Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Making an embroidery pattern from a photograph

Here’s what I’m working on at the present time, now that the padded Detached Buttonhole heart’s finished (more about that later..).


As we all know, embroidery patterns are usually thickish bold lines that have clearly distinguish boundaries.

They are essentially black outlines. You can put a black outline round anything but when you are trying to do that with a photograph the results can confuse what the outline is trying to describe, especially with delicate subjects like birds or faces.

However, if you see a photograph not in terms of clear outlines but in terms of ‘tonal shapes’, you begin to retain the delicacy of the image.

Here’s what I mean:


Scan it into your computer and adjust the contrast like this:


Draw around the shape of the bird but not for outline but to CUT it out later with small scissors. Like here:


Now you have a paper template that you can pin to your fabric and draw round it, carefully with light strokes. The reason for this is that the SHAPE is what you want, not the outline. The shape is describing the volume and it does this with lots of tiny curves all joined up. Each curve suggests another part of the bird, e.g. shoulders, chin etc. This way you keep the representation realistic and not turned into a flat ‘diagram’ or ‘cartoon’.

Here is the result of striving to stay true to nature:


Then you can go back and refer to the photograph for colour reference and textural guidance.

With this I hope to make a card for a dear friend. The little robin didn’t take that long to stitch. I hope to lovingly spend much more time on his eyes and head.

As you can tell, I didn’t have enough tones of stranded cotton, so next I’m going to do a little trick they taught us in art school to integrate the 3-d modelling.

Long and Short Stitch variation

The long and short stitch I used for the bird’s feathers is the version described in a book called Beginners Guide to Crewel Embroidery by Jane Rainbow. In it she refers to it as the ‘Chinese method’ of Soft Shading, where you always come up through earlier stitches, often splitting them, and NOT GO DOWN into them. This way you don't have to try and find the ends of the short stitches. I find this way much faster to work than the usual instructions for Long and Short stitch. For the Robin I’ve adapted ‘soft shading’ even further to come down in columns rather than working the stitches in rows, as it’s even faster. The bird isn’t finished but I completed what you can see here in about an hour, or just over. Working this way means you use up more thread as you have to carry it up the back each time, but it really does save a lot of time!

Of course, he currently has no legs but don’t worry, he’s going to be placed firmly on his little frozen twig very soon.

  • Update: I’m going to revise certain posts on here and to do that I find I’m going to have to move pages ahead. I will leave skeleton notes on the original pages however, and links to their new locations.

Feedback most welcome!


  1. love tutorial. Much appreciated. Lovely stitching. thanks for sharing. Hugs Judy

  2. Love the new layout. You are really clever making patterns form your photos. I too love embroidery stitches and history of textiles.
    Best wishes,
    jane C