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How I Made My Self-Portrait

Someone wrote to ask me how I made my self portrait. She wants to do one of her son, and did not know where to start. To be honest, I can’t imagine ever wanting to do this again… but I tried to remember the steps I had followed, and in case anyone else is curious, this was what I wrote:

The very bare-bones essence of what I did (as far as I can remember in this order) was:

Before starting: Try to talk yourself out of the project. Try to think of another project, try to find an easier, faster, simpler way. Explore tapestry crochet (stitches are not in a grid, would not work for the chart I made), stranded knitting in a tube and then cutting/steeking (too many colors to strand across the back with sometimes inches of not using a color), even imagine duplicate stitch embroidery over flat knitting in one color. Then decide to give it a shot, since this is the idea which won’t die.

1. Find a digital photo which is very clear but simple. Brian took this photo of me while I was dancing. That meant no eyeglasses, which turned out to be a good thing.

2. Open image in PhotoShop, crop and manipulate a bit. I’m not sure what I did in any detail. I did airbrush the background so it became one solid color (rather than ceiling tiles). I think at one point I tried the “Posterize” command, but ended up minimizing my colors in the “Save for Web” feature under the GIF file type (rather than JPEG).

3. Save for web as a GIF and work with the number of colors in the “save as web” box until you can reduce to the absolutely lowest number of colors you can live with. Manipulate which colors it retains by clicking on the colors you want to keep, and reduce number of colors by one at a time rather than using the pull-down list choices.

I saved my image with different names as I worked, so that I could go back if I didn’t like my direction and start again without starting at zero. I saved at least 17 versions of this by the time I was done, so that I could compare them side by side rather than losing the older ones forever.


4. Reduce the size of the photo until it has a large enough pixel that you are willing to knit it, but small enough to give detail which reads as a face in the final image. (This step might have come before the step I called #3, I can not remember now.)

I believe after I did this, I either changed the image size again to enlarge the pixels so I could see them well, or I figured out how to use Windows Photo Gallery print as an 8×10 “photo” and in the meantime increase the pixel size on the sheet of printed paper.

Definition: Pixel = “Picture Element” = dot in digital photo = stitch in my project


5. Print full image with the colors you chose. I ended up feeling that a minimum of 18 colors was absolutely required for this to work. Keep it as a reference for while you knit, to keep the goal close at hand.

eudora14contrastcolors6. Save as with a new name, and replace all the colors with totally garish contrasting colors. I don’t know how to do find/replace color in PhotoShop so maybe I did a magic wand selection with settings of “non-contiguous” and the anti-aliasing turned off. Then if you choose a new color and hit Alt-Backspace it will replace the selection with the paint color you just chose.

Print the new “ugly” image. This will be the graph you knit from. You want the medium brown and the dark brown to look very different when you are knitting. So change them to green and orange, for example, or at least medium brown and orange. All colors should be so unique that when you print them it is clear which is which. Then make a piece of paper with all the new odd colors on it, and tape a piece of each yarn it represents next to the strange color it goes with, as a “legend.”

7. NOW is the hardest part. Find the colors/types of yarn you need. What happened for me is that I wanted 18 colors. I had only 6 days to find yarns. I found 11 colors. Wool worked very well, but I tried cotton and it made a messy surface and didn’t block well with the wool.

Finally (thanks to the suggestion of my friend, Rae), I bought four colors of laceweight yarn and mixed them together to make new colors at a fingering-weight gauge. Three taupe and one cream was one new “color,” three creams and one taupe, was another. That gave me more colors and it worked.

I wish I had been skilled at dyeing subtle shades that would work for my skin tones. Neutrals are not my area of expertise, so I depended on commercial yarns. Alpaca was my friend, since it comes in so many natural colors. Sockyarn was perfect, but in my town neutrals were hard to find.

8. Spend 2 weeks knitting pretty much every waking minute. This includes having hubby bring you meals, and not wasting time some days to change out of pajamas.

I used post-it white removeable tape to keep track of where I was in the graph as I knit. I had a stomach ache the whole time I did it, I was not sure it would actually turn out. I started at the bottom of the face and worked up.

You just can’t know if it’s working until you have already knit thousands of stitches. My graph was something like 120 stitches wide and I had to knit my shoulders before I could do the mouth and eyes. If the mouth and eyes were not right, the project would fail. I knit 11 days before I finished knitting the eyes.

At 11 days, I thought that the piece had not worked out. I took it to my friend Altu, who owns a restaurant. I cried that it had not worked. She said, “Oh, yes, it’s working… I can see my Lynnie!” She took the piece across the restaurant and held it up. She was right, it worked. What would I do without my friends?

9. I left yarn ends all over the back as I worked. I had to finally admit I had to tie knots on the back because there was no way to sew in all the ends without ruining the fabric on the front side. (Mind you, I just never tie knots in knitting… I am a socknitter, and knots hurt in socks.)

I couldn’t knit it in any traditional method of intarsia, because there was no pattern to the repeats. There sometimes was one single stitch of a color with nowhere to twist that color, next to it. I call this “folk” intarsia, mostly just figuring it out as I went.

Tying knots was essential, because I could not do that twist which is so important in intarsia. There were lots of potential structural holes in the fabric (because of abrupt color changes), and knots fixed that problem.

10. After tying the knots, I held up the piece from the other side of the room, looking into the mirror to get a good distance view. I then made small shading corrections by duplicate stitch embroidery.

For example, an eye looks almost demonic if it does not have a glint of light reflecting in it. I had to add a glint in one of my eyes, it had not reduced properly into the graph I had. So I guessed where it should go and made a duplicate stitch with a lighter yarn.

Then I held it up. It was in the wrong place. I figured out what direction it needed to move, then I took out the wrong stitch and tried again.

At one place my hair didn’t have enough depth, it was all the same color. So I also duplicate stitched a bit of the next color into an area between those two colors, sort of a checkerboard blending of the edge.

11. Steam it/Frame it/Present it. To even out my uneven knitting, I steam-blocked the piece. This is a miracle step… there was no time to wet block, but the steam did the job and did not take too long to dry.

I wanted to leave it looking somewhat unfinished, because it was a self portrait and I am not yet finished myself. I glued the last stitch to the bamboo needle on the top where I had live stitches, without binding off. I took the other needle and ran it through the cast on stitches at the bottom. This gave it weight and a frame of sorts.

I say that the front of the piece is “LynnH on a Good Day.” The back? “LynnH on a Bad Day,” of course. I think in the show it was just titled “Self Portrait.” That’s accurate, too.

You can see the rug-like ends hanging from the bottom of the piece when it is on display. Between that and the needles, I expect that is my own personal touch. Others might want a more traditional frame.


So that is what I did. Except this only says what I did, not how. Honestly, picking the yarn was the hardest part of all. I really wanted more colors, but any more would be too hard to knit. Then I could not even find the colors I had compromised “down” to!

I’m a “Grown-Up” Now

It was the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done. I did not really know it would work the whole time I proceeded. Had I been any younger, I would have lost courage before I approached the final stitch.

Every year I’ve lived, I’ve learned a lot. One thing I learned in my 40’s was that often I am critical of my creative output right after I complete it… but if I give it time, it can become familiar and positive to me.

So I proceeded… knowing I might hate it for a while, and I wouldn’t know how I really felt about it without at least 6 months behind the final stitch. Fortunately, I was proud of it for the show opening. How nice that was!

I gave up 2 solid weeks of income to make the portrait work. It was really worth it after it was done. However, you can imagine that it was painfully difficult to proceed at times. I had to arm-wrestle occasionally with the doubt that plagues all creative types at times.

Perhaps a More Simple Answer

I hear that there are commercial services that will make photos into a graph and maybe even sell you yarns for the project. I would like to think mine looks more like an artist’s hand created my piece than the commercial ones (but I may be comforting myself after having done it the way I did). I do like the unmatching types of yarns I used; I love the textures they created on the surface.

At least I know in my case, I did every step myself. It is truly my own work rather than following the directions created by someone else. (Well, Brian did take the original photo of me, but I did the rest.)

May your project proceed as you dream it will. Mine turned out better…

For the curious, this is only 1 of 6 posts I’ve written about this subject. For the whole series of posts on the Threads in Space Show and my piece, Click Here.

One Response to “How I Made My Self-Portrait”

  1. Karen Says:

    Loved reading this–the patience and artistry of a true crafter!

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