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 Thank you for visiting!

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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...

March 21, 2016

Creating Bird Beaks for Cloth Dolls with Polymer Clay

A hummingbird beak in process.
I recently finished making a batch of beaks for some new bird figures. I've switched from leather (visit this blog tutorial or YouTube video) over to polymer clay because it works better for slender and small beaks, both of which I do more often now. The interior is made from wire and aluminum foil for strength and only the exterior is clay.

Making an owl beak.
I wish the process was faster, but I still have to take some time to sculpt the basic shape, cover it with clay, then add the final "skin." Because birds have very different shapes and sizes of beaks, and I'm usually working on many species at once, it is impossible to use a mold. I also have to mix clay to get an appropriate color for each individual. Often males and females have different coloration, so even if the two beaks are similar in shape, I still have to work clay for two batches.

As you can see here, I bake as many beaks as I can at one time. This represents a lot of future work and I may not finish all these dolls at once. I tend to get tired of working on so many birds at one time. On the tray here I have beaks for three cardinals, a jay, a hummingbird, three owls and a set of six woodpeckers!

If you'd like to see the basic technique, watch the video:

Stay tuned for more...

March 10, 2016

Flying Geese Quilt Update: What To Do When You Hate Your Quilt

A view of the project on the design wall. Messy, but helpful.
After my last post about finding a new (to me) method of making Flying Geese, I spent a few mornings whipping up plenty of blocks. I had my plan (a sketch drawn to scale) and pieced the strips of geese. Everything went up onto the design wall. And then reality struck. I didn't like the quilt. I hated it.

So what to do? First, when this happens, I take a careful look at the design itself. I am lucky in that my design wall is opposite a bank of mirrors. I can look at the quilt in the mirror and if something in the design is odd, it will really be obvious in a mirror (and from a greater visual distance). You can try this yourself by looking at things through a hand-held mirror over your shoulder. Issues of balance, scale and symmetry are easier to judge in this manner. My mirror gaze told me the design was okay, not great, but okay. I could live with the design.

The second thing I look at is color& value distribution. In this case, I am working with dark blues and light beige fabrics. I tried to steer clear of bright whites because I wanted the quilt to have an aged look. The goal was to have definite darks and lights represented by navy blue silks and beige linens. The effect would be compounded by color (blue) versus no color (beige). Most, but not all of the strips of geese are separated by additional pieced strips of beige, and this is where the problem seems to be. In an effort to use more of my linen stash, I used some darker beiges and these really interrupt the difference in values of my two main types of fabric.

The dark beige stands out.
The quilt top is partially pieced at this point, so what to do? Live with it and complete it as is? Truthfully, I am tempted. However, deep in my lint-filled heart, I know the thing to do is take out the darker beiges and replace them with lighter selections.  The whole doesn't look cohesive enough, so I may take out some beige strips and add more geese. This is a bit of work since many of the seams are Y seams. That, plus the notion that I got it wrong is irksome. Dang!

What tips the balance for me? Why make the change? The fact that, when I love a quilt, lots of people love it too. Because I sell my work, I am dependent on that love. I am more likely to find a buyer if a greater number of people think the work is visually attractive. Sure, I know that someone would eventually buy the quilt, but why have it here, taking up space in the studio? It needs to go out and have a life with a friendly person.

If it was a quilt I was making for fun, the outcome would be different. I would finish the quilt as is and give it away. No need to keep something I don't like in the house. Just get that project done and out! So that's what I would suggest to you. Finish it and give it away. I don't advocate living with it, because that means you have to look at the object and have negative thoughts from this point forward. Get it out of the house. If you think your project is so hideously ugly that you dare not give it away, you still have options.

1. Consider dyeing the quilt top or blocks. Depending on the colors in your quilt, this can really make a difference. I'm not a fan of Rit dye, but it is a simple solution that can do wonders. Stick to one color - bright yellow or red can be amazing! There is no going back though, so be sure your project is a lost cause before you try this.

2. Cut up your quilt top or blocks into random pieces and sew in strips of white or a bright color. Although this isn't really what the modern quilt movement is about (well, maybe it is, a little), people are more open to randomly pieced quilts these days. The white or contrasting, clear color can make a stunning finished project. 

3. Before finishing it, ask some friends for an honest opinion. If half of them have truly positive things to say, finish the project and give it to a charity. I believe charities (and the populations they serve) deserve our best efforts. A quilt should warm the body and the heart. If half your friends like the project, it will find a good home via a charity. If no-one likes it, toss it. It's a dud and not worth your time and energy to deal with it anymore! This seems tough, but in the end is the least stressful. Learn from the experience and move on.

Feel bad about your options? Don't. Before you go on with your quilt, see if you can find Unconventional and Unexpected: American Quilts Under the Radar (read my review for more). It will change your perspective about your quilt, I guarantee it! Maybe, you'll get a few ideas.

Stay tuned for more updates about this quilt...