Barbara Howell describes her use of a beautiful, yet often neglected fabric. Delving into her past works of art, she also gives suggestions for use, in the hope of bringing velvet back from the underground
I must confess that I am a fabricoholic and I just love velvet. I have used it a lot in my work and want to encourage its use. I usually say I am an embroiderer who makes quilts but I had done a lot of dressmaking before straying into the more decorative uses of fabric and stitch. Here I shall describe the way I have used velvet in each of the pieces illustrated and some of the things I have learned along the way. Let me tempt you to have a go maybe you have an old item of velvet clothing you can play with and often you can find sample books of velvet that are not too heavy. I subscribe to the idea that patchwork can be an economy art and that we ought to recycle more fabric as the early patchworkers did!
The reason I used velvet in this quilt is that it was the only fabric I had in my stash in the colour of rust. I had agreed to make a quilt to enter in the Skopos challenge and when the challenge fabric arrived the design was so fragmented that the only thing I could think of was to make a mosaic. I had taken some photographs of mosaic floors in the Birmingham Museum. The scale was just right for a quilt. It was well received in the Bath exhibition and I was told that visitors wanted to touch the velvet which had risen up like bubble wrap. I used manmade dress velvet whereas the remainder of the quilt was mostly furnishing fabric. The method I used to appliqué it was to place a large piece of the fabric face down on the table, cover with the background fabric face down, and then place a paper drawing on top before pinning and tacking. The next stage is to stitch through the layers along the drawing then cut back the velvet close to the stitching. All this was done by ordinary machining. Moving to free machining, I stitched circles to fill up the velvet petals and worked extra rows of stitching around each circle I think that this is what made the velvet puff up.
This little piece was a long time in the making. It started off as an experiment to use space-dyed fabric, embellishing it with pattern darning into the weave. I had stitched an interesting texture, with minimal colouring, on the background but got no further. It had been in a pile of UFOs for some time when I decided that it needed a fabric frame. I found some of my space-dyed velvet and cut a small cardboard template resembling waves. I tacked strips of the velvet around the work and used the template to stitch a fairly regular shape of waves all around. This was free machining but it did not matter if the waves differed slightly. After cutting away the surplus, I couched one of my space-dyed threads to cover the raw edges of the velvet. Repeating the process, using a paler shade of the velvet and more thread.
From time to time, when I have a new idea for a technique, I go back to my pictures of rugs from the Middle East for a design. Having decided I wanted to make a quilt from velvet, I chose this simple grid for the central field. I space dyed pieces of cotton velvet there are instructions for this right. Using a light wadding, I quilted the pieces taking the opportunity to practise new ideas for free machine quilting. I used different linear patterns but about the same density of quilting throughout. I cut up the quilted velvet into seven-inch squares and then arranged them in a rectangle, grading the colours so that they melded into each other a bit like a colour wash. I stitched the squares using half-inch seams of course the quilted fabric is thick. (You will also find hints on seaming velvet to velvet.) I followed the design of the rug border and stitched the border to the grid of squares. I then treated this as a quilt top and used more of the thin wadding to make the quilt sandwich, with minimal quilting.
The picture of the rug from which I took the design that I used for this quilt had been one that I had looked at many times over a period of eight years and continuously rejected because, although I really liked the horizontal rows of pattern, I could not think of a good way to translate the big flowers. I dont know where the thought came from but I decided to try bleaching the pattern out of strips of velvet. It worked and you will find some hints about the process in the how to... section. It worked so well I decided I could use the technique for the rows of squares on point and was fascinated to find that some of my navy coloured velvet bleached to strong yellow and even a fawn colour. I embellished the velvet with embroidery before piecing the strips with a variety of other strips. For the border, I found two colours of lightweight needlecord. I appliquéd the triangles and machined the zigzag design though strips of the two fabrics before cutting one away and decorating the edge.
While I was writing my book about using Celtic sources for modern textiles I came across a heavily illustrated page in the Lindisfarne Gospels. I was taken aback by the way simple squares were used at the corners and decided that I could use the technique I had devised for Gebbeh. To strengthen the shapes I applied some purchased braid over the seams. But, these were for the corners and I had to find something to go in the middle a square knot worked in shadow appliqué, was the solution.
Celtic knots are a great favourite of mine and the design for this one is a simple one - three repeats of a shape. One of the things I love to do is to create a fabric by using a variety of machine embroidery techniques, with a good variety of fabrics and threads, piled on top of each other overworked to such an extent that it is hard to see which motifs I used. I call this my over the top (OTT) embroidery. It makes a very firm fabric. For this cushion top I placed a piece of dress velvet (amply big enough for the top including the edge and turnings) face down and smoothed it out. Next, face down again, with the OTT fabric centrally placed, and over that a paper with the design drawn on it. Using many safety pins, I prepared it for the machining and stitched around the design with a small stitch. I do not like to use a frame with velvet but the firm, OTT fabric and the paper help to hold the work safely. The technique is a form of reverse appliqué so I needed to cut away the velvet from within the shapes, close to the stitching to reveal the heavily worked OTT fabric also to cut away the surplus OTT fabric from the reverse. I used a close zigzag in a thread matching the velvet to neaten edges. I emphasised the triangular shape by couching a thread half an inch away form the cut shape. This would work with a piece of firm furnishing fabric perhaps you could embellish it in some way.
This piece was too late to be included in my book. Once again, I kept looking at the design while working on ideas from Celtic sources, but was unable to come up with a technique. The Pictish motif was found carved in stone near Inverness and can now be seen in the British Museum. Eventually, when the idea came it was very simple. I quilted the line drawing onto a spaced-dyed velvet remnant with some thin wadding. The first stage was to stitch the design; I worked through paper from the reverse, with the presser foot on for accuracy. After the paper was removed I made the usual quilt sandwich and using a darker thread for a narrow close satin stitch, I quilted along the lines of the design. The border is also a Pictish motif.
The pile of the velvet often makes the two layers of fabric creep in different directions. Do some experiments first. Use any of the following ideas alone or together:
Dont be mean with your seam allowance I usually say half an inch. Often the velvet frays but you might be glad of a little extra fabric if the pile does creep a fraction. You can trim it off when you are happy. Remember that if you intend to quilt in the ditch, it is easier if the turnings are pressed open and a little extra seam allowance facilitates this.
Be aware of the pile. Stroke the velvet and you should be able to distinguish three different directions:
The velvet catches the light differently according to these directions.You can use these to your advantage sometimes, for example one of my bags uses four squares of needlecord cut on the bias so that the lines make an X shape.
If you are cutting out from one piece of fabric it is worth chalking arrows on the reverse of the fabric whilst you have it all in one piece. Even so, you may need to stroke the fabric to decide which way the pile runs. The strongest colour effect is against the grain as if you were stroking the cat the wrong way. Most times, in patchwork this matter of pile direction is not vital but you need to be aware of it.
I save my dyeing for a day when I can work outside. I dye cotton velvet and I usually overlock the raw edges beforehand to reduce the amount of loose pile that comes away. As regards a vessel, it really depends on how much you need to dye! I have some old oven trays that I generally use but I have resorted to using a large sheet of thick polythene on the path. I use Procion dyes which are the same as cold water Dylon. Use the Dylon recipe to mix small quantities of the dye. Three colours are enough because they blend to make other colours. I wash the velvet in the washing machine on a short programme (no soap) to make sure it is thoroughly damp. Then having spread out the damp velvet, I pour on the dye in a random way and it works its magic. When the proper time has elapsed, I rinse the velvet thoroughly under the cold tap until the water is virtually clean then I wash the velvet in the washing machine, with soap this time, and after a really good shake, I peg it on the line to dry. When dry, I use a scrubbing brush to smooth out the pile. Remember to wear your rubber gloves and an apron. Washing soda can be used to fix the dye.
I use coloured cotton velvet, and before I start in earnest, I cut off a small piece of the velvet to see if it will discharge. I use household bleach neat from the bottle. It is best to work outside because of the fumes. For the sample I just dribble a little bleach on the velvet and wait to see what happens. Some fabric does not want to part with its colour. With others, the colour that results is a surprise like the yellow and fawn that appeared from the navy velvet in Balluch. If it does not give a result I pin the trial to the remainder of the fabric with a note that it is the unsuccessful bleach trial.
But lets be positive if there is a good result from the chosen velvet and I have overlocked the edges, how do I make a pattern? I have various methods:
Next, I wait for the bleach to do its work and as soon as the effect I want is achieved I put the velvet under the cold tap for a while. When I have done this for all the velvet I intend to bleach, I wash it all in the washing machine no soap and dry and finish it as described for the space-dyed velvet. Some people recommend using various chemicals for neutralising the bleach but I am satisfied that this rinsing and washing is adequate. Remember to wear your rubber gloves and a waterproof apron.
I was an embroiderer before I came to quiltmaking and one of my favourite samples was a piece of orange coloured dress velvet that I machine embroidered in a round frame. The round frame dictated that it would need a circular mount and so I tend to avoid using a frame for velvet now, so as to keep my options open. I took a simple lily shape and stitched its outline in straight stitch with the foot on the machine for accuracy. Then, having changed to free machining and with a wide zigzag stitch, I flattened all the pile around the flower, going as far as the hoop would let me. I used a variegated thread. When the work was released from the frame the flower stood proud of its surroundings and I tucked in some scraps of filling, trapunto-wise behind the flower. Try what the Americans call bobbin work and couching by hand or machine. The bull is really just embroidery, in that the close zigzag is more than a quilting stitch.
Personally, I am delighted that these two loves of mine quiltmaking and embroidery seem to be coming more closely entwined.
See Barbara's website, Barbara Howell for more details of her work.
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