Embellishing your Bodysuit with Stretch Appliqué

Appliqué techniques for spandex from cosplay by McCall's

Now we get to the fun bit: decorating your bodysuit to bring your character to life. Appliqué, either standard or reverse, is a popular way to add color and texture details. A standard appliqué is simply cut to the desired shape and sewn on top of the fabric, while a reverse appliqué is sewn with the detail fabric underneath the base fabric, which is then cut away. You can also appliqué in layers, mixing the techniques as needed for multi-colored designs.

There are several tricks for getting good appliqué results on stretch fabrics, so let’s take a look!

Preparing your pieces

Small, flat pieces are the most maneuverable, so ideally any detailing should be done before you assemble the bodysuit. If the appliqué crosses any seams, though, you’ll need to sew the seam first. Many designs will require you to sew up the center front seam, or the center front and front underbust seam, which shouldn’t be too much of a hinderance because they’re fairly flat. If you can avoid sewing curved seams (like the front princess seams) until after the appliqué is done you’ll have an easier time making everything smooth.

Seam pressed open with stabilizer applied on top

Seam pressed open with stabilizer applied on top.

To avoid bulk, you may want to press these seams open instead of serging them, or even cut the underlying fabric away after you sew the appliqué. This would be done much like a reverse appliqué, but you’re cutting away the backing layer instead of an overlying fabric. Otherwise you may find that the seam is visible through the piece you’ve applied on top.


When using most applique methods, you’ll need a way to stabilize the fabric as you sew. You don’t want the layers to shift or stretch, as this might produce unappealing puckers and wrinkles in the finished bodysuit. Removable stabilizers made for machine embroidery are one option. Get the self-adhesive or iron-on type, and it should be able to tear away or dissolve after you’re done so that it doesn’t interfere with the stretch of the fabric. If you have trouble finding a suitable stabilizer, plastic-coated freezer paper from the grocery store is a great alternative! Place it with the coated side down on your fabric, and use a warm iron to adhere. Test on scraps first to sort out the correct iron temperature—you don’t want to melt the fabric. The paper should stick well enough to hold up through stitching, but peel away when you’re done.

Freezer paper stabilizer for spandex applique

Stabilize both sides of the appliqué for the best results. Plastic-coated freezer paper is a good inexpensive option.


If you’re doing an applique on top of the fabric, apply your stabilizer to the back of the base fabric and the front of the appliqué. (Test before using stabilizers on top of foiled or metallic fabrics, to make sure they won’t damage the surface.) For a reverse appliqué, do the opposite—the stabilizer should be the outermost layer on both sides, especially if using a tear-away type. You can draw or print your appliqué design directly on the stabilizer, before or after adhering it to the fabric, then cut both at the same time for more accurate shapes.

Triple straight stitch applique on spandex

A triple straight stitch makes a bold outline and has excellent stretch.

Placing the Appliqué

Although convenient, pinning is not the best way to position an appliqué because it can distort the fabric and allow it to shift or wrinkle. Basting is an improvement, though it may still allow some shifting. For a very secure hold many people like to use fusible web, either instead of or in addition to the stabilizer solutions described above. The web stabilizes and glues the layers together to prevent slipping as you sew over the top. You’ll lose a bit of stretch, but if your design has a lot of open space it might not matter.

Other options include wash-away fabric tape and temporary spray adhesives, which should disappear when the finished garment is washed. These can be a good choice if you want a secure hold without compromising the stretch of your finished bodysuit.


You won’t be able to stretch the fabric as you sew, so in most cases you’ll need a stretch stitch to secure your applique. The most common choices are a triple or lightning stitch, zigzag, or satin stitch (which is like a dense zigzag.) Make sure the stitching isn’t so dense that it ripples the fabric. If you’re not thrilled with your machine’s stretch stitch options, a hand backstitch or whipstitch will also stretch very well.

Spandex applique with hand backstitching

Backstitching by hand is a less common but still effective method.

Which stitch you use is personal preference, but tear-away stabilizers can be very difficult to remove from zigzag or satin stitches. Use a wash-away stabilizer for these techniques if you don’t want to spend an hour picking paper out of your design. Choose thread to match whichever fabric layer is on top, or for a more graphic “inked” look try outlining the pieces in a satin stitch with black thread.

Do a small practice piece or two before starting in on your bodysuit, to make sure you’re comfortable with your chosen technique and you like the results. Then go with whatever looks best to you!

Zigzag-stitched applique on regular and foiled spandex

A zigzag-stitched appliqué. After the design is stitched and the stabilizer is removed, the center is cut out as in reverse appliqué.

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