Have you seen those wonderful-but-pricey children's catalogs that feature darling appliqued t-shirts starting at $30 or more? Well, I'm a generous Great Aunt, but I can't afford things like that for a 5-year-old. I can MAKE things, though, and I'll share my tricks with you.
I have a fun story about my first foray into appliqueing manufactured clothing. After referencing those expensive catalogs, I found a child-sized legging and t-shirt set at Wal-Mart for less than $8. Using the techniques I'll explain here, I added a customized applique to the shirt, and sent the outfit off to my favorite little girl.
Some time later, her mother had to travel out of town, and her best friend took care of her daughter. As the friend was changing the girls clothing, she was delighted with the outfit, and peaked at the label to see what wonderful catalog company had made it. When she saw the Wal-Mart house brand on it, she couldn't believe her eyes, and when the girl's Mom returned from her travels, the two women tried to figure it out. The girl's Mom had not realized that I was responsible for the design work! Later that summer, we all had a good chuckle over the whole thing.
To start this project, buy some plain t-shirts. I prefer 100% cotton, and I've found that Wal-Mart has the very best prices and value, although these items are sold at many stores. If you want to, buy leggings to match or blend with your selection.
Wash and dry the new tee's, along with any fabric scraps you've identified for your project. As with most sewing projects, pre-washing the fabrics involved greatly reduces differences in shrinkage rates during the life of the garment, and makes your final product easy to launder without additional ironing.
Next, design your applique. You can use those expensive kids catalogs for ideas, or you can ask the child what sorts of images interest them. If you're a good artist, you can draw your own designs, but if you're like me, and need some help, one of my favorite sources is Google Images ... specifically, silhouettes. These give you the basic outline of the image.
You may need to scale your images to fit well onto the t-shirt size you're using. I just go to my local copy center and experiment until I get it right. You can even take one of the pre-shrunk shirts along with you when you make the adjustments, and decide right there if you've got it right.
After you're satisfied with your image selection and size, select the fabric(s) you'll be using for your applique. As you can see, sometimes I use several fabrics, and sometimes only one. Many designs are effectively done using plain fabrics with added details. I use whatever I have on hand in my scrap boxes. If I'm using a print, I look for a suitable scale for the size image I'm adding, and of course, I'm looking for pleasing colors. To be effective, the colors should contrast from the color of the shirt, but blend with it. If there are leggings, or any other separates, take those into consideration as well. You can also create a complete outfit by making shorts or a skirt out of the same fabric you use for the applique.
Carefully cut out your selected image from the paper. Select a fabric scrap about the same size, and iron it flat before you trim the fabric to just slightly larger than your image.
Apply fusible web to your fabric scrap, following the manufacturer's directions. If you're unfamiliar with this wonderful invention, fusible web is a substance that allows two fabrics to be adhered to each other using heat and/or heat and steam. You'll usually find fusible web in the interfacing section of your fabric store. The substance comes applied to a sheet of paper, and you purchase it by the yard. Usually, you cut a piece of the paper just slightly smaller than your fabric scrap (so the adhesive doesn't risk getting stuck on your iron!) and lightly iron it on to the WRONG side of the applique fabric using a DRY iron. Once the adhesive layer is transferred to your fabric scrap, you remove the paper, and then use heat plus moisture to bond the two fabrics together. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Once you've applied the fusible web to your fabric scrap, you remove the paper, and then use your adjusted image as a pattern to cut out. Cut carefully with appropriately-sized scissors so that your image maintains the desired details.
The image of the bunny above came from the book Grandma's Bunnies by Darcy Ashton. The images in it were intended for quilt making, so I reduced this to a smaller size for a child's t-shirt. The cat and horse images came from Google, and I created the bird.
When your image is ready, position it on the front of the t-shirt, which should be freshly ironed. Press your iron down to lightly fuse it to the shirt, and then follow-up the adhering process by using a damp press cloth and a steam setting on the iron. Again, follow the fusible web instructions.
You'll notice in the images above that sometimes I use two different fabrics in my appliques. The bird's wing, and the horse's mane show this. I follow the same fusing techniques for those additional layers that I use on the base layer.
After the applique is fused to the t-shirt, you will zigzag around the whole circumference of the image. For garments for small children, I use a fairly narrow zigzag stitch. The larger the image, the wider your zigzag could be. I begin my stitching process taking a few tiny straight stitches before beginning the actual zigzag. I use a pressure foot with a larger-than-usual hole in it so that I can see the edge of my applique, and I loosen the upper thread tension just slightly to help the threads float cleanly on the top. Having a free-arm machine makes this process quite easy, for the shirt fits easily over the arm, and can be moved to follow the lines of the applique. As you zigzag, make certain that the stitches are primarily over the fused fabric, not the knit of the shirt. This cuts down on the possibility of distorting the knit fabric during the zigzag process.
Besides zigzagging all around the image, you can zigzag to define lines in your applique. You'll notice that the bunny image includes design lines that help define his shape. I transfer any design lines onto my appliques using tracing paper or a pencil, and then I follow those lines with a zigzag stitch.
Sometimes, additional hand embroidery can enhance an applique. In my examples, the bird's legs and eye, the dog's nose and ear, and the cat's ball of yarn were all created using hand embroidery. When you do this, be sure to secure the threads adequately to allow for multiple washings.
That's all there is to it! Use your creativity and MAKE something delightful. Creativity...it's priceless!