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!

Dare! My New Moths and Butterfly Quilt

I’ve been working on my moths and butterfly quilt for the last few weeks, and I finally finished it yesterday! Today I wanted to share not only the final result, but also the process that went into its making.

I call this quilt Dare!, and it is a tribute to anyone who ever took a stand, both big and small.

Thought Process

The idea for this quilt has been brewing in my mind for many months. It changed over time, of course, as most ideas do.

It first sprouted during my visit to the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland over a year ago. There is a very large display of Lepidoptera at the museum. The moths and butterflies there are arranged neatly in rectangular glass displays, old-fashioned way. Seeing them all together, beautiful and diverse, is striking. At first, I just wanted to make a quilt to convey that beauty. The composition that formed in my mind mimicked the glass displays.

With time, however, this imaginary quilt gained more meaning. Instead of a random array of pretty butterflies, I started thinking of many moths, all dreary and the same, going in one direction, as opposed to one gorgeous, colorful butterfly going the other way. I wanted to proclaim that some things are worth being different for, standing up for, fighting for.

These can be mundane things, like opposing an illogical school rule that everyone else obeys (mom, you know what I’m talking about!), or liking and wearing colorful clothing when everyone around you wears black. In a way, this is what I do with ANY Texture: I make bright and colorful accessories even when the prevailing trends call for a lot less color, only because I like colors and think the world needs more of them. That is one reason why my butterfly is colorful and the moths aren’t.

Of course, there are more meaningful things that call for resisting trends. We each have our own list of those. Here is but one example from my own, long list: I live in Silicon Valley, where being a tech person is valued, but being an artist isn’t. I still chose to be an artist. My choice, although right for me, came with consequences and a price. It also resulted in constant pressure, sometimes explicit and sometimes less so. That is one reason why there are many moths, going in one direction, but only one butterfly, going her own way.

Then there are the really important issues. Again, we each have a personal list of those. One of the issues important to me is the global struggle for women’s rights. Signs of gender inequality are all over the place, unfortunately, even in our twenty-first century. Take the tech industry, for example, which is close to home here. Women in the tech world are still a minority, and are still payed less. Only recently, when we thought it was all behind us, there was a fresh challenge to women’s place in the tech world… Some of my good female friends are computer scientists. I wanted to tell them, my daughters and women around the world that it’s OK to be a woman and choose your own way.

The glass ceiling women are facing on all fronts has cracked a little, maybe, but is still far from breaking. You need not look further than the results of the latest elections to realize there is yet a long way to go, even here in the Western world. Things are a lot worse for women in many other parts of the globe. That is why my butterfly is female, as opposed to the male moths. She is also strong, daring, and pushing her way. She has to.

Although I’ve been planning this quilt for a while, I started working on it obsessively only recently. This happened mostly because of what I’ve been seeing in the news. Some things, you see, are SO important, that they brush everything else aside. Current events seem to assail us from all directions. Bad news are pouring in from all parts of the world. We can’t do much about natural disasters, but there is a lot we can do to fight some people’s assaults on human dignity. Each and every one of us must stand up to hatred, bigotry, prejudice, racism, antisemitism, homophobia and all other types of human narrow-mindedness and evil. We must all work together to ensure the survival of humanity and keep the planet on which we depend healthy and safe.

This is what this quilt is about. It is about having the courage to be different, to stand up to pressure, to resist. It’s about finding beauty, color and positivity amid ugliness and negativity. It’s about soaring above pettiness. Most of all, it’s about hope.

When I started planning this quilt, I was thinking of making the moths in shades of blue and the butterfly in purples and magentas, my favorite colors. But recent events changed my color pallet. They turned the moths black. And somewhat military-looking.

The Making Process

I started the quilt by selecting fabrics. I chose an increasingly brighter spectrum for the background, to indicate that there is light at the head of the tunnel, hope:

Then I selected fabrics for the moths, all in shades of black, gray and gold. The colors of authoritarianism.

I stitched the background fabrics together, then went on the internet to do some research on moths.

I didn’t know much about them, really. In my mind I had a picture of drab winged creatures, like the ones you see when you turn the lights on in the middle of the night. I wanted to see what they looked like exactly, the details of them, so that I could recreate some convincing-looking ones. It didn’t take long for me to stand corrected. Some moths, it turned out, are absolutely glorious! Some are large, beautiful creatures, prettier than many butterflies. In fact, the differences between moths and butterflies are minor. You need to be an expert to sometimes tell them apart. Thus, in my effort to fight prejudice I was confronted with some prejudices of my own!

This changed my plans somewhat. I now had to make my moths a lot nicer than I had originally intended to, and more diverse! So I sketched some out on a scrap of paper, and proceeded to cut the moths out and pin them onto the background:

I then stitched them on, both by machine and by hand, and manually embroidered some of the details:

I slowly completed eight moths:

Once that was done, I needed to turn this into a quilt by sandwiching the top to a batting and a backing:

I quilted the piece together by hand, since my machine cannot handle such a thick sandwich. It’s been a while since I completed my last upholstery quilt, and I forgot how taxing quilting thick fabrics by hand can be! Once again, I forgot to use thimbles, and boy, did I feel it later!!

The quilting was solely utilitarian. It had to hold all the layers together, not to give visual interest. Upholstery fabrics are too thick, too stiff, and too textured to enable detailed quilting… Finally, I finished by pinning the border and stitching all around:

You will note that I left one space open, for my butterfly. So now I started practicing making three-dimensional textile butterflies. That took a while, and several tries. When I finally knew how to make her, I needed to settle on a color. Purple and magenta didn’t seem to go with the blacks, grays and golds of the months. They were also too mild. I wanted something more outstanding. More DARING.

I contemplated this for a few days, comparing different colors and fabrics. In the end, I decided to go with silk, to make my butterfly more majestic. The silk’s smooth texture also stood in contrast to the moths’ mostly rough, upholstery feel. I chose a deep red for the upper wings and orange for the lower. The red seemed the most contrasting to the colors of the moths. The orange gave the creature more color, life and vitality. It also made it more conspicuous. The orange silk came from one of the fabrics I recently saved from my late mother-in-law’s estate. This made the quilt more personal, as if by doing so I was able to weave a piece of my mother in law into it…

Once finished, I sewed the butterfly onto the quilt:

And there it was, my finished quilt, a call for action, intended to empower and provide hope at the same time.

Since she’s already a part of this work, I dedicate this quilt to the memory of my late mother in law, a strong, willful woman who did things her way all the way to the end.