Monday, April 06, 2009

The FINISHED Houdini Portrait!

At the beginning of February, I decided to make a birthday present for Teller's birthday (yes, that Teller) which is, memorably, February 14. He's one of my favorite performers (slash-essayist-slash-teacher-slash-skeptic) and I've made gifts for him before. It's always worth it.

I had been considering a slightly more detailed than usual cross-stitch project, and this seemed like a good choice for timing. I'd given myself two weeks -- approximately two weeks more than I usually give myself -- and already had a subject in mind: a hero of both Teller and myself, Harry Houdini.
Cross-stitch is not something I've done a lot of, but creating a pattern is very much the same as creating a square-stitch beading pattern. There are three main variables to know before you start: Number of colors, resolution (aka size of beads/stitches) and finished size.

Starting with a recognizable but relatively simple portrait of Houdini, I decided to go with six shades of grey plus white, which brought me to 7 colors. I wasn't even sure if I was going to be able to find six discrete greys, but that seemed to me to be enough differentiation without going totally overboard.

Harry Before and AfterTurns out, even a simple craft store like Michaels is likely to have 15 or 20 greys. The tricky part is what kind of greys they are -- blue grey? Green grey? Beige grey? I spent a good hour or more combing through the color bins, hunting for six cool/neutral greys that looked like they belonged together. Then grabbed a roll of the finest resolution cross-stitch fabric I could find, which turned out to be 28-count.
That's two variables down. Next question was what size. I already knew I wanted it to be a small, detailed piece. How was I going to present it? I had an idea that I might be able to make a round frame out of one side of a pair of handcuffs. I even had a friend ready to donate an old pair. ("They don't have a key... is that okay?") Without actually having the cuffs on hand, I took some guesses about average wrist size ranges, did the math and decided on a 2.5" across portrait. Little.
Houdini Close-Up

I've used Photoshop every day of my life for, like, 50 years, so doing the actual conversion wasn't difficult, once I had my variables in place. Above are the before and after images, at finished size. Of course, I separated out all the colors and printed my charts at 1 bazillion % scale so I could see the durned thing. And I still had to use super-magno glasses to be able to see the stitches at all! One strand of floss, by the way, is all 28-count x-stitch fabric can take. And sometimes even that seemed to be pushing it.

I was so excited that I gave myself enough time to finish for once! Two whole weeks! I got all my stuff together, put on my brightest light, settled into my comfiest spot on the sofa (with Sevie attendant) and proceeded to ruin my eyes and my back. For six weeks.

Granted, it's not like I worked 8 hours a day, every day... but there were more than a couple of weekends that saw double-digits of hours getting put in. Holy moly. I'm not good with guessing how much time went into something after the fact, because I'm almost always doing other things at the same time, putting in a few minutes here or there, but my gut is telling me this was something like 80 hours. Eighty? Really? Does that seem possible?

Houdini Frame DetailWhen I was about half way finished, I was at TJ Maxx doing random shopping, and in their home d├ęcor department stumbled across The. Perfect. Frame. I was so excited, I snatched it up without even registering how much it cost. Of course, this was TJ Maxx, so it turned out to be about $3. That took another problem off my mind, though -- didn't have to figure out how I was going to mount/back it inside a handcuff frame. The little red frame was not only the perfect size, but look! Rope/knot detail!
Houdini ScaleThis little portrait has been a part of my life for so long, I just don't know what I'll do without it. I was hoping to make it to Atlantic City next month for a getting-rarer Penn & Teller road performance, where I may be able to give it to Teller myself. (They have their own theatre at the Rio in Las Vegas these days.) That's a bit up in the air, though, so my little project may wind up in the mail.
A couple of friends who have seen it in person have said they'd have a hard time giving it up, and suggested maybe I should just keep it. It's a tempting thought, but I couldn't do that. As is always the case when I make things for people, I can't keep it because it was never mine to begin with.

However, I do still have this big ol'roll of 28-ct fabric... Maybe Poe next.

Houdini Finis

I almost totally failed to mention... for the eagle-eyed among us, yes, there is a hidden message in the image.


  1. Wow, I saw your post on craftster and had to give your blog some love. That is just amazing. And btw I love Penn and Teller. I have only seen them once but what a show. Plus I love their show on tv :) Great job. Mind if I add you to my blogroll, I want to keep up with your stitches!!!

  2. Why sure! I'd be flattered. And thanks!

  3. Holy cow!! That is AWESOME!

    I can't imagine ever doing anything like this. I haven't cross-stitched in years!

  4. Totally awesome. I love this! And Edgar Allen Poe in cross stitch would really be excellent.

    Great job!

  5. a maz ing. wicked cool!

  6. Anonymous09:11

    WOW!!!! You are extremely talented! that is fantastic!!

  7. Wow! I found your post via craftzine and I just wanted to say how amazing that piece of artwork is!!!!

  8. Anonymous10:19

    That is truly amazing! My husband is a magician--I'll definitely have to show this to him. :)

  9. I bow before your crafting skills... but I need to know... what's the secret message?! I can see where it is, but the best I could come up with was that it was braille. :)

  10. I'm here from Craft mag's blog and am totally in awe of your work! It's gorgous.

    Clearly I need to learn Photoshop so I can apply it to embroidery!

  11. Jaime, it's actually Morse code. It's a two-word secret phrase known to Harry and his wife... and I should say no more!

  12. This is an awesome project starting with it's pretty awesome to make a cross stitch chart with photo manipulation software. The inspiration and imagination you've shown is outstanding, and a mini portrait is just a fabulous idea! However, I do think you have made one truly incorrect assumption, which really in no way detracts from the intricacies of your project. I'm pretty sure you have used SIX strands of floss (from looking closely at your close up photo) -- and yes, that would be pretty tight for a 28 ct fabric. Floss comes in a skein, when you pull out a length of floss and cut it off there are 6 strands of thread there. One is supposed to pull out individual strands from the bundle of 6 strands, and if stitching over one thread on 28 ct fabric one would normally use only ONE strand from that six strand bundle. Stitching with one actual strand you would have taken just as many stitches but you certainly would not have had such a difficult time getting the threads "through the hole". I look forward to seeing Poe in miniature...but try him with ONE strand of floss (two at most), you may find it much easier to do -- and it will actually "LOOK" a lot more delicate. Congratulations on an outstanding piece of stitchery!

  13. It's one strand, Yoyo, pulled from the six. Even 2 wouldn't work on this fabric (I tested). That detail close up is a super macro.

  14. Eeeps, I love it! I've only recently started my cross stitch journey but I'm drooling over your work.
    Oh...please tell the secret message!xo

  15. congratulations! i like it a lot! hope to see poe soon!!!

  16. So, did you get to personally deliver your gift? If so, do tell the story. PLEASE!

  17. oops! that last post was from me (michelle). i was logged in to the wrong account. might i suggest you host a crafty time sleep over one evening. i have 10 people i have to hand make things for and i'd love to pick your brain. and i'm sure i would excel under your tutelage.

  18. That's awesome! Found it via your vinyl corset project on Craftster.

  19. Wonderful work! Thanks for sharing this.

  20. Believe Rosabelle?


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