10 Ways to Improve Your Applique

Create fun appliquéd projects like Debbie Glenn’s matching dresses for a girl and doll!

Adorable appliquéd children’s garments are as popular as ever. Whether you’re looking to try appliqué for the first time or simply improve your technique, we have the perfect article for you. “10 Ways to Improve Your Applique” from designer Debbie Glenn appeared in our July/August 2005 issue of Sew Beautiful magazine. Debbie’s methods are pure magic, and even advanced students are sure to pick up helpful tips!

NOTE: Want to create the Nautical Mates dresses pictured in the example above? The patterns are Debbie Glenn’s Love and Stitches #152 “Toddler Time” (2T-5) and Love and Stitches #562 “Dolly Time” (18-inch doll). The sailboat appliqué design and instructions are featured in our July/August 2005 issue of Sew Beautiful.

10 Ways to Improve Your Applique, by Debbie Glenn

1. Optimize visibility by using an open-toe presser foot. If it has a groove on the underside, this groove will keep satin stitches from piling up.

2. Use both hands to guide fabric. Increase usable surface area by attaching a sewing table (don’t try to appliqué on narrow free arm). Reduce presser foot pressure from a normal of 6 to 4, so fabric can be moved easier and fewer manual pivots will be required.

3. Use fine machine embroidery thread 50-80 weight as this is designed to produce smooth stitches that blend together. Bobbin thread should match base fabric color and top thread weight. Slower sewing produces more consistent, uniform stitches, therefore, reduce machine speed (1/3-2/3 full).

4. Adjust thread tension so thread knot is pulled to wrong side of fabric and only needle thread is visible on right side. This produces a tight, rounded “tunnel” of stitches on right side and eliminates visibility of bobbin thread along sides (fig. 1). You can either increase bobbin tension (threading finger on bobbin case if present on your machine) or decrease upper thread tension to setting used for a buttonhole (Tension=2.0-3.0). TIP: If you cannot get satisfactory results by loosening top tension alone, consider purchasing a second bobbin case. Turn screw to right to tighten bobbin tension, to left to reduce bobbin tension. Be sure to label new case in some manner with permanent marker.

5. Verify that the fusible product selected is for sewing, not just fusing. Check directions for temperature settings and ironing times as these vary widely for different brands of fusible web. Trace mirror image your final motif on fusible web release paper. Cut web motif out leaving a narrow allowance outside design line. Position web motif on wrong side of appliqué fabric with paper side up, cover with Tefl on sheet, and, if pressing is required, press just long enough to melt web attaching it to fabric (5-10 seconds). Cut appliqué on drawn design lines, remove release paper, position it on base fabric, and press (15-20 second) to bond it in place.

6. Always stabilize appliqué; this dramatically improves stitch quality by raising fabric off the feed dogs. A temporary press-on stabilizer like Sulky® Totally Stable™ also eliminates shifting and keeps base fabric fibers in their original alignment, preventing stretching of bias areas and stitch tunnels.

7. A satin stitch is a short zigzag; decrease stitch length (0.6-0.2 mm) until no fabric shows between stitches. On newer machines, select preprogrammed satin stitch, as utility zigzag often does not reduce below length 1.0 and offers limited variation in width. Do not center foot along cut edge of appliqué motif (incorrect). Instead, align needle on cut edge of motif and zigzag full stitch width into appliqué (correct). This maximizes amount of fabric in each zigzag stitch, strengthening it (fig. 2).

8. Engage needle down (or stop stitching with needle down in base of appliqué fabric) to prevent unwanted movement at pivots.

9. For smooth curves and corners, turn fabric as you sew, so cut edge of motif remains parallel to “toes” of presser foot. Shallow curves can usually be followed using hand manipulation alone; however, sharp curves require manual pivots (stop with needle down and physically readjust position of fabric so toes are again parallel to cut edge). Pivot whenever you can’t move fabric enough by hand to keep appliqué edge parallel to foot; waiting too long results in sharp angles instead of smooth curves (fig. 3). Pivoting on short side produces stitch gaps (fig. 4); to eliminate these, make all pivots with needle down along longest side of curve or corner (fig. 5).

10. Construct appliqués (fuse, then stitch on individual pieces in layers) building from background to foreground to reduce number of required tie offs. Only top pieces lacking fused overlaps need to be tied off. When tying off, cut 3-inch thread tails. Pull bobbin thread to create a loop of top thread. Catch this loop with a pin; pull top thread to wrong side. Put increased tension on bobbin thread when tying a square knot to prevent bobbin thread from showing on right side.


Debbie Glenn is a national teacher of heirloom sewing and appliqué, the designer of Love and Stitches patterns and author of Victorian Treasures: Nostalgic Needlework Projects. Her work has been featured regularly in sewing magazines, including Sew Beautiful. Visit Debbie’s website for information on her patterns, products and classes: loveandstitches.com.


Check out these items for even more sewing and appliqué fun!

Get all the issues of Sew Beautiful from 2005 in one digital download!

Alicia Welcher has more applique tricks for you in this online course!

Looking for cute appliqué designs? This collection includes baby designs, animals and more.

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