After months and months of focusing all of my energy on making enough money to survive this summer, I burned out. Badly. When those crashes happen, it’s the worst. I completely shut down.
I decided that I needed a change of pace. I’m one of those people who constantly need to be making something, but I sometimes lose sight of the joy of making something purely for my own amusement.
One of the things I like to do best when I need some down time is to do embroidery work. It’s like really slow motion drawing, where each stitch is slo-mo stippling, hatching or cross hatching, depending on the kind of embroidery you do.
I started doing stitch work as a little kid. We’d get kits at the hardware store’s variety shop upstairs, or little bits of aida cloth, and I played around with making small pre-designed stuff. I would sometimes get a little bolder and try doing my own patterns, but when I was younger I didn’t have that kind of mind. But I have a lot of fond memories of grabbing my fabric during recess and curling up somewhere (I liked the tire pile) and making either a cross stitch thing or a potholder on my loopin’ loom. Let’s just say I was never into team sports.
I tried knitting when I was in the 5th grade, but could not get the hang of it. It was too math-y. No pictures. I found it immensely boring. My mother’s a master knitter, and my sister picked it up quickly, but I just couldn’t do it very well. Add to it that I’m left-handed and right brained, and it just didn’t click. But embroidery is fun for me. I like drawing and painting, essentially, with thread.
In the past few years, especially with the advent of Etsy and handicrafts in general, cross stitch has gained popularity again. I see a lot of subversive cross stitching going on out there. I’ve got some mixed emotions about it. If it’s done well, it works! But the novelty of seeing something vulgar elegantly stitched on oatmeal aida cloth only works once for me; it feels gimmicky. A lot of people out there don’t really get into it; they’ll write out a quote in block letters or do a simple design that doesn’t even fill in the cloth holes very well. It drives me bananas. But more power to them. I am being a total snotbucket.
So because I have a competitive streak and because this idea was fueled by insomnia, I decided that I wanted to cross stitch photographic portraits of people I like….in black and white monochrome. But I didn’t want them to look simple; I wanted them to look like actual photographs, just densely stitched.
Who to sew, though? It would have to be someone I wouldn’t mind spending hours at a time with, intensely focusing on each pixel of each shadow.
So in the end, I decided it would be fun to do a portrait of one of my favorite actors, the brilliant Leslie Howard, from a pattern gotten from an Etsy seller.
The idea of doing an overly elaborate photographic portrait in cross stitch, especially one of Leslie Howard, is completely absurd. I know hardly anyone knows who he was anymore. But I love the idea and it makes me laugh the entire time I work on it. I don’t know of anyone else who has lovingly crafted a highly detailed embroidery work of Leslie Howard. But why not? He was a great actor, he was a hero in real life, and the man was gorgeous. Doing this project is a lot of fun. So much, in fact, that I have a smile on my face as I work on it; something I haven’t felt my face do in months. I think about an interview I heard with David Lynch talking about the end result of a project simply being the fruit; but the process is the important step; the best part. “Water the root; enjoy the fruit.”
There’s no feeling of “I just want to get this over with” when I do a project like this. It’s almost a form of meditation. Nothing but intense focus on one-inch square patches. Everything else slips away, for better or worse, and it’s just me, the needle and thread, and the fabric coming together to make a picture. I love that.
So Leslie it is. This is about 20 hours’ worth of work. When I’m finished, it’ll contain nearly 3000 stitches. How about that?