How to Do Needle Turn Applique

  • 01 of 05

    What Is It?

    Needleturn appliqué cats and butterflies on a patchwork quilt.
    Janet Wickell

    There are many methods that you can use to do hand applique and by machine—needle turn is simply one choice. It is a traditional type of applique where patches of fabric are sewn to a background fabric while a hand-sewing needle is used to turn under the seam allowance as you sew.

    The Technique

    Shapes are traced onto fabric and cut out, leaving a seam allowance of about 3/16 inch to 1/4 inch around the traced line. You can adjust the width as you discover what works best for you in different situations.

    Seam allowances are turned under as shapes are hand sewn to the background. Ideally, stitches are invisible but do not let that discourage you from trying the needle turn applique technique. If you have handsewn a binding to the back of a quilt, then you have already practiced the art of making your stitches disappear.

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  • 02 of 05

    Get Tools and Supplies

    You will discover your own favorite tools as you learn to applique, but take a look at a few tool suggestions to get you started.

    Needles and Thread

    It should go without saying, but the correct needles and thread can make or break your project.

    • Thread: Use fine cotton thread that matches or blends with the applique patches in your project.
    • Needles: Sharps are long, thin needles that are perfect for applique work. Other good choices are straw and milliner's needles. Use a size that feels comfortable in your hand.


    You do not need special scissors to get started but may quilters find they are a good investment when applique becomes a favorite technique.

    • Sharp blades: One type of scissors has sharp blades that cut all the way to their tips. They are perfect for making precise trims and cutting into areas that might need a bit of coaxing to turn under neatly. 
    • Paddle blades: Another type of applique scissors has a paddle blade on one side that resembles a duck bill. As you trim edges, the paddle pushes the seam allowance out of the way to keep you from cutting too close to the fold line.

    Background Fabrics

    Purchase enough fabric to cut oversized background pieces because backgrounds become distorted as you work. Add about 1 inch to the unfinished size of a block, to begin with, and more if your project is complex or blocks are large. Do not skimp—you do not want to end up with a block that can not be squared up to the correct, unfinished size after the applique is added. Most patterns offer suggestions.

    Templates and Pins

    • Templates: You must usually make rigid templates of pattern shapes. Template plastic is durable, but you can make templates from something as simple as an empty cardboard box from the pantry.
    • Applique pins: Short applique pins are handy for securing motifs to the background and they are not likely to poke your fingers as you work.
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  • 03 of 05

    Practice Hand Applique Curves and Points

    You will need practice working with curves and points. Cut some motifs and backgrounds from leftover fabrics and experiment until you are comfortable with folding and sewing.

    Applique Curves

    • Concave curves: In general, it is often easier to turn under a concave curve (a curve that moves inward, like a bite out of a cookie) if you make perpendicular cuts towards the folded seam allowance.
    • Convex curves: Convex curves bend outwards, like a rounded hill. There is usually no need to make clips into a convex curve.

    Working with Points

    • Outward points, like star tips: Sharp points can become bulky from multiple layers of fabric created when raw edges are turned under for sewing. Minimize bulk by (temporarily) ending your seam a couple of stitches before you reach the end of the pointed tip, and trimming away a portion of the remaining seam allowance along that side. Cut off a portion of the seam allowance above the point itself (straight across) and fold what is left straight down, perpendicular to the point. Fold under the upper sections of the next side of the point and continue sewing. Use the tip of your needle (or a toothpick) to coax the fabric into place if necessary.
    • Inside points, the reverse of a pointed tip: Clip straight into inside points, almost to the seam allowance. Stop sewing a few stitches before you reach each inside point and turn under the seam allowance on both sides. Continue sewing, taking a few extra "security" stitches into the pointed area where the seam allowance was clipped.


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  • 04 of 05

    Get Started With Needle Turn Applique

    Applique shapes do not include a seam allowance. You will add that later. Practice needle turn applique with a easy steps:

    1. Create a template for each shape in your project: If using see-through plastic, you can place the plastic over the pattern and trace the image. Another option is to photocopy (or scan) the images at 100 percent and glue them to template material (or use double-stick tape), then cut out on the lines.
    2. Trace the template: Position a template right side up on the right side of your fabric and trace around its edges. Turn the template over to trace mirror-image shapes.
    3. Draw and cut shapes as you go: When doing this, leave a 3/16-inch to a 1/4-inch seam allowance or draw all shapes side by side (leaving enough space for two seam allowances) and cut out. If you are new to applique, cut only what you need for one block. This way, you can adjust seam allowances to suit your sewing style.
    4. Cut a piece of background fabric: Add 1 inch to the unfinished unit's width and length (less for small blocks with a simple shape or two and more for large, complex blocks).
    5. Fold the background in half from top to bottom and finger crease: Unfold and fold again from side to side. Finger crease. Unfold. Fold along each diagonal, making finger creases each time. The fold lines will help you arrange your patch or patches in the background.
    6. Trace the layout: For intricate blocks, trace the finished layout on top of the fabric to use as a placement guide. Use fine lead, placing lines slightly inward from the target spot for fabric motifs, or trace with one of the many disappearing ink pens. Read the pen instructions carefully.
    7. Pin or baste motifs: Get started with the bottom layer first. You do not need to applique edges that are covered by other shapes, but it might be a good idea to tack them down. You can pin all of the shapes to the block or work in layers from the back forwards.
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  • 05 of 05

    Apply Motifs to a Background

    Take a look at the steps for adding applique motifs to a background:

    1. Thread a thin needle with about 20 inches of matching cotton thread. Make a knot at one end of the thread. Applique stitches are made with one strand.
    2. Starting with a shape in the bottom layer, bring the needle up through the back of the quilt block, its tip emerging a tiny bit to the inside of the marked fold line of the motif.
    3. Use the tip of the needle to fold under the seam allowance at the spot where the needle emerged, taking care to hide the mark under the fold.
    4. Hold the fold in place with your fingers and insert the needle back into the fabric, right next to the place where it emerged. Keep moving, bringing the needle back up and catching a couple of threads on the now-folded seam allowance ahead of the first stitch.
    5. Tug the thread slightly to make your stitches disappear into the background and edge of the motif.
    6. Continue folding and sewing your way all around the shape. When you reach the end, take the needle through the background and make a small stitch, leaving a loop. Thread the needle through the loop and pull to create a knot. Clip excess thread.
    7. Applique remaining motifs to the background, working forwards in the design.
    8. Option: When the block is complete, some quilters like to cut away excess fabric, leaving only the top layer and roughly a 1/2-inch rim of fabric around the shapes on the reverse side of the block. Take care that you do not cut through the top layer of your block.
    9. Press the block carefully. Trim the block to its unfinished dimensions, centering the applique (or as directed in your pattern).