17+ 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

Stitched art journal page by Tammy Garcia.
17 tips for sewing paper by Tammy Garcia.

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 how you can get started sewing paper - and here are my tips! 

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. Be patient with yourself. Some people take to sewing so gracefully but at the beginning it felt clunky. You may get kind of freaked out at the beginning. It feels ridiculous to stress out over a sewing machine, but it happened to me. You will feel more comfortable the more you sew! It will start to feel natural!

3. Start a collection of small papers. This will be your collage fodder. You can keep the papers in a cigar box or clear plastic box. It's fun to add stitching to the edges of your journal pages, and it's also fun to sew things ONTO your journal pages! 

The sewing machine brings together two discrete objects using thread.

4. Do your research. Buy 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. Sewing on that machine brought me to tears every time! I gave it to a friend and didn't try again for a decade -- when I started doing mixed media art I gulped and gave machine sewing another shot. I figured I hadn't been patient enough -- the reality is that the machine wasn't working right -- poor quality.

5. Skim your instruction manual. I know, it's boring. You're shaking your head. 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. 

6. Find the right paper. You'll want paper heavy enough for stitching but not so heavy that it will break the needle. Here are some good papers for machine stitching: heavy card stock, a manilla folder, watercolor paper, bristol paper, mixed media paper or a heavy index card. Super thin paper [i.e. copy machine paper or tissue paper or paper from an old book] will tear or not hold the weight. Super heavy paper [i.e. cardboard] can cause a broken needle or worse.

7. Practice first first 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. If you are teaching your kids to sew, definitely start in this way! Plus it's FUN! 

8. Buy extra sewing machine needles. I use a standard sewing machine needle. You'll definitely break/bend needles, folks, so get spares. One day I broke three, but sometimes I go months without breaking a needle, so it depends on the mood of the little sewing machine fairies.

Index card art by Tammy Garcia.

9. Don't use your beloved fabric scissors for paper. For nipping excess thread and for cutting paper, I keep a pair of scissors within hand's reach. 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 because options are good. 

10. Get good thread. I like 100% cotton or silk thread, but there are a zillion really fabulous threads out there. Try 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. 

11. Get super good at threading the bobbin + top thread. It 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. 

12. Start by sewing a straight stitch across your paper. Now try different stitches, like a zig zag or blanket stitch. 

13. After you master the straight stitch with thread... place 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? 



14. Explore the variables! Different types of papers, different combinations of papers, different types of thread and different stitches. Now play with each of those variables! Paint stitched paper. Stitch painted paper. The options are endless!

15. 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.

16. 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. 

17. To make your own little journals, you'll need to cut larger sheets of paper down to size. 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.

Stitched accordion book by Tammy Garcia.

18. 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