04 January 2011

Costuming: Stretch Applique Tutorial

In this tutorial I will be showing the technique I use for applique and reverse applique for stretch fabrics. The fabrics used in this tutorial (and in many of my costumes) are 4-way stretch lycra/milliskin from Spandex House.

Many characters have stretch bodysuits with emblems on the front or designs worked in. This can appear challenging and may have some people getting their Sharpie markers out.. but have no fear, this tutorial is here for you. No more puckered seams!

Also, you may find this tutorial helpful if you want to make your own swimsuit or leggings with some graphic designs.

Read on to find out how to do it yourself.

Things you need:
- Iron On Tear Away (Totally Stable)
- Schmetz Microtex Needles
- a sewing machine with a stretch stitch*
- Sharp scissors
- Polyester thread (cotton thread may break under the stress of stretching)
- Clear ruler
- a pencil
- an iron**
- your fabric!
Test out your fabric by cutting an edge then stretching it. If it runs like pantyhose, this is not a good quality spandex. Next, put it on top of other fabrics you are using to make sure it is opaque enough. Sheer fabrics don't work too well with this technique.

Straight Stretch Stitch (say it 3 times fast or just call it a Chain stitch)
Not all machines have this. In fact, many don't. Industrial chain stitch machines are out there, but the machine I use at home is a very inexpensive Singer from JoAnn fabrics. It does not chainstitch quite as clean as an industrial machine but it works just fine for the purposes of costumes or swimwear.
In the case of recent Singer home machines, stretch stitches are usually denoted in red on the stitch knob.
If you do not have access to a chain stitch machine, a small zigzag can work too, but will not provide as much strength when stretching or as clean a look.

Iron settings
Set your iron to a mid-range setting and turn the steam off. Test it by ironing some Tear Away onto a scrap of lycra.
You do not want the tear away to peel off easily, nor do you want to accidentally melt it to your fabric (or just melt the fabric). Find the right temperature where the Tear Away stays on.

Plan your design
For the purpose of this tutorial, I winged it (sorry if it shows).
At this point you want to plan out your design. If its something you need to print to scale from a computer or draw onto a grid, do that now. Computers are great for symmetrical designs!
Cut some pieces of your accent fabric larger than your planned designs by at least an inch all around.

I will be making a lightning bolt and an exclamation mark.
The gold will be a reverse applique, and the purple metallic will be an applique on top of the fabric.

Iron on pieces of Tear Away to your scraps. For the gold (reverse) piece, the Tear Away is applied to the wrong side (back) of the fabric. For the purple pieces, it is ironed onto the right side (front).

Using your pencil, draw or trace the design onto the right side. Because the gold will be under the blue, the lightning bolt is drawn onto the blue fabric. For the purple, the design is drawn right on the front.

Now carefully cut out the design using sharp scissors.
Here I have placed the gold behind the blue.
At this point you could peel off the paper if you really wanted to, but it just doesn't matter. You can sew through multiple layers of this stuff and it will all peel off together later.

Iron on some Tear Away to the back of your fabric to stabilize it.
- You want lycra sandwiched between the Tear Away so nothing stretches while you sew it. While you want it on both sides, you should never have it between fabrics! Tear Away is the bread, putting it between fabrics would trap it inside and defeat the purpose.
- Be sure to use enough to cover the back of the whole design with some room around the edges (about an inch is fine).
- See how the edges of the Tear Away extend past the gold piece? This holds it onto the blue fabric without the need for pins. Pins cause a ripple in fabric so avoiding them in this project helps. Iron those edges well and its just like taping it on.

Same thing on the front, iron on large pieces of Tear Away to hold your design on securely.
At this point its a very good idea to draw out your sewing line. Here I drew my lines about 1/8th inch from the edges, but usually I do 1/16th inch. You may think this step is unnecessary, but it can make a big difference in how good the finished design looks!

Put in your microtex needle & polyester thread and go for it! Follow your drawn lines.

I'm gonna apologize here for rushing while making this tutorial, mine didn't come out quite perfectly. But I know yours will!

Does yours look like this? Need to seam rip anywhere? Everything good? Good! You are almost done!

Tear off all the Tear Away. Start with large pieces, then go to smaller ones. If there are any bits stuck in the seam, use tweezers to get them out. Bending it before tearing can help with tricky spots too.

Keep tearing!

Trim where needed
For the reverse applique, you need to neatly trim the back of it. This step can be skipped for front applique since you already cut it.

Ta da~!
You are done. Now isn't that neat? It should lay flat with no puckers. Try stretching it:

Now theres no end to what designs you can add to stretch fabrics.


  1. Thank you so much! I was dying trying to figure out how to do a costume. I'm excited to give this a try!

  2. Thank you so much! I'm planning to do Jean Grey's Phoenix outfit and this will help a lot!

  3. This is a great tutorial, just to be sure will this work for gymnastics leotards as the fabric may need to be strecthed a great deal? Im hoping to sew some designs on some leotards

  4. @Anon it definitely should work fine! we wore these outfits all day, ran around the con, did crazy poses for photos, and put them through the washing machine with no problems.

  5. I'm using this technique to make some roller derby helmet covers, while I find your process simple and easy to follow I've not had much success with things at my end :(

    The fusable stabalising paper I purchased left it's adhesive gum all over the lycra once I peeled off the paper backing and I've no idea how best to remove it. Ironing on some tracing paper to pull it off didn't work either, it just bonded to the rest of fabric making a huge mess, which washed off later- but still left the original glue!!! HELP!

  6. @Holga Von Lomo
    Oh no! Maybe your iron temperature was too hot! I have not tried any other brands of that tear-away interfacing since my local store just carries this one, but it has to say somewhere that it is removable or tear-away. Most interfacings are meant to be permanent and will not come off after ironing.

  7. Thanks, I tried various iron temps on some scraps before doing it on the design, so I don't think that temperature was the issue, but more so the actual stabiliser :(
    I had a bit of a hunt around my local fabric stores today,(I'm in Australia) one of them (Spotlight)sells Sulky interfacings but still didn't carry the "totally stable" type, looks like I might have to order some online?

  8. Hi there, great tutorial. Just had to ask you, it might just be in my head but the star at the bottom seems like it came out a little neater than the lightning bolt. Is it just because it's a different fabric and maybe has a cleaner edge when you cut it, or do you also have a technique for folding over applique fabric to get a cleaner seam? In the process of using your method on a costume and help on this matter is greatly appreciated :0)

  9. @ryan The only difference there was that I used a satin-stitch on the star instead of a straight stitch. its still exactly the same technique, just different stitch.

    @Holga sorry I haven't had much luck trying this technique with different interfacings.

  10. GREAT tutorial! I have a question about the first picture of the other examples, the one above the gold and blue star. What is the order of the layers? Are both the blue and black appliqued on top of the green? Did you use the stretch stitch like in the tutorial or the satin stitch like in the star?

    Thank you!

  11. How well does this work with circles? I'm doing The Enchantress, who has a lovely circle pattern going up her leg which.is.the.bane.of.my.existence.

    In my own findings, curves are evil things which don't do as they're told, so one big one is going to be a nightmare! Do you have any suggestions how I could do this?

    And would something similar work with non-stretch material, or would it need to be stretch?

  12. Will this technique work for applique all the way around the neckline? There's a design I want to make that would require an applique to circle the entire neckline on a tee shirt, but I can't figure out if there will have enough stretch to get your head through it when done. It's a complicated, time consuming design and I'm afraid of trying it without knowing first. Thanks!

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  15. This is going to seem really really dumb but for the gold lightning bolt did you have to cut the shape out of the blue fabric? Like does the blue fabric have a lightning bolt shaped hole in it? If so when do you complete this step?

    1. I was really confused by this as well. That's what it seems like

    2. Look at step/photo #5. If you carefully look at the edges of the lightning bolt (gold) you can see blue under the paper. The instructions say "Now carefully cut out the design using sharp scissors. Here I have placed the gold behind the blue." She cut out the blue fabric so there is a lightning-bolt-shaped HOLE in the blue. There is also a lightning-bolt-shaped HOLE in the PAPER.

    3. Step/Photo #6 has the fabric from step #5 flipped over, with the large piece of gold OVER the lightning-bolt-shaped HOLES in both blue fabric AND paper. Looking at Step/Photo #7, you can see that the fabric has been flipped BACK to the orientation of Step/Photo #5, with an additional layer of paper placed OVER the lightning-bolt-shaped HOLES in both blue fabric and paper.

  16. No, you don't need to cut it at all, it's completely optional. I'd only recommend it if it was a really big shape and having two layers affected the stretch.