History of Applique

Appliqué is the name given to the decorative technique of sewing fabric shapes to a background fabric of a different color and has been around in some form for as long as humans have been able to use a needle and thread. Some believe that the idea of appliqué may have come from patching holes in worn garments or linens.

In America the use of appliqué to create household textiles began in the 18th Century. The first examples were in the style called Broderie Perse. This name, meaning Persian embroidery in French, is thought to have originated around the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London at the Crystal Palace, though the method was actually used for many years before the Great Exhibition.

When fabric became readily available, colorfast appliqué was used more and more to create beautiful bedcovers. Unlike patchwork, appliqué lends itself to curved and intricate shapes so more realistic designs can be used. Flowers look like flowers and people look like people. Story quilts became popular in the early 1800s to document important historical events such as battles or presidential inaugurations. These realistic techniques reached their zenith in the 1840s and 1850s. Some of the most intricate and beautiful appliqué quilts ever made were called Baltimore Album quilts because they were produced primarily in Maryland.

Baltimore Album quilts were also known as presentation quilts and autograph quilts. They were originally made to commemorate a festive event such as a wedding or as remembrances to be given to family or friends who might be moving too far away to have much hope of returning for visits. Each block was stitched and signed by a different person. The block design often had particular relevance to the person for whom the quilt was being made and the block was sometimes signed by the maker, hence the name autograph quilts.

At about the same time as Baltimore quilts were having their heyday, the spectacular Hawaiian quilt was being developed. On March 31, 1820, the brig Thaddeus brought the first American missionaries to Hawaii. Legend has it that within hours of debarkation the missionary ladies had organized a quilting lesson. The Hawaiian ladies did not like to cut the large lengths of fabric in to small pieces so they developed a way to use as large a piece as possible. It is believed that German sailors had shown the Hawaiians how to do Schneerenschnit, a paper cutting technique at an earlier time. The inventive Hawaiian ladies used a similar technique to cut out what must be the largest appliqué pieces in the world for their distinctive quilts.

The Hawaiians were not the only non-European people to take to appliqué. After fabric began being used for trade goods, tribal people in Central America and Asia developed some interesting and unusual forms of appliqué.

Celtic appliqué developed from the decorations used on Irish step dancing costumes. The complex designs are found carved on ancient stones all over Ireland. The appliqués are usually made with bias tape. Stained glass appliqué uses bias tape to emulate leading in stained glass windows. Shadow appliqués are made by covering a colored piece of fabric with a piece of organdy and stitching around the shape. 

Source: by Steffani McChesney


Quilt Applique Techniques & Tips

Needle turn Appliqué 

  • cut out your motif including a scant seam allowance. Draw the placement diagram lightly to your base fabric in pencil, then baste the motif in place with thread or tiny pins. Turn under the edge with a moist toothpick as you appliqué making sure to cover the placement lines.  It helps to crease the seam allowance with your thumb before laying the motif on your fabric. 
  • cut out your motif using a scant seam allowance. Run a basting stitch along the edges of the motif. Pull the thread slightly and the appliqué piece will cup the seam allowance in to the wrong side. Pin the motif to the front of the block along your placement diagram and appliqué outside the basting thread. Pull the basting thread just before you finish, or leave it in place.
  • Instead of using a basting stitch (above) try using liquid startch.  Just wet a quilt tip with it, wet the area to be turned under and fold over the seams.  It will hold the fold in place while you work, but it must be rinsed out when you are done quilting the quilt. 
  • consider using washable Glue to hold your motif in place while you hand appliqué it to your piece. Fusible thread can be used as well.
  • Water Soluble thread is the perfect answer for machine and hand basting.  When you have finished quilting, just wash and your basting stitches dissolve away.
  • Use a washout-embroidery stablizer.  With this method, cut out your appliqué piece and a matching piece of the stablizer.  Place them right sides together and sew around the outside using a very small stitch.  Clip your curves.  Cut a small hole on the stablizer and turn the piece inside out.  Press.   Applique the piece to your background.  When you are done, wash the patch and the water soluble stabilizer will dissolve. 

Freezer paper appliqué 

  • cut your freezer paper to the size of the appliqué. Iron it on to the front of your motif fabric and cut generously around it. Pin the combination to the front of the block, then needle turn the edges under as you stitch, using the freezer paper as an edge guide. 
  • cut your freezer paper to the size of the appliqué. Iron it on the back of your motif fabric and cut generously around it. Baste the seam allowance in to the wrong side. Pin the combination to the front of your block. Appliqué, being careful not to catch the freezer paper in your stitches. Just before you finish, pull the freezer paper out with a pair of tweezers


  • On the paper side of your fusible, trace your appliqué design. The fusible goes on the back of your motif (the wrong side of the fabric) so the traced image has to be reversed to match the pattern. Rough cut these shapes out.  Then lay the web on the WRONG side of the fabric and iron according to the manufacturers instructions. Now you can cut out the shape on the traced lines.  Remove the paper from the back of the motif and place it fused side down on your quilt block.  Fuse it in place according to the manufacturers directions.
  • If your motif is very large, you might want to remove the center before ironing the fusible to the back of the motif.   
  • You don't need to finish the edges of your appliqué.  If you would like to, a satin stitch covers the edges completely.  You can change the look of the piece by using using contrasting or specialty thread.  You may also use a buttonhole/blanket stitch as well as a tight zig zag with invisible thread instead of satin stitch, but it won't cover the edge completely.   

Other methods

  • Cut out your appliqué motifs using templates and adding a scant seam allowance. Draw the placing diagram on the wrong side of your base fabric lightly in pencil. On the right side of your fabric, baste your appliqué piece along the placement diagram lines Use doubled thread and take small stitches. Needle turn appliqué, then remove the basting stitches. 
  • For larger appliqué pieces: Cut out two appliqué motifs using templates and adding a seam allowance. Sew them right sides together, leaving a space to turn them inside out. Press, rolling the seam to the inside. Appliqué, using a dab of washable glue to hold it in place. 
  • Embroidery. Hold the edges down with satin stitching or, for a 30's look, ladder stitching. To avoid fraying or breaking your thread, do not pull your stitches through with the needle. Grasp the thread just behind the needle and pull. It also helps to work with a short thread and start with a new thread when starting a new appliqué. If you use a metal thimble, take care to note if you are accidentally trapping the thread between the needle and thimble. Mettler 60 wt. cotton is good for hand appliqué as well as 50 wt DMC cotton, with a #10 needle.

TIP:  A great place to find applique motifs is in a coloring book!


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