An appliqué is a technique that is very well explained by its french name - we apply a piece of fabric on the surface of another fabric. If you ask me, there are so many ways to make appliqués and we will see here some techniques and my favorite tricks.
You can appliqué almost any fabric, depending on the result you want and the method you choose.
Felt is super easy to use, requires little preparation and can be applied by machine as well as by hand.
A solid knit is also a good option for hand or machine appliqué, I'm thinking of a ponte-style knit or a low-stretch sweatshirt material.
A simple weave like a cotton quilt can be appliqué without finishing if you don't mind a little fraying, or by folding the edges before sewing.
For the base (the fabric on which we will appliqué), go for something stable. All wovens that do not have spandex are perfect, and all knits that have no stretch.
To start, these are the materials that I recommend. The more sewing experience you gain the more you understand how fabrics move and react together and then the whole world of appliqués opens up to you. Alabama Chanin makes stunning garments with appliqués. I have her book, and it's her universe that motivated me to cover a coat found in a thrift store with floral appliqués. For my coat I didn't follow any rules and I sewed each piece on the spur of the moment. Of course, if you are sewing on an already finished garment, you will have to do it by hand, since the machine will not be able to reach tight places like the sleeves.
With the sewing machine
The easiest way to appliqué is with a sewing machine, with a straight stitch. This is how I put the letters on the Christmas stockings of my three cats. You can also try different stitches if your machine has them, the zig-zag of course, or the blanket stitch.
Simply sew slowly a few millimeters from the edge of your appliqué piece.
The thread color you choose will impact the final result, choose a similar thread for a more subtle look, or a contrasting color for more definition. The length of your stitch is also important. A shorter stitch will be easier to manage in curves, but if it's too thight then it might cause stretching problems with your fabric.
Here are some different appliqué made with the sewing machine. The first is a felt heart sewn with a straight stitch. The second is a flower cut out of a printed weave, then attached with a zig-zag stitch. I used a medium zig-zag with a fairly close stitch. Each machine has different settings so play around with yours a bit to find out your preferences. The third appliqué is also with a weave and I chose a fancy stitch from my machine. And the last one is also a fancy stitch but this time on felt.
In my video, I make a very simple straight stitch appliqué. You can't see the handling very well, but for the curves I went slowly, using the steering wheel a lot instead of the pedal to do one stitch at a time. I also lifted my machine's foot often to help me do the curves. Finally, when you sew in a small curve like here, I recommend a shorter stitch to make it more fluid. Instead of a back stitch at the end and the beginning, I simply went over my starting stitches to block it up.
Again you can use multiple stitches to go around your appliqué piece. The straight stitch or the slip stitch or a blanket stitch are ideal for sewing an appliqué. In this post we focus on the appliqué without finishing, with the "raw" edge. All Well Workshop has a great video on how to appliqué with the ladder stitch by hand folding the seam allowance inwards. It's a wonderful way to decorate objects, but of course you have to take the time and master the hand sewing.
A classic, single or double sewing thread can do very well for sewing your appliqué. But you can also choose a bigger needle and an embroidery thread, the number of strands you want according to the desired look. You can also try metallic or shiny threads for an even more special touch.
In this little video I appliqué a knit moon with a blanket stitch. This is probably not the clearest way to understand this decorative stitch. And I don't know how to explain it in words. So I stole a graphic from the web (I really would like credit but I followed all the links and came to a dead end). The blanket stitch is a stitch often used to decorate the edge of a blanket asits name clearly states.
Depending on the fabrics chosen, it is possible that a little interfacing is required. Thin fabrics will not respond well to the appliqué technique so a slightly more stable layer will help. I generally use a fairly thin iron-on interfacing, and if necessary I put on a second layer. If your project won't be doubled, consider using a tear-away stabilizer that you can remove after the appliqué is complete. There is no magic recipe here, you have to guess each time how the base fabric and that of the appliqué will react. With experience it will be easier, but to start you should always do a test before applying on your real piece. If your fabric ripples, start over with a layer of stabilizer, or even a piece of tissue paper under the claws of your machine.
If you sew your appliqué instead by hand, it's easier to adapt its stitch and its hold to the touch. That being said, a small layer of stabilizer can sometime still help, especially on very soft fabric.
As you may have noticed in my videos, I rarely use embroidery hoops. There are two main reasons: I don't like handling a hoop very much and I often embroider only very small pieces. If I'm taking on a bigger project, or doing some cross-stitching, then I pull out the hoop. I mention it here because if you are used to using this tool it can be very handy.
Another very practical tool, if not essential, is glue. Since the fabric can move, gluing your appliqué piece before sewing it can help a lot. A simple stick of glue is often enough, it does not harden the textiles and washes off. For larger projects you can try fabric glue or double-sided stabilizer (i.e. glue on both sides). Sometimes glue isn't an option, so go loose with the pins. Positioning your piece well before you start sewing will make your job a lot easier.
Do you have questions? Need help with an appliqué project? Let me know.