The Art of SFX Applique

With over 35 years in the embroidery industry with particular emphasis on writing, education, and digitizing, Helen Hart Momsen is widely published in the trade press. Momsen founded and moderates the Embroidery Line (, the longest continuously running internet forum for apparel decorators. A sought-after speaker for many years for THE NBM SHOW, Momsen has authored two ground-breaking books on professional embroidery, available at

The process of appliqué can be traced back as many as 2,500 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.

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 stitching around the edge of the appliqué, how about stitching across it? Color is affected by the colors that surround it; the eye blends the colors it sees. With this in mind, think about using some of the colorful metallic threads for even more zing. 

Consider also 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 to create something different and eye-catching for the same amount of time.

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

Celtic, shadows and reverse 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 is another 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.

Add dimensional appliqué by, depending on the design, 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 is a process where a piece of fabric is applied to the reverse side of the substrate and then the top is cut through. The raw edges are turned under and then stitched, exposing the fabric underneath. This is a great way to create a double-sided design—perfect for designing flags and banners.

Fooling with 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. Fabric is soaked in wax and then scratched with a sharp tool. The fabric is then soaked in a mixture of soap and water to remove the wax. The result can be as artsy or as graphic as is desired; i.e. carve a school mascot or initials in the fabric for use on an appliquéd sweatshirt.

Hand painting or airbrushing can also create beautiful fabric appliqués and can provide a competitive edge. Offering a service that no one else has is a great customer magnet.

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 on 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!

Mylar fabrics are popular for adding a shiny appearance under, say, 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 also be used in appliqué 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.

The E dimension

It’s simple enough to make an independent element and then add it to the appliqué with appropriate companion stitching on the garment. For example, stitch wings for a dragonfly or bumblebee on heavyweight water-soluble topping. Soak the wings and dry them thoroughly to get 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 providing a heavier piece to hoop and create the separate elements that will give life and fun to your designs.

You can also use a heavy cutaway for any freestanding part that will be glued to another piece of an overall appliqué. 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 cut for application. The organdy will fray after it is cut; this can be tamed with a hot knife which will fuse the edges of the backing.


Ruching (pronounced roo-shing) is an ancient sewing process that dates back to the middle ages. The process creates the appearance of a flower when gathered, and any kind of fabric can be ruched—even difficult fabrics like metallics, lace, and wired and unwired ribbon. A press cloth can be used to prepare the fabric strips.

It is important to sew the preparatory stitches at the precise angle (a ruching tool is available to assist). Begin by folding the sides of the fabric strip towards the center so they meet in the middle, like pre-made bias tape. Crease with a light iron or your fingers and 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. 

Use this dimensional rickrack to create flower petals that can be stitched 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 the final tail under 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 NBM Show. (Editor’s note: See Datebook on page 102 for dates and locations of the remaining 2010 schedule.) 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 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.”

Isn’t it possible that enticing “pretty stuff” on display for customers picking up their custom orders might increase some sales? Is it worth a try? It also might just add a little joy in the art of embroidery and appliqué.

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.