A. “Oh my, that’s a beauty. I’m putting this project on my must-stitch list!” or
B. “Hmm. That looks hard. I have no idea how to appliqué by hand…I feel sad now. Where’s that pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cake Batter ice cream I bought last week?”
If you’re intimidated by hand appliqué, you’re not alone. But appliqué teachers everywhere say it over and over again: there’s truly no need to be anxious. After all, it’s only needle and thread.
Every master hand-appliqué artist had to start at the beginning. So that’s where we’ll start today. Below is a primer on how to appliqué by hand, and it comes from Mimi Dietrich, one of the best teachers in the business. Read, practice, triumph—and then start your own list of must-stitch hand-appliqué quilts!
How to Appliqué by Hand
from Mimi Dietrich, author of Mimi Dietrich’s Favorite Appliqué Quilts
What’s my favorite part of the quilting experience? You guessed it—appliqué! I can’t paint or draw, so I feel as though I am creating pictures with appliqué. I love to see the black-and-white drawings come to life with colorful fabrics. I love to feel the fabrics and threads in my hands. I love silver thimbles. I love to sit back in my favorite chair with my favorite light and a big glass of iced tea—and stitch!
I like to keep things simple so that almost any quilter can be successful in stitching my designs. After 30 years of quilting, I tell students that I’m at the age where I don’t have to do things that are too complicated. I choose to make quilts with easy techniques so that other quilters will also want to make them. I like to teach appliqué techniques because I enjoy helping students learn the basics and feel successful.
Preparing Appliqués with Freezer Paper
Before sewing the appliqué fabrics to the background fabric, prepare the appliqués so that the seam allowances are turned under smoothly. Turning under the seam allowances will help you place the appliqués accurately on the marked background fabric. I like to use freezer-paper templates to help make perfectly shaped appliqués.
1. Place the freezer paper, plastic-coated side down, on your pattern, and then trace the design with a sharp pencil. For repeated designs, such as flowers and leaves, make a plastic template and trace around it onto the freezer paper. If the design is asymmetrical, trace the pattern onto the freezer paper in reverse.
2. Cut out the freezer-paper shape on the pencil line. Do not add seam allowances.
3. Place the plastic-coated side of the freezer paper against the wrong side of the appliqué fabric. Iron the freezer paper to the wrong side of the fabric using a dry, hot iron.
4. Cut out the appliqué shape, adding a ¼"-wide seam allowance around the outside of the freezer paper.
5. Baste the seam allowance over the freezer-paper edges, sewing through the paper and two layers of fabric. Clip any inside points and fold outside points.
6. Pin or baste the appliqué to the background fabric.
7. Stitch the appliqué to the background fabric using the traditional appliqué stitch (see below).
8. After the shape has been appliquéd, remove any basting stitches. Then cut a small slit in the background fabric behind the appliqué and remove the freezer paper with tweezers.
9. Press the appliqué from the wrong side to avoid flattening it too much.
Making the Traditional Appliqué Stitch
The traditional appliqué stitch is appropriate for sewing all areas of appliqué designs, including sharp points and curves.
1. Thread your needle with a single strand of thread approximately 18″ long and tie a knot in one end. To hide your knot when you start, slip your needle into the seam allowance from the wrong side of the appliqué piece, bringing it out along the fold line. The knot will be hidden inside the seam allowance.
2. Stitch along the top edge of the appliqué. If you are right-handed, stitch from right to left. If you are left-handed, stitch from left to right. Start the first stitch by moving your needle straight off the appliqué, inserting the needle into the background fabric.
3. Let the needle travel under the background fabric, parallel to the edge of the appliqué, bringing it up about ⅛" from the last stitch along the pattern line. As you bring the needle back up, pierce the edge of the appliqué piece, catching only one or two threads of the folded edge.
4. Move the needle straight off the appliqué into the background fabric. Let your needle travel under the background, bringing it up about ⅛" from the last stitch, again catching the edge of the appliqué. Give the thread a slight tug and continue stitching. The only visible parts of the stitch are very small dots of thread along the appliqué edge.
The part of the stitch that travels forward will be seen as ⅛" stitches on the wrong side of the background fabric. Try to keep the length of your stitches consistent as you stitch along the straight edges. For curves and points, you’ll sometimes need to shorten your stitches.
Bookmark this page so you’ll have Mimi’s advice handy the next time you come across a gorgeous appliqué quilt. For even more ways to appliqué, download our “How to Appliqué” pdf from the How to Quilt page on our website.
Speaking of gorgeous appliqué quilts, see the slideshow below for inspiration from popular appliqué books—and save 40% on them all, this week only.
What appliqué technique do you prefer—or are you still working up the courage to start a first project? Tell us your stitching story in the comments!