Monday, April 11, 2016

Reverse Applique

Kuna Woman Selling Molas (Wikimedia)
Kuna Woman Selling Molas (Wikimedia)
The term applique refers to the fastening of a cut-out cloth design to a fabric background, by hand or machine sewing or with glue. Reverse applique consists of layering two or more pieces of fabric together and then cutting through the layers to expose the color you want to have showing in each part of the design. The most extreme use of reverse applique I have seen is done by the Kuna (also Cuna or Guna) Indian women from the San Blas archipelago on the coast of Panama. These appliqued pieces are called “molas”. The women use large molas for the fronts and backs of the blouses that form part of their native costumes. Smaller molas sometimes adorn the short sleeves of the blouses. Other molas are made to sell to tourists.

wooden plate with Panamanian motif
Wooden plate with Panamanian motif
The subjects of the molas vary greatly. Some, like the eagle design below, are obviously copied from non-native designs. More traditional designs come from their folklore, like the design painted on this wooden plate (not done by the Kuna). Still others feature native animals and plants. Finally, some designs are copied — often in great detail — from commercial containers like cereal or detergent boxes or food cans: artist Andy Warhol would have loved the one I saw of a Campbell's soup can.

Eagle mola front and rear views
Eagle mola, front and rear views

The black-and-white American eagle is the pride of my collection. It has only two layers, but it is far from being a simple design. Each of the individual black pieces was cut out and the edges were turned under before they were hand-stitched to the white background. I want you to look closely at the back of this mola to see some of the hundreds of tiny stitches used to secure the pieces of the design, while circles of more tiny top-stitches were used around the eagle's eye. Just imagine the time and patience necessary to create this intricate design!

Red and blue leaf mola
Red and blue mola with leaf motif
Molas are typically made with smooth-surfaced cotton, but as more kinds of fabric became available to the Kuna women, more variety appeared in both fabrics and colors. Most designs have either a red or a black background. This leaf design, one of two I have by the same native artist, was atypical for its time with its blue border. (Modern molas use a much broader range of colors.) This is another one done with only two layers. The design's colors are more subtle than most., and the red fabric has a suede-like surface. Bear in mind that these designs are not drawn first; they are cut “freehand”!

butterfly pattern cut from blue construction paper
Butterfly pattern cut from blue construction paper
I am going to show you a much easier and faster way to do a reverse applique design. We are going to use felt. Because it is a non-woven material, felt does not fray or unravel at the edges; therefore, its edges do not need to be turned under. This saves both time and effort. We are going to do a simple two-layer design. (Later, we will try a design with multiple layers and inserts — but that is for another day.) You will need: two 9-inch x 12-inch (21.5 cm x 30.5 cm, approximately) rectangles of felt in contrasting colors, small sharp-pointed scissors, a sharp-pointed needle, thread, straight pins and the downloadable pattern below. Print out two copies of the pattern — one to use and one to file for future reference — or three, if you want to try the technique on colored paper first.
Choose two contrasting colors of felt, preferably one dark one and one bright one. Set the bright one aside. Pin the pattern to the darker piece, placing the pins both outside and inside of the dark areas on the pattern. Short pins with small heads are best for pinning. (You may be tempted to fold the felt and try to cut both halves at the same time; please don't!) Carefully cut out the dark areas as precisely as possible. Use the smallest, sharpest scissors that you have. I use a pair of Fiskars® mini-shears, but embroidery scissors or even sharp manicure scissors will do he job. If you are experienced with an X-acto® knife, you might use that, but I don't usually recommend it for felt. Unpin the pattern and set it aside. Keep the pieces you cut out of the wings because you may want to cut out circles, spirals or other shapes to decorate the wings after the butterfly is applied to the background. You may want to omit the antennae and cut more fanciful ones from your scraps to sew on later. Or you can embroider them or apply some other kind of trimming. Don't be too critical of your work. Remember this is folk art. It shouldn't look machine-made.

Butterfly reverse applique, 2 colors
Butterfly reverse applique in 2 colors
Place the cut-out pieces on top of the brighter felt. When you are satisfied with their placement, pin the design to the background, if you are going to hand-stitch it, or baste it to the background, if you are going to machine-stitch it. Felt has a tendency to stretch, so pin both sides of each cut-out shape wherever possible. You may use matching or contrasting thread for stitching. If you are hand-stitching, make your stitches small, neat, and regular. To make your stitches less apparent, use a thread the same shade as the felt. To emphasize the stitching, use a thread that contrasts greatly. You may also glue your pattern to the background if you like; I don't do this because I have not been satisfied with several fabric glues.

Butterfly reverse applique, 3 colors
Butterfly reverse applique, 3 colors
If you want to add a third color to your design, cut out the butterfly shape once it is applied to the brighter background and place it and the pieces of the “frame” on a third, medium-colored piece of felt. When I cut out the butterfly shape, I left a tiny edge of the wing color around the outside to make sure I didn't cut any stitches I had made along the edges of the cut-out. The “frame” is in separate pieces because that was all that would fit on a standard piece of printer paper. If your felt is large enough, you can cut out a “frame” in one continuous piece.

Butterfly reverse applique, 4 colors
Butterfly reverse applique, 4 colors
To add still a fourth color, at the two-color step use half sheets of two bright colors of felt and place their edges together so that the join is hidden by the black strip that separates the top and bottom wings. Then treat the cut-out butterfly as you did for the three-color design. If you decide to add a fourth color after you have done the three-color stage, just baste around the inside of the cut-outs on the bottom wings. After the rest of the butterfly has been sewn onto the background, remove those basting stitches. Use the cut-outs you removed from the original outline for patterns. Cut a piece a little larger all the way around than the pattern piece. Slide the fourth-color pieces under the edges of the butterfly outline and sew those edges through the colored pieces and the background.

There are many ways to decorate your reverse applique. Those of you who have been learning folk embroidery stitches will find many opportunities to use them. If you look at my finished project at the bottom of this post, you will see that I used several of the techniques mentioned in the article. You can frame your project or sew felt tabs on it and hang it from a small dowel. Three of these pieces on a longer dowel make an attractive hanging for a child's room. Try making your own designs. A child's coloring book is a good source of ideas. Or cut out a simple magazine picture, separate the sections, and trace it onto plain paper for a pattern.

This is a playful sort of pattern and project. Enjoy,

Butterfly reverse applique, complete with decorations
Butterfly reverse applique, complete with decorations

Photo Credit: "Kuna Woman Selling Molas", By Markus Leupold-Löwenthal (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos, copyright Annake's Garden, 2016

 Creative Commons LicenseThis post by Annake's Garden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.