All images courtesy the author

A Step-by-Step Guide to Well-Done Appliqué

jennifer cox

Jennifer Cox operated a family embroidery business beginning in 1990. She is one of the founders of the National Network of Embroidery Professionals (NNEP), a national organization that supports embroidery and apparel decoration professionals with programs and services designed to increase profitability and production. Cox is currently the president of NNEP.

Appliqué. The word even looks intimidating! But have no fear, after you read this, not only will you know how to say it, you will know how to do it. Let’s start at the beginning:

  • ap·pli·qué (apləˈkā) – to decorate (a garment or larger piece of fabric) with other pieces of fabric to form pictures or patterns. "The sweatshirt is appliquéd with a different-looking fabric."

Appliqué is the process of adding an additional layer of fabric into an embroidery design during the process of embroidering the design. There are several reasons to use an appliqué in a design: to fill space with color more efficiently than with stitches, to reduce the production time of a design, to reduce the cost of a design, to add contrast or texture to a design, or to incorporate a design element that could not be created with embroidery stitches.

An embroidery file must be digitized for appliqué. An appliqué file needs three additional steps built into the digitizing program to incorporate the appliqué into the design, and you may even need an additional embroidery file as well, the appliqué template.

All images courtesy the author

The appliqué is typically the first layer that is run on a design, so the first additional step is called the placement stitch. The machine sews a fast run, walk, or bean stitch on the product to indicate where the appliqué fabric should be placed in the sewing field.

Next, a machine stop is programmed into the sew file and the color sequence so that the embroidery machine stops and either slides to the center of the sewing field (0,0), or to the top center of the sewing field (this is very helpful for larger appliqués). Now you lay the appliqué fabric on the sewing field in the outline created by the placement stitches. Ideally, the piece of appliqué fabric has been precut to fit within the placement stitches exactly (more on that in a bit). You can either tack down the appliqué with a light misting of an embroidery spray adhesive on the back of the appliqué before you lay it in the sewing area or you can use a tack iron to keep the appliqué in position if the appliqué fabric has a heat activated backing on it.

The last additional step happens when you resume sewing the design and the machine sews another quick run stitch around the appliqué fabric, securing it in place so that you can complete the embroidery design. This tackdown stitch runs about 1/8” inside the placement stitch and goes around the entire appliqué fabric so that it cannot shift as the rest of the embroidery design sews. It is very common for the entire appliqué to then be bound around all the edges with a column stitch that is wide enough to cover both the placement and the tackdown stitches, giving the appliqué a clean, finished appearance.

From this point on, the design continues just like any other embroidery design. Depending on the fabric composition of the product, you may want to heat press the design once it is completed to bond the appliqué fabric to the product and to prevent the edges of woven fabrics from loosening over time with washing. This can also prevent the appliqué from rippling or puckering when the item is washed.

If you have never run or created an appliqué design, you may be wondering how you create the cut piece of fabric. You can use just about any type of material that you can cut and that your embroidery needle can sew through as appliqué fabric. You are only limited by your imagination. If your design comes with an appliqué template file, you can use this to cut your own appliqués with your cutter or even cut them by hand. If you are only embroidering a few pieces at a time with the appliqué design, it may make sense to cut your own appliqués as needed.

There are companies that digitize the embroidery appliqué sewing file and template file for you, and send you the precut appliqués made out of a variety of different kinds of fabrics. They can even create more complex designs where several different colors of appliqué fabrics are layered together, like the 10th-anniversary design shown below. You can also buy a backing that you bond to your own appliqué material which makes it easier to trace and cut the appliqué design as well as bond it to the product once the design is completed.

If you do not have a cutter, you can create your own template by running the template file on your embroidery machine, and then cutting out the fabric just inside the placement stitch. We found tracing a single layer of fabric to be challenging, so we traced that template design onto light cardstock, such as a manilla folder or poster board. One key tip to keep in mind is to always trace the design on the wrong side of the fabric so that when you place the appliqué fabric in the sewing field in the area outlined by the placement stitches right side up, the appliqué does not have any marks on it.

You can dramatically change the feel of a design simply by changing the fabrics that you use to make the appliqué! Experiment with different sizes of patterns, with different textures and with different colors to completely change the look of a design.

You can also modify existing designs to become an appliqué design. In the below gallery,  you can see that we removed all the stitches from inside the tree design and left only the stitches that outlined the tree with its branches. We created our own template file and then experimented with many different kinds of fabrics and trims to create holiday aprons and sweatshirts that had a very low stitch count yet a high appeal because of the colors and trims we added.

If you have yet to try making an appliqué design, what are you waiting for? Follow the steps above to create a whole new level of embroidery in no time at all, reducing the sewing time and increasing the impact of your embroidery designs.