Having grown up in the woods of Connecticut, bird stories in my family abound. There was once a woodpecker that confused my grandparent’s aluminum siding with wood, and hammered away at it (loudly) every morning at dawn for weeks. There was a saw whet owl that, one winter, perched in an evergreen outside my mother’s bathroom window, hooting for his mate. We all hoped he’d return. And my grandmother, lover of hummingbirds, did everything in her power to lull them into her yard. She planted gladiolas and electric begonias. She filled red feeders with nectar. She carved out small spaces for them to hover and drink.
For years I’ve been meaning to try fabric sculpture, so I was thrilled to see that The Artful Bird featured a perched woodpecker, and an expressive owl. I was hoping to find a hummingbird pattern as well, but as I fast discovered, sewing tiny pieces of fabric together isn’t easy, and sewing a hummingbird would require magnifying glasses and immeasurable patience.
Abby’s book covers the depth of materials, tools, and instructions needed to create the birds in her book, as well as any bird pattern that you wish to create yourself. There are 40 bird projects and patterns, plus a gallery of guest artists, a stitch guide, and a resources section for finding specialty tools, stuffing, tapes, and wire.
Even though I have a queue of bird project possibilities, I spotted Abby’s penguin pattern and knew that it would be my first art bird. I appreciate starting with the penguin for two main reasons: 1). The color palette was simple. 2). I know someone who loves and collects penguins, and I pour everything into a project when I know it has a recipient. I went to my local crafter’s reuse facility, SCRAP, and dug around for black, white, grey, and yellow fabric. For this project, I enjoy relying on the spontaneity of what might be found at SCRAP instead of purchasing new materials.
The pattern pieces for all the birds in the book aren’t large, so many small scraps will do, and—bonus—you needn’t worry about fabric grain because Abby promises that grain variety only adds to the individuality and character of each bird.
I washed and pressed all my chosen fabrics. I traced the photocopy pattern onto freezer paper with a sheet of blue carbon paper in between; this wasn’t the best idea since the carbon tends to smudge a bit, and rubbed off onto the white fabric I had found. I had a small hiccup when I realized one part of the bird needed to be enlarged–my own oversight. I used Photoshop to enlarge to the proper proportion, and re-cut my piece. This wasn’t difficult, but it would have been easier while I was standing at a copy machine.
Cutting, pinning, and sewing the body was straightforward, and I followed Abby’s directions throughout. I referred back to the Basic Birdmaking Techniques, especially with the neck, where I struggled to get my seams smooth.
I thought I had selected thick white fabric for the penguin’s belly, but the inside edges are somewhat visible once the bird was fully stuffed. Speaking of stuffing, next time I will certainly source Abby’s recommended wool stuffing. I used the polyfill that you can find nearly everywhere, but it is slippery, hard to pack in, and its micro-threads popped through the fabric of the bird. I have gone over it several times with a lint roller, and a pill remover with only passable results. It’s also really easy to puncture through your stitches when stuffing the bird. I reinforced a couple spots along the way, and I did have to close a gap at the top of the head to smooth out a buckle.
The feet were my big challenge. In my stubborn, use-what-I-have mentality, I made the whole bending-of-feet part very difficult on myself. Abby’s instructions are clear, easy to follow, and make sense. She recommends 16-gauge brass wire. Well, I had 22-gauge silver wire, which was too light weight, and I had 12-gauge wire that is made for rewiring your “wireless” cable system, or something. What can I say? It was in the garage, and it was GO TIME for penguin feet! Lesson learned. Bending 12-gauge insulated wire with petite jewelry-making tools is like mixing chocolate chip cookie dough with a fork—doable, but irritating. As a result, my bird has out of proportion ankles. But nonetheless, they work! The armature of the feet is genius: the feet are essentially a giant bobby-pin and the bend extends up into the bird’s neck area. This design allows for great balance of the bird, and I suspect if I’d used Abby’s recommended stuffing, the bird would perch even more easily, due to solidly packed wool stuffing and the overall weight of the wool.
The only real divergence I made in this penguin was a bit of fun fabric on the inside of the wings. I’ve had this Route 66 road sign fabric for a while, and it wasn’t until I cut it out that I spied the “I Love Lucy” ® heart that was scattered into the pattern. (“Lucy’s Hollywood at Last” by Quilting Treasures). This penguin is headed to a new home soon, where she’ll be greeted by a host of smaller penguins that protect a stretch of woodwork in our Auntie’s home. I’ve been promised that all penguins are welcome in Sacramento, and I’ll get to visit Lucy on occasion.
I think The Artful Bird is for an intermediate sewist who has experience with following patterns, a sewist who has patience for smaller pieces, a bird lover who can commit to a detailed craft, or anyone who wants the tools to craft their own favorite bird. Trying one of Abby’s patterns will dramatically increase your confidence in making a fabric sculpture of any kind, especially one that requires an armature for support. All that said, Abby’s chapter on Birdmaking Techniques is really superb, and will surely guide an intrepid beginning sewist through to bird completion.
Abby writes regularly at whileshenaps.com. Every Wednesday she releases a podcast about crafting, sewing, and the business of a creative life. My favorite is her chat with Ann Wood, who makes sculptural fabric owls and ships and other woodland curiosities. Abby is very transparent about her craft business, which is refreshing and unbelievably helpful in these competitive waters. And she is honest about the joy and pain of writing, creating, and publishing a book.
Thank you, Abby Glassenberg, for sharing the tools to help me create my own artful aviary, to encourage ignorance of fabric grain, and to be so willing to discuss the business of crafting in a intelligent, exciting, and transparent way.
PS: It’s midsummer, and I’m going to press pause on artcraftnarrative.com until my kids are back in school. Please come back in August for my report from ALA Las Vegas (upcoming craft & creativity books!), more craft projects (grey denim owls!), and book reviews.