Appliqué and the Mirror-Image

Appliqué is so much fun and can give a special touch to any quilt, garment or wall hanging.  It will take that project and turn it into a treasure.  
In my business I do a lot of appliqué.  Something that has come up quite often in my work has been mirroring a pattern so it is oriented opposite from the original.  This is called ‘mirror-imaging’.  A mirror-image sounds like it would be a pretty easy thing to do, right?  However, I have found through trial and error (an embarrassing amount of trial and error, to be quite honest) a number of wrong ways to make a mirror-image.

Quilter, we have a problem

You’ve just found the cutest pattern that you want to make for your friend’s new baby or a toddler’s birthday or maybe for a teen to commemorate their soccer team’s victory.  But wait, as you start designing the layout you decide that you want to ‘tweak’ the pattern just a bit by putting that cute character or soccer player on the right side of the quilt as opposed to the left side as the pattern shows.  

You’re careful to read all the pattern instructions before you begin.  You trace the character onto the adhesive paper just like the pattern instructions say, iron it on that perfect piece of fabric you’ve picked out for that character, cut it out, turn it over and go to place it on the background, and……it’s backwards!  I can’t tell you how many times that has happened to me.  So after throwing a somewhat small tantrum and becoming totally frustrated, I start again.

So what’s the easiest way to make a mirror-image of that character so it is appliquéd facing the correct direction?  Fortunately, I don’t want anybody to have to go through the same tantrum and frustration as me.  So I would like to share with you the process I go through every time I want to mirror an image.  As I’m sure you’ve figured out, this definitely takes a lot of thought and planning.

Tools for the Job

tools for mirror image.

To start with you’ll need:

  • a flat surface (something like a cutting table)
  • a soft lead pencil
  • thin paper like tissue paper (I use Golden Thread Quilting Paper)
  • a window or backlit table (used for tracing)
  • two-sided adhesive paper (I use Wonder Under)
  • an iron
  • the fabric for your character
  • and the background (pieced blocks of fabric, a shirt, any fabric that you wish to appliqué on)


Let’s Mirror an Image

Start by laying out the pattern on a flat surface like your cutting table.  

mirror image photo 1

Place the tissue paper over the character or image that you want to mirror.  Lightly trace the character in detail.  Let me expound on this part.

Let’s use a pattern of a bear as an example.  The bear has all the things you might expect a bear to have: eyes, a nose, ears, a muzzle, etc.  So what I am concerned with would be, for example, tracing the pupil of the eye and the white of the eye to make them separate.  It’s important to trace these individually because each piece (in our example the bears pupil and white of the eye) will be appliquéd separately onto the bear’s face, so you want to trace as much detail as possible.  You will retrace all details separately on the adhesive paper, but we aren’t quite there yet.

When the tracing is finished, remove the pattern from beneath the tissue paper.  Re-trace the character or pattern to darken the lines.  In order that the paper doesn’t tear, you can’t press too hard with your pencil so you may have to re-trace a couple of times.  This may take a little more time, but it will give you dark lines that you will be able to see when we turn the tracing over.  

Next you will need a source of light that can be placed under the tissue paper.  There are a multitude of ways to do this including a glass table with a light under it (a large flashlight works well) or an architect table, but I find that my studio window works wonderfully.  I just tape the paper to my window and voila! I have my source of light.  

mirror image step 3

mirror image step 3 cont

This paper tears easily, so you’ll want to tape it on the very edge and not over the character.

The trick to getting the mirror-image is to place the tissue paper traced side down facing your source of light.  So for me I place the trace side looking out the window.  If you’re using a table, place the traced side down or looking at the floor.

As you can see, there are definite sides to the adhesive paper.  One side is rough and the other smooth and removable.  Take your two-sided adhesive paper, rough side down, and place it over the traced image.  

Re-trace the image onto the smooth side of the adhesive paper.

  mirror image step 4

I’ve tried tracing the character on the rough side thinking I could save myself some time, but three bad things happen.  First, it ruins the adhesive which is never fun.  Secondly, it ruins your pencil which is a crime against humanity.  And lastly, once it’s ironed on the fabric, the pencil marks disappear which will bring back your tantrum and frustration.  So to stay a happy little ‘sew-n-sew’, it’s best to just spend the extra tracing time – it’s a lot less headache in the long run, I promise.  Now this is where you want to re-trace the details of the bear’s face onto a separate piece of adhesive paper.

mirror image step 5

Now you can iron the adhesive paper onto the wrong side (the faded looking side) of the fabric.  This is applicable to the main bear piece and the bear’s face pieces.  As a side note, because I’m a penny pincher, I like to group all my colors/fabrics together, i.e. the inner ear and muzzle are light tan, the nose and pupils are black, and the whites of the eye are white.  This not only saves in time, but it saves adhesive paper.  I cut around each grouping (i.e. inner ears and muzzle) so the cutting line is just outside the traced facial feature.  That way I can put both pieces on the fabric of the same color and use the bare minimum of both adhesive paper and fabric.

mirror image step 6

mirror image step 6 continued

After it cools a little cut out the character, peel off the smooth side of the adhesive and iron it onto the background fabric.

mirror image step 7

mirror image step 8

Your character is now facing the way it should and is ready for the facial features to be added and then appliquéd.

mirror image step 9

I use a very tight satin/zigzag stitch to appliqué all the pieces onto the background.  I then use the same stitch, only very tiny, to make the smiling mouth, eyelashes if it’s a girl, etc.  I also use that same size stitch to outline the lines creating the arms and chest.

This does take a little practice but it will pay large dividends in your appliqué and your final project.  From both of us at Making Quilts, keep at it and good luck in all your appliqué projects!

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