23 January 2023
Pop the kettle on and settle down to find out how Chris Yates transforms used teabags into a suitable surface for all sorts of embroidery and textile applications.
I love to experiment with what I have around me, having never been one to go and buy the latest gadgets or materials that become available. I remember hearing a throw-away comment at a workshop many years ago along the lines of: ‘Don’t throw your teabags away, you can do loads with them.’
It was about six months later that I decided to investigate for myself. I started to save the teabags being used in our house. I began to experiment and try to use them as a textiles surface. My investigations included buying teabag fabric. It's available to buy in pieces or on a roll, but it comes as a white ‘fabric’. Although it can be stained with tea, I haven't been able to achieve anything like the natural staining that occurs with actual used teabags.
Gradually my repertoire of pieces grew as I experimented with both hand and machine embroidery on the teabags.
What I love most about the teabags is that no two will ever be the same. The staining, once dried, particularly from breakfast teas, to me, is akin to space dyeing. There's a kind of magic each time one is opened out. Sometimes ‘trees’ are visible in the stains, appearing like faces in the clouds. And if not, then a touch of green paint can lead the mind to see poppies waiting to be stitched on a bed of grasses. I love the fact that the teabags are beautifully soft to stitch into. They're so much stronger than you might think, but then remember they're produced to withstand boiling water!
As I said, I'm always keen to experiment with my processes and materials to see how far I can take them. Brewster the bear, pictured here, is a classic example.
The teabag technique
Teabags are available in three main groups. Breakfast teas which give brown staining. Then there's fruit teas which give the most glorious shades of pink and deep reds. Although be aware that the lovely pink and red of these fruity teabags will fade very quickly. And finally herbal teas which give a surprisingly broad range of creams.
The drying process
1. Having made your cup of tea, slightly scrunch up the teabag and put it in a small container on a windowsill. Don't squeeze out all the excess moisture. It's important to leave some moisture in the bags so that they take longer to dry. This is the part where the magic happens. Where the tea leaves touch the bag they'll leave tannin stains, making each bag totally unique.
Top tip! Allow your teabags to dry as naturally as possible. Be patient and don't rush the process.
2. Gather your teabags like this in your container over a couple of days. They'll have started to dry out over this time. Keep an eye on them. If you forget and leave them too long, they'll start to go mouldy. Although this can also produce nice results, it's not generally the effect that you are aiming for.
3. After a couple of days have passed, move your teabags onto an old wire cooling rack. Still leave them scrunched up for another day.
Top tip! If I have been using the oven I’ll put my cooling rack in the bottom of the oven, AFTER it has been turned off, and leave the teabags in overnight to dry further.
4. If the oven hasn’t been on, I leave the teabags to finish drying out completely on the cooling rack. After a day on the cooling rack, you can un-scrunch them to help finish off the drying process. This can take a couple more days.
Top tip! If your wire cooling rack is like mine and has occasional spots of rust on it, you may want to avoid these when positioning your teabags to dry. Rust and tea together will turn grey/black depending on how long the two are in contact. This again can give very nice effects but not what we’re looking for at this stage.
Opening the teabags
5. Opening the teabags may sound simple, but it depends on the variety and shape of teabags that you're collecting, and ultimately what you're planning to do with them.
6. My teabag of choice (or, rather the one that gets drunk in our house, bearing in mind that I'm not a tea drinker!) is PG Tips pyramid teabags. To open out the pyramids, first you need to cut or tear one of the two crimped seams.
7. Empty out the loose dry tea into a container and save to spread over the garden later.
8. This will then leave you with a square shape with a second crimped seam and a flat seam.
Cut or tear these seams away to leave a long rectangular shape.
Top tip! Torn seams take longer to achieve but will give a much softer look to your finished piece of work.
9. If you have square teabags, cut or tear away three of the four ‘seams’ leaving one in place so that when you open it out you have as large a piece as possible.
10. For circular teabags, I tend to leave these whole and use them for specific projects. They still need to be emptied though. So, I carefully cut or tear a hole in one face of the teabag and empty the tea out through the hole. The important thing here, for me, is to keep the seam of the teabag in place so that I can work with two layers of teabag rather than just the one I have with the pyramids or the opened out squares. Square teabags can also be opened out in the same way if you want to keep the two layers together.
Top tip! Flat teabags are much easier to work with, so I always iron my teabags once they are opened out and ready for use. When ironing teabags, be sure to use baking parchment both underneath and on top of the teabags. The inside face of the teabag can be very slightly sticky and therefore prone to catching on the iron when hot.
11. At this stage the teabags are ready for any stitched project you choose and can be backed onto a material appropriate for that project.
Using the teabags
12. The dried teabags have all sorts of applications. Take a leaf from my book and have fun experimenting! Work with the organic patterns and natural tannin shades or add colour with a variety of paints to create a ‘teascape’. A coat of acrylic wax can be used to add strength to a 3D project, as I did with my oak leaf bowl. I also transformed a lamp making kit where the intention is to use fabric as the lampshade. Of course, I used teabags instead.
You can try Chris’ teabag techniques in this beautiful teasels project too – find the tutorial in issue 138 of Stitch.