Making Textile Butterflies: Experiments, Challenges and Tutorials

I recently needed to sew a butterfly for Dare!, my Lepidoptera (moths and butterfly) quilt. I’ve never made one before, and wanted to create the best one I could. It had to be pretty, three dimensional but not free-standing, and about hand-sized.

In the past, while browsing Pinterest and such (i.e.–in the many hours I’ve procrastinated in front of a computer), I’ve encountered some beautiful textile butterflies on the web. I’ve long admired the work of people like Yumi Okita, for example, or Mr. Finch, both of whom make large, three-dimensional moths and butterflies. When I browsed for inspiration for my quilt, I discovered some other fabulous textile-butterfly artists, such as Laura Jacquemond of Blue Terracotta, and Abigail Brown (whose fabric butterflies you can see on Pinterest, or in this blog post). Both of the latter artists make smaller, two-dimensional textile Lepidoptera, mostly for brooches.

I needed something in-between. Not quite a soft sculpture, but not a flat, two-dimensional piece, either. I needed a butterfly with presence. So I started experimenting.

For my first try, I used upholstery fabrics, since these are the fabrics I like using for most of my work, and these are also the fabrics that the rest of the quilt is made of. I also added some cottons, embroidery thread and beads. The result was rather crude:

This was too two-dimensional, and not what I was looking for. So I tried again, this second time attempting to give the wings some volume:

For this experiment  I used upholstery and silk. I didn’t even try decorating this one, however. It clearly wasn’t what I had in mind. Besides, both these first attempts were small studies, much smaller than what I actually needed.

So I browsed the internet for tutorials and ideas. Turns out that there are numerous ways to make textile butterflies, and many generous people who were willing to share their techniques with the public.

There are tutorials for fabric butterflies that don’t require any sewing, like this one: http://wonderfuldiy.com/wonderful-diy-beautiful-fabric-butterfly/

Some were rather simple, and might be a good place to start if you’re a beginner:

Here, for example, are two tutorials for fabric origami butterflies:

http://www.molliemakes.com/craft-2/make-fabric-origami-butterfly/

http://www.fabartdiy.com/diy-fabric-origami-butterfly/

And two tutorials for simple fabric ones:

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/306878162083360262/

http://www.cucicucicoo.com/2016/04/diy-scrap-fabric-butterfly/

But none of these were helpful for my needs.

In the meantime, I also browsed the internet for pictures of real butterflies, because I wanted to find one I liked, and also wanted to see what their veins actually looked like. I settled on one, and printed it out in the actual size I needed:

Then I made a template for myself by copying the real butterfly wings on a thin, hard, clear plastic sheet (that used to be the cover of one of my daughters’ no-longer-needed notebooks). I cut one top and one bottom wing from the plastic:

Then, I kept browsing the web for more sewing ideas.

I found a few more complicated tutorials:

Like this one by Blue Terracotta: https://blueterracotta.com/blogs/news/fabric-butterfly-brooch-in-5-easy-steps

Or this one, which is rather similar, except it uses separate wings and a stuffed body: https://www.livemaster.ru/topic/438689-tekstilnaya-brosh-motylek

Both require top-stitching the wings, with a zigzag stitch.

I loosely followed a combination of both, using my own template, and mimicking the veins on my real-butterfly picture. I abandoned upholstery fabrics because they were too stiff, and went for finer textiles, such as linen and silk, instead. In between the front and back I used quilting batting, to give the wings some body. For my experiments, I picked fabrics that I didn’t actually like too much. I didn’t want to “waste” fabrics that I cared for.

The tutorials call for cutting the wings out before top stitching them. By trial and error, however, I found that for me, it worked better to stitch before cutting:

Once the wings were stitched, I carefully cut around the stitch, trying to stay as close as I could to the zigzag, without cutting into it. Once the piece is cut, you can do another round of zigzag all around, to get a more solid edge.

For the antenna,  by the way, I used a wire saved from my daughter’s said notebook (did I tell you I sometimes love saving things that might, one day, be useful? Dad, this comes directly from you :-)):

This is what I got:

And the underside:

A lot better! Much closer to what I was looking for. However, it was too droopy. The wings didn’t hold:

Still not exactly what I needed. But a good way to make smaller pieces that can remain flat (for a brooch, for example).

I kept looking. I found this tutorial, which requires sewing, turning inside out and stuffing:

https://pinthemall.net/pin/55cfad3d6f105/

Again, I used my own template. The turning inside-out part turned out to be difficult. The long, narrow areas of the lower wings of my template were too narrow to turn inside out, and got stuck mid-way, no matter how hard I tried to push/pull on them. I got this:

I actually liked it. A lot. Even though the shape didn’t quite look like the butterfly I printed. It also held its wings a lot better, since the inside seam helped with the stability:

However, since I cut holes for turning inside-out in the middle of the wings, like in the tutorial, the underside looked scarred:

This method would look better if you use valor, like the tutorial does. The valor would hide the stitches.

So, for my next experiment I decided to combine both methods. For the upper wings, which I needed nice and stiff, I used the second, turning inside-out method, except that I left the opening for turning on the side of the wings instead of cutting a hole in the middle. I simply stitched the opening close by hand. For the lower wings, which I wanted long and trailing, I used the first, top-stitch zigzag method:

That fifth experiment turned out perfect, with stiff upper wings and trailing, if droopy, lower wings:

I was ready to make the real butterfly, the one I was going to put on my quilt. I was actually quite nervous when I sewed and cut it, but it turned out exactly the way I envisioned it. Here it is, perfectly lined up on top of the real-butterfly print I was working with:

And here it is finished, ready to go on the quilt:

Finished textile butterfly

I later framed a couple of my practice butterflies, and like how they turned out:

Making textile butterflies was so much fun, that I continued to play with smaller, brighter ones. I decided to make them into barrettes, but they could also be used as brooches, or put onto stakes in the garden. I’m sure you can think of other uses as well:

If you want to make your own textile butterfly, you can start by trying one of the tutorials I collected here. There are many others as well. This one, for example, looks complicated (as it requires a soldering iron), but seems to produce stunning results: http://eiloren.blogspot.com/2012/09/organza-butterfly-using-soldering-iron.html

There are many tutorials on YouTube, as well.

Textile butterflies can take a long time to make (my final one for the quilt took an entire work-day!). They require patience, attention to detail, careful workmanship and some hand-sewing. They are really fun to make though!

2 thoughts on “Making Textile Butterflies: Experiments, Challenges and Tutorials

  1. Many thanksfor this really interesting post. I don’t know if you have heard of….The Art Of Annamieke Mein…….a most wonderful book of this amazing textile artist, origionally from Holland but emigrated over here to Australia. She creates stunning work especially of butterflies. .moths…dragonflies etc. You can also see it on Pinterest.

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