19 October 2018

A little happy tutorial ~ Needle Turn Applique

Without wishing to sound like a stuck record, I absolutely love hand sewing.  I hand sewed my first quilt in my late teens/early twenties by the English Paper Piecing method.... as you can tell, the going out night clubbing phase seemed to pass me by!  20 'ahem' years later, I still love EPP, but I also 'now love' appliqué.....

I say 'now love', as I am sure like many of you, I believed up until a few years ago, that applique in particular needle turn applique, was something only the most skilled and seasoned quilter could master...... it's a bit like Foundation Paper Piecing....it's one of those techniques that you can easily talk yourself out of, without even trying.  I hasten to add, before you shoot me down in flames, that clearly some of the more detailed designs that I swoon over on Pinterest have clearly been sewn by extremely skilled and seasoned quilters.  I guess what I am trying to say is, give it a go.... start simple and build from there....as with anything, the more that you do, the more your confidence increases and your skills become greater........it's all about finding the method of applique that you are most comfortable with.

To keep things simple, for most applique projects and certainly for those that I have designed and sewn so far, there are three different methods that you can choose from:

1. Raw Edge  ~ for this method, you first use a double sided adhesive interfacing to adhere you applique to the background before sewing it in place, leaving the edge of the applique raw and open to fraying.  You can find a detailed tutorial that I wrote back in 2013 for this method HERE.

2. Interfacing Method ~ for this method, you prepare your applique shapes using 'sew in' interfacing, prior to hand sewing on to your project.  It gives the look of 'needle turn' but does I think, seem slightly less scary to undertake!  You can find a detailed 'a little happy' tutorial HERE.

3. Needle Turn ~ for this method, as the name suggests, you use your needle to turn under the seam allowances as you hand sew the applique in place.  This is the method that I was most daunted by and hopefully today, I can share some tips that will give you the confidence to give it go.

Before I do, I just wanted to re share this picture of the appliqued floral wreath I made this time last year.  For this small design, I used a variety of techniques including both Needle Turn and the Interfacing Method.....can you tell which flowers were sewn from which?  The point I'm trying to make is that it doesn't really matter....I'm happy with how it turned out and that surely is what is important.

So let's talk Needle Turn applique.....

There are many different techniques for needle turn applique, but having tried various ways, watched and read lots of tutorials I now favour two different methods.  The first and probably the most well known, is where I use a drawn line as a guide for my seam line/turning line.   I used this method when I made my Perfect Pairs quilt.  Take care with your choice of pens/pencils, ultimately as you will be turning the fabric directly on the line, you shouldn't have any on view once you have appliqued the shape.  Personally I steer away from any permanent markers, just to be on the safe side!

EDITED:  I forgot to say that I find a sandpaper board very useful, as it holds the fabric in place when I'm marking the line.  

To prepare the heart applique, I used my acrylic 2 part template, available HERE, which allows for a 1/4" seam allowance.   For larger shapes such as the heart, I have found it absolutely fine to work with a 1/4" seam allowance, however as the applique shapes get smaller, so will the seam allowance need to.  A scant 1/4" is good and maybe down to an 1/8" if the shape is really small.... what you do not want is bulk.

I also find it helpful to finger crease along the 'turning' line....take care however not to stretch the fabric, particularly where the fabric is cut on the bias.

The only other prep required is on concave curves, where I need to snip the seam allowance to allow me to turn it under when sewing. Snip almost but not quite to the seam line.   Examples of this are on the  heart applique below....
....and can you see on this shape, which is the 'cream' on the figgy pudding, I added three snips.  Basically, you'll need to snip a concave (inward) curve, but convex (outward) curves you'll find you can just turn the seam.

Before I talk abut the sewing part, I want to talk about the other method of preparation that I use and the one that has caused a bit of stir when I've shared some pictures.   This is the method that Atsuko Matsuyama recommends.

Unlike all the methods that I had previously seen where the Freezer paper is adhered to the reverse side of the applique, for this method, you cut the freezer paper to the finished applique shape size and then iron this shiny/wax side down, to the RIGHT side of the fabric.

Then free hand, cut out the applique allowing for your seam allowance.... on these small applique shapes which are from my Warm and Cozy mini quilt, I eye balled a scant 1/4" seam allowance.

As I did before, I find it helpful to finger press the turning line before  I start sewing.  

Then rather than using the drawn line, you turn the fabric following the edge of the freezer paper.  I have found that having something with substance to 'turn' against has made the process so much easier!

You keep the freezer paper in place until you have appliqued the shape and then, peel it off.  Keep all the papers as you can reuse them quite a few times before the become non sticky!  

Finally, a note on pins, needle and threads.   

Before you can sew your applique you will need to secure it in its position on the background fabric.  There are various glues on the market, personally I have not used them, so I can not comment.  I'm a pinner!  I have for many years favoured Clover Applique Pins.... they are really short, the benefit being that your thread is less likely to get tangled up in them.  For standard quilting weight cottons.... I love them...however I am currently sewing a Liberty Tana Lawn applique quilt 'Liberty Periodical' which is going to be a new Block of the Month in January.  Tana Lawn is so much finer than quilting weight cotton and requires much finer pins.  For this project I am using Tulip Applique Pins, they're a tad longer than the Clover Pins, but much finer and very sharp!

My needle of choice for applique are Clover Black Gold Applique Sharps in either size 9 or 10's.  Historically my thread of choice and one that I am consistently happy with, is Aurifil 50wt 100% cotton (orange spools).  It's a fantastic multi purpose thread, great for machine, hand, EPP and applique.  However......just to throw a little spanner in to the works, Aurifil have introduced a new 80wt thread on very sweet wooden spools.  This is a super fine,100% cotton thread, which has taken the quilting world by storm.  Some quilters have had enormous success using 80wt for both machine and hand sewing, including EPP and applique.  Personally, I'm still a 50wt girl as I want to get the most value out of my thread, however I am a complete convert for applique.... 80wt is an absolute dream......it is so fine the stitches almost disappear! 

The only other thing that you'll need to know before we get sewing is that the rule is, to match your thread colour to the applique fabric rather than the background.

So, with all that said......let's get stitching!

To start, make a knot in your thread and then bring your needle from underneath the applique seam allowance through to the front, literally as close to the edge of the paper as you can get without nipping it.    I always, if the shape allows start sewing on a straight edge, and away from a corner or point.

Then use the tip of your needle to gently push the seam allowance underneath your applique...this is where if you have finger creased the seam in advance, it makes it so much easier.  Just to mention, I turn about 1/2" worth of seam allowance at a time and then hold it down with my thumb on my non sewing hand.  When you're ready to make your first stitch, in one movement, take your needle vertically through to the back of the background fabric skimming the fold line and then bring it back up to the front a smidge along to the left......bring it through so that it is just the teeniest bit underneath the applique shape, so that you just nip the edge of the applique fabric.  By doing this you will ensure that your stitches are small and neat and as non visible as possible.... try to keep your stitches close together, you don't want big gaps in between.

Continue along the edge of your applique shape.  I find that the freezer paper on top of the applique shape, holds the applique rigid and gives you something firm to fold against.  It's like tucking a sheet under a mattress!

When you approach a point or corner, you are going to have deal with the extra bulky seam allowance.   I didn't on the leaf in the example, but you may wish if there is a lot of excess fabric, to nip off the tip of the point, leaving just a scant 1/4".  (for this next step think hospital corners like those that your mum taught you!) Fold under the excess seam allowance on the tip of the applique, so that the fold line is almost at a 90 degree angle to the seam line that you've been sewing.  Hold it under with your non sewing hand, and then continue sewing until you reach the tip of the point.
Secure the point by sewing a couple of teeny over stitches. 
Then turn the corner and continue along the applique shape as before, using your needle to turn under the seam allowance.  Remember to keep your stitches as small as possible.
As I mentioned earlier, on convex curves, like that shown below, you'll be able to turn under and sew the seam allowance, exactly as you would on a straight edge.
Sew all round until you reach your starting point and then knot of securely at the back of the fabric.

If the shape has a concave curve, by snipping the fabric you'll be able to turn under the seam allowance right into the curve.
Where you have cut the fabric, by not quite snipping to the fold line, there is still some fabric that turns under, all bit it the most minuscule amount, but enough that you can get your needle and thread in to to secure and obviously to prevent it from fraying.

Before I talk about circles, I just want to clarify that I do not cut away the background fabric under the applique as some may, I'm happy with all the layers.

I thought it may be useful to also mention how I prepare circles for applique.  There are lots of different ways, but I've now settled pretty much on these.  For larger circles, I have found that I have best results with either needle turning using the freezer paper method above or I make them using the interfacing method.   But when they get small and if you slightly deviate from that perfect curve it becomes so noticeable ....  I've found the method recommended by Sarah Fielke to be really helpful.
First off, you make some cardboard circles, to the size dictated by your pattern.  I cut mine from an old cereal boxes.  I then keep and reuse them.
Cut the fabric approx 1/4"  larger than the cardboard circle, I eye ball this.
Then using silver foil, make a little parcel wrapping the fabric around the cardboard circle, take your time with this. 

Then iron, the heat marks a crease on the circumference and folds under the seam allowance, leaving you with perfect little circle ready to applique in place.  If you do get any points on the curve, which are generally caused by a pleat in the seam allowance.....these can be dealt with when you applique in place...you can have a little play with the pleat and smooth it out, then secure with the stitch.
The only other thing with regards to applique is how to make Bias Stems.... personally I use a bias maker and you can read my 'a little happy' tutorial for how do this HERE.

Before leaving ...... just in case you were wondering...... for the light and dark blue flowers, I used the interfacing method.....for the centre circles I used the cardboard and foil applique technique and for the little red flowers and bow I needle turned, using the freezer paper technique.  If you fancy having a practice, you can find the applique templates for these flowers HERE.

I hope that you have found this tutorial useful and have managed to make it through to this point!  If you do have any questions, please ask away and I will do my best to answer them.

See you next week, when I'll be sharing the Warm and Cozy mini quilt pattern.


  1. This is a fantastic tutorial. I wish this was around when I learnt to appliqué. It would have made things so much easier.

  2. That was great! Thanks

  3. Absolutely fantastic tutorial. Thank you. x

  4. This is a wonderful tutorial! A wealth of information. I think you may have just solved my final issue with needle turn! I have been experimenting with EVERY applique technique I can find and needle turn is my favorite. My only last issue is even though I'm using a pencil to trace, if I don't turn the edges just right I'm still seeing my tracing lines and it drives me crazy... using the freezer paper on top looks like it would solve that! You don't have to trace it that way right?

  5. I've been using the freezer paper on top method for years and really don't understand why it's not better known. Much easier than the reverse method, plus there are no cuts to mend because the freezer paper isn't pulled through a slit on the back.

  6. Hi Sarah, thanks so much for this. I’ve struggled with needle turn Applique but with the freezer paper it was so much easier, I’m really pleased with the results! X

  7. Really great lesson! Thanks

  8. I have a difficult time with paper lifting from the applique fabric. Suggestions, please?

    1. Hi,I use Reynolds Freezer Paper and haven't had any problems...maybe try pressing a little longer so that it has more time for the paper to adhere to the fabric...good luck! xo


Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment, it really does make my day! If you have a question, please do ask away and I will do my very best to answer. Sarah xo

Update July 2020: Unfortunately, due to a large increase in spam and inappropriate comments, I have turned on 'Comment Moderation', so your comment will not appear immediately. My apologies for this!

© A Little Happy Place | All rights reserved.
Blog Layout Created by pipdig