Stitching faces: where to start
You’ve grabbed a moment to yourself. You’ve got your cuppa and you’re having a sneaky scroll through Facebook or Instagram.
But it’s not the words you’re looking at.
It’s the pictures.
Pictures of faces. Faces of your family and friends.
Look, there’s your daughter with her best mate from uni. Her face is glowing with vitality. You can’t help but smile. Or there are two of your grandkids, playing with the dog. When did they get so big?
And suddenly you’re drawn to the face of a stranger. Maybe it’s that line of a determined jaw, or that warmth in a pair of dark brown eyes that’s so entrancing.
Faces are compelling. They’re fascinating. It’s very difficult to stop scrolling.
Faces of your past
Family photos have a special power of their own. You feel a twinge of bittersweet pain when you find those old photos in the back of the drawer, photos that are spellbinding and resonant with half-remembered voices.
Tenderly, you gaze at photos of your parents and grandparents, as the people they were before you came along.
Grainy photos of your uncle before he enlisted – and when he came back. Or of that shy young girl who became a mum to be reckoned with.
You can see their future from the place they cannot. But they are part of your own story, and you are the next chapter of theirs.
Faces of your future
But it’s not just the past that speaks to you. Snaps of new grandchildren show you the promise of the future, the mystery of who they will turn out to be and how long you have to enjoy them. They are your story’s next chapter.
So maybe it’s time to stitch your family story.
To catch hold of the essence of your own past, or their childhood, before it escapes forever.
What story would you like to tell?
A gift from the heart
You already know that there’s something deeply special about faces created in stitch. Perhaps you’ve wandered through a textile art exhibition, or searched ‘hand-stitched faces’ on Pinterest, to witness creations that take your breath away. You’ve seen the myriad of different styles and thought, “Maybe I could do that.”
And maybe you could. In fact, certainly you could.
We’re not talking about formal portraits. Your piece could illustrate a dozen different moods and messages: the togetherness of a wedding, the joy of that ridiculous day at the beach when a seagull stole grandma’s cheese sandwich and the lilo went out of control; or the calm of those still, small moments between mother and daughter that go unnoticed.
Stitching your story is more than just art.
It’s connection: your sense of touch is where you meet the physical world, and the tactile nature of textiles means that you’re constantly touching your work, creating an ever-deeper connection with your subject.
It’s celebration: you commemorate your family at a moment in time, or you capture a vanishing heritage.
It’s creative development: when you explore different ways of bringing faces into being, you’re developing your voice. The creative decisions you make help you find and hone your uniqueness.
It’s your legacy: faces in stitch aren’t just about the person portrayed. The relationship works both ways. You’re revealing to the people who come after you who you are and what you do. You’re leaving your legacy.
But most of all, it’s a gift.
A gift from the heart. A hand-stitched gift that makes someone you love smile or cry has power and meaning.
When you’ve created your loved one in stitch, you’re saying, “This is how I feel about you. About us.”
Imagine their face light up when you give your work – your heart – to them.
So, why don’t you do it?
What stops you trying?
Maybe there’s a belief and a fear that’s getting in your way.
She says, “My number one source for inspiration is the family album. Looking inside awakens my imagination and sparks ideas.” But she’d be the first to admit that it wasn’t an easy journey for her.
She had The Belief. She felt The Fear.
Sue says, “When I first returned to stitching in 2002 my work was purely decorative and mainly abstract. Then my creative spirit started pushing me to become more figurative.”
“I wanted to use old family photos of days out to express myself, my views and my story. But I was held back by believing my work had to be realistic, and of course, I was scared that what I was making just wasn’t good enough.”
The belief: My work has to be a “proper” portrait
Maybe you believe that, to be a ‘proper’ portrait, your work needs to be a carbon copy of your subject. This belief certainly stopped Sue Stone from attempting figurative work.
Sue says, “Making textures such as brickwork is fine but portraits? I thought it would be too tricky.”
Yes, realism is one way to portray people, but it is only one way.
Think Picasso. Think Modigliani. Think Kahlo.
If you always aim to be picture-perfect, you’re narrowing your choices. You’re confining your practice into an image that’s set in stone. The strictures of ‘reality’ can shut down story, quash character, and strangle your artistic voice. It can also stop you experimenting.
Think more widely than mere replication and you’ll be offered more possibilities to express yourself and your relationship with the subject.
Sue Stone’s advice is to see your work as an interpretation, rather than a literal translation of what you see. She says, “Think more about the essence or soul of your person. Look for a feeling of life and character. Allowing yourself to have artistic license and use your reactions and responses to the image to guide your work. That’s far more important than getting people spot on.”
If you’re not worrying about making a picture-perfect portrait, you can relax and have fun playing with styles, textures and materials to capture the essence of your subject.
The fear: What I make won’t be good enough
This fear has been around so long it’s almost an old friend. Perhaps you feel you can’t draw to save your life. Perhaps there’s a voice from the past reminding you that you, or whatever you make, will never be good enough.
“I was told, when I was a kid, by a needlework teacher, “Just don’t ever do anything with a needle.” So I didn‘t.”Stitch Your Story student Alison Bainbridge
“When I was 18 years old, my teachers told me that my textile work was old-fashioned and had nothing to do with art.”Exploring Texture & Pattern student Joke Lunsing
It’s normal to focus on the negative, to listen again and again to those words echoing down the years. We scan for those negatives and hold on to them. It’s part of the mental makeup that helped us through evolution. It served us when we lived in caves, but it doesn’t serve us now.
“Stitching faces is something new and it makes me insecure. I need to make the face like the person that I am doing. The biggest challenge now is let go of that and loosen up.“Stitch Your Story student Ignit Bekken
There is a way forward. A way to let go of that belief and dissolve that fear.
The way forward is to focus not on the finished work, but on the process of creation.
Process over product…and why it works
When you focus on the process of creation rather than the end product, you’ll feel liberated. You’ll feel free. Free from your inner critic and the judgement of others. Free from the boundaries of tradition. Free to make ‘mistakes’ and to enjoy spectacular ‘failures’.
Sue Stone’s creative practice, the one that took her from “starting from scratch” to national and international exhibitions, is built entirely on process.
She says, “The photographs I like best are the small, faded sepia or black and white photos with very little information in them. These give me the scope to use my imagination to create partial narratives that leave the viewer to draw their own conclusion.”
“The images of my family are used to explore my own relationships. My mum, my dad, my grandparents, my sister, my husband and my children have all been featured in my work. But it’s through my process that I realise all these creative ideas.”
Sue’s process is for everybody. She says, “Make process-focussed practice your own. Make it suit your character and your aims. Call it play, work, exploration, experiment, adventure, research, observation or all of these together.”
“It’s iterative, and involves reflection. When process feels natural to you, you’re ready to attempt anything, because nothing you do can fail. It’s all part of your learning process.”
But where do you start?
Maybe you’re wondering “What image should I choose? What thread should I choose? How do I do eyes, hair, skin?”
These questions are valid and are exactly the same questions Sue asked herself when she started on her journey of hand-stitching portraits. But, through building a process of experimentation and reflection, she learned what worked for her and what didn’t. Gradually, bit by bit, Sue gained more and more confidence and honed her own artistic voice.
So let Sue’s top five tips for stitching faces give you a starting point for your explorations. Her tried, tested and trusted pointers will help you build a toolbox of techniques that will banish your blocks and grow your confidence.
Sue’s 5 top tips for making beautiful hand-stitched portraits
Tip 1: Start with an image of someone you don’t know personally
Rather than get going with an image of a loved one, choose an image of someone you don’t know as your first experiment. You’ll get more emotional distance from your subject and this will help you build your confidence and be less judgemental of your results.
It’s important you still feel a connection with that person, or that there is some aspect of the image that draws you in, but starting with a stranger will give you a little more freedom.
Sue says, “If you’re not personally close to your subject, you’ll be free to focus on your process and to understand and master technique first.”
“And when you do start a portrait of a loved one, you won’t get sidetracked by the ‘how’. You can focus fully on the way you’d like to represent their character.”
If you’d like to totally distance yourself from the person you’re stitching, create your own collage of facial features that interest you, and work from that, as Stitch Your Story student Anat Dart did with her experiments:
Tip 2: Simplify the image
When Sue felt technically out of her depth making portrait in stitch, she went back to the advice of her old teacher and mentor, British textile art pioneer Constance Howard – keep it simple. Now Sue’s motto ‘less is more’ rules her practice.
Spend time looking at your image. Find the shapes and start to edit them down. Sue says, “Look carefully at your starting image. Don’t think about what you are looking at as an eye or a mouth. Try to see it as a shape. Then it becomes much less daunting.”
Look again. What detail could you lose? What detail ‘makes’ the character of the person? Pick out the primary and secondary lines of the face.
Tip 3: Use the power of positive limitations
Choosing between a wide array of threads, fabric, stitches and techniques can feel overwhelming. But if you purposefully limit your practice to, for instance, a handful of stitches or the colour blue, you can say goodbye to overwhelm.
Put a boundary on your practice and you’ll find it easier to make decisions. As creative problems come up, you’ll find that, with only a limited repertoire to fall back on, you’ll become more inventive, innovative and creative in making the decisions that solve these problems.
Boundaries sharpen your process and you’ll be able to go deep on a single technique rather than skate haphazardly around dozens of them.
Sue says, “When I’ve struggled with too many choices, I think back to Constance Howard’s words: “You don’t need to know hundreds of stitches. But you need to use the ones you do know well.” And she’s absolutely right.”
Try limiting yourself to:
- Two types of stitch only
- Only what’s in your stash
- Eyes, mouths or hair
- Limiting your colour palette to three tones only
“When I create portraits, I try to only use materials I already have available. I buy nothing new if I can help it. This was another lesson of the course and once again connected to working within limitations.”Exploring Texture & Pattern student Joke Lunsing
Tip 4: Sampling beats perfection
When you start stitching, don’t expect to get it right the first time. Sue explains, “A portrait is a visual description that captures all aspects of that person. It takes time to learn.”
“If you were drawing, then you wouldn’t expect your first line to be perfect. You’d rub it out or redraw it, sometimes more than once. The same applies to stitching.”
Getting it ‘wrong’ every so often is simply part of the process of getting it right. You’ll find out what doesn’t work, and what does work for you. You’ll find out more about what you like.
Each ‘mistake’ hones your art and your voice. If you treat your artistic process with curiosity (and yourself with kindness) you’ll soon find that your frustrations turn into an opportunity for discovery.
If you feel that you need to get it ‘right’, then try sampling as your process method. With sampling, there is no right or wrong because it allows for practical experimentation. Sampling is your go-to finding out process. There are no wrong answers, just discovery. Sampling is part of what Sue calls “structured experimentation.”
A sample is just a practice piece. It’s purposeful but doable. The stakes are low. You ask the question “what if?” and your sample answers. Through sampling, suddenly something puzzling comes into sharp focus and you’ll say to yourself: “Oh, so a longer stitch gives a softer effect!”
Tip 5: Look for the layers
Looking for the layers of an image is another way of simplifying it. Sue asks her course participants to visualise their image as a series of layers, like a painting. She says, “Thinking in terms of layers can really help to clarify the order of the making process. Pull the image apart to identify how it’s built up through complexity. Try to pin down where the layers meet and shift into each other.”
One final tip
Don’t forget to play. See how young children create – they do it for sheer enjoyment and once they’ve finished something, they simply move onto the next one. Their inner critic doesn’t yet exist. Playing makes it so much easier for you to suspend self-judgment.
Playing is a way into portraiture in stitch. It makes you bolder. Bold enough to start your big adventure, your own journey of self-discovery, of deepening your creative expression, of connecting and reconnecting with your own stories and histories.
You’ll start to develop a way of seeing and making that will help you enjoy creating those resonant, expressive portraits of the people from your past (or in your future) that will give you a special kind of joy.
Do you find the idea of stitching faces and people exciting? Or is it perhaps a little intimidating? Is there someone in particular, someone important to you, who you’d like to stitch in your art? Let us know in the comments section below and we’ll try and help out.