Wabi-Sabi Placemats

In the fall an old bat’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of making stuff for the house–as Tennyson might have said, had he given much thought to the fancy-turnings of old bats. (I know that, if you want to get technical, it isn’t fall yet. But it’s my favorite season, so I tend to make it start when the kids around here go back to school in mid-August, and end on, oh, I don’t know, New Year’s Eve.)

So here are some placemats. Since the finished product consists of layers of fabric with batting in between, they are “quilted” within the meaning of the act; but no actual quilting per se is involved, so they’re a good project for beginners, or for people who sew but think they can’t quilt. As is the case with many simple projects, though, what they lack in complexity, they make up for in tedium.

A set of four is made of one “jelly roll”–a set of forty 2-1/2″ wide strips. You fuse a strip of lightweight batting to the reverse side of each piece–ideally, each strip should be about 1-3/4″ wide to reduce bulk. (Being lazy, I used two rolls of this pre-cut light batting. It takes two full rolls to fuse forty width-of-fabric strips. But at least you don’t have to cut forty strips of batting, so it’s that much less boring, though it is a more expensive solution. Unfortunately, this stuff doesn’t fuse all that fabulously, but it will hold together well enough for our purposes.)

You then take each strip and make into a loooong belt loop by turning in the outer edges, folding the strip with the batting on the inside, and edge stitching. Rinse and repeat forty times.

You then abut two of these strips with the seams together, and zigzag them together with a wide zigzag stitch. (They tend to curve toward the seam, so sewing the seam edges  together forces them to lie straighter.) Then you merrily zigzag the pairs together until you have two sets of twenty strips. Even up the ends, cut each set in half, throw a binding around them, and begorrah, you have four generously-sized, very sturdy, completely reversible placemats. Or, you can leave one of the sets intact and have two placemats and a table runner.

If you are so inclined, you can make the placemats all match by using a strip set that has two each of twenty patterns, but this one happens to have forty different strips, so it made two different designs:


So, what makes these wabi-wabi? How do they embrace imperfection, apart from the fact that they happen to have been made by me?

Because it’s just about impossible to make the strips identical, they will have a pleasant unevenness. Especially if you use batiks, it’s best to use a variety of threads, and whenever I ran out of thread in a zigzag seam, which happens often, I made a point to finish the seam in another color. You can already see the edges waving a bit in the photo above, and that effect will only increase with time and washing.

Here is a photo of an older placemat that is probably seven years old and has been washed many times (and I think I used leftover cotton batting in this one). It no longer lies flat:


It has shrunk, and it has that pleasant puckering that quilts made with cotton battings achieve over time, becoming softer and denser:


This process produces a wonderful, thick-yet-soft fabric that is ideal for bags as well as table linens, since the bag is in effect already lined. There is a whole line of patterns, Aunties Two, that uses this technique for a whole range of placemats, bags, toys and home decorating items. I used one of their patterns and an entire set of strips (plus fabric for the top casing, the handles and interior pockets) to make a monster knitting bag, large enough to contain an entire afghan project:


So the technique is kind of like knitting a sweater in stockinette stitch with a fine yarn; it’s a crashing bore, but you end up with a product that is definitely worth it.


9 comments on “Wabi-Sabi Placemats

  1. Beautiful. I liked your description last week, and it’s satisfying to see them finished. I am ferociously in favor of wabi-sabi, the look that says “Hands made me. I wasn’t spit out of a machine.”


  2. Those placemats are very nice, but if you EVER get tired of that bag, you can feel safe in that knowledge that it will be loved by me until the end of my days!! I am a sucker for ANYTHING done in shades of my beloved iris garden.


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