Sewing Techniques for the Birds

28 Apr 2011

fabric birdspokey boltonWe always get feedback on the artwork in our publications, but some themes and projects resonate more than others.

Animal themes always get a big response from our readers (and, you may have noticed, your humble Quilting Arts editors who love their dogs and frogs). Birds are particularly popular. We always receive bird-themed entries to our challenges and get requests for bird quilt patterns and projects.

One wildly popular project has been premiere Quilt Scene publication. People went so crazy over them, we asked Terry to bring them to the "Quilting Arts TV" audience in Series 600, where she shared sewing technique and assembly tips.

With the sound of birds chirping all around me and hopping about as they look for fibers and found materials to make their nests, I thought it would be a good time to ask Terry some questions about her fabric bird process and share the answers with you.

Q. Why are birds so popular among artists?

A. I don't know about other artists, but I find birds so appealing because they are such joyful creatures, and so accessible. They represent nature and the beauty around us. I watch the birds outside my window and on my morning walks. Seeing them swooping and fluttering fills my heart with gladness.

QATV fabric birdsQ. What do you take into consideration when making the bird patterns?

A. Proportion is key. These birds, for the most part, are not being made to look like any specific species of bird, but I like them to look "natural" not like cartoon birds. Then the most fun part is fabric choice. My choices are never realistic. The birds are a great opportunity to make different prints play happily together. I like harmonious but unexpected combinations.

Q. Do you sketch your designs before creating a pattern for the birds?

A. Yes, lots of sketches went into the original pattern design.

Q. How have the birds evolved, if at all, and why?

A. The basic bird pattern was originally smaller than the one that was published. Making it just slightly larger made it so much easier to construct! I also re-engineered the way the legs were made several times, until I found a way to keep them quite stable. I have taken the basic pattern and changed the tail, so I can make either "tail up" or "tail down" birds, and adapted it to create a crow, which is larger and has a different beak design.

Q. What is the most important element to making the sculpture bird-like?

A. Stuffing. Getting the beak nice and sharp and stuffing the body tightly, so that it is smooth and firm, not lumpy.

Q. How do you choose your fabrics? What patterns, colors, and kinds of fabric work best?

A. I choose the fabric for the wings first, then find body fabrics that will coordinate. For me, color and pattern can be anything from bright and wild, to subtle and subdued. The wing is a great little canvas for an interesting pattern or even combination of fabrics. Sometimes centering a design motif on each wing is really effective, other times particular fabrics will suggest feathers. I find good quality quilting weight cottons work best for the birds. Cotton fabric has the right amount of stretch and ease to allow you to shape the body and get nice smooth seams.

grant fabric birdQ. Worst mistake you ever made? Any happy accidents?

A. Cutting right into the beak, as the seam was trimmed. (Actually, Pokey, remember when you did this when we were taping the TV episode? It happens to the best of us!) I have also tried to hurry the project by not pinning the little body parts before I sewed them and ended up with very non-symmetrical birds! In one case that was a happy accident, as I got a bird whose head was turned rather charmingly to one side. In other cases, they just looked deformed.

Q. Do you infuse them with personalities and/or names as you work on them? If so, how does that affect the design?

A. My birds do all get names, but not until they are finished. Regardless of how carefully you follow the pattern, it seems each bird develops his/her own personality, but I'm never in complete control of that. It just happens and then I decide on a name that suits the finished bird.

Q. Any special tricks or sewing techniques you'd like to share?

A. I stuff my birds with polyfil, which gives them great shape and can be stuffed very firmly, but I have found it migrates out of very small areas, like the beak and the end of the tail, leaving those areas unfilled, so I start stuffing by pushing a little wad of cotton (from cosmetic cotton balls) into those small areas. The cotton stays where you put it. Then I stuff the rest of the bird with polyfil. Also, when my bird bodies have been stuffed, I dampen the seam lines with a damp cloth and run the tip of a hot iron over the seams. This smoothes out any puckers or ridges and makes the bodies smooth and rounded.

Thanks, Terry, I learned a lot--including how to be more careful with my scissors!

You can see more of how Terry crafts her birds, plus learn how to create fabric collaged animal portraits, make 3-D floral appliqués, a market tote, and many more projects for spring in "Quilting Arts TV" Series 600. If you're interested in learning more about using birds, check out our Mixed Media shop page that's all about putting a bird on it.

P.S. Do you like to use bird motifs in your art? If so, what's your favorite bird? What other animals do you include in your art, and why? Fly down to the comments section below and share your thoughts!

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Could this be our best season ever? In the sixth season of Quilting Arts TV, host Pokey Bolton and her guests bring you even more fabulous art quilting designs, techniques, and adventures.


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on 28 Apr 2011 9:33 AM

I love Terry's birds! I would love to see a whole tree in exhibit filled with them. Great interview and tips about stuffing the birds by adding the cotton and damp pressing the seams after!

Binky wrote
on 28 Apr 2011 12:35 PM

Love the idea for the birds! Could you ask Terry Grant if she'd be willing to give us all a Spring 'gift' and put the pattern into a pdf that we could download for FREE?

on 28 Apr 2011 5:36 PM

I like birds. i have made sevveral hand emroideries for quilt pieces and a larger  10x 12 seed embroidery art quilt. Mine were sketched first  and totally imaginary. I do it mainly for fun, and create as I go.

cdlcruz wrote
on 30 Apr 2011 9:21 AM

How do I get the bird patterns? I often put birds with real feathers into my art quilt pieces and the idea of soft-sculpture birds is wonderful.

featherfeet wrote
on 5 Jul 2011 7:36 AM

Personally, I can't seem to stop using birds in my art, sometimes to the annoyance of certain instructors... I'm an older BFA student (my only child is actually a year ahead of me in school and doing something more 'useful'), and I don't even try very hard to get away from the bird themes.

My favorite bird in real life is my wonderful Blue Crown conure, and most of the art birds are also parrots, though I do appreciate any corvids and the swallows as well.

Only extremely rarely are there other animals, and then only as accidental abstractions that have a resemblance, really.

Kim Leland

Yoyi Fogarty wrote
on 25 Apr 2012 12:16 PM

I would like to know how to make them? Is there a free pattern?

chris french wrote
on 26 Apr 2012 8:50 AM

Thank you for asking, Yoyi. We love Terry Grant's birds, too. You can see more of how Terry crafts her birds by linking to our download:

Or, you can download all the projects in that "Quilting Arts" TV Series, including how to create fabric collaged animal portraits, make 3-D floral appliqués, a market tote, and many more projects for spring in "Quilting Arts TV" Series 600. Visit and search for Series 600. Enjoy!

--The Quilting Arts team

quiltmakerb wrote
on 16 Mar 2013 4:54 AM

These birds are adorable!  Thanks for the free pattern....and I LOVE the alpacas in the background!  Excellent!

Annie-gram wrote
on 16 Mar 2013 4:55 AM

Just found this, poking around the site (yay insomnia!). The birds are fantastic, thank you so much for the pdf pattern link- I can't wait to try making them for Easter baskets!

kitties wrote
on 16 Mar 2013 2:26 PM

could you possibly ask Terry a question for me?  I love making the birds, I have the book, but I have so much trouble with the florist tape adhering to the feet.  Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated........

Jean Visser wrote
on 2 May 2015 4:32 PM

When stuffing birds or other items, form the stuffing in a cup shape and continue adding bits in the same way. This may seem tedious but it keeps the outside/edges free from lumps and bumps. I learned this in 1983 from Mrs. Ius of "My Sister & I Creations" who taught doll-making classes. Though she's passed, the credit is hers.