The First Steps in Photo Applique

When I began to applique, I approached this technique just like any other new quilting method:  I used a pattern.  I used a pattern and followed instructions until I became really comfortable with it and then began to change it up.  I’d add things – like butterflies to my flower appliques – or take away things if I didn’t like them.  Eventually, with time and practice, I started drawing my own applique patterns with a pencil and paper.  Then I was introduced to Electric Quilt and that added another layer of preciseness to my quilting.

However, there came a time when I would take a picture of something.  Something special – a sunset, my daughter’s wedding flowers, my grand darlings – and I longed to reproduce them in a quilt via applique.  First I tried enlarging the picture.  I would take the enlarged picture, lay it on my light box, and cover it with a piece of paper.  I would then try to roughly outline the picture to make my applique pattern.  Sometimes this worked, but more often than not, it didn’t.  The pictures were complex, and I’d get bogged down in the details.  After a while, I gave up and returned to easier appliques, but in the back of my mind, I knew there must be some way to turn some of my photographs into line drawings and then turn those into an applique pattern. 

As time passed, cell phones became more and more sophisticated. App engineers eventually came up with several programs which could take the photos I have on my phone and turn those into the line drawings I needed.  Below, I’ve listed what I think are the best five apps which can convert those pictures on your phone into easy line drawings for applique.  Most of these give a free trial period before hitting up your credit card. 

Photo Director — Is the best app to use to turn photos into sketches, mainly because of its ease of use. Just select a picture and an effect to transform an image into a drawing. Turning photos into sketches is fun with PowerDirector because it provides a simple user interface and gives you plenty of creative options.

Prisma — Prisma is a fine choice to turn pictures into drawings, but you may not find it as easy to use or as versatile as PhotoDirector. However, Prisma comes with a nice assortment of effects for customizing photos.

Clip2Comic — If you want to turn photos into sketches that look like cartoons or line drawings, Clip2Comic is a good choice. After applying your drawing effect, this app takes you from image to drawing with a high-resolution picture you can share with friends or colleagues.

BeFunky — BeFunky is a photo editing and graphic design app that lets users turn any photo into any favorite kind of drawing with a single click. It uses AI-powered photo editing tools and an intelligent auto-collage feature to produce professional results that even beginners can create.

Photo Lab Editor – This is the one I use most often.  Photo Lab Editor is a filter app that also comes with awesome effects, photo editing tools, and classy styles. Putting all of these together, it’s a good app for turning photos into sketches. The Photo Lab community also has over 230 million fans to share sketches with.

Personally, I think working with these on my iPad is easier than using the small phone screen but I’m 61 and my eyes aren’t what they used to be.  If you’d rather use your DeskTop or Laptop to edit your pictures, check out what’s pre-installed on your hard drive.  Most computers come with photo editing software with varying degrees of editing abilities.  If you have a program which can turn your photos into line drawings, that’s great.  If you don’t have those capabilities, you may want to check out some of the software available for computers.  There are lots of programs which will convert a photo to a line drawing.  Most offer a free trial, and I honestly wouldn’t suggest purchasing one which didn’t offer the free trial period.  And during this time, I would load up several pictures and play with the software to see if you feel completely comfortable with it.  Some are more user friendly than others. 

The one I use is Sketch Drawer by Soft Orbit.  It’s super user friendly and doesn’t take me hours to turn a photo into a line drawing.  Bonus – it’s super affordable. 

No matter if you’re using an app on your phone or software on your computer, you must take the time to play with it a little in order to find what works best for you.  You’ll want to get as close to a line drawing as possible without a lot of background “static.”  In other words, you don’t want the line drawing to look like this:

This sketch of my coneflowers has too much confusion in the background, plus the flowers aren’t too distinct. You’ll want a cleaner sketch to work with. You can get this by playing with the controls on the right side of the screen. Super easy, super fast.

You want it to look more like this:

Much, much better. From this, I can can continue to work with the drawing in Sketch Drawer or use tracing paper and pencil to develop my own sketch.

Because from this, you will want to simplify it a little more.  When you look at the line drawing, ask yourself what is the most important image to you?  I love coneflowers, so for me, it’s the flowers.  I want to emphasize those by excluding all the “extra” images and concentrating only on the coneflowers.  I could do this in a couple of different ways. 

  1.  I could let the background do the work for me.  I could choose a background fabric which would give the idea of a garden, or I could make one.  I could piece a background with half-square triangles for leaves, or I could applique very simple leaves, a few buds, etc., on a background, but allow the coneflowers to be the dominate image.
  2. I could simply let the flowers be front and center.  I could choose a few coneflowers and leaves and nothing else.

Both options are good (and there’s probably a few more ideas floating around out there).  The decision you make depends on the look you want.  I have a definite journey for this little quilt, so I will go with option 2.

Now we have our line drawing…what’s next?  Here’s where the real fun starts.  Let’s go over the basic supplies you’ll need before we talk fabric.

  1.  Fusible Web – I’ve written entire blogs about fusibles (go here: ).  If you’ve worked with fusibles for very long, you probably have your favorite.  I would suggest one which can hold up to the heat of several fusing sessions and one with a paper back – so Misty Fuse shouldn’t be up for consideration with our photo applique.  Personally, my favorite fusible for this is Steam-A-Seam 2.  I have found the 18-inch-wide kind works better than the strips.  Also on a personal note, I have found Steam-a-Seam Lite and Soft Fuse do not work as well as the Steam-A-Seam 2.  The applique pieces undergo a couple of ironings, and the lighter fusibles do not seem to hold up as well under that kind of heat. 
  2. Iron and Pressing Surface – You need an iron with a steam function (most irons have them) and a pressing surface.  This can be an ironing board or any other type of pressing surface, such as a wool mat.  Since you’re working with fusible webbing, you may want to protect the surface by covering it with a piece of muslin. 
  3. Ultra Fine Sharpie Marker
  4. Glass-Head Pins or Basting Glue – Sometimes the fusible won’t stick well in places or it may release if the fabric is repeatedly handled.  Re-adhering the applique piece to the background with a glass-head pin (the glass head won’t melt under the heat of an iron), or basting glue is helpful. 
  5. Scissors for Paper and Fabric – Make sure both pair are sharp and will cut cleanly.  Sometimes the fusible can make the blades a little gunky.  This will wash off, though.
  6. Teflon Pressing Sheet – This is one of the handiest tools any quilter working with fusible applique can have in their toolbox.  The Teflon-infused pressing sheet serves two purposes.  It can keep the fusible webbing off your pressing surface, and it can allow you to assemble applique units together into one piece before fusing them on to the background.  This really makes your applique easier and more precise.  For instance, if you’re working flowers, you can fuse the entire flower together, peel it off the Teflon sheet, and press it onto the background fabric.  This is so much better than trying to fuse each tiny little applique piece into place.  There are several kinds of Teflon sheets on the market, and I own a couple of different types.  All of them are equally good.  However, if I could offer one piece of advice, it would be to go ahead and buy the large/extra-large sheet.  This allows you to work with large pieces of applique or several small units at once. **
  7. Tracing Paper – I will admit, if you have appliqued for awhile and have developed an eye for placement, this may be one of the tools you can bypass.  However, if you’re a little iffy about your placement skills or you’re like me and are just OCD about your applique placement you may find you need this.  You can place tracing paper between your line drawing and your background fabric, trace the drawing with an embosser (or other similar instrument), and the drawing will be transferred to the background fabric.  I suggest graphite transfer paper – that’s my favorite because it rinses out easily.  Whatever you do, avoid the waxed kind.  It’s been my experience that this kind is difficult to remove from fabric. 
  8. Rotary Ruler, Cutter, and Cutting Mat – For squaring up.
  9. A Design Board – This is entirely optional.  However having a place where you can audition your applique before you press it into place is great.  It allows you to move pieces around and make sure they’re exactly where you want them before you fuse them to the background.  I know what some of you are thinking…” I can lay it out on a bed or a table.”  And that’s true.  But usually these types of quilts are made to be hung on a wall.  So it’s really helpful if you can lay them out on a vertical surface.  The design board doesn’t have to be huge.  It can also be temporary.  I’ve used the wrong side of tablecloth taped to a wall with painter’s tape as a design wall.  Once I was through, it came off the wall without damaging the paint. I folded the tablecloth up and stored it to use another day. 
  10. A Copier/Printer and a Good Working Relationship with a Print Shop – When you begin experimenting with your line drawing, you may be working with a small image of what you want to make.  My original rendering of the cone flowers was initially a 5-inch x 7-inch drawing.  I took this to my printer/copier and enlarged it until it filled an 8 ½ x 11-inch sheet of paper.  This was better, but I wanted to turn the picture of my coneflowers into about a 20 x 20-inch wall hanging.  Since my printer didn’t have these capabilities, I went online to my local office supply place and emailed them my line drawing and asked them to work with it and see how close they could get it to the size I needed.  They got it pretty close… 20-inches x 24-inches.  I could live with this.  I also have two copies of the enlarged line drawings made. 

Because this office supply has worked with me for so long, they had a good idea of what I needed.  If they need to print it on several large sheets of paper, I’m fine with that.  Taping the sheets together doesn’t bother me.  And they know this.  However, I also know they could print it on a plotter and give it to me on one large sheet.  If you find you really enjoy this type of applique, you may find developing a good, working relationship with a print shop is invaluable. 

Next week we’ll talk about the fun stuff—fabric.  I’ll show you what kind works well with this applique method and the type you need to save for another project.  We’ll also begin the applique process.

Until Next Week, Remember the Difference is in the Details!

Love and Stitches,


**This is the Teflon pressing sheet I use:

This Teflon pressing sheet is called Fat Goddess Pressing Sheet and it’s a whopping 21″ x 27″. I like it because it can be rolled up and stored in the the canister in comes in. Plus, it’s opaque, so you can see through it, which comes in handy with applique placement.

4 replies on “The First Steps in Photo Applique”

I remember the graphic design days before everyone had a computer at home, let alone the size of a pocket phone! Lol. I also remember the days altering a photo took painstaking hours! Amazing what can be done with apps. I do have to say my graphic design degree is not completely obsolete. About 2005 or so, I realized the embroidery software was graphic software for a different medium. Perfect timing as my kids were small and I was able to make great class gifts! Thanks for another great article. Can’t wait to see the next one.

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