How to Turn Your Portraits into Patterns

comments (6) October 22nd, 2008     

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erika_kern Erika Kern, contributor
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Last year, we found these beautiful portraits of my grandparents hidden behind some other family pictures. The moment I saw them I knew I wanted to stich them!
Since both portraits have rather dark backgrounds, I cut the subjects out of the copies and taped them on some blank paper.
I traced the portraits onto acetate first. If you have high contrasts in your portraits or a light box, you should be able to skip this step.
Last year, we found these beautiful portraits of my grandparents hidden behind some other family pictures. The moment I saw them I knew I wanted to stich them!

Last year, we found these beautiful portraits of my grandparents hidden behind some other family pictures. The moment I saw them I knew I wanted to stich them!

Photo: Erika Kern
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As soon as I started stitching again, I wanted to stitch portraits. I saw Jenny Hart's Dolly Parton and I was inspired. I'd never considered using embroidery as the medium for portraiture, but once I saw her work it all seemed so right. My first portrait was my friend, John, and his dog, Peanut, and I've been learning ever since then.

Here's how I figured out how to make patterns out of my family's treasured portraits. These make great gifts for family and friends and are perfect for Christmastime.

You'll need:

  • A portrait you'd like to stitch
  • Two color photocopies
  • White paper
  • Transparent tape
  • Clear acetate (you can find it at an office-supply store where you find the overhead projector supplies)
  • Tracing paper
  • Pencil
  • Black marker
  • Iron-on transfer pen
  • Your choice of fabric

First, you'll want to make a color photocopy of the portrait you will be making into a pattern. I do a color copy even if the original is black and white because you get a clearer contrast than you do with a black and white copy. This is also a chance to resize the image if it's too small for your stitching needs. Make at least two copies, one to use to trace your image and one to study for the details like clothes, freckles, smiles, etc.

If the background of your photo is dark or busy, you might want to cut the subject of your picture away from it to make it easier to trace the image.


Since both portraits have rather dark backgrounds, I cut the subjects out of the copies and taped them on some blank paper.

Both of my portraits are somewhat dark and soft so it was hard to get a clear image through the tracing paper. To solve this, I did a basic line trace on clear acetate.


I traced the portraits onto acetate first. If you have high contrasts in your portraits or a light box, you should be able to skip this step.

You will now do your first tracing with the tracing paper. This is your chance to add all the small detail you see on your reference copy, the bits that you have to squint to see. It wasn't until a closer look that I saw that my grandfather was wearing a vest in his picture, so I added it in this step. I also added a basic guideline to the waves in my grandmother's hair. I like to leave my patterns kind of open so that I can add as much or as little detail as I want. I also like the freedom to add texture, especially to the hair. You can choose to go super detailed in your pattern if you prefer to have everything already sketched out on your fabric for you.


Using tracing paper, draw out the pattern. This is the stage where I added the details in the hair and clothing.

Now you're ready to make your pattern! Flip your detailed tracing over and trace the reverse. If you don't do that, your portrait will be backwards when you transfer it.


Trace the reverse image of the pattern using your iron-on transfer pen.

If you're worried about making your final copy in pen first, you can do it in pencil and then go over your pencil lines with the transfer pen.

Once your pattern is done, you're ready to iron it onto the fabric of your choice.


I used white linen as the fabric for my portraits, but you can stitch on cotton, felt, or any fabric you choose.

Once your fabric has the pattern, you're ready to start stitching! Next week, I'll show you how I went about stitching my grandfather's portrait.

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posted in: embroidery, family, portrait, jenny Hart

Comments (6)

jenniferofthejungle writes: That is such a wonderful, wonderful idea and tutorial. Thanks so much.
Posted: 3:06 am on November 21st
jabair writes: I really like the idea of taking a portraits, and made patterns of your grandparents.

You have given me a neat project to do for making a Christmas gift for my mom, of her parents(whom passed away many years ago).

I will be looking forward to next weeks of how you went about stitching your grandfathers portrait.

So as I will be able to learn how to be able to hopefully make a pattern out of my grandparents photo of the two of them to be able to give to my 70 year old mom.

I will let you know how I do at trying this turning a portrait into a pattern.

Sign: jabair


Posted: 7:56 pm on November 11th
dany4bec writes: Embroidery patterns I love it! check out my "portraits" post, I used the same technique to make patterns for painting onto canvas, nice tutorial:)
Posted: 12:01 pm on October 23rd
pinsandneedles writes: I've wondered how this was done. I can't wait to see your finished product!
Posted: 9:42 am on October 23rd
erika_kern writes: That sounds great! I'd love to see what you do.
Posted: 6:43 pm on October 22nd
Bonniedoo writes: Love it....I intend to do a local scene using this technique....
Posted: 4:20 pm on October 22nd
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