Thursday, November 20, 2014

Embroidered Wallet with Matching Biz Cards

I have a friend who is an author and monster-hunter; I've mentioned him before when I made this Nessie tie for him. I like to tease Ben about remembering dates and places, since he works alone and travels extensively. Turns out, I may be underestimating his recall, especially in light of what I thought was a slam-dunk bet I lost to him recently when I challenged him to remember what state (of the Union) we both were in at a particular time. (We live in different states, and every time we have seen each other has been out of our respective home turfs.)

I must have been really confident in that bet, because I put on the line FIVE AMERICAN DOLLARS. Damn you, Arizona!

I'm Scottish, not Welsh, so I make good on my bets, no matter how minor. But I couldn't just, what, put a fiver in an envelope and send it off? What am I, an animal? No, I had to make a little card wallet for him that would fit a few (AMERICAN) bills, as well as business cards and a drivers license, just in case he wanted to take it on the road with him.

And since I was making a fabric wallet, I should go ahead and embroider it.

Ben's Card WalletAnd since I was embroidering it, I should go ahead and create a monogram/logo for him.

And since I had a monogram/logo for him, I should go ahead and make some business cards.

That's where I started.

A certain fandom among us will recognize the origin of this monogram right away. One of Ben's books, the first of his that I read, is Tracking the Chupacabra, the Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore. In it, Ben believes he "solved" the mystery of the (non-existent) chupacabra, which makes him a vampire slayer of a certain sort.

Starting with the Buffy logo (designed by the marvelous Margo Chase), I found an expanded character set, and made outline versions of Ben's initials, BTR. Knowing the logo was also going to be digitized for embroidery, I simplified the design where appropriate so the cards would exactly match.

I've covered a little about my digitizing process in my Electric Eel post. This design is 2-color only, so it was much simpler, but essentially the same process.

Little sewn projects like this are great stash-busters. There was no doubt in my mind that I had some black and red fabric stowed away, so I dug up this really cool black-on-black zebra print/texture (from a skirt I made) to use for the body of the wallet. The embroidery went down without a hitch.

Ben's Card Wallet

Embroidery accomplished, I built the wallet, using a scrap of abstract red/black fabric for the inner card pockets. The wallet itself is very simple, using only two pieces of fabric—the black for the body (folded in half on the long edge) and the red & black for the inner pocket (also folded in half on the long edge), along with some interfacing in the body. There are plenty of wallet tutorials out there if you want one, so I won't go into detail. The trickiest part, for me, was getting the size and the stitching juuuuuuust right so that the longest item to be placed in the pocket, the business cards, were held snugly.*

Ben's Card Wallet 

All my top-stitching in place, I tucked in a dozen business cards and, of course, the FIVE AMERICAN DOLLARS, and sent it on its way.

I tease Ben about not knowing what day it is, but the truth is, I finished this project and was just about to mail it off when I realized that it was also the week of his birthday. Oh! Right, um, happy birthday! I'd feel more guilty about being a crappy birthday-gift-giver, but I make things for people at random times, so hopefully the points carry over.

Ben's Card WalletOverall, a fun, uncomplicated project, with very big personal impact. I think so, anyway—I know MY socks would be knocked off if anyone made something like this for me! (Can I say that??)

*I have unintentionally used the word "snugly" in two consecutive posts. Now that I've noticed, I'm sure to have broken the string. :(

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Paul's Yeti Mug-Warmer

Paul's Yeti Mug-Warmer by shefightslikeagirl
Just a quickie.

A friend had a bday party this weekend, and I spent a good week or two thinking of what to make him...before I actually came up with an idea the night before. Typical!

(To be fair, my sewing machine was also out of commission for two weeks.)

Paul is an infamous Bigfoot aficionado, as well as a tea drinker. I'd already gotten him a Tea Rex infuser last time I was at the DIA for the Samurai exhibit (which is gorgeous, BTW — go see it as soon as plausible!) I'd also seen neat little knit/crochet mug warmers, which I thought would make a nice combo with the tea infuser. I'm not a knitter/crocheter, but I knew I could sew one.

Paul's Yeti Mug-WarmerI also knew that there were a couple of Bigfoot machine embroidery designs in my collection, from my favorite purchased embroidery source Urban Threads. The Latte Yeti was the obvious choice. As for fabric, Paul is a huntin' kinda guy, so I dug up some flannel shirt scraps I had for the main body, with a strip of felt in between for insulation.

Paul's Yeti Mug-WarmerI decided to use a self-binding technique that's often used on receiving blankets, which I've done a couple of times before. (See my embroidered placemats post for more details.) Starting with a standard mug, I measured around the body, omitting the handles, and then the full height. The flat mug warmer is about 9" x 3", which then wraps around the mug, and then is held in place with a round elastic.

Typically, one of these might be quilted as well, but it turns out to be such a small project, that between the size, the embroidery, and the plaid, quilting struck me as a little overkill.

The buttons are faux wood made from...honestly, I don't know what. Resin maybe? They were a couple I had in the Big Box O'Buttons that you know we all have.

Here's what it looks like, snuggly* around a generic/standard coffee mug. It wasn't the Bigfootiest gift he got that day, but I'm pretty sure it was the only one made by hand.

Paul's Yeti Mug Warmer

*Just fully recognized the difference between "snugly" and "snuggly," and it made my day.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Anatomy of an (Embroidered) Electric Eel

Craftster Best of 2013 Winner


I did a project this weekend which serves as a great example of the typical steps I take in order to create a machine embroidery pattern. I'm going to break it down into steps.

Step 1: Inspiration, aka, I am invited to a special event.
In this case, it's a fundraiser for the Belle Isle Aquarium, as they attempt to bring back an electric eel to the country's oldest public aquarium. When I make something for myself, it almost always starts as a special event to which I want to wear something I made. I feel positively naked without something I made.

Step 2: Research/concept.
Electric eel, that's easy. I mean, it's easy because electric eels are awesome. (That reminds me, I gotta email John that video of the electric eel accidentally killing that alligator.) Turns out, electric eels are more catfish than eel. I don't feel like I need to know the whole biology of the creatures, but I want to at least know what they look like, and what their distinguishing features are. Assumptions are the enemy. (If there is one thing in my life that defines me as a "skeptic," if not a crafter, it's that statement right there.)

So I watched a few videos, looked at a bunch of pictures, and thought about how I would represent it. I veered both literal and figurative.

I think electric, I think lights. Although cartoonists love to show them with lightning bolts and beams coming off of them, electric eels don't actually light up at all themselves. (Bioluminescence is a whole different thing — if you haven't looked into it yet, do yourself the favor! Natural bioluminescence is incredible and fascinating and gorrrrrrgeous, all at once.) However, they can be used to power lights. Every year, a new video comes out of an electric eel powering a Christmas tree (usually in Japan, dog love 'em). I love lighting things up, as is proven by the fact that I have a small drawer with 6 or 8 little LED light strings tucked away for future use. I set a couple of those aside.

My first concept was to take a western-style shirt with front yokes, and do a cartoony eel with lightning bolts embroidered on either side. Those sorts of pics kept coming up in my searches, and I even found a couple of Tesla-riding-electric-eel illustrations to choose from. To my immense shock (heh), I did not have a plain western-style shirt in my stock. (And by "stock" I mean "closet." And by "closet" I mean "the third bedroom of my house which serves as my dressing room.") I had neither the time nor the inclination to make a shirt from scratch, neither to buy one, so that idea was out.

Second thought was to do a hairpiece. I have very short hair, so putting things in my hair/on my head is always a pretty high priority. (Wait, that's not really a short hair thing is it? In any case, I do.) Since I've practiced/developed a pretty good technique for embroidering on felt, making hair decorations has become a favorite quick-and-satisfying go-to project for me. I decided on a headband. With lights.

Step 3: Illustration.
Because I was going to an aquarium to be speaking with docents and other experts, I abandoned the fanciful "electric eel" concept for the more accurate. I was a little surprised to find a couple examples of vector clip art specific to the electric eel; frankly, they are neither attractive nor especially interesting to look at. As is so often the case, personality wins out, and interested some people enough to do realistic representations. I acquired this one from Thinkstock as a vector illustration, shown here opened in Adobe Illustrator.

Electric Eel

Step 4: Color assignment.
Electric eels are brown. Just...brown. As you can see, the clip art there uses 6 different shades of grey, making the shading look more variegated than do the actual eels. At this point, I can decide whether I want to choose as many colors as I need to suit the design, or to limit the design to fit the colors available (or feasible).

I checked my grandmother's antique spool cabinet where I keep my good thread to see how many browns I had available. When it comes to thread color palettes, there are a couple of things to consider in addition to color, specifically weight and sheen. Because we're talking eel, I wanted to use only shiny threads, so I stuck with 40 weight rayon/viscose. (This is merely one of many niggling details that I will overshare.) This left me with 4 browns, plus black for the outline and details.

The background is the final significant color choice. As I said, I've had great results embroidering on felt, which is both weighty enough to stand alone, and non-raveling to allow for a clean border. I checked my stash for something maybe a watery blue...and found a stone-embossed medium grey, which struck me as a good background for this bottom-dwelling creature.

Knowing what I know about aquariums (one of the first things I look for when traveling to a new city is whether they have an aquarium where I can spend an hour or two), I anticipated the lighting to be fairly low, the bulk of the ambient light coming from within the exhibits. This would allow the browns to blend in to each other, without the whole thing getting lost in total darkness.

Step 5: Re-illustration.
With an idea of what the animal actually looks like, technical and feasible restrictions, it was time to colorize and simplify the original illustration. I've talked about using Adobe Illustrator before, and how it's one of my favorite crafting tools. It was an absolute must for me to be able to use Illustrator as a primary prep tool before starting an embroidery pattern, for this reason.

Starting with the original, I selected the areas to be colored, simplified some of the details (remember, we're talking about a 4" x 4" maximum area, and embroidery machines don't have nearly the resolution of your desktop printer), and removed overlaps. In some cases, stitching one color over another is acceptable — even desired. But what we have here is large areas of solid color on felt, with details on top of that. More than 2 layers of heavy stitching overlapped tempts a big ol' mess of broken needles and thready birdnests.

Electric Eel

Step 6: Import and edit and edit and edit.
At this point, I saved the Adobe Illustrator file from my Mac to a thumb drive to sneakernet over to my totally-unplugged-from-everything-because-it's-so-old-it-will-just-crash-everything Dell laptop, where I reopened it in Illustrator on the PC. The illustration was resized to under 4", and then reduced by another 85% for resolution reasons I don't quite understand. From there, I selected one shape at a time to copy and then paste into the embroidery software. The software I have does a great job of auto-converting a basic shape, so that's where it all starts.

Copy a shape, paste a shape, convert a shape. Next...

Then, of course, each shape is going to need ordering and tweaking. After...honestly, I don't even know how long it took because this is the part where I tend to go all zen and start fidgeting with things at 800%...and this is where we wind up in the embroidery software.

Electric Eel

This is the stitch view. One thing that is significant/fun about embroidery, vs typical graphic design, is the textures available simply by stitching the same color in a different direction. This software simulates/supports this, and so I wanted to take advantage of the option to give more dimensionality to the slippery critter.

Electric Eel

Rather chaotic, no? The panel on the right side shows the stitch sequence. It's very important that the objects are stitched in the right order; sometimes for layering, sometimes just to minimize jumps between areas. The 8th and 9th objects are simply green circles for the eyes. The 10th object is a satin stitch outline which serves as a fence for me to cut around when he's all finished.

You may also notice that black gets stitched twice, first as the background/outline, and then as additional detail. I actually used two different blacks for that — lightweight bobbin black for the background/outline, and 40wt for the details, so they'd stand up as the spines would.

The final outline was done in a grey matching the felt to give me a border to follow for trimming. Here it is all stitched out and trimmed, with green glass beads for his eyes, and human hand for scale.

Electric Eel

Step 7: Finishing.
I already had a headband picked out for this project, a two-bar deal with some scrolly connectors between. This meant it was wide enough to support what I wanted, with openings for me to stitch through.

I don't really have any photos of this step, but trust me, it's not very interesting. I had a 7-light LED string from Ikea in the drawer which I stuck through the openings, and stitched in place with regular thread. (I will never understand why people will choose messy, unreliable hot glue when hand-stitching is so much easier and non-destructive.) I wanted a fabric to go over the lights to represent water, and to diffuse the white LEDs a bit, so I chose this short-pile blue faux fur I had. A large part of that decision was down to it being what I had on hand, but additionally, the swirly pattern looked pretty cool and watery over the lights.

I hand-stitched the fabric down, trimming and ladder-stitching as I went (while watching some non-"The Thing" arctic-station-gone-wrong movie). I pulled two of the lights through a small slit in the fabric so they would be extra-bright right next to the eel, to show him off a little. Then I took a tuft of light blue tulle, of which I have several yards for completely unknown reasons, and put that down for a little splash and for something to stand the eel against. (Yeah, there are a few beads in there, too.)

Electric Eel

Here's a close up so you can see what a difference layering and varying the stitch direction makes.

Electric Eel

And his adorably alien little face.

Electric Eel

With the lights on, in a fairly accurate simulation of the light at the event.

Electric Eel

The "underwater" lights.

Electric Eel

So there you go, the anatomy of the ultimate in one-time-use wearables. Oh, it's perfectly capable of being worn again and again, but where am I going to be inspired to wear an electric eel on my head again?

hahahaha Considering that I wear eyeballs and skeletal birds in my hair on a regular basis, this is actually not so hypothetical a question...


Wednesday, March 05, 2014


Craftster Best of 2013 Winner


It's always so great to be recognized by one's fellows, and to be able to add this badge to my blog tickles me to no end.

Electric EelWhat's being honored is my machine-embroidered electric eel project, wherein, after 3 years of machine embroidery, I finally took the time to document the (or my) entire process of digitizing a project.

I didn't realize it was listed in Best of 2013 until just today, because there is SO much wonder on, that in my browsing of project after project, I genuinely forget to check back in on my own posts. If any of you reading practice any kind of crafts and are not yet a member, you should go join up. I've never met a more creative, cheerful, and most amazingly of all supportive, group of people in any other venue.

I've been posting at craftster for so long, I've actually been awarded a Best of once 2007, for this dress. Yep, I'm old skool: I've been on craftster since 2004 in fact!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Where to put all these hair decorations...

Hair Things Mount by shefightslikeagirlI just want to show this thing real quick.

I've mentioned before how much I like making things to stick in my hair. Not too long ago, it got to the point that I needed to devise some method of storing them all — in other words, how to get them all off the window sill in my bathroom.

They tend to be a little oddly-shaped to play well with most of my initial ideas, which included those cables on which you hang photos/notes, magnetic knife bars... okay, those were all of my initial ideas. So I headed to Ikea to either find a photo cable, or a better idea.

I did find the photo display, but it was pretty short and over-priced for what I was going to do with it. So I continued my trek to what is usually my ultimate Ikea destination anyway, the As-Is department.

Hair Things MountThat's where I found this big metal screen. It's about 24" x 31", and I'm not positive what it was intended for, but I suspect some sort of industrial shelving. It was <$5, so even though I couldn't see in my mind where on earth I had enough wall space for it, I grabbed it anyway, figuring I'd sort it once I got home.

The one wall that was both big enough and out of the way enough turned out to be in the hallway outside of my bedroom. So up it went.

The beauty of this solution is that it's steel, so the things which I mount with magnets stick right to it, and then the grid itself is big enough that anything with a clip on the back can just snap right on.

It's not, at this moment, the prettiest thing in the house, but it does the job perfectly. At some point, if/when I paint that back hallway (which means after the bathroom gets torn out, most likely), I'll probably paint the whole screen. But for now, it's a perfect utility solution.

Hair Things Mount
Oh, and here's a quick look at a couple of things I've made recently. The thing up there that looks like a rabbit? That's a rabbit. It was my New Year's Eve hat this year, featuring some red foil streamers (since removed) and a rabbit wearing a top hat.

Hair Things Mount
Last weekend, I made a little leather bat (on the wing) for a party at the Detroit Film Theatre, celebrating their 40th anniversary with a showing of the 1931 Spanish-language "Dracula." A bat with some red beaded droplets seemed like just the thing.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Mouse Jawbone Necklace

Mouse Jaw NecklaceYou may (or may not, really) be surprised by the huge number of results one gets by searching "taxidermy" on eBay. A lot of what you'll get is bones and skulls, cleaned and ready for whatever nefarious purposes your little mind may conjure. This is how I accidentally came across a listing for 20 mouse jaws.

As fascinating as some of the options are — have you seen a camel skull?? — I generally avoid buying things like that at a mass marketplace like eBay. Part of what I enjoy so much about my personal skull collection is how I come by them; right now the majority have been gifts, followed closely by estate sale finds, and then skull-based artworks.

But 20 mouse skulls? For $5? My curiosity got the better of me.

This is how they arrived; (mostly) cleaned, unbleached, big ol' rodent nibblers intact. I looked at them for a long time, figuring out what I was going to make of them.

Mouse Jaw NecklaceUnsurprisingly, the bone is extremely thin, particularly at the mandibular notch. Initially, I wanted to wire-wrap each jaw, but that turned out to be impossible, because I couldn't lever the wire — no matter how thin or soft — around the bone without it crumbling. Instead, I went with some pre-wrapped wire coils I had, which are made mostly to use as cord ends.

Mouse Jaw NecklaceIt was necessary to glue them in place, using a thick super glue gel, which helped to fill in the empty space and further stabilize the extra-thin part of the jawbone. Each tiny jaw had to be carefully centered and placed, and then propped up for a minute or two to allow it to set in a good position.

This was a fun way to spend a chunk of an afternoon.

Mouse Jaw NecklaceOnce they were all glued in, including any loose teeth, I attached all of them to a short length of chain, as a fall. To give the fall some visual and literal weight, I added a faceted black beaded ball which I strung on an eye pin with a metal teardrop at the bottom. That whole assembly was then attached to a silver chain, which was decorated with deep red faceted oblong glass beads, which are effectively black under most lighting. I hung the fall off-center for a little added interest.

This is a piece that has to be worn with a certain type of top. In this case, a black knit with snap-front. The chain itself is simple enough to wear with a collared shirt; it's the centerpiece that needs a frame of its own. It never fails to draw a lot of commentary when I wear it, usually including variations on, "Really? REAL mousejaws??"

Mouse Jaw Necklace
Of course! Only authentics for me!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Gma's Stash Box

My grandmother — Carol, Ma, Gramma, Grams, GG, and, I'm sure, countless other variations — died this spring, 2013, at the age of 90, a strong and hale woman her entire life, and mentally aware to the end. She was the mother of 8; grandmother, great-grandmother, and even great-great-grandmother to I don't know how many, but I'm sure she did.

Grams was a Dust Bowl/Depression kid in the Great Plains, so she knew not to waste. She was also the daughter of a seamstress, so making, remaking, and conserving were in her blood. Plus maybe a touch of the hoarding.

I was out of town for Gram's funeral. She was a materialist (and not just the quilting kind) and a realist, and, like my grandfather who died the year before, would have found a funeral to be an unnecessary fuss. Of course, we know that funerals are for the survivors, so since it wouldn't have resonated with me, and wouldn't have meant much to her, I didn't make it. That was the weekend I went to Chicago and had one of the best weekends of the past decade, and there's no question in my mind that she'd have rather had me go do that.

At my birthday party the following July, my sisters brought me a hat box full of Grandma stuff, cherry-picked from her crafting stash. I mistakenly called it, with all good humor and appreciation, a "box of random stuff" and was corrected that no, my sisters picked these things out for me intentionally. Which made it a gift not only of/from my grandmother, but also of/from my sisters. Any time you select something with me in mind, and make the effort of getting it into my hands, it's very special to me, be it a diamond ring or a wad of embroidery floss.

The party was in full swing, so after lightly looking through the bits and bobs in the hat box, I set it aside with my (increasingly out of control) crafting stash. It's been there since, visible and safe but not really explored, until last night.

Cleaning and organizing after a sewing project, I looked at the big round box and decided it was time to dig in and see what was really inside.

mostly embroidery flossI have to start with the box itself. It looks like the sort of pressed paperboard affair you'd get at a big craft store, papered on the outside with copies of old hand-written letters. Americana at its finest. And that's what it is — except these old hand-written letters were put there by my grandmother herself, photocopied from her collection of our family's history.

She wasn't only a natural lodestone for history; she went out and did the research herself. As a kid, I remember a regular topic of conversation being what new things Grandma had discovered about our family. And really, most of it not even her family, but rather my grandfather's line, the one she'd married into. But it mattered to her not because it was her blood in the past, but because it was important to her blood in the future.

I don't know much else about the way-back of my family, but because of her work, I do know I have unbroken documentation back to the American Revolution, when a young Hessian soldier named Kasper, hired by the British, decided these Colonials were on to something, and defected. He changed his name, married an American girl, and settled in to family life in Tennessee.

Just like that, we became German.

Before Gram's research, we'd thought for generations that we were Scottish — the current form of my last name is Scottish. But a couple centuries of re- and mis-spellings back, our last name was about as German as it gets without umlauts.

yours trulyThe letters on the outside of this box are, as much as I can read them, mundane letters between family members — mundane until I take a moment to reflect that one of them is from 1881, and the original was in my grandmother's possession. I'm embarrassed to say that I'd never taken much interest in the research and documentation that she did, but I'm also happy to be able to say that she did it, we have it, and you can bet I'll be looking through all of it soon.

True to the labeling on the outside, the box mostly held embroidery floss and silk ribbon. I already have too much of the stuff myself, and none of it was especially precious. I set that aside and dug for better treasure.

Gramma did a lot of beadweaving, what she called "tatting" from the old lace-making practice she and her mother both enjoyed. Over the years, she'd given me pounds and pounds of her excess beads, especially when she got older and working with the tiny seed beads I love became increasingly difficult. In the box were not only a few small zipper bags of glass beads, but a couple small strips of worked netting and right-angle weave. There's no real indication where these pieces were going, so I don't know if they were projects that were forgotten, or maybe just bits of practice. In my beadweaving days, it wasn't unusual for me to aimlessly fiddle with bead and thread to practice, learn, or keep myself busy. I've never had to wonder where I got this tendency from, but holding those pieces in my hand was a solid reminder.

I found one of these unfinished objects, a long, light blue netted strip, in what I recognized as a box made from a greeting card. Reduce, reuse, remake, I told ya. As any crafter would, Gram had her share of specialty plastic storage, but I can't count how many small bundles of beads I got from her closed up in little boxes she made from Christmas and birthday cards she'd gotten. After fondling the silky netted strip (my love of the feel of woven glass beads continues!) I looked inside the boxlid and noticed handwriting in pencil. So I unfolded it:

Dear G.G.,
Thank you very much for the picture and the lucky $2 bill. I will cherish it, carry it where I go, and never spend it. I wish I could explain how thankful I am, and how much I love you. I will tell my mom to take me to visit you, very soon. I love you!
(heart) Junior

This changed the timbre of everything I was doing.

Up to this point, I was really just organizing my stash, pushing things around, seeing how much of the stuff in this box I could actually use. Then, there in my hand was what in a hundred years someone would consider another mundane letter between family members — except that these family members span four generations, and they're my family, the family I know.

"Junior" is my nephew, although doesn't call himself Junior any more. He's Daniel now, and is in his 20s. He wrote this card as a young teenager, maybe a little before (there's no date anywhere on the card).

"G.G." is, of course, my grandmother, his great-grandmother: his mother's mother's mother.

I took a quick iPhone pic of the note and MMSed it to my sister. She messaged me a few minutes later, after she also sent the picture to Daniel. "He still has the $2," she told me.

Of course he does.

I asked my sister if she wanted the card, which seemed pretty obvious to me. We don't see each other often, although we only live about 20 miles apart. I offered to put it in the mail for her, which seemed to me the most efficient way to effect the transfer. She responded, "What are you doing for lunch Friday?"

•  •  •

Last week, I spent some time in Philadelphia, marveling at historical documents by people — families — who shaped that city, and ultimately the country, our culture. People I had never heard of, yet instinctively respected as I looked at the thin lines from their fountain pens.

My family has a record, too, written and unwritten, which shapes our country and culture: from a young soldier who followed his conscience, to a teenaged boy who unreservedly told his GG how much she meant to him.

The materials from Gram's stash box will get used. I learned enough from her to know that I shouldn't let anything go to waste.

And Friday, I'm having lunch with my sister for the very same reason.

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