Use fabric scraps to make zero-waste “freestyle fringe”

Child's fairy dress decorated with several rows of "freestyle fringe"

It’s hard to sew without creating scraps, especially when you’re starting with odd bits and damaged pieces. It’s also true that the smaller the scrap, the trickier it can be to use it up, especially if it is also irregularly shaped. This “freestyle fringe” technique is a simple way to use up all those bits and pieces. In this post I’ll explain what to collect, how to sort your scraps, and how to make the fringe. In subsequent posts, I’ll explore some ways to use freestyle fringe on clothing, accessories, and household items. Grab your scrap bag, and let’s get started.

Red monster face made using freestyle fringe
“Zero-waste monster” made using several rows of freestyle fringe.

What to use

Freestyle fringe can be made of almost any kind of fabric, as long as it’s not really stiff. I have used denim and velvet but I wouldn’t try stiff canvas or fake fur. You need to be able to scrunch it up and sew through a few layers without straining your machine (or hands if you’re hand-stitching). The softer your fabric is, the easier it will be to work with.

The fiber content of your fabric doesn’t really matter but if you want to be able to wash it, all the fabrics should have compatible washing instructions. Silks and some cottons are prone to leaking dye when they are washed. A five minute soak in warm water will show you if that’s likely to be a problem.

Wash anything that is dirty. Discard anything that is smelly or has oily stains. Those are likely to transfer and could ruin anything they come in contact with. Holes and tears are fine. So are faded parts, permanent (non-oily) marks, snags, runs, and unraveled edges.

Prints and solids all work as long as they fit your colour scheme. (More about that in the sorting section.)

You will also need a foundation fabric to sew your fringe onto. It could be a strip or a patch. It depends on how you plan to use your freestyle fringe. What you use for your foundation doesn’t affect how the fringe is made. I’ll be using a large rectangle for my illustrations but you can alter that however you want.

Fabric scraps sorted for colour theme of "at the beach"
Scraps selected for an “at the beach” colour theme.

Sort your stash

Freestyle fringe works best with a colour theme. It can be a single colour, like red, or a range, like pinks and purples. You can also choose an event (eg Christmas) or place (eg the beach) and build your colour scheme around it.

Sort through your stash of scraps and pull out anything that fits your colour scheme. Make a loose pile of those selected pieces and put the remaining scraps away for another project.

Now take a good look at your pile of colour sorted scraps. Are there any bits that stick out like they don’t belong? You could use them as accents but remove them for now.

Are the colours starting to work together or is it still a jumbled mess? If you chose a few colours (eg blues, browns, and yellows for a beach theme), you might find that they look better to you if they are subdivided into smaller colour piles. A rainbow colour scheme will look messy all thrown together, but quite nice when it’s organized into smaller piles with colours flowing from one to the next.

Continue sorting and weeding until you like the way your scrap pile(s) look. Remember that anything that sticks out in the pile will also stick out in the fringe.

Making freestyle fringe

Chop it up

This is where the “freestyle” in freestyle fringe really comes into play. You will not be cutting out pieces, you will be chopping up your scraps into usable bits. They will not match! I find triangles easier to use for my basic rough shape because they let me use all those angled bits and strange shapes. If you have mostly strips of fabric for your scraps, then you might find rectangles work well. It doesn’t really matter, Neither does grain direction.

Several rows of freestyle fringe made using rectangles instead of triangles
Several rows of freestyle fringe using folded rectangles instead of triangles.

Decide roughly how long you want the pieces to be. You can base this on the size of your scraps or on the space you want to cover with your fringe. Cut your scraps into rough triangles that are about that length. They can be wide or skinny. Just cut so that all the fabric is used.

If your scraps were subdivided into smaller piles, keep the triangles sorted that way.

One row of triangles scrunched and stitched onto a foundation fabric for freestyle fringe.
First row of scrunched triangles stitched in place for freestyle fringe. You can see the variations in the size and shape of the pieces.

Sew it together

There’s a bit of “freestyle” in the sewing of the fringe too. Instead of gathering each piece, you’re just going to bunch it up with your fingers and sew over the bunched up triangles one by one to form a strip. You can overlap the triangles or not, depending on your preference. You can bunch them a lot or a little, again depending on your preference.

I usually use my presser foot for a seam allowance gauge but if the fabric is fairly coarse, I would leave a larger allowance. Stitch length is average and thread is usually something that blends in.

If you’re working with just one colour pile, then grab triangles at random and stitch them in place. If you are working with more than one colour pile, you will need to decide how you want to organize the colours in your fringe. The pink and purple fairy dress in the feature illustration has a top row of just purple, the next row with mostly purple, the third row with mostly pink, and the bottom row with all pink.

Closeup view of fairydress with freestyle fringe showing colour changes in the fringe layers
Closeup view of freestyle fringe between the ruffles of this fairy dress. The fringe is all purple at the top layer and gradually changes to all pink at the bottom.

That’s all there is to it – just chop, bunch, and stitch. It’s simple way to use those awkward leftovers from other projects. Coming soon: projects and instructions for using freestyle fringe. Stay tuned!

That darned blanket!- how to fix a hole in your clothes

Close up view of a hand-darned area on a blanket

An aggressive stomach bug interrupted my other projects this week. In that impatient time between too sick to care and well enough to get up, I decided that it was time to fix the holes in my blanket. All I needed was sharp scissors, a blunt needle and some scraps of yarn. Best of all, I could do the job lying down. In this post I’ll show you how I did it, and how you can darn things too.

First we’ll look at factors I considered when deciding if this technique was suitable for my project. Then we’ll cover what tools and supplies are needed, and how to actually do the repair. I’ll finish with some tips on making the repair job look good. After all, there’s no point fixing something if you don’t want to use it afterwards.

Should I darn it?

Darning is a way to reinforce fabric or fill a hole without adding the kind of bulk you get with patching. It usually looks the same on both sides of the fabric when you’re done which is important for something like a blanket. Most of the time, the darned spot is clearly visible when finished, although it can blend in on some fabrics, especially if they are fairly textured or if you have a small hole to fill and very fine threads to fill it with. Darning is strong and, when carefully done, the transition between original cloth and the darned portion is virtually impossible to feel.

That smooth transition between original and darned is what made it so popular for socks. A patched sock would cause blisters but a well-darned sock would be comfortable to wear. Darning was also done to reinforce high-friction areas (eg the heel of a sock) before they wore through.

Darning is also often used to repair hidden parts of a garment, like behind a lapel or within the fold of a pleat where there is no concern about it being visible. If the repair is going to be visible or if the hole was large, a patch is usually the preferred solution.

I chose to darn my blanket instead of patching it because I didn’t want the extra bulk and ridges I would get with patches. I would have to patch both sides of each hole so the bulk would be even more noticeable. It is also a coarsely woven fabric so there weren’t that many missing threads to replace. I knew the repaired spots would be visible but that was okay.

Tools and supplies

Darning by hand is a very low-tech task, requiring only scissors, a support device, needle, and thread.

The scissors should be sharp and fine enough to snip individual threads right at the fabric’s surface.

The support device is something to support the fabric while you’re working on it so that you don’t change the shape of the hole, or accidentally stitch through other layers of the fabric. A darning egg (traditionally a wooden or stone egg) is used for sock heels. Some people like to use an embroidery hoop but that can be awkward to fit into place. A clean piece of cardboard or folded paper works for most flat spots. Ideally it would be a few centimeters larger than the hole but it often comes down to what will fit behind the fabric while you are working on it.

The needle should be blunt and just large enough to hold a single strand of the darning thread.

The thread (or in the case of my blanket, yarn), should be similar in weight to the fabric’s threads. My blanket is 100% cotton and very soft. I have cotton embroidery floss, and several different weights of crochet cotton but those are all too smooth and shiny to be a good match even if the colour were perfect. There was some “dishcloth” yarn and a lighter weight soft cotton cord that I thought might work. I preferred the look of the dishcloth yarn but it was definitely too heavy so I pulled it apart and used it half-thickness at a time.

Getting ready to darn this hole in a blanket.  The loose threads have been trimmed and two options for darning thread are shown.  One is an appropriate weight and the other is too thick so it is being split into thinner strands.
The pale yarn is about the right weight. The heavier yarn is being split into thinner strands by untwisting it.

Sometimes you can pull threads out of other parts of the piece you are trying to repair. You don’t need a lot for darning so if there is an especially generous seam allowance or wide hem, you may be able to harvest some perfectly matching thread from it. With some fabrics, the threads are too soft for this to work, but it’s worth a try.

Preparing the hole

Darning is detailed work and you need to be able to see what you’re doing. So the first step is to trim away all the loose thread ends. Snip just a few at a time and try to trim them flush with the surface of the fabric. Sometimes you will have a few isolated threads still intact across the hole. Don’t cut them! It’s just the whiskery loose ends you want to get out of the way. Check and trim from both sides of the fabric if you can. Don’t be concerned if some ends are much farther from the edge of the hole than others.

Once the threads are trimmed, you can stabilize the hole. Good darning adds threads to a hole and its surrounding area without distorting the fabric. If the hole is very tiny and/or already backed by other layers of fabric (eg the underside of a collar), you shouldn’t need anything extra to stabilize it. If it’s in a wide open area and you can snap an embroidery hoop over it, that’s a simple solution. Basting (or even stapling, if it won’t mark the fabric) your piece to a few thicknesses of paper is another way to secure it. You will need to keep your basting stitches (or staples) 5-10 cm (2-4″) away from the edges of the hole so they don’t get in the way. Now you’re ready to stitch.

This hole in the blanket has the loose thread ends trimmed away and the first row and a half of stitching completed.
The loose thread ends have all been trimmed and the stitching is underway.

Stitching

Darning is sort of weaving, sort of sewing. You will be going over, under, over, under the individual threads of the intact fabric around the hole. You will also be laying down threads across the hole, and then weaving across them to create new fabric. It’s rhythmic work, done in a grid. Are you ready? Thread your needle.

First layer

Find your starting point about 10 threads outside the edge of the hole. Chose an intact thread to follow. Working alongside that thread, stitch over, under, over, under the individual threads you cross as you work your way to the opposite side of the hole and into the fabric on the other side.

Step across a few threads, one at a time, and then work your way back, parallel to the first thread you put in. Keep going back and forth like this until you have covered the full width of the hole with some extra on either side. Your ground threads are now in place.

Diagram showing the stitching path for the first layer of darning stitches.
The dark blue lines show the darning stitches starting at the dot in the upper right corner and zigzagging their way through the intact fabric and across the hole. Note that the first few rows don’t even cross the hole. They are reinforcing stitches.

I did it a little differently on my blanket. I stitched well beyond the edges of the hole and I cut my threads instead of turning and stepping to the next one. That’s because I wanted to merge the new colours into the old and I knew I could count on the fuzzy texture of the yarn to keep all those individual strands in place. Aside from that, the principle is the same. I went over, under, over, under through the intact fabric and straight across the hole, using existing threads as guides.

The first layer of stitching is done and the second layer is underway.
Horizontal contrast threads are the first layer of stitches, now complete. The second layer has three (vertical) contrast rows done.

Second layer

The second layer of threads is put in like the first but at right angles to it. Use an existing thread as a guide, just as you did before. When you get to the hole, instead of being empty, it now has all those threads from the first layer strung across it. Weave over, under, over, under them as you work your way back and forth across the hole. You are weaving a loose piece of cloth inside the hole. Keep going until the entire hole is covered, along with some fabric on either side.

Third layer (filler)

The ground work is done but right now the brand new cloth where the hole was is still thinner than the main fabric. We need to fill that in without jamming too much extra thread in the main fabric around the hole. The way to do that is to continue stitching/weaving but only in the thinner new area, not back into the main fabric.

Diagram shows the original fabric, the completed first and second layers of darning stitches, and the third (filler) layer of stitching partially completed.stitches
Orange lines indicate the original fabric, and dark blue lines indicate the completed first and second layers of darning. The light purple lines show where the third layer would start filling in the gaps.

If you insert two new threads between every pair of threads from the first two layers, you will keep your over, under pattern intact, while firming up the new cloth. If that is still noticeably thinner than the main fabric, add more filler, but do this gradually so that you don’t end up with a thick stiff wad.

When you’re satisfied with your work, just trim your thread close to the fabric surface. You’re done!

Looking good!

Most of the time, it’s hard to darn something invisibly, so how do you make it look good?

With my blanket, I’m making my darned spots deliberately large and blotchy. The contrasting threads run well into intact fabric in all directions. Once all the holes are darned, I want to stitch some smaller patches of colour and even some random lines of colour. So the holes govern the placement of the original colour blocks but the whole blanket will get an infusion of colour splash.

I also considered turning each darned spot into a specific shape, like a flower or a circle or a butterfly. I could use a template to draw that shape as a frame around each hole and then darn the area to fill it. (That was more planning than I was up to for this project.)

The darns could have embroidery or fabric painting around them to make them look like deliberate parts of a design. Alternatively, the design could be complex or textured enough that the darns get lost in its richness.

There are many, many ways to use darning on textiles, both decoratively and for repairs. Like most simple techniques, there’s a lot you can do with it once you get comfortable with the basics. I’m sure I’ll have more posts about it as time goes on. In the meantime, I hope this has been enough to get you started.

Are artificial/silk flowers washable?

A fairy doll, dressed in artificial flower petals ponders the question: "Are artificial/silk flowers washable?"

I’ve been using artificial flowers to dress my wee fairy folk for decades and gently cleaning them was simple. But a while back, I thought of using them on clothing for human bodies, and that’s when I needed to know, are artificial/silk flowers washable? Here’s what I learned and how I tested it:

Since the 1970s, most fabric fake flowers have been made of polyester rather than silk. Although the materials I work with are all second-hand, it’s still pretty safe to assume that the fabric flowers in my stash are all polyester. The older flowers tend to be paper, cellulose, or heavily glued velvet – not at all washable but also not suitable for sewing on clothing.

A disassembled artificial flower showing the plastic pieces and the different "petal circles."
Disassembled cornflower showing its plastic parts and the variety of petal circles.

Fabric flowers are assembled from a stack of petal “circles” stacked on top of each other with some smaller plastic “discs” between some of the layers to shape the flower. A stem and plug lock them together. I removed all the plastic parts and set them aside for the fairies. It was just the fabric petal circles and leaves that I hoped to use on clothing. (Any flowers that frayed or fell apart at this stage were discarded.)

I selected a variety of flowers and leaves for testing, making sure that I covered all the bases:

  • long thin petals vs wide round petals
  • small circle size vs large circle size
  • plain fabric vs fabric that feels like it has a coating on it
  • thin fabric vs thick fabric
  • crisp (almost melted) edges vs soft, smooth edges, vs slightly frayed edges
  • ultra-fine weave vs slightly coarser weave
  • like new vs definitely older

I then pulled a few pieces out of my fabric scrap bin looking for variety there too: t-shirt, velour, broadcloth, organza, and a printed denim.

The next step was to consider the different ways I might want to attach flowers to clothes and test them too. It would not be an exhaustive list but I would at least find out if the attachment method had much effect on how well the flowers withstood laundry. Here’s what I used to attach the handful of flowers to the fabric scraps:

  • handstitching with beads
  • handstitching through buttons
  • handstitching alone
  • machine stitching alone

I also varied the stitching patterns and the number of layers in each stack.

Artificial flowers attached to fabric scraps are shown before they are washed
Flowers before washing

After taking some photos to document the “before” look (that’s the part I usually forget to do), I tossed all my test pieces into the washing machine along with my next load of laundry. Real silk often leaks dye when it gets wet but polyester doesn’t so I wasn’t concerned about discolouration. I wanted to see if they fell apart.

Everything looked fine after a regular cycle cold water wash so I tried the dryer. They survived that too. There was a little fraying around the edges of some of the pieces, but nothing disintegrated. I took some more photos and then set up a tally sheet. How many trips through washer and dryer could these flowers handle? It’s no good calling something washable if it falls apart after three washes.

Artificial flowers shown after washing and drying by machine
Flowers after once through washer and dryer

I kept the test pieces beside the laundry detergent. Every time I was going to do a load that used both washer and dryer, I would toss the pieces in and mark another tick on my tally sheet. There was no noticeable difference between the first and second washes so I didn’t bother to take more pictures. After ten washes, there was still not enough difference to bother with photos.

Artificial flowers after machine washing and drying
Flowers after 40 trips through washer and dryer. Even the tiny one held together.

After forty trips through both washer and dryer the flowers were noticeably frayed but they still looked like flowers. The leaves held up remarkably well, especially the ones that started with a glossy coating on them. There were some snarls of loose threads and long hair in the petals and around some of the buttons and beads. Those had to be carefully removed so the stitching wasn’t damaged. (When I pulled too hard on one of them, a thread broke and I lost some beads.)

Artificial flowers with thread tangled in them after washing and drying by machine
Threads tangled between layers of this flower.

I had expected the thin daisy-like petals to come apart right away. Most of them didn’t, but the big round petals that taper to almost nothing where they join in the center, looked like those big petals might get tugged off if they caught on something. So now, when I use them, I sew through the petals instead of only stitching in the middle of the flowers.

Artificial flowers after being washed many times
Blue flowers after 40 trips through washer and dryer. (Leaf is virtually unchanged.)

Are artificial/silk flowers washable? Absolutely yes! I still dress my fairy dolls in flowers but now I use them for people clothes too. To see some samples, click here.

Rescue stained clothing easily with flowers

A pink skirt has cloth flowers sewn on it to cover up stains.

Remember that pit in your stomach when someone jostled your elbow and, in a split second, a favourite outfit was condemned to never being worn again? A splash of wine, a drop of grease, a smudge of ink, and you knew it wasn’t going to come clean. Did you discard it immediately, or add it to a pile of “if only…” garments – things you can’t wear as is, but can’t bear to give up on? Working with “if only…” garments is my specialty and this post shows one of many ways I rescue stained clothing using those stains for design inspiration.

The skirt in this example came to me with rust stains scattered across it. The gauzy material was not going to withstand heavy stain-removal tactics so the barely-worn skirt was supposedly headed for the scrap bag. Instead, I wanted to bring it back into circulation as a stronger form of itself.

My first impression of this skirt was its very feminine frilly texture. I thought that called for a soft and almost monochromatic treatment, so I went to my stash of fabric flowers and pulled out a handful of suitable pinks. Instead of using the flowers as is, I took them apart and re-combined the petals into entirely new flowers. These weren’t nearly as bulky as the original flowers and their texture was enhanced.

Stash of pink artificial flowers

Next, I went to my basket of embroidery floss and pulled out more pinks and some bright pollen yellows. It took no time to discard the yellows and focus on the pinks. Botanical accuracy wasn’t the goal here, and the contrast was too jarring. Instead, I selected some golden glass beads to add to the flower centers. The beads would cover up the holes in the middles of the flowers, and they would hint at dew drops and pollen without clashing with the narrow colour scheme. My embellishments were ready. It was time to tackle the skirt.

Artificial flowers spread out on the stained skirt to decide what should be used where

The skirt was as clean as it was going to get. I spread it out in a well-lit work area and carefully inspected it for stains and any other damage. Every spot got marked with a pair of brightly coloured pins. (Two pins so if one fell out, there was another for backup.) When all the trouble spots were pinned, I had a map for flower locations.

Every spot got covered by a flower and then more flowers were added to pull the “scattering” together. I wanted drifts of flowers, not splotches or a solid bush, so I played with the arrangement until I was happy with it. Then I pinned it securely, and put it on a mannequin so I could see how the design looked “in 3D” and from many different angles. A few adjustments, and the flowers were ready for stitching.

Closeup of fabric flowers sewn onto a skirt to cover stains.  The stitching is by hand with embroidery stitches and glass beads.

My needle needed to be sharp enough to pierce the tightly-woven flowers without pulling threads, large enough to carry several strands of embroidery floss, yet fine enough to fit through the holes in the beads. (That’s why I can have twenty needles at hand and still be looking for a different one.) Every flower was attached to the skirt with a round of lazy daisy stitches topped off with a bead to cover up the hole in the middle of the petals. This left the petals free to move while adding decorative interest to their centers.

When the stitching was done, the skirt was ready to wear again, and most importantly, it was also still hand-washable. I’ve done some testing on the durability of fabric flowers through machine washing and drying and most of them perform very well. (I’ve written a separate post about that testing. You can read it here.) So the flowers could handle machine washing but the skirt itself could not. Also, cotton embroidery floss should be pre-shrunk or replaced with several strands of standard sewing thread if you are not washing by hand.

The other consideration for washability is the beads. Most glass beads can withstand a fair bit of wet and heat. Some plastic beads don’t do so well with the heat of a dryer. Harsh detergents can do more damage than the water or the dryer heat, especially if metallics are involved. So if you’re trying this for yourself, consider how you want to clean the garment when you are selecting what you want to decorate it with. If you want to wash and dry by machine, make a test swatch of your materials and throw it in with a few laundry loads to see how the components hold up.

This “drift of flowers” technique is very handy. You don’t have to be able to draw to use it, and it doesn’t have to cover a large area so it can be very quick to do. One client came to me with a velvet cape that was to be worn in a wedding just a few weeks away. The cape had arrived at her door with some black spots on it and anything we could do to remove them would mark the velvet. There wasn’t enough time to get a replacement cape from the original supplier so we covered the spots with a drift of flowers. Not only was it a quick fix, but the client decided she liked the new version better than the original.

So if you’re looking for an easily adaptable way to disguise a spattered stain, you might consider “planting” flowers.

TGIF – part 3

A foot made of black, white, and brown material is balancing precariously on the head of a pin. The pin has the word "Independence" on it.

TGIF is a three part series that I made nearly 25 years ago. This third panel, “Independence,” is the one that consistently provokes the most discussion. People are usually quick to agree with, or at least understand the first two panels, “Freedom,” and “Rights,” but they’re not as certain about this one. Let’s see what you think.

In most anglophone cultures, independence is something we’re taught to strive for, whether it’s financial independence or just learning to stand on our own two feet. The transformations from infancy, through the various stages of childhood are usually described in terms of what we can now do on our own. By adulthood, we are expected to be fully independent beings.

We subscribe to the notion that there are only three options: dependency, co-dependency, and independence. The first one is ruled out as inefficient and therefore undesirable; and the second is unhealthy; which leaves the third as the obvious choice. But if covid and lockdowns have taught us anything, it is that we need each other. We are not independent beings. Self-isolation wouldn’t be a problem if we were.

The fourth (and by now you know I think it’s the best) option is interdependence. We all have things to offer and we all have needs to fill. We don’t need protective walls isolating us from each other and holding us up. We need connections, ties, safety nets that allow us to give and take and move and grow as individuals within a strong community.

Yes, we talk about team building and boosting our networks but the very fact that we have identified those as specialized activities shows that they are not an integrated part of how we live. How many of us know (or are) proudly independent people – people who are struggling to survive but don’t dare ask for help or even accept it if it is freely offered? When we need assistance, an independence-based community says we are no longer adults. An interdependent community says, “How can I help?’