Monday, December 26, 2016

handmade Christmas gifts 2016 - two more ornaments for Robyn

OK, yes, this is a repeat. Again. Because I do not love the swan I made her last year. Its beak looks funny. Clearly inferior. I have requested that she ceremonially burn it but it's unclear whether she will follow through. I guess she can have a tree with the real, final, Larissa-approved set of ornaments and then a smaller tree in the garage with all the reject inital attempts.

Anyhoo, this is her FOR REALS Swan a-Swimming and her Right-The-First-Time-Unless-I-Change-My-Mind Maid a-Milking. I added a few sequins and glass beads to them for sparkle.

On to Drummer Drumming. Yes, that is right, the drummer! Not the Lady Dancing. Because I'm using the song from the 1700s that has Colly Bird and the Lady has to wait to dance until no. 11. Ha cha cha.

As I sit here and ponder it I'm seriously rethinking Robyn's Partridge and Pear. Also her French Hen has to go. I'll address that next year. She's going to have to commit to being my friend for a few years more to complete her set. That's my evil plan!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

all that is merry and bright to you

I wrapped presents earlier this week. Bags are so much faster but I do love looking at a pile of nicely papered and beribboned packages. I'm still making a couple of handmade things but I pledge to relax and enjoy over the long weekend.

I wish you and your families a bright and beautiful and hopeful Christmas, filled with the love of Christ, warmth, and good things to eat. And a nicely wrapped present.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

tips and tools for making my heirloom ornaments

Hello! I love to design heirloom wool felt Christmas ornaments. As you might imagine, I've made a lot of them. My patterns include very detailed instructions for you, but I thought I'd share a compilation of additional tips and tricks that will make crafting your hand-sewn ornaments easier and quicker! (Are you an embroidery newbie? Here's another post about stripping embroidery threads. Is precision cutting a challenge for you? Check these two posts.)

Can't say enough about this magical felt craft and embroidery helper.

This sticky-backed stabilizer is the key to making my heirloom ornaments and Christmas decor. I live in terror of it being discontinued. I miiight be hoarding it.

As shown above with my Partridge & Pear pattern, you simply print (or copy) the pattern to the Sulky stabilizer, peel off the backing, apply it to the pre-shrunk* wool felt and start stitching right on the lines. It's FANTASTIC. No pattern tracing or transferring embroidery designs. (Note: if possible, use a printer with toner as opposed to ink – some inkjet inks are water soluble and may stain your floss.)

When you are finished embroidering, you cut out the piece on the outline and soak it in cold water** about 15-20 minutes. The stabilizer dissolves away, and when your felt piece has air dried you have a perfectly executed embroidery design with no trace left of the stabilizer. So good.

You may notice the felt and stitching feels stiffer after it's dry, like it's been starched. That's perfectly normal. It's a leftover invisible residue from the stabilizer, and I actually prefer it because it helps secure your stitching and adds body and durability to the ornament.

And of course, Sulky Stick 'n Stitch also works great for your regular fabric hoop embroidery projects. You can get it at your local craft/sewing store and also at,,, or Shiny Happy World.

*You should allow a day to pre-shrink your wool or wool-blend felt sheets before you make the project by simply soaking them with cold water, blotting them on a towel, and letting them air dry. 

** The package instructions say warm water for a smaller amount of time, but I prefer to use cool water for a slightly longer time to discourage shrinkage. If you have hard water you may want to use bottled or distilled water to both pre-soak and soak away the stabilizer. According to some users, hard water seems to make rinsing the stabilizer away more difficult. 

NOTE: If you have issues with the Sulky refusing to budge even though you are following the instuctions, please read this.

2) THREAD MAGIC (formerly known as Thread Heaven)

Do you guys know about Thread Heaven? (Late note: it appears to have been rebranded and repackaged as Thread Magic.) I love this stuff. If you do a lot of embroidery or hand sewing you need to have this right next to you.

It adds a siliconey (technical term) coating to your needle and thread, which keeps knotting and snarling at bay as you sew. It makes the whole process of sewing French knots way less frustrating. If you coat your needle along with the thread it makes poking through the stabilizer as smooth as butter. Mm. Butter. But anyway, I love it and you can get it wherever sewing supplied are sold, but I bought mine here. It seems to last forever because I can't remember when I bought this one and I still have plenty. I might buy the rebranded stuff just to get the nice new packaging.


Do you guys have a stuffing fork? You might need one. So much better than a dowel, crochet hook or that leadless pencil you've been using. It can't be matched at stuffing tiny, hard to reach areas. Here's a closeup of the business end:

You are perhaps saying, "So it has a tiny fork at the end, big whoop". That's because you don't realize the fork is GENIUS. You take a loose pinch of stuffing, press it against the smoothly rounded fork and spin the fork like you are eating spaghetti. It makes a compact ball of stuffing that you slide into place in the tiny spot you are trying to stuff. The fork also makes positioning stuffing inside an ornament a cinch. It grabs and repositions the stuffing whereas a dowel just pokes through it. I use my stuffing fork all the time with my ornament series. I also just bought the mini size for skinny legs. This is the website listed on the handle: Barbara Willis Designs. You can also search and find them listed on in dollmaking shops.

There's a stuffing fork I've seen online made by Clover, but I can't find a closeup of what the end looks like. It's not as long but if it has a little fork on the end it would also be very helpful for these ornaments. Anyone have one? Also I've tried another stuffing fork out there by a major brand, but the fork was so sharp that it continually snagged the inside of my ornaments. Not good. I love the Barbara Willis version. It's perfect.


Dritz® Fray Check is listed as optional on my pattern supplies, but it's really nice to have. It's a clear, quick drying liquid that keeps things from raveling. Think of it like the hand sewing version of nail polish on your pantyhose.

Metallic embroidery threads tend to ravel and come untied, so just adding a dot of it to your hanging loop attachments and hanging loop knots ensures they won't ravel with use. I love it for sealing the ends of cut ribbon also. You can see by the (somewhat alarming) label that it's flammable when wet and you shouldn't expose it to heat, so keep it away from your iron. It's available at all your local sewing and crafting stores.


Whoever Aleene is, I'd like to hug her. I love this glue. It's widely available in the US at any self-respecting local craft store or Wal-mart or I use it on most of my ornaments where glue is needed and also to baste tiny pieces in place (which is more accurate than pinning). (I also spec another glue, Fabri-Tac for some projects. It is faster drying and kind of like hot glue without the burns. It's also awesome.) 

Tacky Glue is nicely thick and dries to a clear finish pretty fast, but not so fast that you can't reposition if needed. If used sparingly, I never have trouble sewing through it. If I get a smear of it on something I can easily wipe it away with a damp cloth if it's still wet.

I keep mine stored upside down in a cup at all times so that it stays ready to dot on when I need it. I also cut the hole in the nozzle as small as possible to control the flow of the glue.
(Update: I just saw a newly packaged bottle that is designed to sit upside down on its own – thanks, Aleene!)

I never said it was a pretty cup.

Just as important as having the right glue is knowing to use as little as possible to get the job done. It doesn't take much. I hardly ever squeeze the bottle. I just dot it on. In most cases when my patterns call for glue it's just to tack something in place long enough for you to sew it down without using pins. For basting, just a hint of glue is usually sufficient. Always, always, always just tiny dots or even smears.

In some instances, glueing is used instead of sewing to hold something permanently in place, like wings. In those cases, you'll want to use a little more glue, but it still doesn't take a lot. You'll know this if you ever accidentally glue two felt pieces together and then try to get them apart.

Are you Glob Challenged? Do you have problems with accidentally adding too much? Easy solution: squeeze a glob of glue on a scrap piece of paper (the leftover backing from the Sulky stabilizer is good for this because it's coated) and use a toothpick to apply the glue instead of the glue nozzle. Voila!


So why do I spec cotton pipe cleaners a lot as opposed to the more easily found and economical and oh so colorful chenille stem/craft pipe cleaner?

Here's a side by side comparison of the two. The creamy white one is a BJ Long's cotton pipe cleaner and the gray one is a craft chenille stem from Joann.

Cotton: The cotton BJ Long on the left has soft, dense cotton fuzz so that the interior wire is not easily visible, and you'll notice the short fuzz makes it look more slender. I spec these for the interiors of my ornaments because they have a strong wire and enable you to reposition/bend the arms and legs so the ornaments look more engaging and lifelike. 

I also spec cotton pipe cleaners for the outside of the ornament when the thinner look is needed, like for the French Hen's feet and Maid's pail handles. If you want a different color than off-white I have seen and purchased packs of colored cotton pipe cleaners on eBay, but it might be easier just to dye the off-white cotton pipe cleaner yourself with a few strokes of a permanent fabric marker and let it dry. Another nice advantage of the cotton. 

I buy my cotton pipe cleaners here, but you can find smaller packs in local cigar/pipe shops and hardware stores too. Other brands I've tried and liked are Ideal and Dill's.

Chenille: The chenille stem on the right above has a less dense fuzz that is about 6 mm wide, and you can more easily see the wire in the middle. I specify chenille stems for the hair and some accessories on some of my ornaments. The wire inside the chenille stem is flimsy compared to the BJ Long, so IMO chenille stems don't do as well as the interior 'bones' of the ornament. If you have a tough time finding the cotton pipe cleaners, you can try twisting together two chenille stems to sub for bones. You may have to trim the fuzz to make it work in some places.  

I buy my chenille stems anywhere there are craft supplies - they are not hard to find. Check the kid's craft aisle and there they are. On some of my patterns I specify 'mini' chenille stems. They can be harder to find sometimes. The width is 3 mm as opposed to 6 mm. Benzie Design stocks some if you can't buy them locally, or you can just give a 6 mm stem a nice haircut with a rotary cutter if you need to.


OK, unfinished wood beads. Several of my ornaments use 8 mm (5/16 inch) wood beads and 20 mm (3/4 inch) wood beads. If your craft store is a nice, big one they might have those available right on the aisle. In my town these sizes are not usually available, so I ordered them from Etsy. There are several shops that carry them, and you can find them by doing a quick search for the size you need. The ones shown above came from here and here and they were great quality beads.

I like using hardwood beads that have a nice medium color to them so they have a good contrast if your ornament will have white hair. I find that really light colored beads with no visible woodgrain can sometimes be too soft and more prone to bleeding when using gel or fabric pens. 

It's really important to get the right kind of felt for these ornaments. Both 100% wool felts and wool-blend felts work great. Wool-blend felts are a mixture of rayon and wool fibers and are less expensive than 100% wool felts. Most of my samples are made using wool-blend felts. Both kinds work wonderfully well!

I buy my felt online because my local craft store doesn't carry it. I have a few vendors I like listed in my FAQ if you'll scroll down to the question about wool felt. There are also links to them in the back of all my patterns in the Resources section. Are you outside of the US? I have a list of international sources also.

I have worked with two wonderful US felt vendors very closely to provide sewn samples and color guides to go along with the kits that they sell. (Please note: their kits do not include my patterns.) You can see my color guides and find links to their kits here:
Benzie Design (wool-blend felts 100% wools, metallic and glitter felts)
Felt On The Fly (100% merino wool felts)

Photo courtesy of Benzie Design

For my heirloom projects just say no to synthetic craft felts (except for where I specify stiffened felts in some patterns for certain details)! They are plentiful and cheap, but they won't work for these ornaments. Besides having a limited color range and not being very durable or dense, there are other fatal drawbacks:

1) They don't adhere well to the Sulky stabilizer or the Tacky Glue.
2) Small pieces fray and fall apart.
3) They are not dense enough to hold as small a seam allowance as is called for.
4) They melt if you iron them.
5) They appear a bit shiny and can have an almost greasy feel (they are a petroleum product made of acrylic and polyester, I believe).
6) They develop an unattractive halo of fuzz and pills after being handled for a time.

So. Please use wool or wool-blend felts only.

So that's it for the tools and tips. I hope this post has been helpful! The heirloom nature of these ornaments and the time it takes to sew them make it worth getting the right tools and supplies. You'll thank yourself!