Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Otomi-Inspired Appliqué Pillow

I think a lot of us have a contrarian streak - a tendency to resist things that are popular, and especially things that cross the line from popular into ubiquitous.

One night in December, Allen and I were driving to a barbecue place for dinner, and we passed a lot of houses decorated with white Christmas lights, and a few with colored Christmas lights, but only a couple with icicle lights - the ones that were so rampant for the last ten years or so. Not the molded plastic ones that are actually shaped like icicles, but the light strings that have smaller little strings hanging off of them.

I said to Allen, "Do you think, now that those icicle lights aren't so popular anymore, they're okay for us to start using?"

Allen was shocked. "You like those?" he said, indignant.

"Yeah, I really like them! But everybody uses them, so we've never used them."

"No," said Allen. "We don't use them because they don't look like real icicles."


"Yeah, nobody uses them right. People hang them where real icicles would never be - like on the back sides of beams. That doesn't make any sense."

"Allen, of course it doesn't make any sense. They're not real icicles. Even if you 'use them right,' nobody is going to look at them and say, 'Wow - somebody waited for a snowy day, hosed down their porch roof, got those those beautiful icicles to form, and then somehow lit them from the back.'"

"You're twisting my words."

So I understand perfectly a natural aversion to trends. Otomi embroidery has been all over the internet for a few years, but I still love it so. I have loved it since my grandparents had some in their "Mexico room" when I was a little girl.

The animals, y'all! They are such great animals. Actually, if I have any disappointment about the way my pillow turned out (other than the time it took, which was more than I expected), it's that the animals aren't as crazy-whimsical as the weird, fantastical creatures that populate real Otomi embroidery.

The online store Jacaranda sells full-size Otomi coverlets and tablecloths, but they also sell small swatches for a dollar each. A few years ago, I ordered several samples, hoping that one day I'd save up the money to buy a full-size specimen, and fantasizing in the meantime about what color I'd pick. The swatches are either cut portions of larger works (which seems a shame) or small, fully composed little scenes. And the scenes are crazy.

What is that? A turtle-deer with a propellor attached to its back? It is awesome.

So when I was drawing little creatures to stitch onto my pillow, I actually kept catching myself making them too real, too correctly proportioned. When you draw these, you must go crazy! Combine a deer with a bunny with a sea monster. That's a lot of what makes the real ones so damn charming, and if I try my hand at copying the beautiful embroidery technique, I'll challenge myself to go more outlandish. To take a cue from this beautiful piece, and its charming lizard-otter-pig.

Anyway, on to the instructions, which are few. Basically, lay out the shape of your pillow. Use this tutorial as a basic pillow-making template. I made a 20"-square pillow, using remnant linen fabric I bought at Lewis and Sheron.

For your appliqué pieces, you can use wool felt, or an old sweater. I washed an old moth-eaten wool cardigan in hot water, and then dried it in the dryer. I was hoping to felt the sweater, but since it was a blend, with 20% nylon, it mostly kept its shape. Oh well - I just had to be more careful when I was cutting and sewing it, since it didn't become tough and cohesive like felt.

Just turn your fabric over to the wrong side (if there is one) and start drawing. I used a charcoal pencil. I looked at Google images, Pinterest, and photos on eBay and Jacaranda for inspiration. I drew pastiches of some of my favorite recurring fauna - a rooster (or bird of prey?) in flight, a deer-like shape, and a canine. Otomi compositions are full of abstract floral shapes that fill some of the negative space. I implore you, once again, to be more ambitiously imaginative than me!

I cut out my shapes, pinned them in place, and appliqued them. I used a simple whip stitch to sew the shapes in place.

The knitted nature of my fabric was problematic at times, since it wanted to fall apart at the ends (whereas felt would keep its shape nicely). So when I got to pointy shapes, like ears or skinny feet, I improvised. Sometimes I sewed all the way across the shape, or added definition by basically embroidering the ends of ears.

I made a bunch of little knots for eyes, though in real Otomi pieces, the eyes would be negative space.

The appliqué process takes a while, but the process of assembling the pillow is very straight-forward. Just follow these instructions, installing the hidden zipper at the bottom of the pillow.

I tried appliqué because I was convinced it would be so much faster than embroidering the shapes. But since this turned out to be a time-consuming process, I'd like to try copying the Otomi embroidery technique sometime soon. I'm a glutton for punishment, and for whimsical animals. Expect a sequel!


  1. I love it! I want to make one for my bedroom. I like projects that take a long time to complete so I might try to embroider one. I'll keep an eye out for your sequel!

  2. Wow, that looks incredible, would never have occurred to me to make one! Pinning now for future inspiration!!