From Hill Tribe Leggings to a Wall Hanging

In December 2018, during a trip to Thailand, we stayed for a couple of nights at a hotel in Chiang Mai. While taking a neighborhood walk, I came across this wonderous shop:

The inside of it (which the owner didn’t want me to photograph), was filled with gorgeous antique Hill Tribe textiles. A true Aladdin’s cave for textile lovers! Like a child in a candy store, I ogled and drooled. But I couldn’t buy much, because we still had a whole trip ahead of us, and because we were traveling light, with only backpacks.

I couldn’t leave empty handed, however. Combing the store, I found a pair of appliqued leggings that really jumped at me. Their colors reminded me of a Chinese minority textile hanging in our home office, and I thought these would be a good fit. There and then I decided to turn them into a wall hanging.

Based on a bit of internet sleuthing I did once back home, I’m guessing these leggings are from the Akha tribe. They were entirely hand sewn,  with applique, couching, and decorative button sewing. Since the buttons are plastic, I’m guessing they can’t be THAT old. Gorgeous nonetheless.

Since I wanted to make them into a wall hanging,  I also bought a beautiful Thai wooden hanger to go with them:

For a couple of years they waited patiently in my UFO pile. Until now.

In order to turn them into a wall hanging, I needed to open their back seam. This felt rather wrong and awkward. Like damaging a museum piece. But, I knew that I would never use them as leggings, and will enjoy them as a wall hanging. And so, eventually, I mustered the courage to unpick.

It turned out that they had a double seam. The woman who made them sewed the back seam, meant to secure the edge of the fabric and keep it from fraying, with incredibly even and tight stitches. She sewed the second seam, meant to fit the size of the legging to the shape of the leg that wore it, with bigger, quicker and less careful stitches.

It probably took me as long to unpick the stitches as it took the original artist to put them in. I tore through the stitches and marveled at them, unpicked and admired. Beautiful, even, small, tight stitches, nicer than machine stitches and even stronger. The woman who sewed these knew what she was doing. I felt close to her at that moment, through time and space, touching the same fabric. I revered up close, intimately, the work she did.

Finally, the leggings were open. A small piece of art all on their own.

I could now see the back. It, too, was neat and tidy.

I decided to put the two leggings together, mirror-image style:

On one of my visits to FabMo, in the good old days before the pandemic, I picked a large sheet of black silk for this very project. I now cut it to size and lay the legging pieces on top. Being hand made, they weren’t completely straight, so I tried to keep the edges as parallel to the backing as possible without cutting the leggings.

I added batting and a backing out of the same fabric, and pinned it it all together.

Then I took it to my sewing machine and sewed. I didn’t want to cut the original art, and left it as it was, imperfections, asymmetry, and all. But I did cover up a bit of the crookedness, to please the eye. 

Finally, I added a few tassels that I also bought at FabMo. By that I finished my new Hill Tribe wall hanging.

I hung the new wall hanging in its place. It fit in the room perfectly, and will be there for many years to come.

Autumn Leaves Wall Hanging

Autumn is my favorite season. It’s the time of year when the trees change color, painting the world with warm, vibrant reds and golds. The air gets cooler, sending us indoors, to warmth and fireplaces and hot chocolate.

I have a beautiful maple tree right outside my sewing room’s window. In fall it brings a reddish glow into my studio. Sewing in a warm room, a hot cup of tea at hand, admiring nature, gives me a wonderfully cozy feeling.

It always amazes me how beautiful fallen leaves are, and how unique. Because although there are millions of trees in the world, and thousands of leaves on each tree, each leaf is special and one of a kind. Just like people.

In fall, autumnal colors always creep into my work. They inspire me to make various red and yellow products, and, of course, quilts. This year, I decided to make an Autumn Leaves Wall Hanging. Below I explain how I made it. You can follow these steps to make a wall hanging of your own, or, if you prefer, a table runner.

Fall Leaf Hanging Tutorial

I started by collecting different kinds of fallen leaves during one of my neighborhood walks. I brought them to my sewing room, to use as templates.

Looking through my scrap piles, I found suitably-colored pieces, and made little quilt sandwiches out of them: a backing, batting and top. Then, I placed the actual leaf on the top fabric, and drew an outline around it.

I zigzagged along the outline, and, once done, carefully cut the leaf out along the outside of the stitch. This has to be done carefully, so as not to cut the stitching itself.

I made a little pile of leaves.

Out in the garden, I picked a dry stick. I placed it on my carpet, and started arranging the leaves beneath it. This took a while, as I wanted to reach just the right balance between colors, fabrics, shapes and sizes. (If you want to make a table runner, leave the stick part out, but still arrange your leaves in any shape you want).

Once I knew where each leave goes, I free-motion quilted details onto the leaves. I used a heavy, variegated thread for added interest.

I placed each leaf back carefully. To make sure I have a mostly-rectangular shape, I placed them onto a cutting mat and straightened them a bit. Then I carefully pinned them together.

I delicately took the pinned piece back to my sewing machine, and stitched the leaves together where they touched each other, starting from the top and going down.

When they were all connected, I hand stitched the top row around the stick.

Finally, I found a red string that one of my kids brought home as part of a school project years ago (yes, I collect things that might be useful one days, and some of them do find a new purpose, even if years later!). Viola: an Autumn Leaves Wall Hanging!

I hung this in our dining room, to enhance the autumnal feel. I love how it glows in the light!

And now, it’s time to collect the real fallen leaves out in my yard, so I can add them to my compost bin all year long!

Experimenting with Fabric Art: “Give a Hand” Art Quilt

In the last year I’ve sewn practical items for everyday life, and greatly enjoyed seeing them put to use as well as making them. However, for a long time I’ve been eager to find time for fabric art per se. I had an image in my mind: my hand, repeated in a grid, in some of my favorite colors. This week I finally found the time to actually make it:

ANY Texture Finished Give a Hand art quilt, upholstery fabric wall hanging

There is something very primal about a hand print. It was one of the first images our ancestors created on cave walls, when humans first started making art. When young children get paint for the first time, they likewise print their hands immediately. In many cultures, a print of the hand, or a “Hamse,” protects against evil. Hands are crucial for everything we do. My work is all HANDmade, and that is what makes it unique. We all have hands, and yet each person’s hands are very much their own. Hands make us the individuals that we are, yet, in their similarity, unite us into the wider web of humanity.

I decided to make an art quilt, yet break all the rules of quilting. Instead of the fine cotton fabrics usually used for quilting, I chose to incorporate the upholstery fabrics I fell in love with over the last few months.

For a long time I collected suitable pieces in my favorite colors and textures, until I had enough. Early this week I ironed double-sided interfacing to the back of the pieces, and meticulously outlined my left hand on nine different fabrics. I chose to use my actual hand and not a mold. This way each drawing turned out slightly different, yet they are all of the same thing. I cut them each out, getting a mirror-image that looks like, but is not, my right hand. I ironed them to their background, and then chose embroidery thread to go with each:

Pieces ready for applique

Next, I appliqued each and every one by hand. There is something very soothing about the repetitive motions of hand stitching. It is a wonderful stress-reliever for me, and this week, Election Week, turned out to be the perfect time to do this kind of work:

Appliqueing pieces by hand

When I finished appliqueing all the pieces, I played around with their arrangement:

Deciding on piece orger

I then settled on a pattern I liked, and machine-sewed all the pieces together, using a zigzag stitch:

Sewing the pieces together

When the entire top was finished, I “sandwiched” the piece together: top, batting and back, and set about to quilt them. Here I encountered an unexpected difficulty: the bulk of two layers of upholstery fabrics, combined with the batting and occasional seam, could not fit under my machine foot! I hadn’t planned on hand-quilting this piece, but this is exactly what I had to do.

I hand quilted a few quilts before, but this one felt a lot different. Since each piece of fabric had a different texture, stitching through each felt very distinct. The more velvety segments were easier to sew through. Others were really resistant, and required the use of much force. It didn’t take long before I had to frantically search for my various thimbles!

Hand quilting my Give a Hand art quilt

At one point my needle broke, something that never happened to me before! I had broken many a machine needles, but never a “real” one:

Hand appliqueing my quilt

I chose to quilt this work with a color-changing thread that I thought might tie all the different hues together. Originally, I planned for an elaborate quilting pattern. After the first few stitches, however, I realized that neither the color of the thread nor the pattern mattered much: unlike with quilting cottons, the upholstery fabrics seemed to have “swallowed” the thread. It mostly disappeared within the textures, drowning into them. So I changed my plans, and quilted for practical reasons only: to attach all three layers together.

Hand quilting my Give a Hand art quilt detail

The stitching itself also had to be adjusted. Due to the heaviness of the “sandwich” I had to go for much larger, far-between stitches than I would have attempted on a traditional quilt.

The result, however, turned out to be very close to what I originally had in mind.

ANY Texture Give a Hand art quilt, upholstery fabric wall hanging

The heavy fabrics give the work a significant body, and the different, delicious textures give it lusciousness that traditional quilts lack.

Finished quilt detail

This is my “Give a Hand” art quilt. I like to think of this work as a gesture of peace: a welcoming wave of “hello” many times over. An offer of help to anyone who needs it. We desperately need such gestures at this time.