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Understanding Appliqué Design Files

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Designs and software used in this project

At, we have many appliqué designs created by digitizers who use different techniques. You will find many different techniques used for machine appliqué designs, because there has never been a standard technique used by all digitizers or embroiderers. But once you understand the basics of each method, it will help you recognize the correct steps to complete the sewing of any appliqué design.

The Multiple File Method
The multiple file method is used most often by the commercial industry for high volume production usually on multi-head machines. This method is used by many digitizers for embroiderers who prefer placement lines separate from the main design so they can be used as a guideline for the material they will cut from the appliqué fabric and prepare them in advance. Most often, this is the same line of stitches that is used as the placement stitches that sew in the design. The precut appliqué fabric is then set down to cover the placement stitches using a little spray adhesive, and then there is no need to trim away the fabric before the final stitches cover the fabric edge.  Some digitizers include the additional file for precut appliqué pieces in their design downloads.

The One File Method
The one file method is the most popular method and is used by those who don’t mind the additional time for trimming excess fabric. It requires that you lay a square of fabric down that exceeds the boundaries of the placement line, overlapping by about ½”; and then, after the tackdown is sewn, you must trim away the excess fabric up to the stitched tackdown line. This method requires more handling time to trim the fabric, but it assures that the fabric will cover the entire area without leaving any fabric edge uncovered by stitches. After the fabric is trimmed away, the machine is started again to finish the design.

Note The Color Stops
Always note the color stops in the color information. Color stops are digitized in an appliqué design to stop the machine when it is time to work with the appliqué fabric. All designs are accompanied by a text file of the color information that often reveals whether a color stop is a placement, tackdown or thread color. Sometimes this text file will include detailed steps and other times only the actual sequence of colors gives you a clue as to how you should proceed with the appliqué. Let’s take a look at the color information for a few of the appliqué designs on our site, digitized by different vendors.

Example 1
Alabama Applique OESD01-AP3011 by Oklahoma Embroidery

The color information that is included in the text file of this design does not include any particular thread color numbers, which means that the thread colors used are optional. Instead it states the following sequence to determine what object will be sewn to help you with creating your appliqué:
1. Pattern/Placement
2. Tackdown
3. Fill
4. Border
5. Lettering

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In this image I have selected the first color as seen in my software - Floriani Embroidery Suite Pro.

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The software has assigned blue for the first color and this is the placement line that runs along the edge of the satin stitch that eventually covers the edge of the fabric. Any color can be used to sew this line, because it will be covered later by a satin stitch, but I prefer to sew both the placement and tackdown in the same color that I’ll eventually use for the satin stitch that covers the fabric edge to avoid the possibility of a different color showing through the top color.

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The second color to sew shows in my software as red and this is the tackdown line that runs just to the inside of the edge of the covering satin stitch. I have selected the second color and the stitches are designated by the blue dotted line.

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After the second color sews, the machine stops to allow hand trimming the excess fabric away up to the tackdown line, but do so without cutting into the tackdown stitches. As well, keep the fabric edge to the inside of the placement line to be sure that the fabric does not push past the final satin stitch. After the excess fabric is trimmed, start the machine and proceed with the third color, and then the remaining colors to complete the design.

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Example 2
Appliqué Kitty & Butterfly by Premium Embroidery

The color information includes Madeira thread color numbers and does not designate what object is being sewn:
1. Sunshine (1067)
2. Bright White (1002)
3. Medium Pink (1080)
4. Sunshine (1067)
5. Bright White (1002)
6. Black (1007)
7. Medium Pink (1080)
8. Sunshine (1067)

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In this situation, you must examine the design closely in either your software or your machine monitor to determine what object is being sewn. My software reveals that the first color is the placement and the second color is the tackdown. Take note of the fact that this digitizer prefers to use a placement line and tackdown line that are set down in the same place, leaving no allowance between. When trimming the fabric up to the tackdown line, you should use your best judgment as to how close to cut to the tackdown and placement lines so that the fabric does not poke past the final satin stitches that should cover the appliqué fabric edge. Depending on the width of the satin column, I recommend leaving at least 1/8” or more when possible.  If there is not enough excess fabric, the fabric could pull away from the stitching immediately or when laundered. Because there is no zigzag tackdown digitized for this design, the fabric that you use for the appliqué should be a sturdy fabric that will not fray easily.

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Example 3
Appliqué Baby Worm by Pat Williams

Some appliqué designs are a bit more complicated with more than one piece of appliqué fabric used, such as this cute worm design, requiring numerous color stops. Digitizer Pat Williams has noted the placement line as an outline and she has also noted whether the color change refers to the appliqué fabric or a thread color number:

Apply appliqué fabric:
1. Outline
2. Tack down
3. and 4. Outline followed by Tack down as in 1. and 2. and repeated thru 22. 

Final thread colors - tip of tail:
23. Olive (1169)  
24. Fuchsia (1109)
25. Lt Turquoise (1088)
26. Black (1000)
27. Floral Pink (1309)
28. Olive (1169)
29. Fuchsia (1109)
30. Lt Turquoise (1088)
31. Black (1000)
32. Fuchsia (1109)
33. Olive (1169)
34. Black (1000)

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It’s important with this one to check the color sequence in your software or on your machine monitor and note which section of the worm will sew first in order for you to choose your preferred fabric for the appliqué in each section. First, all of the sections of the appliqué are tacked down from the smallest to the largest section. It then returns to the smallest section at the tip of the tail to complete the covering satin stitches. The design ends by sewing the worm’s eye. 

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Example 4
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Butterflies by Morango Designs

This design may appear a little confusing because the color black is repeated from color 1 thru 9 to designate the color dark purple that is seen in the image of the final sew-out. You should adjust the colors in your software or simply take note that the black will be the main outline color of the butterflies:

1. Black (2296)
2. Black (2296)
3. Black (2296)
4. Black (2296)
5. Black (2296)
6. Black (2296)
7. Black (2296)
8. Black (2296)
9. Black (2296)
10. Hot Pink (2260)
11. Black (2296)
12. Hot Pink (2260)
13. Black (2296)
14. Hot Pink (2260)
15. Black (2296)
16. Hot Pink (2260)

As seen in my software, the digitizer has chosen to rotate the design to be more compatible with all machine types, because many machines are able to sew only within a sewing field that is longer in height than width. Be sure to examine the design in your software or on your machine monitor and if you find it has been rotated, you can either rotate the design to your preference, or you should hoop your garment accordingly.

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In the color information for this design, no explanation is given as to which color number is the placement or tackdown. Most appliqué designs begin with placement stitches, so it can be assumed that color #1 is a placement followed by #2 as the tackdown. When viewing the design in software I found that this digitizer has also chosen to add a double zigzag stitch in a third color which will secure the edges of the fabric, keeping a sheer, vulnerable appliqué fabric from fraying when laundered. And because there is a color stop, it allows for sewing this zigzag in the color of your choice.

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So, the first three colors will complete placement, tackdown and zigzag for one butterfly and move to the next butterfly, repeating the placement, tackdown and zigzag stitches for color numbers 4, 5 and 6, and then it moves to the third butterfly for color numbers 7, 8 and 9. After all of the appliqué fabric pieces have been applied, the final satin stitches of the design are sewn, beginning with the thread color #10. 

We have close to 10,000 appliqué designs at our site and that number continues to grow. As you have seen in just these four examples, each digitizer has their own special way of accomplishing the technique. But, you need not let it confuse you, because overall, the appliqué process is just a matter of sewing a placement line, a tackdown line and sometimes a zigzag tackdown line. Examining the colors of the design prior to stitching will help you understand how that particular design is created.

If you are interested in trying an appliqué design, but you don’t know where to start or what design can be used, you can check out all of our appliqué designs at:

And if you need further help understanding how to create your appliqué design, do not hesitate to contact our customer service!

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Meet The Author: Bonnie Landsberger
Bonnie Landsberger has been a crafter and hand embroiderer since childhood and a machine embroiderer and digitizer since 1986. She was the in-house head digitizer for a 50-head embroidery shop for 11 years and later offered custom digitizing services and stock design sales through her web site for Moonlight Design since 1993. She currently also holds a position as a customer service representative at Bonnie has won several awards for digitizing, including a gold medal in the 2002 Digitizing Olympics and grand prize in all categories & first place for Winter Holidays category in the Stitches Magazine Great Greeting Card Contest 2003. Her embroidery and digitizing technical articles can be found in various trade magazines and she is currently a contributing writer and Editorial Advisory Board Member for Stitches Magazine. You can also find more of her articles online at and will continue to contribute articles to our Learning Center.

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Anonymous Apr 11, 2014
What software is that? Looks interesting.

Jackie M Aug 09, 2014
I have some understanding of the appliqué process, and I found this article to be well written and easily understood. I intend to print a copy for future reference. Thank you. Jackie Malone

jean b Jun 11, 2015
Thank you. This has been helpful I will try my new design with this information in mind.

Anie D Mar 01, 2017
On the The One File Method, do you lay the material that you are embroidering on, on top of the (blanket) and embroider both pieces at the same time?? Thank you Anie
Bonnie L Mar 02, 2017
With the One File Method, you run the placement stitch (usually the first color) and after the machine stops for a color change, you lay the appliqué fabric over the placement line that stitched. Then you run the machine and after it stops again, you trim away the excess fabric up to the placement line stitches. Then you run the remainder of the design. Normally, there isn’t much stitching that occurs on top of the appliqué fabric, with the exception of the outlining satin stitch borders around the appliqué edges.

Anonymous Mar 03, 2017
Ok, so I embroider the Lion then put the blanket in the hoop and place the Lion on the placement line then finish with the tack down and satin stitch.
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