Low-brow patchwork

patchwork for book covers

This is a favorite method of mine for putting together quick fabric patchwork pieces that I then use to cover my handbound books with.

It’s “low brow” because the fabric scraps are laid down with raw edges: I don’t turn the edges of the pieces over, or stitch one piece to the next with a neat ¼-inch seam. I don’t measure or use templates to cut the pieces out…I don’t even use fabric* as the foundation!

It is a great method to use if you plan to mount the patchwork to something hard and stable afterwards, as a purely decorative skin. Use the resulting fabric to cover a box, or medium density fibreboard (MDF) craft shapes…to cover book boards, or glue onto greeting cards. I’ve made postcards and artist’s trading cards (ATCs) with it, stitching or gluing the fabric to heavy paper.

This would not be a good method to use on a serious quilt, or any other free-moving sewing project. The patchwork won’t take washing, and probably wouldn’t hold together if the pieces were constantly moving and flexing. Certainly not suitable for upholstery, bags or anything that gets wear-and-tear…even if you backed it with fabric later, and quilted it all over for strength, the raw edges could slowly work themselves into rough, frilly edges.

*Note: before making my books I do add a fabric lining on the back…to cover all the stitching up, and to give stability and strength to the patchwork (because fusible interfacing is stretchy and weak.)

Want to give it a go? Here’s the how-to:

You will need

  • medium to heavy-weight fusible interfacing
  • loads of fabric scraps
  • a pair of fabric scissors or shears
  • an iron and hard surface to iron on
  • baking parchment
  • a sewing machine and different colored threads

1. Cut the fusible interfacing to the finished size you’d like your patchwork to be. Below, I have a small stack, all cut to the size I will need for covering my handmade journals.

fusible interfacing

2. Iron and cut your fabric into square and rectangle shapes…I don’t cut them smaller than 5 cm. (2 inches) square…bigger pieces can always be cut down later, as you work.

I don’t bother with rulers and cutting wheels, I just use scissors and “eye” it. I don’t like perfectly straight grids. A gentle curve here and there, a ‘not-quite-square’ square, looks quirky, fun, and more creative. Keep the OC levels low, it’s low-brow patchwork!

fabric scraps, ironed and cut

3. Lay the piece of interfacing on top of a clean sheet of paper, glue-side-up (the glue side has little shiny dots all over it); take a piece of fabric and lay it down wherever…you can start in the middle, or line your pieces up along all the edges, first. When you take the second piece of fabric, lay it down so it overlaps the first, just a bit…this is just to make sure the interfacing doesn’t peek through later, when you’re machine-stitching.

Just keep laying pieces of fabric down—playing with pattern, color, size or shape—until you get an arrangement you’re happy with.

positioning fabric scraps

4. This is almost done…just a few more of those bare interfacing areas to cover. Cut and shape the fabric as you work, and move slowly so that the pieces that are in place don’t move.

I make several of these arrangements at one time, each time laying the interfacing on top of a fresh sheet of paper, and moving the finished arrangements to one side of my workspace by moving the sheet of paper they are lying on…so as not to rearrange anything.

5. When I have covered all my interfacing pieces with scraps, I prepare my “ironing board”. I use a smooth plank of laminated shelving, with a sheet of baking parchment taped down to its surface. You can use a utility table top…a firm, smooth surface is better than a soft padded one.

Set your iron to cotton or linen. Take a sheet of paper with one ‘arrangement’ on it, and slide the fabric scrap arrangement gently off the paper, onto the ironing board.

6. Cover your patchwork with another sheet of baking parchment. Iron the patchwork so that it sticks to the fusible interfacing. Move slowly all over the piece, pushing down to force the fabric and the interfacing together. Take special care to iron all around the edges of the patchwork.

7. When you think the fabric pieces are stuck to the interfacing, remove the top sheet of baking parchment and quickly, lightly flip the piece over onto its face. Cover with the parchment again, and iron the back of the patchwork in same way you did the front.

The patchwork should have cohered enough to allow you to pick it up at one end and let it hang down…though it is by no means strong, as fusible interfacing is a very weak adhesive. There will still be bits of loose fabric that flip up…these are the areas where two or more pieces have overlapped, so some parts of the fabric didn’t come in contact with the melting glue of the interfacing.

8. Put a nice contrasting or toning color of thread in your sewing machine, pick a wide, decorative stitch pattern with a bit of satin stitch action going on, shorten the stitch length (if you have an old machine, like mine) so the fancy pattern isn’t stretched out, all wiry and vague, and go over all the edges of the fabric scraps.

I try to run down the center of two pieces, letting the stitch straddle and hold down both pieces at one pass.

Just follow the edges, making quarter-turns when you have to, cutting and starting somewhere else when you want to, and changing the color of your thread and the stitching pattern of your machine at least once! Make sure all the edges have been stitched down. I don’t do the outermost border of my pieces, because I will be bias-binding those later, but you can do an all-around frame for yours, depends what you want to use the patchwork for.

Here’s one finished patchwork piece…

And here’s what the stitching looks like, on the back. All that’s left to do is trim the overhanging bits of fabric, and then back the patchwork (you can stitch, glue, or fuse it down to fabric, paper, wood, etcetera…)

If you do give this cheater’s patchwork 🙂 a try, I’d love to see how you used the finished piece…what else can be done with it that I haven’t tried yet? Heaps of ideas out there, I’m sure.

Have fun!


About smallestforest

bookbinder, crafter, lit. major, passionately curious
This entry was posted in fabric, sewing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Low-brow patchwork

  1. glendasikes says:

    Ohhhh, this is right up my alley!! Thank you so much for sharing this technique. I’ve wanted to try patchwork but have been intimidated by sewing seams. I think trying this method will be enough in my comfort zone that I will actually try it, kwim?!! I have a small sketchbook that I make notes in about the embroidery projects I make and I’ve been wanting to make a cover for it, but have been put off by the idea of sewing a cover. However, I do like the idea of using this idea for that cover. If I do so, I will definitely share pics on Flickr.

    (Wren & Stitchy)

  2. Pingback: Bombarded by inspiration | iHanna's Blog

  3. Jacqueline says:

    Yeah, it is wonderful to throw out all the rules of turned edges, seamd and so on and still create something beautiful! 🙂

  4. lee says:

    I use a similar process but instead of following the edges I make a point of stitching across edges – like you, I appreciate the randomness of the results!

  5. Phillipa says:

    Hi Ive used a similar method as well. i call it Shabby Collage.
    As you show, its fun to do.
    Regards Phillipa

  6. Fantastic! Greetings from Argentina! We have tons of fabric pieces and we will turn them into books covers 😀 thanks for bringing this to our memory! If you have a moment maybe you can visit our fb page: https://www.facebook.com/BajoelArbolEditorial

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