Figure embroidery – the depiction of human figures in embroidery – is the hook that originally got me into exploring surface embroidery in earnest.
I came across a lot of it when doing research for a History of Art course in college, and it absolutely fascinated me. At the time, I already dabbled in surface embroidery, but the exquisite, artistic nature of the figure embroidery that I found in texts, in museums, and eventually in church sacristies and collections really astounded me. It was an art form I had never really noticed before, until I started studying it in earnest. And, like I said, I was hooked. It became a bit of an obsession.
Since then, I’ve collected a lot of Stuff pertaining to figure embroidery – many pieces, gleaned from antique dealers, online auctions, and the like, as well as books the at least touch on the subject (there are no books, to my knowledge, solely devoted to the subject) and pattern collections.
Technology has made the study of figure embroidery from an amateur’s perspective (i.e., my perspective) a lot easier than it used to be when I was in college. Way back then (some 25 years ago), I had a camera – you know, the kind with film? – and as for a computer… ha! I thought I was pretty advanced to have an electronic typewriter in my dorm room. And while I had access to computers, they certainly didn’t do what they do now. If I wanted to study a piece of figure embroidery up close, I used a magnifying glass.
Now, my favorite tools for getting really up close and personal with pieces of old embroidery are my camera and my computer.
This particular piece of embroidery which I acquired off eBay for practically a song is a good case in point.
When a piece of embroidery like this is listed on eBay, it’s pretty hard to know exactly what you’re getting. But from the photos in the listing, it looked like an intriguing piece worth bidding on, if it didn’t go too high. It didn’t.
This is one half of a stole, which is a long, normally narrow liturgical vestment worn by a priest around the neck and down the front. It’s normally decorated on the ends, which is the case here. There’s another half of this stole, but unfortunately, the whole stole was cut in half by the previous owner, and folded and glued so that the decorative parts could be displayed in a case. That’s why it was inexpensive.
The ground fabric on the front of the stole is in ok condition – not great, but I’ve seen worse – but the lining is torn, faded, and rotting…and encrusted here and there with glue.
When I saw the pictures on eBay, I was especially intrigued by the figure embroidery. It looked quite fine, and considering the scale, I knew it must be extremely delicately worked.
The scale? Well, here’s some perspective:
You can click on any of these photos for a larger image.
So there it is, with my hand in the photo. The diameter of the outer circular frame is less than 4″. It’s a small piece of embroidery!
Examining such a small piece of embroidery and understanding how it was worked and assembled (there’s a bit of appliqué going on in the whole piece) could be done several ways.
I could take the piece apart – but that would be a shame!
I could pore over it with a magnifying glass – which I initially did do.
But even better – I could take some good digital photos and examine them on my computer, zooming in much better than I ever could, viewing under a magnifying glass.
While examining photos won’t give me structural details, it will allow me to view the embroidery in very clear detail and come to some conclusions about it.
At first glance, with the naked eye, the piece looks entirely embroidered. Even with a magnifying glass, unless you know what you’re looking for, you might think the piece is entirely embroidered.
In fact, it’s not!
This small face – no longer than 1.25″ – is one of the best examples I’ve seen of what I call Sneaky Paint. The figure is actually painted and only touched here and there with embroidery.
You can definitely see the stitches.
And you can see that the whole “ground” of her face looks fibrous. You can see shading around the eyes, highlights on the cheeks.
The shading around the eyes is painted. The highlights on the cheeks are stitched.
Notice the eyebrow in the photo above. The embroiderer took some liberty and changed the path of the eyebrow, which I think was a good decision. Otherwise, the eyebrow would have looked slightly arched, making the face look smug.
Here, you can see the delicately stitched mouth in shades of pink, and the outline of the face and the nose, along with stitching on the cheeks and the neck. You can also see the embroidery on the inside of the veil. You can tell that the embroidery is worked in flat silk.
Under a magnifying glass, you can see the threads of the fabric that give the whole piece a completely-embroidered look. In the digital photo, though, you can zoom in enough to see that the fabric threads are definitely fabric threads – they aren’t embroidered. They’re the ground fabric.
You can get a better idea of the ground fabric without any paint or embroidery on it by looking at the halo on this piece, which is just the plain ground fabric.
You can see where the embroidery splits the weave of the fabric along the top of the veil.
This is something you don’t really notice with the naked eye. When you zoom in on it in the digital photo, you can clearly see that it’s fabric and it has a woven pattern to it. Even with a magnifying glass, this isn’t absolutely clear.
My next point of examination is going to be the fabric itself. What fabric was used on this piece, to create such a perfect illusion of solid embroidery? I have my suspicions, but it’ll require some more photography and some fabric comparisons before I can be sure. I’ll let you know what I discover, if you’re interested!
If you want to examine embroidery up close with a camera and you’re not really into complicated photography, don’t worry! You just need a good 10 (or greater) megapixel camera (a point and shoot is fine) with a macro mode and very good lighting.
Then it’s just a matter of loading the photos onto your computer and using the zoom button!
Like what you see?
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