Making crafts from seasonal materials found in our backyards is a childhood tradition. For generations, kids have been pressing pretty flowers in the summer, making stamps from apples in the fall, gathering evergreen branches for wreaths in the winter, and using plants to make natural dyes for eggs in the spring. Even with all the conveniences of modern life, these crafts never go out of style – and won’t– so long as the raw materials can be found right outside our back doors.
So many of us –as children or, with our own children– have made those timeless craft projects every year as a ritual or celebration of the changing seasons. But one morning in late March, I just wasn’t feeling the tradition. I had already done all the projects I could think of using the obvious available springtime materials out there, and I wanted to make something new and unique. Although I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do yet, I knew it would incorporate natural found materials, and I had the idea to offset the drab brown and gray matter with vibrant colors and some unexpected shimmer.
But on that blustery early-spring day, I found myself at a loss for some good natural crafting fodder. The yard was full of large branches destined for the burn pile, and old half-rotted leaves destined for the compost, but I was thinking on a smaller scale. Then I noticed the ground was littered with tiny pieces — the shredded byproducts of winter.
Too small for the rake to capture last fall, these scraps were scattered everywhere. Before long, I was combing through the yard, finding little pieces of plant matter in the grass, borders, and gardens. There were fragments of twigs, the remains of last year’s flowers, broken leaf stems — It was like going through nature’s odd and ends bin.
After I had collected a handful of small but interesting pieces of natural material, I began arranging them in different compositions, finding beauty in the tiny details of the leftovers from last year. Before I knew it, a little work of art was taking shape.
I chose a few of my favorite natural scraps and coupled them with some store-bought natural fiber paper. Brightly colored thread and decorative stitches were used to attach the found natural material to the paper. I incorporated glimmering seed beads to catch the light, and surrounded the vignette in a tiny wooden frame. The frame was painted with a wash of watercolor, and then rubbed with a homemade natural wood finish to seal it.
We’ve all done so many craft projects with the attention hogs of natural world –flowers, leaves, gourds, ice, fruits, branches, and vines, but there is a goldmine of teensy bits of nature that go unnoticed. This project gives those scraps the glory they deserve.
Your chosen found pieces of natural material
Fibrous decorative paper (purchase at an art supply store, or use homemade paper)
Small wooden frame (frame in example is 2.75” x 3.75”)
Embroidery thread in various colors
Seed beads in various colors
Beeswax and mineral oil mixture to seal painted frame (recipe below)
Rags (for applying and buffing the frame’s finish)
Collect your natural material and lay it on the paper you will be using. Play around with different pieces and various arrangements until you have decided on a nice composition. You can use lots of scraps at once, or keep it simple and make a statement with one pretty piece.
Gather all the materials you will need, choosing thread color and beads that will compliment both your natural scrap and your paper color. Consider both multi-colored contrasting designs, as well as monochromatic color schemes. Get creative here, and try out lots of possibilities before deciding which one you will use.
If your paper is thin, use a glue stick or spray adhesive to glue together a few layers to make it thicker. You’ll need a sturdy piece of paper, to withstand all the stitching you’ll be doing. Most decorative fiber papers are not thick enough as is, and will need to be made a little more substantial.
To mark the correct size for your vignette, use the frame as a template and trace the opening in the frame onto the paper with light pencil lines. To allow for the use of chunky natural materials and beads, the frame’s glass will not be used for this project.
Begin attaching the natural scrap to the fiber paper with the embroidery thread and needle, using decorative stitches. I separate the thread and only use one strand, but this is a design decision you can make on your own. A thicker thread would make some nice, bold, design elements. You can stitch around the object, find a way to put stitches woven within it, or wrap stitches around the object, as I did to attach the twig in the example.
Add beads throughout as desired. Consider using the beads to highlight an interesting feature of your natural scrap. In the example, I threaded beads onto twigs, and secured them into place with stitches.
Add the border. In the example, a beaded border was used, but there are many options for the edge. Make French knots or other traditional embroidery elements, sew decorative stitches around the perimeter, or even choose more nature scraps to make the edging.
When your vignette is complete, you’ll want to stain the frame with some color. Choose a color that will compliment your overall design, bringing out the tiny details of your vignette. You may want to use a color that matches the thread or beads you used, or make it pop with a contrasting hue. To stain the frame, make a wash of watercolor and apply. Depending on how bright you want the color, you may want to add a few layers of paint, letting each coat dry completely.
When the paint is dry, you can seal it with an eco-friendly, non-toxic wood finish. To make the mixture, melt one ounce of beeswax in an old can and add a half cup of mineral oil, stirring as the wax turns to liquid. Once the two ingredients are incorporated, remove from heat and let set. When the mixture has cooled, it will be the consistency of smooth paste. Use a rag to rub the finishing compound onto the wood. Let sit for a few minutes, then use a clean rag to buff the excess compound out. It will leave a nice sheen on the wood and protect the paint.
There are so many possibilities with these vignettes. Explore various shapes and sizes of natural scraps, as well as the orientation of the frame (horizontal or vertical). Try a layout with pieces that differ in quality, like a thick, crooked twig coupled with a flower petal that is worn thin. Experiment with creative techniques to attach your natural scrap pieces. Consider making a series of vignettes and hanging them in a group.
It’s best to hang your vignette on the wall at eye-level, where it will grab attention and allow admirers to easily see all the sweet little details.
Amy Ambroult is a silversmith, lover of snowy nights, the smell of low tide, and hands. Her tactile sense has always driven her creative decisions and life pursuits. From rock climbing to gardening to metalsmithing to sweet caresses for her girls, Amy’s hands are given the opportunity to explore their full potential, while her creativity manifests itself in small, wearable art that can be found in her shop.