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Patterns Reworked: Yarn Sewing Edition

This week Kelsey is showing you how to transform two of my wool applique patterns into designs for yarn sewing. The final result is still folky, but it creates a different look that seems so old. Enjoy!


Yarn sewing is an old technique—it’s said to have come before rug hooking, and it’s a rare technique even in our material history. There are a few examples at Old Sturbridge Village, which is where our friend Kathy Wright learned how to do it in a class there. She was hooked after that, and has made plenty of her own pieces. She lent us her expertise for our book, Exploring Folk Art with Wool Applique and More.

As someone who loves hand-stitching, especially embroidery, I was very intrigued by this art form. It’s basically all satin stitching but with beautiful yarns that you use to fill your fabric. I decided to try my hand at it, and used some of Rebekah’s designs (one from the book and one of her Stitching Smalls) to create some yarn-sewn pieces. This post will not explain the basics of yarn sewing, as those are covered in the book, but is meant to give tips on converting patterns as well as some finishing ideas that are different from what’s in the book.

Yarn sewing is done on a base fabric of rug hooking linen or weaver’s cloth. If your yarn is extra chunky, I suggest using rug hooking linen. I used hand-dyed yarn from Prairie Moon Primitives in Oklahoma. You can use any wool yarn you might find at a local yarn shop. Find out more about the tools and supplies in Exploring Folk Art with Wool Applique and More.


"King of the Sea" Reworked

To begin small, I made the Stitching Smalls King of the Sea pattern into a little hanging yarn-sewn piece. This pattern comes with the pattern pieces broken apart so that they are easier to cut out for wool applique, as opposed to being put in their final positions. I found that the easiest way to create the final outlines was to cut out paper patterns of the pieces and trace them onto your base fabric with a permanent marker. Start with the outline of the whale, leaving a 1 1/2” border of the base fabric on all sides. Lay out the inside pieces so that they are where you want them, and then start at one end and trace them in place.

To finish the whale, I folded the outside edges underneath and glued them with fabric glue. Where the tail comes very close to the spout, I had to cut it pretty narrowly, but the stitches almost hold themselves in. I glued the narrow sections carefully with the fabric glue. I then pinned the whale to some felt, cut around to create a backing, and whip stitched it on. I could still see some of the rug hooking linen on the edge, so I just took a strand of the border color yarn, whip stitched that all the way around the piece with a dark thread, and it created a beautiful, sharp finish.


"A Place for Pieces" Reworked

This pattern is printed in the book to look like the final product, so tracing it onto the weaver’s cloth was very simple and didn’t require piecing things together. Yarn sewing this piece was a little more challenging. I used the more traditional technique of outlining the shapes in most cases, and it worked well, but in some places I used more directional stitching. Don’t be afraid to try different directions or pull out a few stitches so you get the look you want. Make sure to do the important motifs, and do the background filling in last.

I did not glue the weaver’s cloth behind for this piece, but sewed it into a pillow, stuffed with yarn and other fabric scraps (yarn scraps make great stuffing!). If you are skilled in machine sewing, you can machine sew around the outside and leave a place to stuff it. I am not the best at machine sewing, so for me, I had more control by hand stitching around the outside. It’s not a huge piece, and it actually gave me a nice, close seam. However, you could still see a tiny bit of the weaver’s cloth, so I decided to add a border.

For the border, I took some more of the yarn I used in the design and stitched it around the outside, much like I did the whale. I looped it and pinned it into place (see photo) and then whip stitched around the outside in a dark thread, making sure to secure the loops in place. This took some extra time, but the finish is so folky and fun that it was worth it!

Tips for choosing a pattern to convert to yarn sewing:

  • Start with a simple pattern if you’ve never done yarn sewing before.

  • The small, sharp points are the hardest part to get to look right, so if you are thinking about converting one of Rebekah’s designs into a yarn sewn piece, choose something with more rounded shapes, or modify any small points into a more rounded end.

  • Stay away from trying to do thin lines—any lines should be at least one stitch-width wide (like the heart outline or the flower outline in the Place for Pieces pattern). Delicate stems or outlines won’t work with yarn sewing, unless you can make them wider without it throwing the balance of the design off.

  • Rebekah is happy to see you modify a pattern you have purchased from her into a different technique. However, not all designers like that, so make sure you ask permission!

  • Remember that even if you modify the pattern, Rebekah retains the copyright, so please do not sell anything you make based on one of Rebekah’s patterns.

  • We do love to see you share what you’ve made, however! Make sure you credit Rebekah by tagging her on Facebook or Instagram. You can also use #rebekahlsmith.

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