Friday, April 11, 2008

How To: Make a Silk Flower

Steve McCurry's "School Girl, Kabul, Afghanistan, 1992" with silk poppy

It is with great excitement I introduce this tutorial on how to make silk poppies. 

I first looked into silk flowers in preparation for my sister’s wedding. Poppies are her current favorite flower, and I planned to put at least one on her dress. Perhaps I was unconsciously drawing from Alexandra Posen’s sumptuous wedding dress [sorry, can't find a link!], which I saw in the Museum at FIT for I-forget-what-show. I was going for a lighter, sweeter feel than the Posen piece. At any rate, finding a suitable non-hokey poppy was a problem. Millinery level flowers were tough to find. I finally located one but it was out of my price range… deservedly so. It was beautiful.

So I set out to make my own and found no good instructions. This is probably because silk flower making is an intuitive art, and a waning one at that. So here is how I did it, and perhaps it will inspire or embolden more flower making in the wide world. These instructions are general and assume you are familiar with a variety of fiber arts. If not, I am sure you could still make do!

Scraps of silk fabric
A handful of raw wool, wool felt ball from a craft store, or small amount black velvet
Silk paints
Liquid fabric stiffener
1 skein each of 3820 and 3821 DMC floss
Dark brown wool yarn
Red sewing thread
1 cross stitch needle
1 tapestry needle
1 sewing needle


1. Choose fabrics: Because the essential nature of poppies is ephemeral and translucent, I chose to use silk charmeuse and silk chiffon. Crepe de chine would be lovely too. Satin was too heavy for this purpose but I can imagine an iris would be breathtaking!

2. Paint and dye fabrics according to dyeing instructions on bottle, if your silk wasn’t purchased in the desired color. I use Sennelier Tinfix silk paints from Dharma Trading Co. I could have gotten away with more color variation to bring out some nice lights and darks, but I didn’t dare for these.

3. The flower centers were made from felted wool balls. To make them I carded a few rollags, then tore off and rolled several bits into a ball. Dampening with hot, soapy water, I loosely rolled the ball between my hands until the fibers tightened into a tough skin on the outside. Many websites recount how to do this in more detail should you need instruction. The center for the large flower is 1 ½” in diameter, and the center for the small is 1”. Another option I considered for making the center was gathering and stuffing a circle of dark velvet. I believe that would also have worked, but I had raw wool and not velvet so I didn’t get to check. After making my ball, I dyed it a dark Van Dyk brown. 

4. Were I to do this over again I would choose two shades of DMC that weren’t so close. Although the difference can be told when you lay the skeins side by side, the shade difference is not marked in the flower. At any rate, Cut the skeins at each end and strand by strand sew them into a circle around the bottom of the wool ball. As you draw each strand through the wool and even the ends, tie the ends together so they won’t get pulled loose. Continue in this way so that there is a solid single-file line of shaggy knots around the felt ball. It looks like a monk’s tonsure, so perhaps you would like to do this while watching Brother Sun Sister Moon: “…take your time go slowly…”


5. Mix fabric stiffener and water 1:1. Set the little tonsured flower center face down and wet the trailing gold stamens with the solution. Allow to dry.

  6. Cut out 4 charmeuse and 4 chiffon petals. I know that real poppies possess only four petals. However, this allows them to look more blowsy than perfect. This is the annoying part: To dry the petals without making them too stiff or with shiny glue spots, I found I had to hold them in my hand. I also had good luck laying them on my arms. The texture of skin doesn’t allow them to become too smooth, while it doesn’t stick permanently either. Another method of stiffening I am eager to try is the old fashioned sugar water method by which all of those old crocheted lace angels were stiffened. I was afraid of potential shininess. To make the sugar stiffener you melt sugar over low heat in a sauce pan and add just a little water in proportion. It can be painted on, dipped, or if it is runny enough, sprayed. As you dry the petals, encourage them to curl and wave vertically.

7. Back with the center, once the stamen are dry, tie knots into them 1”-1 ¼” from the bottom. Trim with scissors above the knots. Tie in a second layer above the first. Stiffen these in quarter sections untwisting the floss and fanning it out over the felt center to dry face up. Once they are dry, trim them to the same height as the tied stamens.

8. With dark brown wool yarn and tapestry needle stitch French knots into the felt ball center for texture until you are satisfied with the density.


9. Pin petals to back side of felt ball center layering each chiffon petal over or underlapping a charmeuse petal, but slightly askew for an unplanned look. The four petals of poppies sit directly across from one another, almost like a four leaf clover, but beware of obsessive-compulsive perfection. It will make your flower too fake. Go for a more organic composition unless fake is your goal.


10. Subtly hand-baste the petals onto the felt ball staying below the stamen as much as possible.

11. If you still need more stiffness, hairspray works wonders! Sew finished flower onto garment or put a pin on it.


Tea said...

This turned out great! I've been experimenting with different fabric stiffeners lately ;) Haven't tried commercial, but 1tbsp cornstarch, 1tbsp glue and 1 cup boiled water works really well too.

Anonymous said...

What sort of glue for the fabric stifner?
Also is corn starch the same as corn flour?

Tea said...

Depends if you want the flowers to last forever ;) I've tried using plain old elmer's (school) glue, but archival (acid free) glue might be better in the long run.

Cornstarch is not the same as corn flour. It's available in most supermarkets here in Canada though.

lydia said...

Wow, I just came back and saw these comments as it had been a while. So glad someone else was able to do these! If you make flowers, send me pics and I'll post them.


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