Fabric Manipulation by Ruth Singer published by David & Charles
The subject of Ruth Singer‘s third book, Fabric Manipulation, is something I first encountered twenty years ago on a City & Guilds Soft Furnishings course. We were assigned the task of making a cushion cover using a fabric manipulation technique. And from the tutor’s first mention of the term, I had to giggle. Would we be coercing cloth, getting heavy with hessian, maybe intimidating interlinings?
Fabric manipulation is, of course, nothing to do with Machiavellian behaviour with textiles but about handling 2-D cloth with dexterity, arranging it into folds, tucks etc to achieve (usually) 3-D textural effects. You could call it sculpting with fabric. If you sew, you have fabric-manipulated without necessarily being aware of it: gathering a curtain heading, pleating a skirt, or creating a dart, for example. Fabric manipulation techniques crop up all the time in dressmaking, tailoring, millinery, soft furnishings, upholstery, dollmaking, soft sculpture, embroidery, quilting, and patchwork. And every area of sewing-related activity and design can benefit from further exploration of these dimensional techniques.
Singer’s books are always strong on both the design and the technical sides so I was really looking forward to seeing how she tackled this. And I wasn’t disappointed. She had quite a hard act to follow. My fabric manipulation bible for years has been The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolff, published in 1996 by Krause. Wolff’s book is astonishingly comprehensive, if a little dry; it literally lacks colour, with all the pictures in black-and-white, and all the techniques worked in plain-vanilla calico. But everything is there. Ruth’s book, by contrast, is colourful, appealing, and much more approachable. The book is divided into three sections:-
- Pleat & Fold
- Stitch & Gather
- Apply & Layer
Each technique is clearly explained with supporting colour drawings and photographs. You can really see what might be achieved with the method she’s showing you. This is particularly useful for the less advanced stitcher. American lattice smocking, for example, looks really sumptuous worked on velvet and not half as interesting in Wolff’s unbleached calico version. English smocking is shown with eye-popping pink stitching on grey linen. And box pleats really come into their own; I learned my box pleats in the traditional context of lined corner pleats on the skirts of loose covers (gah!), but by choosing bias-cut silk organza, Ruth takes them to another place as ethereal sculptural necklace (see below). I love her application for Suffolk puffs: an upcycled lampshade which looks like the puffs just happened to alight there, like a cluster of barnacles on a ship’s hull.
Ruth is a natural tutor and encourages her reader to experiment. Certainly a little magic happens when you start to pleat, fold and gather. And one thing can lead to another. What if I made this bigger? Or cut here? Or made that square instead of round? Or used thicker fabric? Or thinner? Or pinked that edge first? Ruth encourages this process, coaxing the reader to broaden their horizons. Seeing a variety of colours, textures and weights of fabric used in the samples in this book seeds inspiration. There are nine projects included, but these present ideas rather than being fully instructional; they are jumping-off points. I find this refreshing when so many craft books are simply prescriptive and project-based.
Box pleat necklace
Informed by the beautiful textiles and historical methods encountered in her previous day-job as a V&A
curator education officer*, Ruth clearly relishes her subject. She collects antique and vintage examples of dresses, quilts etc and scours old sewing books for ideas. Re-using the old is literally encouraged too as Ruth is an environmentally conscious designer-maker who happily upcycles; one of her previous books, Sew Eco, explored the subject in some detail, and I’d highly recommend both these books to any self-respecting upcycler wanting to up their game. Try making the ripple brooch (shown below) which works wonderfully with felted sweaters. I can’t wait to have a go at the stuffed bobble technique using viscose velvet: the lightweight stuff, often with a little bit of stretch, which crops us as dresses and skirts in charity shops.
Fabric Manipulation offers unusual applications and delicious presentation. It will be valuable to anyone wanting to broaden their sewing repertoire, in whatever discipline. What I’ve always appreciated about Ruth’s approach is that she is not ‘Sewing-lite’. Her offerings are well-written, beautifully illustrated, informed and intelligent. It’s a real irony that a book filled with so many stuffed techniques is so free of fluff and padding; she’s done her homework, alright, hasn’t cut corners, and knows her stuff (and stuffing) inside out. With 150 techniques included in the book, if you tried just one a week it would take you the better part of three years to begin to exhaust the possibilites. That’s real value for money. Please get hold of a copy and explore your manipulative side.
Ruth Singer’s third book, Fabric Manipulation: 150 Creative Sewing Techniques is published by David & Charles, price £19.99. You can obtain a signed copy here direct from the author. A second volume is in the pipeline.
You can meet Ruth in person at the Knitting & Stitching Show in October and the Selvedge Christmas Fair in November.
*Sorry, Ruth! My reporting skills are rusty.