How to Do Needle Turn Applique

Applique and Patchwork Quilt
Janet Wickell
Overview
  • Total Time: 4 hrs

Appliqué is the umbrella term for applying and securing cut fabric shapes to a base material. There are many methods for doing so, both by machine and by hand, each producing its own unique end result, be it decorating jeans or your favorite quilt. In needle turn appliqué, the raw edges of the fabric shape are sewn under while you are hand stitching the shape to the background.

To begin, trace the shape of your patch onto the desired fabric, and leaving a seam allowance of about 3/16 inch to 1/4 inch, cut it out. You can adjust the exact width as you discover what you like best in different situations. Pin the patch onto the background fabric, and start stitching, turning the seam allowances as you sew. Ideally, stitches are invisible but if yours aren't, don't let that discourage you from trying needle turn appliqué. Just practice. And if you have hand-sewn a binding to the back of a quilt, you have already practiced making your stitches disappear.

This tutorial leads you through how to work needle turn appliqué on a quilt block.

About Materials

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.

About Tools

Needle and thread Use fine cotton thread that matches or blends with the appliqué patches in your project. For a needle, use a sharp, a long, thin needle perfect for appliqué work. Other good choices are straw and milliner's needles. Use a size that feels comfortable in your hand.

Scissors You do not need special scissors to get started if appliqué becomes a favorite technique, you may want to invest in a few specialty scissors. Sharp blades that cut all the way to their tips are perfect for making precise trims and cutting into areas that might need a bit of coaxing to turn under neatly. Another type of 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.

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.

Pins Short appliqué pins are handy for securing motifs to the background and they are less likely to poke your fingers as you work.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Needle for practicing, sharp size 10 or 11
  • Fabric shears for cutting out shapes
  • Pencil with fine lead or disappearing ink pen
  • Pins
  • Small sharp scissors for thread and trimming

Materials

  • Cotton thread for sewing patches
  • Cardboard or see through plastic for template
  • Leftover fabrics to practice sewing points and curves
  • Fabric for your appliqué shapes
  • Background fabric to be appliquéd

Instructions

  1. Getting Ready

    Before applying your first motif, you will need to practice sewing curves and points. Cut some motifs and backgrounds from leftover fabrics and experiment until you are comfortable with folding and sewing hems around the shapes.

    Curves

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

    Points

    • Outward Points These points are like the arms of a star. 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 piece of the seam allowance above the point itself (straight across) and fold what is left straight down, perpendicular to the tip. Fold under the upper sections of the next side of the point and continue sewing. Use the end of your needle (or a toothpick) to coax the fabric into place if necessary.
    • Inside Points The reverse of a star's points, these ends go into the shape. Clip straight into inside points, almost to the seam allowance. Stop sewing a few stitches before you reach each interior 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.

    When you feel comfortable sewing around these shapes, you are ready to move on to making a template for your patch.

  2. Make a Template

    Create a template for each motif in your project. If using see-through plastic, you can place the plastic over the pattern and trace the shape. Another option is to photocopy (or scan) the shapes at the desired size, glue or tape (with double-stick tape) them to the template material, and then cut out on the lines.

    Once you have your template(s), you need to trace the motifs on the appliqué fabric.

    • 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.
    • Draw and cut shapes as you go, leaving a 3/16-inch to a 1/4-inch seam allowance.

    TIp

    Instead of drawing a shape and cutting it out, you can draw all motifs side by side (leaving enough space for two seam allowances) first and then cut them out.

    If you are new to appliqué, cut only what you need for one practice background block. This way, you can adjust seam allowances to suit your sewing style.

  3. Background Block

    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). With fabric shears, cut out your block.

    • 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 motif or motifs in the background.

    • Trace the layout of your shapes on your block, placing the lines slightly inward from the target spot for fabric motifs so they won't show.

    Creating a placement guide is a good idea if you are new to appliqué or if you are using intricate blocks. Use fine lead or a disappearing ink pen to trace the finished layout on top of the fabric.

  4. Attach Patch to Background

    Pin or baste the shapes, beginning with the bottom layer first. You do not need to appliqué edges that are covered by other motifs, 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.

  5. Apply the First Shape

    Appliqué stitches are made with one strand. Cut 20 inches of thread, and thread your needle. Make a knot at one end of the thread.

    1. 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.
    2. Use the needle's tip to fold under the seam allowance at the spot where the needle emerged, taking care to hide the mark under the fold.
    3. Hold the fold in place with your fingers and insert the needle back into the fabric, right next to 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.
    4. Tug the thread slightly to make your stitches disappear into the background and edge of the motif.

    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 the excess thread.

  6. Finishing

    Appliqué remaining motifs to the background, working forward through the layers of the design.

    Tip

    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.

    Press the block carefully. Trim the block to its unfinished dimensions, centering or otherwise arranging placement of your appliqué as you like or as your pattern directs.

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