I’ve spent the last couple years looking at a lot of old liturgical embroidery (in books, online), studying how faces are done. I’d helped a friend plan a machine embroidery of two angels a couple years ago and it was a lot of work getting the features just right. We worked with a professional embroidery machine programmer, and though she did a lovely job it was challenging learning how to communicate what we wanted. So they turned out well enough, but it was enormously time consuming. Then again, embroidering things by hand is time consuming. But sometimes doing something yourself is a time saver over explaining it to someone else.
So I had started practicing simplified ‘cartoon’ faces based on romanesque and gothic art, using Adobe Illustrator, thinking that if I could give the programmer vector art instead of paper sketches that might help a lot. But though I enjoy that process to some degree, I really enjoy working with tangible materials, and the other day decided to just pick a simple design and embroider it and see ‘where the shoe pinches’, as my voice teacher used to say. Doing reveals problems and challenges to work on in a way thinking about it never does.
I chose a simple angel in stained glass with heavy outlines and little detail, traced it with a pencil on a piece of white cotton (gently! so as not to damage my laptop screen!) Were I at home I would have printed it out and taped it to a window and then traced it using the window as a light box. But I am traveling, so very gentle pencil tracing is the solution. Since the main point was to just to practice, I didn’t worry about the exactness of the tracing.
Anyway, I started out outlining the head and features in dark brown, then filled in with a couple shades of pale pink. I’m not sure yet whether the heavy outline around the head was necessary, but given that these images will be seen from a distance, I think the heavy and simple features and outlines are helpful. I would like the fill to seem smoother, which might be possible with more careful stitching using my magnifier (which I don’t have with me).
Then I did the hair, starting with a dark ochre, then a medium ochre, and finally a pale yellow for highlights. I thought that turned out rather well, though here and there the direction of the hair got a bit random, as I ‘painted myself into a corner.’
Then I filled in the neck, and I will wait to see later if the ‘shading’ on the side of the neck looks okay or would be better done in another color or not done at all.
And then I thought I’d try some metallic thread I found on the trip. I started with three strands, which was not easy to work with. The thread is springy and stiff, and sometimes the three strands didn’t lay smoothly together and once one strand somehow fell out of the needle and got left behind for a few stitches. After a while I switched to using just one strand and repeating each stitch three times to give the weight and thickness I wanted. That was much easier. I started filling in the halo between the rays, making a contrasting direction with horizontal stitches using only one strand (with no repetition).
The metallic color is not exactly what I would prefer – a warmer gold is more to my taste – but it’s good practice, and a good way to get to know that kind of thread. All the thread is DMC. I’m using a piece of cotton like that found in bedsheets – it has a nice smooth surface and tight weave and stays put in the embroidery hoop without stretching or bagging too much.
We’ll see how this goes! I do hope you find these examples encouraging for trying your own projects.