Figure embroidery is a topic that absolutely captivates me.
I started my whole adult Embroidery Journey (that is, pursuing embroidery with Lusty Gusto, avidly collecting, reading, examining, attempting) while studying the history of art in college.
Ever since then, I’ve built my own collection of embroidered pieces and photographed others – especially on church vestments and vesture – in order to study them closely.
Now, if you’re not really into ecclesiastical figure embroidery, that’s ok – the techniques can translate well into any figure embroidery, whether church-related or not.
And true, there are other ways of embroidering faces and figures, besides the somewhat formal styles presented in church embroidery. For example, there are contemporary interpretations in embroidered portraits, like those by fiber artist Cayce Zavaglia.
I think one thing that really mesmerizes me about this subject is that the assortment of extant examples of such embroidery from various ages teaches us so much about the whole development of embroidery styles, techniques, and even materials – the development, in short, of the art of embroidery through the ages.
An important point to consider about figure embroidery is how it is meant to be viewed. The embroiderer will most certainly embroider differently, depending on the way the embroidery is supposed to be seen.
To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at some figure embroidery.
This particular piece of ecclesiastical embroidery is a Crucifixion scene on a chasuble in the collection at the Benedictine monastery in Clyde, Missouri. It was photographed with permission, but under glass, which accounts for the glare.
The figures are completely embroidered, and from this distance in the photo, the face and its features are quite clear and even bold, in a sense.
Embroidery that’s meant to be seen from a distance requires a lot of contrast. From a distance, though, it’s really hard to imagine just how many stitches and how much color is in that face that is really no more than 3″ in length.
When you see it from a distance, the stitches and colors blend together smoothly, to create an effect that looks much like painting.
But let’s zoom in a bit:
When viewed up close, magnified, we see the sketchiness of the stitches and presence of all kinds of color, from yellows to reds. We see what looks like irregular, even messy stitching. We see odd lines of stitches along the nose, on the eyelids, and the sides of the face.
Like an impressionist painting, the closer you get, the more muddled the image. Step back to see it from afar, and the importance of perspective – just like the embroidered image itself – becomes very clear.
I’ve shown this photo before on Needle ‘n Thread. It’s one of my favorite examples of how perspective effects how a piece of embroidery is seen.
This figure is on the same chasuble – it’s an image of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross. In the photo above, the embroidery looks equally as sketchy and we see, again, an interesting mix of colors. On the nose and above the eye, dashes of a deep coral red are mixed in with the skin tones and browns.
Let’s look really, really close at the embroidery threads:
They look like relatively heavy threads, because they are magnified here. They’re fine threads, through, I assure you! Threads have to be pretty fine to get this much detail into such a small space.
Notice that you don’t see any tight twisting in the thread (which would increase the textural reflections of light on the silk and take away from the smooth finish). Rather, the threads are softly twisted, almost flat silk, like the silk filo manufactured in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s by companies like Belding Brothers.
Here’s the same image, stepping back.
Pretty impressive, isn’t it, how all those stitches, all those colors, blend so nicely into a very discernible face with a serene expression, when viewed from a distance?
I mentioned earlier this year that I’ll be experimenting with figure embroidery in 2015. I haven’t made a whole lot of progress in my explorations, but one of these days, we’ll re-visit the subject again and I’ll show you what have managed.
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below!
Coming Up on Needle ‘n Thread
I’ll be a taking a short break from the blog this weekend to celebrate Easter with my family, so Happy Easter in advance!
I’ll be back on Monday, to announce the winner of the Hand & Lock embroidery class give-away and to share some interesting newsy bits.
Have a wonderful weekend!
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