Fabric Manipulation : Stitch & Slash

Would you believe that ripped jeans of the 1990s are simply harking back to the 16th century? For a brief period, it was the height of fashion to ‘pink’ or slash luxury fabrics to create pattern and to reveal yet another fancy fabric underneath. That’s where the term pinking shears comes from, although they appear somewhat later.

pinking shears
Cutting a decorative edging to cloth goes back considerably earlier too; in the 15th century some garments were finished with the fine, felted (fulled) wool cloth cut into decorative patterns resembling oak leaves and other shapes. Amongst the wealthy and fashionable, it was also de rigeur to have sleeves of the upper gown cut open to reveal another, fancier fabric beneath, or even a fine linen shirt or smock. This style reached its peak in the late 15th and early 16th century among the Landsknecht mercenary soldiers of Switzerland Germany who favoured ridiculously over-decorated clothings covered in slashes revealing bright coloured garments beneath and started added additional linings just to show through.

The slash and reveal style made it to English style, with Henry VIII often depicted wearing garments with slashing to show the variety of luxury silks he wore and the decoration could be on any thing from shoes to codpieces.

1491_Henry_VIIIA rare early 17th century men’s suit now in the V&A is made of silk covered in tiny cuts on the bias, interspersed with stamped decoration – the silk was embossed using a heated metal tool. The cuts were probably made in a similar way, with a sharp chisel-like tool pressed onto the fabric on top of a lead block. Find out more about it in this audio clip.

Slashed garments appear occasionally in the 19th century – there’s nothing new about looking back – but it then pretty much vanished until the punks started ripping and slashing their garments in the early 1980s.


Dress sleeve, c1810 © V&A

Dress sleeve, c1810 © V&A


Slashing and cutting the surface of fabric is now a more decorative technique used in textile art and quilting rather than fashion, more’s the pity. Textile artists have been using Stitch & Slash for many years, to create layered decorative finishes. In some forms it is known as faux chenille as when washed or brushed the cut edges create a fluffy finish, popular with quilters. Karina Thompson refined the technique more recently to create large-scale artworks using subtly-toned fabrics.

karina Thompson

Karina Thompson

Helen Amy Murray, a textile designer working with luxury upholstery, developed a technique at University to pad, stitch, and slash leather and other luxury materials to create raised effects for use on furniture, similar in effect to stitch and slash, but with a more complicated design. I’ve interpreted this technique and described it in my book, called cut surface quilting and have used it myself to create geometric designs loosely inspired by traditional square patchwork quilts (left).

A version of this post originally appeared on Mr X Stitch for my monthly column on historic and contemporary textile techniques, Pinning the Past.

Collaboration with Bethany Walker: work in progress

I’ve long been fascinated by Bethany’s combination of textiles and cement; the contrasting soft and hard materials, the transformation of cloth from malleable to solid objects and the potential her innovative techniques would hold for my kind of manipulated textiles.

Last year I applied to a-n’s collaboration bursary to fund our travel and expenses to develop a collaboration and we started working together in January 2014.

Our aim is to create work suitable for public art commissions, large-scale installations and projects. I wanted to explore Bethany’s techniques and she wanted to look at more organic forms, moving away from her usual square-format.

We started by simply setting a whole series of my textile and paper samples into cement to see how they worked and then moved on to making specific samples to test based on what worked best and looked most interesting.


Plenty was simply scrapped as uninteresting, or not sufficiently exciting to stand out. I wanted to make sure what I made was sufficiently different to Bethany’s existing work too. A new set of samples worked much better and gave us new avenues to explore.

At this stage I was struggling to find a theme which worked for me, beyond simply exploring interesting shapes. Our discussions lead to the idea of growth and renewal and eventually to mould, lichen, moss and fungus. We also worked on colour palettes; looking for something that contrasted well with the grey of the cement but would also work with my quite subtle-coloured work. We used Pinterest to share ideas, much like I did with my collaboration with Alys Power. Our palette became delicate pink. Bethany continued to work on new shapes and forms while I experimented with fungus-inspired growths made in textile using fabrics I dyed with elderberry.

Their success was limited but other pieces definitely worked and we have finally hit upon the perfect combination of form, textile structure, colour-palette, type of fabric and display concept which we are really happy with.


The finished work is a series of smaller pieces; potentially a lot of small pieces, so we are busy making more and more. Our aim is to exhibit the work in 2015 and use it as a basis for joint application for projects and commissions.



Trapunto Quilting

Trapunto, Italian quilting or stuffed quilting is an old and rather under-appreciated technique which I am a huge fan of. Unlike ‘normal’ quiting, where two layers of fabric have a layer of wadding between them and are stitched through all the layers, Trapunto uses two layers of fabric and the stuffing is only placed in defined areas, after all the stitching is complete. Narrow lines are filled with cord while larger areas are filled with cotton or wool traditionally and often polyester stuffing these days. The old French version of stuffed quilting called Boutis is always worked in white and all shapes are stuffed with a soft, cotton cord.

Image showing detail of art apron by Ruth Singer using trapunto and embroidery

The oldest known quilt still surviving dates from the 14th century (1360-1400) and is made using stuffed quilting. This gorgeous, minimalist white linen quilt, called the Tristan Quilt, was made in Sicily, presumably for an extremely wealthy client. Textiles were as valuable, if not more valuable than gold in the middle ages, and skilled craftsmen were in demand. This, like many other luxury textiles such as tapestry and embroidery, were made in specialist professional workshops staffed by men and women, and not by noble women sitting around in castles with nothing to do. The quilt depicts scenes from the Legend of Tristan & Isolde (or Iseult), a classic bit of medieval courtly love / tragedy.

Detail of Tristan Quilt

Detail of Tristan Quilt

Despite this amazing survival, showing brilliant craftsmanship, the technique seems not to have been used much since – or at least it has not survived very well. We start finding examples of stuffed quilting, often the corded kind, in 19th century garments, such as these corset covers, though it isn’t until the 20th century that trapunto is used regularly – I’ve seen it on elegant coat collars from the 1930s, satin dressing gowns  and nightwear, on tiesdresses,  and on homemade accessories like this handkerchief pouch, made using corded quilting. There are lots more examples, modern and vintage, on my Pinterest board.

Handkerchief pouch

Handkerchief pouch

The most extraordinary example is a dress by the surrealist-influenced fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli in 1938. She used bold stuffed quilting to create prominent ribs and spine on a figure-hugging black dress – quite the most remarkable use of trapunto I have ever seen.

Elsa Schiaparelli  - Skeleton Dress

Elsa Schiaparelli – Skeleton Dress

I like to use the technique because of its subtlety and tactility. The play of light on the fabric shows up the design which can be almost invisible in flat lighting and dark colours. Outlining the motifs in contrasting thread helps to make them stand out and you can also use a sheer fabric top layer to create shadow quilting, which I’ve also seen in pre-war pieces.

Trapunto by Ruth Singer

Trapunto by Ruth Singer, part of Criminal Quilts series

Trapunto Example by Ruth Singer

Trapunto by Ruth Singer, part of Criminal Quilts series

The techniques of trapunto are covered in detail in my book Fabric Manipulation, 150 Creative Sewing Techniques  and a few other books on quilting and manipulated textiles.

2014 textiles workshops

Just a brief outline of the new workshops to come in 2014, full details soon!

Workshops 2014
All workshops are 10am-4pm on Saturdays at Ruth Singer Studio, Leicester. £55 each or book 3 for £150

Miniature Art Quilts. 25th January
Criminal Quilts 2

Shadow Embroidery. 23rd February

Criminal Quilts 2

Cut-surface quilting. 22nd March

'Squares'  hanging, 2013. More details here

‘Squares’ hanging, 2013. More details here

Family Stories. 26th April

Whiting Laundry

Handmade fabrics. 31st May

Suffolk puff cushion

Smocking, Shirring & Gathering. 28th June  Rescheduled for 21st June

English smocking

Found objects and amulets . 19th July

Metamorphosis detailPhotos on Fabric. 30th August

Monumental Folly pincushion  25x15cm More  details here

Monumental Folly pincushion 25x15cm More
details here

Wild Dyes. 28th September Rescheduled for 20th September

mixed dyes

Trapunto Quilting. 1st November

Trapunto quilting

Transparency. 6th December. Rescheduled for 13th December

shadowwork detail

Exhibitions at Waddesdon

There’s textile delights aplenty at Waddesdon Manor at the moment. I particularly wanted to see Sacred Stitches, an exhibition of ecclesiastic textiles from the Rothschild Collection which is reviews in Embroidery magazine (July / August).  I love Medieval church textiles so was excited to see examples that have not been displayed before, and I was not disappointed. The small exhibition also includes some other, later, treasures including a few gorgeous saint statue robes.  There’s a small book of the exhibition which has some great images and looks well-written and informative too, assuming it is similar to the exhibition text, which is pretty good going considering I know far too much about this kind of stuff already.

The house is full of interesting textiles too, mostly on upholstery and in wall hangings.

An unexpected extra pleasure was the Folded Beauty exhibition of historic napkin folding by Catalan artist Joan Sallas. Truly extraordinary and amazing!

I was disappointed that the Philippa Lawrence garden artworks hadn’t succeeded. I got a glimpse of the half-grown piece on my drive in but it sounds like things didn’t work out as planned. I’ve been interested in her work for a while so will definitely be back to see it next year.

Apply & Layer

Final part of Fabric Manipulation book preview. Read about the other chapters: Pleat and Fold &  Stitch and Gather

The Apply & Layer chapter covers a whole lot more than just  appliqué, although the majority of the techniques are appliqué in its loosest sense. Layering up fabrics and applying shapes on a foundation have many exciting possibilities and this chapter only touches the surface. There are some well-known techniques, from the basics of hand and machine quilting (with the emphasis on using them to make manipulated fabric, not for making large quilts) and stitch and slash. I have covered trapunto quilting in depth as it is one of my most favourite techniques, although there’s a an awful lot more about trapunto that I had to leave out! I use trapunto in my own artwork quite often as I find it to be a beautiful, subtle technique that can be used in many way.

Cut surface quilting is my interpretation of a technique used by designer <Helen Amy Murray to create stunning textured leather for upholstery. I have adapted the technique for a variety of materials and tried out a number of variations. Since I wrote this chapter, I’ve made a large piece of my own using a version of this technique.

Applied decoration is very popular on contemporary couture fashion, and has been for some years. The techniques are generally worked by hand and are often very time-consuming, but the effects are stunning. I got the idea for looped strips from a couture coat I saw a picture of years ago. Dresses from the 1830s-1880s are also good for innovative appliqué. You can see examples in my Pinterest board. Personally, I particularly love Petals and Split Circles. I made a huge framed artwork using vintage fabric in the petals technique a few years ago, and more recently revamped a blouse using split circles and embellished a jumper with delicate trapunto.

The scalloped edges technique is one I keep coming back to in my own work – it has such potential.The orange piece below is the first piece I used it in – inspired by roof tiles on a Victorian building when I was artist in residence at Bilston Craft Gallery in 2007. Simple scallops are used to edge the cape project, made during the same residency and it also uses shadow work reverse appliqué.I currently have plans for a large quilt using cut-surface quilting and definitely more trapunto. 

Stitch & Gather

Part two of Fabric Manipulation book previews.

It is quite hard to define and name this group of techniques – Stitch & Gather is the best I’ve come up with. This part of the book covers a wide range of techniques where thread is used to create shape and structure, often by gathering with simple machine or hand stitching.

Monumental Folly frame, detail

Monumental Folly frame, detail

As with pleats, gathering techniques have been used to create decoration on 18th century gowns. Wide strips of bias-cut silk fabric with decorative pinked (zigzag cut) edged are swirled and stitched down the front of gowns and stomachers. Using bias-cut strips allows you to curve the fabric beautifully, See Single Edge Gathers p78 for how to achieve this look.

Rutfle scarf pattern

Rutfle scarf pattern

I’ve played around with this technique many times and have found bias-cut fabrics to be perfect for making draped scarves and ruffles. The scarf on p81 is made with 3 different fabrics layered up together before gathering. I’ve also used the technique to make embellishments for cushions and interior décor.

The Pattern Stitched Ribbon Ruffles (below) technique as shown on p82-83 is traditionally used to make fabric flowers and I first saw it in a 1920s book on ribbon art. I found the same technique, used on fabric as a detail on a couture dress made by Mainbocher for Wallis Simpson in 1937 and now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The collar centre-back seam is gathered using the Zigzag shirring technique on p87.


Other well-known techniques in this section include Suffolk Puffs, shirring and smocking. I love Suffolk puffs immensely and have used them for several years in my own work, creating new ways of using them in textile artworks. I like to create the puffs in fabric that matches the background and hand stitch them to create a seamless effect. I enjoy creating movement and variation in a repetitive design by using different sizes of puff and added stuffing behind some of them to create added dimension.

Betty Panel (sold)

Betty Panel (sold)

I created the Circle Edge Gather (p103) technique as a development of Suffolk puffs and have used this technique to make the draping scarf below.

I came up with the idea of Stuffed Bobbles (p106) in the same experimental phase and later discovered that it is very similar to the effect created by Japanese shibori stitching. I enjoy the organic, irregular quality of this technique which I have used on wall panels as well as garments and accessories.

Buy individual patterns here.

Fabric Manipulation Book Launch

You are invited to Ruth Singer Studio to celebrate the publication of Fabric Manipulation, 150 Creative Sewing Techniques by Ruth Singer.

Thursday 4th July 5-7pm at Ruth Singer Studio in Leicester city centre.

As well as books for sale, you will be able to see my recent work on display, including smaller pieces and new range of cards.

If you wish to buy a signed copy of Fabric Manipulation (£19.99) please pre-order here so I can have enough stock available (select the Collect from Studio option for no postage charge) or just let me know that you wish to buy one and bring cash on the day. My first two books Sew It Up and Sew Eco will be available at a considerable discount so you can get a whole collection!

Pleat and Fold

Part 1 of a series of blog posts exploring my new book Fabric Manipulation in more detail, looking at the history of the techniques and how I have used them in my own work.

I first became fascinated by pleating when I started studying 18th century costume. The most luxurious women’s gowns have lavish decorations down the front, often made from pleating, folded, stitched or gathered fabric.

Once I started to explore, I found all sorted of pleated and folded decoration on costume from all kinds of periods and from all over the world. One of my favourite pieces is a 1940s hat with a pleated grosgrain trim which I bought in a vintage dress shop.  It took some experimentation to work out the technique used to make it but I got it eventually; this is the Arrowhead fold in page 60. I’ve also made a necklace using this technique (more about this in a future post).

Other techniques in the book have also come directly from historic clothing, although I tend to add my own interpretation to them. The Dips and Diamonds fold on page 46 is inspired by a Victorian dress in the V&A which you can also see in 19th century Dress in Detail, .

Decorative box pleating has been one of my favourites for years; I originally learned the technique from 1980s books about soft furnishings, used to create decorative trim from ribbons. I have used the technique to create embellished cushions  and cuffs and a few years ago developed the technique further to create the double-sided Box Pleat Neckpiece from silk organza.

Other techniques in this chapter have come from Indian dress; the Pointed Ribbon Fold (p59) and similar techniques are based on an old technique called Gota using real metal ribbon which I researched when I visited India in 2003 There’s a nice example of Gota work here.  Most modern gota-style work is made using synthetic ribbon, and finding the real metal ribbon is a challenge, but it can sometimes be found in vintage fabric shops or specialist ribbon shops.

I’ve included a selection of quite well-known techniques that I have seen around for a few years, such as Tuck and Fold, as well as some origami techniques transposed to fabric like Trefoil Fold and techniques that I have created myself through experimenting, such as Wings and Aeroplanes folds.

A shorter version of this post appears on Stitch, Craft, Create.

Trapunto quilting

One of the most popular sessions I teach is Trapunto or Italian quilting. My new book, Fabric Manipulation, 150 Creative Sewing Techniques, covers this technique in detail and includes lots of variations including shadow quilting, corded quilting and using stretch fabrics.

Time Bubble 1 detail
Detail of Time Bubble 1. 

I’ve been using Trapunto for years in small projects but this apron was the first major exhibition piece I created using the technique, stitched into a vintage apron.

round pincushion
Pincushion with trapunto, featured in Pretty Little Pincushions

Trapunto sample

I’m always on the look out for vintage examples of trapunto work, and recently bought a piece of corded quilting which I will be featuring on the new website later in the summer.  I’d love to know if you have seen or even own any vintage pieces with trapunto. 

Framed trapunto currently in the shop at NCCD

Detail of doll’s quilt in Pretty Little Mini Quilts
Trapunto purse in Quilt it With Wool

I am teaching trapunto this summer at Hampton Court Palace (2-day intensive summer school), and running 1 hour taster sessions in at Festival of Quilts and Fat Quarterly Retreat. 

Detail of History’s Hand.