Sunday, 11 March 2012

Elephant No. 161: Trapunto

A few weeks ago, Frances from the fibre arts guild gave me another block of fabric with an elephant on it, and I thought right away of trapunto. Not that I've ever done trapunto before, but when Barb mentioned quilting in a comment on this blog, I thought I might try trapunto for today's elephant.

The word trapunto means "to embroider" in Italian, and "to prick with a needle" in Latin. The raised look of trapunto, however, has less to do with embroidering, and more to do with stuffing the stitched channels. In North America, trapunto is often called "stuffed technique".

Trapunto likely originated in Italy sometime during the fourteenth century A.D. One of the earliest surviving quilts in the world—the Tristan Quilt, housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—features trapunto. Made in Sicily during the second half of the fourteenth century as a wedding gift, the quilt is made from two layers of linen, some of which are stuffed in the characteristic trapunto style.

Detail from the Tristan Quilt.
Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England

Trapunto soon became popular for clothing and home decor, particularly in Tudor England (A.D. 1485–1550) and seventeenth-century France. From England and France, it spread to other parts of the world—particularly North America, where it has long been a staple of fine-arts quilting. Interestingly, the collars of some uniforms in the first series of Star Trek movies feature a trapunto technique.

The collars of these Star Trek uniforms were all created with a trapunto technique.
From Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

To make trapunto, the artisan normally stitches muslin to the underside of the surface being quilted. Both layers are then stitched through in whatever pattern the artisan desires. This is either done by hand in a series of relatively close stitches, or by machine.

Modern trapunto design.

Once the stitching is done, the threads in the muslin backing are pushed aside to insert stuffing. This is generally done with a fine stiletto tool, or even hemostats or dull tweezers. Sometimes a layer of batting provides a base layer of stuffing, with additional wadding inserted in specific areas to raise the surface even more, thus accentuating the design. The back is then either left as is, or covered with a more attractive fabric.

For today's elephant, this was the section of fabric I started with.

I didn't have any quilt batting on hand, so I decided I wouldn't add an underlayer of batting to this particular piece.

To begin, I cut a piece of unbleached muslin the same size, then stitched along the main outlines of the elephant with my sewing machine. At this point, if you're using a pre-printed design, it's a good idea to think about what areas you want to stuff, and what areas might be better left flat or otherwise embellished.

The photograph below shows what the back looked like before I started stuffing it. I had already decided that I wouldn't stuff the following: tassels hanging from the elephant's headpiece; tassels hanging from the blanket; and the three straps attaching the blanket to the neck, back and belly. I thought these might make an interesting counterpoint to the stuffed areas, if I left them flat.

After this, I simply poked stuffing through the back, carefully separating the threads in the muslin. These holes can be smoothed out again when I'm finished. If you use loosely woven muslin, the threads are easy to separate.

This is what the first hole looked like, right after stuffing:

It took me about three hours to stuff all the areas I wanted. I worked primarily with a bamboo skewer, using the pointy end to make the hole, and the dull end to push in the fibrefill. It wasn't a terribly difficult or annoying activity, but it is time-consuming.

The two photographs below show what the final looks like from the back. At this point, I haven't dealt with any of the small holes yet.

It was hard to photograph this in a way that shows the thickness of the stuffing. I stuffed it quite firmly, however, which may be a mistake in some circles, as it causes the surrounding fabric to strain and ripple. But I liked the way it looked, so I didn't really mind.

I wish I'd had more time to work with this, but I'm quite pleased with the final result. It's a bit labour-intensive, but otherwise not unpleasant. I can see using this as a special effect on a larger piece, and will definitely keep it in my arsenal to use another time.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In 2005, an Asian bull elephant was caught by traders in China's Yunnan province. Located near China's border with Burma, Yunnan is home to China's only remaining population of wild elephants, numbering a mere 300–400.

Sadly, in order to keep the elephant under control, the traders kept feeding it bananas laced with heroin. The traders were eventually arrested when they tried to sell the elephant and its small family herd.

By that time, however, the elephant dubbed "Big Brother" had developed a serious heroin addiction, and became very dangerous if denied his fix. Following a tortuous attempt at making Big Brother go cold turkey, animal welfare workers transported the "drooling and twitching" elephant to a special park for rehabilitation.

Over the next twelve months, Big Brother was slowly weaned off heroin with a combination of regular baths, massage, and methadone at five times the human dosage. At the end of a year, Big Brother was clean and healthy, and plans had been made to return him to the wild.

Herd of seven wild elephants in the Wild Elephant Ravine in a forest park
in southwestern China's Yunnan province, January 2006.

Elephant's World (Thailand) 
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

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