TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A World of Appliqué

Appliqué is a technique shared by many needle workers around the world. A challenging skill to learn, many stay away from it, or at least from the hand-worked version. There are plenty of short cuts out there to help give a similar effect through use of adhesives and the sewing machine. I happen to enjoy the process of feeling the fabric take shape under my needle.

The basic technique involves securing a top layer of fabric on to a bottom one using tiny stitches. This little video on YouTube deomonstrates it quite well:

I actually stitch in the opposite direction from what is shown in this video. I take the needle down through the top layer and come up through the bottom. We each have to find what works best for us, but I feel like I have more control this way.

Hawaiian quilts are a much loved expression of this technique. They normally involve two huge pieces of whole cloth that are attached together, with the top one being the appliquéd design. They are challenging because of their immense size. The design is cut much like a snowflake pattern would be out of paper. Fabric is folded into four or more folds, with the shape drawn out so that it is consistent throughout the piece. One way to control the piece is to cut and secure down as you go. Australian blogger, Anna Spiro, documented some Hawaiian quilts she saw in a trip she took in 2007. Her blog, Absolutely Beautiful Things, is absolutely beautiful and a must visit! She is an interior designer with an eye for the truly lovely in life. Here are a couple of her Hawaiian quilt photos:

The Hmong of Laos and Vietnam have long used appliqué in their garments and textiles. Thousands came to the United States as refugees after the Vietnam war and their needle work soon became visible at festivals, church bazaars and quilt shows. The pandau is a gorgeous example of appliqué at its best:

When the Hmong first began selling their needlework here in the West, many found their colors garish and loud. The above example is the result of their understanding of the American preference for a softer palette. I have a vintage baby carrier that has faded with age, but which shows the intensity of work in their traditional pieces:

I saw a booth similar to this one by Hmong Needlework at the quilt show.

I desperately wanted to buy from them as their work was top quality with great colors. The American taste for bland colors is changing. The pieces I saw were vibrant and absolutely gorgeous. They were made locally by Hmong living in Michigan. Unfortunately, buying from local artists for re-sale is not feasible as the market would not bear the prices. Those of us who carry these textiles for sale need to make our profit margin, so we still depend on sources overseas for our supply. Most local vendors don't have the computer skills to get their wares to larger audiences and show fees have increased yearly, making it harder for them, too. A Catch-22.

Another Australian blogger, Melanie Gray Augustin, lives in Japan and documents her life there with her excellent blog, Kimono Reincarnate. Those Australians sure are a creative bunch! Melanie visited North Vietnam in 2007. She has a nice piece on indigo work done by the Hmong there:

The indigo fabric is hand spun, dyed and decorated with appliqué. Visit her blog for more photos and the description of her trip.

The Learning Support Services of the University of Wisconsin/Madison has a nice section on Hmong Textile Arts. This illustration shows some of the symbolism in their needlework:

Many other needle workers around the world use their skills to make products that cater to the Western market. I buy these pillows from a friend who imports from India:

Available in my eBay store for $15

These pillows are made by cutting into the top layer of fabric and stitching it down. This is often referred to as cutwork appliqué. Buying from these artisans helps them continue to maintain their traditional village life, working at home or in groups with other women.

When thinking of appliqué, we refer to the design being added on as fabric on fabric. Another appliqué technique involves revealing the fabric underneath as the design. This is called reverse appliqué. Molas from the Kuna People of the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama are the best example of this technique.

In this example, the top layer of fabric is the orange:

The green is the bottom fabric. The other colors are appliqued on top as accents. Molas are wild in color and theme. I love them and have a bunch listed in my Etsy store and will have many more there soon.

They are often humorous:

Appliqué is definitely time consuming and labor intensive. But, if the stitches are done well (close together and tightly), the textile becomes durable, able to wear and wash well. I have seen poorly stitched pieces from Pakistan that fall apart if washed. I learned that many of the ones I saw were made by elderly widows with poor eye sight.

Just be informed of what you purchase and what you will use it for. And, if you sew, do not be intimidated by appliqué! It goes quickly once you get the rhythm.

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