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If you’re new to embroidery, one of the fun things you can do with an embroidery machine is machine applique all sorts of things! Thus, I want to show you how to applique with an embroidery machine in this beginner machine embroidery tutorial. We’ll go through the process step-by-step with pictures, and I’ll describe a few different methods to cut fabric and finally show you how to use built-in frames on a Brother embroidery machine to make your own applique designs!
Appliqueing may seem like a confusing task at first (I know I was afraid to even try when I first got my machine), but once you understand how appliques are created and stitched, you’ll see how easy, fast, and fun they can be to create!
What is an embroidered applique?
An applique is one piece of fabric stitched onto another piece of fabric with a decorative stitch border. Basically, instead of using thread to create fill-stitches, you use a piece of fabric to fill the bulk of a design. This is efficient for saving thread and also decreasing thickness and puckering on designs that may be too stitch dense otherwise for lightweight fabrics.
While appliques can take more interaction from you, the active stitching time for your machine is much less! And while appliques can be created by hand, a sewing machine, or an embroidery machine, appliqueing with an embroidery machine is by far the quickest and most accurate way to create an applique!
What can you applique? What fabrics work best for applique?
You can put an applique on almost anything that can be embroidered (within reason). How cool is that? I like to applique shirts, sweatshirts, towels, blankets, onesies, and even baseball caps, for example. I’ll refer to these items to be embroidered as base fabrics from hereon out.
Picking a good quality applique fabric is important, too. You can use cotton (my go-to is quilting cotton), denim, canvas, minky, lace, twill, felt, faux leather, terry cloth, and even knit fabrics (for raw-edge appliques). I like to use up my scrap fabric stash or dig through clothes and other household items I plan to repurpose to find fabric, too (read: where to get cheap fabric to repurpose to see some examples!) What’s most important is that your fabric is prewashed and you’ve picked a compatible needle and thread.
Common Parts of An Applique Embroidery Design
While the specifics may differ between digitizers, there are three common parts of most applique embroidery designs.
- Placement or Outline Stitch: This is the stitch that will mark on your base fabric where to place the applique fabric.
- Tacking Stitch(es): This stitch attaches the applique fabric to your base fabric. This can be a running stitch (straight stitch), a zigzag stitch, or a running stitch followed by a zigzag stitch (depending on the digitizer).
- Border Stitch: Usually a satin or other decorative stitch, the border stitch will finish the edges of the applique. The traditional satin stitches are very short length zigzag stitches that sit close to each other, thus keeping the applique fabric edges from unraveling. In contrast, raw-edge appliques where the applique fabric is meant to stick out and fray may have just a nice, dense running stitch as the border stitch.
Three Ways to Get the Applique Fabric Down to the Perfect Size
Before I show you how to applique on an embroidery machine, I’ll give you a quick breakdown of three ways to cut your applique fabric to the perfect size for your design.
Stitch and Cut
The easiest way, in my opinion, is to cut fabric immediately after the tacking stitch. (This is what I’ll be modeling in this tutorial.) All you have to do is place a piece of rectangular fabric over the placement stitch and then cut it down to size after the tacking stitch. Precision is necessary when trimming the fabric, though, which may be difficult for very ornate designs or users with decreased dexterity. This method works especially great with a satin stitch applique border because this thick stitching covers any imprecisions.
Cut To Size Before Stitching
If you don’t want to trim your fabric while it’s in the hoop, you can cut the applique fabric to size before placing it on your base fabric. I like to use this method when embroidering raw-edge appliques or appliques surrounded with a blanket stitch. I get a cleaner cut since there’s less crazy maneuvering needing to be done with the base fabric still hooped.
The first way to pre-cut fabric is to print the applique template (or dieline) file from your computer. You may need to use embroidery software to access it if it isn’t included with your download. Then, using the printed template, cut the fabric to the exact size. (Read: how to use freezer paper in sewing. I show how to print an applique template on freezer paper, iron it to fabric, and use that to help cut the perfect shape!)
Or, if the design comes with an SVG file, you can use a die-cutting machine like a Cricut, Silhouette, or Scan n Cut to cut the shape to the perfect size. At first, I was skeptical of what I might do with my Cricut Maker, but it is absolutely the most versatile craft tool I own! If you don’t have good dexterity or can’t snip precisely, this is the best way to get a perfect applique shape.
This is much more time-consuming and materials-consuming, but you may prefer not having to cut fabric on your actual base fabric and risk accidentally cutting through it. In this method, you’ll stitch the placement stitch on your base fabric and remove the hoop. Then, you’ll hoop your applique fabric with embroidery stabilizer, and stitch another placement or tacking stitch on it. Then, cut out the applique fabric along the stitch you just made.
What stabilizer to use in the hoop with the base fabric?
Picking an appropriate stabilizer for your machine embroidery applique can be a tricky process for beginners. There’s cut-away, no-show mesh, tear-away, wash-away, heat-away, sticky stabilizer, fusible stabilizer, and a few more. So, which do you choose? Base your stabilizer on the base fabric you’re stitching the applique on. Use tear-away on stable fabrics and cut-away on stretchy fabrics. If you’re not sure what this means, read my machine embroidery stabilizer guide for beginners and get a free printable.
In this tutorial, I’m appliqueing on a knit shirt, so I picked a no-show mesh stabilizer, which is a type of sheer cut-away stabilizer.
What to use on the back of the applique fabric?
You can embroider without stabilizing the back of the applique fabric, but I’ve found it produces more wrinkles and a poorer end result, especially after repeated washings, if you don’t! I always use HeatnBond Lite for appliques and never have any problems! However, if you prefer, you can use a piece of cut-away stabilizer sprayed with temporary fabric adhesive (ex. Odif 505), fusible webbing, or even interfacing for sewing if you’re in a bind.
Supplies for Machine Embroidery Applique
Here’s what you’ll need to gather before creating your first applique.
- Embroidery machine and hoop (I used my Brother SE1900)
- Base fabric and applique fabric. Prewash both!
- Embroidery stabilizer and spray adhesive like Odif 505
- HeatnBond Lite or preferred backing for the applique fabric
- Embroidery thread and bobbin thread (read: how to choose the right machine embroidery thread)
- Needle (read: how to choose the best machine embroidery needle to use)
- Small, sharp embroidery scissors or snips
- Marking tools
- Applique design (mine was courtesy of PattiStudio from Oregon Patchworks.)
How to Embroider an Applique With an Embroidery Machine
First, prewash both your base fabric and your applique fabric if you’ll be ever washing the item you applique. It’s no good when you applique a new 100% cotton piece of fabric to a prewashed t-shirt and send it through the wash the first time. An unwashed cotton applique will shrink disproportionately to a prewashed t-shirt, for instance, and that’s bad news bears.
Setting Up the Fabric and Machine for Applique
Then, hoop the appropriate stabilizer and base fabric. For this tutorial, I very lightly sprayed my PolyMesh cut-away stabilizer with temporary fabric adhesive first to adhere it to the shirt and then hooped. If you need help hooping, check out how to hoop fabric for machine embroidery for tips and tricks! While some embroidery enthusiasts hate adhesive spray, it helps me to hoop accurately and tautly, so I’m a big fan!
If your base fabric won’t hoop, you can always float the fabric above the hooped stabilizer. To note, your stabilizer needs to be at least 1″ larger than the hoop size on each side to hoop properly. My stabilizer isn’t lined up in the center in the picture, but I have more than enough on each side!
Usually, I’ll use water-soluble topping when embroidering t-shirts, but since this was simply an applique design and not too stitch-dense, I skipped this part so I could have better pictures. If your applique fabric has a nap or pile (for example, terry cloth, velvet, faux fur), float one layer of water-soluble topping (ex: Sulky Solvy) on top after you’ve hooped your fabric. You’ll just tear away and then wash away residual topping when you’re done with the project.
Next, click the hoop into place on your embroidery machine. Make sure to pull all fabric out from underneath and around the embroidery area if you’re embroidering on a two-sided embroidery blank. It’s no fun to stitch the two sides of your shirt together when appliqueing! I usually use hair clips, clothespins, or even painter’s tape to hold excess fabric out of the way.
Stitching the Placement or Outline Stitch
Now, double-check that you have the right needle and thread in your machine. Load your design and center it with your markings.
Then, lower your presser foot, and press start to have you machine stitch the placement stitch. When I’m appliqueing, I use the same color thread for the placement stitch, tacking stitch, and satin stitch and match it to my applique fabric. You can use any color you want for the placement stitch, though, since it won’t be seen on the finished product.
Prepping the Applique Fabric
Meanwhile, cut a piece of applique fabric an inch or two larger than the dimensions of the stitched design. Then, adhere your chosen backing to the applique fabric. For me, this meant placing a piece of HeatnBond Lite with the textured side down onto the back of the applique fabric. I then pressed it on medium heat (the iron goes over the paper part of the backing) and let it cool. The paper layer then peels right off, leaving the backing remaining on the fabric.
Gently place the cut fabric on top of the placement stitch. Make sure all the placement stitch lines are covered. If you think the fabric is going to slip around, you can add a little spray adhesive to adhere it better.
Embroider the Tacking Stitch
Next, use the tacking stitch to create the cutting line and secure fabric in place. Sometimes this will be a running stitch or zigzag stitch. If it’s a straight stitch, sometimes the designer will also follow up with a zigzag.
Remove your hoop from the machine, and use a pair of sharp embroidery scissors or applique scissors to clip the fabric away from the side of the tacking stitch. Snip as close to the line as you can without accidentally clipping any of the stitches or base fabric, usually 1/8″ or closer. Make sure not to shift the fabric within the hoop, as this will mess with alignment. No need to be too perfect if you’re using a wide satin stitch as a border.
If you have a mini-iron (love mine!), go ahead and press the appliqued fabric to adhere it permanently to the shirt. If you don’t have a small iron, just make sure to press at the end to permanently adhere!
Finishing Up With the Border Stitch
Then, replace your hoop and stitch the satin stitch (or other decorative outside stitch) to finish the outside of the applique. The little V stitch you see below is just another tacking stitch this design has before it stitches the satin stitch.
Repeat this same process for any other parts of a multi-fabric applique design, and continue stitching with other colored threads until the design is completed.
Finishing Touches on the Appliqued Project
Remove your finished project from the hoop, and pat yourself on the back! Tear off any water-soluble topping, and tear or cut-away your stabilizer from the back of the project. Trim jump stitches with embroidery scissors, and get rid of any extra fabric fuzz that came when you snipped the fabric. It’s easy to do this with a lint roller.
Since I appliqued a t-shirt with my embroidery machine, I needed to make sure the itchy stitches wouldn’t rub my daughter’s chest. Thus, I ironed on a piece of Tender Touch backing to the inside of the shirt behind the embroidery design.
Give the applique a final press from both sides, if needed, to remove any wrinkles and make it look extra pretty! I also remove any hoop marks and chalk marks with Magic Sizing Spray. That stuff is seriously magic!
How to Create Your Own Applique Designs on Your Embroidery Machine
Now that you know the steps for machine applique, let’s talk about creating simple designs using your machine. If this process below is confusing, let me know, and I’ll make a video for it.
If you have a Brother embroidery machine (Brother PE800, SE1900, SE600, SE625, for instance), you’ll have built-in frames on your machine that you can combine or use in succession to make applique designs. With other brands of embroidery machines, you may also have this capability, so check out your user manual to see!
Just know that creating an applique on your machine to stitch bigger than your max hoop size is not possible. So if you have a Brother PE535, SE600, or SE625, this means the biggest applique you can make is 4″x4.” That’s why I eventually upgraded to the SE1900, which has a 5″x7″ embroidery area and also sews. It’s so awesome!
To access frames on your Brother embroidery machine, press the embroidery button and then press the frames icon. Choose your desired shape.
Within this shape, we’ll want to combine 3 frames. Scroll through the options for your chosen shape, and press “Set” to select the running stitch version of the shape. (Just a straight stitch around.)
Then, “add” a second running stitch shape the same size and shape as the first. Finally, end by adding your decorative stitch. I chose a satin stitch here, but there are a lot of fun options if you check them out!
Press Edit End, adjust your shape, and press Embroidery. You should then see the three shapes set to stitch in three different sections like below.
If your machine won’t combine frames, just stitch them one by one in succession without making the combination. How fun is it to be able to make your own applique designs without embroidery software?
How to Applique With an Embroidery Machine – Conclusion
And, that’s it! I hope this beginner machine applique embroidery tutorial has taught you how to applique with your embroidery machine. I love how I can personalize outfits for my daughters and make super cute embroidered gifts for friends and birthday parties. Let me know if anything is unclear, and I’d be happy to clarify. Happy embroidering!