Combining fabric painting and free-motion sewing

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Suffolk coast and enjoyed the beautiful scenery, particularly the heathlands covered in blossoming heather. My husband captured a lovely image of a rabbit amongst the heather, which inspired me to get crafting…

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Here's my husbands photo. You can watch all about his time photographing the rabbits and deer by clicking this link: https://youtu.be/wRvxVE18Csk

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To reproduce the image I decided to do a combination of fabric painting and free-motion sewing on my sewing machine. I've used this combination in the past and I love the effect it gives - the paint gives subtle tones of colour, while the free-motion sewing pulls out and defines details.

To start, I chose a cream coloured material as the background. I try to upcycle material where possible, and the material I chose was cut from an old duvet cover. The material has printed lines which I though would add a bit of interest to the composition.

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To paint the fabric, it's important to stretch the fabric out to provide a flat surface, and to raise the fabric off the surface of the table. To do this, I use wooden interlocking bars (I have a set of different sizes which allows me to create different sizes of paintings). 

The fabric is pinned to the wooden bars with pins, ensuring the fabric is stretched tightly.

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You'll notice that I have a large border of fabric around the pinned area - at this stage I hadn't decided on how I was going to edge the piece, so I was keeping my options open.

I lightly pencilled the shape of the rabbit onto the fabric and then wet the fabric with fresh water using a large brush.

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There are lots of types of paint you can use on fabrics, including specialist fabric paints. To give a subtle watery effect for this piece I decided to use my Derwent Intense water-colour blocks. These give lovely pure colours which can be applied directly using the sticks to give real depth of colour, or watered down and applied with a brush to give a watery effect.

I started at the top of the fabric and worked down, ensuring the fabric was wet to allow the paint to spread and the colours to merge.

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To highlight the flowers of the heather I added more intense dabs of colour. To give the effect of depth, I've made sure brighter and deeper colours are used in the foreground, while more subtle colours and less detail is painted for the background.

Here is the finished painting west and dry. You'll see that the paint dries paler than when wet so you need to bear this in mind when you are painting.

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Once dry, the next stage was to do the free-motion sewing. This technique is also called thread painting, as you essentially “paint” onto the fabric with the thread. The needle acts as the paint brush, and rather than moving the brush over the surface, the brush stays still and the surface is moved. It does take a bit of practise to get your head around the difference, but it's worth giving it a go as it gives some lovely effects.

To prepare for the sewing, I cut out a piece of wadding the size of the painting and a piece of spare fabric as a bottom layer. The wadding was glued to the back of the painting using fabric spray glue, and the bottom layer of fabric glued to the wadding, creating a wadding sandwich. The addition of the layers helps with free-motion sewing which is tricky to do with a single layer of fabric. The use of wadding will give a quilted effect which adds a bit of depth to the final piece.

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Once the layers were ready, I was ready to sew. I decided to start with the rabbit as the focal point of the piece. I have a couple of tubs of different coloured threads that I've gathered over time so I dug out a selection of brown and grey colours for the rabbit.

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To set the sewing machine up for free-motion sewing, I attached my open-toed foot (which allows me to easily see where I'm sewing), and put the feed-dogs down (these are the teeth below the foot which normally grip the material and pull it through when you are doing normal sewing. Lowering the feed-dogs allows you to move the material freely to paint with the thread).

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Before I start sewing, I always try the stitch out on a waste piece of material to check the setup is correct. This is particularly important for free-motion sewing where the tension of the thread is key to get clean stitches.

To start off the sewing, I lower the needle into the right place on the fabric and then start sewing. Moving the material around at the right speed in the right direction takes practise but is very rewarding when you master it.

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Below you can see how it started to add detail to the rabbit in a dark brown thread. I've then used paler browns, white and grey to add more detail. I decided to stop at this point with the rabbit. It's sometimes tricky to know when to stop and it's about looking at the balance between the sewing and the painting.

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Next I moved onto the grass and heather, gradually building up different layers of colour and detail.

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Here is the finished sewing:

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At this point I decided that I wanted to frame the picture with a fabric border. I spent a bit of time trying out different colours of fabric from my supply to choose the colour I though fitted best. The colour of a border can make a big difference to the end piece. Here are a few of the options I tried.

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I decided to go with the purple as I felt it brought out some of the colours of the heather. I cut 3” strips using my shape-cut plus (a tool I couldn't live without), then folded and ironed one side of each strip. I pinned the strips, one at a time, to the edge of the painting, overlapping the painting a tiny bit. I then sewed them using a simple straight stitch 1/4” from the folded edge. I checked that the strips where lined up neatly using a ruler before sewing them.

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To finish the piece, I trimmed off the excess cream material and folded the edges of the border around a cardboard backing that I had cut to size. Top tip - if you iron the material over the cardboard, it will fold neatly and stay in place while you finish it. To fix in place, I hand-sewed the corners (I'm not an expert at hand sewing, so the result is not so neat…), and then covered that raw edges with tape.

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And here is the finished piece:

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I think it captures the wonderful colours of the heather and is a great reminder of the peace and quiet I enjoyed in the countryside in Suffolk.

I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it useful to help you with your own projects. I'd be very grateful for any comments or questions you have - so please comment below.

Thanks, Emma

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