The Art of Machine Applique

Jeanie Adams
Sweet Treasures

(This article first appeared in Creative Needle Magazine.)


               Machine applique is a quick and easy way to turn an ordinary garment into a
favorite outfit.  It's fast enough to use on seasonal items that will be worn for a limited time
and easy enough to be done by those who are just becoming comfortable with their sewing
machines.  To top it off, applique is inexpensive to do and can make use of that stash of
scraps we all have - so let's get started!

Sources of Patterns

               Sources of applique patterns are all around us if we just open our eyes.  The old
favorite is designs from children's coloring books.  Look for designs that are simply done with
smooth lines and a minimum of clutter; these will be easier to stitch and more appealing to
the eye.  Greeting cards often have precious designs that are suitable for children's clothes.
A copy machine that is capable of enlarging and reducing copies can quickly turn a cute card
into a perfect applique.  Wrapping paper, wallpaper, computer clip art - even designs on paper
towels - offer a wide selection of ideas. 
               Many times a careful selection of applique fabric can add texture and detail without
increasing your stitching time.  For example, a striped fabric can make a great pair of pants for
Humpty Dumpty - corduroy makes a wonderful tree trunk - velour or terry cloth becomes a
fuzzy teddy bear.  Try using buttons for eyes or for wagon wheels, jumbo snaps for train wheels,
rick rack for grass, eyelet fabric for clouds.  Use your imagination!

Preparing Your Applique

               Once you've chosen your design, it must be broken down into its component parts.
Each piece that will be done in a different fabric should be traced separately (fig. 1).  Where
two applique pieces come together
you might want to add a little extra
margin so the pieces can overlap
rather than butt up to each other.
This will make stitching neater and
          In order to prevent a mirror
image on the final applique, the
pattern must be reversed before it
is used.  Trace the pattern on plain
paper using a heavy pressure with
your pencil.  Then turn the paper
over and retrace the lines; your
pattern is now reversed!  This step
is especially important when using lettering in your design.
               Now that your pattern has been prepared, it's time to transfer it to your fabric.
Trace the applique pattern onto a paper-backed fusible such as Heat N Bond Lite, tracing the
pattern onto the paper side of the fusible.  Next, bond your applique fabric to another fusible,
such as Craft Bond.  This step is optional, but it will add extra body to your applique and will
help to keep design and color from the background fabric from showing through.  Be careful that
there are no stray loose threads between the applique fabric and the fusible as they would be
there permanently.
               Now bond the fused fabric piece to the traced pattern (fig. 2).  Using paper-cutting
scissors (not your fabric scissors!), carefully
cut out your applique pieces and peel away
the paper backing.  Now we're ready to apply
the applique to the garment.
              If possible, I prefer to applique the individual garment piece before the garment is
actually constructed.  Place your original applique pattern (the one you had before you divided
it into its component parts) underneath the background fabric.  A light table is a big help
when using darker colored fabric.  Assemble the applique pieces using the original pattern as a
guide - it's like working a jigsaw puzzle!  When your applique is assembled and you're happy
with the way it looks, fuse the applique carefully to the garment piece.  Check especially to be
sure that all corners have been well fused.  Lastly, pin a firm tear-away stabilizer such as Pellon's
Stitch N Tear underneath the entire area to be stitched.  This will keep your stitching from
tunneling as you sew.  (Tip:  this will also greatly improve the appearance of your buttonholes)
Now we're ready to begin stitching!

Machine Set-Up

               There are many types of thread which are suitable for machine applique.  I prefer to
use a fine rayon machine embroidery thread such as Sulky as my top (needle) thread.  Cotton
embroidery thread is also suitable, but does not have the shine of the rayon thread.  Use a fine
white thread, such as J & P Coats Extra Fine Machine Embroidery thread in the bobbin; this same
bobbin may be used with different colors of needle thread.
               Use a new size 80 or 90 universal needle for your work; applique tends to dull a
needle quickly.  Use an embroidery foot as the presser foot.  This foot will have a grooved area
on the underneath side which will keep the foot from flattening your stitching.  An open toe foot
is also a distinct advantage as it enables you to clearly see your stitching.  The stitch length is
a satin stitch with stitches close enough to achieve a ribbon-like effect but not so close that
the machine bogs down and does not move forward.  The width should generally be between
2 and 4, depending on the size of the applique and the effect desired.
               The tension adjustment on your sewing machine is very important in applique.
Loosen the top tension so that the top thread tends to wrap to the underneath side.  On some
machines (Bernina) the bobbin tension may be tightened by passing the bobbin thread through
the "finger" on the bobbin case.  The goal is to have the needle thread wrap to the underside
of the applique so that the bobbin thread does not show at all on the right side of the work.
When your machine is properly set up, take time to test your stitch on a scrap piece of fabric
and adjust as needed until your stitch is "just right."

Stitching Techniques

              Begin stitching your applique project going from the background to the foreground.
Planning the sequence of your stitching will save time and give a neater finished product.  As a
general rule it is best to work in a clockwise direction so that the right swing of the needle goes
into the background (garment) fabric at the point where the applique meets the background; the
left swing of the needle should take a deep bite into the applique fabric itself.
               As you begin, take one straight stitch into the edge of the applique and pull the
bobbin thread to the top side of your work.  By holding the bobbin thread and the needle thread
firmly together as you take the first few stitches, the frequent "birds nest" of bobbin thread on
the under side of the fabric will be eliminated.  Take several straight stitches as you begin to
stitch to anchor your thread; then lift the presser foot slightly, pulling the work a tiny bit toward
you.  As you begin to zig-zag stitch, the zig-zags will cover the straight stitches and lock the
thread tails in place.  Continue to stitch smoothly and evenly around the applique, keeping your
stitches perpendicular to the edge of the applique.
              Smooth, gentle curves can usually be stitched by easing the fabric around the curve
while sewing at a steady speed.  For tighter curves pivoting the fabric will be necessary.  To
stitch an outside (convex) curve, drop the needle
well into the fabric on a right swing of the needle.
With the needle firmly in the fabric, lift the presser
foot and pivot the fabric slightly; then take a few
more zig-zag stitches (fig. 3).  Continue to pivot in
this manner until you complete the curve.
               For an inside (concave) curve, pivot on a left
swing of the needle (fig. 4).  A smoother curve will be
accomplished by making several small pivots rather than
by making one or two large pivots.
               To make a squared or right-angle corner, stitch all the way to the edge of the fabric
ending with a right swing of the needle.  With the needle well into the fabric, lift the presser
foot and pivot completely around the corner.  Then:
         Method 1:  Resume stitching, going over the
stitches you have just done.  You may have to "help"
your sewing machine as it goes over these stitches.
         Method 2:  Hand turn the wheel of the sewing machine toward you.  As the needle is
about to enter the fabric on the left swing, lift the presser foot and slip the fabric slightly away
from you so that the stitch "hops over" the previous zig zags; then continue stitching.  This
method eliminates much of the bulk in the corner stitches.
              An inside squared corner uses just the reverse method as an outside corner.  Again
stitch all the way to the angle, but this time stitch past the corner a distance equal to the
width of the satin stitch and ending on a left swing of the needle.  With the needle well into
the fabric, lift the presser foot and pivot completely around the corner.  Then:
         Method 1:  Resume stitching just as you
did in Method 1 for the outside corner.
          Method 2:  Hand turn the wheel of the sewing machine toward you.  As the needle is
about to enter the fabric on the right swing, lift the presser foot and slip the fabric slightly
away from you so that the stitch "hops over" the previous zig zags; then continue stitching.
               Applique stitching requires that you think as you sew!  Try to anticipate what your
machine is going to do next:  Is it about to make a left swing or a right swing?  Adjust the
placement of your fabric as you go so that the stitches are placed exactly where you want
them to be.  With a little practice you'll be a "pro" in no time.  And the look of delight on your
child's face when they see your "work of art" made especially for them will be a treasured
memory to last a lifetime!  Happy Stitching!!!
               An excellent resource book is Mastering Machine Applique by Harriet Hargrave
               available from Sweet Treasures.