Free motion embroidery requires passion, dedication and commitment because the process is incredibly obsessive with minute attention to detail applied throughout. For all these reasons the chosen image needs to be engaging and powerful, and often requires months of consideration before the transformative process begins.
After my husband Carl died many of my relationships became very complicated. I was complicated and so was my life, and sadly my relationship with my dad became a very broken and painful part of the loss.
In 2017 my dad was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 79.
When we first had the news, I remember feeling detached and nonchalant. The illness progressed slowly at first, but eventually the direction changed and it was clear that he wasn’t going to get better. However, that wasn’t the only change; his personality and character were being affected by the growth of the cancer, and the dad that I had once cherished began to re-emerge. This realisation was heart-breaking, because I knew that there was little time left to mend a shattered father and daughter relationship.
With an intense desire to retrieve something good from this horribly sad situation I turned to drawing, an art form that was loved by my dad and by myself. With my dad’s permission I took photos of him with my boys also present in the room. His relationship with them was magical. They adored him and he adored them. My dad looked up at his grandsons with the tenderest glint in his eye and I took the photograph.
On 30 October 2018, my dad passed away at home. For over a year the image stayed on my camera whilst I contemplated my promise to him, to draw him in stitch.
Up to this drawing I had only stitched people once and they were an ‘unknown couple’. This would be different – I knew my dad, he was part of me, but more importantly he was a huge part of my sons. Tentatively, I started by tracing my dad’s image onto dissolvable fabric. This isn’t an easy process because the drawing is hard to see through the layer of fabric so I used the photo on my MacBook as a guide.
This part felt ok. It involved some maths as I calculated how much to enlarge the image by before dividing it into printable sizes, along with an added 10% to account for shrinkage. On completion of the tracing I had to start stitching and because I feel that the eyes are the hardest and most critical part of the drawing, I started with them first.
Drawing the eyes of someone you don’t know is hard, but drawing eyes of someone that you do know is a completely different issue. The eyes are often said to be ‘the window to the soul’ and when they are stitched tenderly, looking up at you from the bed of your sewing machine and belonging to a lost parent, every stitch feels weighted.
Once the eyes were complete, taking two attempts, I moved on with my dad looking up at me from the bed of my sewing machine, an absolutely surreal experience. I work in layers as any portrait artist might do, but the use of rayon thread instead of paint means the process is very slow and I can spend hours just studying small areas of my dad’s face. Sometimes this is hard and it makes me want to cry but at other times I enjoy sharing the honesty of the stitches with my sons.
Another surprising issue is that once I know one part is really him, I find it difficult to move to the next area of his face because I feel scared about losing his personality.
As usual, working out the correct blend of threads has been very time-consuming and many small trial squares have already been formed. The layers are built up slowly because my dad’s aged complexion looks almost transparent with fine thread veins visible beneath fragile layers of skin.
Three quarters of my dad’s face is now complete but there has been a pause for the last couple of months due to a busy family home life during the coronavirus crisis. In September my sons will return to school and university, and I will go back to drawing my dad with thread.
Stitching is always emotionally challenging because the artist has to engage on an obsessive level with each thread being positioned by the heart. I feel a great sense of responsibility to complete this sensitive drawing.
[Note: a version of this blog post is also published on www.julieheaton.com]