FOR MOST PEOPLE, quilting means patchwork--the careful fitting together of geometric pieces to form a whole. But applique, the "other" quilting technique, is almost as widespread; in some ways, applique is more fun because it allows the quilter greater freedom of expression.
Applique is a French word for an American craft: One piece of fabric is "applied" to another, with the edges of the top piece turned under and sewn down to the backing fabric with tiny, invisible hand stitches. Modern technology--zigzag machines, for instance--has allowed the overstitched edge, which gives a more informal look; purists still prefer old-fashioned hand-sewn applique.
Unlike patchwork, applique was not conceived in poverty; Colonial women with cloth to spare let loose their imaginations with applique and created some astonishing works of art. Many antique applique quilts have survived, perhaps because they were considered more special than patchwork--and not used as often.
A patchwork quilt top is a single layer of fabric with several seams, but applique can be two or more layers thick (for instance, the petals of a rose). With applique, a quilter can make circles, curves and even free-form amoeba shapes that are almost impossible to fashion in patchwork. Floral designs made with plain-colored fabrics are most commonly used in traditional applique patterns: The flowers can be "shaded" by adding pieces of different-colored fabric, with the leaves and stems extended to the edge of the patch or looped around the entire quilt. Other popular applique patterns include the Gordion knot and many variations on oak leaves and feathers.