Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tiny Birds

Here's the thing about being on sabbatical. Sometimes you can just say yes to a slightly ridiculous notion and run with it.

I woke up one morning in December with the idea of making some little felt birds. 3D, fully hand sewn tiny birds.  I've no idea where the notion really came from, but the form of them was pretty clearly worked out in my mind before I even got out of bed.

The first one I made was roughly the right shape but way too big. Which is a strange thing to say when you consider that I had no idea what I was making the bird for in the first place. The second one was much (much!) smaller, but too fat and a bit lumpy. The third one, like porridge for bears, was just about right. Patten refined and with tail options,  and with the correct stuffing medium in hand, I started sewing little birds. And sewed, and sewed, and sewed.

About  a dozen birds later I had a nice little flock rolling around on the kitchen table. They were colourful. They were funny. And I soon discovered that they were pushy.

First they demanded Santa hats. Ridiculously small Santa hats. Then ear muffs. And scarves.

And just as I was considering how to make hats with ear flaps, and mitts on idiot strings they demanded an outing.

Lucky for them, Mark turned up with a most surprising thing... a dozen tiny red and black sleds, perfectly sized for the birds. How he came to own these, I'm not sure. He says he originally intended them to be gift wrap decorations, each carefully painted with the word 'Rosebud'. Too clever, my husband.

These proved to be quite addictive to make.

Here are some step by step instructions in case you want to make some too. Just be careful - these birds have minds of their own!

Pattern Pieces:
I just used felt that I had on hand - you don't need much! Cut 2 bodies and little wings, and one beak and gusset. You can make the gusset wider or narrower - depending on how fat or thin you want the bird to be. In fact, these can be made into flat decorations, just by discarding the gusset. Might be nice as a gift tag?


I used two strands of embroidery floss for all stitching on these, and a simple slanted overcast stitch. You could blanket stitch  them as well, perhaps in a contrasting colour.

Stitch little eyes (or use a small bead) on opposite sides of the body.

Start sewing the body sides together, just below the beak. After about one cm, attach the gusset to one side.

Sew all the way around the tail, across the back to the head.

Just before you get to the beak, decide if you are going to use the separate pattern piece. If so, snip off the beak and insert the new one. I originally planned on embroidering onto the beak, and that's why it is attached to the pattern piece of the body. When I started sewing, I decided the add on beak was better, but the integral one was a great guide for where to start the gusset attachment, so I left it on the pattern piece.

Sew on around and onto the second side of the gusset. Stop after about a cm to leave room for stuffing.


Use a soft stuffing- not batting. Even cotton balls pulled apart would work in a pinch. Use some pointy object to push a bit of stuffing into the start of the tail, then sew closed.


Hmm, no picture for this. Oh well, you can see them on the finished birds. You could sew these on to the body sides before you construct the bird, but I like the chance to position them in an interesting way after the bird is stuffed. Just stitch around the rounded bit of the wing and let the rest flap free. On some I stuffed a little scrap felt into the pocket formed under the wing to give more shape.

Hats etc:

The hats were made from a quarter of a 2.25 inch circle of felt and strip of white. Patience required - these are tiny little things to stitch!

So there you go. Send me a picture if you make a bird!

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Alabama me - part 2

Following on from my previous post, I have also been working on some samples of the appliqué methods shown in the lovely book Alabama Studio Sewing + Design: A Guide to Hand-Sewing an Alabama Chanin Wardrobe by Natalie Chanin.

Reverse Appliqué

I have a little experience with reverse appliqué - which is when you have two layers of fabric, a stitched pattern and then cut away some of the top layer to reveal the bottom layer. I remember doing some sweatshirts with this, way back in the 80's. Yes, that was in the previous century.

So for that reason I didn't do an Alabama Studio style sample of this technique. At right is an example from the Alabama Chanin web site
which shows it very well.

Essentially, the process is the same as I was discussing earlier, but in this case you cut out some of the stencilled design. Changing how much you remove, how you have done the outline stitching and the colour of the two layers creates many variations that make the pattern be subtle or very obvious.  Personally I prefer the look achieved when there is less contrast between the two fabric colours.

Negative Reverse Appliqué

Sounds a bit odd, right? But this is actually the opposite process from regular reverse appliqué. Instead of cutting away the stencilled design, in this case you cut away the background fabric from the top layer. I found this to be a really fascinating design approach - and so gloriously destructive, as you'll see a bit further down this page.

For these samples I really needed the proper fabric and I managed to find one bolt of 100% cotton jersey on a clearance table at Fabric Land. It's a slightly slubby knit, so the stencilling is not quite as smooth as it would be on a flat knit, but overall it does the job just fine. But it's a lot of red... I could have used a change of colour!

Once again, I did a number of variations of the technique all on one sample. In this case I used a quickly hand drawn stencil that I cut out of some contact paper (what we used to call MacTac - it was made in Brampton back in the day!).

I played around with using threads that matched either the background colour or the paint colour, stitching inside the painted areas and outside, and using both running stitch and stem stitch. It all worked well.

The real beauty of this technique is more obvious when the fabric has been worn a bit, or washed, allowing the cut edges to soften and roll. The more fabric you leave around the pattern, or the further you stitch inside the stencilled areas, the more of this rolling will occur. You can see the effect in this close up.

I can see me using this negative reverse appliqué technique in near future. Again, to my design sensibilities, if the colours of the fabric and stencilling are more similar (simply variations in tone) then the overall look will be richer. Sort of like rough brocade.

Making It Mine

Now that I have the basic techniques under my belt, I have been playing around with using them in some rather different ways, without going the stencilled pattern route. I've used a contrasting thread in each of the following samples so that the structure shows well in photos. Just wish I'd thought to take before and after pictures!

First off, I did some straight stitching in slightly irregular lines on two layers of the red jersey fabric. Then I cut between the lines. This is essentially reverse appliqué without actually removing any of the top fabric. Really it is a basic chenille technique that is usually done with many layers of fabric. This works very well with the jersey - and I can see it getting a great 'patina' from wear. I imagine this as a border on the lower edge of a jacket or a vertical insert in a t shirt or top.

Next thing to try was using some free motion stitching with negative reverse appliqué. This could be a tightly packed or loose open pattern, simply based on the stitching. This one took a while to cut out!

I can see this being a very effective overall technique for yardage, a border or feature panel. Patience would be required. Plus a good vacuum cleaner. Cutting this stuff up made a big mess. There are still tiny bits of red turning up in odd places around the house.

This is approximately actual size.  By the way, you need small, sharp, pointed embroidery scissors for all this kind of work.

Finally, I worked a sample of reverse appliqué using a more geometric pattern. I combined this with reverse negative work on the edge, which is visible on the larger image below.  I think that this is a pretty cool effect to use as a transition. I can imagine the transition occurring near the hem of a sleeve, skirt or the bottom of a jacket, especially if the two layers were different colours.

All in all, I can say I've learned a lot from the Alabama Chanin book. I'm ready to sew a garment with some of these embellishment techniques now. However I will not be hand sewing all the seams! A charming concept but I like the strength and smoothness of a machine sewn seam - not to mention the speed.  Sort of like choosing to drive a manual transmission car when a perfectly good automatic is also available. Oh, I know I'm going to get email about that!

Alabama me, part 1

This past week I've been quite absorbed by a new book - Alabama Studio Sewing + Design: A Guide to Hand-Sewing an Alabama Chanin Wardrobe by Natalie Chanin. Maybe absorbed isn't quite the right word. Possibly obsessed.

Natalie is the founder of the clothing line Alabama Chanin. You can check out the company site here, but you'll actually see a lot more images if you just use Google Images.

The clothing is quite remarkable. Although the actual garment designs are relatively simple, they are all completely hand sewn by women in Alabama, made from organic locally grown cotton, and feature a range of embellishments that are stunningly labour intensive. Here's a montage to give you an idea of what the surfaces look like.

And these lovely things are every bit as expensive as you would imagine. But in an interesting turn, Chanin has made the clothing potentially available to a wider market by not only selling completely customizable sew-it-yourself kits and supplies, but also publishing 3 books about how to make the clothes, each of which contain full size patterns.

This most recent book (I have since ordered the first two!) shows the embellishment techniques in great detail.

What I find so fascinating is the juxtaposition of a relatively utilitarian fabric (basically T shirt jersey) and decorative embellishment techniques that might usually be used on more formal garments. Essentially the Alabama Chanin approach is to stencil a pattern onto the cotton jersey, then apply a series of different surface techniques such as reverse appliqué, negative reverse appliqué, embroidery, beading, couching and many more.

I've been having a great time making some samples and improvising some personal variations. Sample making is imperative here - it is not as simple as it looks. The choice of colour, thread type, even needle size can make a big difference in the final look. And it makes you very aware of the need to practice hand stitching!!

Stitching techniques

Here are my samples of some of the Alabama Chanin stencil and stitching combinations. I've had trouble shooting these on my little camera - the actual colours are bronze paint and stitching on black French Terry.

Basic running stitch outline

The image at left is approximately actual size. The running stitch is used to outline stencilled areas and is also used in the reverse and negative reverse appliqué techniques. The trick to this is achieving a consistently small stitch size and managing the tension.

The stitch can also be worked with exposed knots as shown above - a technique that produces "Alabama Fur".

Beaded outline

Worked here in both bronze and black, this gives a lot of dimension to the surface. The French Terry fabric here can support quite a lot of beading, but on jersey, I think double layered fabric would be necessary. This sample looks better in real life! My photography skills are lacking a bit.

Loose satin stitch

This may be the hardest one in which to achieve a consistent result. All this stitching is done un-hooped (due to the stretchy nature of the fabric) which adds to the difficulty here. It will take me some practice to get the spacing between the stitches more standardized (difficult working around  curves). From a design perspective, this stitch could allow some interesting play with depth. In my sample, the thread is a different tone of the paint colour which in real life (not in this image) creates a shading effect on the outside edges of the curve. Nice. It could also be very effective if the thread matched the base fabric, allowing a glimpse of the stencil colour to show through.

Stem stitch outline

This is very straight forward and different intensities of the outline can be achieved by shortening or lengthening the stitch. Perhaps the least interesting outline for me.


This is the one outline method that I have not done a sample for. I can't see me using it right now. It involves outlining the stencil shapes with a tube of pulled jersey that is stitched through at regular intervals. Yes, those tubes again. You can see samples of this in the montage image at the top of this post. Looks fabulous and adds volume - which is something I don't really need!

Next post - applique methods.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Inbetween the dots there were rectangles.

I actually didn't plan to blog about this, but the technique was so effective, I thought I'd share it after all...

While working on the red jacket (previous post) I had several side projects going on - something to do when I got tired of sewing all those dots. One of these was working out a way to brighten up the backsplash in the kitchen.

Mark and I had the kitchen redone last year. I love the counter-top stone we chose, which went so well with the existing cabinet. But I never loved the backsplash tile. It looked very good, completely appropriate, and it was the best choice available. It has an interesting detail band with stone and glass mosaics,  but it just isn't me. I wanted bright colours, but apparently that just wasn't in style (last year).

Here's what it looked like.

But then I was in Rona or Lowes or something the other day and what are they showing in the tile department? Colour. Lots of it. Which just made me go home and look at the backsplash and sigh all over again.

So I put my mind to finding a way to change the browner parts of the backsplash into something citrusy and cheerful.

My first thought was to paint out some of the tiles in the detail band - but that just seemed too permanent.

My second thought was to find tile stickers in the appropriate colours. I remember seeing these some years ago - a handy product for doing up a tired or rented kitchen or bath. But the tile fellow at the hardware store told me that these were no longer available. There were new peel-and-stick 3D 12x12 tile sheets, but they where all small mosaics, mostly blue and very expensive.

My third thought was how I could make my own stickers. These would have to be somewhat water/steam resistant, non-permanent, easy to cut and apply and ideally semi transparent. I figured the most realistic look would be achieved if one could still see the grain of the stone through the colour overlay.

For any of you who were in the graphic design business in the '80's, you are probably thinking the exact same thing that I thought - Pantone Letra Film!! Oh boy, that was great stuff. Big plastic sheets of pantone colour that were semi transparent, matt and self adhesive. This would have done the job admirably. But alas, that material has long gone the way of the stat camera, the waxer and the dodo.

The good thing about sewing all those dots in the automated way I had devised was that I had plenty of time to think. And what I thought about for a chunk of a day, was how I could make something like Letra Film at home...

The answer to the film part was actually quite easy. A quick trip to Staples and I had a package of clear 8.5 x 11 label sheets for an inkjet printer.

The colour part was a bit more difficult. It would have made sense to just print the colour onto the sheets. Except for the fact that inkjet ink is water based, and so it would not really stand up to life in a kitchen. Also, the colour cartridge on my printer was dried up - as usual.

Acrylic paint was my next idea. I made some samples and the paint gave good colour and but it was either too opaque or it completely resisted on the plastic film, depending on the type. Not good.

Then it hit me. There has been a very popular pin on Pinterest over the past few weeks, usually under the heading of Christmas gifts to make. This pin was about using Adirondak (or homemade) Alcohol Ink on white ceramic tiles to make coasters. You can see one of the original posts about this technique here. If one could float this transparent ink over a smooth ceramic surface, why not do the same over the smooth plastic film?

And it worked very well. I brushed rubbing alcohol onto the plastic label sheet and then washed a few drops of the ink over top. The rubbing alcohol allows the ink to spread well when it evaporates you are left with a very sheer layer of dye.

I made up some samples to test for kitchen use. The resulting sheet was water resistant, but not oil resistant. However, when a coat of matte medium or mod-podge was applied, it became pretty much bullet proof.

So here's the final effect. It was a cinch to cut rectangles to exactly fit over the brown tiles. I burnished them down pretty throughly, and gave them a coat of matte medium once installed.

And as you can see in the close up, the sheer colour allows the grain to show through, so you can't even tell that these are not actual tiles in the border.