Using thread and vintage elements to connect to the past

Hello Messians, Vanessa here for the first tutorial of the Season of Connections. I don’t know about you, but for me the idea of connection is definitely related to the past. It’s probably the archaeologist in me because, if you really think about it, we’ve never been so connected before. This is the age of instant connections, no matter where we live on the planet. I love connecting with people through technology. But for this tutorial, I’m going old school and bringing out vintage elements. I’m using this accordion photo album, bought in a local hutong shop.

I have been wanting to work with fabric and stitching for a while now. I love sewing notions and have a nice little collection of vintage spools of thread. I decided to pull out my favourite colours for this Season.

If you know me, you know I love to work with vintage photos. I have a big collection of these, both from family albums, gifts from awesome people and other places I’ve found them throughout the years. I went through my collection and curated a kit of sorts with some favourite vintage photos, vintage book pages, fabric, ribbon, lace, buttons and paper.

For this tutorial, I’m going to show you three ways to incorporate stitching into your journals. You need to gather images, different types of paper, fabric, thread and needle, scissors and any other elements you want to add to your pages. If you have a sewing machine, great! If you don’t, you can adapt these stitching methods and do them by hand.

1- Shashiko stitching

Shashiko (or “little stabs”) is a traditional Japanese hand stitching method. The idea is to use a running stitch to mend or reinforce the fabric. White thread was used on indigo dyed fabric, which turns this stitching method into a kind of “visible mending”. This plays into the “too good to waste” Japanese ideology of uniting simplicity and function. From straight stitches to decorative elements, shashiko quilting is now valued as an art form. Here is my take on this stitch:

The spread above is about my father who passed away in 2014. I took one of his handkerchiefs (he always had them in his pocket), tore it and then used the shashiko stitch to mend it, to hold it together. Each one of these imperfect stitches is mending my relationship with my father.

The picture I used isn’t of my father, but it could be. These stitches are mending his childhood, during which many things happened that would influence the course of the rest of his life. They are mending things I couldn’t say to him and that he couldn’t say to me. They are the words we didn’t have time to say. They are emotional and raw against the frayed edges of the handkerchief. They connecting us even as they are connecting fabric and paper.

My father was South African and a myth maker. Once again, this is not him, but it could’ve been. He liked to paint himself in a different light than reality. The fabric behind the photo is a fragment of an afghan he wore. Just seeing that pattern brings back a strong sensory memory of him. I adapted the shashiko stitch to a more organic and flowing shape to highlight the explorer in the photo. This would’ve been how he imagined himself.

2. Functional stitching

This is a super simple idea: use stitching as you would glue. You can run your photos and fabric through your sewing machine to assemble them. In doing this, you can add a decorative element to the functionality of the stitch. This spread evokes lost memories and moments in time. Even though they were documented, they fade.

I’ve done this with the machine stitched flowers you see here. They hold the photo and the fabric together but are also decorative. I drew them with my sewing machine.

I used the stitching to adhere the photo to the labelled paper, but also added a decorative element by mimicking the square of the photo frame.

I also used stitching to add the crochet flower to the paper. This label is from a package addressed to my grandmother Marie-Jeanne. The writing on the top (“Image Ste-Thérèse de l’Enf. Jésus du Carmel”) is her handwriting. Seeing this connects me to her, to Montreal where I am from, the bridge behind the woman in the photo is the one to Quebec City where I studies for my doctorate.

3. Drawing with your sewing machine

This one takes a lot of patience. I also do not recommend using vintage thread for this as it can tear easily and drawing with thread is already time-consuming. I “drew” the woman on the right with my sewing machine. I drew directly on the fabric, but I would recommend placing a piece of paper behind the fabric to make it more sturdy and easier to move around.

When you draw with your machine, you need to press the pedal ever so slightly so you can better control the stitches. It’s a good idea to have an idea in your mind of what you want to draw. You can even sketch it lightly with a pencil on your fabric. Don’t forget to stop and realign, look at your stitching, go over some of the elements and above all, forgive yourself if it isn’t perfect! Drawing a woman was harder than the flowers I did above, but I really enjoyed the challenge. I hand stitched the red button into place, as a metaphor for the heart.

This spread speaks of body issues passed down through generations of women in my family. The cult of one’s appearance, a double edged sword. The woman I drew-stitched is not perfect, but then neither am I. My body carries a lot of stories including of those who came before and those who have come after.  For the photo below I adhered it using the functional decorative stitch. The woman in the middle was my great-aunt.


1.Try “visible mending” using the shashiko method. Use bright thread on dark fabric or vice versa. Make sure the stitches are visible. Also make sure to notice the beauty of the backside of your stitching like below:


2. Use stitching as you would glue but pay attention to the aesthetic of your stitching. Mimic part of the shape of what you are assembling.

3. Draw with your sewing machine. Try using different coloured thread to make an illustration. Vary the fabric on which you stitch to get a different result.

4. If you don’t have a sewing machine, hand stitch your drawing. Or highlight a segment of the pattern in your fabric. Embroider beads or buttons or ribbon onto your stitching.

Most of all, be intentional and make those connections. With the past, the present or the future, up to you! But just remember that each stitch is truly a dialogue with your journal.

Further readings:

Stitch Stories. Personal Places, Spaces and Traces in Textile Art by Cas Holmes. Batsford, 2015.

The Art of Fabric Books. Innovative Ways to Use fabric in Scrapbooks, Altered Books and more by Jan Bode Smiley. C & T Publishing, 2005.



Vanessa is an archaeologist and an artist. She oscillates between these two poles of her personality and explores the many iterations of her reality in her art journal. She loves to share her art and process with others.


  1. Sarah Fuchs

    Oh man, Vanessa, you never cease to amaze me!

  2. Eleanor McComb

    This is incredibly beautiful and meaningful V!! I have so many ideas running through my head now. Thank you x

  3. Divyam Bernstein

    This is so beautiful and inspiring, Vanessa! Thank you so much for this awesome tutorial! xxx

  4. Melody Willoughby

    amazing! as always! Connections are a important part of my family. sometimes good, sometimes not. your tutorial has given me a wealth of ideas for this season. thank you so much my friend.

  5. Clare Davis Etheridge

    Yes, getting the sewing machine out this week!! Thanks Vanessa, I will have a dig through my vintage photos and see what I can find, I am feeling inspired!

  6. CIndy Jacobs

    Wow! I love this! Thank You!

  7. Misty Granade

    This is so cool!! Thanks!!

  8. Tanyalee Kahler

    Of course you have triggered my creativity – if nothing else my spread this week will include stitching – or thread. The connection topic is difficult for me though. Something I need to work on privately perhaps.

  9. Rebecca

    I have read through your tutorial three times, and each time am more amazed! Inspirational.

  10. Christine Welch

    This was really cool…I love shashiko stitching!❤️

  11. Gilly Welch

    I love the idea of using stitching instead of glue, you’re always so inspiring with all your tutorials and courses, thank you so much V. xx

  12. Alexandra merlin

    Such wonderful ideas and inspiration Vanessa!!

  13. TC Larson

    Vanessa, you are a wonder. This is amazing.

  14. Torrie Gass

    I absolutely loved this! I’ve done some stitching in my journals in the past, but never to this extentent.

    If you are wanting to do more drawing with stitches, a great tool to have is a free motion quilting foot. It’s a sewing foot for your machine, but it doesn’t grip the fabric like a regular foot so you can move the fabric or paper around freely. Lots of quilters use it to “draw” on their quilts. I could see you making great use of one!

  15. Sasha Zinevych

    Wildly inspiring, as always!

  16. Holly Janssen

    I am thinking the sewing machine may make it out of the crawlspace this fall. Thank you. This is really meaningful to me as I come from a long line of sewers, quilters, and knitters. I have tried several of these arts, but not kept up with any. This can bring them back to my life without it needing it to be in pure form. Can’t wait. This may take me a while…

  17. Cheryl Angelini

    Just seeing this now. This is truly amazing , Vanessa. Your art journal pages leave me awestruck