When we started learning embroidery last term, we each made a sampler as a record of different stitches.
Using a sewing machine, we sewed two pieces of cotton muslin together, and then divided it into sections. We then stuffed some sections individually with a small amount of wadding, before embroidering. The wadding helps stretch out the fabric and maintain tension without using an embroidery hoop. It also adds a third dimension and textural interest.
I find my sampler a very useful reminder of the different stitches and combinations without having to constantly refer to books or notes.
Last night was the first creative and experimental textiles class of the new term at Morley College, and it was good to see familiar faces from last term, along with a clutch of new students. This term we’re covering felt and cooked cloth, and hopefully will be able to build on some of the work we did last term, combining felt and embroidery.
We started by experimenting with wool tops, which is wool that has been washed, combed and dyed ready for spinning. They come in long, smooth bundles of fibres, which you pull apart into thinner and/or shorter wisps.
To make the felt, we put a layer of bubble wrap (bubble side down) on top of a wet towel, wet the strands of wool tops and arranged them on top of the bubble wrap. When we were happy with the arrangement, we wet the whole thing with soapy water, then put another layer of bubble wrap on top and rolled it up horizontally into a sausage. We rolled it back and forth (like using a rolling pin) for a few minutes, then unrolled it and rerolled it up vertically, and rolled again. We repeated this twice more, rolling it up on both diagonals. When it was ready, we rinsed it in clean water to remove the soap, and dried it off.
When wool felts, it shrinks. So we made our first pieces as grids, leaving spaces, to see how the wool shrank and how the gaps became smaller. We used merino, which is beautifully fine and soft to work with, and came in a stunning range of colours.
The piece in the third photo above was felted for slightly less time than the other two. More pressure, rubbing and moisture leads to fulling, which results in a more stable fabric with a harder texture and more shrinkage.
Then we moved on to working with wool tops that were slightly coarser, making felt balls and sausages. Balls are built up layer by layer, adding different coloured strands wetted with water and soap, and rolling them between the palms of your hands. You don’t need bubble wrap or much space, and you can embroider them and string them together to make a pretty necklace. Or you can cut them in half or slices to show the layers of different colours and make a brooch.
Felt sausages work on the same principle, except that you construct all the layers in one go. Each layer must be at right angles to the layer beneath. So if the first layer of red fibres is vertical, the next layer of, say, white fibres is horizontal. Then the next layer is vertical again. Once you have enough layers, wet them all with water and soap, and roll them up like a sausage in a J-cloth as tightly as you can. Then roll. And roll. And roll.
This is quite hard work, as it takes a lot of rolling – several of us got itchy palms from the constant friction! But it is important to ensure that the sausage is as firm as possible – if it isn’t felted properly, the layers will come apart when you slice into them.
One tip to give the layers more stability is to dip felt beads or sausages into a solution of 50% PVA glue and 50% water. Squeeze out the excess, and leave to dry before slicing.
We will be slicing our balls and sausages in next week’s class – come back then to see the results! 🙂
When talking to my tutor at Morley College about my experiments with knitted plarn, she suggested putting the finished sample in the heat press. Unfortunately, the heat press at the college wasn’t working at the time. So I tried ironing another knitted piece between sheets of baking parchment at home (picture below).
I didn’t really know what to expect – I suppose I thought that the plastic would melt so that all the colours would run into each other in a kind of marbling effect. What actually happened (though the photo doesn’t show this very well) is that the sample simply became flatter, highlighting the texture of the stitches more, and also became stiffer, losing its elasticity and stretchiness – which for me was part of its appeal. Possible function: Coaster or place mat, as long as the plates aren’t too hot!
On our course, we’d moved on to learning about embroidery, both hand and machine. As a scuba diver, I was inspired by the colours and patterns of many tropical fish I’d seen, and I wondered how to create background with the texture of fish scales for embroidery stitches. The solution? Back to plastic – bubble wrap!
Again between sheets of baking parchment, I ironed layers of plastic bags and bubble wrap. The results were interesting. The bubble wrap collapsed and fused to the plastic bags, creating a honeycomb effect. Thinner, cheaper plastic often blistered, leaving clear holes and adding to the texture, while thicker, classier bags created a smoother, glossier effect. Putting the iron on the hottest setting and moving it more slowly could also cause thinner plastic to shrink, leading to a crinkled 3D effect.
However, I soon encountered problems when trying to embroider on top of this material. Because the bubble wrap was so thin and brittle, piercing it with a needle often left large holes. When it was fused with thicker plastic, it was robust enough, but with thinner plastic it was too delicate.
The answer was to add a layer of Vilene to the other side of the bubble wrap. This three-layer fused sandwich of Vilene, bubble wrap and plastic is sturdy but flexible enough to cut and embroider on. And by lining it with felt, I’ve produced several small items like spectacle cases, purses and iPhone/iPod covers. You can see some examples below – there are more on Flickr.
My interest in plastic was piqued when my tutor at Morley College asked us to bring in old newspapers (for working with paste grain papers) and plastic bags (for turning into yarn to knit with). I’d just discovered knitting with paper string to make a page for my sample album (see previous post), so I thought I’d experiment with knitting plastic myself.
So I cut up a couple of Wallis bags into strips and knitted them up in garter stitch and stocking stitch (4.5mm needles and 20 stitches in a row). The result, below, was a stretchy rectangle in black, white and grey, with lots of knots on one side where I had joined the strips of plastic together.
I rather liked the texture and stretchiness of the sample, but wasn’t sure what I could do with it. There are lots of online articles about knitting plastic shopping bags, but I think the stretchiness of the material could be a disadvantage here – the finished bag could distort and stretch out of shape very quickly if you carry anything heavy. Plus all the knots are a bit unsightly.
I solved the knotty problem by discovering a new way of making plarn, by cutting the bag in loops instead. I also experimented with knitting – and crocheting – with different types of plastic, turning them into flowers. For the record, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s bags are quite difficult to work with – they don’t slide across steel or plastic needles very well (I’ve read that bamboo needles are better for this). The easiest bags for knitting are the cheap, thin ones – pedal bin liners and the cheap bags from market stalls.
Then I thought of a way to use the stretchiness of knitted plastic to advantage – as an iPhone cover. When it’s empty, the cover is smaller than the phone, but it stretches to ensure a snug fit. In the cover in the photo below, I combined plarn made from lilac pedal bin liners with novelty ‘eyelash’ yarn (10 stitches per row, 100 rows in stocking stitch).
There are some splendid blogs about textiles already out there, from which I’ve already derived inspiration. So does anyone need another one?
Well, this is as much for me as for anyone else, to track my trials and tribulations through the world of textiles. I’m a relative novice: although I learnt to knit when I was young, and did quite a lot of knitting in my teens and early 20s, I haven’t picked up a ball of wool and needles for around 15 years. I even did a course in spinning and dyeing about 25 years ago, and had cupboards stuffed with fleece, hand carders and drop spindles – again, this all got thrown out as I moved about in a rather peripatetic existence.
But last September I signed up for an evening course in creative and experimental textiles at Morley College, and became inspired again by colour and texture. And once more the house is starting to fill up with bags of bits and pieces ‘that might come in useful’, from paper and card for making sample albums to plastic bags for turning into plarn (plastic yarn to knit/crochet with).
Last term we experimented with making paste grain paper, which we turned into the covers of sample albums. The ‘pages’ inside mine are made of old envelopes, brown paper, fabric, and even knitted paper string. It was a good introduction to thinking about unusual materials and texture in presenting your work.