If I could choose only one kind of artistic endeavor in life – and all other kinds of art were closed off to me – I would choose hand embroidery. That is the choice I would make today, but not the choice I would have made if this was eleven years ago. Eleven years ago, I had not yet discovered the books and embroidery techniques of a particular English woman. Are you familiar with her name? Have you guessed it? Helen M. Stevens.
I first came across a Helen M. Stevens publication at a book store in the year 2000. It was in Honolulu. Prior to that, I had done freestyle embroidery for years, never really progressing past the easier stitching techniques, but I had designed some tropical bird images myself and enjoyed the process. I had also done cross stitch patterns of other artists and then designed a few cross stitch bird patterns on software. I did one needlepoint picture and did really like that kind of stitchery because I did not like the coarser, thicker threads.
My mother did many petite point pictures over a span of two decades and I cherish the framed, finished pictures because my own mother stitched the pictures herself, but petite point does not interest me as something I want to do. Most people who do petite point need to use a magnifying glass to count the stitches.
Ms. Stevens' True Embroideries
Before viewing a Helen M. Stevens book, to me the colorful threads in dozens of variations of hues was what attracted me to embroidery work. In freestyle hand embroidery, I had experimented with the straight stitch, satin stitch, shadow lining and other simple stitches. The freestyle form of embroidery has been used for thousands of years. It is relaxing and creative at the same time. By 1999, I had thought I'd done enough embroidering for a lifetime. There was oil painting and chalk pasteling and other art forms I wanted to study and try.
Helen M. Stevens calls her embroideries: True Embroideries. The first book of hers that I opened was called The Timeless Art of Embroidery. My waning interest in the art and history of embroidery suddenly surged. There I was at a bookstore, trying not to be impulsive, but feeling like I had just opened the best book of my entire lifetime. I looked through the book for an hour before I let myself buy it. I had to have it! It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Since then, I have bought many more of Helen M. Stevens' books.
The difference between Ms. Stevens' techniques, realism, enthusiasm and interesting narratives in her books compared to other embroidery books I have read cannot be adequately explained in a short article such as this. The whole world of art offers its possibilities when you open up a Helen M. Stevens book.
In 2006, when I purchased my fifth Helen M. Stevens book, once again I was amazed at the number of beautiful, realistic, exciting, completed embroidery projects that were photographed and contained in the book. There were five master classes in the book, but many more photographs of completed projects and notes on each subject as to how to attain the realism and interest in the picture if we want to imitate it. I decided to email Ms. Stevens. In my email, I told her that I greatly admire her work. I asked if she subcontracts out the actual embroidery labor to be done by people she has trained in her methods to do it. She replied that she does all of the embroidery herself. She takes on each commissioned project and like any other artist, does the entire art piece herself.
This is Helen M. Stevens' website address: http://www.fritillary.co.uk/
If you press About Us on her website, you can read about Ms. Stevens' long, dedicated journey of achievement in embroidery arts.
There are so many techniques to learn: radial opus plumarium, strata radial opus plumarium, directional opus plumarius, opposite angle stitching, and subtle voiding – to name just the ones I'm trying to conquer. These are some of the techniques that Helen Stevens has perfected so that her embroideries of birds' feathers, a cat's fur, a blossoming flower – anything and everything – can look so real and so exciting.
Helen Stevens' work is exhibited in many surprising places of the United Kingdom and abroad. She read and studied extensively on her own to gain the knowledge she needed before developing her 'signature' techniques. She understands the history of embroidery. She has been an embroidery artist for 25 years now and I dare say she is the most renowned embroiderer in the United Kingdom. She is a member of the Society of Women Artists. Her art hangs in the British Museum and the Palace of Westminster!
She works mainly with silk threads. She explains in her books why it is important to work with silk threads but she does use cotton threads and specialty threads sometimes, too.
Helen M. Stevens emphasizes in each of her books that we can and should create our own embroidery designs, not just use her ideas – once we have mastered the stitch techniques and the color wheel. She is a true artist, an embroiderer extraordinaire.
If I imagine one of my granddaughters one day inheriting an heirloom oil painting I've done that looks realistic and took me all of two hours to paint and then I imagine the same granddaughter instead opening a package with an embroidery I've done – of the same subject, whatever it may be – which took me 20 or 30 hours to create and it looks absolutely real in every detail – I don't know; Maybe it's just me – but I think the embroidery is so much more exquisite.
And I happily admit, I am my mother's daughter.