Welcome to the second post in this mini-series, designed to explain the stitching process I use and hopefully encourage one or two people to give it a go themselves or to let it inspire them to go off on their own creative journey in stitch.
In the first post, I talked about why I like to slow stitch, as a method of relaxation. In the next post, we’ll examine ways to find our inspiration and fire up our intuition, but today’s post is going to focus on the practical matters of materials and equipment.
Remember as we go along, this is what I do and what I use, but, as I said last time, it’s not the only way. Decide what appeals to you and tailor the approach to meet your own needs.
Although I cut my teeth in slow stitching needlepoint work, these days, most of the work I make is probably better defined as fabric collage. I start with a base fabric layer, onto which I position pieces of other fabrics in a collage style, finally using a variety of threads to hold everything in place, unify the piece and to add texture and design. This is what I’m going to concentrate on in this and forthcoming posts.
A quick aside…
But first, I wanted to describe briefly, how and why I made that change from needlepoint to collage, because it demonstrates how, once you begin on a stitch journey, you never know exactly where you’ll go, and how being open to ideas, can bring about transformations.
I loved working in needlepoint, but over time, I began to feel constricted by what I was able to do. I’d begun to accumulate all sorts of delicious threads, but there were many that just weren’t suitable for use in needlepoint. In addition, I was finding that my natural desire to create swirls and circles in my designs, was significantly hampered by the technique that makes some curves very difficult to achieve. And finally, I was increasingly coming up with ideas for new work, which I couldn’t get to whilst still making slow progress in needlepoint.
This might have gone on indefinitely, but for an unexpected encounter. In 2015, I went to the V & A with a friend, who wanted to see the Fabric of India exhibition. I didn’t go with any expectations, at the time I was just happy to be having a day out in London with my friend, but little did I know how inspirational I would find it.
As we walked around the exhibits, I saw for the first time, exquisite Kantha work. Something about the way Kantha stitch was used to transform many individual pieces of cloth into a single piece, awakened a desire in my imagination and the change in my style of working stems from that very day. I went home and almost immediately began experimenting with it myself. It felt so entirely liberating and I knew I’d found the next part of my stitching journey.
Anyway, that’s my story. Let’s go back to the purpose of this post and talk about the materials and equipment I normally use.
1.The base layer.
My favourite baselayer fabric is either a linen scrim or cotton osnaburg.
Why? Because when I first started slow stitching intuitively, I was working in needlepoint and looked for loose weave fabrics that I could use as an alternative to tapestry canvas. Gradually I used fabrics with smaller and smaller holes in the weave and then I made the leap away from needlepoint into a freestyle. I like a plain fabric that is easy to stitch through, is relatively inexpensive and which can be painted if required.
Linen scrim was originally the fabric used by window cleaners – may still be for all I know!
I have also tried calico, but I found it too stiff to stitch easily. I’ve tried pieces of cotton sheeting too, but found that a bit thin. Again though, if you have some and you like it, try it out.
If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with a good fabric store nearby, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding suitable base fabrics. However, if you’re like me and have nowhere anywhere near, you’ll be delighted to know that everything is available online. This is how I source almost all my fabrics these days.
2. Collage fabrics.
When it comes to choosing fabrics to use in the collage, there really is no limit. The fabrics that I have used to date include cotton batik, silk, taffeta, metallic fabrics, gauze, chiffon, and voile. I am especially fond of recycled sari silk, which I use both in fabric pieces and ribbon.
Because I am working in layers, I prefer to use fabrics that aren’t too thick and which will be easy to stitch through. This is why cotton and silk work so well.
If you’ve been following my stitching journey for any time, you’ll know that I like to use a lot of colour, so the choice of fabrics is really as much about which colours I can find as much as anything else.
My personal choice is for plain or subtly printed fabrics but in gorgeous colours. I don’t particularly like fabrics with a very obvious pattern, although having said that, occasionally I find something that once it’s cut up and stitched down, actually works very well. It’s hard to generalise, basically, I look for fabrics that appeal.
Thin fabrics, such as voile and chiffon, are useful for adding layers of shading. They are also helpful when I’m using other materials such as Angelina fibres, which tend to go rogue without another layer on top. I have a large collection of these. They are very cheap and in fact, I often find scraps in charity shops.
I have a particular love of shiny materials, so my stash includes various odds and ends of metallic or shiny fabrics. When I discovered angelina fibres, I knew they were ideal for creating twinkly effects, so every so often, I spend a couple of hours making up swatches in angelina fibres, ready for when I want to set up a new piece.
If you’re just dipping your toes into this process, don’t go mad buying lots of different fabrics. Have a look around the home first and see if there’s anything you could repurpose. I have pieces of old shirts and skirts in my early work. I scour the charity shops looking for interesting fabrics. Scarves can be very useful and they are usually cheap. Swapping with friends can also be fun and a good source of fabrics. See what your friends might have to give you. Try and find fabrics in colours that appeal to you.
Even if you eventually decide to buy more expensive fabrics, at least you won’t need huge amounts, so it shouldn’t need a second mortgage to get going. To date, my most expensive purchase was a metre of shot silk. Needless to say, it’s so beautiful, I’m too scared to cut it. It’s still in the stash, unused.
Let’s be honest. There’s barely a thread I won’t or haven’t used at some time. My stash, like yours, I’m guessing, is pretty varied. You can find cottons, synthetics, metallics, silks, wools, embroidery silks, linen and more. My only criteria are that I should be able to stitch with it, which makes some of the fluffier knitting yarns difficult, otherwise, if I can thread it and if it will stand up to being pulled through the fabric, I’ll use it.
With threads, I think the important thing is to accumulate a variety of shades. When I began stitching with fabric, I went rather mad, buying up and begging for, practically any colours I could find. These days, I realise that I tend to work in a more restricted palette, so there are some colours I use far more often than others. These days, I tend to buy more variations on a theme, rather than acquire lots of shades from palettes I rarely use.
Having said that though, if I see something that calls out to me, even if it’s wildly off palette, I’m going to have to have it. Call it a vice if you will, there are worse ones.
All I’m going to say about needles is that it’s always worth trying different ones to find the style that fits the threads and fabrics you’re using. Nothing speeds your progress, or makes it a real pain more than the right or wrong choice of needle. So, use one that’s sharp enough to deal easily with the fabric. Don’t use one with too big or too small an eye, or you’ll be forever re-threading, or splitting the thread. You don’t need me to tell you which ones, rootle through your own supplies and if necessary invest in a couple of multi-packs. Needles aren’t going to break the bank.
My frame of choice is an R and R Craft Frame, although anything of the same style would be fine. I like these because I can quickly take the work off the frame and change the position. I stitch in the same way that a painter would paint, so it’s really important to be able to go all over the canvas, adding stitch here and there – I’ll talk more about that in a later post – but a frame that you can quickly put on and off is very helpful.
Occasionally, I have tried working without a frame, especially if the piece was large, but it doesn’t work for me. If you have a table big enough and you like working that way, that’s fine, but I like to stitch while sitting on a comfy chair, so a frame is pretty essential to me.
By the way, the frames traditionally used for tapestry sewing are the least helpful in my opinion, because they really are meant to be set up and then left. They don’t allow me to work in the way that I need.
This is a personal choice, but for stitching at night, I use a cheap, IKEA flexible LED lamp. I know you can buy more expensive lamps especially for sewing, and if you have one, or think it would be helpful, that’s fine. We have a sofa in the window of our front room, so that’s where I do most of my stitching by daylight. You’ll have to work out where works best for you. If you have to sew mostly at night, then it is probably an investment to find yourself a good light. Protect your eyes.
7. Pins, glue and scissors.
I’ll end this section by saying that I think a few pins, preferably the ones with nice coloured ends, are probably essential for holding bits in place. I do use a dab or two of fabric glue sometimes when I’m first setting a piece up, and I like it, but it won’t stick every fabric I use and there are always times when a pin does the job better. So, have a stick of glue in your tool kit if you like, but definitely have some pins. As for scissors, well, there’s nothing so satisfying as cutting with sharp fabric scissors and a little pair of thread cutters is very nice to have. Neither are essential, but you probably have some hidden away in a drawer already.
If you are bitten by the stitching bug, you’ll end up with a stash of threads and fabrics. Keeping the stash organised is an ongoing task.
I keep my thin threads in small see-through storage boxes, arranged by colour. I do the same thing with thicker threads, they just have a bigger box for each colour.
I keep my fabric stash arranged by colour too, in yet more boxes, but if you were to look into those boxes, you might find several interlopers from other colour boxes. Never mind, on those days when you can’t quite get in the mood for stitching, it’s a nice distraction to be able to go and sort out your stash.
So, this is what I use. Please don’t rush out and try to amass a huge stash yourself, it’s one of those things that will come in time as you start playing with fabrics, so relax. For now, just cast your eye around your home and do a little reckoning of what materials and equipment you have already, and just have a gentle think to yourself about the fabrics and colours you tend to be attracted towards. Less may not be more in stash terms, but less is definitely not a disadvantage. Start with what you have and when we move onto the next phase, looking at ways to begin, you’ll find that there are all sorts of ways to get going with exactly what you have already available.