Making Millinery Flowers

Allison Aller © 2009

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I love making three dimensional flowers for my crazy quilts. When a friend offered to lend me her set of tools for making millinery flowers, I jumped at the chance to experiment with them.

These tools are solid brass shapes on wooden handles. The brass shapes are heated up over a small open flame, and then used to permanently shape stiffened fabric that has been cut into petal shapes. After their curves have been “tooled” into the fabric, the petals can be assembled different ways into three dimensional flowers.

I used this process to create some of the flowers on the project in “Easy Steamy Curves.” Let me show you.

First the petal fabric must be stiffened. The way I chose to do this was to create a solution of water and archival bookbinding glue in a three to one ratio. Archival glue is chosen because it will not yellow over time; regular wood glue will function fine here, but your flowers will eventually change color. I bought my glue at a drafting supply store.

After my small chunks of Dupioni silk and cotton/silk blend fabrics had been washed to remove any sizing, I submerged them in my stiffening solution until they were completely coated. Then I hung them up to dry.

They weren’t completely rigid after drying, but definitely held their shape.

Next I cut out my petal shapes from the stiffened fabric. You can use a template for this, or do your cutting freehand, as I have done here.

Now for the fun part! This is a little camping stove that uses denatured alcohol (also called methylated spirits) for fuel. I found mine on eBay, but there are websites that show you how to make your own stoves (see below) very inexpensively…out of cans!  I have set my stove on a plate to prevent scorching my table…and there is a big bowl of water nearby, just in case. The tools are heating up in the flame.

I made the white pillow out of two layers of muslin and filled it with sand. It has some “give” in it—it is not tightly stuffed. This is my “tooling surface.”

I lay my petal on the pillow and press the heated ball of the tool into it. The “give” in the pillow allows the petal to be indented by the tool; the sand keeps things cool as well as forms a concave surface around the petal…kind of like your head can do on a sandy beach!

It takes a little practice to make sure the tools don’t get overheated. Some fabrics scorch if the tool is too hot.

My petals have all been tooled and are ready to assemble.

For a little rose blossom, I began sewing the petals to my crazy quilt block in a tight circle, making a few stitches at the base of each petal.

I used about twelve petals for this flower.

For the center I sewed on a group of yellow size 11 seed beads.

The petal fabric does not fray much at all, due to the stiffener, and the flowers hold their shapes well. I’ve enjoyed incorporating this element into the project for my niece.

These tools are expensive, around $200 for the set shown in this article. They can be purchased individually as well, which is what I think I will do, needing only the three sizes of balls.

The Australian firm of Torb and Reiner makes them. You can investigate their website here: Their instructional videos are very good as well.

The best site I’ve found on how to build your own penny alcohol stove is here:

This article is not intended as a “how to” per se, but more of an introduction to this fascinating—and nearly lost—art. I plan on creating many more millinery flowers, and hope to learn much more about it.

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