What is Applique in Textiles?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many ways to design textiles. In this lesson, we will explore the technique of appliqué and see how this can be used to visually enhance many kinds of textiles.


It is an undisputed fact in the world of fashion that elbow patches are awesome. They are the embodiment of cool. They are the pinnacle of style. I wish this was true. While elbow patches may still garner respect in world of academia, not everybody seems able to appreciate their greatness. What most people do appreciate is the technique by which elbow patches (and many other elements of textile design) are created. Appliqué is a design technique by which pieces of material are attached to another material. It's one of the oldest forms of design in the world, and is still commonly used around the globe today. At least the technique is something we can all agree on.

Come on, cool, right?

How Appliqué Works

Appliqué is a relatively simple process with a wide range of applications. The term itself comes from the French word appliquer, meaning ''to attach or apply,'' and that's what this is all about. One material is being attached to another. So, we start with a base, the main textile being produced. This may be a blanket, a shirt, a potholder, or practically any other human-made fabric.

Now, we start attaching things. Appliqué generally implies the attaching of one textile to another one, but beads, sequins, and similar decorative elements can easily be incorporated into the design. This is a decorative technique, not just a matter of patching holes in your jeans, so it's always important to think about how attaching items will impact the overall design. Appliqué lets the artist play with not only color but also textures and patterns, creating visually dynamic textiles.

Ribbon applique is a common aspect of many Amerindian textiles

In fact, the purpose of appliqué is to create a specific design. Say you wanted to border a blanket with repetitive designs of flowers (as has been common in American craft industries since at least the 19th century). You could try and weave the flowers into the fabric, but that's pretty time-intensive and the range of the design could be limited. You could use dyes and wood blocks to print the flowers onto the fabric, but that could be expensive, requires abundant technical skill, and requires costly dyes. The other option is making little flowers out of other pieces of cloth, then simply attaching the completed flowers to the fabric. Appliqué is a relatively simple process, useable by crafters of a range of skill.

Applique can be used to add color and texture to a textile

Methods of Application

Appliqué is a practical way to add fun designs to a textile. In many cases, textile designs are defined by what is being attached to the fabric. However, there's another factor here: how those materials are being attached. Today, many pieces of appliqué may be applied with glue or iron-on adhesives that activate with heat.

The most common way to attach materials to a textile, however, is sewing. In fact, many people define appliqué by needlework. Traditionally, pieces of material being attached to a base textile are sewn by hand, which means that the needlework is generally visible. There are a myriad of sewing patterns used in appliqué, each of which can be used to add to the dynamism of the design. Thick, colored threads create another layer of texture, overlapping patterns of thread are graceful and intricate, and direct patterns are simple but not distracting.

Sometimes, however, designers don't want their needlework to be seen. Sewing machines create tighter and smaller stitches that are much less visible. It all depends on the overall aesthetic that the designer desires. However, even sewing machines will create a more visible pattern on one side of the fabric than the other, and it's always important to remember that appliqué designs are not generally reversible. The finished textile will have a front and a back.

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