How to appliqué (from an appliqué icon)

Applique Sampler quiltWhen you see gorgeous hand-appliqué quilts, what do you think to yourself?

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

Mimi DietrichWhat’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.

Hand applique 1

4. Cut out the appliqué shape, adding a ¼"-wide seam allowance around the outside of the freezer paper.

Hand applique 2

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.

Hand applique 3

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.

Hand applique 4

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.

Hand applique 5

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.

Hand applique 6

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.

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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.

Hand applique 8

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!

Summer Blooms from Flower Show Quilts

"Summer Blooms" from Flower Show Quilts

Summer Floral Table Runner from Flower Show Quilts

"Summer Floral Table Runner" from Flower Show Quilts

Plaid Clematis from Flower Show Quilts

"Plaid Clematis" from Flower Show Quilts

Crepe-Paper Poppies from Flower Show Quilts

"Crepe-Paper Poppies" from Flower Show Quilts

Coming Up Roses from Inspired by Tradition

"Coming Up Roses" from Inspired by Tradition

Appliquer at Heart from Inspired by Tradition

"Appliquer at Heart" from Inspired by Tradition

Cherry Jubilee from Inspired by Tradition

"Cherry Jubilee" from Inspired by Tradition

Whig Rose block from Inspired by Tradition

"Whig Rose" block from Inspired by Tradition

Flight of Fancy block from Artful Applique

Flight of Fancy block from Artful Applique

Delicate Dahlia block from Artful Applique

Delicate Dahlia block from Artful Applique

Hummingbird and Trillium block from Artful Applique

Hummingbird and Trillium block from Artful Applique

Twining Lily block from Artful Applique

Twining Lily block from Artful Applique

16 Comments (leave a comment)

  • I had done only one applique project (a simple one) when I joined a Rose of Sharon block of the month club at my LQS. Little did I know that project would challenge me to the extent it did! However, what I learned will make each subsequent project easier and I found I absolutely love doing applique.

    —Fran on January 7, 2013
  • I use a blanket stitch with heavier thread to stitch rustic looking quilts and hand applique with the method you showed. I don’t shrink my applique material so that when the finished quilt is washed the first time, the applique shrinks a tiny bit and pulls the applique thread under and wow, the stitches can’t be seen. My sewing machine has some wonderful applique stitches so I use those also. I really enjoy your blog and the things I learn from you. Thanks.

    —Marsha Nelson on January 7, 2013
  • I have done the various methods of applique but I like the freezer paper best because of the clean, neat folding and hidden stitches by hand.

    —ellen on January 7, 2013
  • I love to applique. Maybe it comes from learning to embroider and hand sew at an early age as my mother wouldn’t let me use the machine. Grain line doesn’t matter, points don’t matter, you can put a piece of fabric right where you want it on top of another and stitch around it as elaborately as you please. I have gone to more fusible applique in the recent past than needle turn, but I still love to do it. And you can cut out the best part of a piece of fabric and place it just so! Or make repeats to suit your fancy. Just do it!

    —Claudia on January 7, 2013
  • My favortie projects always inlcude some applique. I am working, slowly on the "Dear Jane" blocks. Many of them have worked out better by applique than piecing. I love a needle turn technique the best but I did start out using Mimi’s freezerpaper method. That was a great way to start. A future goal: make a queen size Hawaiian applique quilt and hand quilt it! ( ambitious much ?!!)

    —Kathy Gaines on January 7, 2013
  • My hands have been shaking since I was 7, but I have learned to overcome many obstacles in spite of the shakes. When I try to do needle turn under applique’ it quickly becomes needle turn out. So freezer paper, fusible, and the glue stick and I have become very good friends.

    Oh, and just for the record,friends hand me thier needles to thread.

    Keep smiling,

    Lynnita Shipman on January 7, 2013
  • love applique! raw edge is my fav, have done this freezer paper method, reverse applique, and the perse thingy with fussy cuts. needle turn is next on my list.

    ritainalaska on January 7, 2013
  • I have used about as many techniques as are available. I like an Amish method which to me is the easiest. Place your design on the back of your background fabric. Select one area to applique. Cut out a rectangle or square to fit over the area. From the back, baste the fabric to the front of the background using a needle, size 8, to leave stitch marks in the fabric. Cut out the shape of the applique, leaving a margin to needle turn under. Snip one stitch and pull out several stitches. Using the needle marks in both the background and the applique fabric as a guide and needle turn the fabric and stitch to background. This has really worked much better for me than freezer paper or any other type of needle turn.

    —Loraine Isenberger on January 11, 2013
  • I love to hand applique at night while DH and I watch mindless TV. I use a template,(but had no luck with freezer paper), starch and press the edges over the template, then thread baste or glue the applique to the background to hold in place prior to hand stitching. That way I don’t lose any pieces.

    —Janet T on July 17, 2014
  • I have a Hawaiian quilt, queen sized, basted and ready to applique, but I need more courage. I am from Hawaii, and those quilts are just gorgeous and reveal tons of hard work and patience. Look them up online and see.

    —vickie on July 18, 2014
  • I have done hand appliqué since I started quilting about 15 years ago. Another way to do this, without templates is to trace the pattern on the back of your background fabric, using a light box or a window. Then place the appliqué fabric on the right side of the background fabric with right side facing out. Then baste the piece from the back following the traced outline. Turn to the right side, trim to within 1/4 inch of the baste line and then,snipping the basting stitches a couple stitches ahead of your needle,needle turn appliqué the piece. This works for entire patterns not just one piece. Trace the entire pattern on the back, then do each piece keeping in mind which piece will overlap which on the top.myou can do really complex pieces this way.

    —C Aitken on December 1, 2014
  • Thanks so much for these instructions, and the pictures. Did my first leaft today. (3/4/15) Not bad. One pucker, but I think extra pinning will help. Looking forward to more hand stitching.

    —Anne L. Fulton on March 4, 2015
  • I always use the back-basting technique when possible but I have used the freezer paper method when I feel it’s necessary.

    Sandy R. on March 6, 2015
  • I have just begun quilting and want to thank you for the very informative "how-to’s" on your site. I love the articles on applique and plan on attempting one as soon as I feel more confident in my basic quilting.

    Thank you for your kind words, Judy–we wish you the best on your new adventure! –Jenny

    —Judy Pennington on March 6, 2015
  • I see so many positive comments about using freezer paper method. I don’t get how to remove the paper without distorting applique piece. I’m trying fusible stabilizer, that way the turned edges are "glued" in place and ready for stitching. (5/2018)

    —Carrie on May 18, 2018
  • I adapted the freezer paper method by using iron on interfacing instead of paper. Then you do not have to remove it.

    —Vivian Garza on July 18, 2018

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