Be the Artist: Plastic Canvas Goes Abstract

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Fiber arts like knitting, crochet, and cross stitch continue to be popular with every generation, with everything from punk rock knitting designs to yarn bombers in street art festivals.

There is one form of “yarn art” that still doesn’t get very much artistic respect: plastic canvas.

You know what I’m talking about. Those are the big, thick plastic grids where you could use an equally big plastic needle to make clunky shapes with yarn.

This was something that was just part of most houses during my childhood. My friends, regardless of their ethnicity or upbringing, all had some little piece of plastic canvas art in their house (usually in the bathroom) given to them by some grandparent or aunt.

Even both my and my husband’s grandparents had plastic canvas tissue box covers and little round coasters in their homes. It seemed like these were a rite of passage for grandparents in the ’70s and ’80s.

Remember these plastic canvas coasters? You’ve likely known a few people whose grandparents have these in their homes. Maybe you have some. All images: Lisa Tate

This makes sense because, according to the Textile Research Center, plastic embroidery canvas was first really commercially available in the 1970s. This meant it was “something new” and, in the crafty world, that means everyone wants to try it.

It was made from lightweight vinyl, and precut into paper-size sheets, circles, or other, just like pieces of writing paper. This makes it stiffer for sturdy items like tree ornaments, blocky little animals, bookmarks, and, of course, those groovy tissue box covers.

I’m willing to bet somewhere in your world today—be it the home of a grandparent, older friend, or coworker—there’s a little plastic canvas-covered tissue box in a bathroom or kitchen near you.

Abstract Alien Pillars

Let’s take the plastic canvas from boring to wonderfully weird with a colorful, easy way to take a plain or plastic canvas and “think outside the box” with easy alien landscapes reminiscent of a Meow Wolf environment or Tim Burtonesque movie.

Since plastic canvas is always so “practical,” we’re going to do an easy fun summer project creating these little stand-alone pieces that could look like alien landscapes or creatures.

Cut a plastic canvas sheet into various simple shapes and fill in each one with a separate color, using a simple slanted stitch.

You’ll need about three or more colors of cheap yarn. You can even find some of this at places like dollar stores if you look. Don’t forget to grab one or more sheets of plain old plastic canvas, depending on how big you want to make these.

Cut one regular sheet of canvas into several irregular shapes with straight angles. Make sure to cut off any little plastic pieces that are sticking out. One of the advantages of the plastic canvas is it is both sturdy and soft enough to cut through, so even some school Fiskar scissors will work well.

I am going to keep the stitching process as simple as possible so even younger crafters can do this well. Take one color of yarn and fill in the entire piece with that color. No fancy stitch patterns, just the simple slant stitch.

Here’s one of many, many short videos on how to start and finish a stitch, if you need it.


Make several of these plain, one-colored pieces until you fill all of the cut pieces or have as many as you want.

To make the “alien” shapes, use black or white yarn to stick together two of the pieces on one side. Do the same with one or more other shapes, so you get a complete square or circle. This will be your bottom part that will determine the width and shape of your piece.

When you are starting the shape, try to keep the bottom edge slightly flat, so the final shape will sit well on the table. Otherwise, be as weird and irregular as you want.

Sew the edges of the shapes together, like a puzzle, to form an abstract, pillar-like shape.

Once the bottom is established, just add more and more of the little colorful pieces, sewing them together with black or white. It will seem like you are building a cool little tower or tentacle. Make a couple of these of different lengths or even color schemes.

When they are done, simply stand them up on a shelf or tabletop to look like weird little emerging plants or animals. If the bottom isn’t perfectly flat (or they seem wobbly) you can stick them over some wadded-up tissue paper or construction paper.

A new shape for some old-school plastic canvas—easy enough for young starting stitchers to make.

Wow, little contemporary art pieces from a medium most people associate with coasters.

When your friends see these and comment on how weird and cool they are, you can say proudly say:

“Thanks, and I make a mean tissue box cover as well.”

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