Choosing a Background for Applique

What do you look for in a background fabric?

Firstly, the fabric itself should be a good quality firmly woven fabric. I prefer cotton way above anything else, but the quality is more important than the make-up of the fibre. I prefer hand work, but use the same fabric for machine applique as I would hand applique ….. I make quilts to be used, which means I want the fabric to feel good regardless of how I put it together.

Printed or plain? Printed pretty much every time! Plain is too flat and boring! The only other choice for me is hand dyed.

I have chosen fabrics for the applique design first ….. now I have to find a background which will show off the design. Sometimes I work the other way around, but the dominant colours in most designs are in the applique, and the background is just that …. a background. The right background will be almost un-noticed in the overall design, something to hold the elements of the design together …. and show them off!

Different backgrounds will fit different situations, and I know there are lots of different background fabrics which will work behind the rocking horse and his rider. Here are some of the things to take into consideration when selecting background fabric for a project.


The most important thing to consider is the contrast between the background and the applique shapes. If there is little or no contrast the applique design will disappear into the background. So light is an obvious choice, but often too light washes out the colour in the design.

Dark backgrounds can be overpowering, but they often make the design pop out. So, not too light, or maybe dark.

I mentioned that I pretty much always use a print.

Tone on tone prints are good. These are fabrics with little contrast between the background colour and a slightly darker or lighter small, repetitive design. From a distance these read as a plain, but are not nearly so flat looking. Could be difficult in this case because I have used similar prints in the design itself.

Small prints with a little more contrast sometimes work well, but these sometimes have a very definite and distracting repeat. They can also have too many shapes which detract from the applique shapes, and too much contrast.

Avoid multi colour prints. About the only time they could be effective is if the applique is a single solid colour silhouette.

Checks and plaids are usually too busy, but will give a country or naïve feel to the project, in which case look for a light or dark contrast.

Strong lines can be distracting regardless of which way they are running – vertical , horizontal or diagonally. They could very occasionally be effective if you use them to create a background design.

Here is the rocking horse placed on a wide variety of backgrounds. Which ones work for you, or which ones would you choose of you could change the applique fabrics? Which ones don’t you like?

Group 1


Group 2


Group 3


Group 4


Group 5


Group 6

(I had to change the fabric for the horse for the last one …. the fabric I used for the horse all the way through the background changes is very much the type of fabric I like for background.)

Which background fabric would you use for this block?

The applique would probably need some adjustment for just about all of them …. the light to dark range of the fabrics makes it difficult to find just the right background.

I have selected some possibilities ……..

I would be happy to use these, though with maybe a few fabrics switched in the applique, or some hand embroidered or drawn details to create shadow and highlights to the horse and mane.

The large red tartan was a surprise, and I would consider it the best and most colourful for a child.

However, here is the one I like most. But this would be for me!

Mmmm! I think I would modify the design so the rocking horse isn’t floating in mid-air!

Here ends the lesson for today!

Time for you to do some homework …. looking for perfect background fabrics.

The only test will be if your applique designs are enhanced, or hidden, by the background fabric you have chosen

About Virtual Quilter

I am a quilter who designs many more quilts than I will ever make, and I am sharing one quilt design every day in Virtual Quilter. I also share my completed projects in Stuff-Ups, and Christmas decorations in Christmas Everyday of the Year.
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11 Responses to Choosing a Background for Applique

  1. gina says:

    I rarely use a patterned background. I normally play it safe and use a tone on tone or Moda Marble.

    Saying that though I’m appliquing a Christmas table runner and the background to that is navy blue with green Christmas trees all over.

    I liked the stripey backgrounds and that swirly one in group 1

    Love and hugs Gina xxx


    • Gina,

      I should never say never … I was surprised that my usual choice of backgrounds just didn’t work well for me behind the horse until I realised I had used some favourite background colours and fabrics in the horse itself. Some of them I was deliberately looking for backgrounds I would hope nobody would ever use them hope noone falls in love with them and uses them!

      Love the swirly one too, but not with the rocking horse. I usually look for tone on tone, but have become a little more adventurous, and was surprised at some backgrounds I liked in this lot.

      Judy B


  2. Emma says:

    I like the following:

    1. stripes from group one
    2. polka dots from group two
    3. polka dots from group four
    4. plaid from group four
    5. red from group five


    • Emma,

      Thank you for taking the time to pick out your list of favourites. I had to check out your blog and it is now in my reading list, so I will be back.

      I would normally avoid plaids like a plague ….. but that one works for me too. Not enough to put it in the top five, but it was a close thing.

      Judy B


  3. Judy

    Great blog! Lots to look at. Lots to think about.

    I like the red tartan from group 4 and the blue in the bottom right-hand corner from group 5. Both of these have good contrast which makes the image easy to read and at the same time create interest in the background by giving us something to look at.


  4. Katie says:

    My favs: The dark/plaid from group one and the dark solid-ish navy/dk teal in group 5.


    • Katie says:

      sorry the navy/dr teal is from group 6, not group 5!!
      = D
      Thanks again for showing us this – a real eye opener!


      • Katie,

        I like the dark plaid, but would change the colour of the mane and tail so they don’t disappear. I found this interesting because I found a couple of backgrounds I didn’t think would work not only worked but were amongst the best for the rocking horse. I will do it again one day with a different block.

        Judy B


  5. SewCalGal says:

    Great post Judy. Very insightful. I’m not great with color so I really do appreciate this.

    I also love, love, love your teddy bear on the rocking horse design. It would certainly make a cute baby quilt.



    • SewCalGal,

      It was a learning experience for me too … will do it again from time to time with different blocks, different fabrics.

      The rocking horse and teddy would be great on a baby quilt or wall quilt.

      Judy B


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