Paula Robb has been a sewing enthusiast ever since she was a little girl, first embroidering by hand and later with a machine. About five years ago, however, Robb decided that regular embroidery wasn’t enough. She still wanted to sew, but she wanted to do it in a new kind of way.
“I went looking for something different,” she said.
Robb took a trip down to the local arts and crafts store, where she proceeded to pick up any material that she thought she could get a needle through. The list included canvas, screen wire, aluminum foil and balsa wood.
While she enjoyed playing around with the canvas and the screen wire, Robb ultimately fell in love with the medium of balsa wood. It didn’t work out perfectly right away, of course. She spent quite a bit of time — as well as wood, thread and needles — figuring out the best way to get the thread through the wood. Now she’s got her method down and says she spends every day that she’s not at a show sitting down at her machine and sewing.
Robb doesn’t use any special machine, just a typical home embroidery sewing machine, although she said she has to replace the motor about every year and regularly clean out the sawdust. In the beginning, she tried sewing by hand, but the wood didn’t stand up to the pressure.
The wood is thin, very light and soft to the touch. Robb uses a mix of designs she had made herself and designs that she has purchased from others. All the designs are digital, so as to be programmed into the sewing machine. Robb then decides which colors she will use and feeds the thread into the machine. In the beginning she kept it small, doing greeting card-sized wood pieces, but eventually her ambition grew and she decided to test the limits of how much thread she could use and how big she could make her artwork.
Now, in addition to the greeting cards, Robb has pieces that fit in 8 by 10 inch frames as well as “tiled” artwork that can get as big as 28 by 23 inches. The larger works are tiled because the single piece of balsa wood they require would be too big to be used in Robb’s machine. So instead she does it in sections, or tiles, and then afterwards puts the tiles together into a frame. One of the pieces Robb has on display at the Rocky Mountain Art and Craft Fair in Frisco is a peacock that takes up 20 separate pieces of balsa wood.
Many of Robb’s pieces feature animals. She particularly loves how the thread gives them a three-dimensional look, and often uses a shimmery thread to catch the eye.
The average greeting card takes Robb about 20 to 30 minutes to sew, whereas a bigger piece like the peacock can take from four to six weeks. Robb doesn’t mind the work. In fact, she loves it. Even five years later, the art form continues to intrigue her and she said she can’t imagine doing anything else.
This year is Robb’s first at Frisco’s Rocky Mountain Art and Craft Fair. Robb and her husband live in Englewood, but for the past four years have been attending art and craft shows in Washington where they have family. Robb said that she has always enjoyed the mountains and is excited to be part of the Frisco fair.
Robb and her husband, Michael, call themselves semi-retired and now do art shows full time, traveling around the state. Robb sews, and her husband talks to customers at shows and makes the wooden frames around each piece. They’ve also set up a website, which they said gets a decent amount of traffic, much of it from people who have seen the artwork in person and wish to order more.
Robb has art shows booked up through November, then she will spend the winter sewing, adding to her already prolific collection. At Frisco’s show, she estimated she had between 300 and 400 cards alone, yet even as she said this, several customers asked for a specific design which had already sold out.
Not many people do balsa wood embroidery, Robb said, though she can’t imagine why, likening her passion for the art form to an addiction.
“I love it. I absolutely love it,” she said.
Today is the last day for the Rocky Mountain Art and Craft Fair in Frisco. Robb’s next show will be at the Winter Park Alpine Art Affair on July 20 and 21.