Agosia Arts is about celebrating the natural world, fine craft and conscientious recycling. My main goals with this blog are to : 1) provide a peek behind the scenes at how my work is produced; 2) document my problem solving process; and 3) encourage others to try new things. If you have questions, email me at agosiachrysogaster@gmail.com. Thank you for visiting!

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May 20, 2016

The Basics of Embroidery for Doll Clothes

Occasionally I will create an embroidered garment for one of my figures. Because the process takes some time, I don't do it very often. I'm currently working on a hummingbird figure and I always create lush floral garments for these dolls, so you get to see the basics from start to finish. The jacket will be sewn using my usual technique, but the stitching is completed before the clothing sections are sewn together. I'm not going to bore you with lengthy descriptions, but point out the features that might be helpful.


 I'm using a green silk scrap and although it is quite sturdy, it is on the bias, so I decided to back it with a lightweight cotton. The added layer also adds a bit of padding and prevents the outlines of threads in the back from showing on the front. I chalk an outline of the garment sections onto the backing, then baste the layers together.

 The basting stitches are barely visible from the front. This gives me an idea of the edges of the garment when I'm placing motifs - I don't want to get too close and sew through something later. Chalk marks indicate stems and leaves to be stitched in perle cotton. I do not use a hoop, I just hold the cloth in my hands and don't pull the thread too tight. This takes practice, but is easier and faster for me.

I decided to add some blue french knots for interest. You can see that the chalk comes off easily. In fact, I have a hard time keeping it on through the stitching process.






Flowers look best when randomly placed throughout a design. It is important to point out the randomness is not the same as evenness. Most people want to distribute flowers evenly, but this never looks natural. To simulate randomness, I get a handful of buttons, close my eyes, and toss them onto the fabric.


I mark the position of each button in chalk. Some flowers will be placed over greenery I've already stitched, but that's fine.






After stitching the tubular flowers, I repeat the button toss for placement of some daisy-type flowers. Again, some of these flowers might be placed on top of previous stitching.

The daisys have beaded centers and I decided to complete most of that beadwork now, before the garment is completed. I avoid beadwork in flowers that lie close to seamlines because the beads may interfere with my sewing machine presser foot. These flowers will be completed after the garment is sewn.



I lined the garment sections in blue silk. Shown here is a front section sewn and turned, but not yet pressed. The back section has been sewn, but not yet turned. You can see the usual meshwork of threads and knots, but this will never be visible and will be kept safe from wear by the blue silk lining.
 Next up, continuing the beadwork on this garment. Stay tuned...

May 10, 2016

Using Vintage Embroidery For Clothing: Part 2, Cutting and Sewing Successfully

In the first post about my Spring Embroidered dress, I discussed how to prepare your textiles for their new life. Now, you have to take the plunge and cut them apart. But before you do that, consider how they are going to be used. If you want to create a pieced panel as I have done for this dress, you will have extra bulk from the seams. This bulk will affect how you construct your garment. In my dress, a simple sheath, I have waist and bust darts and center front and back seams. Although this is one of the simplest dresses you can make, having extra bulk from the fabric enclosed in the darts would be a horror to sew and press flat. I decided to make two bands of embroidery (front and back), add subtle shaping for the bust with darts, complete the exterior of the dress, then applique the bands onto the garment. Edge-stitching and a few hidden tacks attach the band to the garment. As crazy as this sounds, it was easier than creating separate pattern pieces for the embroidery and dress sections, sewing them together, then sewing the darts. My method also allows me to remove the bands intact and use them for something else when I tire of this dress. Of course, the easiest thing to do is not have darts or curved seams and sew a flat garment section. In retrospect, I could have used a french dart for shaping and avoided the bust area entirely. For a beginner, pockets, collars, cuffs or wide waist bands are simple, but lovely options.

OK, you've decided what you want to make and you are itching to start cutting. You have a collection of clean, mended (if necessary) and lovely embroideries. No matter what type of garment section you want to make, you want the embroidery to be the focus. Regardless of quality, most ground fabrics are white and may require a backing to prevent the seam allowances from showing through (an annoying distraction). If you have see-through issues, you will need a lightweight backing fabric (like cotton batiste) to cut at the same time as your pieces. Not all fabrics require this addition.

My dress features a simple patchwork of squares. I decided how large the squares needed to be (based on the length of the focal bluejay embroidery) and created a see through plastic template that included 1/4" seam allowances. I moved the template over each embroidery to find the best placement of a motif. I prefer having elements off-center, but it doesn't really matter that much. One thing to consider, though is how much heavy stitching or knotwork will fall along the seam line. If you have to sew through a field of french knots, you'll have uneven stitching and the seam will never lie flat. Trace around each element with a pencil. Let's go back to the fabric backing idea for a moment. If you've marked lots of motifs that are on the bias, you will definitely have an easier time sewing if each bias square is backed by straight of grain fabric. Instead of using that backing for only the sheers, you may decide to use it for everything.

I mentioned avoidance of fusibles in the first post. I'll stress that again here. You may think that a fusible will fix bias or transparency issues and normally, it would. The problem with embroidery is that the threads want to move independently of the fabric. Fusibles, even the knit types, cause odd puckers. They are also never quite lightweight enough. Nothing beats silk organza or fine cotton batiste - nothing.

Time to cut! Carefully cut out all your motifs and set them somewhere safe. Just cut right through, no special treatment required. Please use your sharpest scissors. If you are having issues with this concept and don't believe it's that simple, you can ease your conscience by sewing just inside your seam allowance on the machine (use a normal stitch length) to stabilize the embroidery threads before cutting. Cut your backing, if using, on the straight of grain and pin to the squares that need it. Again, you may choose to ease your fears about raveling by stitching the backing to the embroidered squares (normal stitch length, inside the seam allowance), but I find this causes more hassles.

Play around with placement of your squares to balance out colors and types of motifs. You will discover that no matter what you do, there will be blank spots or too much pink in one corner; don't worry about that. Find a good arrangement and sew the squares together using a 1/4" seam allowance. Press open all your seams to reduce bulk. If you still have anxiety about embroidery coming undone, stitch in the ditch through all seam allowances with a narrow, long zig-zag in thread matching most of the background fabrics. The zig-zag is also very helpful with bulky seams that won't lie flat.

Most embroidery collections are a mix of styles and colors, so your pieced fabric may lack visual cohesion. You may also have blank spots here and there. There is one simple way to address both issues. I add additional embroidery over everything. I stitched brown branches, sage green leaves and red flowers over blank spots using perle cotton thread and allowed some of the leaves to spill outside the edges of the band. Having one type of flower twine around the entire piece blends everything together giving it a single identity instead of a collection of many bits.

I hope you give the technique a try. It really isn't anything special, but the results definitely are. No need to worry about stains, tears or wacky styles. Cut them up, sew them into something new and give those old textiles another life.

Stay tuned...

April 30, 2016

Using Vintage Embroidery For Clothing: Part 1, Assessing the Embroidery


Recently I have increased the amount of personal sewing I do.  That is, sewing clothes for myself.  I don't discuss non-professional topics on this blog, so how does my wardrobe fit in?  Unlike many other types of artists, I have the ability to wear my artwork. And why not? Its a form of advertising after all and a way to introduce Agosia Arts and my philosophy into a conversation.

So, what about that dress?  This garment is made almost entirely from recycled items from the local Goodwill.  The two main sources were a large pair of grey wool/lycra blend pants (nice fabric!) and a large collection of vintage embroideries (pillowcases, napkins, table runners, etc) from my grandmother. The main feature of the final garment, both decorative and constructive, is the band of embroidery patchwork. I made the dress three years ago and it looks as great today as it did when "new." I toss it in the washing machine and don't treat it especially well.

If you have a similar collection of older textiles, and have hesitated to use them in a sewing project, fear not! I use vintage embroidery and doilies as often as I can and have learned a few things about making sure they wear well in their new lives as garments or artwork. For this post, I'll focus on preparing your embroidery collection for a new life.

The first step is cleaning, and there are a variety of schools of thought you can research online.  My strategy for all my preowned textiles is to toss them into the washer and wash with hot water and synthropol (a very strong detergent). I don't use any bleaches. Embroidered or beaded items will be enclosed in a mesh bag, but a cotton pillowcase works too. I usually tumble dry hot, hot, hot, for way too long, then iron; again, super hot. The purpose of the harsh treatment is to determine if the embroidery can take a tough life. If so, I can use it in a wearable. If not, it can live a gentler life in a cloth figure's clothing.

The second step is assessing the quality of the ground fabric. The majority of vintage embroideries you will find are on a cotton or linen ground. Linens tend to be thinner and/or with an obvious weave. Both wear quite well and are very stable, even if they look delicate. There are a lot of old pillowcases out there from the 20's-50's and these are usually made from a tightly woven, seemingly indestructible cotton. If, after washing, you find holes or worn areas, these must be mended. Usually, I baste a patch of cotton batiste to the back and then embroider some flowers or something over the top of the damage. I NEVER use fusibles. Hand stitching is the way to go just about every time. Really, don't use fusibles - they interfere with the movement of the stitching and it causes puckering.

Next, take a hard look at the embroidery stitches themselves. Some types of stitching are pretty sturdy, no matter what. Examples are fine satin stitching and buttonhole or cross-based stitches. Outline stitches (if long) and anything based on loops (like lazydaisy stitching) can catch and often have pulled threads. In the 70's, the fashion was to use large stitches with loosely plied yarns. These embroideries often have pulled or broken stitches. To repair, pull any loose threads to the back and cover the damaged areas with a tiny square of satin stitching or a few french knots in matching thread. This will tack down the loose threads and keep them from pulling out again. Sewing thread works fine for this repair. If the damaged area is very bad, I usually embroidery something new right on top. Leaves in any shade of green will blend in to a floral design. Another good option is to embroider a small square or circle of running stitches in a shade of white similar to the ground fabric; the stitches blend in surprisingly well.

What type of thread to use for repairs? The simple answer is whatever you feel comfortable using. I usually use a combination of Perle cotton and embroidery floss. I have a collection of both types in greyed down colors that I use for my cloth figures. I pull from my stash when I need to embroider something. I don't worry about matching colors. Both types wash well, and I've never had an incidence of colors bleeding.

If you have stains that haven't washed out of the ground fabric, the easiest option is to embroider something over the top. Old stains are pretty stable, and you are unlikely to be able to get them out. Embroider a flower or some leaves on top - Boom you're done. You could also try outlining the stain with a line or two of running stitches in a darker color. Sometimes, just sometimes, you get the optical illusion that the interior of your shape is a lighter color because it is separated from the rest of the background. If that doesn't work, add some more stitches inside. This will call attention to the stitching and usually people don't even see the stain. Amazing, but true.

OK, now you have your collection of lovely, clean embroideries. Now its time to cut them up! Next time, I'll describe my process for cutting and sewing successfully.

April 20, 2016

Cloth Doll Failure: It Happens to All of Us

It seems as if I've been writing about things going wrong for a while. Well, things do go wrong and one of the goals of my blog is to discuss failure and what it means to me. So on to the next failure!

Today, I'd like to showcase this doll, a Jaguarundi, that I've been working on for years. I started and finished the sculpture in 2009. He was fairly similar to what you see here, except he had my old style bead knee joints (instead of covered buttons) and was wearing culottes and a simple linen jacket. I was okay with him, but he didn't make me smile. I carted him around to shows and he didn't seem to make anyone else smile either, so he then became a class sample, used when I when I taught classes.

Last year, I buckled down and cleaned out a lot of old dolls. I don't have room to store inventory or samples, so many old figures were updated and sold at sales. I kept this fellow behind with the idea that I would work on him some more. The easiest part was redoing the clothing. The jacket was cut at the waist and the pleated culotte fabric was stitched on at the waistline. To jazz it up a bit and keep the pleats intact, I added freeform quilting stitches with beads at the begining and ending of each line. I also restrung his joints, not that they were worn out, it's just that I feel a doll should be sold as new and unused as possible. All that was left was the head.

When I really get down to it, the problem with this guy isn't his clothes, it's his face. Everyone responds to a face and even though I don't intentionally add emotion to an animal's face, each does end up having some personality due to the set of the eyes, contour stitching,etc. This guy was just flat, and that's why no-one ever fell in love. What to do?

First, I removed the old eyes and put in new ones (the old eyes were faceted glass beads). Didn't work. Perhaps it was the shape of the head? I removed the outer layers of felt (I had long since ran out of this type of wool), set them aside and redid the contours underneath. Didn't work, still blah. Perhaps it was not enough detail to the face? I added some needle-sculpting here and there. Nope. Was it the nose? I always thought it was a bit odd. New nose, maybe even worse. I've now admitted failure for two reasons: 1) I can't redo the head because I don't have any more of this fabric and, 2) there are only so many hours in a day.

So, what does failure mean in this case? For me, I strive to capture the essence of each species I recreate. This guy does not look like a black jaguarundi to me (which are pretty fierce looking - even scary to most people), and not even very much like a black cat. These are amazing animals and this doll is nowhere near amazing. He doesn't draw conversation and that's very important for two reasons. First, one of my goals is education about less well known species. This guy doesn't have any charisma and no-one wants to get to know him or the fascinating native cat he represents. Sad but true. Second, engagement equals sales. I know that if I love a cloth figure, lots of other people do too. Yes, this is a business, and in order to make enough money to keep doing this crazy job I have to sell my artwork.

Am I sad/frustrated/dissapointed about failure? No. The key to future success is understanding why you've failed with any particular attempt. Self-analysis is difficult, but it is essential to moving forward.

Better to let this guy go as-is at a deep discount; he'll be posted to Etsy soon. Then I can start a new Jaguarundi!  Stay tuned...

April 11, 2016

Creating a Bat Face From Leather and Cloth

It's been a while since I had a bat in the collection. Usually I make Mexican Freetails, mainly because it is so simple to create the face. I use a single, large square of soft fabric and manipulate it into wrinkles over the solid oval of the head. This is the easist and fastest head that I can make, and I would certainly make more, but not everyone loves bats as much as I do. Even during Halloween season, sales are slow.

But, one of my goals is education, so it is definitely time for a new bat. This time I've selected a California Leaf-nosed bat (Macrotus californicus). The species has large ears and an expressive face. Also prominent is the fleshy nose, shaped like a leaf.


Bats have wings and usually I simulate the shape with large sleeves. For this figure I decided to attach quarter circle segments of suede between the top of the arm and the rear side of the jacket. This gives a cape-like effect, but isn't too voluminous.

Because the ears and wings in the real bat are a slightly darker color and a smoother texture, using suede instead of fabric is a reasonable choice. Unlike previous bat figures, this one did not have a wrinkled, fabric covered face. The head was made as my other mammal figures are, and instead of fabric ears, leather in the appropriate shape and size were pinned on. Real ears have fine wrinkles and I was able to simulate the effect by scoring lines into the surface of the suede.


The second issue was the nose. In the real bat, the nose is not a darker color or texture, but it would be difficult to create the correct effect with matching fabric. I suspected a leaf-shaped tuft of wool at the end of the face would look like a mess, not a nose. And because this particular nose is such a distinctive aspect of the face, it was important to get it right. I decided to use the same type of suede as the ears and wings. It's much darker than it should be, but the change in texture calls to attention the importance of the appendage. Stitching through leather isn't too difficult - I use a glover's needle, which has a thick shaft and chisel pointed tip - and doesn't
require special stitches or thread.

The last step with this or any other head is the addition of the eyes. I used black glass beads and sewed them into the head using strong upholstery thread. Finally, eyelids were glued into place to create a life-like appearance and more expression.

This fellow turned out quite well. I finished him right before a show and I was pleased that he became the topic of many conversations. Sadly, bats are underappreciated, not just for their ecological importance, but also their adorable faces. If you have room for a sweet, little bat in your home, he's now available on the website.

Stay tuned for more...


March 30, 2016

How to Make Bird Beaks for Cloth Dolls: Leather and Foam vs. Polymer Clay

Those of you familiar with my work know I make a lot of birds. Until recently, the beaks for this type of artwork was made from closed-cell foam covered with leather (described in this old post).  This is a useful technique, but has some drawbacks. I've shown all the details of the process in my second video about bird heads:


Although leather creates a realistically textured beak, the downside of the material is that some shapes are difficult to do well. For years, not wanted to try alternatives, I would work with leather anyway and end up dissatisfied with the result. Artworks that don't meet my standard usually end up in in storage because I don't feel comfortable selling them. Finally, the number of misfits reached critical mass, and I decided I needed a new method. After some experimentation with polymer clay, I settled on a variation of my usual techniques. Some examples of leather vs. polymer are shown below:

A few years ago, I made a series of cranes. Some turned out fine, but others had huge beaks. I removed the heads from the figures and started over. The new beaks are much thinner and in better proportion to the head and the rest of the body (not shown). Narrow, long beaks are clearly easier to make and look much better using polymer clay. One consideration however, is that long polymer beaks tend to be heavier.


It is nearly impossible to make a thin, sturdy foam beak.  This duck's head is a good example of the problem. Even with the thinnest leather covering, the multiple layers required results in an appendage too thick and unrealistic looking. When I made a polymer beak and recreated the head, the improvement was immediate.



The last example is a Western Bluebird. The new polymer beak is much smaller and the head a more realistic shape. In this instance I didn't make a new head because of the beak alone. The original head looks pretty good, but was too small for the body. I made a new head with a correctly sized, polymer beak. The final result looks much better to my eye.


So, how do I make polymer clay beaks? The process is shown in my third video on bird heads:

Hope you learned something new. Stay tuned til next time...