Bench notes: further printing from embroidery

My notes from printing from embroidery the first time listed the following directions I could pursue.

  • find smoother interfacing, without the prominent bumps of fusible
  • try drilling holes in a stiffer substrate – chipboard or thin plywood
  • what difference does hand sewing make? I could use thicker threads working by hand than with a machine, but the line is not continuous
  • does a different type of thread matter? Nylon, rayon, linen are all on hand for testing

Using the laser cutter at Smith College Design Thinking Institute, I made holes in some of my fabric fused to heavy interfacing, to make the stitching easier. I also used the laser cutter to cut and drill holes into 3mm thick chipboard (which is heavy cardboard, it just has a technical name I did not know).

The chipboard did provide a much stiffer backing for the stitching, but it still grabbed and carried paint from the backing to the image. I think if I had more stitching and less open space, that could be mended, but creating the design well before it is drilled cuts back on flexibility within the design itself. I was surprised how sparse the laser cut designs were when printed – they felt much more complex when I was working on the computer drafting them, than when I had the work in hand and was embroidering them.

I was also surprised at how easy it is to hand stitch on the fabric/interfacing combination – I expected to have to use pliers to pull the needle and I did not. That ease allowed me to develop the design in a much more organic way than when I relied on pre-drilled holes in both the interfacing and the chipboard. I think the resulting image is clearer and more interesting than the pre-drilled images.

Ultimately, I think I can carry my ideas further using hand embroidery on heavy interfacing, and possibly adding in machine work extend the areas I can cover easily. I can still experiment with different thread types.

I’m letting all of these ideas rest for a while. Something will become clear.

Bench Notes: printing from embroidery

I had an epiphany the last day of the North Country Studio Workshop, when I was captivated by the work in the print studio, and I came back to the fiber studio and looked at all the stitches we had put on things-that-were-not-fabric – the stitches made a raised surface that looked like it could be printed from.

I feel like I have been broody about this idea for the last three weeks, like a hen all spread out over her nest, protecting the eggs and keeping anyone else from looking at them too closely. Including myself; if I examine an idea in this stage too hard it just evaporates out from under me. Whereas sitting quietly with the tiniest beginnings allows them to grow, to gather steam and become big enough to work on.

These are tests, so they are fairly small (2.5×3.5″) I started with the process I am most comfortable with, using my sewing machine with #8 perle cotton in the bobbin. I worked with the piece upside down, which was helpful in part because that is the way the image will look printed. This is just the first two iterations, and some notes on what I think I want to change for the next iterations.


  • the dots of fusible on the interfacing come through
  • stitching or not stitching the background does not seem to matter
  • the interfacing might not be stiff enough to hold the threads up, proud of the surface, enough for printing without the substrate carrying and transferring ink as well
  • wetting the embroidery slightly makes the ink soak into the threads, and provides a bolder print
  • except it also makes the ink soak into the substrate more, so there is more background noise

Next Steps:

  • find smoother interfacing, without the prominent bumps of fusible
  • try drilling holes in a stiffer substrate – chipboard or thin plywood
  • what difference does hand sewing make? I could use thicker threads working by hand than with a machine, but the line is not continuous
  • does a different type of thread matter? Nylon, rayon, linen are all on hand for testing

bench notes: thread weights

There are two paths to apply thread to work. The most used on a sewing machine is top thread – it follows the usual thread path from the spool to the needle, and through the magic of the lock stitch is looped around the bobbin thread and drawn back to the top of the work.

This little video shows clearly all the moving parts that make up a stitch. You can see that the top thread travels through several steps to get to the fabric. It also gets pulled back and forth through the eye of the needle as the take-up releases it for each stitch and takes it up again. This wear can be absorbed by finer threads running through appropriate sized eyes, and a wide range of threads can be used.

In a perfectly counter-intuitive move matched only by the wire industry, thread weights are inverse to the actual size of the thing in question. The 50wt thread on the left, from Superior, is the finest I tend to use because anything smaller than that does not cover the underlying fabric in any useful fashion. The weights increase to 40wt, also from Superior, 30wt, from Sulky, and 12wt from Sulky. All these are 100% cotton threads, and three of the four are also variegated threads.

Once threads are too coarse to fit through the eye of a needle, they can be wound on a bobbin and worked from the back of the piece. I’ll take some pictures of that process and demonstrate in the next bench notes.

bench notes: more thread

I wrote before about threads. This is a small sampler of four variegated threads I use routinely; three cotton, one rayon.

If you look at the samplers, you can see the Valdani and both Sulky threads have a long color change – there is a fair amount of each color on the thread. In close stitching, such as cobbling (small round circles) or small overlapping scribbles this long change gives depth and interest to the area covered. In lines, such as outlining or contouring or sketching, it means that the lines change color or character unless they are repeated, going back and forth over the line brings more different colors to it as well as making it a thicker line.

The King Tut, from Superior Thread, has a short color change, roughly every inch. This makes the thread read more like one color than several, as your eye averages the color within the area. I use these threads to blend different fabrics into a more cohesive mass. Because they are finer than the other threads, I also use them in the mid-ground and background of a piece.

I think the prettiest threads I use are the Sulky Blendable cottons – there are more different colors in one spool, and the patterns are more variable. I use these threads in the foreground of a piece, to keep details in the foreground from becoming an undifferentiated mass.

For a long time, I only knew of and used Sulky Rayon threads. They are easy to find, and come in many solid shades as well as the variegated versions. Rayon has a truly delightful sheen which is especially good for adding details and highlights to a subject, but it can get overwhelming in large areas.

Finding more variegated cotton threads, and variegations in different lengths, has helped my work evolve in a more painterly direction.

Sumac three ways

Sometimes I get stuck on a particular topic. The staghorn sumac berries were speaking to me. I finished the first one, with two colors of velvet providing depth and one variegated thread defining the berries. But!! I was not done! The second piece used one solid color of velvet for the body of the subject, and I added three different variegated threads to shade the shape. The third one I used heavy perle cotton in the bobbin, and worked upside down, over brown velvet. I used two related colors of thread to give lighter and darker sides.

There’s a modern, painterly feel of the first one, and it surprises me how much I like it. The second one has some delicate shading in it, but the background is … busy. The third one feels most like my usual work.

What do you think?


Frequently when I am making a piece, I check the back of it. Many people who see the backs say they are almost as interesting as the fronts (which is a distinctly mixed compliment) and wish there was some way to display both sides of a piece. I am amused by this, because the back is not the art, it is the supporting structure; the backs are more like backstage in a theater where a lot of work goes on to make the front look effortless and tell the story I am trying to tell.

This doesn’t mean I am not delighted with all the visible thread on the back, and on the front. While normally I use fabric for areas of color and texture, and add detail with stitching, sometimes a scene seems to lend itself to line work. For this barn, I pulled out all the gray threads I have, from shiny white to matte black and the in-betweens. Possibly the most unexpected thread I used has alternating sections of white and black, with no in-between shades. The color variation is so short, at one inch, there is no way to control what color goes where, so the resulting shrubbery and grasses look sun-dappled and unexpectedly deep.

While I like many threads for many different reason, I have a particular affection for variegated threads. Varigated thread works twice as hard as regular thread. It carries extra colors into an area, bringing depth and interest. It blends fabric edges, making softer, smoother transitions. I have an entire set of plastic drawers filled with threads, and it is slowly being overtaken by all the different variegated threads I can find.

Three of my favorite threads are Superior, Valdani and Oliver Twist. They all do very different things. Superior’s King Tut is a lovely smooth cotton thread with short, one inch variations. I use this a lot for adding texture to larger areas, and blending pieces together. Valdani makes a wide range of thread sizes as well as color variations. I use the finer threads for increasing depth and interest – since the color changes are longer. They also make perle cotton in gorgeous variations, which I can use in the bobbin when I work from the back. Oliver Twists is a small shop that hand dyes sets of variegated threads in different weights. They are unbelievably lovely and I want ALL of them. They have more colors per strand than anything else I use. Because of the weight and interest (and cost) I use these for emphasis in visually important areas. Also I gaze at them pleasure.

Bench notes: using tiny frames

Frames, laser cut from 1/8″ birch plywood, in various shapes. A different interfacing interfacing – this has no fusible on it, so I will fuse the fabric with Wonder Under.

Cut the interfacing to the size and shape of the interior shape. It works better, ultimately, if the interfacing is juuust slightly smaller than the inner shape.

Interfacing gets fused to the fabric backgrounds.

The interfacing adds a nice layer of padding when the frames are attached, and also works to keep the embroidered image smooth.

I like one more layer of interest on these tiny things, so I add a bead (or several) by hand. Then the work is placed over the interior shape, and the outside frame pressed gently into place. If it isn’t going to fit with minimal persuasion, make certain the fabric is smooth around the edge between the inside shape and the frame. Once it is in place, run a bead of liquid super glue on the back around the place where the fabric comes through from the front. Liquid superglue is important, because it soaks into the fabric between the pieces of frame, and holds everything together. I have done it with the gel super glue but the results are not satisfactory. Cheap superglue works really well.

Once the super glue is hardened, trim off the leftover fabric using whatever is handy. If you can’t find a sharp blade, a brisk application of sandpaper also works.

And behold! tiny scraps of fabric, small amounts of embroidery and some loose beads turned into something magical.

Bench Notes

Bench notes are the notes on experiments that I take to remind myself of the steps I took, and what I was thinking, and what I thought the next steps would be. These excursions start when I see a piece of artwork or a scrap of something and my head spins with ideas about how I might translate that to fabric, and whether it would be interesting if I did. This batch started with the images below.

I saw pictures from Guo Pei’s Fall 2019 collection, and I was struck by the construction of the garments. I mean, one model is straight-up wearing a bathtub filled with flowers, which has to be strenuous, while a conjoined dress for two women looks like it could sow dissension between even the best of friends. But the fabrics are amazing, the techniques bear close examination, and these two constructions made a huge impression on me:

The dress on the left, and the sleeves on the right seem to be made from hundreds of fine pieces of silk sewn vertically onto the base garment. The silhouette on the left, in particular, is created almost completely with the shape of the vertical pieces. The idea of sewing something that densely was intriguing.

To begin, I used some pieces of silk dupioni, sliced in wavy lines, and stitched onto straight vertical lines.

Color changes depending on light and orientation. I like the way the edges echo across the piece, like overlapping waves. I forgot that sewing a convex curve to a straight line made the outside edge too short, bending the base fabric. I think the silk needs to be cut more on the bias, to prevent unraveling, and also to add ease to the outside edges.

For a first test, I think I can see some ways to go on the next experiment. Next step:

  • make the stitched edge straight

This makes everything lie flatter, and I miss the movement of the concave edges stitched down with the longer edges ruffling and standing off the page. When I stand the page on edge, instead of flat on the table, the shapes become more interesting.

Some possible next steps then:

  • bias cut
  • make the outside edges more unified – more regular
  • change the weight of the silk? dupioni is fairly stiff, find something more drapey
  • sew in the folded center of a piece? 2x the edges for each seam…

I’ve ordered more silk so I have more raw material to work with!