What Is Applique Embroidery?

Kathy Dowling

Applique embroidery is a textile art form in which one fabric is decoratively stitched on top of another. It’s popular in clothing and various crafts, and in general it can be done in one of two ways: by hand or with a special embroidery machine. Most of the time, the fabrics are layered to create a distinctive pattern or design, and it’s common for artists to use multiple colors and fabric textures. The thread used in the stitching is usually important, too, and is often intended to be as decorative as it is functional. It’s common to see appliques done with bright embroidery thread to showcase and highlight the design element. Thicker, intentional stitching can also give the piece a very finished look. There are different styles corresponding to different artistic preferences and tastes, but in general the form has a standard look and is usually immediately recognizable for what it is.

Appliques can be made from several combination of fabrics to create a decorative embellishment.
Appliques can be made from several combination of fabrics to create a decorative embellishment.

Understanding the Craft Generally

The term “applique” comes from the French verb appliquer, meaning “to put on” or “to apply.” In a very basic sense, that’s what happens; one piece of fabric is applied or put on to another. Applique embroidery uses that same technique, but with the addition of specifically embroidery stitches around the border of the piece that’s been applied. Alternatives include appliques that are straight-stitched, woven, or even ironed on.

Appliques can be created by embroidery machines following digitized patterns.
Appliques can be created by embroidery machines following digitized patterns.

Embroidery is a craft that involves decorating different materials or fabrics with colored thread using a needle. Traditionally, material was embroidered by hand, using different stitches, such as the running stitch and the cross stitch. The running stitch, also called the straight stitch, is a basic technique that involves running a threaded needle in and out of the material, while cross stitching forms images using stitches that are X-shaped, making the patterns appear pixilated.

Projects Made By Hand

The most straightforward applique embroidery method still involves stitches made my hand. Sewers cut and arrange the pieces to be layered, usually affixing them with pins; then, the embroidery is applied with a needle and thread. Thick embroidery floss is one of the most common choices, but thread of any texture or thickness will work. There are a couple of different styles and methods, but precision and patience are usually key to the craft when approached this way.

Machine Methods

Embroidery machines are commonly available in many places and, as a result, fabric can now be embroidered by running a program. Software has been designed that digitizes images for an embroidery machine to understand. Once digitized, the image can be transferred onto the fabric to create images such as logos, or to decorate items such as towels and bathrobes.

In most cases, there’s still a bit of work for the user. Before the program is run, for instance, the background fabric and applique fabric need to be placed in an embroidery hoop, which attaches to the embroidery machine. Once positioned and attached, the embroidery machine uses a basting stitch to attach the applique and background together and the excess applique material is cut away and decorative stitches are sewn according to the software pattern. It is essential that the fabric remains in the same position during embroidery, otherwise the design may be off center.

Some embroidery machines can create applique patterns out of thread alone, which can be useful for doing things like adding monograms or stitching designs or images. This is also usually considered applique embroidery, even though it only uses one fabric.

Importance of Stabilizers

Both hand and machine embroiderers can make use of a tool known as “stabilizers” to help stiffen the fabric and to keep the material in place during embroidery. These aren’t essential, but they can make the craft more user-friendly, and are particularly useful for beginners or in projects that are particularly complicated.

There are four types of stabilizers that are either placed underneath or on top of the fabric being embroidered, and are called heat-away, tear-away, cut-away, and wash-away. Heat-away stabilizers turn to ash from the heat of an iron, while wash-away stabilizers dissolve when water is applied to them. Cut-away stabilizers remain on the material even after it is embroidered, and tear-away stabilizers easily tear away from the fabric once the project is finished.

A punch needle can be used for some types of hand-made embroidery.
A punch needle can be used for some types of hand-made embroidery.

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Discussion Comments


As someone who doesn't really do much sewing besides fixing a seam or replacing a missing button, applique embroidery seems to be the easiest way to "dress up" a piece of fabric - or even to fix it.

As a child, I was always ripping holes in the knees of my jeans, and rather than throwing out the jeans, my mother would simply patch the knees by sewing another piece of fabric over the whole.

And now, as an adult who spends money carefully, rather than buy new clothes or even pillows when I get tired of them, I can do much the same with shirts, pants and pillows. Either I can sew on a simple flower design, or I can buy an iron-on applique and change the look of a previously boring shirt.

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