Artist in Tapestry—Modern Version
MRS. WALTER THOMPSON of Alhambra, California, spent her school days in a Missouri convent. One of the many things she learned was sewing. Another was the highly specialized Italian art of tapestry embroidery. After graduating from school she was married and began devoting her full time to making a home.
As a young homemaker she often found practical use for her sewing ability. But seldom did she call upon her talents for the ancient tapestry embroidery. Until recently knowledge of it was merely filed in the back of her mind for future reference.
By 1949, Mr. and Mrs. Thompson had moved to California and lived in a quiet little home in Alhambra. Mrs. Thompson's health was failing and she became very ill, requiring a doctor's care. Her physician suggested that she find a hobby. "Not too strenuous, understand," he advised, "but one that will keep your mind and fingers active."
AS MRS. THOMPSON thought back over the years, her mind wandered to her school days in Missouri. Mental images of beautiful tapestries she once worked on came back to her. But as she looked around her small home she realized tapestries would be much too large a project for the walls.
Then she thought of a painting she had recently seen. Wasn't there some way to reproduce it on cloth and perhaps frame the finished product? As she concentrated on the project she realized that much skill would be necessary to embroider a fine painting on cloth. Perhaps more than she possessed.
"Why not," she asked herself, "buy a lithographed print?" She had seen several pretty pictures which department stores carried for those who cannot afford the prices usually asked for original oil paintings.
Scouring Los Angeles department stores and book stores she finally located one which pleased her. Then she mounted it on linen cloth and stitched it with the finest silk threads in colors matching those chosen by the artist. The result was a beautiful picture which now occupies a place of honor in her home.
For her second work Mrs. Thompson chose the painting "Mozart at the Court." She located a wood block print about twenty-four by thirty-six inches. It took her six months to finish the fine details and match the many complex colors found in this picture.
When it was completed and framed she invited an art expert to make an appraisal. After careful deliberation and many explanations of how hard it was to value something as unusual as her project, the art expert voiced what he called a conservative estimate—$1,300.
"To say I was astounded would be putting it mildly," recalls Mrs. Thompson. "Over and over I told myself that it was only a value put on a piece of art, nobody would ever pay that much for one picture."
However, the value and high regard the art representative placed on her work rekindled the fire of enthusiasm inside Mrs. Thompson. Almost forgotten was her poor health as she redoubled her efforts, this time completing several smaller portraits.
MRS. THOMPSON now felt she was ready to display her works alongside the finest handicrafts in Southern California. Entering two portraits in a hobby show she easily captured a blue ribbon for each. Her pictures were the hit of the exhibit and she received invitations to show her work at other shows throughout the area. Always she won awards and finally culminated her competition by winning a blue ribbon at the mammoth Los Angeles County Fair, which featured hundreds of entries.
The uniqueness and excellent craftsmanship of Mrs. Thompson's work began attracting attention in the local papers from Pomona to Santa Monica. Once the pictures were featured in a Los Angeles daily paper.
But Mrs. Thompson was little concerned about having developed a new hobby from an ancient art. Its main purpose had been served: she regained her health and maintained her mental equilibrium while finding something constructive to do.
Another facet of her hobby presented itself shortly after she began winning blue ribbons. People who had seen her pictures on display began asking if she would care to sell them.
Once again Mrs. Thompson was surprised. With all her careful work and diligent planning she had never considered anything commercial about her hobby. Now total strangers called her on the telephone and asked if they might visit her home to see the pictures. Many of those who came wanted to buy one of the embroidered pieces.
When people kept insisting she had an art expert appraise her pictures and sold several of them. Some larger ones were purchased and donated to charitable organizations while others occupy honored places in homes throughout Southern California. Mrs. Thompson was more amazed than anyone else when she discovered her hobby on its own merit had become a financial success—a profitable hobby.
ALTHOUGH LOOKING at the finished pictures indicates that a high degree of skill and talent would be necessary to make them, Mrs. Thompson believes that any homemaker with average skill in sewing plus persistence could master the art. All that is actually required is following a few elementary procedures.
First is the purchase of a picture that will lend itself to embroidery. Mrs. Thompson will tackle any picture no matter how complicated now, but at first she tried simpler ones which did not involve too many details.
Mrs. Thompson is continually on the watch for good prints. She has found them in department stores, book stores and gift shops. Sometimes she pays as much as $50 for a suitable print. Originally she paid much less for the pictures but the larger ones are always expensive. And, as Mrs. Thompson points out, she once paid $39.50 for a twenty-four-by-thirty-six-inch color print which, after it was finished, was valued at more than $1,300. Her recommendation for a beginner would be to start with a smaller inexpensive picture. Later a hobbyist could work up to the larger sizes gradually, applying the techniques learned earlier.
After the picture has been selected Mrs. Thompson mounts a piece of fine linen on a frame with tacks. It must be stretched tight in all directions with no wrinkles. Thumb tacks are good for this purpose. The linen should be several inches larger than the finished print to allow for trim before framing.
The lithographed print is mounted to the linen by means of liquid cement. Mrs. Thompson experimented with many brands before selecting the type she now uses. A good cement must dry soft and not too quickly. Those which dry fast sometimes cause wrinkles, those drying hard make sewing difficult and will crack when moved, ruining a good picture.
SELECTION OF threads is the next consideration. Mrs. Thompson uses silks for most of her pictures but has embroidered several with mercerized thread. Determining factor is color availability. Manufacturers who offer the largest selection of colors are chosen. Particularly important is the variety of the same color. Some pictures may need six to twelve shades of red or other colors.
To reproduce the picture faithfully, threads should match as nearly as possible the colors the artist used. Even when a multitude of color shades are available it will sometimes be impossible to duplicate exactly the artist's color on the print. Many times painters represent a round portion of the body, a dress fold, or limbs of the body underneath clothing by slightly changing the color. Usually deeper shades are used for shadows. Mrs. Thompson never selects a black and white picture to embroider, since, using the same colors as in the picture, the embroidered piece would, of course, be black and white.
It would be impossible in many cases, to find an exact duplicate for colors. Mrs. Thompson's answer is to use the principle employed by an artist in mixing his paints. Instead of mixing oil paint, she blends thread. Sometimes she sews alternate colors beside each other to get the desired effect. Other shading problems are solved by sewing one color first, then sewing another thread over the top, letting enough of the original color show through to blend into the desired hue.
Color problems such as these can be met only when they occur. Solutions offered by different individuals would undoubtedly result in minor variations. What pleases one eye might not be attractive to another person. Choice of threads and blending colors is entirely a matter of taste.
SEWING IS done with the same stitch that the Italians used when sewing tapestries. It is similar to embroidery stitches used by modern housewives. Mrs. Thompson's needle is the smallest she can find. Large holes left in the paper by bigger needles tend to weaken the physical structure of the picture.
View of stitch used in tapestry embroidery. Solid line representing the thread above the print and dotted line that below the surface. Thread is knotted to start with and on the last stitch is tied.
Threads are always separated and only a single strand used. Thread as long as possible is selected, in an effort to make an entire section with a single piece. One advantage of this method is less tying, another factor is that two batches of threads may vary in color slightly thus ruining an effect. The stitches must be kept as close together as possible. If any of the printed area from beneath shows through the sewn section, threads must be stitched closer to each other.
Mrs. Thompson's stitches vary in length from 1/8 to twelve inches and even longer. At first the longer stitches gave her some concern. But she found they were no harder to make than shorter ones. At first glance it appears that a twelve-inch stitch would not be firm; however, if the thread is pulled tight and stitches are sewn close together, a long stitch section will present the same effect as do smaller sections. Framing and covering with glass gives further support to long stitches.
Faces and small areas of considerable detail are also difficult. Most of them would involve too much sewing and too many different shades of thread to fill in. Mrs. Thompson solved this problem by simply leaving the faces as they are on the original, with no sewing at all. When other backgrounds have been sewn the slight difference in depth between the shaded areas and the printed face gives the picture a three-dimensional effect not found in original oil paintings.
When the sewing is finished and all the threads are blended into the colors she wants, Mrs. Thompson frames the picture. Her larger work goes to a professional framer whose business is oil paintings. Smaller ones can be placed in cheaper frames obtainable at department stores. If the picture was embroidered by contract, the person who ordered the work pays for and determines the way it is to be framed. If Mrs. Thompson has a painting she wants to be shown without framing, she covers it with cellophane.
IN ANY picture, whether large or small, many problems present themselves. Mrs. Thompson has solved each one as it came up and most of them were answered by using simple sewing techniques. On a picture of an old man with a beard she first stitched long white thread for the beard. But in the picture his beard was curly. Using only straight stitches this would be impossible to duplicate. So she wound thread around a pencil, slid the resulting curls off, cut them apart and sewed them to the white beard, which was already shaded with straight white stitches. The effect was remarkable. The old man's beard was actually curly, not merely represented to be.
Another picture had tassels hanging from a table and rug on the floor. She made tiny tassels out of thread and sewed them to the painting. In still another picture a gold frame figured prominently in the background. Mrs. Thompson sewed gold thread to give an effect of realism. Artists are limited to the amount of realism they can get into their paintings; the embroidery artist, however can make actual items and incorporate them into their work. Jewels, cloth, etc., can be used for hats, belts and other items found in the painting.
When Mrs. Thompson can't find a thread matching and wants to blend several shades of the same color to match a particular tinting, she mixes several of the threads together in one strand and looks at it from a distance. The eye will mix the different threads together as one, the illusion giving the effect of a single color. By trial and error method Mrs. Thompson finds the hue she wants. Before the threads are sewn to the painting, she takes them apart again and sews them in individual strands, blending them by the same method she employed to find the color originally.
When selling her work, Mrs. Thompson tries to get the opinion of a qualified expert as to a fair price. Usually an insurance company expert will do this work reasonably. Yet the real factors which determine her selling price are cost of raw materials and the amount of time which goes into making a picture. She has received $125 for "The Sacred Heart" (twelve by eighteen inches) and considerably more for larger paintings which involved more time, thread, and a larger initial cost for the print. "Blue Boy" was valued at $350 and "Mozart at the Court" at $1,300.
In Mrs. Thompson's opinion, the best way to promote sales is to let people see the finished product. All of the demand for her work was created in this way. Showing in hobby shows, exhibits, church and civic affairs brought her embroidered pieces before many people and those in turn told others. Now she has more orders for pictures than she could ever hope to fill.
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.