Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Making your own Motifs and Appliqués - a Tutorial

Babies' and toddlers' clothes are so much nicer with finishing touches like motifs and appliqués. So are wrap-me-up towels, blankets, and dribble bibs. But they are expensive. 

How did I get to the point where I decided to go the DIY route? It started when I had already spent quite a bit on motifs. Hand-sewn things are fun to make, but are also good value, until you spend a fortune on motifs - and the thing you've spent money on falls off in the wash! So here's my advice: (a) use sew on ones, not iron on, and (b) make motifs yourself, as I show below

Iron-on v sew-on motifs

First, some reflections on purchased iron-on motifs. Yes, in theory, “iron-on” is so much less work – you just iron the motif on. Well, if you can get them to stick, good on you. If that’s the case, and you’re happy to pay for iron-on motifs, you probably don’t need this article.

In my own experience, they just don’t stay on. Baby’s and children’s clothes go through the wash LOTS, and get tumble-dried within an inch of their lives. Off come the motifs. And probably disappear into the plumbing. After we lost the cute little bunny on my first grand-daughter’s pink dress (see here), after just one wearing and wash, I vowed I wouldn’t use iron-on again. Well, actually, I did use some, as I had those I’d already bought to use up, but, Reader, I SEWED THEM ON. And that’s not easy, because you are sewing through the hard glue. After that, I thought I would go for sew-on motifs.

Have you seen the price of motifs to sew on (and iron on) to baby’s and children’s clothes? They can be anything from around £1 to £3 – and even more.  I had bought teddy bears  and puppies for baby blankets, rabbits for dresses, butterflies, ducks, letters, trains, balloons – you name it. Then I realised that sew-on motifs are very easy to make, and can cost you practically nothing per motif other than fabrics etc that you may have around. And they don’t take that long, either. So this is how I do it. And so can you!

Make your own sew-on motifs tutorial


·         Scraps of iron-on interfacing (see text below)
·         Fabric scraps with suitable pictures (see below)
·         Sewing thread in matching colours
·         A sewing machine that can zig-zag

Use iron on interfacing – after all I’ve said about iron on things coming unstuck? – but don’t worry about that, as it will be sewn on eventually. You only need really small pieces - off cuts will be fine. It comes in several weights. I have a number of different types, from very light-weight suitable for silk, to heavier weight ones for suiting and denim types of fabric. The choice of interfacing for motifs depends really on the fabric from which you’ll make the motif – and / or on the garment to which it will be attached. I’m mostly using poly cotton, as that is what most of my baby clothes are made from, so a light to middle weight interfacing is the one I’ve used most often. But if you are making a motif to attach, say, to the bib of some dungarees, you might want a heavier weight interfacing.

For the fabric, you really only need small scraps, unless you are going to start making motifs on an industrial scale. Let’s start with motifs that are flowers, butterflies, teddy bears etc. Go through your box of fabric left-overs, and find suitable pictures as objects. 


All of these would make charming little motifs. The easiest pictures to use are those which don’t have too many projections (feelers, tails, legs, wings, petals etc). However, you can get round this by just targeting a bigger area which is circular or oval or square, with your object in the middle. It depends on how much time you want to spend.

Here are some examples of targeted objects:

I just love the gonk fabric. (That's what I call the kingfisher blue fabric with little monsters.) I used a yellow gonk with a purple zig zag edge to make the little monster I sewed into a chest pocket on a sunsuit (with a bit of stuffing), and one of my grand-daughters has a dribble bib with a purple beetle like shaped monster. (If I can get it back I'll take a photo!) 

What you do:
(All the detailed steps are covered in photos of appliqué letters, below.)

  1. Lay your piece of fabric face down on the ironing board. 
  2. If you are just making one motif targeted on, let’s say, a teddy bear in the middle of your scrap of material, cut a piece of interfacing roughly the right shape, but a bit bigger so you are sure all the teddy bear is covered. 
  3. Place the interfacing over the bear. Make sure you put the shiny side (the side that will stick) facing the fabric, and not facing your iron! Iron over the interfacing and fabric (I normally use steam, it depends on the type of interfacing you are using.) 
  4. Check it is stuck (being careful not to burn yourself). Let it cool. If I have a very small piece of interfacing that might waft around and stick to the iron, I sometimes place the interfacing on the wrong side, as above, and then turn it all over before ironing, with the interfacing at the bottom, making sure the interfacing is still completely under the bear. Sometimes I iron on both sides for good measure. The main thing is that it sticks.
  5. Once it has cooled down, you can use the motif.
  6. There are now two main ways to proceed.  This first is my most usual method. If you plan to zig-zag stitch it onto the garment, you could just cut round your shape, leaving just enough of an edge to do the zig-zagging later. (A couple of millimetres or a 1/16th of an inch is usually enough. Sometimes the object has a thick outline. All you are aiming for here is to avoid losing too much of your detail in the picture that would be covered by the zig-zagging.) 
  7. Or, you can zig-zag stitch around the object first, and then cut around, taking care not to cut the zig zag stitches. This would be more appropriate if you just want to attach it with a running stitch. 
Whichever you choose (6 or 7), you can either just make a general shape around the object, or go carefully around the detailed edges of the actual object.

If it’s not too complicated a shape, I like to get as close to the edges of the object as I can, but I’ve done both.  The fewer sharp corners you have to navigate, the better.

Other shapes, and letters

You can also do letters and numbers  - any shape you’d like, in fact, and for those, you don’t need fabric  with specific pictures on. Plain or any small patterned fabric will do just fine. You need to draw the shape you want, and transfer it to your fabric. Then attach a piece of interfacing, as before, to the back of the fabric, making sure you have covered the whole of the area including your shape. I've created some letters to show you, below. These took in total about 10-15 minutes, including making the letter templates on the computer.

Letters and a tiny scrap of material, plus interfacing:

Letters stencilled onto the back, after the interfacing has been ironed on: 


Note that my letters are reversible, so I've drawn them on the back to make it easier for you to see. If you are using non-reversible letters, you'll either have to draw on the other side - the fabric side - or turn your template over.

Here are the letters after zig-zagging around them - again, I did this from the wrong side to make it easier to see:

        And the right side.

Now here are the letters after I've cut them out. I will just do a running stitch to attach them to my garment, later. I may even do this by hand.

They are a bit rough and ready, you could make them a lot neater, but I took the challenge of making them as quickly as I could (and from the smallest possible scrap of fabric) for the purposes of the blog. But I think they'll be good enough to use. (I may not have very high standards!)

I mentioned that I did the zig-zagging on the back side so you could see it clearly. It all depends on your machine as to how this looks. My machine definitely gives a neater finish on the top side - the one the machine needle goes into - so you can see that the reverse side of my letters is probably better than the fabric side - but it's OK.

Designing letters and shapes - making templates

A further tip: if you don’t have much talent for free-hand drawing of letters and numbers, try typing the letters you want in an enormous font size on your computer and then print them out. You could then trace round them. Choice of font is up to you, whatever your computer will produce, but personally I’d normally choose a sans serif font – wouldn’t want to sew all around those serifs. However, in the case of my 'I', it looks a bit boring just to have  a single stick, so I do usually choose one with a top and bottom. Bear in mind some letters are much harder to sew than others, and some will require bits cut out of the centre. Two fonts I’ve used are Meiryo, and Arial Rounded MT Bold. I’ve used them with font size 150 - 250. Here they are in font size 60:

Bearing in mind what I said earlier about minimising sharp corners, if you want to make motifs with initials, I  suggest you name your children, or ask for your grandchildren to be named,  with nice easy rounded initial letters – though there’s only so many names beginning with  ‘C’, and ‘U’! My granddaughters are all ‘I’s and ‘A’s – thanks, daughters!

More complicated appliqués

If you are feeling adventurous (and have the time) you can make all manner of motifs yourself. Mostly, I’m not, and don’t, I stick with finding a picture I like on some fabric, and just use it as it is. There is a lot you can do, though, with fairly simple shapes.  Three circles – perhaps of different materials, and slightly different sizes, can by appliquéd on, using a zig zag as before, with three sticks - again sewn on the machine – and you have a bunch of balloons. 

Or how about some balloons that have escaped?

These are just different sized circles attached with the smaller ones higher up, indicating perspective as the balloons get further away - with just some strings added. I've not mastered any fancy embroidery patterns on my machine - not that it really has any  - so I just wing it, with zig zags or just straight running stitches. Life's too short to learn how to use a computerised sewing machine at my age.

I also saw a nice fish appliqué, which you could easily reproduce, using three different materials , with a triangle, a circle or oval, and a crescent shape, with just an eye – quite effective. 

Mass production of motifs

Of course, if you are likely to use a lot of motifs, you could make several at once. One of my fabrics has teddy bears with dotted lines around, crying out to be cut around. You could iron a whole piece of interfacing across a whole piece of fabric and then cut out all the objects, then you’ll have a job lot ready to go.

If you are making up motifs for future use, the interfacing will help to some extent stop any fraying, even if you haven’t zig-zagged before cutting out. However, if you think it is likely to be a while before you use it, or such things get knocked about a bit in your sewing box, I would either do the zig-zag before cutting method, or if not, perhaps leave a slightly wider border so you can trim it a bit before using. Be aware that eventually the interfacing may start to unstick itself. I usually make them up as I need them.

Next time, I'll show how I've used some of my DIY motifs.


  1. Do you use certain types of fabrics? I'm wondering if flannel might Frey too much. Do you know?

  2. Do you use certain types of fabrics? I'm wondering if flannel might Frey too much. Do you know?

  3. I mostly use cottons or polycotton, but I think by the time you’ve put interfacing on it, and then zigzagged round it, flannel will be fine for normal use. If it is going to be washed a lot, it might eventually start to fray a bit, but the tighter your zig zags, the less likely that is to happen.