Embroider Your Fabric Collage with Wit and Whimsey

27 Feb 2012

Many years ago I began collecting examples of vintage embroidery such as tea towels and napkins, little pieces of fabric art from the past. I particularly liked the ones with a tea-theme; I had a notion to cut out the motifs and incorporate them with other vintage fabrics to make tea cozies.

fabric collage with redwork donabed
Two different Redwork pieces were used
in this fabric art by Sandy Donabed.
I got as far as cutting out the embroideries. It turned out that many people with far better sewing and piecing skills than I had already thought of this idea. Plus, tea cozies are not in hot demand. (Except in my house.)

So now I have all these tea-themed (and a few bird-themed) pieces of embroidery with no project. They've been kicking around for years. But given that I have about a thousand other abandoned projects I could work on, this hasn't really been a problem.

Over the years I've thought I could make them part of a quilt, but for some reason it never occurred to me to use a mixed-media approach. Until I saw some of Sandy Donabed's work.

curiouser fabric collage
"Curiouser" fabric collage by
Sandy Donabed.
Sandy has a love of vintage embroidery, especially Redwork (loosely defined as an embroidered design stitched in red on muslin). But her appreciation of Redwork's rich heritage doesn't prevent her from taking an irreverent approach to using it in her fabric art.

She cuts out the embroidered motifs from stained or ripped textiles she's collected and rearranges the images in a fabric collage, often to comic effect. For example, in her piece called "Attack Rabbits" where giant bunnies are bounding over fences through a toile landscape where small Victorian children play.

Sometimes Sandy takes a mixed-media approach to fabric collage. In her "Curiouser" piece, she mixes Alice in Wonderland fabric with Redwork embroidery and modern image transfers and cutouts fused or glued onto marbelized fabric. This technique gives the Cheshire cat an appropriately surreal (paper) smile. She also stamped stitch lines and added a signature made out of glued-on alphabet macaroni.

In other pieces, Sandy has glued the embroidered motif to a stretched canvas or board, applied a thick coat of paint around it and embedded buttons and other small found objects into the surface.

cheshire cat from fabric collage
Cheshire cat from "Curiouser."
I love the idea of creating different fabric collages with my vintage embroidery, especially witty scenes. And now I'm thinking about combining some of these pieces with encaustic techniques. Hmm. Looks like the other thousand projects may be going on the back burner for now.

Sandy has written a history of Redwork, complete with a slideshow of images, for the interactive eMag, Quilting Arts In Stitches, Vol. 6. Although I've always loved the look of Redwork, I had no idea of the fascinating aspects of this style of embroidery. If you love textile art and stitch, you'll want to download your own copy to your PC, Mac, or iPad.

Do you collect vintage embroidery? What do you do with it? Leave your comment below.

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on 27 Feb 2012 5:50 AM

My collection is packed in plastic bins just waiting for me to do something with them!  Thanks for sharing this idea... although it would be difficult to cut up the good ones.  I have thought about making a cuff bracelet with them.

ruth hower wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 6:55 AM

I'm a 72 year old grandma.  I learned to embroider at the age of 6 and grew up in a home where every surface was protected by doilies and dresser scarves, with embroidered crochet-trimmed pillow cases, all starched and ironed by my Mom.  Today I have what's left of her things, plus all that I've made myself over the years, and many that I've rescued from flea markets and thrift stores.  I use them in the way Mom did, and my home is lovelier for it.  I feel compelled to preserve them because I know the hours of someone's life that went into their making.  I hope that crafters would only use the damaged pieces and never cut up a good one.  There are many collectors who would treasure them.  I know I sound like an old prude - but someday you'll be where I am!!

Kim Geiser wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 7:29 AM

Love this! I solder vintage textiles between glass to make fun pendants. I love being able to see both the pretty and working side of needlework.

SandyD wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 7:30 AM

For Marian and Ruth and anybody else who is hesitant to cut into family pieces, in the inStitches #6  I give a little tutorial on how to get around this problem- to HAVE YOUR CAKE AND EAT IT TOO!  Or in this case, keep your precious embroideries intact and still have some fun!  LOL  I'm not completely heartless, but I sure love using these pieces in unexpected ways so there is a way to 'cheat' that leaves everybody happy!    Hope you enjoy the magazine-  they did a great job putting it together.   Sandy

Peggy Tracy wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 8:41 AM

I have used small embroidered dresser scarves and made them into collars for children's sweaters that I make from old wool sweaters. I wash adult size wool sweaters in hot water. When dry, I cut out a back, two sides and sleeves, using a pattern. I stitch the sides and back together, and the sleeves, and then begin "finishing" the sweater with embroidery, needle-felting, buttons, applique, etc. Sometimes I make a collar for the sweater, using an old piece of embroidery.

Michigan wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 9:02 AM

I am a collector.  What do I do with it??  Remove stains and pack away.  I search garage sales and flea markets and repeat the process.  And now I know why,

I'll continue to store some of the better family treasures but as for the rest...

Thanks for the great idea

Elise Shaw wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 9:11 AM

Tea towels, table cloths, I love them all. I cut one table cloth apart around the embroidery and made sachet bags to put my lavender in. Great gifts! Mostly I admire my collection! Hand wash, iron, starch and re fold to display!

Donna Wilkes wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 10:21 AM

I have hundreds of pieces of embroidery, tatting, crochet, etc. I have cut really damaged ones and used them for gift cards or appliqued them on other cloth, but like Ruth I hate to cut them up.  I, too, am drawn to the tables at the flea market with stacks of vintage cloth.  I have my grandmother's framed.  I have photocopied a decorative piece to use in a collage, but of course that does not reduce my stash - it only adds to it.  I have a redwork quilt top that I have used numerous times by photocopying.

WandaB@16 wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 11:30 AM

Vintage linens have always been  the first thing I look for at the flea markets, garage sales and anywhere else they may be. I have used them in clothing,  collaged bedspreads, table cloths and all of my mixed media art projects. I have stacks of them and still crave more.  TTFN Wanda

ykirkwood wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 11:48 AM

I have some wonderful smocking my Mother created but it's on a nightgown I will never wear.  It's been hanging on the wall for years as a decorative piece but is becoming faded and dirty over time.  I really hesitate to cut it up but if someone has a great idea  for incorporating smocking into a project I just might bite the bullet and do it.

tracker wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 1:57 PM

I don't know whether it is a general trend or only South African, but vintage needlework has become all the rage. From crocheted doilies which are turned into lampshades to vintage embroidery turned into quilts- we're seeing a popular return of these crafts. iIhave used old doilies to print and stencil with, but I simply love the bits I have and incorporate them carefully in scrapbooking and such projects.

Susu65 wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 2:41 PM

A friend made a beautiful short jacket from a family members' vintage hankies. It is so soft and feminine looking.

1deedianne wrote
on 27 Feb 2012 4:29 PM

My grandmother's handiwork was in our homes in such as pillowcases that were used and worn.  I took a collection of them and cut out and used the embroideries to create a scene with a hand drawn tea pot as the anchor.  We each had a collage then in memory of Grandma and tea.

on 27 Feb 2012 7:41 PM

I use vintage textiles a LOT in my work.  I have used them as feature pieces for mixed media collage if they are in good shape, background layers if they are tattered and for art doll lingerie if they have great edges.  No end to the possibilities!