embroidered gumleaf 1 ©KarenSmith

Making Gum Leaves From Silk Threads (updated post*)

posted in: Arts & Crafts, Textiles

* Note from Karen March 18, 2021
This is an updated version of my original tutorial posted back in Feb 2019.
I have just re written and updated this tutorial and uploaded onto the www.instructables.com website – so thought I would update it here too, as I added a lot more info in the step by step processes.

On a recent internet wander I discovered soluble stabiliser, a film that is used in machine embroidery. I realised that it was a process I could use with some multicoloured mulberry silk strands I had bought a few years ago at a regional craft fair in Victoria, Australia.

I often buy supplies that catch my eye without knowing a final use, I put them in the cupboard, and eventually inspiration comes often when learning a new skill, like machine embroidery.

Gum leaves are a constant theme in my watercolour artworks, and I thought it would be good to create a textile version.

In this tutorial I’ll explain my process from my initial sketch of a leaf, to the finished piece of textile art.
My final piece measured approx 2.5cm wide x 15cm long (1″ x 6″).

You will need

  • Your original sketch
  • Silk strands
  • Thin water soluble embroidery stabilizer film
  • Sewing thread
  • A clear flat work surface
  • A sewing machine
  • Free motion sewing foot
  • small embroidery hoop
  • Scissors
  • Pins
  • Marker pen that will erase with heat or water

1. Transferring Your Sketch to the Stabiliser Film

Create your sketch design
I would recommend you choose a small, easily identifiable subject matter for your initial sketch, with a strongly defined outline for best results, leaves are ideal as their veins form a natural structural element to the work.
Using your own sketch adds a layer of depth to your work, you will have already studied your subject matter closely, and this will help when you begin your free motoin embroidery.

Water Soluble Stabiliser Film
The stabiliser film is available in most haberdashery stores, it feels very flimsy to handle, but you can draw on it with markers, and its remarkably robust when embroidering onto it. It comes by the meter/yard, or in small packs or on short rolls.

Here in Australia I bought Legacy Stabiliser by the metre from Spotlight stores.
Sulky by Solvy appears to be the main brand in the US.

The most important feature is that it is water soluble – not tear away, as you want to completely remove all traces of the film from your final textile artwork.

Transferring your sketch onto the film
Transfer your sketch onto the water soluble embroidery stabilising film using a fabric marker, (water soluble or heat removable). I found a marker works best, pencil or chalk just drags on the film and you can’t get a good impression.

The film comes in different weights, make sure you buy the lightest weight, it is semi transparent, and if you make your initial sketch dark, then you should be able to trace your design onto the film by putting your artwork underneath it.

Your transfer should include key outlines lines and areas of your design that you want to emphasise with your free motion embroidery, in my case it was the leaf outline and the veins of the leaf that were most important to my design.

2. Sandwich Your Silk Strands

Cut out your stabiliser film.
Once you have your sketch drawn onto a piece of film, cut out your design from the length of film, make sure it is big enough to go inside your embroidery frame.
Cut another piece of film to the same size, you will use this as your backing.

Silk Strands
I bought my silk strands from an Australian company called Fibreartsshed, it’s hand dyed mulberry silk, I think these fibres are often referred to as ‘silk tops’, roving yarn or spinning fibre. They are often listed as a craft supply.
Basically its the raw silky fibres that will then be spun and woven into fabric.

Sandwich the silk strands
Lay the piece of film you have drawn your image onto, face down on a pale surface.
Separate some silk strands, and lay your selected silk strands on top of your design, it doesn’t matter if you go over the outside edges of your design, these will be trimmed off and can be reclaimed for future projects.
Lay your second piece of film on top to make a sandwich. Secure with some fine pins, and turn right side up,this is the side you will embroider onto.

3. Sewing Machine Embroidery

Free motion embroidery
Set up your sewing machine for free motion embroidery as per your own machines instructions. This usually involves swapping to a free motion embroidery sewing foot and lowering the feed dogs on your machine, you may need to adjust your sewing tension as well.
There are many free motion embroidery instructional videos on the internet, for this particular project you dont need to be too skilled, as you will be going over your sewing lines a few times, in fact a wonky line looks good for this!

Sewing your leaf
Place your stabiliser & silk strand sandwich into a small embroidery hoop (approx 15cm).
Remove the pins – you don’t want to sew over these.

Using a dark thread in your sewing machine (I used a dark green for my gum leaf) and a free motion embroidery presser foot, follow your leaf outline with free motion stitches, going over each line at least 4 or 5 times.
Essentially you are creating a new piece of fabric from silk strands and tying it all together with the stitches from your machine.

For my gum leaf I paid particular attention to the top and bottom of the leaves, creating a dense cluster of stitches to add strength.

4. Washing Away the Stabilising Film

Carefully cut around the outside of your leaf shape with small sharp scissors – this is mainly to trim the silk threads – you dont have to be so precise with the film as it is about to be washed away.

Dissolving the film
Dissolve the film in cold water, just gently patting the water onto the piece until all of the film dissolves, it goes a bit sticky and slippery at first, then it should all wash off.

5. Finishing Off

Drying and flattening your textile leaf
Lay the wet piece of embroidery carefully onto a piece of heavy fabric canvas or calico is good.
With another piece of fabric on top iron the leaf dry, this will result in a flat leaf. If you leave it to dry naturally on a flat non porous surface, this may result in a more curled leaf.

6. ​ Final Piece of Textile Art

The result is a delicate silky leaf, the machine embroidery acted as veins containing the colourful silk strands.

  • Karen’s top Tip
    Remember the stabiliser is water-soluble, its very sensitive to moisture and sticks together easily with just a splash of water, so have very dry hands when handling it.