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Fabric Sculpture - Creating Sculptural Forms with Textiles

Updated on January 19, 2013

Creating Objects with Textiles

Fabric doesn't have to be used only for furnishings or clothing or wall hangings. It can be manipulated into 3D shapes.

For years I've had the urge to combine my love of ceramics (which I haven't had a chance to explore since college) with my love of manipulating cloth.

This lens is a collection of ideas and inspiration for making sculptures out of cloth.

I explore ideas that are traditionally used for ceramics - coiling and slabs - as well as knitting thick fabric yarn, sculpting with stitch and the more obvious techniques of stuffing and creating structures that can then be covered with fabric.

Above: Detail of coiled, melted fabric.

Why make Fabric Sculpture?

Why not?

Why be constricted to working in 2D all the time?

For years I've had an urge to work my textiles pieces in 3D - technically I have done this all along by making art dolls and even bags and purses but I want to start making vessels too!

I've played with stuffing shapes and making structures to attach fabric to but I want to play with making a sculpture that's made out of fabric and nothing else.

How far can I push fabric? How high can I build it without it going floppy? What textures can I create?

Coiling Fabric

Fabric can be coiled, in the same way that clay can be coiled, to make structures.

In order to make a coiled structure you need to cut a piece of fabric into a long length (I usually make the strips of fabric about an inch across).

Next you twist the fabric strip until it makes a more solid cord and coil it around whilst sewing the coiled strip into place.

The diagrams below show you how you can sew the strip into a coil. Either tack the strip together with little delicate stitches at the edges, or slip the thread right around the whole twisted strip.

As you sew the coil it will probably start to take on a bowl like shape instead of a flat round shape because of the tension from sewing it together. This is perfect for making a big vessel.

Don't despair if your coiled shape comes out looking weird.

I had trouble when I first started making a coiled bowl because the base just didn't want to lie flat. In the end I had to push the base up so it made a wider base. You then need to sew that shape in place.

Above: Two doodles showing ways to sew fabric into coils.

You can either sew the edges together or wrap stitches around the whole strip and attach them to the stitches on the previous row.

The images below are my first attempts at coiling fabric.

I used cream-colored yarn (with a tapestry needle) on a dark brown fabric. The fabric was from an old pair of trousers - this horrible synthetic stuff that no one in their right mind would want next to their skin!

Of course, you don't have to make your stitches so obvious against the fabric but you can create some gorgeous effects this way.

Once I'd made these coiled pieces I melted the fabric a little to give them a distressed look.

Coiled fabric pieces can make a fantastic organic texture and could be made into objects or applied to textiles backgrounds.

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Heat Gun

Black & Decker 9756 10-Amp Dual Temperature Heat Gun
Black & Decker 9756 10-Amp Dual Temperature Heat Gun

Heat guns can plow through man made fabrics, melting it and sometimes completely obliterating it!

I used one of these guys for melting my coiled samples above but they can also be used for all sorts of textiles arts and crafts just be careful around toxic fumes. Always make sure you're wearing a suitable face mask and working in a very well ventilated area.

 

The image below shows a fabric bowl in progress.

I wanted to make a bowl that looked like a nest.

I made the coiled bowl from tweed fabric and then played with stuffing little pieces of fake fur in between the coils - I didn't end up using this for my finished bowl but I love the idea of being able to poke other fabrics and objects between the coils and have them poking out.

Above: A coiled bowl with fluffy bits stuffed in between the coils.

I covered the finished nest bowl with strips of fabric.

These strips were sewn vertically to counteract the horizontal coiling. The strips acted as anchors that held the coils into a specific shape.

I'd love to make a large vessel where you can see the coils on the outside as opposed to something like this where all the coiling is hidden underneath.

Above: The finished nest bowl.

The coiled fabric is covered by fabric scraps which also strengthen the structure.

I love the idea of making a large coiled fabric pot like the one below.

I'm not sure what I'd do with it, in my tiny house, when I'd finished with it though!

I've been wondering whether a larger pot like this would be able to support its own weight.

When I made the nest above the structure became much sturdier when I added fabric along the inside and stitched it all into place.

The doodle below looks like some sort of beehive or wasps' nest.

Above: Doodles and ideas for a coiled fabric pot.

Three-Dimensional Embroidery

Three-Dimensional Embroidery
Three-Dimensional Embroidery

I discovered coiling fabrics from this book.

I've only experimented with basic ideas of coiling fabrics but there are some amazing examples in this book - I've only had a flick through it so far but you can see some of the pages on Amazon by clicking the link.

In the example pages on Amazon it looks as if there are coils within coils instead of using one continuous length of fabric - yummy!

 

Fabric Beads

The beads pictured below are made entirely out of wrapped fabric.

I started thinking about how these could be attached to each other to create structures.

I love the idea for adding these to the top of a coiled fabric pot.

To make the beads you need a long piece of fabric. Make a ring at one end of the fabric and then continue to wrap the rest of the fabric strip around this ring until you get to the end.

Above: Some of my doughnut beads sewn to my Mystery Textiles piece.

In the doodle below I've thought about making a vessel out of these doughnut beads.

I love the idea of creating a vessel that has holes!

If you don't want holes you could stuff them with contrasting fabric or line the inside of the vessel with another fabric.

Above: A doodled design for a fabric bead bowl.

Knitting

The images opposite and below are from a crazy knitted wall hanging that I made for my partner.

I was following a pattern that is supposed to depict Megatron from Transformers by alternating knits and purls. I was trying to use metal colors and because I didn't have many yarns in greys and silver I decided to spin some yarn from my fabrics.

I ended up with this really thick cord which was a bit of a pain to knit with but it created this amazing warping effect.

You can see this warping in the image opposite even though this is just straight garter stitch.

I didn't intend to have this warping occur in this piece but I felt excited about it. I started to think about how I could use this effect to make a really interesting piece of sculptural fabric.

The knitted fabric has such a fantastically heavy solid quality to it too.

Above: Knitted Fabric strips manipulated with alternating stitches.

Below I've doodled down a really quick idea for making a knitted hanging.

I love the idea that hangings don't need to be flat on a wall.

I love the idea of forcing so much fabric into a row of knitting that it bulges out in funny directions.

To make it bulge even more you could add big chunky beads or weave other yarns, fabrics and cords in between the stitches.

Above: Doodle for a sculptural knitted wall hanging.

I'm not sure the doodled idea below would work but I love the idea of making a circular piece of knitting and in the same way creating these buckled areas where there's too much to fit.

This piece could either hang from the ceiling or it could be stuffed to make some sort of odd sculpture.

Above: A doodle for a circular knitted hanging.

Sculpting with Stitch

Intense stitching can create raised areas like the detail below.

Of course, alone this isn't going to make a sculpture but you can stiffen pieces of fabric with really dense stitching and these pieces can then be attached together or applied to other pieces.

Above: Note how the dense stitches around these circles push the fabric up from the surface.

I've never tried it, but I'm wondering whether you could create a 3D bowl by sewing in concentric circles?

Maybe you'd have to pleat your fabric in places a little to force it into a shape.

Above: Doodled idea for an intensely stitched bowl.

Layering Fabrics

If you have more fabric than you know what to do with - like I do - then this could be the process for you.

I seem to have a lot of fabric that I don't like as well so this process could be a good way of using that fabric up without having to look at it!

Basically if you layer up really thick layers of fabric and sew them together in "slabs" you're creating something thick and solid that can support itself.

In the same way, as you use slabs in ceramics to make a structure, you can make a fabric structure out of thick fabric layers.

Above: Doodle for making a vessel out of layered "slabs" of fabric.

The central piece would be the base of your vessel and the four outer pieces would be the sides.

In the doodles below I've thought about using different processes with layers of fabric.

It could be fun to carve holes in your fabrics so that you can see all the layers - this would be particularly fun if you have different colored fabrics running through your layers.

You could either make holes by using scissors to cut the holes in exactly the right places before you layer the fabrics or you could use synthetic fabrics and "carve" holes with a soldering iron or melt through with a hot air gun.

Above: Two designs for using fabric layers.

Soldering Iron

Weller WLC100 40-Watt Soldering Station
Weller WLC100 40-Watt Soldering Station

Soldering irons work particularly well with acrylic felt - you have to make sure it's the right stuff otherwise it won't melt.

Layers of different coloured felt that are then melted through would look fabulous.

You could also think about layering up polyesters, organzas and chiffons - although it could start to get expensive!

 

Stuffing

As mentioned above with my ideas for a circular knitted wall hanging you can stuff shapes to create a solid soft sculpture.

In fact people have been making soft sculpture for years.

You can make a stuffed sculpture in several different ways.

1. Make a pattern first and sew it together and then stuff it.

This is the way you'd make a traditional teddy bear or a similar soft toy. The hat shown below was created by stuffing a cone shape with stuffing.

2. Grab a ball of stuffing, cover it with fabric and start stitching.

I love this technique. You're effectively sculpting with needle and thread and you can create some great little faces this way for art dolls.

3. Needle felting.

Needle felting is awesome because unlike wet felting you can use man-made stuffing or pieces of wadding to create sculpted shapes (check out the needle felted doll shown further down this page).

Above: This hat was made by stuffing a shape.

The image below shows a doll that I completely needle felted from wool and off cuts of wadding discarded from other textiles projects.

I love that wool and stuffing could be used to make large sculptural forms. As long as the base is bigger than the top it would stand up if it has been felted enough.

Needle felting does take a long time, however. This doll is huge and I worked on it on and off for a few weeks.

Above: The top part of this doll was completely made from sculpted wool.

Needle Felting Kit

Colonial Needle CNFK-1 Needle Felting Starter Kit
Colonial Needle CNFK-1 Needle Felting Starter Kit

Needle felting is a great way to make soft sculptures.

Just be careful to protect your fingers because you will need to use a large barbed needle to create friction which will make the fibres cling together.

 

Making an Under-Structure

Under Structures can be made out of anything.

I've made a lot of art dolls etc that have structures made out of junk - a lot of old tins and plastic tubs and wire coat hangers.

The piece below is a Christmas tree I made one year!

I started with an old metal biscuit tin and attached a piece of wood to make the height.

I then made the cone shape out of layered textiles and stuffed it with an old duvet!

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Products for Creating Stiffness in Fabrics

Petal Porcelain

Petal Porcelain can be used to make soft stuff hard. You basically dip something soft into it - like petals or silk flowers and it sets hard. I can't guarantee it would work well for sculpture but it could create some interesting effects.

Model Magic

Model Magic looks awesome! I have to get my hands on some of this. It's sort of like clay - you roll it out and can press all sorts of textures into it. It then dries and you can paint it and even sew through it. You could create a series of connecting shapes that can be applied to fabric and give it some structure.

PVA Glue

Like Petal Porcelain, PVA glue can be used to stiffen fabrics. It could be really interesting if you leave your fabrics to dry in creases to create an interesting rippled texture.

Satay Sticks

Satay Sticks can be stitched onto fabric to give it a structure that can stand up on its own.

Pellon

Pellon (also known as Vilene) can be sewn to fabric to thicken it and give it more structure. (Personally I would just use more fabric layers!)

Share Your Thoughts - Reader Feedback.

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    • Rachel Field profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Field 

      4 years ago

      @sheila-nichol-35: Thanks for visiting :) Hope you will have a wonderful time at the exhibition.

    • profile image

      sheila-nichol-35 

      4 years ago

      I have been invited to participate in a Sculptural Fibre exhibition next year in Johannesburg and have not done it before, so your web page is very informative. Thank you

      Sheila(Durban)

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      Hi I make sculptures that are covered in wool fibres, but I've reached an obstacle as I have been looking for a spray coating which i can spray over my wool sculptures to preserve it from moths, dust and light exposure and must dry clear. If any one can suggest anything I would be very grateful. Thanks

    • Rachel Field profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Field 

      5 years ago

      @anonymous: Hi Jo, You could use PVA but I think it would leave you with a really hard plastic-like surface.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      i am a feltmaker and want to find a product to stiffen felt sculptures. Do you know if PVA glue would be the best product? thanks.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      You create one wonder after another and then teach others to do it do with great detail...and I just love your doodles, you are so unique! :)

    • profile image

      crstnblue 

      5 years ago

      Very nice, informative & creative lens! Loved that colorful hat! : ))

      Thanks for sharing!

      Blessed!

    • knitstricken profile image

      knitstricken 

      5 years ago

      I. Love. This lens. That is all (for now). But I'll be back! Thank you and have a nice day!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      Rachel, I only WISH I were as creative as you! Thank you for needed ideas to water my latent creative seeds!

    • profile image

      MyNameIsEm 

      6 years ago

      love these!! Want to try making something now!!

    • Paul Ward profile image

      Paul 

      7 years ago from Liverpool, England

      Some amazing ideas on here and I love the presentation: Angel Blessed for content, style and originality.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      7 years ago

      You are very talented Rachel, your artful lenses always inspire me, thank you for sharing your ideas and techniques, very interesting :)

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