Introduction: Building Kali's Back

About: I re*make mobility devices and materials and give them new lives. I re*use often. And sometimes I staple drape.

And now it's time for more mobility artwork!

For my next mobility artwork I'm re-making an old aluminum walker into Kali, the multi-armed Hindu goddess of time and empowerment. I'm making the "skin" out of leather scraps.This first segment is all about making a pattern for the torso and translating spandex into leather to cover the back.

It's tough to say how long this will take, but I'm looking forward to the challenge. It's going to be interesting figuring out how to make the 4 sets of arms balance.

For more mobility art, check out the Jazzy Peacock Scooter Instructables or take a peek at the Opulent Mobility web site! It's finally up and running.

Here's the tools I used for Kali's back:

Sharp scissors

Silver jumbo spandex leftover from a superhero outfit (about 1 1/2 yards)

Leather scrap from jackets, pants, sofas and upholstery samples

Quilting pins

Sharpie pens in black, blue and red

Sewing machine and a size 14 leather needle

Black polyester thread

And a whole lot of patience.

Step 1: Kali Pattern Pinning

So why turn Kali into a walker?

Most of my artworks start with me jotting down ideas, stewing on them for a while, then researching the elements. Mythology fascinates me (it has for as long as I can remember) and the idea of goddess based mobility sculptures has been simmering for about a year. My ideas can come fast and furious, and I don't always have the time or resources to make those ideas tangible right away. In this case, Opulent Mobility work, the Jazzy Peacock Scooter and my TV day gig sucked up all my time and energy. So I wrote the ideas down and kept them on a simmer for a while.

While building the Opulent web site, there were times I couldn't stare at Photoshop or the web site template anymore. Rachel Gibson of Art and Art Deadlines sent me a note about putting together an exhibit on the intersection of feminism and other issues, and the Kali walker instantly sprang to mind! I had materials in mind and a walker base I'd been meaning to use. So I did some research on Kali, chose some favorite images and got to work when on break from web site building.

There's a ton of information about and images of Kali online, but there don't seem to be any pictures of her back! The sculpture pictures I found are mounted to walls or have a cloak or hair covering the back. It's hard to tell where all those arms are coming from. I'll have to figure that out.

I didn't take pictures until the pattern pieces were already pinned. Hopefully the photos I have will help show how this went together. In short, I put a large piece of jumbo spandex around the torso and kept pinning out pieces until the fabric fit pretty smoothly over the form.

The plan was to make Kali's body out of scrap leather, but it was too hard to pin and shape leather bits over the torso. I used jumbo spandex instead.

That was not my best choice.

It's better to use something that behaves like your finished material to make a pattern. If the finished material stretches, use a stretch fabric. If it doesn't, use something that doesn't. Leather stretches a little, but not as much as spandex. I tried to keep the spandex flat as I pinned, but sometimes it stretched out anyway. It's okay. That's what pattern notes and fittings are for!

After pinning all my pieces, I marked out each side of each pinned line using a black Sharpie. Sometimes the fabric was too short or didn't cover all the areas I wanted covered, so I made notes about where to add extra material when I re-cut each piece in leather. I pinned everything as smoothly as I could and got ready to take the spandex off the mannequin.

Step 2: Unpinning the Pattern

Here's where I unpinned the pattern from the form and found out just how much the spandex stretched. Or so I thought.

The principle of what stretch fabric does around a form is pretty easy to see on a balloon. Blow a balloon up, draw lines on the balloon, then untie the bottom and let the air out. The area in between the lines shrinks.

I wasn't stretching out my fabric a lot as I pinned, but spandex stretches whether you want it to or not. That's how it's made. Unfortunately, pinning around a complicated shape means that some areas stretch out differently than others. It's almost impossible to tell how much. So I unpinned small parts at a time. This let the spandex pieces re-shape over the body. When the pieces pulled apart, hopefully I could tell how much to add to each seam.

I thought I'd need to add 2 inches to each side seam, making the whole body 4" wider. This was partially because of the spandex and partially because my mannequin is tiny. I wanted Kali to have a more womanly shape. When I unpinned the left side, there was a solid gap of about two inches in between the black Sharpie lines. I needed to add 2" on either side just to make it fit the form! So my estimate of how much the fabric stretched was way off.

Unpinning the right shoulder seam left another gap, this time about 3" wide. Okay, it was time to try another method. The new plan was to cut each piece of leather based on my pattern pieces but with a little bit added all the way around. I would sew the pieces together and fit the pieces over the form one by one. Hopefully that would create the fit I wanted.

After poking myself many times while taking the spandex off the torso and looking at the huge amount of pinned pieces I wondered what I was doing. This was a mess. How could I keep track of all the pieces, much less make them fit smoothly?

Step 3: Redrawing Pieces and Choosing Leathers

When faced with an enormous mess of pattern pieces, it's best to lay them out and work with one piece at a time. So that's what I did. I laid out the mess on my ironing table and took a look. I started with the left back side seam. I only knew it was the side seam because I labeled it.

Labeling each piece is a good idea. When there are huge amounts of pieces, sometimes labeling can get confusing. Do you number the pieces? Letter them? If there are 30-40 pieces, do you restart the alphabet with lowercase letters after reaching Z?

I opted to work on one piece at a time, so all I needed to to do is label the starting points. Then I pulled out a red and a blue Sharpie to re-mark my pieces.

When I'm drawing new lines on a piece, I like to change the color of my marker. That way I can easily tell which line to follow.

I marked new lines at each pin, then unpinned the side panel from the mass of other pattern pieces. I laid the piece out separately and connected the lines smoothly using the blue pen. I also cleanly marked how much to add in the areas where the fabric was short.

Once the pattern piece was all drawn out, I pulled out the very full leather scrap bin. I use a lot of recycled leather. Some of it came from thrift store clothes (pants and jackets, mostly) but there's also donated leather from all over- scraps from the Thor movie, pieces from Tony Swatton of the Sword and the Stone, sofa cushion remnants and a whole lot of upholstery leather samples. I dug out a promising piece of leather that once was a pair of black suede pants and got ready to cut.

Step 4: From Jumbo Spandex to Suede

I turned the leather over to the suede side and laid out my pattern piece on top. I drew around the pattern, adding 1" to the side seam and 3/8" to the opposite side to use as seam allowance. At the bottom I added 1/2", like the note on my pattern said. Then I cut out the suede along the lines.

When the piece was cut, I put the mannequin down on the work table, left side up, and laid the suede piece over its side. I used torn off bits of masking tape to hold the leather in place on the form. This way I could check the fit of the leather before moving on to my next piece.

Store display mannequins are usually made of hard materials like fiberglass. Dressmaker's dummies are usually squishier, being made of foam and/or batting around a solid core. These dummies are symmetrical, which can be a plus when draping clothing, and you can pin into them. It's tough to pin things to fiberglass. If you want to make a curvy asymmetric body shape, though, store mannequins are great even if you have to find creative ways to attach your pieces to them.

Masking tape worked pretty well, but next time I'd use something less sticky like painter's tape. The adhesive in the tape stuck too firmly to the leather. It wasn't a problem with the suede, but on thin, smooth leathers the tape tore off the finish. More about that later!

Step 5: Same Process, Next Piece

Moving on to the next piece! I used the blue Sharpie once again to mark the next pattern piece at each pin. In some parts I added a little extra outside the black lines to hopefully make the piece fit better over the form. At the middle of the piece I pinned a fold of spandex down smoothly. That area bulged out a little on the mannequin. I pinned the fold down on the form, but it was still a little messy. It's easier to smooth out bulges on the work table.

I took out the pins holding this piece to the next one as I marked, re-drew my lines in blue and marked out a 3/8" seam allowance on each side. Then I chose my next piece of leather, which used to be the front of a forest green jacket. If you check out the 4th picture you can see one of the jacket's pockets on the lower right. I used the notes I wrote on the pattern to adjust the bottom edge, adding 1" on one side and nothing on the opposite side. Then I cut out the new piece, making sure to add an extra 1" at the left shoulder.

Now it was time to check the fit and figure out how to sew the green smooth leather to the suede side seam panel!

Step 6: Piecing Problems

At first, I tried to overlap my seams. That meant taking the suede, placing it over the green leather and pinning it down. It didn't go smoothly. Leather is tricky to pin. Staples are a good choice for holding one piece of leather to another, but the staple holes show. The pin holes are a little smaller, but they still scar the leather. And the green leather did not play well with the masking tape. I tried to tape it down and the tape tore off chunks of the smooth finish.

Okay, no problem. I'd pin the pieces together so the seams were on the outside. It meant I would have really noticeable seams, but I like visible seams. It adds texture and interest. Hopefully all those lines would look good with Kali's extra arms! I pinned the leather pieces together, using that 3/8" seam allowance. Then I set the sewing machine to a short straight stitch and sewed the seam using a size 14 universal needle and black polyester thread.

Sewing lightweight leather with a regular needle is fine. A leather needle has a slight chisel point at the tip, which cuts into the leather. This is great for heavier leathers, which need a sharper needle, but it can perforate lightweight leather badly. You know how paper tears really easily with a perforated edge? Leather does that too.

After sewing the seam, I trimmed down my seam allowance to 1/8" and put both pieces back on the mannequin. I taped down the suede and held the leather in place. The fit was pretty good around the arm hole and the top of the shoulder, but it flared out a little over the shoulder blade. No worries. The plan was to use a slightly heavier leather for the next piece. I could tape heavier leather down safely.

Step 7: Back Piece #3

I cleaned up the next pattern piece the same way I did the last 2, using the blue pen to mark my new lines and taking out the pins as I went. I cleaned up my lines, drew in the 3/8" seam allowance and made notes about where to add onto the pattern. Then I pulled out my next leather remnant, a dark chocolate brown piece left over from a sofa.

This leather was a little sturdier than the dark green and had a more durable finish that didn't come off with masking tape. (I tested a scrap to make sure of this first.) Unfortunately, it was too short for the full pattern piece. Not a problem! I laid out the bottom part of the pattern on the leather, then folded the top of the pattern over. I found some more scraps of the same leather in the remnant bin. I'd piece the leather together to make it long enough.

One of the nice things about leather is that it doesn't fray or fall apart when you cut it. This makes it pretty easy to piece together. "Piecing together" means taking one piece of material and adding another piece to it. Since I was already planning on having a lot of seams on this artwork, adding a seam to the middle of a piece was no big deal.

Step 8: What to Do When Scraps Are Short

I looked through the leather scraps to see if I had a couple of pieces that would fit together nicely. I put a promising looking piece on top and moved up the bottom piece so they overlapped by about 1/4". It looked good, so I test fit the pattern on the leather. It fit with room to spare. I used little bits of masking tape to "pin" the leather in place, carefully pulling up each side of the overlap and shoving the tape underneath. That would hold the pieces together long enough to get me to the sewing machine.

I set the machine to a short, tight zig-zag and sewed the leather together right at the overlapped edge. Then I turned the pieces over, pulled off the tape bits and trimmed the seam close to the zig-zag stitch. This technique makes a nice flat seam. Since that seam was going right in the middle of the piece, flatter was better. Sewing a raised seam across another raised seam makes a big lump.

I laid out the pattern over my pieced leather and drew out the new lines, adding the 3/8" seam allowance to either side and extra at the bottom according to the notes on the pattern. Then I cut out the leather along the lines. I changed the machine back to a straight stitch and sewed this piece to the green leather using a 1/4" seam. Yes, I did add 3/8" to each side. Since this leather was a little thicker than the other pieces, I figured that making my seams smaller would add a little extra breathing room.

I trimmed the seam down to 1/8" and test fit it on the mannequin again. It was a nice smooth fit. Excellent news!

Step 9: Redrawing the Back Neck

Going back to the mess of spandex on the ironing board, I realized that my next pieces were kind of long. These pieces were pinned to fit over the back, up the neck and all the way up to the top of the mannequin's head.

My leather remnants were not that long, and I didn't want to piece everything. It takes a lot of time and it can look messy when the piecing lines don't match up. I wanted the back lines to be smooth, so I decided to make a back neck seam line. That would keep each piece down to a size I could reasonably fit on my leather scraps. A V-shape looked like a good choice. I drew a V starting at the top edge of my next pattern piece, extending down through 2 other pieces and then going back up. Then I remembered the unpinned right shoulder seam.

When adding a seam to a pattern after it's already been pinned, it's good to think about where the seam will stop and start. It seemed like a good idea to make my V end right at the top of the right shoulder seam, but I didn't remember how that seam fit together! I re-pinned the right shoulder to double check the fit, and naturally my first attempt at a line was really off. So was my second attempt. Luckily I hadn't cut anything yet. So I re-drew the line a third time and crossed out the old lines.

Crossed out or scribbled over lines are a universal signal for "don't use this line".

Now that the pattern was re-drawn, I was ready to get back to the leather.

Step 10: And Now for My Next Piece...

Same deal, 4th piece. I cut the top of the pattern off at my new neck seam line, then marked all the pinned lines with the blue pen. I unpinned the piece, flattened out the spandex where I needed to, redrew my lines and pulled out the next piece of remnant leather. This one was a scarred piece of black leather leftover from a rock-and-roll TV episode.

I drew the pattern out on the leather, adding in the 3/8" seam allowances to each side, and cut it out. I sewed it to the last leather piece using a 1/4" seam allowance, trimmed the seam down to 1/8" and test fit it on the mannequin. It looked a little loose, but the fit was all right. Then I pulled the remaining spandex pieces over the mannequin to see how that new neck line looked.

The gap between the spandex and the leather pieces was bigger than anticipated, but it wasn't too bad. I figured I could keep using the spandex as pattern pieces but would check the fit on the form after each piece. I could always add in extra leather panels to make up the difference. The new neckline looked good, anyway.

I took the spandex back off the form, laid it on the ironing table and tried to smooth out the back neck enough to cut out the new line without ruining my scissors.

Step 11: Neck Cutting and Next Piece

I carefully unpinned and re-pinned the seams right next to the new neck line, then cut along that line very carefully. I cut one piece at a time, keeping the pins away from my scissor blades.

Cutting into a pin is a fast way to put a good sized nick in your scissors. It's a big pain and the blades can't always be sharpened out easily. If you can, avoid cutting pins. If you do hit a pin, wipe the blades off carefully and go to a scissor sharpener as soon as you can.

Once the seam was cut, I had a pretty clear view of the next 4 pieces. I re-drew the lines on all of them in blue pen and pinned down the spandex folds where necessary. One of the pieces had a complicated join that looked messy. I drew a new seam line to make the piece extend all the way up to the top edge. I cut along that new line almost but not quite to the top. (See picture #4.) The next piece stopped about 4" down from the neck. I trimmed it away from the other pattern pieces but left it attached at the very top. Leaving the pieces attached meant I wouldn't lose track of them.

I went back to the first of the 4 pattern pieces and added a 3/8" seam allowance to both sides. My next leather choice was a pebbled blue leather left over from my first attempt at upholstering Driven. I laid the pattern out on it, drew in my lines, cut it out and sewed it to the smooth black leather panel using a 1/4" seam allowance. Then I tried it back on the mannequin.

Oops. All those additions to the bottoms of the patterns were adding up. The bottom edge flared out in odd little fin shapes. Time to tape this leather down and re-fit the back!

Step 12: Reshaping on the Form

I taped the leather pieces more securely on the mannequin and pinned out the extra bits of flare on the bottom edges. Then I took the leather off the form and re-sewed the seams along the pin lines, making sure to back stitch when I reached the points that didn't need any adjustments. I trimmed the new seams down to 1/8" again and tried the leather back on the form. It looked good, so I cleaned up the patterns for the next 4 pieces and cut them out of different leather scraps.

The scraps came from (in order of use) a pair of smooth black leather pants, chocolate brown sofa scrap, part of a pea soup colored suede jacket and the forest green leather from before.

I sewed the leather pieces one at a time, using a 1/4" seam allowance that I trimmed down to 1/8", and tested the fit on the form after each piece was ready. The black leather pant piece needed a little adjusting on its bottom flare, but I fixed that the same way I did with the other pieces. The next 3 pieces went together smoothly and fit nicely over the form. Woo hoo! The back was halfway there. Time to check back in with the spandex.

Pro tips:

1. It's usually easier to take off extra material than it is to add in more material. Making something a little too large and then taking it in is pretty easy. Making something too small and trying to let it out sucks up a lot of time and energy.

2. Sewing leather with a 1/4" seam allowance and trimming it down may seem like a waste of materials. Trying to sew different leathers together with an 1/8" seam allowance is badly frustrating. The pieces slide off or stick to each other in weird ways that lead to skipped stitches and big gaps. Re-sewing leather seams multiple times can weaken them to the point of tearing, and the leather tends to stretch out of shape.

It's a lot less wasteful and annoying to trim off that excess.

Step 13: Separating the Right Back Side

I figured now was a good time to separate the back pattern pieces from the front pieces. Leaving the side seams open would help a lot with adjusting fit. Besides, there were a lot of pins in that mess of spandex and I kept snagging my forearms on the points. Fewer pins mean fewer pokes.

I laid the spandex out on the ironing board again and marked each side of each pinned area with the blue pen. The right shoulder piece looked like a mess and I wasn't sure how much to add to it, but that was a problem for later. I unpinned the right side seam from the front, set the front pieces aside and got to work on the remaining back pieces. I cleaned up my lines with the blue pen and made notes about adding extra to the bottom edge. Then I brought the right back spandex pieces over to the form to see how they fit.

Whoa. There was a gap of about 1 1/4"- almost 2"between the leather pieces and the area the spandex was supposed to cover. But not to worry! Gaps can be patterned, and the back was already made up of a lot of different leather pieces. Adding another one would not be a problem.

Step 14: Adding in to Re-Fit the Spine

I pulled the spandex pieces into the position I wanted them and held them in place over the form. I taped the bottom and top of the spandex down and used a tape measure to measure the gaps in between the spandex and the leather. I measured across the gap and up and down the body.

It looked like I could get away with using a 2" wide strip of leather that was long enough to cover the body. I could adjust the width on the opposite side as needed. So that's what I did. I cut a strip 21" long and 2" wide out of the black rock and roll leather, sewed it to the dark green leather panel with a 1/4" seam allowance, trimmed the allowance down to 1/8" and tested the fit on the mannequin again with the spandex pieces. It was almost but not quite right. I trimmed the free edge of the leather strip to follow the back curve and test fit the spandex again. That did the trick.

I cleaned up the next 2 spandex pattern pieces and cut them out of leather, using scraps of black pants and brown sofa leather. I sewed them on with a 1/4" seam allowance,trimmed the seams to 1/8" and test fit the leather pieces again. It was looking good! I lifted the mannequin up and set it on its base so I could get to work on the right shoulder.

Step 15: Right Scapula and Finished Back

The next 2 pieces were pretty simple, but drawing in the new lines was messy. Instead of adding seam allowances to the spandex pieces, I cut out the spandex on the new seam lines and added seam allowances to the leather. In order, the pieces were leftovers from a custom dyed mask order and swirly black leather from an 80's coat.

The last piece was the right shoulder seam, and the notes I wrote on the spandex were confusing. I used the sturdy chocolate brown sofa leather for this piece in case it needed a lot of extra handling, and added extra all the way around the spandex pattern to be safe.

I sewed all 3 pieces together in order, using 1/4" seam allowance and then trimming the allowances down to 1/8". Then I put it back on the form and it fit. Excellent news! The seams were a little messy and uneven, but they will be cleaned up and painted later on. I taped the edges of the leather pieces to the mannequin to help them keep their shape and let it sit for a while.

The mannequin back is now a lovely table decoration. But it won't stay there. Next time I'll tackle the front pieces.

Stay tuned for more body parts!

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