The easiest way to rescue a boring t-shirt is to transform it into an applique t-shirt.
Applique is such a simple way to add some extra visual texture and interest to a plain t-shirt.
All you need is some knit fabric scraps, a little bit of time, and you can create an applique t-shirt that’ll be something that’s uniquely you.
In this post, we’ll talk about the best fabrics for applique, then I’ll walk you through the process of creating your own applique design on a t-shirt.
If you’re new to sewing, this is a project that’ll help you practice some basic sewing stitches, and if you’re a seasoned sewist, add this to your arsenal of fun embellishing techniques you can try.
So find a fun design you can cut out and let’s get to it.
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Applique t-shirt supplies
What kind of fabric works best for applique t-shirts?
First off, when you’re looking for fabric to use for an appliqued shirt, you want to look for something fun!
The applique is going to be a focal point, so look for fabric with large scale motifs, and bold colors that contrast well against your t-shirt fabric.
Sometimes you can find just such a big bold design on an old t-shirt.
In terms of fibers, look for knits that are either:
- 95% cotton/5% spandex
- lightweight 50/50 cotton/polyester knits
- 100% cotton
If your base t-shirt is made of a more stable knit without too much stretch, you could even get away with using lightweight sheer woven fabrics. Silk scarves are wonderful for this kind of project because they often feature large interesting motifs.
And if you have a streak of “DIY or die” in you (first, I salute you, because you’re my people!), you could even block print a couple of impressions of a stamp on some lightweight cotton jersey. For this project, I made a couple of impressions of one of my favorite stamps I’ve carved in two different colors of ink.
How to make an applique t-shirt
Cut your fabric motif
First off, cut out your decorative fabric. Rough cut around your design, leaving at least 1/2″ around all edges.
You can cut out one motif or several depending on the kind of design you want to create on your fresh applique t-shirt.
Baste the applique
Next, you need to baste the applique fabric in place.
Thread up a hand needle with some thread that contrasts with your t-shirt color.
Pin the fabric in place.
For this step, it’s nice to work on a dress form here, but it’s not totally necessary. If you don’t have a dress form, I would suggest setting your work flat on a table.
Make large basting stitching around the outside of the design. Remove the pins as you go.
Do not use pins here. Hand basting the applique in place is going to make the rest of this project so much easier.
Need more convincing about why basting beats pins any day? Read about What is a basting stitch in sewing (and why it’s awesome).
If you really want to skip hand basting entirely here’s what to do instead: use a glue stick. Apply a little bit of glue stick on the back of your applique and position it in place. Allow the glue stick to dry entirely before moving on.
Embroider the fabric with running stitches
From here, thread up your embroidery needle with a length of embroidery floss.
No need to separate the floss threads like you would for something like cross stitch. The thicker thread is going to make a nice chunky stitch that’ll really stand out on your applique t-shirt.
Knot your thread on the end.
Push the needle through the backside of the t-shirt near the edge of the print design on your applique fabric. Push the needle through both layers of fabric about 1/4″ away from where you brought the needle up.
Move the needle in and out of the fabric, letting several stitches build up on your needle before pulling the floss through.
These are called running stitches. Running stitches are the simplest hand embroidery stitch, but doggone they look nice too!
For the best look, be careful not to pull the floss too tightly. The fabric should not pucker at all. If you find it does, pull out a couple stitches and redistribute the extra length to let the thread relax. Think of it kind of like when you’re lacing a pair of sneakers.
Make running stitches all around your print design. Tie off the thread on the inside of the t-shirt.
Embroider the inside of the design
You could stop at simply outlining your motif with thread and that would make a fine applique t-shirt.
But…if you want to make your shirt a little more interesting, continue with your running stitches on the inside of the motifs. You could use another color, make multiple rows, whatever you like.
I really like following some of the details of the particular motif and outlining some of their natural shapes.
When you’re happy with how your applique is looking, bring the floss to the inside of the t-shirt and tie a knot. Cut off the extra floss near the knot.
Cut away the extra fabric
Remove your basting stitches. Cut away the extra fabric just beyond your stitching lines.
Embroidery scissors are a lifesaver here. Gently slide the blades under the applique fabric and cut away the excess, being careful not to cut through the t-shirt itself.
Finish off by giving your stitches a press with an iron and steam.
Watch the video tutorial:
Where will you wear your applique t-shirt?
Elizabeth Farr is the writer behind the Elizabeth Made This blog where she shares helpful sewing tips, step by step sewing tutorials and videos to help you explore your creativity through sewing. She has written sewing Eguides and patterns, been a featured teacher at Rebecca Page’s Sewing Summit and Jennifer Maker’s Holiday Maker Fest and her work has appeared in Seamwork and Altered Couture magazines. She also created a line of refashioned garments for SEWN Denver. When her sewing machine isn’t humming, she’s playing and teaching violin, and hanging around a good strategic board game with her husband and 4 kids.