How to Make a Reverse Applique on a T-Shirt by Machine

comments (5) August 30th, 2008     

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JenniferStern Jennifer Stern, contributor
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A close-up of the detail.
My Loved tee.
The completed design freshly out of the washer and dryer.
A close-up of the detail.

A close-up of the detail.

Photo: jen stern
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Have you seen the T-shirts with snappy reverse appliqué designs on them in your favorite stores and boutiques lately? On a recent shopping excursion—which I always justify as "fashion and crafting research"—I stole away to the dressing room to check out these T-shirts. When I looked at the wrong side, I was instantly inspired to tell you how to do it at home! Let me show you a really easy reverse appliqué technique that you can use to create your own design or message on one of your T-shirts. (If you have a tee that has a stain in just the right spot, you can give it a fresh start!) The best part about this project is that you can add your own personality with some hand-embroidered stitches or other embellishments.

Knit fabrics lend themselves beautifully to this technique because you can work with them without worrying about finishing the raw edges—they don’t ravel or fray. We are going to use a machine-embroidered appliqué design in a slightly different way than it was intended to be stitched. Instead of trimming the appliqué fabric away, we are going to stitch through two layers of knit and trim the top layer (the T-shirt) 1/8 inch away from the stitching to create a reverse appliqué. This will create a window for the bottom layer of knit to peek through and become part of the design. There are lots of designs available. If you don't have any on hand, check out embroideryonline.com—I used a heart design that I found there. I picked this design because the appliqué shape (the heart) has a nice smooth outline to work with. Don't pick out a design with a complicated appliqué; you'll shoot yourself when you get to the step where you have to trim it out! If you want to add an embroidered message to go with your appliqué design, you can either stitch traditional embroidered letters or choose a simple outline style letter like I did and I'll show you how to turn that into reverse appliqué, too!

What you’ll need:

A t-shirt
Scraps of knit fabric or another T-shirt in a contrasting color to your tee
Appliqué embroidery design of your choice
Embroidery thread
Soft n' Sheer fusible stabilizer
Tear n' Wash stabilizer
Small sharp scissors

Import your appliqué embroidery design and/or outline lettering into your embroidery machine and prepare your machine for embroidery. Wind a bobbin full of bobbin thread, pick your embroidery thread, and change your needle to a fresh standard size 12 needle. (Did you know that standard needles have a slightly rounded point, so they are better for embroidery than needles with a sharp point, like microtex needles.)

To be extra interesting, I am going to position my lettering vertically instead of horizontally. I love vertical designs because they tend to be more slimming than horizontal designs that stretch across the bust—I do have a slight "ribcage" problem and I tend to try to divert attention to my boyish waistline instead! Put on your T-shirt and look in the mirror. Consider carefully where you are going to position your design, and mark it before you take the tee off.

I am going to show you two ways to stabilize your T-shirt for reverse appliqué. Let's start with stabilizing the T-shirt to embroider outline lettering. (You would also use this method if your appliqué design does not have any additional embroidery detail besides the actual appliqué.)

Draw a placement guide with a wash-away marker or piece of chalk. Instead of drawing a traditional "plus sign" try marking one end and edge at a right angle. For example, I marked the top end and left edge of my lettering design. Sometimes, depending on the brand of embroidery machine you own, it's easier to use this kind of guide over a plus sign. (If not, use whatever guide gets it in the right spot for you!)


Because my tee is a dark color, I used white chalk to mark my guidelines.

Turn the tee inside out and use temporary adhesive spray to adhere a piece of contrasting knit into position behind your placement lines.


Make sure you use a large enough piece of contrasting knit to cover the entire area that will be embroidered with letters. (It's better to make it a little larger than you think you need—you have to trim the excess away anyway.)

Stick a piece of Soft n' Sheer stabilizer over the contrasting knit. Using a lightweight, permanent stabilizer will keep your letters from distorting after you trim out the T-shirt knit and wash it.


Place a piece of lightweight Soft n' Sheer stabilizer over the knit fabric to support the shape of the letters.

Hoop a piece of lightweight Wash n' Tear stabilizer in the hoop. Turn your T-shirt inside out and position it in the hoop using the placement guidelines. Use temporary adhesive spray to adhere the tee into the hoop.


Notice how turning the tee inside out makes it easy to get it into the hoop. Plus it is easy to see that the rest of the T-shirt fabric will be out of harm's way when you start embroidering.

Embroider your letters or design.


Take the T-shirt out of the hoop.

Using small, sharp scissors, pierce a hole in the center of one of the letters (or design).


Be careful not to cut through the contrasting knit fabric.

Carefully trim away the T-shirt fabric from the inside of the outline stitching. Depending on the style of your letters, you may only want to trim out some of the letter as I did here.


I was surprised how different the letters looked after I trimmed the fabric partially away from the inside edges.

Take your time when you're trimming the fabric away so you have a nice smooth edge following along the stitched outline.

After you finish trimming the fabric out of the letters, turn the tee to the wrong side and trim the stabilizer away from the outside edges. The white Tear n' Wash stabilizer that you can see on the back will come off after a few times in the laundry. This is a relatively new stabilizer that you can check out at Not-Just-Threads.com. It's worth getting because even though it tears away very easily, you can also wash it a few times to clean up the parts that are too much of a pain to remove by hand. Plus, if you use it for traditional embroidery, the stabilizer that is under the stitching will not dissolve, but it will become very soft as you wash your project...I love it!


Be careful not to clip through the outline stitching. The exposed Tear n' Wash stabilizer will wash away after a few times in the laundry.

Rehoop your T-shirt using Aqua Mesh wash-away stabilizer to embroider the machine appliqué with embroidered detail. (Aqua Mesh is available at embroideryonline.com, where I got my appliqué heart design.) When you start embroidering, stitch the entire design before the appliqué step—even if you have to skip over it and go back. This way the contrasting knit fabric won't get stitched over by anything other than the outline of the appliqué, making it really easy to trim the excess fabric away from behind the design. (If you embroider all over the contrasting knit, it will look messy and add bulk to your T-shirt that isn't necessary.) Because we are using Aqua Mesh wash-away stabilizer for this technique, make sure you don't pick an embroidery design that's too dense.


I used the edge of the hem to line the T-shirt up straight in the hoop.

After all the embroidery is complete, stitch the outline of the appliqué.


Stitch the embroidered detail first—even if you have to skip over the appliqué colors. Then stitch the outline of the appliqué

Position a piece of contrasting knit over the bobbin thread of the appliqué design.


Make sure that the weave of the contrasting knit is going in the same direction as the grain of the T-shirt.

After the appliqué shape is stitched out, trim away the T-shirt about 1/4 inch from the inside of the stitching. Use the same technique as illustrated to trim the letter design above.


The Aqua Mesh that is revealed will wash away when you throw your T-shirt in the laundry.

Even though this stabilizer washes away, it's a good idea to trim as much of it as you easily can. If there is a lot of stabilizer left on the back, it might take two washings to get rid of all the stabilizer.


Trim away as much of the wash-away stabilizer as you easily can from the back.
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Comments (5)

karianw writes: this is great! i have been looking for a step by step instruction for my daughters sweat shirt. thanks
Posted: 7:01 pm on January 6th
JenniferStern writes: Thank you Amy, I should start my christmas gift making too!!
Posted: 10:17 pm on September 4th
AmyXSmile writes: As a single Mom on a tight budget, I thank you for a wonderful idea to make some special things for my teenage daughters for Christmas, and with plenty of time, too! I'm sure they will thank you, too.
Posted: 10:45 am on September 2nd
JenniferStern writes: Thanks Lindsay... Did you check out the Post about the Hip Hoodie Free Download that Shannon did? (It's a few posts below this one on the discover tab.) It might work really well in combination with this.
Posted: 10:43 am on August 31st
LindsayTNY writes: I love this! I've got to remember to show this to my teenage daughter who likes embellished t-shirts with a high-end look.
Posted: 7:33 pm on August 30th
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