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Surface Design and Embellishment Tutorial
by Barbara Strembicki

So you want to make some embellished fabric?  I'm not the first, last, or only person to do this, but I had a couple of first-rate teachers in Julie McCullough and Patti Culea so I think I have some good information to pass along.

If you're like me, you have no plan when you start.  The good news, at least for me, is that my color taste has remained pretty much the same over the years.  That's good because it means generally all my bits & bobs and gee gaws & doo dads work together.  If you feel you must have a plan, then by all means go for it.  Decide on a color scheme and which embellishments you want to use.  Perhaps your doll will have a theme which will inspire your choices.  If not, improvise! 

The first choice is the base fabric.  It can range from plain muslin to batiks, velvet and beyond.  I love to use batiks since I find the colors and patterns of the fabric tend to inspire my choices for what to pile on and stitch down.  If you want the fabric to remain firm and not bunch up as you free motion stitch, then you must use a stabilizer.  I like Pellon iron on and use what's appropriate to what I'm trying to achieve.  If you're making small doll parts from this fabric, then use a lighter weight base fabric and interfacing.  If the parts are bigger or the base fabric is heavier, then I suggest you use a mid weight interfacing.  You can choose not to use interfacing at all, which is what we did when I took the class with Patti.  The fabric will bunch up some as you stitch over it, but that adds to the overall look of the finished piece.

I have a pretty good size collection of stuff to choose from and I would suggest that you open your mind to the possibilities.  As far as I'm concerned, anything I can stitch through is fair game to be laid on my base fabric and become part of the new, embellished fabric I'm creating.  Yarn of all kinds, silk ribbon, feathers, small bits of fabric, specialty embroidery threads, soy silk, angelina, wool roving or fleece - the list is nearly endless.  When I took Julie's Smoke doll class we used velvet that had been backed with mid-weight iron on stabilizer as our base fabric. Don't worry about crushing the nap "“ you're going to stitch like mad all over it anyway which will both cover any crushing from ironing on the stabilizer and smoosh the nap in and of itself.  Fun!  If you're like me (only child, perfectionist, generally insane person) you won't be able to just throw stuff down with wild abandon.  I have to mess with all the bits, arranging and rearranging them just so.  If you're not quite so pedantic (definition: characterized by a narrow, often ostentatious concern for book learning and formal rules: a pedantic attention to details.) you'll just throw the surface design embellishments on the base fabric and happily get on with it.  If not, have fun messing with all the bits until you're satisfied.

Once you're pleased with the layout of the embellishments it's time for the next big decision"¦ to tulle or not to tulle.  Some do and some choose not to.  There are two big considerations regarding the use of tulle.  The first is the "look" you're trying for in the finished fabric.  If you want fuzzy and "sticky uppy", then forget the tulle.  If you've used something like eyelash yarn and haven't sewed every last bit down, you'll have some pieces that poke off the surface of the fabric.  If you want a smoother surface, then use tulle.  It can be a coordinating or contrasting color, whatever works for you.  Or at 2 am whatever you happen to have on hand.  The second consideration about using tulle or not is that it requires a lot more patience to stitch through all your surface design embellishments when you do not use it.  You also have to stitch a LOT more as there's nothing holding the embellishments to the base fabric but your stitching.  You will also need a darning foot of some kind and even then you'll sew over stuff and trap the foot.  Large doses of patience are required!

Ok, so the tulle is in place, or maybe not.  The next step is to put some pins in to hold the embellishments in place while you stitch.  If you used tulle, you'll need less pins.  If not, prepare to pin a lot to keep the embellishments from moving around. Once the pinning is complete you're about ready to begin the free motion embroidery.  Get out all those metallic and rayon threads you've been accumulating and figure out which ones you want to use.  Once that major decision has been made, it's time to move to the sewing machine and consider needles and feed dogs, and which foot to use on the machine. 

If you're using any thread other than a metallic or something prone to shredding or breakage, I'd suggest you use a topstitch needle appropriate to the weight of all the stuff, including the base fabric, you're attempting to sew through.  If you're using metallic thread or something that may shred, use a needle appropriate to the thread.  Schmetz makes Metafil and Metallica needles as well as the more generic topstitch needles. Either way, use a NEW needle.  Using an older needle that may have burrs is just going to lead to frustration, so use a new one and save yourself the aggravation. 

Once you've figured out the needle the next step is to drop or cover the feed dogs on your machine.  If you can't do either of those, you can still stitch on the surface it just won't be as "free motion" since you'll have the feed dogs moving the fabric along instead of just your hands.  You probably should use tulle too, otherwise you'll make yourself absolutely nuts trying to sew over the embellishments.  Which foot you use is usually a matter of what you have rather than one of choice.  My Bernina came with a darning foot which I like, but I bought another foot (I used to free motion quilt all of my quilts back when I made them.) that's bigger and made of clear plastic.  I like it because it seems to hold the embellishments in place better and I don't get caught up and sew over stuff trapping the foot.  Which you will do "“ guaranteed!  If you don't have a darning foot you can sew without any foot on the machine, but BE CAREFUL of your fingers.  You've been warned!!  If you can't lower or cover the feed dogs and use tulle, you can use any foot, though I prefer an open toe type.

One last thing before you start"¦  When was the last time you cleaned and oiled your machine?  If it was more than 8 hours of sewing ago, do it now before you begin.  I treat my machine like my best friend and take good care of it.  I spent a small fortune buying it and I want it to last forever and work well.  Get out the owner's manual and read the instructions for cleaning and oiling.  I found the itty bitty cleaning brush that came with my machine too wimpy to really clean with so I went to Staples and bought a brush designed to clean a computer keyboard.  Mine is soft and flexible, but robust enough to let me brush out the lint and bits of thread that accumulate around the bobbin case and throat plate.  When you oil, be sure to use the oil that came with your machine and not household or machine oil.

Time to begin stitching.  If you've not done this before, practice on some scrap fabric first.  Think of free motion stitching as "drawing" on the fabric with your needle.  And, as scary as this sounds... SEW FAST!  The length of your stitches is directly related to the speed of the needle and how fast you move the fabric.  If you're stitching slowly I'll guarantee you're gonna end up with big toe catcher stitches.  Put the pedal to the metal and sew!  This technique requires no real skill, but it will require that you have patience and practice.  As you sew, move the fabric and draw with the needle and thread.  You can make loops, straight lines, geometric shapes or anything else you can imagine.  You may have to adjust the upper tension on your sewing machine if you see the bobbin thread poking through to the top of the fabric.  It's one of those things you just have to keep trying until you discover the correct setting.  If you chose not to use tulle, now is when you'll begin to have second thoughts.  As hard as you try to avoid it, you will end up sewing over something and trapping your foot.  Take a deep breath, get out the scissors and cut whatever you've sewn over and trapped the foot with.  Since you're going for the "sticky uppy" look by not using tulle, this will just make more "sticky uppy" bits.  I found that sewing backwards really helped avoid trapping the foot.

Once you begin stitching you'll likely find that one of two things happens.  Either you can't wait to get the *%@# free motion stitching done, or you can't decide when enough is enough.  I love to stitch and often have to remind myself to stop.  You'll find your own way and will know, trust me.  Once you have decided you're done, then the fabric you made is ready to be used in your doll.  Assuming, of course, you can bear to cut it!

The surface designed fabric you make isn't limited to being used in your dolls.  You could take the fabric further by adding beads, painting on it, adding charms or silk ribbon embroidery and make a wall hanging out of the piece.  Or use it to make a purse or pillow or other accessory.  As always, the only limit is your imagination.

Click here for some of my class samples and other stuff.

If you need supplies to get started on your own surface design and embellishment adventure, we can help... 

* Click here to see our batik fabrics

* Click here to see Pellon Stacey Shape Flex iron on stabilizer - this is a good mid-weight that you can use for most base fabrics

* Click here to see the colors of tulle we have available

* Needles are important to this process!  Click here to see the various Schmetz needles we sell.

* You can't have enough gee gaws and doo dads when you're creating fabric like this.  Click here to see our assortment of fibers, here for soy silk, and here for wool rovings and fleece

* Thread is another important component and you have a lot of choices between rayons, metallics, and polyester threads.  Click here to see Sulky 40 weight rayon thread, here for Sulky metallic threads, and here for Madeira 40 weight polyester thread

Enjoy and have fun!

Copyright © 2003 Barbara Strembicki  May not be copied or used without written permission.

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