Satin Stitching and Appliques

Back to business.

There have been a few questions lately on IDD and Celtic Flame about satin stitching and appliques. Instead of repeating myself, here are the relevant parts of my Diary of a Daft Dressmaker. #10 and #11 are from Part 2 and #12 and #13 are from Part 3.

If you have something to add, more tips or ideas, please leave a comment!

10) Take the time to learn how to satin stitch and then TAKE the time to satin stitch correctly. Nothing worse than crappy satin stitching. I saw the example below a couple of months after I started making ID dresses and had to scrape myself off the floor. Completely beyond my comprehension..the money paid for this dress…the shoddy workmanship…I was speechless and Susan laughed that humorless, sardonic laugh she uses on me when my naivete is glowing radioactively. Stunning.I should think the problems with the satin stitching in the pic above are obvious…however, I feel the need to elaborate. First, the density of the stitching is not even. The obvious assumption here is that this is hand done (as are most/all edges) which means that the stitcher is forcing the fabric through the machine. Yes, sometimes our thicker fabric is difficult to get under the foot… this is where a practice piece comes in handy. How will it move? Does it need help? Is a plate needed to accommodate the extra thickness so things move smoothly?

Second: the width of the stitches is not even…let the machine do it’s job!!!!! Stop fussing and moving things around. Guide the fabric STRAIGHT and back off. Do not push and shift.

One thing I do on edges to help with the two issues above is use tear-away to help the machine move it through smoothly as some fabrics are “sticky” like lycra or get snagged.

The pic above is an example as seen from the lining side of a skirt. (This hem was done in different colored sections which is why only one part is done.) After I cut the shaped hem, I attach a length of tear-away using a small zig-zag. Then I do the first round of satin-stitching (rayon here, metallic would be second round). Then I Fray-chek and tear just the area hanging below the hem which allows the second round of stitching to cover any tear-away fuzz on the bottom, but leaves the rest to protect the lining and help move it through smoothly. After the second round of stitching, I Fray-chek again and tear the rest off.

Third: learn how to get around a corner. So many different ways. I have a couple, but we all have to deal with our own temperamental machines and fingers. Before each new hem/pleat/crown, it is worth my time to refresh/refine my memory or maybe try something new. Remember to remember!

Fourth: Fray-chek and then TRIM! When done, put fray-chek on the back and points of the embroidery. Let dry…trim threads and any fuzzies. Depending on the color, I try not to put Fray-chek on the front, but sometimes it is necessary. Do a fabric test. It shows on some…others can be scratched to make it invisible.

11) Sequins: The above pic brings up another special consideration when making ID dresses… satin-stitching around sequins. I have read a lot about dealing with them, watched Susan, asked questions… they are awful. But, there are ways of making them behave.

The pic below shows the equivalent of a wash-away stabilizer. This stuff tears away perfectly. Some people use plastic bags from the dry cleaner (it stretches and pulls too much for me) and I have recently read about using Press&Seal. So, why use this? This is see-through and it keeps sequins in place while satin-stitching…no tiny pieces flying into eyes, machines, coffee… But it also helps with coverage around the edge of the sequin applique piece by covering the sharp edges of the sequins which helps keep them from poking through the stitching. However, I will go over edges twice if I need to so it is fully covered. (The pic below is of a design done in hand-guided satin stitch by Susan Gowin…unbelievable! See, it is possible to get a design to look fantastic without an embroidery machine!) I also digitize my designs and stitch them out on my computerized machine. I do two things that work well to get full coverage. 1) Depending on the thread I am using around the applique, I can adjust the stitch density of the stitching for better coverage, and 2) because my machine does not need to “see” to do its job, I can use a thicker tear-away (in black or white) which really keeps the sequins from poking through the thread.

All of this has been about dealing with sequins from the outside. What about the inside? Fuse it!!! Except for the fishscale sequins I have bought from NY Elegant, every length of sequin fabric begins to lose huge amounts of sequins the second it is cut if it not fused properly. So, I fuse the backside well to anchor the threads holding the sequins. There seems to be no real fool-proof way to keep sequins anchored forever (short of spraying them with a thick layer of shellac), but fusing sequin fabric that knots at the back (more expensive) is fairly reliable. I have resolved to be honest with clients about the suitability of various sequin fabrics. Some work…some will shed as you pass the judge’s table no matter what you do.


There is also the issue of sequins in the seams. There is the obvious discomfort for the dancer when they scratch; this is not an issue when the bodice is lined with a true bag lining, but I am not going to do this. Sequins caught in a seam are pierced by the needle and are prone to falling off leaving bare spots, and they do not lay flat. We tried one solution: not putting it in a seam that would bend any sequins. The first pic shows the sequin fabric folded and then sewn close to the bodice side seam. This allowed me to try and fold a line so no sequins would bend or poke and catch the fabric under the arm. Also, there is a generous fold to guard against losing sequins from the cut edge.

The second pic shows a few things. 1) The collar was made as a single piece that I attached to the bodice after the shoulder seams were sewn in the base fabric, so, no sequins in the shoulder seams. 2) The neckline is bound with the fabric from the selvage edge of the sequin fabric (only because it was already the right color!). 3) After I sewed the shaped edges of the collar to anchor it to the bodice, I satin-stitched.

The third pic shows the folding and sewing of the side bodice piece to the finished bodice. I actually cannot remember if I did the same thing at the waist, but I am assuming I did since the waist seam would fold up and cause bending of the sequins.

Have not yet had a request with sequins in the same places, but it will be interesting to see if I still feel this is the best way to handle it.

12)Appliques: Next in this train of thought is preparing good appliques to ensure a good looking design.

First, stabilizing the fabric is a must. Different fabrics require different stabilizers but all of them perform the same function…supporting the applique fabric so it can stand up to the dense satin-stitching. Nothing worse than a fraying applique that eventually falls off!

Second, best way to keep the applique in place for satin-stitching and for all time is to adhere it to the base fabric. Fuse wonder-under to the back of a prepared length of the stabilized applique fabric using the dry iron press. The press can iron large areas, and the lack of steam keeps all things from crinkling. Then after cutting, these pieces can be fused into place on the base fabric and nothing will move.

I have also gotten in the habit of using Fabri-tac to adhere my appliques into place. It is flexible and fast drying. Love this stuff!!!

And this brings up the very important third point: clean cutting lines on appliques. Sloppy, uneven applique pieces and then even sloppier stitching will always make a dress look “homemade” (in the BAD sense of the word). Obviously most of us are making these dresses at home, but there is a difference between “homemade” and “professionally made” in our basements (or dining rooms, spare bedrooms, kitchens, etc). Use precisely drawn and cut templates to ensure the appliques are the correct shape and then get down to the very time-consuming activity of tracing & cutting them all out very carefully. There are cutting machines for this that would make life easier, but I, for one, cannot justify the cost since I really do not do mass production. Maybe someday I will find a cheap one.

Again, remember to make sure the satin-stitching is dense and wide enough to ensure full coverage of the applique piece. No gaps, no misses, no fraying fuzzies.

I will not post pics of a bad applique (don’t want to embarrass anyone, least of all myself). Suffice it to say that crooked cutting, design pieces that should match in size and shape but don’t, sloppy satin-stitching (because the cutting lines are crooked or the technique is faulty), fraying fabric that is untrimmed or pulling away from the stitching…these all contribute to making something look unprofessional. And I am assuming most of us know it when we see it. We criticize it. However, the question is, are we that demanding of ourselves? A “Come to Jesus” moment for me every time! Then I take a break, re-evaluate, rip it out if needed, and begin again more slowly. Have ripped many an applique out, cut a new one using my template, and started again when I came back from a breather.

13) Things that don’t line up. This has been a real challenge for me. Designs that cross seams are very difficult to line up. It is of course perhaps near impossible to line things up EXACTLY, but I get a twitch when there is asymmetry in the wrong place. Have ripped out seams, zippers and even appliques themselves to get closer to the necessary symmetry. And it is not just me. I do believe that the eye is drawn to mismatches and asymmetry. If that is the point of the design, great. Otherwise, I am doing my client a disservice letting obvious issues go unaddressed: she wants them to watch her dancing, not fixate on a mistake on her dress.

Here are pics of what I mean. (These pictures are of a dress made by another professional dressmaker and used with her permission. They have first been altered to illustrate incorrect placement, but then shown again as is to illustrate correct placement.)

This pic is the back bodice showing the zipper above the shawl and the applique does not meet. I might be briefly tempted to ignore this, especially if the dancer wears a longer wig…but not for long. Here it is again with the angles meeting…much better.

Here is the same problem at the center back seam. This is always visible.

Here, it now matches. And this is a great example of design elements matching as they should not only over the seam but over a pleat fold. Notice the long zig-zag line that visually meets up with the diamond on the back skirt outside the pleat fold.

This pic of the center front of the dress shows two things: the center designs do not line up and the curved appliques at the top of the pleat do not match up.

Here, all is well (the bodice is a bit folded so the center design still looks a tad off, but it is not).The execution of this design is a great example of several things: all elements are well cut and stitched, there is a clear & even repetition of shapes; sides mirror each other so it does not look lopsided; the pleats are folded in the same place in the design (on the back); hem-line shaping is even and consistent.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. hpsywr
    Oct 17, 2007 @ 12:05:00

    These issues you have illustrated are truly the defining line between a “real” dress, and a “my mom” made dress. The sewing is great, putting it all together brings on a whole new set of skills. I think practice is the only way to tackle it. Thanks for your great advice….I think without seeing the pictures some folks just don’t have the eye to see the problem. (hope that makes sense) hpyswr

  2. kristine baker
    Oct 17, 2007 @ 20:42:00

    Ann–I feel so stupid about emailing you the other day!! I should have just sent you a comment via the blog. I can’t tell you how often I ck your blog because you always make me feel less insane:) It must be a dressmaker thing. Not that I am anywhere as talented as you are! When you come up for air, send me a line:) Kristine in Boston

  3. Anonymous
    Oct 17, 2007 @ 21:24:00

    Ann, I want you to know I’ve read this at least three times. Once while planning the first dress, once right before I started it (and that caused me to re-cut over half of my appliques since they weren’t quite right) and just now…and maybe another time in there. This is logical, methodical advice. Please keep it available as I’m sure it will continue to be useful for a refesher as well as newbies.
    kktsews1

  4. Trackback: Sequin Appliques « Taoknitter

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