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How to Outline Applique Pieces – Where to Start Stitching

In What Order Do I Stitch Appliqué?

People get stumped when it’s time to outline applique designs – and the more complicated the block, the more likely I am to get questions about how to approach that outline stitching.

Where to start?

There’s no right or wrong way – as long as you outline each piece, you’re good. But I do like to have all my lines connect (just like they would in a drawing) and I have a system that I use.

This system works for any block, using any pattern – but I’ll go over the specifics using this quilt block as an example. I loaded it up big. If you click on it you should get a larger version of the image so you can really zoom in on the details.

Applique paper doll used as an example to show how to outline applique pieces

Here’s the order I used to outline applique pieces. . .

Start with all the pieces on top – that is, not overlapped by any other pieces:

  1. hair
  2. belt
  3. shoes

Stitch all the way around each piece, then work your way out from those pieces:

  1. dress top
  2. arms
  3. dress bottom
  4. legs
  5. face

As long as you always start with the pieces on top, you’ll always have lines to connect to. The best example of that in this block is the outlining of the face. The sides of the face tuck under the hair, and the sides of the neck tuck under the dress. So make sure the hair and the dress are stitched before you do the face and you’ll always have lines to connect to.

This post shows my favorite sewing machine feet – include the clear applique foot I use to get good visibility. That’s essential if you want to neatly outline applique pieces.

If you like that sample block that I used in this post – it’s part of the Paper Dolls quilt pattern. You get pages and pages of templates for different hair and outfits. It’s so much fun to mix and match them into your own designs!

Here are links to all my posts about outline stitching.

Finished with this topic?

Return to the Let’s Make a Quilt main Table of Contents.

Move on to the lessons about how to trim and assemble your blocks.

Happy stitching!


  1. Linda SAYS...

    Very nice description of what to sew when. After doing a few projects it starts to figure itself out but you do need to be thinking as you sew. It’s not the time to have the TV on!

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  4. Karen SAYS...

    When topstitching, do you backstitch at start and finish then snip or do you pull the threads through to the back and tie and snip?

    Thank you for your tutorials! They are most helpful.

    • My machine ties knots for me at the beginning and end of all stitching – but on the machine I had before this one I just backstitched a couple of stitches as you described. If you don’t like the look of the doubled up stitches, another option is to dial your stitch length way way down and backstitch with really tiny stitches.

      • Karen SAYS...

        Thank you! Your machine sounds like a dream! Starting my first quilt today using your patterns and scraps.

  5. Dee Skinner SAYS...

    Would it be safe to say, based on your explanation above, to stitch all the “outside” pieces first (things that have something going under them, like her dress). Then do the “inside” or underneath pieces (like her neck and arms). I’m trying to digest your method in my head–and might be a mental “tool” that can get my brain around.

    • Sure! It’s really all about what works best for you. As long as all the pieces get outlined, it really doesn’t matter what order you sew them in. (I always flip my work over and look at it from the back to make sure I outlined all the pieces. It’s really obvious against the white batting when you’ve missed something.)