Tips for Sewing Paper

❝Look at your feet. You are standing in the sky. When we think of the sky, we tend to look up, but the sky actually begins at the earth. We walk through it, yell into it, rake leaves, wash the dog, and drive cars in it. We breathe it deep within us. With every breath, we inhale millions of molecules of sky, heat them briefly, and then exhale them back into the world.❞
Diane Ackerman

Sewing paper is two parts magic, one part amazingness, half part frustration. I know, it doesn't add up. Stitching adds texture and interest to your paper art.

If you'd like to add a new component to your journal pages, make travel journals or bind your favorite papers into an art journal, I thought it would be helpful to would talk about the tools that I use and my process for sewing paper. 

Stitched art journal page by Tammy Garcia.
Index card art by Tammy Garcia.

17 Tips for Sewing Paper

Sewing is not something I expected to love. But I was so entranced with the idea of machine stitching my art journal pages, of adding texture with thread, that in 2010 I jumped in feet first and bought a sewing machine. 

1. Get in a positive mindset. It takes a few weeks to get up to speed and patience is absolutely key. When I started, I decided to go into the process slowly and literally stitch my way up the learning curve.

2. Purchase a sewing machine or dig through your guest closet to rediscover the machine that you inherited or purchased on a whim. It's been 7 years and I'm STILL using my original Janome Magnolia 7330. This is a little powerhouse of a machine and I actually use only a few of the stitches. A dozen years before I purchased the Janome, I got a really junky machine on sale at Sears. I sewed curtains and pillows, but it always jammed and knotted and the tension never stayed consistent. Seriously, sewing on that machine brought me to tears every time! That was eons before I did mixed media art - so I gave it to a friend. That experience was really cruddy and frustrating. So years later, when I decided to get a better machine, I did a lot of research. As an aside, I also use this machine to make tiny art quilts, curtains, school play costumes {i.e. a gypsy skirt, a Little Red Riding Hood cape, a green monster...}

The sewing machine brings together two discrete objects using thread.

3. Skim your instruction manual. I know, it's boring. I rarely read instruction manuals - but I did read this one. You don't have to memorize it, but you've got to know what kind of stuff is inside the manual so when something doesn't make sense you have seen an inkling of it before. 

4. Find the right paper. You'll want paper heavy enough for stitching but not so heavy that it will break the needle. For example, heavy card stock, a manilla folder, watercolor paper, bristol paper, mixed media paper or an index card. If the paper is too thin, it will tear or not hold the weight; if the paper is too thick you risk breaking the needle. 

5. Sew paper WITHOUT thread in the machine. Get a feel for how the machine pulls the paper through and watch how the sewing machine needle works. Play with the controls - move the needle up and down, change the tension, switch the stitch number, etc. and learn how to use the foot pedal. You'll have paper full of dotted holes. 

6. Get thread. I like 100% cotton or silk thread, but there are a zillion really fabulous threads out there. Get some psychedelic colors, while you are at it! If you are going to stitch pages where you will see both sides, like mail art or a journal tip-in, spice it up by using a different color in the bobbin and the top thread. 

7. Get extra sewing machine needles. I use a standard sewing machine needle to sew paper. You'll definitely break some needles, folks, so get spares. One day I broke three, but sometimes I go months without breaking a needle, so you never know. But you need extras on hand.

8. Get scissors. You'll need scissors for cutting thread and for cutting paper. After having hand/elbow surgery, cutting with scissors is difficult; Fiskars Scissors are the only scissors that don't make my hand pain worse, but your mileage may vary. You'll probably want a larger pair of scissors for cutting paper.

9. Learn how to thread the bobbin and the top thread. This seems complicated at first, but you will be a pro in no time flat! That's where the instruction manual is an absolute necessity. Follow the steps carefully until you get the flow of the process. Then take out the top thread and do it all over again! It will take a few weeks to master threading the top thread and bobbin without looking at the instructions. 

Index card art by Tammy Garcia.

10. Sew a straight stitch across your paper. Now try different stitches, like a zig zag or blanket stitch. 

11. Put a smaller piece of paper on top of the background paper. Now sew across or in an outline around the smaller paper! Voila! They're now attached. Isn't that MAGIC? 

12. Get a tool for cutting larger sheets of paper. To cut paper, I use the same tools as sewists and quilters. Basically, that's a plastic cutting guide {i.e. Shape Cut Plus 12x18" Slotted Ruler} plus a rotary cutting tool {i.e. Fiskars 45mm Stick Rotary Cutter} plus a self-healing cutting mat underneath {i.e. Olfa Cutting Mat}. Hint: Get a mat larger than the ruler you plan to use.

 

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12. Test different attachments, like the presser foot. I usually sew paper with a standard presser foot attached to my machine. The presser foot is the thing that keeps the paper/fabric flat while sewing. There are different feet made for different sewing tasks and they can be switched in a minute even with clumsy hands. To do free-motion stitching, for example, you would use a darning foot.

13. Understand the feed dogs. When I sew paper it's usually with the feed dogs "up." The feed dogs are grippy pieces of metal that "pull" your fabric/paper through under the needle. There's a lever on your machine that puts them up or down. So if they are up, they move the fabric/paper along like a conveyor belt. If they are down, they do zilch, nothing at all. But that means that YOU have to move the material or the thread will jam. If you are just starting out, get used to your machine functionality with the feed dogs "up" and get very comfy with that first. 

Stitched accordion book by Tammy Garcia.

14. When you get comfy with regular sewing, try free-motion sewing. Simultaneously wacky, wild, wonderful and without rules! The portrait below, on burlap, was created in this way. I've seen this called free-style or free-motion, FYI. Usually this is done with feed dogs down AND a darning foot swapped out for that regular foot. You move the paper or fabric with your hands. The results are completely different and it's way more challenging and takes some coordination and experimentation before you'll feel comfy! I'm spatially challenged but after a lot of playing about I figured it out. Sometimes I have to map out what I am doing with my eyes closed in order to "visualize" the results. On a side note, I'm also directionally challenged - if you tell me that the coffee shop is north of Blah Blah Street it won't mean anything to me - but if you tell me it's a block down from where the Zippy Archival Donut Shop used to be I'll magically get it. Anyhow - it's tricky but I keep practicing. You can also find special gloves to grip the fabric more easily.

Watercolor, stitching, ink, 2014

Watercolor, stitching, ink, 2014

Free-motion stitching on fabric, 2013

Free-motion stitching on fabric, 2013