Reverse Appliqué T-shirt Tutorial

Appliqué is a a cutout decoration fastened to a larger piece of material.  The word comes from the French verb, appliquer, which means “to put on.”  Typically, it involves sewing the appliqué on top of the fabric.  In reverse appliqué, you sew the appliqué behind the fabric and then cut away the top fabric, creating a window.  This looks particularly good on knits; when you cut away the top fabric (the knit), there is no fraying because knits do not fray.

For this project, you will need:

  • A t-shirt or other knit item you want to embellish – I got mine on sale at Target!
  • A stencil (either purchased or traced from a picture you like)
  • card stock
  • tailor’s chalk or other method of marking
  • one-sided fusible interfacing
  • fabric scrap for the appliqué itself.  In this case, I used PREWASHED cotton.
  • Ball-point or stretch needle and pins
  • Sewing machine with dual feed foot or walking foot (optional, but recommended)
  • Thread

First, create a card stock or other sturdy stencil.  Then, put on your t-shirt and position the stencil on the shirt.  Using your tailor’s chalk, mark the placement of the appliqué.  Surely this will be easier for you, because you won’t be taking a selfie at the same time!


Hold your stencil up to the marked lines on your shirt.  Keeping the stencil in the same position as it is going to appear on the front of the shirt, trace it on the non-fusible side of your interfacing.  You will then iron the interfacing on to the wrong side of  your appliqué fabric.  Make sure that your appliqué fabric has been pre washed, otherwise, you may have shrinkage which will ruin the t-shirt after it’s washed.  In my case, I was using a directional fabric, and I moved my interfacing around on the fabric until I found a place that I liked.  Rough cut the fabric and interfacing at least 1/2 inch from the drawn line.  Flipping it over to the right side of the fabric, place it on top of the right side of your shirt to make sure that you have your appliqué going in the right direction.

Center the motif where you want it

Using ball-point pins (if you use a sharp, you will make a hole in your fabric), pin around your chalk marks so the placement lines will show on the reverse side of the garment, which is where you’re going to be sewing the appliqué.

Use pins to mark your place and turn inside out

Place the appliqué over the pinned area.  Then, putting your hand between the two layers, remove the pins from the front, and pin your appliqué with interfacing in its correct place.  MAKE SURE you don’t pin both layers of your t-shirt together.

 check placement and pin in place through only one layer of fabric

Turn your t-shirt right side out. and take it to your sewing machine.  This will be a check to see if you pinned only one layer of the t-shirt.  Also, it will put the extra layer on top of your sewing area so that you won’t accidentally sew it in the wrong place!

Turn right side out so that the extra layer is on top

Next, prepare your sewing machine.  Use a stretch or ball point needle in your machine.  Again, the use of a sharp needle on the knit will make a ,hole in it because of the way knits are made.  Remember that the thread that is in your bobbin will be the thread that shows on the front of your t-shirt.  I chose a thread that matched the appliqué and contrasted with the t-shirt.  This design choice is all yours.  I also strongly recommend that you use a walking foot or a dual feed foot if you have one.  This will help your project stay flat and not stretch.

 sewing knits requires a stretch or ballpoint needle

Place your t-shirt in your machine in a place that will allow you to take the first few stitches in a straight line, if possible.  It’s easier if you do not start on a curve.  Pull your bobbin thread up to the top, just as you would do when quilting, to avoid catching your bobbin thread in later stitches.  You do this by putting the needle through the fabric and pulling it up once.  You then pull on your top thread, and a loop of the bobbin thread will peek through to the top.  Pull the loop, and the bobbin thread will be on the top of your work.

Use a dual feed or walking foot so the fabric does not stretch

Sew slowly and lift your presser foot to pivot your t-shirt often to avoid stretching and to make beautiful curves.

sew slowly

When you have sewn all the way around your marked line, leave a long bobbin and top thread tail.

pull your work out with plenty of bobbin and top thread

Softly tug on your ending bobbin thread to bring it to the top of your sewing, where the other three threads are.

cut the thread and pull the bobbin to the top

Holding the starting bobbin and top threads in one hand, and the ending bobbin and top threads in the other hand, tie several knots and cut the thread close to the knot.

knot all four threads and then cut close

If needed, trim any excess fabric or interfacing.  Don’t cut it too close on the back.  Then, turn your t-shirt right side out.  The stitching will show you the shape of your appliqué!

This is what it looks like on the front

Pinch the t-shirt away from the appliqué fabric somewhere in the middle.  You will do this by feel.

pinch the top fabric

Using appliqué scissors or embroidery scissors (the ones that are curved), cut into the middle of the appliqué area and trim closely around the inside of your stitching to reveal the appliqué fabric underneath.

cut close to the stitches with embroidery scissors

Admire your handiwork!

Admire your completed work!Close up

This technique would be great to repairs for knits that are stained or have holes!  You can just place the appliqué in a place where you’ll cut away the stain or hole!  Do you have other ideas on where to use this technique? Do you have any tips for making this process easier?  Let us know.

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