Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent – Book Review


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.

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

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.

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

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.

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

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.

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

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.

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

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.

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

The whole book is peppered with pictorial samples of these sculpted heads, most of which combine painting and embroidery.

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

The author goes into detail on the painted face and the embroidered hair. The variety of techniques for creating embroidered hair is magnificent!

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

Portraits are not always head-on, so you’ll find detailed instruction on creating the head in profile…

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

… as well as the three-quarters angle of the head (the partially turned head).

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

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.

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

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.

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

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.

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

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.

Embroidered Portraits by Jan Messent

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:

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(12) Comments

  1. Thanks for another excellent review, Mary. My first thought when you said that there was only one fully embroidered portrait was ‘Huh – not what I expected from the cover’ so completely agree with your point on cover -v- content. Nevertheless it does sound like a fascinating book. (I’ve done one needlepoint portrait – of Audry Hepburn in My Fair Lady – it was fun but HARD!)

  2. Lovely review thanks Mary. THere are not many books I have on my wish list these days but I think this one is a must as can get some tips on portraits! I am still a little nervous about stitching portraits in needle painting because getting the direction of the stitches right on the faces is daunting, but think this is something that needs to be overcome and researched – perhaps a book on needle painting portraits in the future??

    1. You write it, I’ll certainly buy it! I have your ‘Fresh Ideas for Beginners’ and it’s first class!

  3. Agree, Mary! I bought this book when it first came out and it is really not helpful for embroidered portraits. There is some useful info, some good illustrations and I enjoyed the historical information. But, I’m disappointed in the book. Very little embroidery. Lots of soft sculpting. Maybe they didn’t know what to call it, but it isn’t really about embroidery.
    I use a couple of pastel instruction books instead for help in needle painting faces.

  4. Wow this looks so challenging, Mary. Reminds me that you have featured books that specialize in “shading and/or painting with thread “. I think those would definitely help here. I’m still not too good at long/short stitching, which I think would really be required to do these portraits right. I DO have a book of yours on those subjects. Think I’d better pull it out if I want to get into this new challenge…..Oh well,
    “Nothing ventured…….nothing gained”…..as my Dad always used to say. Thank you so much for keeping embroidery interesting. Now back to holiday preparations…..fondly….Judy

  5. I couldn’t agree more with the review. I was tempted by this book – just as I was tempted by her book on Anglo-Saxon embroidery. In both cases the books are beautiful and would give hours of pleasure, but they don’t do what they say on the tin. I blame the editors/publishers.

  6. I have several of Jan Messent’s books and I like them all, especially the one on Anglo-Saxon embroidery and the Bayeux Tapestry book. However I too was a bit disappointed in this one. Not only are the points raised by you, Mary, apposite but I found that the actual work wasn’t really up to her usual standard and in some places looked downright amateur. I feel bad criticising someone like Jan Messent but honesty is my middle name.

    If Trish Burr were to write a book about embroidering faces I would, as I said in another post in another place, be ‘in like Flynn’. Think on it, Trish.

    Thank you, Mary for this review. As usual, excellent stuff.

  7. Excellent review, Mary. With your overarching perspective and sensible critique, you ought to begin reviewing movies. I’d be so glad if Roger Ebert mentored you a bit before setting you free on the world.
    I couldn’t wait for the page to download because I kept telling myself that this cover image was going to knock my socks off. But when it did, anticlimactically, the cover looked comical. Like a caricature of Old Lizzy. Especially after having gone through Trish’s miniature kits and the near perfect and realistic works. I wouldn’t want to try these portraits unless I was aiming for a light-hearted cartoonish wall hanging.
    Jan Messent does lovely work. This book for me, unfortunately, doesn’t do justice to the hours and labour that went into it.

  8. Mary – Thank You!

    Your review has come along at just the right time. This is just the book I need to further my plans for a stumpwork/sculptured piece I’m drawing up. I was on the fence about the book because I thought it was only embroidery, but once again you have come to the rescue. I hopped on over to the Book Depository and should have the book in my hands soon. Thanks again.

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