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Photo: Andreana Bitsis

Embroidered Magnolia Leaves Could Be The Next Wave on Etsy

Artist Heather Riniker started embroidering Magnolia leaves almost by accident. “It was my last year at Savannah College of Art and Design, in a senior portfolio class, and my teacher had this exercise where we choose a bunch of different categories of words and put them in envelopes and then grab them,” she recalls. “And I think I came up with ’embroidery,’ ‘paper,’ ‘nature,’… I don’t remember all the words, but I had a needle and thread with me in class, so I just started embroidering on paper, and whatever I did then looked like a leaf, and I was just like ‘Oh my gosh–I can embroider on leaves!!’”

“I’m very outdoorsy and I think a lot about nature, and I did a lot of research in art earlier that year about doing art with non-conventional items,” she continues. “So I was thinking of all these things in my head when I said to my teacher, ‘I’ll be right back’. Then, I ran outside and grabbed a leaf and started embroidering.” Below, Riniker and GC discuss the beautiful embroidered magnolia leaves that resulted from this process.

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GC: I’ve never seen anything like your embroidering on leaves. It’s very inventive! What is your artist background?

HR: I went straight into art school at Savannah College of Art and Design, and I originally was going for architecture. I was a little afraid of computers, so I was doing traditional courses. I’m not very good with technology, so I tried out the major called “Fibers” and I thought ‘I’ll just try the intro course’. I did, and I loved it because was so tactile, and it was with my hands– no computers.

Photo: Andreana Bitsis

GC: What has the reaction to your art been like? Are people as surprised as I am to realize these are real leaves?

HR: So, I’m literally just starting this up. I had a job, and I kind of didn’t really do any art on my own since I graduated in 2013, and I was missing it. Over the summer I had moved from Savannah to Atlanta, and I had some down time and I really wanted to get back into embroidering again because it’s simple, I can take it with me anywhere, and it doesn’t really cost me a lot to make.

I kind of picked it up just to do something for myself, now I’d like to build an etsy, have a website, but I needed work first. So I started making a collection over the summer, I made three of them, and they sold. They were great. I got some more interest from other people, so I made another collection, and that also sold. Then, someone saw me doing it in a Starbucks and I’m actually making him one now– a custom order. The ones you’ve probably seen are the ones that have mandala designs, but this guy was like, ‘Hey can you do a cross?’ And I was like ‘Sure, why not?’ So I’m currently working on that one. I’d like to build this into [a more expanded portfolio] as the mandalas take me 7-16 or 18 hours to do.

GC: I wanted to ask about the integrity of the leaf. I haven’t handled too many magnolia leaves in my life, but I’m curious how they hold up to the needle. What’s the texture like?

HR: The really great thing about a magnolia leaf is that it’s a waxy leaf and it’s very thick. I’ll tell you the process, because it’s more than just a pick up a leaf off the ground. I have to search for the leaves that are yellow, the ones that have already fallen off the tree and are now in the process of death. I pick them up then and then I start embroidering it, and it actually starts drying around the embroidery. With it being yellow and still alive, they kind of give me a little more give. Now I have picked up a dry one off the floor to do it, but it’s like once I punch a hole, the hole is there. Sometimes if it’s super curved, I will put it in a book for half a day. I like it to dry in its natural shape, but I also have to consider getting it into a frame, and if I kind of flatten it before I put it in a frame, it won’t crack. Because once it dries, it can crack. It’s still a hard leaf, so it’s not like a maple that’s going to crumble in your hands.

Photo: Andreana Bitsis

GC: It’s amazing how you’re using what you know about the properties of the leaf to your advantage, that makes so much sense to me that the leaf would dry around the embroidery and adhere to it in that way. Looking at other traditional arts and artisanal crafts, everything from making wool and drying animal skins, there’s always a certain knowledge you have to have about how the material holds up to the process. It’s very thoughtful and there’s a lot of integrity and craftsmanship behind the process, I think more so than I would have expected.

HR: Everyone asks me how to preserve them, and I looked up some processes but the processes to preserve leaves are put them in a book, or put them in wax paper, or laminate them. I think that magnolias are so thick anyway, I made some back in 2012 and I gave them away as gifts to my family and they all still have their framed leaves and they’re perfect in the frames. The frame is definitely going to be what’s going to preserve it.

GC: What’s happened the first time you did this?

HR: And I just started by embroidering the veins because I didn’t know what to do, and I followed the veins and made like 20 of those. I framed all those in shadow boxes, and that’s kind of how it started and then a year went by and I wasn’t doing anything creative and I just wanted to come back to that creativity which is why I started up again. I really wanted to do something that went back to my degree, my passion, I love drawing, I love color, I love design, so it brought me back to the mandala idea.

GC: That’s such a beautiful way to sum up the journey– it all comes back full circle. 

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Heather Riniker is @magnoliaheather on Instagram.

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