I feel like there is a whole lot of backstory to go through before getting to this project, but that would take approximately 5 posts and way to much insecurity for this Friday. Therefore, let’s start not at the very beginning, but merely at the inception of this project.
My cousin is getting married later this month, and, inspired by the amazing gifts Rozsamaria makes, I decided I wanted to try to make him and his fiancee something nice as a wedding present. [A decision partly prompted by the realization that yes, I have finally reached the age when I have to actually start giving gifts of my own instead of tacking my name on my parents’ presents. *sigh*] I knew I wanted to do something mostly embroidered, for a couple of reasons: a) that’s the kind of sewing I like to do the best, and b) I didn’t want to try anything new on a wedding gift. After much hemming and hawing and panicking at how little time I have before the wedding, I decided to make a small wall hanging with large, embroidered squares as the focal point.
For the embroidery design, I knew I wanted to try something modern-Japanese. Mike and Aimee both really enjoy all things Japanese, and I have a little bit of experience with Japanese design (read: I’ve researched various pictures/techniques while I was making something for another friend), so I turned to a style I had read about but never tried, called sashiko. Traditionally, sashiko consists of a white running stitch in a tessellated pattern on indigo blue fabric, and, like many old arts, there are needles and threads designed specifically for doing it the traditional way. Now, I’m still in the “poor student” phase of my life, so I’m a big believer in making do with what I have and waiting until the next gift-giving holiday if I need something else. I have several yards of genuine Thai silk (a gift from my brother) in different, solid colors, plus I have white silk embroidery floss (a gift from the other habibis on this site), and I figured that silk makes for a pretty classy design, so I decided to use those for my embroidered squares. The choice of the brown silk came about after searching madly through Mike and Aimee’s registry to see what sorts of colors they were asking for, and brown came up the most often. I hope it works out.
The next hurdle was picking the sashiko designs, so I started with my local library. After checking out literally every book on sashiko in the district, I found a book that really meshed the modern and tradition the way I was hoping. Paradise Stitched by Sylvia Pippen is the result of the author’s wish to meld the traditional sashiko she learned from her mother and the designs and colors of her home in Hawaii, so while there were a lot of designs that were beyond me (applique scares the living daylights out of me), the fusion sensibility helped me see what I wanted to do with my own wall-hanging. I ended up choosing a circular, double-crane design for the center diamond (an example of which does not seem to be anywhere online), since cranes are a symbol of long-life and loyalty in Japanese tradition. For the top and bottom, I used this bamboo design, but I drew a little extra onto the bottom and put it off-center so I could mirror the design for the bottom square (hence the bamboo L and bamboo R written on my design).
After taking what felt like forever to plan my design, I started to do all the physical prep-work before I started sewing. First I cut out the squares of silk, then whip-stitched the edges. Working with silk makes me feel like Witch Hazel from Bugs Bunny because, just like Witch Hazel used to always leave an endless supply of bobby pins behind when she would dash away (see 1:40 in the video for an example), I always seem to leave silk strings in my wake. To avoid letting my fabric fray into nothingness, I would whip-stitch the edges, which wasn’t perfect, but worked well-enough.
After making sure I wouldn’t end up with half the fabric I started with, I chalked on the design using my lightbox (a birthday gift I had just received), then I started embroidering. The prep-work is the hardest part for me on these projects; I really like the embroidery part, so to finally get to that point was such a relief!
Another gift I received for my birthday was a gift certificate to Ruth’s Stitchery, a local store that I had never been to before, but where my mother found a huge selection of fabrics and the cutting mat she got me for my birthday. I went there to pick the fabric I would use around the edges, since I didn’t have enough of any one fabric that looked good around the brown. While there, I met an employee who has been doing silk and cotton piecing and stitching for 25 years, and she was able to give me all sorts of help and tips. Here’s where I admit I’ve never actually tried to piece together silk and cotton. I’ve embroidered on silk before, but I left the piecing part to Rozsamaria when we made decorative pillows, because silk kind of scares me. I asked for it on a whim while my brother was in Thailand, and it was only after he brought me back 10 yards of fabric that I realized I had no idea what to do with it, so meet someone with firsthand knowledge was such a relief. Did you know that you can, in fact, spot-clean silk with water and a little bit of soap? Me neither. But the best bit of advice she gave me was that there was this great fusible interfacing that you could use on silk that would keep your edges from fraying and would keep your silk from warping while you embroidered it. The only thing was you’re supposed to use it before you start embroidering. I had gotten a bit further than that picture up above, but I decided it was worth it to pick the embroidery and start again.
While it was somewhat depressing to render all that work I had done moot, I think it will be worth it in the end. I’m certainly going to use the stabilizer every time I use silk in the future; it makes life so much easier. Though, make sure to iron on the stabilizer before you chalk your design. As you can see below, the chalk and the iron fought, and the iron won. I had to go back and re-chalk all my designs.
Speaking of making life easier, let’s talk about supplies. For you beginners out there, you may be looking at the various tools and acoutrements that I have and thinking “There is no way I can buy all of that, so how can I even start doing all these projects?” I had the same problem when I first started, but the fact of the matter is you don’t need most of these tools. Do the cutting mat and the lightbox and the rotary cutter make your life easier? Yes, absolutely. Can these projects be done without them? Yes, absolutely. Before this time around, I would make paper templates with the paper cutter then draw around them to make sure I had exactly the right size, then cut. You can use standard fabric scissors to cut your fabric, and if you have a rotary cutter and no cutting mat, there’s always kitchen cutting boards (though that might not be the best thing for your rotary cutter; I’m not sure). Before I got my lightbox (literally one and a half weeks ago), I would literally tape my design onto a window, then tape my fabric on top of it and draw like that. For those of you with more artistic skills than a flipper-less penguin, you could try free-handing the drawing. The point is, there are ways of doing these projects without all the fancy accessories. If you do some of these projects and find you like them, then ask for the spiffy tools for a birthday or Christmas or Hanukkah, etc. and go from there.
But back to the wall-hanging. I have spent this last week embroidering like a mad-woman. I have exactly 2 weeks to finish this project, so most of the time you can see me hunched over in the rocking chair, under a lamp, listening to a podcast or tv show I’ve already seen, and sewing my little fingers to the bone. Thankfully, the sashiko stitch is a running stitch, so it’s as simple as it comes. The only modification I made to a standard running stitch was that I made the top (visible) stitch about twice as long as the stitch along the back. This was at the suggestion of Sylvia Pippen in her book, and the effect is really lovely; while there’s still open space between the stitches, the design looks full and complete.
Whenever I got tired of embroidering, I would take out a different part of the project to work on. In this case, it was cutting the cotton fabric pieces. The cutting mat made this so much easier than in the past; I whipped through getting all the pieces cut in about 30 minutes. I left room for 1/2″ seam allowances (instead of the more common 1/4″), since that’s what I had done with the silk, and it just seemed easier to have all my seam allowances be the same. The way I planned the size of my pieces was based off my original design plan. You may have noticed that there are lightly dotted lines on my plan; those are to indicate where the piece seams will be, even though they’re all the same material.
After thinking I had been so smart with my seam allowances, I realized as I was drawing my seam allowances that on the large triangles, I had not quite given myself enough room (planning right triangles as squares that you cut in half doesn’t quite do it for you), so my triangle seam allowances are more like 1/4″ instead of 1/2″. Sometimes it’s good to give yourself some wiggle room in the event of poor math skills.
And now we have arrived at my current stopping-point. More adventures to follow in Part 2!
Please let me know if you have any questions. I feel like there was so much information in this post, I must have missed something!
Edit: Part 2 is now available here!