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sewing 101: reverse applique place mats

by Brett

Reverse applique may sound fancy, but it’s actually a crazy-easy sewing technique that allows you to add tons of color, texture and pattern to your projects with very little effort. In this technique, two or more fabrics are layered and stitched together, then sections of the fabric are strategically cut away to reveal the color(s) beneath, essentially creating an original textile. In this post, we’re experimenting with reverse applique to make simple place mats, but once you get the hang of this technique, you’ll see that it can be used to create your own patterns on just about anything, from throw pillows to curtains and more. Ready to reverse applique? Let’s get started! — Brett Bara

Read the full how-to after the jump . . .


  • fabric in at least two different colors; cotton-linen blends are great for place mats, or any cotton is a good choice
  • thread in contrasting colors
  • sewing machine, iron and basic sewing supplies


1. Cut the fabric.

To begin, cut your fabric into a rectangle in whatever size you would like your finished place mats to be, plus 1″ on each side. (I cut my fabric to 13″ x 19″ for a finished mat size of 12″ x 18″.)

I’m using this great neon thread to create contrasting stitching on my mats, but you could use a matching thread for a more subdued look.

2. Sew the abstract pattern.

Layer at least two pieces of fabric with their right sides facing up. If you’d like to incorporate more colors into your piece, you can use more layers of fabric in different colors, and simply cut through as many layers as you’d like to reveal the different colors. I only wanted two colors in my design, but I added a third layer of fabric to my stack to give my place mats a bit more weight.

In this design I used a special feature on my sewing machine called free-motion sewing. This means that you can sew freely in all directions — front, back or sideways — making tight loops and curves in any abstract shape. This is accomplished by lowering the feed dogs, which are those metal pieces in the photo above that look like they have treads or cleats. Normally the feed dogs grip the fabric and feed it through the machine at an even rate, but if you lower them, they get tucked out of the way, and your fabric can move freely.

Most machines these days allow you to lower your feed dogs, but if your machine doesn’t have this feature, you can adapt this project and sew your shapes in wider curves or with straight lines. Consult your sewing machine manual to learn how to use this setting on your machine.

Time to sew! With my free-motion sewing feature turned on, I simply made abstract loopy shapes, sewing through all layers of the fabric stack made in the previous step.

Repeat for several passes to make lots of intersecting lines and shapes.

3. Cut the layers.

Now for the fun part! It’s time to cut away some of the fabric. Using sharp scissors, pick a section to cut away, and carefully snip the fabric close to the seams.

Keep cutting . . .

. . . and cut away until you’re happy with the result.

4. Attach the backing.

To finish each place mat, cut another piece of fabric the same size as the pieces you already have. I used a contrasting hue, which creates a subtle pop of color peeking around the edges of each mat. Place this piece on top of the applique piece, with the right side of the applique and the right side of the backing fabric facing together.

Sew all around the perimeter of the mat using a 1/2″ seam allowance, leaving a 5″ opening along one side.

Trim the fabric from each corner, them trim away the excess seam allowance, cutting about 1/8″ from the seam (removing this excess fabric will help you get a crisp edge on the finished piece).

Turn the whole piece right-side out, carefully working the fabric through the opening left in the stitching. Use a pointy object to poke out the corners, then press all the seams flat. Turn under the raw edges of the fabric at the opening in the stitching so that the opening is even with the seamed edges.

Using a needle and thread, sew the opening closed by hand. (Alternately, you could top stitch around the perimeter of the mat.)

And you’re done! Happy reverse applique-ing!

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  • Yes! Looks very easy. Now my mum can’t complain ‘ You need to learn stitching too’! The colours are wonderful.

  • This is B E A U T I F U L !!!!!!! I really ♥ it. And the patterns you´ve created are …simply lovely.
    XOXO Olga♥

  • I really love the look of this….. BUT… am I the only one to be concerned that all those raw cut edges will fray, especially when the place mats are washed? (and they will need washing!!). I think if I made these I would use a narrow zigzag stitch.

  • Thats so true, about the fraying. My first thought was that too. But I would still love to try this…like you said with a zigzag stitch. I am going to make some tote bags using this technique…
    Thanks brett for illustrating this so beautifully…and what gorgeous placemats!!

  • For those wondering about fraying, possibly (I’ve never done it myself) one can paint a layer of Modge Podge over the fabric to seal it before cutting?

  • Fray check is your friend! It comes in a little bottle for pretty inexpensive. I use it around grommets when I punch those into fabrics. It will seal the raw edge to help avoid fraying.

  • I made 4 placemats and used the scraps that you cut out as applique for a table runner —looks great!! Thanks for sharing a great idea — you got my creative juices flowing. Great tutorial!

  • Thanks for the tutorial, these were easy to make! (And the perfect thing for my impossible-to-shop-for mother-in-law!) I doubled up 0n the applique stitching so that they shouldn’t fray too badly, and will spray on a bit of Scotch Gard to make it easy to wipe them down.