Makers Monday- Tips & Tricks- Embroidery Portrait Tutorial (Part 2)

Makers Monday by Holey Socks Art


Happy Monday, folks!

I don’t know about you, but I am really excited for today’s post.  We are continuing with our hand embroidered portrait tutorial.  If you missed the first installment, you can find it HERE.

Now originally, I planned to use the giant hoop project (GHP) for this tutorial, but after much thought I decided to use it in addition to a new piece I’m starting so as to show you more clearly- I got a little ahead of myself if you want me to be honest.


Well you should have step one completed:  Choosing a photo and having it transferred (via your favorite method) to your fabric.  Below you will see my original image drawing, transfer, and fabric in hoop.

Where you choose to start is up to you.  Personally, I like to start with the outline of the face and any little details that I think will help to define the subject.  As we proceed you may notice that I have not drawn all these in.  When there are sections that you may be doing with 2 strand or 1 strand cotton floss you run the risk of your lines showing behind your stitches. If you are nervous about free handing in these areas, then I suggest using a vanishing/erasable fabric pen to draw these in first.  As with anything- make sure to test on a piece of scrap fabric before using on the finished piece!


I am using the full six strands to outline the face, neck and hand in a basic straight stitch using a size 5 embroidery needle. Don’t remember what that is? Look HERE.  As far as choosing your needle, this will depend on your fabric weight and you’re thread.  Dr Who is being done on a standard light weight cotton with DMC floss so an embroidery needle is fine here with size changing to a smaller gauge needle when I am only doing 1-2 strands.  For the GHP I am using a heavy cotton that I doubled up due to the size to give it extra stability so I am using a chenille needle which is larger with a larger eye.  Essentially, you want your needle to be sharp and have an eye large enough to allow the thread to follow through smoothly.  Too large and you will see you’re fabric stretch unnecessarily and compromise the overall look of your piece.


Now straight stitch is not your only option. You could certainly use stem stitch, too. It’s about personal preference.  I did use stem stitch for the giant hoop project which you can see below in a comparison.  Keep in mind that the GHP facial outlines are done using a larger weight pearl cotton. (You may click on images to see them larger)

Unlike the GHP subjects, for my Dr Who pattern I am choosing to use three different flesh tone shades to create depth. Overall, the piece will be much simpler so I am choosing to bring more shading and detail into the face through my stitching.  As for the GHP, there will be a ton of detail by the time I’m done that I don’t feel the faces will need the added shading.  However, I reserve the right to change my mind as the project nears it’s end.  That’s the great thing! You can always go back and add more detail.  You can also remove it, however, this is much more difficult and depending on your fabric you may leave tell-tale signs of this or damage other threads in the process.


Another way to add depth and interest is to vary the number of strands that you use.  The color as well as the weight will cause certain parts to draw your eyes in and other parts to recede. Essentially, you want large details (general face shape, general nose shape, lets) to stand out and add details to compliment and not compete for the observers eye. Maybe the photo below will help to illustrate this.



Now, you will hear people talk a lot about the back of your work.  Personally, and this is just MY view, if the back of the piece is being covered I find no point in being particularly neat about your back.  If you are doing work on a tea towel or something else where the back will be visible, this is completely different.  Portraits can be extensively time consuming so cutting a few corners here and there I feel is reasonable.


That said, there are a few “cardinal sins” you shouldn’t commit and some tips you should remember:

1. Don’t use large knots- These can distort your figure once a backing is placed on your piece or it is framed.

2. Don’t make large jumps- I know that this can be extremely tempting to save time, but you will run the risk of your tension being thrown off and ultimately undermining the look of your work.

3. Trim your ends- In the end, long tails will simply trip you up, create tangles, and get pulled through to the front of your work.

4. Don’t cut your thread too long- Too long of thread will bring only tangles, knots and tears. Just don’t. No more than 18-20 inches.

5. Beeswax is your friend- available in a few different forms, beeswax can help the thread to move more readily through, prevent it from tangling on itself, as well as add extra strength to threads. Beeswax can stain your fabric (though I have not personally had any issues) so you may choice to use a thread conditioner such as Thread Haven

6.  Roll the needle between your fingers as you stitch in the opposite direction of the twist of the thread. This will help to prevent tangles and knots.

7. Treat yourself to a nice embroidery scissor- This will help you clip thread cleanly which can make threading your needle easier. It will allow you to snip threads with precision, too. In a pinch a small cuticle scissors also seems to work well.


So just for fun I decided to video tape my progress thus far.  It took me just about 2 hrs to complete the face as you’ve seen it and the hand (most of the way).  I cut out all the boring knot tying and sped it up for you.  The quality isn’t great which is making me covet a Gopro head mounted camera- because I’m just not nerdy enough already with my magnifying glasses! Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!



That should cover it. If you have any questions or think I missed something please don’t hesitate to contact me.  I would love to see your progress so feel free to tag me on instagram (@holeysocksart) or on FB (HoleySocksArt) or leave me a link to your site or photo in the comments!