my favorite ways to customize fabric

I’ve been in love with fabric for so long that designing my own has always been inevitable! Digital design and ink drawing have both been preoccupations of mine lately, but they aren’t the only techniques I use in my quest for customized fabric…

Here are my top three favorites right now:

denim pouch with gold topstitching

topstitching on fabric

Anything you can draw on fabric you can stitch on fabric! Right now, I’m kind of obsessed with the classic windowpane check. It’s so simple but so bold that it never gets old. I especially love the classic combination of gold thread on dark blue denim.

I also love to combine topstitching with ink drawings or paintings (as seen on the regina tote bag below). It adds a certain depth to the surface design.


closeup of regina tote bag from Holland Cox


Tips for getting it right:

  •  Use a new needle! Dull needles are the #1 cause of skipped stitches.
  •  Mark your stitching lines with white wax chalk. A hot iron makes it disappear from almost any fabric (still test it first, though!)
  •  Be strategic about your thread choice – I use heavy duty buttonhole twist because I like the texture, and the way it makes the color pop!


zip pouch with DC flag reverse applique

reverse applique

There’s so many ways to reverse applique, all with a different end result. I used the simplest form for my DC Flag zip pouch above. First, I traced the design on the wrong side of the red denim. Then, I carefully cut out the stars and bars with super sharp scissors. Then I pinned the denim to the gold print and stitched around the stars and bars with gold topstitching thread. I left the raw edge, because I like the way the fraying denim looks. Done!

Here’s the same technique I used on a wristlet from my sanctuary collection from 2012, only with wool felt and linen instead of denim and metallic cotton:


wristlet featuring reverse applique from Holland Cox


tips for getting it right:

  • If you use interfacing, apply it before tracing and cutting out your design.
  • Choose fabric that won’t fray or that frays attractively.
  • Follow topstitching tips from above, OR use a wide, short zig zag stitch to imitate a satin stitch along the raw edges.
  • Position the applique away from stress points like zippers and pockets…you have just cut a hole in your fabric after all!


zip pouch with painted star motif


painting on fabric

After my obsession with drawing, painting on fabric became the obvious next step. For the zip pouch above, I used freezer paper to make a stencil of this 8-pointed star, which I ironed on to pre-washed canvas. Then I painted in the star using a tiny little sponge, to avoid the look of brush strokes. I used paint especially formulated for painting on fabric (it stays flexible as it dries), but I’ve heard plain old acrylic works, too.

The pink and gold polka dots on the felicity tote were painted with a brush and more or less free-hand. Making this tote served as my gate-way drug for painting on fabric…now I have a whole set of paints and it’s a big problem!


close up of Felicity tote from Holland Cox


tips for getting it right:

  • You must pre-wash and dry your fabric! No exceptions.
  • Use freezer paper to make stencils for crisp, clean edges.
  • Put a layer of cardboard behind your fabric before you paint, for stability and easy clean-up.
  • Use light brush strokes if free-hand painting, you can always go back afterwards and add more.


I love the idea of sewing something completely unique by customizing the fabric in some way before I start! If any of these techniques have inspired you, or if you’ve tried them before, I’d love to see pictures of what you’ve made. Share links below, or contact me directly. Happy making!



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