How to hand embroider faces & skin: the art of ‘stitching’ a person

17 February 2021
A hand embroidered portrait of Amanda by Catherine Hicks.
In the second instalment of our series on stitching faces and skin, Catherine Hicks shares an in-depth look at her approach to hand embroidering a person – more specifically, a loved one – in thread.

In September 2018, we welcomed a wonderful new daughter-in-law into our family as my son Duncan married his darling Amanda in a madcap New York City Hall wedding. I wanted to make a special gift for Duncan and got my inspiration from an image of Amanda from her Instagram account. 

Amanda portrait

Gathering the right materials

I bought more than 50 different skeins of silk in flesh tones, yellows, browns, pinks, purples, greens, greys and blues. I chose a variety of cool and warm tones of each hue. I took my time and carried Amanda’s picture on my phone to match up the colours as I added them to my basket. 

I chose to use silk because I knew it would give me the right texture to mimic Amanda’s flawless skin, and I always love the tactile experience of working with silk.

Deciding on a navy silk and rayon velvet support, I began by transferring Amanda’s face onto Pellon Wash and Gone machine embroidery stabiliser. 

Step by step process of gathering materials for embroidery portrait

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Choosing and organising threads

After locking everything into my hoop, I started with the boring but necessary thread prep. First, I picked cool or warm skeins of similarly hued light, medium and dark silk. I then cut just under a yard of each of those three, which I subsequently stranded (pull out instead of splitting!) into individual threads. 

After laying out each of the individual threads onto a black velvet remnant, I remixed the original colours by blending them (two threads at a time) into a more complex variety of colours within that limited group. This threading step was repeated dozens of times with dozens of colours throughout the time that I was working on this portrait, as I organised and reorganised my colours into:

  • Skin: fleshy darks, lights, highlights and lowlights.
  • Eyes: multiple shades of blue, white and warmer grey. There are SO many shades in both eyeballs and irises. 
  • Lips and cheeks: multidimensional and multi-coloured pinks, roses, magenta and whites. 
  • Hair: dark, light and medium yellows, as well as dark, light and medium browns. 
  • Veins: dark, light and medium greys. 
  • Shadows, eyebrows, eyelashes, under lights, reflected lights, etc: Finely differentiated colours.

Love this? Learn how to capture your favourite Hollywood icon in Stitch issue 122 where Catherine shares how to achieve a black and white likeness. 

Hand embroidered eyes and skin in progress

Let the stitching begin!

Following the contours of the face (and sometimes stopping to feel things like my own cheekbone or eye socket) I always begin by stitching in the direction of the facial planes I’m trying to create. Each stitch is about 1/8 - 1/4in long. In the beginning, I don’t get obsessive about specific colours (close is good enough) – I know these early stabs will likely get (mostly) covered up as I go along.

Stitching skin

Staying on track

So, I filled and filled, occasionally (when inspired to do something less boring) stopping to work on a detailed part like an eye or nose. I looked at shadows and highlights and tried to lay in the lights and darks into the right locations. I closely and constantly observed my original picture and I backed out (either by unstitching or carefully cutting out) when I felt I had gone off the rails. When stitching with two threads in my needle, I tried to be super careful about how smoothly the thread was laying down and used a laying tool as necessary.  

hand embroidering a person - stitches in progress

Keeping everything tidy

I was also careful with the back of the work. I don’t use any knots as I start my thread, instead making a tiny double stitch to set the thread. If something tangles on the back, I either untangle it (if the embroidery goddesses are with me) or, more often, I stop, cut off the offending knot and resew everything back into place. This practice makes for a smooth, non-bumpy final product and is worth the aggravation and (occasional) cursing.

A different point of view

I had a lot of trouble with Amanda’s mouth. After getting most of it in place, I looked at what I had stitched and found that her lips were shaped, highlighted and low lighted so that they looked just like her, but no matter how many times I resewed her mouth, her lips looked like they weren’t properly lined up under her nose. I kept unstitching and resewing, but it was just a little bit off every time.  

Finally, it hit me – in the selfie her mouth was ever so slightly pursed and, because that is not an expression that Amanda typically makes, I was having a hard time reconciling what I thought she looked like with what she actually looked like.

The solution came from a drawing class I had taken a few years ago – I turned both the photo on my computer screen and the image I was sewing in my hoop upside down.

This abstracted Amanda’s face just enough so that I could sew the shapes and colours that I saw without thinking of those areas as being any kind of ‘mouth.’ When I righted both images, there Amanda was, with her mouth looking like her mouth and perfectly in place right underneath her nose.

hand embroidered portrait in progress

Bending and blending

As I stitched some of the under layers of Amanda’s skin, I used a ‘weaving’ technique around the forehead and cheeks because these parts of the face are rounded into complex shapes where it is more difficult to make uncompromised choices about the exact facial planes. Instead of stitching in just one direction, I stitched some stitches north/south and others east/west (and all points in between) to help me to get the shadows and curves just right. The trick is to finalise everything by breaking up these weaving looking stitches with other (often single strand) stitches to soften and blend them into ‘skin’.

hand embroidered portrait of Amanda in a display hoop

Top tip! When asked the secret of getting a good likeness, my answer is always the same – observation, observation, and observation! You get a good likeness by matching what you ACTUALLY see, not what you THINK you see. Don’t name the facial features. Instead break the parts you see into shapes and tones.

Slowing down for a better result

The closer I got to the final layer, the more I slowed down and observed. I judged the necessity of each stitch and was pernickety about the placement. I didn’t worry about conserving thread, and, when necessary, I pared down to a single thread to make sure I was putting colour only where it belonged. I made my marks with extreme delicacy, stopping frequently to unclamp my hoop and hang it up on a wall so I could look at my painting from a distance with my head upright.

Find out more

Catherine Hicks


Learn how to hand embroider a classic self-portrait in the first instalment of the stitching skin series with Catherine Hicks, who creates a spectacular portrait of Vincent Van Gogh.

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