Susan Lenz

The "Strata Series" was inspired by the cross-sectional profiles of the earth. The resulting series was worked on water-soluble fabric in free motion machine embroidery. The series was SHORT LIVED. Thus, this blog is a place to BURY blog the cross-sectional profiles. It functions as a support area for my "main" blog which is Art in Stitches by Susan Lenz.

Monday, March 31, 2014

HOT and Hair-Brained, My article in Dale Rollerson's e-magazine

(Above:  Hot and Hair-Brained ... as seen in Dale Rollerson's In Fusion e-magazine.)

Recently I was honored to write both a feature article and an artist's profile for Dale Rollerson's In Fusion e-magazine.  (Dale and her husband Ian own The Thread Studio, my favorite Internet shop for contemporary embroidery supplies.)  The issue, which is by subscription, has just been released.  Dale has given me permission to re-print my words.  Of course, the rest of the magazine is absolutely outstanding.  Each issue is devoted to some aspect of the contemporary world of fiber and stitch.  This one is called "In the Heat of the Moment" and includes lots of melting, burning, and HOT techniques like Wendy Cotterill's "Sashing and Burning", Jacinta Leishman's embossed velvets, and textile techniques by Margaret Beal ... plus plenty more.

(Above:  One of the pages of my article.)

The article is accompanied by lots of great images ... but to read it in this fashion, get a subscription!  CLICK HERE to do that.  Below is the text!  Enjoy!  I sure had fun writing it!  I also wrote an artist's profile for this issue called Never Enough ... Art and Hours which can be read HERE.)

by Susan Lenz

Once upon a time … when dinosaurs roamed the earth … I was a wannabe embroiderer who only got around to finding her needle and thread once a year.  I’m not kidding!  I had a pledging custom picture framing business that required more than full-time hours and two toddlers.  Once a year, I treated myself to a vacation.  Wherever the Embroiderer’s Guild of America was holding its annual, National Seminar, I went.  Due to my busy life, I never sent my application in a timely manner. Instead, I dialed the seminar’s registrar at the very last moment, asked which classes were still available, and gave my credit card number.  That is how in 1996 I ended up in Charlotte Miller’s 4-day workshop called “Autobiography In Stitches”.  I opted for this experience because … well … the word “autobiography” meant that I had to know “something” about it.  Had the registrar told me it was a “design workshop”, I would have panicked and selected anything else.

It was a pivotal experience.  Charlotte Miller was the perfect teacher for me.  She never used the “big, bad D word” (DESIGN); she told us to “arrange our elements”.  I’m a natural “arranger”.  By the end of the week, I had two completed pieces and a third nearing the finish line.  Other workshops visited our room.  As a class, we visited other workshops too … especially the two that were “the talk of the convention”.  Of course, I’d never heard about these two, international instructors but everyone’s conversation was a-buzz with excitement.  Who were they?  Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn.

I was at least ten yards away from an eight-person round-top table filled with the most glorious fabric and amazing samples when my knees went to jelly.  Right there, on the spot, I was madly in love.  I vowed that I would never stitch another pattern or kit and that I’d somehow figure out what was on that table, how to make it, and to spend the rest of my life in pursuit of this sort of art.  From a wannabe embroiderer, an artist was about to be born.

Of course, it took me another two years to get into one of “Double Trouble’s” workshops.  Then, I took several … right in a row … one after another … experiences of pure joy, fiber exploration, and free stitching by both hand and machine. 

In the meantime, my business was still growing.  My family was too. Time for art was very, very limited.  I was frustrated.  I wanted more.  I forcibly downsized my business in 2001.

The last workshops I took under Jan and Jean took place in 2003 in Alaska.  We saw a moose!  It was fantastic.  There were only four other people in my two days with Jean, so the experience was like a one-on-one blessing.  This individual attention forced me to focus on my life, my art, and my dreams.  I realized that I didn’t want to be in anyone else’s footsteps.  It was time for me to quit taking workshop, strike out on my own, and develop my own ideas.  Jan and Jean had already taught me two critical things:  1) soldering irons melt synthetic fabrics and 2) how to act on hair-brained ideas.

It wasn’t long after that when one of those hair-brained ideas popped into my head.  I continued to hear Jean’s voice cautioning students, “Don’t push too hard with the soldering iron.  You don’t want to go all the way through the fabric.”

I thought to myself, “Why?  What will happen if I go all the way through?”

A hole, of course!

“Why is this a problem?” I thought.  Then my brain started swirling with ideas for holes.  I already had the knowledge that synthetic materials MELT and that natural materials DON’T MELT.  (They “burn” … and there’s a difference!)  I’d watched other students trying to melt through cotton fabric with a soldering iron.  It doesn’t work.  I asked myself, “If cotton fabric doesn’t melt, would cotton thread also hold up against the heat from a soldering iron?  From exposure to an industrial heat gun?” There was only one way to find out.  Act on the hair-brained idea.

My first attempt was small, under 10” x 8”.  I layered squares of polyester stretch velvets (another material used in Jean and Jan’s workshop) with WonderUnder/Bond-a-Web on a piece of acrylic felt.  They were arranged like a grid with space between the units.  All these fabrics were synthetics.  Next, I free-motion stitched links between the units using 100% cotton thread.

Guess what?  It works.  The soldering iron made holes right through the layers of polyester velvet and acrylic felt.  The heat gun melted the thinnest layer away within seconds.  That thinnest layer was the space between the velvet units.  It was just the acrylic felt.  Zap!  Gone!  Yet, the cotton thread held up.  The next piece was considerable bigger.  Because I was using little squares, I called them “In Boxes”

I continued to experiment.  Metallic foiling added a touch of dazzle.  Chiffon scarves made my machine glide over the uneven surfaces and its adhesives.  I found a source for recycled acrylic felt.  The felt I use now was once the packaging material for a kayak or canoe being shipped from a distributor to a local outdoors shop.  People seeing the resulting artwork often commented, “How do you stitch those squares together?”  I’d laugh and explain that I didn’t stitch them together; I melted them apart!  Finally, I wrote a free, on-line tutorial on the process.  It is called How To Make An In Box.  It can be found at: 

This is a step-by-step tutorial with plenty of images.

The work, however, continued to evolve.  It was accepted into several regional and national juried shows.  I also hung pieces in my studio and at my business.  Positive comment continued … including, “Susan, it looks like stained glass”.

The next hair-brained idea popped into my head.  I found myself wondering, “What would happen, if you cut the polyester shapes differently … in ways to better emulate the look of a real stained glass window?”  Guess what!  It works. 

It has been several years since I first embarked on this incredible journey of my own making.  Now, I am not alone with my soldering iron and heat gun.  I have a studio assistant helping with the HOT techniques.  We both wear a ventilator.  The fumes really are toxic.  Four years ago I found representation at the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville for this work.  It sells well.  Last year I ventured into a big arena … the world of 10’ x 10’ Pro Panel booths set up in classy convention centers!  I’ve been successfully juried into the Washington Craft Show, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, and the upcoming American Craft Council’s flagship show in Baltimore.  I even have available pieces posted on a blog at:   

I currently make the “In Box” series in three sizes and can accept commissions based on the need for other sizes.  I make four different sizes of “Stained Glass” pieces:  Windows, (small) 17 1/4" x 15 1/4" framed; Lancet Windows, (tall and skinny) 31 1/4" x 11 1/4" framed; Lunette Windows (the only horizon ones) 23” x 29” framed; and Large Stained Glass Windows, 62 ½” x 22 ½” framed.  I’ve taught these techniques in several great locations too:  The Studios of Key West in Florida, The Society of Contemporary Crafts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, The Columbia Museum of Art, and elsewhere.  I’m also going to Mary McBride’s Focus on Fibers Retreat at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in March to teach and am available for any other, wild and wonderful adventures!

The most fun, however, still happens in my garage watching the soldering iron melt its way through as many as seven layers of polyester velvet and seeing the acrylic felt seemingly evaporate through exposure to the heat gun.  Yes … I’ve even got a video of that process.  It’s like magic and HOT, HOT, HOT.  Being “hot” is never a problem for a middle-aged artist!

My advice:  Get HOT and act on your hair-brained ideas!

Video of my melting out the work with a heat gun is at:


  • At April 4, 2014 at 7:31 AM , Blogger Wanda said...

    Once are my hero! I have hair-brained ideas too. Not in your direction but in my own. But I can't seem to let go. I sometimes do alittle but I have never reached that...freedom. I am still working on it and you are my guide.


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