glue, then get a glue stick (acid free) from local news agent will do. Or make a bit of thicker starch if you do a lot by buying a pkt of acid free wall paper starch powder from local hardware store – it lasts a long time!
Question: Do I need to buy pins for applique?
Answer: Not really. If you prefer to get some or already have some and want to try the pins, pin your motifs as shown in the picture below so the pins don’t ‘catch your sewing thread’.
Getting ready to stitch/applique:

Let’s stop looking at applique, for now, whether it is traditional, or contemporary, original and modern or timeless traditional, multi-layered or whole-cloth applique, beginner level skill required or master level. Just look at it as needle turned applique.

1. Sample  of multi-layered needle turn applique in traditional style:

2. Sample  of single-layered needle turn applique in whole-cloth design such as Hawaii:

3. Sample of Thimblelady original designs: appearing sophisticated or simple in coloring, skill requirement or simple in layering…

 

Single or fewer layered applique designs:

Needle turn applique is so easy if you approach and dissect it the Thimblelady way:

Divide it into sewing techniques for seams and understanding the secret of matching fabrics, needles and threads to your applique designs.

The sewing techniques is all about how to handle seams, which includes how to cut seams, needle turn seams under and stitch seams.

 

Beyond the colors, styles and complexity of needle techniques of the above designs lies the secret of the simple truth: They contain no more than 6 basic shapes. All you need to learn is the secret of needle turn around 6 most  basic shapes that  make up every image in the whole world of applique!

What are the  6 most basic shapes? In my book Perfect Hand Applique with Thimblelady, I show you everything about seams around the 6 shapes only: convex and concave, point and indent, band and circle. Because these shapes exist in everything you could possibly applique. For example, a leaf is a shape with two convex curves joined at two points. A heart is two convex curves joined by one indent and one point. So once you start to look beyond the actual objects or motifs, all you will see are one or multiple of the shapes joined one onto another.

Knowing how to turn seams around the six basic shapes, Needle-turn applique is to turn seams under with the needle tip in your hand or you are sewing with. Once you know how to handle seams around the above mentioned shapes, you will find needle turn applique dead easy, won’t you?!

 

Tutorials on the three common applique techniques:

  • Blanket stitch for applique
  • Decorative stitch for applique
  • Needle turn stitch for applique

 

Tutorial on successful needle-turn applique:

Tip: How to learn better and faster: Focus on learning and practicing turning and stitching SEAMS around the 6 Basic Shapes.

Therefore, I hope you start to feel it is much more manageable than it appeared. I too used to be scared by the enormity and thought I had to applique many tops  before I would be any good at it. The Thimblelady way is not applique harder but smarter.

Here is a picture on how to hold a quilt top to applique for the non-sewing hand:

The stitches for needle turn applique is known as blind stitches – meaning the stitches on the surface of the quilt top is so small that you can’t see it “easily”. That is how the needle moves to make “blind” stitches “invisible” to the naked eyes.

 

Here is how to start and how to finish:

  1. How o start applique: the following three ways are all permissible now adays.

2. How to end  a thread: The picture is of the back of a quilt top – knot and end on the back.

 

Needle turn Applique stitching:The blind stitching is the same for needle turn applique no matter what color or shape you work on. One stitch at a time using thread color that matches the upper layer fabric. See below, red thread for red fabric on light green background fabric. When stitching the yellow circle onto the red fabric, the thread color should match the yellow fabric as the yellow circle is the upper layer. Change your threads as you applique.

 

Turning seams around a point: The sewing/stitching is the same as explained earlier. The key is how to fold seams:

For right handed sewer, fold the seam on the right first. For left handed, fold the seam on the left first. Sewing towards the point of the shape please. The rest is the same.

The following view is looking at the fold from the wrong side. This is folding seam first on the right side of the tip of the pointy shape.

The following picture shows the complete folds of a point shape from the wrong side of fabric. In practice, one should turn seams with your needle under on one side (right side for right-handed and left side for left-handed) of a point shape before blind stitch the fold down till the point. Then turn the seam of the other side of the point shape down and stitch.

Needle turn an indentation:

Seams around all indentations and concave shapes should get one or more vertical clip(s) to ease the seams. Clip(s) should be made right to the marked fold line. See picture below.

Blind stitch towards the apex of the indentation. Pause when your needle has one or two more stitches before reaching the apex.

Fold the seams on the opposite side of the apex as shown below. Do not touch the short seams at the clip of the apex with your needle tip or fingers. All threads tails and frays will turn automatically with the rest of the fabrics if you turn the big piece down under. When you see all seams went down as show below, Use your non-sewing thumb to press onto the apex. continue to stitch towards the apex until you have one stitch made just beyond the apex. Make a double stitch at the same spot. This is an important tip to make indentations remain a V instead of turning it into a U.

Take the over folded part out as shown below. If seams on the left side of the apex remain folded under, it is perfect and stitch the rest of the heart. If seams on the left side came out with the rest of the shape, then fold the shape back as it was and add a tiny stitch from where you made the double stitch until the seam on the left side remain under when you pull the rest of the shape out back into a full heart.

 

Tip: Cut out the extra under layer as you applique to prevent your work wrinkly from too much over stitching of layers.

Tip: if you ever get a wrinkly surface, do some easy “spot stuffing” to puff the wrinkles out:

Step 1: Cut along the bias of the background fabric under the wrinkly piece.

Step 2: Insert/Stuff soft batting bits into the open cut:

Step 3: Tacking stitch it close! It is that simple!

For sharp points, steep indents or fine lines (2mm width) and a circle as tiny as a pin head and finer lines like in my quilt below, get Thimblelady’s tell-all how to ebook (Newly revised version 2017) and DVD on needle turn applique! It is great fun! I can’t wait to share.

Happy Applique!

Cheers, Liuxin