Couching: Not Just for Fabric

As you may know, I’m completely smitten by just about everything Alabama Chanin. The fabric, the clothes, the techniques–everything from the use of the Cretan stitch to couching. Ah, couching. How can something so simple become something so elegant?


While the process is simple enough: you attach one strip of fabric/thread/ribbon to a garment by sewing it to the surface with small stitches in another thread–the execution is what makes (or breaks) the effect. I started out with tiny baby steps, just seeing what would happen with 100% silk thread couching to 100% linen using 100% cotton floss:


While I was working on this, I thought, “Well, if I don’t like the effect, it will be easy to remove. At least there’s that.” Because you know how it is when you’re trying something new, and you have no idea whether or not you’re going to love it, and you don’t want to ruin something you like. The cool thing about couching is that it’s not like cutting or painting or doing anything that can’t be undone.

I’ve looked everywhere to find information about where couching began and what its earliest uses were. Wikipedia has surprisingly little information, as do my embroidery stitch reference books. From what I can glean, though, and from what I’ve seen, I’m guessing it began as a way to use fibers that couldn’t easily be sewn: metallic fibers, esp. gold thread. Plus if you were using fine gold thread, you wouldn’t want to “waste” any of it on the underside of the fabric; you’d want the full effect of it on the front. Couching would allow you to do that.

And that got me to thinking about couching on substrates other than fabric. What if, for example, you had some fine ribbon you wanted to use on a journal page but thought you might want to use again on something else? You don’t want to glue it or cut it, but you want to attach it. Or maybe it’s strips of paper–strips of an old ledger page, maybe, or lines from an old love letter or a faded old cloth tape measure your grandmother used. You want to use them, but you want to leave them intact so you can use them again if you change your mind.

Voilà: couching! You can couch them to the page–or the canvas or whatever–in a variety of ways. Staples would work if the staples are long enough to span the strip without piercing it. Wire would work. Couching with twine or floss or string would work. You could sew short lengths of string (twine, floss, whatever) through the substrate, leaving both ends on the surface and tying them across the strips to be couched. You could cut a bunch of shorter strips of paper, lay them across the strips, and glue or staple each end to the substrate. Or attach those ends with brads or buttons. Any way you can think of to lay down your strip of paper/fiber/ribbon/ephemera and then attach it to the substrate without piercing it or altering it–that will work. Think of the possibilities: a single, ancient shoestring, a length of fine, rusted chain, faded ribbon, a newborn’s hospital baby bracelet, a lock from your first haircut, a ribbon from your mother’s wedding bouquet, the stem of a flower. Couch any of these in place with thread, floss, beading thread, carpet thread, baker’s twine, string, colored beading wire, rusted wire, striped mint dental floss, thread from an antique spool that’s not sturdy enough to use for sewing but would work perfectly on the pages of a journal.


The possibilities? Endless. And your ephemera stays just as it is, with no holes, no glue, no alterations.

If you experiment, we’d love to see what you come up with!

Layered, Tattered and StitchedFor cool ideas about combining wire and fabric, check out Ruth Rae’s book, Layered, Tattered and Stitched





Ricë is the author of Living the Creative Life, Creative Time and Space, and Destination Creativity. She also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.


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