From prom dress to cape – an overview

From prom dress to cape - front view

A prom dress rarely gets worn more than once. It’s a shame really, that beautiful dress and all the memories associated with it, stuck in the back of the closet. I thought there should be a way to change up a special dress and make it more wearable without making it more ordinary. My plan was to take one dress, with a magnificent skirt, and transform it from prom dress to cape.

All of the frou-frou with none of the fuss

Rachel is wearing the original pink gown with a floral bathing cap. She is standing at a lectern reading into a microphone.

Spectacular gowns aren’t built for comfort. Neither are the under-pinnings we rely on to make our changeable bodies fit the chosen dresses. That’s even more true when the chosen dress is strapless.

What if we could have all that glitz and glamour with significantly less effort? Wouldn’t it be nice to breathe and feel beautiful at the same time?

By turning the gown into a cape, I created a layer that could be thrown over almost any outfit to dress it up. It could fit many more shapes and sizes of people effortlessly, and those people could breathe, bend over, slouch, or dance, without risking a “wardrobe malfunction.”

This isn’t a detailed step-by-step tutorial because each dress is going to be differently made and present its own challenges. Instead, I’m giving you a photographic overview of how I tackled this project so you can use it as inspiration for your own dress conversion.

Taking it apart

The original pink dress is displayed on a mannequin. It is made of bright pink taffeta with a very full skirt, accented with gathers and beaded medallions

After taking final photos of the dress in its original state, it was inspected for damages and the skirt was carefully separated from the bodice. The bodice was taken apart and pieces ironed.

There was no center front seam on this skirt so I decided to turn the skirt around backwards to make the cape. I removed the zipper and then continued opening the back seam all the way down to the hem.

Shaping the shoulders

A skirt is smaller at the waist than at the hips but a cape (or any kind of top) needs to be much smaller at the neck than at the shoulders.

Some darts are made and others are being marked to shape the shoulders of the cape

I used darts to take in the excess fabric, mostly at the shoulders. They were pinned and stitched in pairs so the two sides matched. Here the shoulders are done but the front still needs to be fitted.

Marking the neckline

Pins mark where the back neckline should go.  The beaded medallions are loose at the top

With darts done, the cape now sits comfortably on the mannequin’s shoulders.

Pins mark where the yoke will go to make a nicely rounded neckline.

Drafting the yoke

Pink cape yoke cut and sewn from bodice pieces

After making a paper yoke, I cut this one out of the bodice pieces and sewed it together.

This is the underside so you can see the understitching around the neck edge. The line of stitching around the outside edge will make it easier to turn under a smooth curve despite the slippery yet stiff taffeta.

Putting it together

Pink cape with yoke sewn on

The yoke is sewn on but its ends aren’t finished because I haven’t yet decided how the cape going to close.

Each one of those beaded medallions covers four pleats of taffeta. That’s eight layers plus the lining! What will work well with all those layers? Buttons and loops? Snaps? Hooks?

Making the placket

Both the main fabric and the lining had a slit cut in the seam allowance to accommodate the bottom of the zipper.

several rows of stitching reinforce the seam allowance where it was slit to accommodate the dress zipper

Here a strip of interfacing (cut from an old tie) gets several rows of machine stitching across the slit to stabilize it before finishing the placket.

All this stitching will be invisible when the edges are folded under.

Restoring some pouff

The original dress had several layers of netting in its crinoline. The cape looked a little flat on its own so I reinstated some of its pouff.

Sewing crinoline layer onto cape lining

One layer of crinoline (netting and base fabric) was cut apart from the rest and sewn onto the lining. The key here was to attach the scratchy netting between the outer fabric and the lining so it was invisible both inside and out.

Finishing up

Armholes were simple to make – I just opened the seams between two medallions and then sewed the lining to the outer fabric.

Finished cape.  Front view

The placket stabilized the front edges nicely. Silver snaps are hidden behind each of the four medallions on the placket. (The top medallion came from the bodice of the original dress.)

Mission accomplished – the cape is finished and ready to wear. It’s certainly more comfortable and more versatile than the dress was.

Is it still glamourous? I think so!

How to make t-shirt yarn – a cheap and versatile crafting ingredient

Picture shows how to make t-shirt yarn with a strip being cut, a portion pulled, and another section already bundled for use.

I use t-shirt yarn for crafting, for sewing, and around the house. It’s a very strong cord that can be cut to a wide range of thicknesses. The colour range is huge. (How many colours do t-shirts come in?) My favourite way to use up t-shirts is to make t-shirt yarn. Stains and holes don’t matter. Long pieces and short pieces all have their uses. And the process is dead easy. In this post I’ll show you how.

Tools and materials

All you need is a clean t-shirt and scissors that cut fabric. If you’re nervous about cutting an even line, you can use a ruler but being absolutely even isn’t important. This is a very forgiving product.

You could use a rotary cutter and mat instead of scissors. The cutting will be faster but if you want a long continuous strand, you will have to join the pieces after they are cut.

The best t-shirts have no side seams. The body of the shirt is a tube with slits cut in it for adding the sleeves. That long tube lets you cut a spiral that gives you one very long piece of t-shirt yarn. T-shirts with side seams are still useful but the pieces will be shorter unless your yarn is cut very wide.

How it works

There are two basic steps to making t-shirt yarn:

  • cut the strips
  • pull the yarn

The strips are cut wider than what you want the finished yarn to be. When you pull it, the edges automatically curl in and the yarn gets longer. It will still have some stretch to it but it will not bounce back to its original flat length and width. Because the edges curl in, all the thread ends and the uneven edges disappear from sight. You have a nice smooth cord to work with.

Very wide strips will only curl at their edges instead of making a cord. You usually need to get beyond 5 cm (2″) width for that to happen.

Getting ready

Remove the hem stitching at the bottom of the t-shirt. On the outside you will see two rows of straight stitches. On the inside there will be a thread looping back and forth between those two rows of stitches. Don’t pull or cut the loopy thread! If you pull it, the stitching will tighten up and be almost impossible to remove. If you cut it, you will have hundreds of tiny pieces that each need to be removed individually. Instead, pull out the two rows of straight stitches and the loopy thread will come off in one long (probably tangled) piece.

The outside and underside of t-shirt hemstitching are shown and labeled.
Pull out the straight stitch rows and the loopy threads will come right off.

Even if you want very wide t-shirt yarn, the hem should still be removed. Otherwise, the edges won’t curl where the hem is so the yarn will be stiffer there.

Cut

If your t-shirt has no side seams, or if you are cutting a very wide strip, you can cut a spiral. Just start cutting on an angle until you get the width you want. Keep going around and around until you’re done.

If the t-shirt has side seams (or if you are cutting the sleeves), use scissors or a rotary cutter and mat, to cut rings. When you pull them, they will come apart at the side seams.

You can cut pretty much any width. My default size is the width of a standard t-shirt hem. That’s about 1.5 cm (.75″).

Ruler shows cutting width of t-shirt strip as 1.5 cm or .74 inches
My default cutting width is 1.5 – 2 cm (.75 – 1″). That yields a cord about .5 cm (1/8″) diameter.

Always cut your strips parallel to the hem. Long sleeves may give you longer strands if you cut perpendicular to the hem (ie along the length of the sleeve instead of across it) but they won’t be nearly as strong. When you cut parallel to the hem, the threads that make up the knit fabric run the length of the cut strips. Even if they unravel, you still have a bundle of long threads that will hold together. When you cut perpendicular to the hem, those threads run across the width of your strips. They don’t need to unravel very much to significantly weaken the t-shirt yarn.

Avoid cutting parts that have paint, glue, or other stiff stuff on them. They won’t curl or stretch. That bit of yarn will be noticeable and possibly weaker than the rest. Unfortunately, that includes a lot of the pictures and custom printing on t-shirts.

Pull

When the first 15 cm (6″) is cut, grab both ends and pull it. It will stretch and curl. Make sure that’s the width/weight you want. Adjust your cutting width if needed, and keep cutting and pulling as you go.

Flat strip of t-shirt is shown above a piece that has been pulled and is therefore curled and stretched.
When the flat strip (above) is pulled, the edges curl in and it gets longer and thinner (below).

I prefer to pull all my strips before winding them into a ball or bundling them for storage. They are easier to handle that way. It also lets me see at a glance what their finished size will be instead of having to guess.

Join

There are many ways to join t-shirt yarn strips into longer strands and what works best depends on how you plan to use it. So I’ll just say here that it can be done and it doesn’t need to take forever. However, there are so many ways to use shorter pieces of t-shirt yarn, that I rarely splice it. I save the long spirals for projects that need them, and the shorter pieces for everywhere else.

Use it

The waistband of a re-woven shirt is shown.  It was woven with t-shirt yarn pieces.
The horizontal strands in this re-woven shirt waistband are t-shirt yarn. The colour variations caused by stains on the shirt are actually an asset. So is the slight stretch the t-shirt yarn gives to the waist.

T-shirt yarn is so versatile I find myself saving every scrap. Some projects call for 3 cm (1.25″) pieces so it’s hard to find scraps small enough to throw away. It’s yarn, so anything you would use yarn for , you can use t-shirt yarn for. It’s cord, so anything you would use cord for, you can use t-shirt yarn for. There are also specific techniques that work best with t-shirt yarn instead of other yarn or cord. Those are the ones I will focus on when I post instructions for using this fabulous resource. But don’t wait for me. Cut up an old t-shirt and start playing. Whatever your preferred fiber art is, you can probably find a way to incorporate t-shirt into it.

Partially completed rug made of t-shirt yarn strips
T-shirts aren’t the only source of t-shirt yarn. This rug hooking project uses strands from pyjamas too.

Make your own wallpaper using papers you love

SeeingSquared studio walls are shown with wallpaper made from tissue paper sewing patterns.

Just about every person who visits my studio comments on the wallpaper. They use words like “personal,” “distinctive,” “innovative,” and “creative.” It was such an easy (and inexpensive) thing to do, I had to share it with you. After all, cheap, innovative, and personalized are core values for this blog. So here’s how to make your own wallpaper using papers you love.

Think about it

Don’t do this on a whim. It looks great but when it comes time for a change, this wall-covering will take a lot of work to undo. It won’t scrape off with a quick steaming and its texture will show through if you paint over it. (I like the texture, but it might not be your cup of tea.) You can cover it up with paneling or another layer of wallpaper. You could also sand it down before priming and painting. Alternatively, you could apply this wallpaper to a panel and then attach the panel to the wall. This doesn’t have to be a problem, just make sure you recognize what you’re getting into.

Also, it’s not well-suited for damp places like bathrooms. If you are determined, you could slather it in varnish, but that’s a lot of extra work (and gunk on your walls).

Tools and supplies

For tools you will need:

  • large paint brush (at least 10 cm (4″) wide)
  • bucket or basin
  • step ladder
  • knife for trimming up edges (optional)
  • wet rags for cleaning up
  • drop cloths to protect the floor from splatters and spills.

Supplies are very basic – just paper, glue, and water. You will need enough paper to cover the wall twice. (That lets you overlap freely without fear of running out near the end.) For details on how to select your paper, see the next section.

Wallpaper paste will not work for this job. Neither will homemade flour and water paste. You need something thin that dries clear – watered down white glue (PVA glue). I used Home Hardware’s “Natura” white glue but other brands will also work. (No, I do not get any sort of compensation for mentioning or recommending products.) The 3.8L (4 quart) jug did 55 m2 (600 ft2) of wall and I still have glue left over. Not bad for $18.

Choose your paper

This technique is for tissue paper. Rice paper, paper napkins, onion skin paper, tracing paper, and some handmade papers could also work. Some measure of transparency is important. So is colour-fast ink.

A selection of papers that would work to make your own wallpaper.  These include gift-wrapping tissue paper either new or used, and handmade paper with fried flowers embedded in it
Any of these papers would work to make your own wallpaper. The solid pink is crumpled and torn but that doesn’t matter. It came with a pair of shoes. The brand new purple and gently used floral print papers are both gift wrapping tissue. On the right is handmade paper with pressed flowers and leaves embedded in it.

I used commercially printed sewing patterns. They are transparent even before gluing, and their ink does not run when it gets wet. Their transparency let me layer them and overlap them with little regard for what was on top. Everything showed through, even four or five layers deep. Two trips to the thrift store got me all the patterns I needed, and then some.

Fabulous effects could be achieved using gift-wrapping tissue paper in its huge array of colours. Those colours might bleed when wet so test before using. Papers with printed designs also need to be tested. The background might be colour-fast but if the ink runs, you’ll have blotchy mess.

Paper napkins usually come in layers. Separate those layers before using because each layer needs its own coat of glue.

Covering an entire wall with paper napkins could be very labour intensive. If you love those butterfly napkins, consider using individual butterflies scattered over a broad tissue paper background. They are actually more likely to get noticed that way than if the entire wall is plastered with them.

Test

Not every paper will be as transparent as the sewing patterns I used. I recommend doing a small test patch to see how your selected papers look after they’ve been layered and the glue has dried. The more opaque they are, the more you will need to plan your design.

A board or a piece of cardboard will work fine for your test patch. Just make sure it has the same colour paint on it that your wall does. Seeing if/how the paint shows through is important.

Prepare the wall

Bare wood or drywall should be primed before wallpapering. A painted surface just needs a quick wash to remove dust and dirt, so long as the colour is not problematic. If the wall is not white, you really need to do the test patch to make sure you can work with that background colour.

Mix the glue

Pour some glue into your bucket and add a bit of water. Cool, cold, or room temperature is fine, just not hot. Stir the water in completely and then add more. Continue adding and mixing in more water until the mixture runs more like water than glue.

Some brands of white glue are much thinker than others so I can’t give you an exact proportion for the mix but it also doesn’t need to be exact. Somewhere around 1:3 or 1:6 ratio of glue to water is a good starting point. Too much glue, and you’ll have a crusty coating on the surface. Too little and the paper won’t stick well. (Did I mention you should test a patch first?) If neither of those is a problem, you’re in the right ball park.

Hang the paper

The method is straightforward: brush the wall with glue, stick the paper on the wet glue, brush over the top with more glue.

The glue is thin like water, not thick like paint so it will splatter and drip. It will also dry quickly. Get the drop cloths in place and keep a damp rag on hand.

Starting near the top of the wall, paint a small section with glue and then add a piece of paper. Reload the brush with glue, then use the brush to smooth down the paper. Work from the top towards the bottom and from the middle towards the edges. Push bubbles out. Let wrinkles form but make sure they are thoroughly glued down.

The bubble in this piece of tissue paper needs to be properly smoothed down.
The bubble near the Simplicity arrow needs to be smoothed down with the brush. If there is not enough glue to make it stick, gently peel back the corner and apply more glue. Loose bits like this will stick out and catch on things. Wrinkles are okay but bubbles are not.

Keep your hands as clean and dry as possible. You don’t want them to stick to the rest of the paper.

Paint another section of wall with glue and add the next piece of paper. Some of the glue may have already dried to the touch. Just paint more over it so that you always have wet glue where you want to apply more paper. Every paper should also be completely covered in glue so that it is sealed in.

Hanging large sheets of paper

A large sheet of tissue paper is being glued to the wall.  The top is attachd and the rest of it hangs loosely.
The top edge of this full sheet of pattern tissue has been glued to the wall. The rest hangs loosely, waiting for more glue to be painted on the wall under the paper.

To hang a very large piece of paper, paint glue where the top edge of the paper will go. Attach that top edge to the wall and smooth it over with the brush. Then roll up the the paper from the bottom edge and lift that loose lower portion away from the wall. Now you can paint another patch of glue under the paper and smooth some more of it down. Keep working in sections like that until the whole sheet is done. The trick is to make sure you don’t end up with dry patches on the wall under the paper.

Clean up

One of the beauties of working with white glue is the very simple clean-up. Wash your tools with warm water, pack up the drop cloths, and you’re done. Parts of the wall are probably already dry to the touch and the rest soon will be.

High touch areas, like a cupboard door, would benefit from a coat of varnish after the glue is fully dry, but for most walls, that’s not needed.

Other applications

Styrofoam head covered in tissue paper sewing patterns
Styrofoam display head covered in sewing pattern tissue paper.

I have used this same technique to cover display items in my studio. Small curved items like styrofoam heads worked best when I tore the tissue paper into strips like for papier mache. I also painted two coats of varnish on them because they will have to withstand a lot more handling and friction than my walls will.

Whether it’s walls, panels, or furnishings, this layered technique lets you “wallpaper” items with papers you love. I’m still having fun with it. I hope you do too.

Now eyes see! – how to attach eyes to objects

Red monster face that will be used to show how to attach eyes from behind or inside an object.

We’ve spent the previous two posts learning how to construct basic eyes from fabric scraps, and how to make those eyes more realistic by adding eyelids and eyelashes. It’s fun making eyes, but unless you want to display them in a jar on your desk, the only way they’ll get noticed is if you figure out how to attach eyes to things.

In this post I’ll show you how to attach eyes to the outside of an object and how to insert eyes from the inside of a hollow object. We’ll also look at how to make “wandering eyes” – eyes that can be moved from one object to another.

Make them look right

In the first post, I said that you can make almost anything look alive by adding eyes to it. Try that with your newly made eyes. Hold them up against hockey gear, a dresser drawer, a backpack, a tree trunk, a shovel, or a recycle bin. Not only do they add a sense of life, but eyes can suggest emotions or personality.

Fabric eyes are taped to a dresser drawer to make a face using the drawer-pull as the nose
These eyes frame the drawer-pull to make a friendly but sleepy looking face. Would you count on him to guard your stuff?

Choose something fairly plain, like a box or the refrigerator door. Put the eyes near the bottom of it, then try them close to the top. Place the eyes close together, then spread them farther apart. Even without adding other facial features, changing the placement changes the look. Play around with them until you get the look you want, then pin (or tape) them in place.

Attaching to the outside

Sewing

The simplest way to attach fabric eyes to an object is to sew them to the outside. Just pin them in place and then stitch the eyelids to the background fabric and trim off any excess. I usually leave the exposed raw edges as is. Alternatively, you can cover the edges with trim or turn them under as you sew. You can turn them into eyebrows like I did below. Just remember to leave at least 1 cm (.5″) around the eyeballs so they don’t come off with the first tug.

Brown hat with brown eyes attached.  The edge of the the upper eyelid has serger stitching all around it.  That serged edge has been stretched to look like eyebrows.
The serged border around the upper eyelid pieces has been stretched way up to work as eyebrows on this hat.

For invisible stitches, pull back the outer layer of the eyelids and sew securely through the inner layer to firmly anchor the eyes in place. Then smooth the outer eyelid layer back into place. Sew again at the very edge with tiny stitches. Basically, the inner layer holds everything together while the outer layer covers it up.

An eyelid is made from a folded piece of fabric.  Here the outer layer is pulled back so the inner layer can be stitched to the hat.
The upper eyelid has been unfolded so the inner layer can be stitched to the hat. Note that the pins are placed fairly closely to the eyeball and the inner eyelid is a bit smaller than the outer eyelid. It will be completely hidden when the outer layer is folded back into place.

Stapling/nailing

Some things aren’t easy to sew with. (Wood and stone are prime examples.) Staples or tacks work instead of stitches on wood. Pull the outside layer of each eyelid out of the way while you pound in the tack or staples through the inner layer and into the wood. When that is done, you can sew the outer eyelid layer to the inner one, or nail it in place too.

Gluing

Attaching fabric eyes to stone, metal, or glass is tricky but not impossible. There is a great variety of glues on the market now. It’s a matter of finding something that will bind your materials without making a huge mess. One of my favourites is Weldbond. (No one is paying me anything to make this recommendation.)

The problem is that the eyes are puffy so it is hard to clamp them in place well enough for the glue to set properly. There is also the risk of the glue seeping through the fabric and spoiling the look. Let’s deal with the seeping glue first.

Keeping it clean

Glue soaks easily through fabric but not so easily through paper. We can make a paper glue barrier. Take a piece of plain printer paper or writing paper. It should not have any printing on it because those inks might run or show through your fabric. Crumple the paper a few times and flatten it out again, just to soften it up a bit.

Place the paper between the outer and inner layers of an eyelid. Pin the layers together with the paper in the middle. Trim off any excess paper and use the remainder to do the same with the other eyelids.

A scrap of crumpled paper is beside an eye that has a piece of paper pinned in place as a glue shield.  The glue shield is between the two layers of one eyelid and is a little smaller than the eyelid pieces so that there's a margin all around it.
A piece of paper is pinned between the two layers of the lower eyelid. The paper is cut smaller than the eyelid layers so that there will be room to sew them together without stitching through the glue.

Testing, testing!!!

Use scraps of paper and eyelid fabric to make a test patch!!! The paper should work as a glue barrier but you need to test it to make sure. Changing the glue or the paper or the fabric or the amount of glue can change the results. Yes, it’s hard to wait for test results, but it’s even harder to deal with a spoiled project when you’ve already invested this much time in it.

Spread a little glue on a scrap sample of the surface you want to glue the eyes to. Smooth a scrap of eyelid fabric over the glue. Spread more glue on the scrap eyelid fabric and smooth a scrap of paper over it. Without adding more glue, place another scrap of eyelid fabric on top. You’ve made a sandwich with fabric on top, paper immediately below it, then a layer of glue, another layer of fabric, and another layer of glue. On the very bottom is whatever material you plan to glue the eyes to. Cover your “sandwich” with waxed paper and clamp, tape, or press it until the glue has dried and set.

While you’re waiting, mark where you want the eyes to go on the face. If the eyelid edges need to be trimmed, this is the time to take care of that too. When the glue has dried, remove the clamps/tape/weights. Check to make sure the glue holds well and does not show through.

Putting it all together

When the glue has passed its tests, glue each paper piece to its inner eyelid. Then sew the inner layer to the outer layer outside the edges of the paper. (You don’t want wet glue gumming up your needle.) Finally, spread glue on the back of the eyeball and both inner eyelids, and position the glued eyeball on the face. Cover it with waxed paper and clamp, tape, or press it until the glue has dried and set.

An eye is shown with its paper glue barrier in place.  The inner and outer layers of the eyelid are being sewn together around the edge of the paper.  For this sample, bright pink thread was used for the sewing so that it would show up against the dark blue eyelid fabric.
With the paper glue shield in place, the inner and outer layers of this eyelid are being sewn together. For this example, I used bright pink thread so you could clearly see the stitches. Normally, I would choose thread that blended in. After the sewing is done, the edges can be trimmed to tidy them up.

Attaching from the inside

Although it’s more work, sometimes cutting eye socket holes in the face, and inserting the eyes from inside the head is the only way to get the results you want. I find the trickiest part of this procedure is getting the hole the right size. I like to use cereal box cardboard to test different hole sizes and shapes before I start cutting into the actual face material.

Cut out a test hole and try inserting an eye from the back. When you’re satisfied with how the first hole is, decide where the second eye should go and cut a matching hole (mirror image) there. When that is tested and approved, you have a template for the eye holes.

Two eyes are poking through holes in a piece of cardboard. The holes are slightly different shapes so that I can compare them to see which I prefer before I cut holes to attach eyes to my object.
Here I’m comparing two differently shaped holes to see which one I prefer for these eyes. The eyes are also sitting at different angles. In this case, I prefer the shape on the left with the angle on the right.

Gluing/stapling/nailing

Cut the eye holes in the face, insert the eyes from inside, and then glue, nail, or staple them in place. This time you don’t have to worry about glue or staples or nails showing through.

When the eyes are in place, I like to add a panel behind them to cover up any rough edges and thread ends and protect them from getting caught and tugged during the stuffing process.

Sewing

I’m going to write this next section as if you have drawn round holes for your eyes. You can do ovals or diamonds or other shapes instead but I’m going to call them all “circles” for now. It’s just easier.

Make the holes

Use the cardboard template to mark the eyeholes on your face fabric. Using a tiny machine stitch, sew around the hole markings so the drawn circles are just barely inside the stitches. Go at least twice around the each circle.

Draw another circle about .5 cm (.25″) inside each eyehole circle and cut it out. Snip the edges right to the markings but do not cut the ring of machine stitches. Push all the clipped edges through to the wrong side of the fabric and press them in place. The ring of machine stitches is your fold line.

A highly textured red fabric panel has two eye holes cut out.  The hole on the left shows the clipped seam allowance still inside the hole.  The one on the right has the seam allowance folded back and pinned, ready to sew.
These eyeholes are small enough that there isn’t much center to remove. The entire circle was snipped, as shown on the left. On the right, the pieces are folded back and pinned, ready to insert the eye.

Insert eyes

Insert the eyes from the back, adjusting the eyelids as desired. You can pull extra eyelid through to make creases or puffy eyes. Pin eyes in place making sure you catch all three layers – face, outer eyelid, and inner eyelid. Smooth the layers as much as possible without adding unwanted distortions.

Sew it up

Working from the outside, stitch through all layers, starting close to the eyeball and working outward in ever-widening circles. (I like to use a zipper foot for the first few circles so I can get close to the raised eyeball.) Once the first few rounds are sewn, you can turn the piece over and work from the back if you want to hide your stitching. You can also morph your circles into wrinkles or tattoos or freckles on the face.

When the stitching is done, trim off any excess eyelid fabric and secure any loose threads. At this point, I like to add a panel to tidy up the inside. It also protects those edges and threads from getting snagged.

A plain panel of scrap fabric is laid over the back of inset eyes.  One corner is folded back so you can see a bit of the messy back underneath.
This panel doesn’t need to be fancy or even match for colour. No one’s going to see it. The corner is folded back to show you what is being covered up. In this case, the stitching will be hidden on the front because of the highly textured surface. If there is no way to hide the stitching, the panel can cover the entire back and just be attached at the edges.

Wandering eyes

Instead of permanently attaching eyes to something, you could put magnets, ties, safety pins, or hook and loop tape on the backs of them and deploy them in a number of places. (If you want to use magnets, they will need to be rather strong as the eyes are bulky and can be awkward to support.)

To make wandering eyes, follow instructions for attaching from the front, using either stitches or glue for assembly. Instead of attaching eyes to a face, you will attach them (together or individually) to a panel that has a fastener already attached. Magnets should be glued to a wood or cardboard panel. Clips, safety pins, elastics, ties, or hook and loop tape should be sewn onto a cloth panel. (I prefer felt.)

A circle of felted wool with a clip sewn on it, ready to become the back panel for a "wandering" eye.
Stitching a clip onto a felt circle to prepare the back panel for a “wandering” eye.

When the eyes are sewn on their back panel(s), trim all around for neat, well-matched edges.

Sewing a wandering eye to its back panel.  The stitches for this sample are done with contrasting thread so it is easier to see them.
Basting the wandering eye to its back panel. When the proper sewing is done and the basting threads have been removed, the eyelids and back panel will be trimmed so they match exactly.

Now take those eyes for a wander and surprise someone.

Add eyelids and lashes to make fabric eyes look real

Fabric eyes with eyelids and lashes added for a realistic effect. The eyes are ready to be attached to something.

In the previous post you learned how to make basic round eyes from fabric scraps and stuffing. In this post, I’ll show you how to upgrade those eyes from cartoon style to realistic by adding eyelids and lashes. It looks fancy, but it’s really not that hard to do.

Supplies

  • basic cartoon eyes (see previous post here for instructions)
  • eyelid fabric enough for 4 pieces, each about twice the size of the eyeball pattern
  • eyelash fabric or trim
  • thread to match eyelid fabric

Tools

  • scissors
  • needle
  • pins

How to select the fabric

Unless your creature is wearing eyeshadow, the eyelids should co-ordinate with the colour of its face rather than the colour of its eyes. If the colour is right, almost any fabric will work for eyelids so long as it is not really stiff.

The eyeballs with two knit shoulder pads that I want to use for lids.  One of the shoulder pads is taken apart.
These sweater shoulder pads looked perfect for eyelids and I could feel that they had an extra layer inside. When I opened the first one, I found an inner layer that was much smaller than I wanted. However, the fabric is very stretchy so I am going to use it anyway.

For eyelashes, the easiest thing to find is fabric scraps that can be unraveled along an edge. Just remove threads along the edge until the remaining thread ends are the length you want for the lashes. For thick lashes, use coarse fabric. For fine lashes, use finer fabric. You could also use “eyelash” yarn or commercially made fringe trim but finding the right scale and colour can be tricky.

5 samples of eyelash materials are displayed:  fine cloth with a frayed edge, coarse cloth with a frayed edge, fuzzy yarn, commercially made fringe trim, and eyelash yarn
Possible materials for making eyelashes, including frayed fabrics, fuzzy yarns, and commercially made fringe trim.

Placing the lower eyelids

If you look closely at people’s eyes, you’ll see that the lower lids appear to be tucked under the upper lids at the corners. That’s why we’re going to put the lower eyelids on first. We’re also going to work with both eyes at the same time, going through the entire construction process. Otherwise it will be very tricky to get them to match.

A close-up of human eyes showing their shape and the creases in the eyelids
Even young eyes have creases around them. Note how the upper eyelids appear to overlap the lower lids at the outside corners.

Before you cut anything out, fold your fabric in half and place the folded edge across the lower part of the eyeball. It should extend beyond the eyeball and at least 2.5 cm (1″) on to the table on either side. I like to have a bit of a curve along the edge and that’s easier to get if there’s some stretch to the fabric. So if I’m using a woven fabric, I’ll fold it on the diagonal (ie the “bias”) to get that stretch. Knit fabrics will stretch in any direction. (In the photo below, the lower lid pieces are smaller than I would like but they will easily stretch to be big enough so I’m going to use them anyway.)

When the lower eyelid placement looks right, pin it but don’t cut it yet. Pin the second eye to match and then play around with how the upper eyelids might look. It’s easy to place the lower lids too high up on the eyeball. So if you don’t like how they look, try moving the lower lids down a bit. If you look at human eyes again, you’ll see that the lower lid stays in the bottom third or quarter of the eyeball. It does not meet the upper eyelid halfway up.

Two eyeballs with lower eyelids pinned in place.  The one on the left also has the upper lid draped over it.
Lower lids are pinned in place. The eye on the left has its upper lid draped over it to show how it could look with both eyelids.

You don’t have to get the upper eyelids perfectly in place at this stage. You just need to see that you can get the effect you want while the lower eyelids are in their current position. Once you are satisfied that the lower lids are well-placed, you can get ready to cut.

Cutting out and stitching lower eyelids

Each eyelid is made from a double layer of fabric, with the fold line running along the mostly straight edge of the eyelid. You need to cut two lower eyelids (one for each eye) from folded fabric. Leave at least 2.5 cm (1″) margin all around each piece. That’s 2.5 cm that rests on the table after the eyelid has stretched across the eyeball and down its side.

Unless I have very limited fabric, I actually prefer to leave 5 cm (2″) all around. The bigger the eyeball, the more margin you will need. Any excess is trimmed once the eyes are finished and sewn in place.

A different set of eyes surrounded by the pieces cut out for eyelids.  The picture shows an open upper lid, a folded upper lid, an open lower lid, and a folded lower lid.
This set of eyes shows the size of the eyelid pieces compared to the eyeballs. You can also see that the lids are very roughly cut.

If you want bags under the eyes, or a fancy shape around them (like stars or diamonds), cut even more generously. That shaping will be part of the finishing details.

Sew the lower eyelid pieces onto the eyeballs, just a little bit back from the fold line. You can stay under the edge and stitch through just the lower layer of the folded eyelid piece so your stitches are invisible. The stitches need to be snug but not tight enough to pucker the eyeball.

Cutting out upper eyelids

Upper eyelids are cut out like the lower ones but they will be bigger. The lower eyelids just go across the bottom of the eyeball but the upper lids start near the bottom, and go up, across, and back down. They also extend beyond the edges of the lower lids by a little bit, so they need more margin.

To figure it out, pin an upper eyelid in place, starting at the corner of the eye where the upper lid overlaps the lower. Drape the upper lid up and around the eyeball, keeping it fairly snug. The edge of the eyelid will probably lift up from the eyeball a bit but that doesn’t matter. Adjust the lid up or down the eyeball until you get the expression you want.

Two eyes - one with the upper lid fairly open, the other with the lids mostly closed.
Playing with upper eyelid placement. The eye on the right looks sleepier than the one on the right.

When you like what you have, pin it in place, then cut it out leaving a margin of at least 5 cm (2″) all around.

Add eyelashes

If this is your first set of eyes with eyelids, I recommend that you not add eyelashes. They make it harder to see what you’re doing and that can be frustrating on your very first set. If you’re not adding eyelashes, skip ahead to the next step.

Tuck a scrap of potential eyelash material across the eyeball, under the upper eyelid that is pinned in place. If you don’t like it, try something else. Thicker, thinner, longer, shorter, brighter, plainer lashes can all be tested.

Eyelashes tucked under an eyelid to see if they look right.
I thought I would like these long fine lashes on the big eyes but when I tried them, I didn’t like the effect at all.

Once you have settled on something you like, use pins to mark the upper eyelids showing beginning and end of where you want the eyelashes to be. Then carefully unpin just one of the upper eyelids. The other one stays pinned in place as a reference.

Cut a piece of eyelashing to fit between the marking pins with about .5 cm (.25″) extra on each end to tuck in. Sew it to the underside of the eyelid so that your stitches don’t show from the front. Pin the eyelid back onto the eyeball and repeat for the other eyelid.

Eyelash scrap sewn in place on the back of the eyelid.
Eyelash piece sewn on to the underside of the unfolded eyelid. Note how the lashes point towards the middle. When the lid is folded, they will stick out as they should.
Front of folded eyelid with lashes sewn on
The folded eyelid from the front, after lashes have been sewn on. Now the lashes are pointing down.

Stitching upper eyelids

Stitch the upper eyelids onto the eyeballs just as you did for the lower eyelids. Start at a corner of the eye where the upper eyelid laps over the lower lid. Don’t sew too far into the margin or your stitches might get cut when you trim off the excess. If that happens, you’ll have loose threads letting go and the eyeball will get loose in its socket.

Two eyeballs with eyelids pinned and ready to sew.
These are pinned and ready to stitch.

If you have added eyelashes, you will need to stitch through them as well. It can be a bit tricky making sure you don’t get your thread tangled in the lashes. (At this stage, I sometimes find myself feeling a little squeamish as I stab the eyeball with my needle. The lids and lashes can make it look just a little too realistic.)

Finishing up

This is a good time to add creases along the eyelid if you want them. Since everything is securely sewn in place, you can fold and tuck and unfold without messing anything up. Try it out and see what you prefer. A few strategically placed stitches can hold those lines in place.

Two eyes with eyelids sewn on.  The one on the right has a crease pinned along the edge of its upper lid.
The eye on the right has a crease pinned into the upper lid. The crease takes up some of the margin of the upper lid but that’s why there is extra built in.

If you want a star-shaped twinkle in the eye, sew on that bead or sequin now.

At this point, your eyes are done and ready to install. In my next post, I’ll show you two ways to do that – attaching them to the outside and inserting them from the inside. I will also show you how I make “wandering eyes” – eyes that can be attached to different objects again and again. I hope you join me!

How to make easy 3D fabric eyes

A pair of 3D fabric eyes peeks out from a pile of acorns and oakleaves

You can turn almost anything into a character just by adding eyes to it. I have done this using stickers and old magazine pictures. It’s not that much more difficult to make and attach 3D fabric eyes to all kinds of things. In this post I’ll show you how to make basic cartoon style eyeballs. In the next post, I’ll explain how to add eyelids and even eyelashes, to make more realistic looking eyes.

I use machine stitching and hand stitching to make these eyes. You don’t need a sewing machine. You could hand-sew everything instead.

A pair of finished 3D fabric eyes is shown with no extras added.
Finished basic eyes.

Supplies

  • white non-stretchy fabric for eyeball base
  • something to colour the iris and pupil of the eye – fabric scrap/markers/coloured thread
  • stuffing
  • thread
  • paper for making the templates and patterns
  • lightweight cardboard for patterns (optional)

Tools

  • sharp scissors for cloth
  • scissors for paper
  • compass or other tool to draw circles
  • something to draw with
  • needle
  • pins
  • iron (if you are using fabric markers that need to be heat set)
  • sewing machine (optional)

Getting started

The first thing you will need to do is decide how big and how bulgy you want the eyes to be. This method works for little eyes, only 1.5 cm (.5″) across, right up to huge eyeballs 1m (1 yard) across or more. That’s why I haven’t said how much you need in the materials list.

I’m going to write instructions for 4 cm (1.5″) eyes, that are fairly bulgy. You can adjust the measurements to fit whatever size you want.

Make your pattern

On scrap paper, draw two circles the size you want your finished eyes to be. For this example, that’s 4 cm (1.5″) diameter. Draw the iris (the coloured part of the eye) and the pupil (black dot) on each eye circle. If you plan to add eyelids, the iris and pupil should be centered on the eye circle. Otherwise, you can put them where you want them.

Cut out the eye circles and try them out where you plan to use the eyes. Make adjustments as needed. When everything is the way you want it, you should have two matching copies of your eye template.

Two copies of the eyeball template showing the original drawing and the adjusted copy
Two copies of the eyeball template. You can see my original on the left and the adjusted version on the right. If you look closely, you can also see the fold marks that I used to find the center of the circle.

Measure the diameter of your template. For flat or slightly puffy eyes, draw a new circle that is twice as big. (For our example, that’s 8 cm (3″) diameter.) If you are making very large flat eyes, please read the note at the end of this section. For bulgy eyes, make it three times as big as the template.

Cut out the new circle, then fold it in half, and in half again to find the center. Mark the center with a pinhole or a small dot. This is the pattern for the eyeball.

Mark the center on both copies of the template. Take one template and cut out the iris. Match the center of the cut-out iris with the center of the eyeball pattern. Draw around the iris so that it is clearly marked on the eyeball pattern. The iris that you cut out from the template is now your iris pattern.

Using the other template, cut out the pupil. Match the centers to position it properly on the eyeball pattern, and then draw around it so that it is clearly marked on the eyeball pattern. The pupil that you cut out from the template is now your pupil pattern.

An eyeball template with the iris cut out, another eyeball template with the pupil cut out, the cut out iris, the cut out pupil, and the eyeball pattern with the iris and pupil placements marked on it.
Clockwise, starting at the bottom: eyeball pattern with iris and pupil placements marked on it, pupil pattern, template with pupil cut out from it, template with iris cut out from it, iris pattern.

NOTE: For flat eyes larger than 12 cm (5″) in diameter, the eyeball pattern circle does not need to be twice as large as the template circle. Instead, add just 5 cm (2″) to the diameter of the template circle to draw the pattern circle, and then continue with the rest of the directions as given.

Cut out the pieces

Cut two circles out of your white fabric, using the eyeball pattern.

If you are using fabric scraps for the irises, cut out two of those pieces using the iris pattern.

Add irises and pupils

[If you are drawing or painting the irises and pupils on the eyeballs, do that now following any instructions for material preparation, heat fixing, etc. Then skip ahead to “Shaping the eyes”.]

Use the eyeball pattern to show where the iris pieces go. Stitch them in place by hand or machine, stitching all over the iris fabric with lots of tiny stitches. You can use matching thread for a subtle look or contrasting thread to add more visual texture to the iris.

The scrap fabric for the iris is laid out in position on the eyeball fabric, ready for stitching.  The iris pattern and eyeball pattern are shown at the side.
Iris fabric laid out in place on the eyeball fabric. The floral print will be disguised once the stitching is done.

You can stitch in spirals or back and forth like a spider web. There aren’t any rules, just make it up as you go. I prefer to do this on my machine using the free-motion presser foot so that I can doodle all over. You can do this with a regular presser foot. You just have to stop and start a lot more to do the back and forth sewing. If you are stitching by hand, you can use a basic running stitch or any kind of embroidery stitches you like.

(If you are afraid of the iris fabric fraying, then stitch over the edges a lot or pre-treat with a small amount of fabric glue or fray check liquid on the back before you start sewing. Test the glue first on a scrap to make sure it doesn’t show through or make the fabric too stiff or sticky to stitch.)

The backs of two eyeball pieces showing the stitching that holds the iris fabric in place.  The eye on the left only has the iris stitching done.  The eye on the right has the iris stitching and the pupil stitching done.
Backs of two eyeball pieces. The one on the left has just the iris stitching done. The one on the right also has the pupil stitching done. The contrasting coloured thread makes it easy to see the pupil stitching even though it’s done from the back.

Change your thread to black to embroider the pupils. I like to thread my machine with iris coloured thread on the top and black thread on the bobbin. Then, all I have to do to change thread colours for the pupil, is turn the fabric over and stitch on the back with the black bobbin thread showing on the front.

Front and back of eyeball pieces with the iris and pupil stitching done.
Front and back views with stitching done.

Shaping the eyes

Thread a needle with a piece of strong thread, at least 5 cm (2″) longer than the circumference of the eyeball pattern. (Note: diameter is measured across a circle, circumference is measured around it.)

Starting on the front of the eyeball fabric, use large stitches to stitch right around the circle, about 1 cm (.5″) in from the edge. Stop stitching on the front of the eyeball fabric. Don’t tie a knot!

Gathering stitches shown around the edge of the eyeball piece before they are pulled tight.
Gathering stitches done about 1 cm (.5″) in from the edge. Note that they should start and end on the front.

Pull both ends of the thread to start drawing the fabric circle up into a bowl shape. Don’t close it up completely. You need to get stuffing in there first.

The back of a gathered and stuffed eyeball compared to the template.
After gathering and stuffing, this eyeball is starting to look about right. Note that the back is still not pulled completely shut.

Add stuffing in smooth layers until you are satisfied with the size and shape of the eyeball. A bulgy eyeball will need more firm stuffing than a flat one, and the middle of the eyeball will need more stuffing than the edges.

When you think you have enough stuffing in place, pull the gathering thread tighter. Hold on to the gathering thread (or tie it in a slip knot) and see how the eyeball looks in place.

If it’s too bulgy, you can remove some stuffing and/or loosen the gathering thread. If it’s too flat, then add more stuffing and/or tighten the gathering thread. If it’s too small around, then loosen the gathering thread and then adjust the stuffing to suit. Use your template as a guide for size. I prefer to work with both eyes at the same time for this stage because it is easier to get them to match.

After gathering and stuffing, an eyeball is compared to the template for size.
An eyeball compared to the template for size.

Once you are satisfied with how they look, tie the gathering thread securely and tuck its ends into the opening in the back of the eyeball.

Finishing up

Your basic eyeballs are made. You can attach them to something right now or you can wait and add eyelids and lashes first. I prefer to add eyelids and lashes before I attach the eyes to their face but the lids and lashes can be added afterwards. So you can install them as is and change your mind later.

That’s it. You’re done. How to add eyelids and lashes will be in the next post, coming soon.

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.