Jilly Hollmann loves to sew, and specializes in personalized items like these stitched portraits. Find more from Jilly on her blog and in the Jillian Hollmann shop. For a special February shop discount take a look at Jilly’s introduction.

Have you ever stitched a personalized gift? Have you embroidered a portrait or documented a special place in thread for someone you love? This project would make a great Valentine gift for a mom, dad, grandma, grandpa…


Stunning Stitched Portraits: Not for Artists Only!
Have you ever seen an amazing representational work of embroidery and thought, “That’s gorgeous but I could never do something like that”? Well, I’m here to tell you that you can. Whether it’s for a quilt or a pillow or just something to frame on its own, a beautiful stitched portrait that really shows a likeness is something anyone with basic embroidery skills can create.

When I first started making these, I relied heavily on my skills as a portrait artist. It was painstaking! But I eventually developed a process that is much easier and doesn’t even require much artistic talent. I’d love to share it with you, and I hope you’ll share with me if it helps you create something you love.

Materials:

  • A photo, in jpeg form, cropped to a close-up of the subject
  • Note: Photo, once cropped, should be at least 400kb or the pattern won’t have enough detail.

  • Piece of white cotton quilting fabric, measuring at least 7″ x 7″ (Used here: Robert Kaufman Kona Cotton in Snow)
    Note: Any woven fabric that is light in both weight and color will do, but the lightest and simplest– solid white– works best as it calls attention to the portrait rather than to itself.

  • Black embroidery floss (Used here: DMC 310 Black Six Strand Floss)
    Note: Any color thread will do, but black is ideal since the greatest contrast calls the most attention to the portrait itself.

Tools:

  • Computer with internet access, Microsoft Word + a printer
  • Access to a window that lets in some daylight (or a lightbox, if you have one)
  • Scotch or masking tape
  • Pencil + pen
  • Embroidery hoop at least 6″ in diameter
  • Embroidery needle (Used here: a DMC Chenille Needle)
  • Embroidery scissors (Used here: Victorian Embroidery Scissors by Tool Tron)
  • Iron

Step 1: Turn a Photograph into a “Coloring Page” with a Few Clicks
Have you ever noticed that the pictures in kids’ coloring books look a lot like embroidery patterns (and vice versa)? Both are basically line drawings, made with just one color (i.e. black) and no shading. Even for a skilled portrait artist, it’s not easy to make a basic line drawing (by hand) that really looks like a particular face. No worries… Now there are websites that do it for you! Here’s all you have to do. I’ll show you specific instructions for the primary website I use, but you can use any similar site. Many photo editing programs also offer the same results.

1. Go to www.reallycolor.com (my favorite of the websites that do this) and click on “Get Started.”

2. Click on “Upload Image” and select your photo. (Note: The only way you can really go wrong with this whole project is by starting with a photo that simply isn’t sharp enough. If you can’t seem to make a decent looking portrait embroidery pattern using this method, it’s not the method, it’s the photo. Try again with another that has higher resolution and/or more contrast.)

Voila! Your photo is now a coloring page! Not necessarily the final version, but a good start.

3. Choose one of the eight versions displayed on the left, ranging from more to less detailed. Err on the side of too much detail, as it’s easier to erase it here and there than it is to create what’s missing. Once you’ve chosen, click on “Continue.”

4. Next, fine-tune the amount of detail by clicking on “More Detail” or “Less Detail.” When it’s just right, click on “Continue.”

5. Next, choose the version with your preferred line thickness. Go with what most resembles what you want your stitched portrait to look like, and click on “Continue.”

6. The next page asks you to register as a member, which you can do for free.

7. Your fantastic coloring-page-a.k.a.-embroidery-pattern is now available for downloading!

Step 2: Print + Finalize the Pattern
1. Download your “coloring page” image. Create a new Word document and change the layout to “landscape.” Now insert your coloring page image and the photograph from which you created it, side by side. Size the image you created so that when it prints it will be the size you want your finished portrait to be. Size the photo so it matches.

2. Using the picture adjustment tools in Word, make the image (not the photo) a few clicks brighter, so that you can still clearly see the lines but they are not very dark. Print your document.

3. Now, looking at the photo as a reference as needed, re-draw the lines of your lightened image; leave out the details you don’t need and add ones you do. You’ll want to do this with pencil first, so you can experiment and erase until you like what you see. Here are some guidelines to follow as you do this.

In General:
– Leave out as much as possible. The fewer lines you leave in, the less you have to stitch. More importantly, you’ll find that the more you can pare it down to only the lines that are essential to create a likeness and look somewhat realistic, the more awesome and impressive your embroidered portrait will be. For example, notice how I left out almost all lines on the face (except for some very pronounced ones under the eye), all but the outlines of the clothing and all of the background.

– That said… Add in lines, even when they do not appear in the coloring page image, when they are necessary to create the following:

  • Balance: If the coloring page left out the contours of an ear or nostril on just one side of the face, go ahead and add it in.
  • Continuity: If the contour line of the face or head is incomplete in the coloring page, fill it in so that it is a complete outline. See how I did this with the jawline.

Tips for Specific Features:

Eyebrows: The coloring page will often erase eyebrows, especially with light hair. I find that the portrait looks weird without eyebrows so I always add them in, even if it’s just a few curvy diagonal lines.

Eyes: Regardless of what the coloring page shows, make what’s within the iris look the same for both eyes. Also, be sure to include for both eyes:

  • the complete outline (as one continuous line, including inner and outer corners)
  • Bigger circle representing the iris
  • Smaller circle representing the pupil
  • Tiny white circle (i.e. a spot left out of) the pupil, to represent reflected light
  • Line to represent the crease of the eyelid
  • Some eyelashes

Nose: Unless it is shown in profile or ¾ view so that you actually see the outline of it, leave out all lines representing the contours of the nose and nostrils. (They tend to show up as snout-y looking in an embroidered portrait.) Just draw lines to represent the shadows under the nostrils. Regardless of what they look like in the coloring page, draw them as I did: symmetrical, and sort of like a narrow comma turned sideways.

Mouth:

  • Bring out the smile. By this I mean even if they do not show up in the coloring page and are only faintly visible in the photo, add in little lines like open and closed parentheses to the outer corners of the lips to emphasize any smile that is going on. This somehow really enhances your portrait and makes it come alive. In the same vein, if there is even the hint of a dimple, include that too.
  • If the mouth is closed it’s easy! Make the outline of the lips (top line of upper lip, bottom line of lower lip, and line where they join) continuous. (In my drawing there is no separate upper lip outline because it is so close to the line where they join that they are merged, in both photo and coloring page, so I drew it that way.)

  • If the mouth is open: This is harder. As in my example from another embroidered portrait, you’ll want to simplify it. First, as in the closed mouth, include the outline of both lips, making the line complete and continuous for both the inner and outer lip lines. (Note: it will sometimes look better to leave out parts of the outer lip line. Experiment.) Next, instead of including all the crazy lines within the mouth, simply outline the teeth and then fill in (i.e. color in as black) everything between that outline and the inner line of the lips.

Hair: This is probably the hardest part. I tend to kind of wing it, referring a lot to what’s in the photo and just drawing a bunch of curvy lines where I think they look good. I try to include most of the outline of the hair, not necessarily as one continuous line but as connected or almost-connected curvy lines. I also make more lines, closer together, in areas that show up as darker in the photo. If you have some super shortcuts or tips for hair, please share them in the comments section! Otherwise just do your best and experiment. This won’t make or break your portrait… It’s going to be fantastic no matter how perfect or imperfect the hair looks!

Once you’ve got your lines the way you want them, go over them with pen. Any pen will do, so long as it makes lines dark enough to distinguish from the printed lines and any pencil lines you couldn’t completely erase.

Step 3: Transfer the Pattern
1. Now comes the part where you’ll need a window and some daylight. (If you have a lightbox, of course, you can do this at any time of day or night!) First, tape your drawing to the window (or lightbox). Next, tape your fabric square on top of it so that the portrait pattern is centered in the fabric square.

The light will make the drawing easily visible, and therefore easily traced, through the fabric. Each part will become even more clearly visible as you press down on it to trace it.

2. Start tracing at the top and move down; otherwise you might smudge the pencil marks you’ve already made.

3. When you’re done, take the fabric– still attached to the paper– off the window and place it on another (non-translucent) surface so you can see clearly what you’ve traced without seeing through to what’s underneath on the paper. It’s important to leave the fabric attached to the paper, so in case you see that you’ve omitted something you can easily tape it back up to the window and trace what you missed.

4. When you’re satisfied, remove the tape, separate the fabric from the paper, and place the fabric in your hoop. You’re ready to start stitching!

Step 4: Embroider the Pattern
Nothing complicated here! Just use a basic backstitch, following the lines and curves as drawn.

Before you know it, you’ve created a masterpiece!

And that’s it! You can turn this wonderful piece of stitchery into a pillow (see mine of my son)…

…Or piece it into a quilt, or simply leave it in the hoop and hang it as wall art! (See here for how to tidy up the back for that purpose.)

I would be so delighted if you would share with me anything you make using this tutorial. I hope it’s a creation you treasure, or give to someone who does!