Soon after I got married, I purchased a high-quality sewing machine—a splurge at the time. I was getting by on a so-so hand-me-down, and I really, really wanted a good machine. Nothing fancy, but one that would be with me for years if I took good care of it. Little did that machine know what an important tool it would be, once I discovered mixed media! Today I’ll show you 10 great ways you can use your sewing machine for mixed-media stitch.
Sewing is such a key part of mixed media. Even if you’re not a rock star sewist, you can create stunning artwork using just a straight or a zig-zag stitch. My philosophy about sewing machines is the same as cooking with wine. If you want your dish to turn out fantastically, don’t use cooking wine, because your food will taste like cooking wine. Use a good wine that fits your budget. Same with sewing machines. If you want your project to look amazing, don’t use a dodgy machine. Get a good quality machine, treat it well, and it will reward you with great results.
A couple of tips before we get started: If you sew paper on your machine, replace the needle before you sew fabric. Paper quickly dulls needles. Also, sewing paper creates a lot of dust, so be sure to stay on a regular maintenance schedule for your machine. Note that some manufacturers recommend that you use the machine only for approved materials such as fabric, leather, etc.
I promised you 10 ways to use your sewing machine for mixed media stitch, and here we go!
1. Sew on your art journal pages: You can absolutely sew on an art journal page that’s still attached to the spine of the journal. Mandy Russell came up with a fantastic technique for redoing an art journal page, detailed in “Art Journal Reboot” in the July/August issue of Cloth Paper Scissors. She sews paper, fabric, and trim scraps to a less-than-great page, covers it all with gesso, and then uses the textures and shapes as jumping off points for her new page. Brilliant, no? When I tried this technique I had no trouble using my sewing machine to attach the pieces to my page. And I loved the results.
2. Make an art journal to go: You’ve got a bunch of random papers and a sewing machine. What do you do? Make an art journal on the fly! I took a museum brochure, some drawing paper scraps, a paper bag, and other assorted scrap papers, cut them to size, used a flyer from my favorite café for a cover, and folded everything in half. Make sure you don’t have too many pages, otherwise your needle won’t go through. Mine had six pages folded in half, plus the cover.
I ran the pages through my machine, straight down the middle along the fold. To make sure the stitches didn’t come out I tied the threads at the top and bottom in a square knot.
Here’s the finished book! These quick journals are perfect for taking on short trips, and they make great gifts, too.
3. Use your words: If you haven’t tried free-motion stitching, put this technique at the top of your list. A little practice is all it takes to turn your machine into a writing and drawing tool. Ruth Rae used her machine to create an entire poem on a shirt, which may be one of the coolest mixed-media stitch techniques ever.
In “Poetic Ruffles” in the May/June 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, she showed how to repurpose a tailored shirt, adding raw-edge ruffles and a pocket. The poem was done in black stitching, and Ruth includes detailed instructions for how to master this gorgeous technique, including the best tools to use, and how to dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s.” “Think of your machine needle as a pen and thread as your ink,” she says, and you’re off and running!
4. Story threads: If you love collage, you must try creating a sewn collage. For inspiration we turn to one of the masters, Cas Holmes. In “Stitching a Story” in the March/April 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, she uses fabric collage to create a narrative for a beautiful layered, textured book centered around poppies. A sewing machine figures prominently in both the construction and design; Cas uses machine stitching to add details and borders to some of the smaller collage pieces. She also stitches around drawn designs, such as flowers, and sews the accordion pages to the cover. Machine stitching is an integral part of this piece, adding so many interesting elements.
5. Get dotty: You can use your sewing machine without thread to make all kinds of patterns on paper. A couple of things to keep in mind: When you sew without thread, the holes on top will be smooth, and the ones on the bottom will be bumpy, as the needle pierces the paper. Also, remember that sewing on paper perforates it. If you make your holes too close together, or go back and forth in the same place, the paper may separate. I made curved patterns in a sheet of 140-lb. cold press watercolor paper, turning the paper over as I sewed to create two different effects.
6. Make a mark: Jennifer Coyne Qudeen says that stitching is a mainstay technique in her mark-making toolbox. Many of her mixed-media stitch fabric pieces and books often incorporate lines of stitching in arcs and rows, sometimes intersecting to create patterns.
In “A Connection with Stitch” in the July/August 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, Jennifer’s tips for using a sewing machine for stitched mark making include using different colors of thread in the bobbin and the spool; the bobbin thread draws through as a dot of color on the opposite side. Also, try adding an adjustable sewing table extension to your machine. This, she says, expands your sewing area, allowing you to easily work on larger pieces.
7. Get framed: I incorporated Jennifer’s technique of using different bobbin and spool thread colors to create a unique stitched frame. First, I cut a window in a piece of 140-lb. watercolor paper slightly smaller than the size of my artwork, which is 4″ x 6″. I used turquoise thread for the spool and coral thread for the bobbin, and you can see just a hint of the coral color. Irregular lines were sewn around the opening several times, and the loose threads were knotted in the back. You can also leave them hanging for another effect. I love how this adds another textural and colorful dimension to the artwork, and it took all of five minutes to do. Here, I framed a collage, but I’m going to try this technique on art journal pages as well, using free-motion stitching to create wonky circle frames and cut-outs.
8. Feather your nest: I love making mixed-media stitch projects to hang in my workspace; they add such a great touch. Danielle Donaldson came up with a fantastic garland project that uses—you won’t believe it—paper towels. In “Tumbled Blossom Garland” in the March/April 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, she stitches together strips of watercolor-soaked paper towels to create a gorgeous garland. Accenting the swag are fun stitched roses, made with ribbon, and leaves made of watercolor paper scraps. Everything is sewn by machine, and Danielle’s techniques for ruffling the paper towels make them look like fabric. This is a must-try!
9. Crumple, crease, fold, gather, and stitch: You can alter fabric using your sewing machine, creating textured, dimensional embellishments to use in collage, art journals, and more. To make a stitched embellishment I started with a scrap of deep red smooth poly organza and threaded my machine with turquoise thread (this technique works best with lightweight fabrics). To sew the fabric I scrunched it up as I stitched it up, down, and around, folding and crumpling it in a random fashion, and making sure my fingers were away from the needle.
When I was happy with the look of the now-textured fabric, I cut it into a heart shape, and adhered it to the cover of a pre-made journal that I stenciled. This technique was so fun, and I’m dying to try it with other fabrics to see what effects I get.
10. Sew the unexpected: I wanted to try a mixed-media stitch technique on something really unusual, and I remembered some fall leaves that I had pressed in a book last fall. To give the dried, stiff leaf body and flexibility, I brushed both sides with two coats of heavy gel matte medium, allowing each coat to dry before adding the next (you can speed up the dry time with a hair dryer set on low). Using natural-colored thread, I stitched the outline of the leaf, then went over some of the ribs.
I love how this turned out; it’s almost as if the leaf has been tailored! I decided to see if it worked in the sewn frame as well, and it’s the perfect complement.
When it comes to creating mixed-media stitch projects, there simply are no limits. Thread your machine up and go!