It is time to make all the little things, the little gift and ornament things. It is officially time. For those of you less procrastinatey than me it is way past time, I know you are out there, you organized types who start in June. Maybe I’ll turn over a new leaf this year, I would love to be done making my Christmas stuff by Thanksgiving.
find the squirrel sewing pattern here
Today I’m making very little squirrels, and thoughtful whales. This squirrel is just the right size for somebody’s pocket. He looks very happy in there.
He is a relentlessly happy little fellow.
For most of my small creatures I make the eyes the same way, a disorganized little cluster of stitches (you can see how I hide my knots here). On wool I use embroidery thread so it shows but on cotton I like the subtlety of sewing thread. And I find the less I think about the placement of the stitches the better, the more expressive the eyes turn out. This little whale has things on his mind.
I stuff all the little folks and creatures with the loveliest wool stuffing. I spend a lot of time stuffing things, getting it just right and almost always fine tune the shape from the outside with a big needle.
Have you tried wool stuffing? it is all I use and I’ve added it to the shop in 4 ounce packs – that’s enough wool for lots of little creatures.
Are you sewing for the holidays? What’s on your worktable?
Owls and I go way back and they have always been mythic and magical creatures to me. One of the great legends of my childhood was my mother’s encounter with a great gray owl. If you had known my mother none of the things I make would surprise you at all. Sometimes I feel like I’m barely involved, as though they have been simmering in me all along and just waiting for their opportunity to appear. I think everybody has things like that in them. And the very first film I saw when I was 5 or so was The Royal Ballet’s Tales of Beatrix Potter. I think Potter’s Old Mr. Brown character figures heavily in the owls that have turned up in my stitching.
The first owl to appear was Ian (named for Ian McShane whom I love). He is made from scraps and has flinty metal button eyes.
Owls continued on in the Mr. Brown vein with earthy tones and scrappy textures for some time until someone much darker appeared all of a sudden.
Chillingworth was made from a single garment, a victorian bodice, one of the first really old garments I acquired. It had all sorts of textures and interesting stitching and mends, most of them found their way into Chillingworth. I love how absolutely dastardly he is, glowering at you with his perfectly mismatched eyes. I’m not sure I have ever achieved that level of malevolence since. But there have been a lot of seriously bad tempered and surly candidates.
Hundreds of owls and 10 or so years later I’m preparing to share the pattern. I’m working on it as we speak. The pattern templates are finished and tested. In fact I’m teaching an owl workshop in Los Angeles right now. Most of the photography is done so it is just a matter of formatting and editing now. I’m hoping to have it complete by mid November.
Labor Day Weekend, the unofficial start of the holiday season. Just kidding. Mostly. It does have a shifting feel to it though, everything starting back up again. It’s going to be a sewing weekend for me. Fun sewing, amulets and mushrooms and Monday devoted entirely to experimenting. I’ll give you the full report on that next week.
I’m still having a good time making amulets, small thoughts, and they are generating all sorts of color and composition ideas for larger or more involved things. They have become morning work for me, hand sewing with coffee before I’m quite awake yet. I love having a little stack ready to go and waiting for me.
Do you pick up handwork first thing? What are you making? Can you give yourself a day or an hour or 20 minutes to play and experiment this weekend?
These are the things I want to know.
The bodies are piling up as the owl shape is getting fine tuned. I’m preparing for owl workshops (PS – 2 spots have opened up in the 10/20-21 class) and ultimately a print and pdf owl pattern so every detail and dastardly proportion is being examined. I’ve started with the body shape. There are two construction methods I use for making owls, I created two patterns that produce slightly different shapes, one more rubenesque and another more sculptural and a bit more realistic. I might be the only one who can tell the difference. I tried to choose one to work on but ended up with a hybrid.
The next step is to test and revise again and again until only what is essential is left, the shape is expressive, the pattern pieces assemble perfectly and any fussiness is removed. After each prototype I adjust and resew and if the adjustment is successful it is further refined in Adobe Illustrator.
I arrived at the body shape that feels just right yesterday. And the body pattern pieces feel good too, it snaps together like nobody’s business. Even with difficult fabric like this odd tweedy stuff from mrs. brown’s skirt. I’ve been making things from that turn of the century skirt for 8 years and I’m sorry it’s is almost gone now. It has made lots of wonderful owls and rats and spiders but the weave is loose, thick, ravely and a little slippery, super hard to sew.
I’m ready to move on to the feathers, feet and features. As I finish my little pile of owly bodies I’ll experiment with those details until each is transformed into a teachable technique and or pattern piece that produces reliable results.
And the silly bug club! Thanks so much to everybody who showed up for the challenge. I drew a name from a hat and the winner of the mosquito rag doll is @bonniecapaulgallery ! I’ll message you on instagram for address etc. I hope you keep making and posting silly bugs, this was fun and I’ll offer you another challenge soon. Have a beautiful weekend and I’ll leave you with a few highlights from the posts and you can check out all the silly bugs here.
A great way to get past the musts and shoulds and assumptions that can limit you creatively is to shift your approach. Even temporarily adopt a perspective that helps you follow impulses and bypass reasons not to, shake things up. Try starting with silly. Silly tricks you into trying stuff that might not work which is what it is to be creative. That is also how you get somewhere new. Ask yourself silly questions, mess around, be absurd. Absurdity is rich ground. Just sayin’.
You might end up somewhere unexpected, making a connection that you had not before. It might wake something up in you or push you past a block. Your creative muscle grows and you can apply that strength to all your work.
I spent time playing with the idea of silly bug dolls this week. I’m getting my imagination in shape to teach again in September in New Hampshire. Silly helps me unclench my thinking. I got pretty silly.
Play is creative. Clenching down hard on trying to make something awesome often isn’t and is not usually effective at bringing your personal magic into the world. Nobody is more creative than you. And absolutely nobody has what you have inside you. I’m a firm believer in exercising your mind to develop skills to get to all that. As much as you can. Play is an important part of that.
So I offer you this challenge, make a silly bug in the next week. Why bugs? Because they are a rich place to experiment, the huge variety of weird anatomies can inspire all sorts of possibilities. There are lots of places to start and they are ideal for improvisational thinking.
So buggy in here!
And for a little more motivation let’s make it interesting. Post your silly bug on instagram with this tag: #sillybugclub and I’ll pick somebody at random who wins their very own mosquito rag doll. Who doesn’t need one of those? And you don’t have to sew your silly bug. You can, but you don’t have to, it can be anything. Make it out of post-it notes and paper clips if you like, that would be great, the less you have to work with the more creative you have to be and that is what we are concerned with. Please post your photo before Friday with the hashtag and your name will be in the hat. I’ll announce the winner next Friday.
Do it! Get the benefit of a mini assignment, spend some time playing and trying stuff, and you might win a prize. Plus joy. There ended up being a lot of joy in making silly bugs for me. That’s nothing to sneeze at either.
Life rewards action, give it a chance and it will show up with happy accidents. The minute you do something, take some action, a feedback loop begins. You get information. Begin, listen and respond. This week I accidentally made some necklaces or amulets or talismans or charms or pendants, I’m not sure what to call them yet. I know I like making them and I like how they feel, I like looking at them and putting them on and I’m sure they are lucky. And I know that continents and centuries collide in these saved and assembled scraps. They are a happy accident in lots of ways.
I did not start with the intention to make something to wear and historically speaking I never wear anything extra, anything purely decorative, but as I experimented that idea crept in and they began to remind me of scapulars. If you were educated by nuns you know what those are.
This was also perfect road sewing, they don’t require a lot of stuff so they are easy to travel with. It continues to be far too hot so I did the only reasonable thing and fled NYC. Sewing amulets by the pool was just right.
Plus there was sweet and thorough help, he checked everything. A lot.
I’m making more little experiments and they continue to be an excellent place for letting ideas percolate and surface, they are a good thinking tool. I’m thinking about paintings and preparing for my next workshop at squam which is very much concerned with idea generation and experimenting.
I’ll leave you with my favorite shot of the pool, I like my pools a little moody, a little melancholy. This image makes me think of one of my most favorite films “The Swimmer”. I think I’ll watch it for the millionth time tonight.
Part of the day today was devoted to waking up the experimenter in me. It needs some encouragement so I gave it an assignment, an easy assignment. I’ve been filled with reasons why I can’t do things lately so it’s a baby steps approach: make something small, make something fun, start without knowing.
One thing leads to another, if you let it. But first you need to start. Sometimes without knowing where you are going. If the experimenter in you needs some encouragement too please join me in the little assignment.
Start by gathering things, inspiration, things to think about and things to work with. Arrange and rearrange and look for happy accidents.
(P S – the fossil above is an ammonite. It was a gift and I love it.)
And then try something, listen for the whisper of an idea, pick up the thread and follow it. Follow it around corners and into shadows and back into the light. Keep following and keep responding and noticing. Be curious.
There are no mistakes, only information, a yes and, why not, lets see what happens process.
I like what turned up today, my little stitch experiments feel like amulets to me. And they were indeed medicine. I had fun and lost myself in the process. And I’m just getting started, the idea has momentum and there is lots more for me to explore here. If the amulet idea appeals to you as a shape for your experiments I hope you try it and I’d love to see what you come up with.
The ridiculous humidity and a summer cold have left me with a stunning lack of ambition. I aggressively indulged the lack of ambition and it transformed into restlessness. I needed to put on some clothes and do something. Anything.
This is where sewing saves me. As soon as my hands start moving my head starts to work again, I can feel the wheels turning. I spent some time making tiny doll things, little dresses and pinafores and bloomers with sweet little details. Peaceful, happy work.
Spending time on the tiny things with tiny details made me happy. And so did these floss winders. Am I the last person to know about these? Historically, I’ve stored my embroidery floss in the traditional way, in a maddening tangled mess. These solve the problem beautifully, I love the way it looks.
If you’d like to make a tiny doll find the sewing pattern here. I hope you make tiny dolls and if you do you can email photos to me at info at ann wood handmade dot com or use #annwoodhandmade on instagram. And send your songbirds and mushrooms and other things too, I’d love to see!
All you need are scraps. And a sewing machine. It is the kind of thing you could lose yourself in, the next thing you know hours have gone by and there are miles of it. It’s a meandering process and an invitation to happy accidents, there are no mistakes, it is not careful (except keeping your fingers away from the needle) and there is no planning. The perfect thing if you are feeling the need for something spontaneous. Just start and keep adding stuff.
My approach was pretty bare bones and I had lots of fun. What is your scrap situation like? I’ve got tons and lots of it very small. I dumped the whole thing out and started pulling out the tiniest scraps, the un-sewables, the little whispers I can’t let go of.
Start with one piece, add another and another, machine stitching through the whole thing, sometimes bunching or curving the little pieces. I can’t stop. And they don’t need to be lace, I’ve got cotton scraps too and I’ll try those next. And you can add other stuff and get super intricate and detailed – find a tutorial here.
You could use the garlands for packages or hang them (maybe with some twinkle lights and paper mache ships) or stitch them onto doll clothes or your clothes or make a crown for somebody little.
I made a mini one to use as a roiling sea for this little boat. Find the free mouse pattern here and the free little boat pattern here.
I like to think about ideas and where they come from, how they grow, what sticks and what doesn’t. And I find it hugely satisfying to share what I learn. For the past several weeks I’ve been gathering things for my diorama workshop this June and playing with ideas, experimenting in a gentle, open way, thinking about when to hold onto a narrative and when to let it go, exploring the relationships between things.
And I’ve been working on a way to share some of the experience with people who can’t make it to a workshop or retreat. That idea has been percolating since the makerie workshop last fall. Like the diorama workshop it was very focused on experimenting, thinking and trying stuff. I began the 3 day workshop with a warm up exercise called “a mysterious box”. Students got a small box with a collection of materials and a mini assignment, the assignment was the same for everybody and it is top secret.
I had a blast making the little boxes and the experiment was successful beyond my expectations. I’m working on the correspondence version now. Making little boxes and working out a way for people who participate to come together and share what they make.
What do you think?
And the hunting and gathering : I hit the ephemera jackpot a couple weeks ago. A huge box of old paper stuff (some of it very old), someone else’s memories and treasures. The things that were precious and carefully kept right up until they weren’t. I spend time looking through it everyday and part of me just wants to keep it all (those halloween treat bags are hugely nostalgic for me). I will not.
There are lots of newspapers and magazines from around 1880 with magnificent illustrations. Sweet bundles of letters, maps, elaborate certificates and receipts. Wonderful color, text and imagery to play with (you can see more from the box in on instagram).
There aren’t many photos in the box, I love this one. I think this is the one thing I’ll keep. I love the bare trees in the background, the lonely holiday garland on the window, the mood of it all. Long ago Christmas seen through a smokey, scratched lens, the wistfulness magnified by the medium.
The box is full of that feeling and I can’t get enough of it.
I’m in the woodshed with songbirds. Evaluating the pattern and steps, testing and adjusting little things – using what I learned teaching the workshops last month to make the pattern all I want it to be.
My friend Mickey introduced me to the term woodshedding and I love it:
“The ability to conjure up a feeling of wonder in others, to create a sense of awe, has always fascinated me. And while I do believe that magic can just “happen” under the right circumstances, creating magic is a much different story. It involves a lot of hard work, endless study and a constant refining of process and craft. In music, they call these periods of intense practice woodshedding, referring to the time spent honing skills privately out in the woodshed.”
Mick Riad – Creative Director, Fortuny
I think it is my favorite place to be, in the woodshed with something. Discovering, testing and refining. Deep in a learning process.
I’m also woodshedding owls to prepare for the dastardly owl workshops this fall (I think there are 2 spots left). Eventually they will also become a pdf and print pattern too.
What’s going on in your woodshed?
Most people don’t realize that all of Fortuny’s fabrics are inspected by a tiny Venetian fly. A diligent and thorough fly. It is careful and slow work requiring long hours and true dedication.
It’s a big job for a little and old bug but he has been content in his duties, happy even, for many, many decades (no one knows exactly how long, it seems he has always been there).
Lately someone new has started showing up, a dragonfly, all huge and full of himself and suggestions, the sort that has come and gone before….
I’m making owls from the new Fortuny printed velvets. They are exquisite, the colors, the feel, the patterns, everything. Before I began I spent some time refining and adjusting the owl pattern. Velvet is difficult to sew sculptural forms with and I very rarely use it for shapes. Even with lots of pins things tend to slide around and the weight and pile make it unforgiving, mistakes show and are hard or impossible to adjust by stitching from the outside. It was time to tighten up the pattern anyway because I plan to teach it in the fall (more on that soon). After I had success with cotton and linen prototypes I felt ready to try the velvet.
I also discovered that stapling the fabric together (don’t tell that tiny fly) works magnificently well and does not harm the fabric. I stapled right at the edge, outside the seam line, and everything stayed in place as I sewed.
I’m very happy with the shape, he is round in all the right places, the pattern pieces snapped together perfectly and he already has a bad attitude.
A note on the beautiful pins – they are entomology pins. They come in lots of sizes and colors, the quality is excellent and I love the way they look. You can find them here.
I’ll share finished velvet owls and some other new creatures with you next week.
When I get whacked hard by life, this is the poem I read. And this is my favorite part:
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
It always cheers me up and I know what to do, fling my soul hard at the gloom. It is the only thing to do.
I’m back from my teaching trip and It all worked out. But it sure was dicey for a while. There are so many reasons not to do stuff. Trying seems to invite bad luck. It doesn’t, but it seems that way. The more stuff you do the more stuff there is that can go wrong. And when things do go wrong they love to go wrong in a horrifying cascade. That’s what happened in the 2 weeks before I left for Los Angeles. Lots of little things went wrong and a couple big ones. There was plenty of gloom. I rarely feel defeated but I did for a while. The darkling thrush saved me.
I got home at 2 AM on Tuesday, watered the plants and spent the next 30 hours in bed. I am still exhausted. I’m also full of ideas. The first thing I did was ship a ton of orders and then I carved a bird leg from a block of wax.
I’ve been wanting to try this for a long time. The intention is to have molds made and cast legs in brass and bronze and silver. I have no idea if I did this right. I just started hacking away at the wax and did not look up for many hours.
It was a deeply peaceful and immersive experience. I’ll go to a casting place next week and I’ll let you know what happens. If it works out I will start offering them in the shop along with the soon to be released songbird pattern. I’ll keep you posted. And I want to carve more wax – I have all sorts of ideas…
The Aged Thrush
PS – I got the wax blocks here.
Vibrant color with some smokeyness to it. Worlds and continents and centuries overlap in this little collection of textiles. Antique garment fragments from Japan, 18th century silk and velvet and shimmering patterns from Venice. And all of them found me. Marvelous serendipity.
I like thinking about all the things that had to happen in the world across hundreds of years for this bird to be, a crimson and scarlet girl who had her beginnings in the 1700’s. What has she seen, what does she carry with her.
I spend huge amounts of time selecting fabrics, lingering in the choices, it slows me down in a way that I need to be slowed down sometimes. I have always loved to do it. Ask my sister, she will tell you that I loved to spend hours in the attic on a rainy day sorting through endless bags of scraps (I come from sewing people) imagining what I might make.
I’m doing lots of slow songbird work still. trying things, taking notes and making tiny adjustments. The part I most look forward to teaching you is transforming the basic shape into a bird, adding layers of feathers and details. There is so much opportunity for happy accidents. An imperfection, one wing a little askew or a tail feather poking out can suggest the funny, expressive little motions of a perched bird. Birdness.
The deep mineral tones are spilling into other work too. I interrupted the bird work to make a toadstool. Partly because I was in need of some immediate gratification. Toadstools are quick to make, especially the minis, this is made from the sewing pattern printed at 75%. And also because I’m trying to add something new to the shop every day.
And The Major, in aubergine, charcoal and graphite with little bits of silver and warm rose. I love him. Especially his fancy bicorne.
It came to me all of a sudden while I was in the bathtub. I wasn’t even thinking about making songbirds, it just popped into my head, a better way to make the feet and legs. I had been thinking (obsessing) about it a couple days earlier. I’ve been thinking about the songbirds a lot and revisiting every aspect of their design and construction. It is interesting to take something I’ve been making for a long time back to the laboratory.
This is the second songbird do-over. The first was because I misplaced the pattern. So painful. I reconstructed it from memory as well as reverse engineering from my photos. I made a couple changes and improvements in that round. I’m revisiting this time to get ready for the workshop and eventual sewing pattern. I want it to be fabulous so I am testing and testing and testing again, searching for anything that can be easier or more efficient and more consistent without sacrificing any elegance or birdness.
It was a hard thing to start. There is lots of resistance in my thinking when I’ve been doing something the same way for a long time. It took a while to get into a truly experimental spirit and find my curiosity.
“ The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
John Maynard Keynes
It is also a daunting amount of very slow work with lots of failures. I only change one aspect of the design at a time. Sometimes there are several time consuming iterations of a change before I know if it is successful. I was stuck on the legs for a while, stuck on how to make them teachable and more efficient while retaining the expressiveness. There was also one problematic point in the construction where someone could potentially lose an eye. So awkward. A simple solution for all of it just floated into my mind. In the tub.
I’m also examining the body construction and balance. There have been huge improvements in both. Part of this process is digitalizing the pattern (in adobe illustrator) and while I was doing that I saw some possibilities. I simplified the construction a little and the shape is subtly improved and comes together beautifully. And I’ve changed how the legs are inserted and the bird is balanced. The balance, the body language, is so important to the birdness of the finished thing.
And I’m not done. I’m scrutinizing the details the same way now. It is all a massive amount of work but I’m deeply involved in the very best way, the time disappears way. I’m spending the whole weekend with the birds and I’ll show you what I make next week.
I love packaging, the little details of it, arranging things in the box, the string, the tags, all of it. I make most of the tags and labels myself. I probably should not, this is probably an excellent example of something I should outsource but I like doing it.
And before we talk about the best glue stick in the world I want to tell you about a couple other tools I use and love to make my packaging (these are entirely uncompensated endorsements).
When I started making kits I was cutting the image for the box with an exacto knife and it was a very slow process. I was not expecting much from this little paper cutter but I had about 100 labels to cut one night and it was less than 20 bucks (at the Paper Source Shop on the corner of my block) so I thought it was worth a shot. Almost three months later it still works beautifully. I use it all the time now for everything, labels and cutting my watercolor paper too. So worth it.
I also got these die cutting stamps and mini hole punch there. There is something so satisfying about punching out the little shapes. Now I’m curious about other cutting tools, the fancy digital ones like these with software etc. Do you know about these? Have you tried them? They seem so full of interesting possibilities to me. I am intrigued.
And the glue stick. I have tried them all. High end, low end. Everything. The UHU stick is my favorite. I am a heavy glue stick user. In making my packages, flamingo cake topper making, collage and as a temporary hold for fabric ( for some fabric projects I use a washable glue stick).
The UHU stick has staying power, even when I paint over it which I frequently do. It will wrinkle up briefly and then smooths out. I usually hit it with the blow dryer, not sure if that helps or just speeds things up, just so you know.
Have you got a favorite tool or supply?
Cozy is my specialty. I love twinkle lights on pearly gray days, lots of plants and lots of quilts. Three of my favorite old quilts have serious and progressing issues. I’ve been thinking about fixing them for a while and one of them has reached a point that demands immediate attention. It’s a quilt emergency. The other two are technically coverlets, no batting, so their problems can wait a while.
The largest and most seriously forlorn quilt is loosing stuffing all over the place. More of it is falling apart than not. It is probably not reasonable to try to fix it. And I know once I start it is a life long commitment, that it will spring new leaks and eventually be almost entirely repair with just little bits of the original fabric peeking out. I’m fine with that.
I’m motivated partly by my attachment to it, partly by a love for fabric and also because I think it might get interesting. I’m approaching the repair wabi sabi style, boro inspired patching and a meandering stitch. Some patches with turned edges and some with raw edges, an improvisational yes and process embracing happenstance. I started by basting muslin over the big problems and then working in and around those areas with smaller patches. I like doing it and I like what’s happening to it. I will keep you posted as it develops.
In other quilt news the latest issue of Homespun Magazine (Australia) has a pattern for the quilt block on the cover and lots of other projects. They always have an impressive array of projects and patterns in every issue.
And I’m in it too! Thanks so much Homespun. Digital copies are available here.
Sometimes I begin with somebody in mind and go looking. I spend a long time choosing, experimenting and thinking about just the right combination of texture and pattern and color. The indigo for the blue owl is all from Sri Threads. I love the variety in the blues. Some other lovely old cloth from Sri is below, miraculous color and wonderful mending stitches by other hands.
The black and dark greens for another little owl are mostly Edwardian garments. I love the way the blacks fade, usually leaning purple or green as they do.
Sometimes the beginning is entirely serendipitous, a suggestion from the universe. A combination I had not thought of and I was not looking for appears and I get an idea.
I saw a sailboat and mrs. rabbit and made them immediately. They are both quick projects and a good break from some slower work. Mrs. is made from the mr. socks pattern. I added long ears and reduced the size of the head cover by one quarter inch all around.
I’m also working on sewing patterns. I’ve got a bunch in progress and they are all a little stuck so I’m applying a creative sprint to the two that are closest to finished this weekend: the captain charmley doll and the mushroom print pattern. I can’t wait to share my method for creating his head and hair with you. So easy.
I’ll focus on just those two until they are done. After that I’ll start working on others again including a print version of the paper mache ships. It is a massive undertaking.
And pink. A soft, moody pink. Just right. It’s made with avocado dye. I had no idea. This came up in the comments section to last week’s post (thanks Alicia). I made guacamole and then boiled and simmered the 5 pits for a couple hours. I love it. Have you tried this?