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Wondrous Wee World

Falmouth fabric artist Salley Mavor creates fabulous tiny tapestries for her award-winning children’s books.

Falmouth fabric artist Salley Mavor

Salley Mavor’s children’s books are unlike any other, seeing as each page is truly brought to life with the incorporation of fabric artwork. Photo by Anthony DiSpezio

Salley Mavor’s studio is an alternate universe in miniature: seedpods become sleek Tom Thumb-sized boats, acorns morph into tiny hats, and wooden coat toggles serve as bedposts. Inhabiting these magical wee worlds are elfin figures who play, work, and romp through nature, all crafted by Mavor, ultimately to become illustrations in her children’s books. “I create these worlds,” Mavor says.

Falmouth fabric artist Salley Mavor

Mavor’s attention to detail can be seen in small creations like this young boy and girl joined arm and arm. Photo by Anthony DiSpezio

It all begins in Wee Folk Studio, Mavor’s Falmouth workspace, where the designer builds three-dimensional tapestries, which she calls “fabric relief.” These tiny sets are then photographed and assembled to create Mavor’s books. Her most recent publication, Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), has been hailed as a book beloved by adults as well as children and is critically acclaimed: This year it won two prestigious national awards, the 2011 Golden Kite Award and the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature.

Mavor sews the background of each piece and the figures by hand, a painstaking process; Pocketful of Posies took three years just for those steps. But much of the power of her handiwork lies in the tiny bits and pieces—both natural and man-made—fabric, glass, metal, and other snippets and doo-dads. In Mavor’s hands, they become completely different things.

“Attaching the found objects, that’s when everything changes,” Mavor says. “That’s when the surprises come.” Before that phase, she draws thumbnail sketches of every illustration, which are eventually enlarged to book-sized sketches as work patterns. Then she gathers or makes her tiny objects and stitches the background of each illustration in needle and thread, applying fabric, fiber, and plant-dyed wool felt rendering beautiful, soft colors. She then applies the tiny decorative bits by hand with needle and thread. “I have all these puzzle pieces,” Mavor says. “There’s a lot of detailing and fine-tuning. I end up being very selective.”

The result is a lush, magical collection of illustrations that tell a story, or, in the case of Pocketful of Posies, classic nursery rhymes. “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary,” for instance, shows three girls in dresses that Mavor made from artificial flower petals, dancing under a tree that has a yarn trunk and is hung with silver jingle bells and green beads. One girl’s hat appears to be a fuzzy wool cloche; it is actually an acorn.

On the facing page in the book is “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me,” where a child with wings sits on a tree branch hung with tiny shells, surrounded by flies with heads of seed beads, embroidered bodies, and shiny ribbon wings, all crafted by Mavor. The tree branches that bend across both pages are actually poppy seed pods. On another page, “Little Boy Blue” is holding a horn, which is actually a cactus thorn. The cradle in “Hush-a-bye, Baby” is a walnut shell.

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