reverse applique on upcycled denim

All about reverse applique {sewing tutorial}

It’s reverse applique day!

Reverse applique is one of those high reward sewing techniques.
It can add a lot of texture to a plain sewing project. You can use it to create a focal point on a top or a skirt.

The one thing about reverse applique is that it can be time consuming.
I personally think that’s a bonus. In fact, this is a great project for a weary mind. Busy hands + this simple repetition = a fabulous stress buster.

Want to sit in the sunshine and sew? This is for you!

So let’s talk about what reverse applique is and supplies you’ll need.
Then I’ll show you how to do reverse applique by both hand and machine.

I think you’re going to want to grab all your embroidery thread!

reverse applique sample

What is reverse applique?

Applique is any time you sew another fabric onto another fabric in some kind of shape. You can do this by hand or by machine. Applique can be as simple as sewing on a patch or as complicated as sewing large scale designs all over your fabric.

Reverse applique goes one step further. For this technique, you work backwards. The fabric that you want to see gets sewn to the backside of the main fabric.

kids' knee patches
shark patch here is reverse applique

After stitching through both layers from the right side, you cut away inside the stitched pieces to reveal the fabric behind the main fabric. This technique has a distinct style and design that’s different than regular applique.

Let’s talk about the kinds of fabric that work well for this sewing technique.

Awesome fabrics to choose for reverse applique

You’ve got a lot of choices here! Woven fabrics like linen, denim, or cotton are good. Note that there’s going to be a little raw edge happening here. We’ll talk about how you can minimize fraying once you cut away the fabric in a bit. Of course you can always embrace the fray!

For knits, ponte or cotton jerseys are great for reverse applique.

In general, any fabric you choose should be stable, at least medium weight and not too drapey. While it’s possible to use a more drapey ITY or rayon jersey, it’ll definitely up the difficulty.

As for the fabrics for the second layer that you expose, you can use just about anything. Prints can add a lot of personality.

Lace or mesh are fun options. Any similar weight fabric or slightly lighter version of what you’re using on top will work. If you’re using a heavy fabric like denim on top, go for something lighter like a cotton print.

Where to find stencils

The one specialty tool that will really help you make great reverse applique is a stencil. It’ll help you make consistent, evenly spaced motifs over your fabric.

You want to look for large scale designs. Skip wallpaper stencils. They can be really pricey and most wallpaper stencils are way too detailed for this kind of work. Big leaves, large flowers and animal prints with simple edges are best.

I’ll give a shoutout to Bianca of ThanksIMadeThem for her awesome stencils. She’s on break right now, but her stencils are just perfect for this kind of work. She loves applique herself, so she’s done a tremendous work developing stencils that are meant for just this work.

2 DIY options for making stencils for reverse applique

Cricut stencils

If you have a Cricut, you can also make your own stencils. Think large scale damask patterns, paisleys and other geometric designs. Here’s a great tutorial for how to cut a stencil with a Cricut.

Freezer paper stencils

Another option is to use freezer paper.

First, find a piece of fabric with a large scale design. Ankara or home dec prints are perfect here.

Next, trace the motifs with whatever tracing paper you have.

Place the tracing paper on top of a piece of freezer paper, and weigh it down with pattern weights.

To finish off the stencil, use an X-acto knife to cut through the tracing paper/freezer paper along the traced lines. Boom, you got a stencil.

How to reverse applique

Now that you have some idea about materials for this project, let’s get to the fun.

Prep your fabric

First, get your fabrics of choice. You want to work outside here!

glue stick + fabric

Lay down the fabric you want to see right side up. Next, lightly dab on the glue stick around the corners and at intervals in the middle of the fabric. Lightly press the wrong side of your outer fabric over the surface. Keep both layers of the fabric flat and wrinkle free.

You can also use quilting basting spray instead of a glue stick. If you do use the basting spray, be sure to air out your fabric before you start work. Spray glue is stanky!

Trace the design

Next, lay your stencil on the fabric. If you’re using a freezer paper stencil, use a dry iron to temporarily stick the stencil to the fabric.

Use a fabric marking pen or washable marker to trace on the interior of the stencil. For a faster way that’ll add a little color at the same time, spray over the stencil with fabric spray paint. You could also use a stencil brush + fabric paint. Deepika gives a good example of this here.

Now for the stitching!

How to stitch reverse applique

Before you get stitch happy, ask yourself if you want to do this whole reverse applique thing by hand or by machine. It’s not a bad idea to test a sample. I like them both, but you might have strong preferences one way or the other.

reverse applique drop pocket cardigan
Machine stitched (left) vs. hand stitched

How to reverse applique by machine

If you want to stitch out your design by machine, pick a triple straight stitch. It’ll add a nice bold line along the traced motifs.

reverse applique on upcycled denim
reverse applique on upcycled denim

Stitch around each shape carefully. Lift your presser foot and pivot your fabric as needed.

How to reverse applique by hand

Alternatively, use a hand needle and embroidery thread. A backstitch works well here for a really secure design. That’s my personal option for the strength, although a small running stitch can also work. Add secure knots at the beginning and end of each length of thread on the backside of the fabrics.

You can use an embroidery hoop here if you’d like. I typically work without one, but I think it’s a personal preference here. Do make sure as you’re stitching that both fabrics stay nice and flat. Avoid pulling the stitches tight which will gather up the fabric.

Pop in some good Netflix for this step. It’ll take a while, but it’s simple, and repetitive. Watch something binge worthy and relax while you stitch!

Reveal the underside fabric

To finish up your reverse applique, we need to carefully cut away the top layer of fabric.

First separate the layers of fabric on the interior of a shape.

Next, use your embroidery scissors to cut a tiny slit somewhere in the middle of the shape. Slide the blade inside the slit and carefully cut away the top layer of fabric. Be careful not to cut through the second layer of fabric.

Leave a small border on the inside of each shape. You can decide how wide you want this border to be. I would not leave less than 1/8″.

To fray or not to fray

If you’re working with a woven, once you cut away that top fabric, the cut edge can fray.

You might like that! I personally love fringed linen and denim. If you don’t want the fabric to fray, stitch again on the interior of the shapes with a small zigzag stitch.

If you opt for a raw finish, seal the edges with Fray Block or Fray Check. Both of these products will keep the raw look of the reverse applique without fraying.

reverse applique closeup

After this, wash your fabric to remove any of your tracing marks. See how the motifs with the Fray Block didn’t really fray in the wash? Love that stuff.

Finish the backside

Last step: baste around the edges of your top fabric. From there you can treat both layers as one and sew it into your project as you would.

If you don’t want two layers of fabric all over your project, trim the backing fabric about 1/2″ from the stitching for wovens. Finish off the edges with a serger and press flat.

For knits, you can trim the fabric 1/4″ from the stitching. No need to finish the edges since knits don’t fray!

Give it a try!

So that’s how you reverse applique. It’s one of those high-impact techniques you can use in just about any sewing project to add some DIY character.

Projects to add reverse applique:

Love it for its beauty and simplicity and practice it to wind down at the end of a day! Whatever you do, give it a try. I think you’ll love the process.

Show me more applique and embroidery ideas!

Sew a lace applique tee
Sew a lace applique tee

Simple way to upgrade a basic t-shirt

How to embroider a t-shirt
How to embroider a t-shirt

Easy way to stitch your kids’ art on a t-shirt

Add lace sleeves to a t-shirt
Add lace sleeves to a t-shirt

How to turn lace appliques into unique t-shirt sleeves

11 thoughts on “All about reverse applique {sewing tutorial}”

  1. Hi! Good on you for hand stitching it, it looks wonderfully textured. I am also attempting the Sudoku challenge, though I don’t know if I will make it. And I am doing my first ever reverse applique top at the moment but I am going the quick and easy machine embroidery way. Fortunately my fabric suits the machine technique, it is a stable suede knit that does not fray or pull at all.

  2. This turned out great! I love this pattern for this technique. I may need to grab this one. Your color combination of thread and fabric are perfect together. You did such a good job. I am not familiar with soil separator and it sounds like a good tool. Thanks for the shout-out about Terial Magic.

    1. elizabethmadethis

      Thanks Bianca! You’re my reverse applique hero, so your opinion means a lot! Soil separator is great for drapier knits. I use it for tracing patterns mainly, but I’ve used it also to transfer my sons’ artwork onto t-shirts with embroidery. I wrote a tutorial here with it: https://elizabethmadethis.com/embroider-your-kids-art/
      I’m going to the sew expo here at the end of the month–I’ll be on the lookout for Terial Magic!

  3. The reverse applique definitely makes this cardigan! I’ve done a little here and there– one in a t-shirt refashion, and one in a denim skirt. I’d really love to do one of those full Alabama Chanin-style projects sometime, but I haven’t quite managed to get one going yet.

    1. elizabethmadethis

      Thanks Becky!
      I pick up her books at Barnes and Noble occasionally. No doubt that style is beautiful, but it is a time commitment. Definitely a project to be enjoyed in tiny doses with no time pressure!

  4. Pingback: Wardrobe Sudoku 2017 - Elizabeth Made This

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