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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I want to Embroider a Face


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I want to embroider a face. I’ve never done it before. I want to learn how. But every time I face the task of preparing to do so, I falter! Why? I’m not sure… but, still, I want to embroider a face. Let me show you what I have in mind.

I’m working on (or getting ready to work on) an ecclesiastical piece of fairly largish proportions. It’s riddled with faces. In fact, yesterday I sat for about half an hour, chin in hand, staring at the thing, and contemplating which faces to erase. There are just too many, and I’ve never embroidered a face.

But I want to embroider a face!

I mean, really! How hard can it be???! And why does it intimidate me?

Take a look at this picture below. It’s a close-up on an embroidered face on an ecclesiastical piece. The face itself, in the context of the piece, is probably 2.5 to 3 inches long. I’ve left it large, so you can click on it to see a much bigger image.

Hand Embroidered Face: Virgin Mary in Ecclesiastical Embroidery

Up close, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Check out the stitch direction, the color changes, the outlines around the eyes, the chin, the lips, etc.

But if you’re looking at it the large size, it may not really strike you as “quite right,” as it doesn’t look smooth or even beautiful, really. The eyes look kind of bulby, the bottom lip looks kind of square, the face (especially on the left) looks flat ..

But look at it from farther away:

Hand Embroidered Face: Virgin Mary in Ecclesiastical Embroidery

And from even farther away:

Hand Embroidered Face: Virgin Mary in Ecclesiastical Embroidery

The shading around the eyes is nice, isn’t it? And the lips look right, now, don’t they? And the left side of the face, which looks so flat and linear in the close-up, looks fine. The chin line and the neck shading blend to look dimensional.

I want to embroider a face like this!

This is my problem: I sit down to work out the picture, and it ends up looking like a cartoon. Somehow, I can’t bring myself to transfer the drawning – I don’t want to embroider a cartoon!

I wasted a lot of time yesterday trying to figure out how to approach this. Finally, I gave up and went back to my goldwork, which couldn’t keep my interest because I was still engrossed in the face thing. So I pitched the goldwork (well, not literally), and didn’t do anything needlework related the rest of the day.

Do you ever have a needlework idea or plan that eats away at you? This one eats away at me – I’ve been toying with it for years, thinking seriously about it for months, and obsessing over it for weeks. Yesterday was to be the day. But I quit! What does that say about me????

I finally came to this conclusion:

So what if it looks cartoonish? So what if the colors aren’t “just right”? So what if it actually flops and looks like… garbage? So what?! What’s the big deal? Wasted time? No – I’d be learning. Learning is never a waste of time. Waste of materials? Have you seen my stash cabinets? That’s not even remotely an excuse!

Oh, dear! Could it be…. fear of failure? Heh heh. Wellllll…

You don’t know, until you try! And that holds true not just for any embroidery technique or needlework project – that holds true for anything. You don’t know, until you try.

So with renewed determination, I will begin this afternoon.

I am going to embroider a face.


if it turns out great, you’ll be the first to know!

If it flops,

I might admit it… some day…



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(24) Comments

  1. Dear Mary, you sound so human in this post and I (and I’m sure many others) can certainly relate to your fears. I believe in you, however, … your talent, your skill, and your willingness to learn.
    Hey, here’s a thought regarding Trish Burr’s next book … how about needlepainting with specific regards to the human figure? Surely you have seen the embroidered bust in her web site’s gallery http://www.trishburr.co.za/gallery.htm
    I have not seen this specific topic a subject of a technique book.

    P.S. have you started stitching with the wonderful Impressions fibers yet – can’t wait to see the progress of the Pelicans needlepoint

  2. Why not try a direct copy of this face (or another you have a close up of) so you can learn by doing that, and then go from there?

  3. I agree, just go ahead and try. I’m guessing that the piece pictured here was not the first face that artist ever embroidered. Do it and show us, then let us be the judges. You are too critical of your own work. But that’s why you are so good at what you do.


  4. Great post, Mary. There have been several blogs lately, working on a “what if…” basis, and of course it isn’t a new concept with teachers and tutors of all topics, is it? But it is still something we so often have to consciously think about, when working on something new or unfamiliar.

    But I would love to see the results of your first face embroidery, whether you like it or not. As you have so cleverly shown with the example in you blog, it is all in perception, and what looks a mite odd in some circumstances, looks great in others.

  5. Try turning the picture upside down. Put a grid on it. Then draw each square. You’ll be amazed how different it will look from your first effort.

  6. I think faces would be the hardest to get right. good luck – and I agree the worst that can happen is it wont work! and you can try again

  7. Mary, I say just do it. Practice (yes I know it uses up time and materials) on similar fabric with the same threads and, if your other work is anything to go by, your face will be lovely. I did the same thing with a Father Christmas beard one year – I wanted it to look just so – and I practiced how I wanted it to look and when I did the real embroidered beard it was beautiful and received so many compliments.

  8. Hello Mary,
    I’m new to embroidery but I am an artist. To get over the fear of faces I suggest this: go to the craft store and purchase charcole pencils in skin tones and some charcole paper. Trace the face onto the paper then use the pencils in short strokes using the same angle as the picture. Take note of the colors you are using and then see if you can find the embroidery thread to match the pencil colors.
    Good Luck, Patricia

  9. Mary,
    When I have a piece like this, this is how I approach it…. do the darkest parts and the outlines first… even if you have to go over them again later to add depth and clarification. In this case, it’s the brows, eyes, mouth and it’s shadow, outline of the nose, outline of the face, neck and check shadows. I do the lightest and largest areas (your basic “face” colors) last.
    Notice that even though the lines of embroidery on the face seem slanted on the majority of the face, they’re almost straight up and down to the picture….which gives that bent down face a bit of a “lift” and catches the light just right.
    Well, good luck with your faces. They’re really not as difficult if you follow the darkest to lightest plan. And remember, you can always “undo” a stitch (or several stitches) and do over. No one but you is going to know!

    1. I am about 13 years late to this conversation, but I wonder how outlining the eyes and face features first doesn’t get in the way of filling in the “flesh.” By that I mean, how do you avoid the flesh-colored thread going over or obscuring the detailed eyes, etc? I’m still new to stitching and appreciate any insights I can get. Thanks!

  10. You’ve gotten so much good advice, Mary. I have nothing more to offer. I second them all. Of course you’re going to try it, and of course you will learn from that experiment, and of course you can do it.

    Are you going to use split stitch, as in opus Anglicanum?

  11. I totally understand what you’re saying about having trouble getting going on something you’re not sure of, Mary. I have often suffered from the “I’m not going to even try if I don’t think I can immediately excel” syndrome. Now there are times when I look back and could kick myself for allowing that sort of thinking to hold me back.

    Don’t hold yourself back, Mary. Jump in head first! Reckless abandon! Reckless abandon! 🙂

  12. Ditto for me; I also have to work on forcing myself to do something that I will probably get wrong. It takes a lot of humility: everyone wants to get everything right the first try!

    Actually, I usually do very well on my first try and then completely bomb the second through sheer cockiness.

    What I want to know is how do figure embroiderers predict what the face will look like at a distance? They look so different up close!
    Good luck and have FUN!

  13. Faces are scary to work on. I am completing a needlepoint piece with a lovely face. The delicate eyebrows and soft chin made me nervous. Actually, I finished the piece and after several days, returned to it and found that it looks great!
    Why not use photos from a magazine for example, such as a parent/baby book, or something with gentle expressions? Transfer it just as you would anything else. And follow your own sage advice for intricate thread painting so that you don’t end up with “bulb” eyes! Good luck, Mary.

  14. I am an artist, teach drawing, and love drawing/painting portraits. I enjoy surface embroidery. I would recommend _Colored Pencil Portraits Step by Step_ by Ann Kullberg. While some of the colored pencil techniques are not applicable to thread, there are other approaches that would help you. Ms. Kullberg was a teacher and this is evident in her clear instructions. In addition, _Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain_ by Betty Edwards has incremental lessons to help you teach yourself to draw, with a final emphasis on portraits.
    Good Luck on your learning curve and have fun!

  15. Mary, The Blessed Mother is obviously calling on you to be patient, take your time, ask your guardian angel for guidance and finish this beautiful piece for HER. I think our Blessed Mother would so love the joy on people's face when they see this piece completed. Take your time, Is there really a hurry or do you have to be more patient with yourself? Take care and enjoy working on this magnificent piece.

  16. Hi Mary! It’s Susan here back in your archives. I’m doing a post on fear of embroidering faces and ran across your post here! Just curious if you ever stitched this face? I hope you did! But I loved your post…it reminded me of me…

    1. Hi Susan – Actually, I never did get to the point of doing this face. I started a little “eye” piece – just the area around an eye, to see what kind of difficulties one runs into, and I ran into a couple, and didn’t quite get back to it! I’ll work through it one day, I suppose. Other things just keep popping up! Maybe I should put a face on my “to do” list for the summer. (My summer to do list is getting so long, that I’ll need ten summers to get through it all!)


  17. This and all the tips really helped me with the face I’m doing. Can anyone help with noses? I’m working on a “running maiden”, with her face turned to the right to look behind her, and the nose refuses to come out looking…nose-like. Any help would be grealty appreciated.

  18. I am also having the same problem I have embroidered lots of things but avoided faces like the plague never know where to start how many threads to use help!
    Margaret atkinson

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