My mom celebrated her 80th birthday last week (that’s her to the left with champagne all over her dress. Not bad for 80, huh?). I wanted to make her a fabric portrait like the one I made for my dad when he turned 80 (you can take a look at it back in my September 26th post).
So I selected one of my favourite photos of her to use as my template—a black & white that was taken in Niagara Falls when she was in her 20s.
Little did I know at the time how ambitious a choice that photo was, since it was a full-body shot instead of an uncomplicated head shot like my dad’s.
To my detriment, I can get over-enthusiastic when I have an idea for a project and tend to leap feet first into it without any advance planning. Therefore, stumbling blocks that I hadn’t planned for often crop up as the project evolves. I’m nuts; yes I know. It’s truly amazing that things end up working out in the end as often as they do.
Since that’s how I roll, I also find myself living by the motto “You win some; you lose some.” It’s what I say whenever I start a project with good intentions only to end up relegating it to the “maybe someday, I’ll rip this apart and start over again” pile.
That’s exactly how I began to feel with this project after I was elbow deep into it. More than once I was on the brink of just tossing the whole thing in the trash and heading out to the mall instead to buy my mother a gift that wasn’t spattered with my blood, sweat and tears.
I started the project on a Saturday morning, using Photoshop to pixelate the shot, then printed out an approximate 15” x 15” copy. I used a pen to outline all the various shadow layers on the hair, face/neck, arms and legs and shoes, then traced each layer onto tissue paper to create my patterns.
Next, I selected different tones of grey fabric for the skin and a plain plus a patterned black for the hair. For the top, I chose a crepey white cotton fabric and a white and grey patterned fabric to add a touch of shadowing. The shoes were created with three different shades of cream fabric. I wanted the skirt to be the only three-dimensional part of the portrait so I chose a silky black and white fabric that I could arrange to look poufy, just like in the picture. For the background, I used a large square of plain white cotton fabric.
After cutting out all the fabric pieces, it was time to put the puzzle together. Some of the face pieces were so tiny, I had to use tweezers to pick them up and manipulate them into place. Starting with the legs, I arranged the layers together, then temporarily affixed them with a combination of temporary fabric spray glue and hand-basting. Once I finished the legs and shoes, I moved on to the arms. I left the face/head for last, which was a good call because I would have thrown in the towel if I’d started there. Once those pieces were finally in place (guided by outbursts of cursing), I began laying out the basted parts on my white fabric background. Pinning down the blouse and skirt was the best part, the easiest part. I actually gathered the waistline of the skirt with basting so it would fit the picture realistically.
Once everything was pinned into place on the background, I wanted to cry because as far as I was concerned, my mom’s face looked like that of a mummy you’d dig up from the tombs in Egypt. I was, again, this close to trashing it. But I plugged on and I’m glad I did because—just as a cupcake needs icing—it’s the finishing details that really bring the picture into focus.
First I hand-stitched everything into place, pulling out the basting as I went along. Then I used light grey thread and the finest zigzag stitch on my sewing machine (I also have a quilting foot on my machine to handle any bulky areas) to outline most of the pieces. After all the sewing was complete, it finally resembled the original photo. Whew. Last but not least, I sewed into place a button replica of her earring.
As I stood back to appraise my work, it was obvious that I still had more to do, since my fabric mom looked like she was just floating in a big white space, her arm jutting out into nowhere. I’d been hoping to avoid having to add in all the background details but the picture looked incomplete without them. Damn.
I was done with cutting out any more tiny fabric pieces. No way. Not a chance. So how to get some background detail in there?
Sketching pencils and paint to the rescue! It wasn’t a piece that would ever see the inside of a washing machine, so there would be no problem using regular art materials on the fabric.
I used a pencil to draw the outline of the stone wall and the iron railings behind her. Then I used a combination of pencils, charcoal pencil, and acrylic paint to add shadows and texture. Before long, her hand was actually holding a railing instead of dead space.
As my best friend Sue (a quilt-a-holic who produces the most stunning work) often says, “Don’t things just always seem to fall into place when we really need them to? It’s as if an invisible hand reaches out to help us when we’re stuck.” And that’s exactly what happened after I finished my fabric picture and began to wonder what I was going to use to frame it.
I recalled a large picture frame that my daughter had left behind when she moved out of the house years before; she’d left it leaning against the wall behind her closet door. It was a beautiful, solid frame, but I’d never had any use for it—until now. I dragged it out of her closet and didn’t it just happen to be the exact size and colour (black) of frame I needed. Honestly, my fabric portrait fit the frame as if they’d been made for each other!
In the end, all that work was worth every moment. My mom absolutely loves it.