If you’re an embroidery-bookophile, you’ve probably heard of Jan Messent, and you’ve probably even got some of her books on your bookshelf. If you haven’t and you don’t, I highly recommend her books. She’s a prolific author, not just of embroidery books, but also of books on design, historical techniques, on knitting and wool and yarn work. In her embroidery books, you will find many excellent tips for the embroiderer. Her older books can be found, too, through used book sources, and can often be picked up for a bargain.
When I heard that Search Press was publishing Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent, I was super excited! The embroidery of faces is a difficult subject to tackle, and the idea of a Whole Book devoted to the topic thrilled me to the core. I immediately jumped on the pre-order bandwagon.
But then, I have to admit, when previews were finally available, my enthusiasm cooled a little bit and I didn’t order the book after all. I would not be reviewing this book today, if it weren’t that a friend sent me a copy. And I’m glad she did! Even though the book isn’t what I expected, I do like the book, and I can see its usefulness for stitchers interested in creating realistic human faces and figures.
As soon as you open the book, you get the idea of the focus. Definitely “portraits” here, but they are made from fabric, padded and sculpted with perfectly placed stitches to create the form of the face.
The book begins with a short history of embroidered portraits. I enjoyed reading this! I like reading introductions that focus on the history of embroidery-related topics. It gives me a sense of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, and it puts the topic into perspective.
There are a couple spreads in the book on physiognomy and the layout and forms of the face and facial features. This information is helpful, no matter what type of face you are creating – whether you’re drawing it, sculpting it in fabric, or embroidering it.
This information continues into the basic form of the head. Here, we start to get into dimension and padding and how a basic textile head is built.
The whole book is peppered with pictorial samples of these sculpted heads, most of which combine painting and embroidery.
The author goes into detail on the painted face and the embroidered hair. The variety of techniques for creating embroidered hair is magnificent!
Portraits are not always head-on, so you’ll find detailed instruction on creating the head in profile…
… as well as the three-quarters angle of the head (the partially turned head).
Again, examples abound! Each example is explained in detail, so that the reader can grasp the techniques and how they were used to create each particular face.
In addition to portraiture, the author goes into creating the sculpted, appliquéd hand. Even if you aren’t planning on creating a padded hand or arm, the information on the shaping of fingers, hands, and forearms can be helpful to anyone interested in figure embroidery.
The author also talks in depth about creating faces with felt. The tips in here for working with felt are good! If you love creating felt figures, scenes, and the like, this section will definitely interest you.
The back of the book has a section on stitches used (most of which are used for hair and clothing). The stitch instructions are given through clear diagrams and text.
Finally, the book ends with the topic of inspiration – sources of inspiration for adding faces and figures and their adornment to your embroidery.
Pros & Cons
On the pros side, the book is full of excellent tips on how to handle faces, hair, and the accoutrements of embroidered figures (especially stumpwork figures). I can see enthusiasts of stumpwork figures, and enthusiasts of 17th century historical embroidery (caskets and the like) that involve figures, really loving this book. Also, folks interested in felt figures and the like would find the book very instructive. The book is packed full of examples that can serve as great sources for ideas and inspiration. The instructional material is very clear. The information on embroidering hair is wonderful and the content on physiognomy, painting faces, stitching lips, and the like is all very helpful material for those interested in other techniques for rendering faces in embroidery. The book itself is beautiful, and it’s interesting to read.
On the con side, for those looking for expert guidance in embroidered portraits – for example, needlepainted faces and the like – this probably is not the book for you. There is one project (the cover the project) that deals with the fully embroidered face, following an approach similar to opus anglicanum. The rest of the book focuses on sculptured faces that are primarily painted and touched with some stitchery, but that sport embroidered hair, embellishments, clothing, and the like.
Title and Cover vs. Content
The cover is perhaps the one thing about the book that really bothers me. I find the title and the cover misleading. Taken individually or together, they suggest that the book focuses on how to embroider faces. There are many ways that faces can be embroidered, and a book titled Embroidered Portraits strikes me as a book that would demonstrate various ways to embroidery portraits. The “stumpwork” sculpted face, mostly painted and a little bit stitched, is only one way, and it isn’t really the first way that comes to mind when one reads the title Embroidered Portraits and sees on the cover a fully embroidered face. I am a little disappointed that the title and cover do not really convey the contents of the book.
If you have an interest in the human form in embroidery, I think you’ll appreciate the information in Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent. But if you’re looking for something that instructs on various methods for depicting faces and figures in surface embroidery, it might not be the book for you.
You can find Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent available in quite a few places, including Nordic Needle, Traditional Stitches (in Canada), through Book Depository (just under $25 with free world-wide shipping), and through Amazon: