The Art of Applique - Putting on the Glitz

Some History and Some Tips

The process of appliqué can be traced as far back as 2500 years—the oldest extant example of appliqué is an Egyptian canopy quilt from 980 B.C. Appliqué is said to have had its beginnings in Asia and spread to Europe along the famed Silk Road. The term itself comes to us from the French (replete with the classy accent aigu), where it means “to apply” or “to put on”. It is loosely defined as a decorative technique of superimposing patches of colored material on to a plain base. It is then further decorated and attached with often fancy stitching or embroidery.

Some cultures looked upon it as a form of recording information or telling a story. Others used it as a means for patching holes to prolong the life of goods and to use up scraps of what was then precious fabric. Still others wanted to pattern the raised embroidery that has been popular as far back as the Middle Ages (then done with straw, horsehair and the like; now done with foam).

Many appliqué projects were produced as banners and other trappings for nobility and so it was that when the immigrants began to arrive in America from Europe, they concentrated on translating their new country’s flowers and animals into appliqués and altering and redefining names and patterns to show support of the burgeoning American political scene and the culture that surrounded it…without any hint of nobility.

Appliqué combines embroidery and something else.  Although that something else includes fabric, it doesn’t have to stop there. Like so many things in our world of embroidery, it’s the possibilities that make the journey worthwhile.

 Color Blending

 Instead of just stitching around the edge of the appliqué, how about stitching across it. Color is affected by the color that surrounds and the eye blends the colors that it sees. In our example, we have a simple representation in Corel of a yellow background with a blue mesh fill. The result that is seen is green.

Think about using some of the colorful metallic threads for even more zing.

And consider using something fine and fancy for the underlying appliqué. Many fabrics have metallic touches or shiny finishes. Combine that with a snazzy top mesh of embroidery and you have something different and eye-catching for the same amount of time.

 Using Tulle Instead

 You can use tulle (netting) purchased by the yard at the fabric store over your base appliqué as a means of creating visual color-blending. Use black tulle over any appliquéd faces adding more stitching where you want to create shadows. The result is a much more natural skin tone.

 Celtic Appliqué

 Bias tape is used in Celtic appliqué to create a stained glass effect. You can create the same look with a filled border or, if your software has the capability, a satin border with a patterned design. The colors in Celtic embroidery are bold and very primary and carrying this into other areas can be dynamic.

 Shadow Appliqué

 Shadow appliqué is a process where a piece of colored fabric is covered with a piece of organdy and then stitching is added around the edge of the shape.

You can mix colors visually by choosing a bold under fabric and a piece of colored organdy.

You can also add dimensional appliqué, depending on the design, by stitching items on the surface of the under-fabric before covering it with the organdy. Use extra underlay to add height to any embroidered additions and they will show through the organdy even better.

 Reverse Appliqué

 The vintage handkerchiefs pictured here are fine examples of reverse appliqué. Reverse appliqué is a process where a piece of fabric is applied to the reverse side of the fabric and then the top is cut through. The raw edges are turned under and then stitched. This exposes the fabric underneath. This is a great way to create a double-sided design—perfect for designing flags and banners.

 Batik and Tie-Dyed Fabrics

 Prepare your own special brand of fabric and use it as your choice for appliqué. You can batik fabric using an ancient art form we inherit from as early as the Fourth Century. Wax resist dyeing technique in fabric is an ancient art form. Fabric is soaked in wax and then scratched with a sharp tool. You can then boil the fabric in a mixture of soap and water to remove the wax. The result can be as artsy or as graphic as you like. You can “carve” a school mascot or initials in the fabric for use on an appliquéd sweatshirt.

Hand painting or airbrushing can create beautiful fabric appliqués as well. Choose what interests you and do some research. You can end up with an offering that no one else has…and that’s a great customer magnet.

 Printed Fabrics

 There are wonderful papers available that allow you to print on fabric that can then be used in the appliqué process. Candy printed letters can be used for an appliqué for an apron for a sweets shop. Sports balls can be implemented in school apparel. Baby items can become even more charming with a print on the appliqué fabric. Photos can be used, when appropriate…let your imagination be your guide!

 Vinyl and Mylar Fabrics

 Mylar fabrics are popular for adding a shiny look under a butterfly’s wings or to give a glassy or sophisticated look. You can stitch around the piece but then also stitch an open pattern across the Mylar for a subtle approach.

Regular vinyl can be used to imitate wine or martini glasses, gold fish bowls and more. Consider adding an olive in the martini or gold fish charms in the bowl, for a whimsical look.

 Dimensional Appliqué

 It’s simple enough to make an independent item and then add that to the appliqué picture with appropriate companion stitching on the garment. The mittens on the shirt show a pair of freestanding mittens that are placed at the bottom of the directly embroidered strings.

Another great idea is to stitch, say, wings for a dragonfly or bumblebee on heavy weight water soluble topping. You can soak the wings and then dry them thoroughly to have them ready for final placement. Then digitize the rest of the insect, creating a final body stitching that will cover the wings and attach them as you sew. Program a stop into the design, place the wings, and then stitch them down and finish the insect all at once.

If you don’t have heavyweight topping, create your own by placing three or four sheets of thinner topping between two pieces of brown craft paper and ironing. This will fuse them together and give you a heavier piece of goods to hoop and create the separate items that will give life and fun to your designs.

You can also use a heavy cutaway for any freestanding item that will be glued to another item. You can decorate wooden boxes, drink holders and more with stand-alone embroidery. Trim close to the edge and use fabric markers if you need to hide some edges.

Another backing to use is organdy. Several layers of organdy can be hooped, embroidered, and then the item cut out for application. The organdy will fray after it is cut and this can be tamed with a hot knife which will fuse the edges of the backing.


 Ruching (Roo-ching) is an ancient sewing process that dates back to the Middle Ages. With this process you can create a rickrack look which, when gathered, can give the look of a flower. It is important to sew the preparatory stitches at the precise angle (a ruching tool is available to assist).

Any fabric can be ruched. Use a press cloth when preparing your strips and even difficult fabrics like metallics can be used—giving some extra pop to your creation. Wired ribbon, unwired ribbon and lace can also be ruched.

Begin by folding the sides of fabric strip towards the center so they meet in the middle, like pre-made bias tape. Crease with a light iron or your fingers. Mark 90 degree zigzag lines along the front of the fabric from top to bottom across the length. Stitch with small running stitches along the lines with matching thread. At the end, take the needle through to the back and then hook the thread around to the front. Stitch for a couple more inches and then gather the strip which will create petals. When pulled the zigzag stitches end up running right down the center. You can use this created, dimensional rickrack to create flower petals which you can stitch together with a newly threaded needle. You will be using two threads—the first to continue gathering and the second to tack the petals together. Tuck under the final tail and your flower is ready to be appliquéd to the ground fabric.

Pretty Stuff

I remember a couple in a seminar one year at the Printwear show. She wanted to do “pretty stuff” but he insisted on sticking to their bread and butter which was corporate and sports work. I told a story about some vintage linens I had stitched with a quote and framed and how the perceived value had brought a high price for each. When he heard the profit margin, he patted her on the hand and said, “You can do some pretty stuff.”

If you don’t have a retail space, can you carve one out? If you don’t make any enticing “pretty stuff” to sell to the customers picking up their custom orders, do you think it would add to your bottom line? Is it worth a try?

It might just add to your joy in the art of embroidery and the art of appliqué. It might encourage you to look for possibilities that would inspire all of us.

Something as simple as place mats with a open-ended pocket appliquéd on for silverware that can be rolled up and tied with a ribbon might make a great wedding or housewarming gift…and you can even buy the placements on closeout and add your touch if you aren’t into sewing.

Charles Baudelaire said that everything that is beautiful and noble is the product of reason and calculation. Certainly reason and calculation are close partners when we venture into the world of appliqué art. But I think we should add “creativity” to Baudelaire’s mix.

Things like artful appliqué should make you dream of what embroidery can do—and the things you can do with embroidery.