November 21, 2014

Your Cloth Sculpture Is Worth ... Forty Cents!

Cloth dolls tend to be lightweights.  If the doll is a toy, that's great.  If the doll (or, ahem, cloth figure) is meant to be a work of art, well, a featherweight isn't so great.  Items for display need some heft.  For practical purposes, this is so your artwork won't fall off the shelf, or move with a slight breeze. Fixed position figures are usually attached to a heavy base and that solves the problem.

My figures are posable and people like to move them around.  To keep them in a stable sitting position, or to keep them hanging straight, I add weights to the body before stuffing.  Over the years, I've added various things.  I started with tiny sacks of pebbles, but those were tricky to get down the neck.  I moved to marbles and glass nuggets, but it was difficult to string the hip joints around them.  For the past few years, I've been using pennies. 

I turns out that $.40 is just the right amount of weight.  I add the pennies to the neck opening and they fall to the bottom of the torso.  They form a thin layer and the stuffing sits right on top. The pennies don't interfere with the hip joint and because the torso is so firmly stuffed, they don't shift around at all. With most of the thick wools I use, you can't tell there are coins inside (no jingling!), but the dolls have a nice weight that allows them to sit firmly. 

The only tricky part of the process is finding pristine pennies.  Post-1982 pennies are copper coated zinc, and quite a few develop odd patterns of corrosion.  I have to sort the coin jar regularly and when I'm making a lot of figures at once, I actually have to go to the bank to get pennies. 

Stay tuned for more interesting tidbits!

November 18, 2014

Technique Tuesday: Covered Buttons

For today's technique, I'm going to highlight covering buttons. I use traditional button joints in my figures, but I don't leave the buttons exposed, I cover them with fabric. This month's YouTube video covers the basic technique, a method that can be used for covering any button sewn onto any fabric. For a tutorial and examples, please watch the video.

For more info about the joints themselves, jump to this post from 2010.

November 14, 2014

Book Review: Embellishments Contstructing Victorian Detail

This slim book is the companion material to the eponymous 2012 exhibition at the University of New Hampshire.  The garments are part of the Irma Bowen Textile Collection, originally created at the beginning of the last century as a teaching tool for seamstresses.  This publication highlights ten American garments brought out of storage for the exhibition and allows us to see close-up images of details of construction.  The emphasis of the book is not to showcase high fashion dresses, but to highlight basic components used to create them.  Astrida Schaeffer clearly describes how these features were utilized both in couture garments and those created by home sewers.  The techniques are simple, but because there are so many ways to embellish with layers of trim, garments are visually rich and appear to be incredibly complex.

Pleating, ruching, bound edges, piping, applique and other types of fabric trims are well known by home sewers today.  The techniques haven't changed, but the mindset towards their use certainly has.  It would be a rare person who would consider using all of these trims (and perhaps a few more!) in a modern dress, but this was commonplace for Victorian ensembles.  In addition to fabric trims, texture, contrast and asymmetry were essential design features.  Examples of all these attributes are shown in numerous full color images.

I was especially entranced by the dress (c.a. 1870) created by Celesta Freeman.  Anyone today would consider it a stunner.  The author states, "For all is high style attributes, a number of characteristics point to it being homemade.  Buttonholes are too small, the tailoring is a little clumsy, and the overall finishing does not compare to professionally-made garment of the time...".  When I examined views of this dress I was shamed when I thought of my complaints about a dress I'm working on now - it only has three buttonholes!  Instead of being a discouragement to my skills, I consider Celesta's dress to be inspirational.

The author provides simple diagrams and instructions for creating the main types of self trims, and as pointed out previously, most will be familiar.  From a practical point of view, I was disappointed that there was no discussion of the weight and characteristics of the cloth used in any of these dresses. I think the home sewist, especially a beginner, must carefully consider the fabric being manipulated before considering trying a variety of self trims in their own garments.  I would hate to see a beginner try a simple technique with a difficult fabric and end up being frustrated.  Many of the gowns described appear to be made of lightweight silks or wools. Creating hundreds of pleats with bound edges and layers of cording and ruching is far easier in a lightweight fabric than most medium weight fabrics used in home sewing today.  Also, few people realize how weighty many historical garments are.  If you make a dress with three layers of gorgeous, it's going to be heavy! 

I would recommend this book for a variety of categories of home sewists. It is a must read for anyone interested in Victorian costume, either for historical accuracy in period recreations, or as inspiration for modern garments.  Artists creating Goth or Steam Punk designs would clearly enjoy this book.  Beginners will be inspired to try a few new techniques and mid-level sewists will rediscover how simple methods can transform a garment.  The descriptions are clear, instructions easy to read and diagrams well drawn. 

November 11, 2014

Technique Tuesday: Crochet

I like to use a lot of crochet embellishements in costumes.  Sometimes a well known stitch in a lightweight yarn is the perfect choice. If I'm making a coat or other garment, this is my usual method. Sometimes, though, I'm looking for a trim or small piece to add to a cloth-based garment.  For these purposes, I look for small-scale crochet that is easy to work and looks right with the garment.  I have a lot of crochet books and a Pinterest board, but something that looks good in a normal weight yarn may be too difficult or time-consuming to work in a fine thread with a tiny hook.  I have to experiment.

If you are a fan of crochet, you've probably seen a lot of pictures of the popular puff-flower grannies or African flower grannies.  They look great in bright colors and make an interesting textile.  Would I be able to use them in my work?  Let's see. I experimented with the puff-flower granny first.  I used these instructions.  I prefer diagrams, but couldn't find one anywhere.  My first choice is to use the largest yarn/hook combo that I think I can get away with.  Shown from top to bottom:

2 ply laceweight wool with a C/2.75mm hook
single ply laceweight raw silk thread with a C/2.75mm hook
size 5 perle cotton with a size 4/2.0 mm steel hook
size 8 perle cotton with a size 4/2.0 mm steel hook
size 8 perle cotton with a size 10/1.3 mm steel hook
N20 crochet cotton with a size 10/1.3 mm steel hook

Based on these results, I concluded that the only reasonable option was the second from the last.  Using the same thread/hook combo, I made an African flower granny (shown at right).  It looks good, although I wish it were smaller.  At this size, I would probably limit use to a single row or just one as a pocket. Although not as dramatic as when made with multiple colors, this is a nicely textured motif and I would make it in a single color.

The second experiment is dragon scale crochet.  This pattern popped up a few years ago and  is popular for potholders and tea cozies.  It uses a lot of yarn and makes a very thick and interestingly textured textile.  I think the stitch is too bulky for garments, but with finer thread could it be usable for my figures?  Let's see.  I found instructions in an unremembered book, but these are similar.

Shown from top to bottom:
fingering acrylic yarn with a D/3.00mm hook
Aunt Lydia's crochet cotton, size 3  with a C/2.75mm hook
single ply laceweight raw silk thread with a C/2.75mm hook
DMC Baroque crochet cotton with a 2.0mm steel hook
N20 crochet cotton with a size 10/1.3 mm steel hook

Based on these samples, I would use any of the last three.  I would not use this stitch to create an entire garment for a figure (well, maybe...), but I would use a row or two of scales as a trim along a hem or other edging.  I like the look of the stitch when made with thread.  I think the scales are well defined and have a crisp look - very clean.

One last comment.  Whenever possible, I experiment with white or off-white yarn/thread in natural fibers.  If I choose to use any of these stitches in the future, I would use the same yarn/thread.  The final step would be to dye the crochet to match the garment under construction.  This is far simpler than hunting down the color I need. 

Stay tuned for more techniques!

November 7, 2014

Behind the Scenes At An Art Fair

I consider myself to be a pretty antisocial studio artist, but nonetheless, I occasionally sell my work via art fairs.  It is a good way to meet a lot of people, introduce my work to a larger audience and hear what the general public really thinks.

Traveling to shows is a lot of work  - more than most people realize - and it's not all fun.  You have to create a lot of art, haul it, a tent, all your display materials and a mini office somewhere far from home.  An art fair colleague recently told me she tells people she's part of a traveling circus.  She's not far off the mark.  There is definitely a circus atmosphere in the art fair world - a lot of big tents and wacky people! 

After years with the same cheapo tent, I recently bought a new Trimline (love it!) and had to redesign my display (shown above).  Instead of bamboo blinds, I now have white mesh walls for hanging items.  The mesh is great (and lighter), but I needed something with a bit more warmth and an organic feel to match my artwork.  I decided to create mini-frames out of burlap for each figure (shown at right). I've always used old books as part of my display, but was tired of hauling them around, so I removed the pages from about 10 of them, drilled some holes in the covers and strung sturdy cording through the holes.  The resulting shelves (seen with the fox at right) are lightweight, fold flat for traveling and have colors complementary to the figures.  The lower portion of the interior was very blank and white, so I painted three murals on cloth representing typical southwestern habitats  They provide context for the artwork as well as visual continuity with the upper portion of the display.

As for my new "office", I put up a curtain with mesh pockets behind the half-wall. The vertical storage makes it easy to see and reach each item.  I hang everything - beverages, office supplies, packaging, whatever I need.  I don't have to dig in bins or drawers and I think it makes purchases run a little more smoothly.  The tent's mesh wall runs along the entire back, so I can also hang things there.  I do have a curtain that prevents visitors from seeing into the office - the clutter is interesting, but distracts from the artwork.

Even with at least three feet behind my wall, I still have a lot of stuff that takes up space. There are at least three bins with extra merchandise and a few bins with tools and set-up materials. At this show, artists have plenty of room behind their tents (it can look messy), but this isn't always the case.  Dealing with all the extra stuff can be a hassle, but it is part of every show. 

The new tent and booth display is great, but it takes longer to set up and break down - about two hours.  Everything is packed "just so" in order to keep the process as efficient as possible.  I estimate about 90% of what I carry is tent and display, only 10% art! Even so, everything fits comfortably in the back of my truck or my husband's small SUV.  Not bad compared to the painters and metal sculptors who require trailers for their work. 

November 4, 2014

Technique Tuesday: An Introduction

I consider myself to be a textile artist because I work mainly with cloth.  Of course, I do lots of other things, knitting, crochet, beading, dyeing, quilting, the list goes on.  I learned the basics of all these skills from relatives, home economics classes and friends.  I have taken a class here and there.  But for the most part, I am self taught. 

It is important to keep my skills fresh and I am always trying new techniques, patterns and tools.  I read a lot of books and magazines, and then there's Pinterest!  When working on figures in the studio, my best idea sources are actually my sample books; small examples of crochet lace, fabric embellishments and other textile-based tidbits I've tried.

I've decided to share some of these samples.  Every Tuesday, I'll be sharing a technique that I tried, why I thought it worked or not, and the results from my materials and tools.  Whenever possible, I'll try things I've collected on Pinterest, so you can see the original idea and how it turned out in my studio.

Stay tuned!