A stitch in time

Brixton is currently sprouting markets like mushrooms. As well as the monthly makers’ market (which is this Saturday – and did I mention I’ll have a stall there?!), there are now monthly flea markets and vintage markets, as well as food on Fridays.

I dropped in on the first flea market last Saturday and came across a stall selling old origami and craft books. Among the collection was a volume called Contemporary Whitework by Tracy A Franklin and Nicola Jarvis. Having become rather bogged down with printing over recent weeks, I think it may inspire me to take up the needle and do some more stitching.

Drawn thread work and pulled work look a bit too fiddly, but it might be interesting to experiment with some Richelieu and cutwork, and I love the textures produced by Mountmellick embroidery.

Avril, one of the students who was on the creative and experimental textiles course at Morley College with me last year, has been working on some beautiful embroidered buttons recently.

However, although I admire the effects of whitework, I think it would be very difficult for me to work in monochrome! I need colour as well as texture, so I’m more likely to use the techniques to continue on my rainbow-coloured path, as in the sample of fused plastic bags and bubble wrap below.

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…one step back

Buoyed by my success with the ridgeless felt eyeglass case, I thought I’d try making a bag with a handle. Following the instructions in Lizzie Houghton’s Creative Felting, I made the handle first by rolling and wetting strands of wool to form a long cord, leaving the ends dry so that I could felt them on to the bag itself.

Then I made the bag as before, enclosing a bubble wrap template with two layers of wool plus decoration, rubbing and rolling it before cutting it open. At this stage I tried to felt the handle to the inside of the bag, wetting the dry ends of the cord and rubbing them to attach them to the bag. However, I think the bag had gone too far in the felting process, as I couldn’t get the handle to stick.

Felt bag
First felt bag - with separate handle!
Back of bag
Back of bag

It seems that if I am using an enclosed template I will have to attach the handle to the outside of the bag at an earlier stage. I don’t think I can cut through the wool to felt the handle to the inside of the bag any earlier, as it won’t be stable enough.

One step forward…

My first attempt at using a plastic template to make a felt fan case wasn’t a huge success. The case had unattractive ridges along the sides where the wool on each side had felted together.

So I thought I’d have another go, this time making an eyeglass case. This time I used three layers of merino rather than two, partly to make a thicker case to better protect the spectacles, and partly so that the outer layer would be a horizontal layer that wrapped around the sides, thus avoiding ridges.

I also completely enclosed the bubble wrap template. Then after the pre-felting stage and a bit of rolling, when the wool had started to shrink and the template inside started to wrinkle up,  I cut through the top edge of the package and continued rolling and rubbing.

Purple eyeglass case - no ridges!

Finished case with embroidery
Finished case with embroidery
Back of case
Back of case

This case shrank noticeably more than the fan case, which hardly shrank at all. I think this must be due to the extra layer of merino – the more layers of wool, the more it shrinks.

I’d also like to find a way of neatening the cut edges. Particularly when making felt with different coloured layers, the edges can look a bit ragged.

Scaling up is hard to do

I’ve written previously about fusing plastic bags, bubble wrap, and Vilene to produce material that is flexible but robust enough to embroider. I’ve used it to make small items such as Oyster cardholders, spectacle cases (below), and smartphone covers.

Eyeglass case for spectacles
Spectacle case made from recycled plastic bags

Now that I’ve started making felt, which is quite a wet process, I thought I’d see if I could make an apron from this fused plastic. After all, it should be waterproof!

However, the size of the plastic fabric I can make is limited by the size of my domestic ironing board – 120cm x 40cm, or 80cm x 40cm if you exclude the bit that tapers. Now, I’m not huge, but for a butcher’s apron that gives reasonable protection I reckon I need a minimum size of 80cm x 50cm.

The other problem is that, when they fuse, the plastic bags and bubble wrap shrink. This happens very quickly when they are ironed. With small pieces the iron passes over the whole area almost simultaneously. On larger pieces, however, the part that is being ironed starts shrinking while the rest does not – which leads to unwanted creases and bulges.

Fused plastic fabric
Uneven shrinkage of the plastic and bubble wrap resulted in a bulging, curved surface

This is the result. I ended up with a bulging, curved material that’s not really suitable for a one-piece butcher’s apron.

I’m not quite sure what to do with it. Maybe I can cut it up into smaller pieces and use it as some kind of patchwork (or for making smaller items). I’ll leave it for now – perhaps inspiration will strike later!

Plastic and heat

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).

Knitted plastic sample after ironing
Knitted plastic sample after ironing

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.

Pink and blue plastic experiment
Thin plastic shrinks and crinkles under high heat

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.

Spectacle cases
Spectacle (eyeglass) cases
Wallets
Wallets
phone and card cases
Smartphone and card cases