A Gift of Nature in Fabric and Embroidery


I am so enjoying my new role as Quilting Arts Magazine editor and am excited to be joining the Quilting Daily team. There are so many tips, tricks, and techniques I'm looking forward to sharing with you, and I hope you'll share back on my blog.

I thought I'd start off today with a technique that's one of my favorites: capturing birds in fabric and free-motion machine embroidery.

Although we've been experiencing a rather mild winter so far here in New England, I know the snow and cold are coming.

denegre birds
Quilted and free-motion stitched bird portraits, featured in Quilting Arts Gifts 2009/10.

Gray skies and bare branches can look bleak, but fortunately in these parts songbirds are plentiful in every season, and I frequently get to experience the thrill of spotting a bright red cardinal perched on a snowy branch or a chickadee flitting by the window.

The more closely I watch these beautiful birds, the more fascinated I have become with trying to capture their colors and textures using fabric and thread.

I have developed a technique to "capture the moment" in cloth and free-motion machine embroidery.

I wrote up my technique for the 2009/2010 issue of Quilting Arts Gifts and I also demonstrated it on Episode 801 of "Quilting Arts TV."

Here is the basic overview.

1. Use the pattern provided in the tutorial or a simple drawing (I like to use ones found in coloring books) and trace it onto tracing paper.

2. Trace each individual piece of the cardinal separately onto the dull side of freezer paper.

3. Roughly cut out your pattern pieces and iron them onto the right side of your chosen fabrics.

4. Cut out each pattern piece on the marked line.

5. Carefully peel the pattern pieces from the fabrics. Place each fabric piece onto the traced pattern.

6. Glue the bird together, beginning with the body and wing.

7. While the bird is drying, make your background; cut, glue, and stitch it in place.

8. Place the bird on the background exactly where you want it. Attach with a bit of glue and iron. Then machine stitch. Free-motion machine embroidery adds depth and detail to your bird. You could also add details with hand embroidery. I sometimes use hand embroidery techniques to sketch in the bird's features and add texture to branches and feathers.

9. Embellish with beads, etc., as desired.

denegre cardinal
Plaid fabric and machine embroidery add interest and depth.

Fabric Selection Tips

There are many considerations in choosing fabrics for small compositions. Keep the following in mind:

Loosely-woven fabrics are more likely to fray and should be avoided.

Textures and geometric designs in fabrics often add interest and suggest movement when used appropriately.

Your composition will be examined closely-give the viewer something interesting and unexpected.

Scraps are your friends. Look at large- and small-scale fabric prints for transitions of color, shading, and feather pattern.

You can find the full directions and the pattern for this project on the Quilting Daily community under 'QATV' Patterns, Projects and Tips.

But did you also know you can download the entire Quilting Arts Gifts issue to your computer? Most of our back issues, WorkshopTM videos, and special issues are available for download, so you can get instructions and get creating-quick as a bird.

Happy bird watching!


P.S. Do you use bird motifs in your fiber art? What's your favorite avian subject? Leave a comment below.


Blog, Embellishing, Hand Embroidery, Machine Embroidery

18 thoughts on “A Gift of Nature in Fabric and Embroidery

  1. Welcome and happy New Year!!! I tend to use birds seasonally… Winter cardinals, summer and spring song birds/finches, and my all time favorite…autumn ravens! Liven me some cardinals right now!!

  2. I NEVER get tired of songbirds – we love our pine grosbeaks, nuthatches, and chickadees in winter. Very brave little birds to weather all the storms at this altitude!

  3. Welcome! What a wonderful way to start the New Year! I use birds in just about everything I create in Art Quilts. You can see some examples of my work, by visiting my new website: Gingham Leaf Designs.com and opening the ‘Just for Fun’ tab.

  4. Using birds in my work is, it seems, where I naturally head with my ideas. I always have a camera at the ready for quick shots of a flicker who visits my yard and the collection of little nuthatches and chickadees who flutter into the yard year round. A walk just blocks from my home is along the flyway for migrating birds…always someone in traveling through. Then I sketch from my photos and finally dig through the stash for just the perfect fabrics…or I get out the dye-pot and make that perfect piece to make my birds dome to life in an art-quilt. Nice to have you at the helm! Looking forward to your writing ….Kristin

  5. Vivika,
    Congratulations on your new role as editor! I’ve enjoyed your seeing your work on your blog and hope we’ll see more of it.
    I love birds, and did use them frequently in my work until last year . . . that’s when the new TV series “Portlandia” premiered (which is very popular here in Oregon!). In one episode, a character quips “Put a bird on it, and call it ‘art’!” and that made me hyper-aware of the popularity of bird motifs everywhere and on everything. While I still love birds (and occasionally still use them in my work), I can’t help repeating “Put a bird on it!” whenever I see that familiar silhouette. Here’s the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XM3vWJmpfo

  6. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your step by step to arrive at this wonderful bird! Up until now my birds have been rather whimsical unless embroidered by hand. This is just what I had in mind for a more realistic look. Thanks so much for the information,I will be putting it to good use! The backyard inhabitants here in central Indiana are Cardinal,Goldfinch,Oriole,a few varieties of Woodpecker , Robins and if I’m very lucky Bluebirds and an awesome pair of some type of water Cranes that like the stream in the cow pasture. I sit on the porch swing with my binoculars and stare, wishing I had any talent at all as a photographer! C’mon Spring!!

  7. My birds:
    1. Folk art turkey with men’s ties for tail
    2. Hauty broderie perse bird with “Mother-in-law” embroidered around it and the wide border in heavily embroidered crazy quilting
    3. Full size of my conure (think big parakeet) with some of her real feathers. (Originally was named Picasso, but when ‘he’ laid 3 eggs the name was changed to Polly.)
    4. A white peacock where the eyes of the tail feathers are folded white roses.
    5. My own paper pieced patterns of hen, rooster and egg.

  8. My goodness, so many people use birds in their quilts! I wish we could see them all here. To answer a few questions:
    *I don’t use fusible because I don’t want to waste fabric. Small amounts of white glue (actually, just a few drops) work fine for me. However, if fusible is your glue of choice, then go for it!
    *I am sure that there are copyright issues with some coloring books, and I would suggest tracing only copyright free images. I believe Dover publishes books for that purpose.
    *Yes, I’ve seen the Portlandia video “Put a bird on it!” and it has become one of my favorite sayings…

    Thank you all for your kind words of welcome!

  9. I love my backyard “pets” – they’ll eat almost anything I put out for them and I don’t have to clean up after them! To date we’ve logged 28 different varieties in our yard, including a pileated woodpecker, and their antics provide countless hours of amusement to my family and me.

    I’ve always been a cat person, so for me to make the swing to birds is quite remarkable! I started using bird images in my mixed media work about a year ago, well after the “crow” themed mania began. I’ve collected quite a few bird rubber stamps, all ‘natural’ looking, which is my main criteria. I love the different bird colors, but their shapes are captivating to me – the stiff backed blue jay, the round bellied Carolina wren, the elegant head of the nuthatch. I’m planning a series of bird related projects this year and will add your article to my technique folder. Thanks so much for sharing!

  10. If you're looking for some ideas for handmade quilted gifts , I want to remind you of three of my favorites. Two are make-in-day projects. One is a little more involved, but worth the time, I think.

  11. The more closely I watch birds, the more fascinated I have become with trying to capture their colors and textures using fabric and stitchery . I have developed a design and sewing technique for "capturing the moment" in cloth and quilting stitches