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Reverse appliqué

Reverse appliqué is a traditional technique used to create complex patterns by using plain fabrics and cutting away the surface to reveal one or more layers of fabric underneath. The Mola technique from Panama uses multiple layers of brightly coloured cotton, which are cut away in turn to leave a design of narrow coloured lines. I have included various experimental interpretations of the technique.

Material and Design Notes :

  • For the top layers of fabric choose ones that do not fray too much – the bottom layer can be anything as it will not be cut. Cotton lawn is an ideal fabric.
  • Fine-pointed embroidery scissors are essential to get close to the stitching and create neat cuts.
  • The design is marked on the top fabric so use a vanishing pen as raw-edge reverse appliqué is not easily washed.

Basic method

1). Layer two or more fabrics together right side up. Transfer or draw the design onto the top fabric layer. Machine stitch the outline of the design, or hand stitch with backstitch, running stitch or a decorative stitch.

Basic method Reverse applique A

2). Pinch and separate the fabric layers within the stitched area, making sure you have hold of the top layer only. Using small, sharp, fine-pointed scissors, cut a small snip in the top layer.

Basic method Reverse applique B

3). Cut away the top layer of fabric within the stitched area up to 6mm (¼in) from the stitched edge, or closer if it will not fray.

Basic method Reverse applique C

4). Draw a second design on the next fabric layer; sew around the design as in step 1. Cut away as in steps 2 and 3. Continue in this way for the number of fabric layers being worked to achieve the effect you desire.

5). The edges of the reverse appliqué can be left raw, or if you prefer, you can turn the raw edges under and hand stitch in place (see Needle-Turned Reverse Appliqué).

Raw-edge reverse appliqué

Raw-edge reverse appliqué.

Reverse appliqué variations

Reverse appliqué, machine stitched felt Felt, or fine leather, can be stitched and cut away close to the stitching without risk of fraying. The stitching can be worked by hand or machine. No stabilizer is required when working with felt, making it particularly suitable for large pieces stitched by machine.

Reverse Appliqué Variations A

Reverse Appliqué Variations B

Shadow work, hand-stitched

Shadow work is essentially the same technique as raw-edge reverse appliqué (see Basic Method), but using transparent fabrics to create a shadow effect. Two layers of fabric are stitched together with one layer cut away to reveal the design. Silk organza is ideal for this technique as it is stiff and doesn’t fray too much, and the finer the silk the better. Stitch the design with matching thread, as fine as possible for almost-invisible stitching. You can even use long threads unravelled from the edge of the fabric itself.

1). Layer two pieces of silk organza and tack (baste) around the edges. Trace the design onto the top fabric layer using vanishing pen.

2). Start the stitching by making two tiny backstitches (do not use a knot), and work tiny running stitches around the drawn line. An appliqué needle will help you to make the stitches as small as possible. To finish, fasten the thread with backstitch.

Shadow work, hand-stitched A

3). Separate the layers ready to cut away the top layer (see Basic Method, step 2).

Shadow work, hand-stitched B

4). Trim the top layer to within 2–3mm (1⁄₈in) of the sewn edge (depending on how much the organza frays).

Shadow work, hand-stitched C

Hand-stitched shadow work – the organza used in this sample is quite coarse, but the white silk Scalloped Cape uses a much finer organza, which allows for a more detailed design.

Shadow work, machined

This is the same as hand-stitched shadow work but the design is machine-stitched. Machine stitching small curves can be tricky. Work slowly and with a short stitch length. Alternatively, use free-motion machine embroidery.

1). Tack (baste) together the two layers of fabric and draw out the design (see Shadow Work, Hand-Stitched, step 1).

2). Use small machine stitches to follow the design, reducing the stitch length to 0.5mm at the start and end to finish the stitching invisibly. Pull the threads to the back and knot if required.

3). Cut away the top layer following steps 3 and 4 of Shadow Work, Hand-Stitched.

Shadow work, hand-stitched D

Machine-stitched shadow work in straight stitch. Satin stitch or other dense embroidery stitches could also be used.

Project Idea : Scalloped Cape

Use a basic evening cape pattern and add scalloped edges all around.

Techniques : Scalloped Edge and Shadow Work
Material : Fine quality silk organza

Scalloped Cape A

  • Add scalloped edges to a cape pattern.
  • Cut two layers of the cape pattern and sew together, leaving a small gap on the back neck for turning. Trim the seam allowances to 5mm (¼in). Turn neatly and press flat. Sew up the opening.
  • Trace the required design, using vanishing marker pen. Work the design using threads pulled from the leftover fabric so the stitches are invisible. Cut the shadow work details from the inside layer of the cape working on the reverse side (see the detail photograph).

Scalloped Cape B

Satin stitch reverse appliqué

Where the top fabric might fray a lot, machined satin stitch can stabilize the edge and create a neat, decorative finish. This technique can be applied to a variety of materials but is particularly suitable for lightweight fabrics. Tear-away stabilizer is used underneath the fabrics to prevent the fine fabrics from getting snarled up in the machine’s needle plate or from puckering as you stitch. You should leave the stabilizer in place until you have cut away the top layer of fabric as this makes it easier to manipulate.

1). Cut the top and base fabrics and the stabilizer to the same size. Transfer the design to the top fabric layer before you put the fabric sandwich together. Tack (baste) the fabric sandwich together making sure the stabilizer is at the bottom.

Satin stitch reverse appliqué A

2). Set the satin stitch using 0.5mm stitch length and 2mm stitch width, or as wide as required for the design. Start on a corner or straight edge and slowly sew along the lines of the design. Pivot at corners or tight curves with the needle down on the right- hand side of the satin stitching. (It is a good idea to practise first before starting on the finished piece, to get the hang of curves and corners.)

Satin stitch reverse appliqué B

3). When the stitching is complete, pull the threads through to the back,knot and cut. Separate the layers ready to cut away the top layer (see Basic Method, step 2). Cut away the top fabric cutting very close to the edge of the satin stitching, but making sure you don’t cut the satin stitched threads at all. If top fabric threads remain in the edge of the satin stitching, first remove the stabilizer, then fold the base fabric back out of the way so the remaining threads stick up, and trim using finepointed scissors.

Satin stitch reverse appliqué C

Satin stitch reverse appliqué D

Satin stitch reverse appliqué. The contrast of the silk and the fine net creates a dramatic effect.

Needle-turned reverse appliqué

In this version of reverse appliqué, the layers are slashed and the top fabric folded back. It is also known as folded reverse appliqué. It works particularly well where the fabrics used are fine and turn under easily. Cotton lawn is ideal.

1). Transfer the design onto the top fabric. Layer two or three fabrics. Outline the marked design by hand or machine stitching.

Needle-turned reverse appliqué A

2). Mark the line of the slashing and separate the fabrics. Make a very tiny snip in the top fabric right on the marked line. Carefully cut along the marked line, leaving a few millimetres at each end to allow the fabric to turn.

Needle-turned reverse appliqué B

3). Fold the fabric under, utilizing the tip of a needle to tuck it under where the underlap is narrow. Use tiny, fine, appliqué pins to hold in place and tack (baste) if required. Knot a single thread and bring it up from the underside, coming out just on the edge of the fold. Use tiny, invisible stitches to hold the folded edge in place.

Needle-turned reverse appliqué C

Slashed boiled wool

This technique creates an openwork wool fabric which can be used alone or as an applied layer. Use hand-wash only wool, which is suitable for felting, such as an old jumper or wool jersey fabric. (If using a jumper, cut it into flat pieces by cutting along the side seams, around the armholes and across the shoulders.) The slashes made in the wool are sealed when it felts, so the edges do not fray. All wool fabrics will shrink differently so start with a piece much larger than you need and cut it down to the right size.

1). Place the wool fabric on a cutting mat. Using a rotary cutter or large pair of scissors, cut slashes in the wool. You can use a metal ruler with the rotary cutter, but take care that the blade can’t slip onto your hand.

2). To felt it, wash the slashed wool fabric in your washing machine on a 60°C cycle.

3). Hang the felted fabric up to dry, then iron on medium heat with lots of steam to get all the creases out. Horizontal slashes will curl outwards – you can press them flat or leave then to curl. Vertical slashes usually do not curl so much.

Slashed boiled wool A

Different effects are achieved by slashing horizontally across the knitted grain or vertically along the lines of the rib in the knit. The size of the slashes and the distance between them will also affect the final effect created after felting. The red fabric has small slashes vertically along the knitted rib, while in the pink sample, the slashes are longer and run across the grain horizontally.

Slashed boiled wool B

Fabric Manipulation
150 CREATIVE Sewing Techniques

Ruth Singer