Those of you who are familiar with the sewing world may find some of the tools that paper crafters use a little daunting at first (and vice versa to those of you who are mostly familiar with the paper crafting world and its tools). But once you learn a few basics, you’ll be able to expand the possibilities of your artwork considerably.
Fabric possesses unique qualities that paper cannot duplicate. Because it is a woven material, there is “give” with fabric that allows you to manipulate it differently than paper. This same quality allows you to use your dies for lots of possibilities beyond the basic shape of the die.
If you’ve ever experimented with making your own paper, you know that it is produced by suspending a slurry of woody fiber in water, then spreading it out in a thin sheet to dry flat. Once dry, those fibers bind together to produce a solid sheet of paper that cannot be stretched in the same way that fabric can be. Try to manipulate it too much, and it will tear apart.
At its basic level, fabric is produced by weaving two threads together. The warp threads run vertically along the length of the fabric, and the weft threads run horizontally across the width of the fabric, woven together at a 90-degree angle. Since fabric is woven, there are three “grains” that come into play when you use it: straight (or length-wise) grain, cross-grain, and bias (diagonal). On a bolt of fabric, the straight grain runs vertically, parallel to either edge (which is called the selvage) of the length of fabric, and is the grain with the most stability and least amount of stretch. The cross-grain, as the name suggests, runs horizontally across the width of the fabric, and has a moderate amount of stretch, more than the straight but less than the bias. The bias runs diagonally (think of the hypotenuse of a right triangle), and has the most stretch of all the grains.
Garments “cut on the bias” have an incredible movement to them -- they skim the curves of your body and swirl beautifully around your legs as you walk or dance. If you remember back to your high school Home Ec class, you’ll remember that patterns are printed with a long double-ended arrow printed on them; this indicates where to place the pattern piece in relation to the grain of the fabric. Most patterns instruct you to place that arrow along the straight grain of the fabric, but placing that arrow along the bias produces a whole different feel to a garment. All the old Hollywood dresses (like the ones Ginger Rogers danced in with Fred Astaire) were cut on the bias, and have an elegance to them without equal. They are difficult to sew because the fabric is so “slippery” and stretchable on the bias, and requires special techniques and tools to prevent any puckering. You need a deft hand to finesse two pieces of bias fabric together, and hems in particular require a delicate and patient touch.
That stretchiness is what allows fabric to be manipulated and stretched smoothly while laying flat. Strips of bias-cut fabric can be used to professionally finish off raw edges of armholes and necklines. They can also be used for decorative purposes, such as when making vines on quilts or intricate embellishments (such as soutache); they can be tweaked into tight curves, or applied to flow loosely in elongated swirls. Die-cut fabric shapes can exhibit that same stretchiness, so you will be able to gently curve shapes to fit the spaces you want. Shapes such as vines and long, thin motifs can be applied in a manner that distorts the original shape of the die cut, giving you more possibilities for the dies. A die cut made of paper remains in its original shape; you can cut it or tear it, but the original shape will stay the same. A straight strip of fabric cut on the bias can be curved and finessed into other shapes (within reason, of course). So, for example, a die cut of leaves connected to a center stem can usually be gently stretched to fan the leaves out to fill a space, while still maintaining the integrity of the cut edges. Look for dies with lots of open spaces on the edges or in long thin strips (such as border dies), or dies with skinny narrow branches, sprays of leaves, or elongated shapes; they all work beautifully when cut on the bias grain of fabric. This provides lots of new possibilities in your designs.
A word about fraying. Fabric frays on the edges when it is cut either on the straight- or cross-grain, but miraculously the edges don’t fray when cut on the bias. This is why pinking shears are shaped the way they are -- the blades form a zig-zag cut, producing tiny bias cuts along the cut edge, thus preventing any fraying. So strips of fabric cut on the bias won’t fray, and can be applied with a steam iron on top of a background fabric smoothly. The steam from the iron relaxes the fabric, and allows you to gently curve the strips as you move the iron along the length of the strip.
I use a firm stabilizer when I do fabric artwork -- it takes machine stitching beautifully without warping. My favorite is Peltex 71f, from Pellon, which is an ultra firm, one-sided fusible heavyweight stabilizer that gives extra support. I use it as the foundation for my fabric postcards, as well as machine-stitched artwork that will be framed. Only one side has heat-activated glue, so I fuse background fabric onto that side, and then place my adhesive-backed die-cuts onto the surface and add stitching. I buy Peltex by the yard and cut it into smaller pieces, usually about 5” x 7”. A bolt is 20” wide, so I cut a strip 7" long, then cut that into 4 pieces (one yard will give you 20 pieces). That way, when inspiration strikes, I just grab a piece of stabilizer and play with fabrics, threads and dies. Once the stitching is complete, I trim the entire piece to 4” x 6” (standard postcard size) and either apply the postcard backing (muslin with Heat n Bond Lite applied to the back), or simply place the piece in a frame appropriate to the size. (Keep those narrow trimmed pieces -- I keep mine in a bowl next to my sewing machine -- you can use them to test threads, needles, stitch length and tension before you stitch on an actual project.)
Another product I use frequently is Solvy, a water-soluble stabilizer made by Sulky. It looks like waxed paper, but is slightly more pliable. You can stitch on it, so it’s useful for sandwiching together layers of fabric, snippets of ribbons, threads, and decorative yarns to make collages or appliques. Once you rinse your work with water, the Solvy dissolves away, leaving only the fabric with stitching. It’s also great for designing motifs to use in a technique called “thread-painting”, which uses the zig-zag stitch on your sewing machine to densely fill in shapes drawn onto the Solvy, to create appliques or enhance the base fabric. And for those who may be timid about free-motion stitching directly onto fabric, you can also plan your stitching on a layer of Solvy using a permanent marker before you stitch on the actual project. Simply place a layer of Solvy on top of your work (it's see-through!), draw your design on it, then pin the design to your work and follow the design lines to stitch. Then rinse it all away.
I read once that Solvy was originally developed somewhere down in Australia, for use in hospitals. The thought was that it could be made into laundry bags to hold soiled bed sheets, towels, etc. The whole bag could be thrown into the washing machine, so no one would have to come in contact with the articles inside. Apparently it wasn’t used for that purpose, but instead some enterprising fiber artists got a hold of it and started using it for their sewing projects.
There are many other stabilizers (iron-on, tear-away, sewn-in) available that can be used when sewing appliques or die cuts onto background fabric. It all depends on your base fabric, the method used, and whether the article you’re sewing needs to be washable. Check with a reputable sewing store or quilt shop for further help with what kind of stabilizer you need.
If you use threads in your paper crafting, it doesn’t usually matter what you use because it’s used as an accent to the main players in your design. But once you veer into the world of sewing and fabric, types of threads and needles can be a significant factor in determining the success of your work. There are many types of threads on the market, from cotton (used for quilts), to rayon (beautiful threads with a high luster used for machine embroidery), to polyester (used for garment construction), to decorative (including metallics and other specialty threads used on the surface of a piece). You can use pretty much any of these on projects where the threads are simply decorative, but they become much more important when you’re talking about garments that will get wear and tear and need to withstand repeated washing and drying, or household objects that will be used repeatedly (such as pillows, potholders, quilts). Thread for those types of objects will need to be durable and able to take more movement. For instance, using a rayon decorative thread to construct garments would be a disaster. These threads are beautiful to look at, but they are very weak and should only be used for surface decoration.
So many types of sewing machine needles in the notions aisle! Universal, stretch, metallic, embroidery, not to mention the sizes (10, 12, 14). What does it all mean?
Universal needles are good for basic construction, and the number refers to the size of the thread they will accommodate (the larger the number, the thicker the thread that will go through the eye of the needle). I use #12’s with cotton or polyester thread for most of my garment and quilting needs. I always switch to Metallica needles for metallic and Sulky Sliver threads (the eye is bigger and won’t shred the beautiful threads), and use embroidery needles with rayon threads. If you have questions about which needles to use with particular threads, check with a knowledgeable salesperson. (This is also one reason I like to buy my sewing machines at a reputable dealership, and not just a craft store; they have years of experience and many hours of training to guide you in the right direction. Quilt shops are also a good place to look for help.)
Adhesives used with fabrics are a different animal than ones used in paper crafting. They are generally ironed onto the wrong side of the fabric using a regular household iron. Once cooled, the fabric can be run through your die-cutting machine. You then remove the paper backing, place the die-cut on your work, and press it down. Depending on which adhesive you use, you can either then stitch it down or simply leave it as is. Three of my favorite adhesives to use are Heat-n-Bond Lite, Heat-n-Bond Ultra, and KK-2000 (a spray adhesive made by Sulky, a thread manufacturer based in Germany).
Heat-n-Bond Lite is the one I use most often, as I almost always do some degree of free-motion stitching on my work. Heat-n-Bond Lite is a paper-backed product you can purchase by the package or the yard, and has a layer of adhesive on one side. It is thinner than the Ultra formulation. AND THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: DON’T use Heat-n-Bond Ultra to stitch anything down. It has a thicker layer of adhesive that will gum up your machine very quickly. I only use Ultra with small die-cuts that will not be stitched, generally on cards or fabric postcards. For garments that will get a lot of washing, Ultra is not recommended, because with wear or usage the edges will lose their adhesivity (I don’t think that’s an actual word!) and peel away from the background.
Both Heat-n-Bond Lite and Ultra are backed with white paper; “Lite” is printed along the outer edge of the Lite variety. But once you’ve cut out the shapes, there’s really no way to easily tell which adhesive is on the back. So I recommend that you devise some sort of system to keep them separate, like placing an X with permanent marker on the paper backing on the back of pieces cut with the Ultra version. If you like to make many die-cuts at the same time, keep the pieces with Ultra separate from those with the Lite variety, as in separate boxes or containers, so there will be no confusion. Make it a habit, and it won’t cause the frustration that comes from simply guessing which is which.
KK-2000 comes in a small aerosol can, and is used to temporarily adhere fabric to a background. You can easily pick up and move pieces with this sprayed on the back of fabric, and is fantastic when you need to “play” with the placement of pieces you’re using. It will need to be stitched down to permanently attach it to the background. I use this method a lot when making wall hangings such as small landscape quilts, or when playing with the placement of smaller cuts of fabric. It can also be used when making garments -- I like to combine several themed fabrics (cut into small rectangles or squares) into a collage onto a fusible interfacing, then stitch them down and use this new yardage to cut out pattern pieces, to create a fun and scrappy garment. I’ve tried other spray adhesives, and I like KK-2000 the best of all of them -- other brands tend to spurt out larger globs of adhesive after a while, but the KK-2000 maintains its fine spray consistently throughout the duration of the can’s contents.
I use a Big Shot die-cutting machine (which you crank by hand), and for my purposes it serves me very well. Most of the die-cutting I do involves smaller shapes, so it’s all I really need. Small, intricate wafer-thin dies work best with a metal shim underneath the cutting plates. There are endless videos on YouTube to explain in more detail how to use the machine, but basically you create a “sandwich” of cutting plates, dies, and fabric or paper to cut out the shapes; there are many varieties of “sandwiches” (dependent on the die types and thickness of material or paper), so you should check with the manufacturer’s instructions to figure out which sandwich you should use.
You’ll need a household iron to apply the adhesive to the back of fabric, and also to press down the die-cut fabric pieces onto the background. Using a steam iron for this purpose is fine; the steam even allows you to gently manipulate the fabric while you’re pressing it down. I recently purchased a Clover mini-iron, which is a much smaller version of an iron that fits nicely in your hand and can be maneuvered much more easily over your work. The mini-plate only delivers dry heat, which is preferable for using with paper or cardstock. It comes with attachments for various purposes, and I’m looking forward to using it to explore some new techniques for both paper and fabric.
And finally, the sewing machine. When I was newly married (my husband was a Ph.D. graduate student), and later as a mother to two little boys, I yearned for a fancy, top-of-the-line sewing machine. You know, one of those machines that did everything you could possibly ask for. Well-meaning people who knew I loved to sew kept giving me their old sewing machines; apparently they felt sorry for me and wanted to help. So any time I mentioned to my husband that I needed a new machine, he’d respond with, “You already have three. How many do you need?”
Well, one year when my boys were little, my husband decided it was time for me to have a fancy new machine. He surprised me with a Bernina 1630 (top of the line back in 1995), a beautiful machine that has over 500 pre-programmed stitches. It even has a stitch designer, so I could create my own custom stitches and patterns. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
I played with all those stitches for a few years. My boys had ducks and trains all over the clothes I made for them, and all my hand-made gifts had custom-designed stitches around the borders. Fast-forward to 2017, and I can honestly say I now only use three of those pre-programmed stitches consistently: the straight stitch, the zig-zag stitch, and the button-sewing-on stitch! But that’s all I need now. I still have a Bernina 1630 -- it has a powerful motor that never quits. I can sew full-speed and it just continues to purr.
Whatever sewing machine you use, you need to be able to either lower or cover the feed dogs (those little teeth that sit under the presser foot to guide the fabric through the machine as the needle stitches up and down). Free-motion stitching is done with the feed dogs disengaged so that you can freely push the work to guide it wherever you want it to go. It’s like scribbling with thread. You’ll also need a free-motion foot, which floats slightly above the surface of your project as you stitch, to allow you to feed the work freely under the needle.
There are so many dies available on the market. Steel-rule dies (which are great for cutting thicker materials, cardboard, craft felt, craft foam, even balsa wood) were some of the earliest types of dies; they're just like the dies used in schools for many years (the "Ellison" machine used to cut out letters). They can cut many layers of paper or fabric at once. Wafer-thin dies have become the new standard for most paper crafters, and work beautifully with single layers of fabric or paper. They come in about a zillion designs, with new ones being created constantly. You can find them at paper-crafting and scrapbooking supply companies, either online or in stores, as well as on e-bay or Etsy. Each type of die requires a different "sandwich" of cutting pads and paper/fabric, so check with the manufacturer of your die-cutting machine for the appropriate combinations.
This is one area where I’m not an expert by any means. So far in my experimentation, I’ve used VersaCraft ink by Tsukineko, with great results. It can be heat-set once stamped onto fabric for permanence. I’ve also used permanent-ink Sharpies on fabric, which come in a multitude of colors. They’re great for adding tiny details such as pen-stitching, vein lines, flower centers, birds in the air, bugs on leaves, etc. Thicker pen tips can cause the ink to bleed slightly into fabric, so stick with finer tips on the markers (unless you want that blurred look or are filling in larger areas of fabric). When I send my fabric postcards, I use a fine-tip Sharpie to write my greeting and fill in the address. But there are plenty of pens on the market that will work, too; just make sure they’re permanent ink. Experiment…
Embellishments, ephemera, extras; whatever you call them, these are the little details that add so much to a finished piece of artwork. A few beads scattered here and there, hot-fix crystals, fabric paints, charms, bits of ribbon or braid, fringe, cabochons, angelina fibers, buttons, specialty yarns, paper -- there are scores of things that can be added, either by hand or with the sewing machine. The possibilities are endless.