Cayce Zavaglia Miniature Embroidery

Hello everyone

I am hoping to have the new book completed by the end of the month, it has been hard work and am looking forward to showing you a sneak preview.  My (nice) husband is paying for me and my youngest daughter to go on a  train trip for 3 days from Pretoria to Cape town,  on 25th September – it is my birthday present.  Doesnt it look wonderful???  I am looking forward to staring out the window at the passing scenery, eating lots and doing nothing but thinking up new ideas for future projects which are already coming to mind!   Will tell you all about it when I get back, meantime wherever you are be it winter, spring, summer or autumn take care and happy stitching.  Trish

train journey
train journey

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As promised I am following up on my previous post on the work of Cayce Zavaglia.  I recently found out that she has started doing miniature embroidered pieces (ah ha!)  so as you can imagine was very keen to find out how, why and what.  Cayce very kindly agreed to answer some questions and to give us an insight into her work.  You can read the full interview below.

Inside Cayce's studio
Inside Cayce’s studio

How small are these pieces.

When I originally decided to start a series of smaller works, I was trying to make them authentically “miniature”.  The size was about 2” x 4” inches.  After two attempts, with portraits with wandering eyes in opposing directions…I realized the scale had to be increased to be appropriate to the scale of the thread…and also allow me more area in which to work.  The works are now approximately 6” or 7” tall.

What made you decide to work on miniatures.

My larger works were taking me approximately 3 months to complete…sometimes even longer.  As I sat there sewing, I would think of all the other work I wanted to complete…and became very impatient to be only making about 2 pieces a year.  So I decided to apply all that I had learned about embroidery on the larger pieces and apply it to works on a much smaller scale.

What do you consider a miniature to be i.e. maximum size.

I arrived on the word “miniature” because I liked its historical reference…however, since scaling the work up I realize that calling them “miniatures” can be somewhat confusing.  Although their inspiration is from historical miniatures…I will probably refer to them now as my smaller works.  These pieces don’t really have a maximum size but rather never are smaller than about 4 inches tall.

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What background fabric are you using (looks like a natural Belgian linen?) 

Yes, raw Belgian linen….a medium grade.  I used a finer grade to do a portrait piece (Raphaella sketch 2012) that looked like a sketch.  All done in grey threads.  I wanted the linen to look like it was a piece of newsprint.  For this piece I finished the edges of the linen on a machine and had it presented floating in a white frame behind UV plex.  The piece was not pulled tight.

What threads are you using – stranded cotton, wool/silk? 

As much as I would love to sew exclusively with silk…because it sews like butter….I find the shine problematic and somewhat creepy looking for my portraits.  So I simply use one strand of DMC thread for the majority of the portrait…or maximum of two strands if I want to work an area in quickly.  ( I only do this on clothing and hair…as I find that doubling up on the thread used for the face makes it look bulky and not delicate.)  I have introduced wool and silk into areas of the hair and clothing…simply because the colors I am needing do not exist in DMC.  I really wish for example that DMC carried 10 shades of black instead of just the one.

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You mentioned previously that you print the image onto the fabric first – is this still the case?

Yes, almost like a traditional tapestry pattern…however, the printed image gives me little information as far as color choice is concerned.  It simply provides me with an “underpainting” of sorts on top of which I draw with a fine tip marker all of the details that I see….hairs, spots, moles, and shadows.  I then work from a photo that is taped next to the image to get all the information as far as color of thread or texture and tone.

On Sophie 2 have you worked the earrings in thread – they look so lifelike? 

Yes the earrings are all thread…and no metallic thread is used.  I love the challenge of creating the illusion of a reflective surface with material that is not metallic in any way.  It is almost like the highlights you would see in an old master’s still life painting of a teapot or copper vessel.  In your mind you would imagine the highlight to be painted on with white paint….  however, this is rarely the case.  Oftentimes there are 15 colors in that little area…to reveal what is being reflected from nearby.   In Sophie’s earring I love the little peach color that is reflected in her right earring…which is simply the color of her cheek mirrored into the ball.

Can you tell us more about working a gouache painting of the reverse side of your embroidery, what inspired you to do this. 

For the longest time, I have always dreamed of breaking away from “realism” and producing work that is more abstract in nature.  But honestly, I don’t know how to do it…or where to begin.  Even then I know I would be left with missing the element of realism.  Painting the backgrounds of the portraits was my own escape into minimalist painting…and creating these lovely color block environments for my portraits.  After about 8 or 9 years, I turned an embroidery piece over and thought…oh my goodness how could I be missing this amazingly complex and yet psychologically opposite portrait that has been present with me in the studio for so long.  I started to get really excited about the possibility of documenting this reverse image.  I also started thinking a lot about this side of us that we all have…the side that no one or only a few people ever see.  It is created in layers through our whole lifetime…with knots and loose ends and is all so messy.  I wanted to expose this side and present it before the viewer in the form of large format archival prints.  The idea to return to painting had also been with me for a long time.  I was anxious to push paint around again…but wanted something delicate and so arrive at gouache.  I had never worked in this medium before…but thought of it in the same way I had approached my first embroidery…it wasn’t about learning all the techniques of gouache painting…but rather I was going to use the paint to document this verso image.  Understanding the material would come with simply just using it.  The thinking behind the paintings had been very similar to the embroidery and unfortunately…just as obsessive.

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 Can you tell us about the order of stitching – do you work the background areas such as face, neck etc first and then work up to the hair and clothing?

I am currently really in love with patterned shirts…and so tend to either start on the shirt or hair…because working those areas seems to be more instinctual and responsive and I don’t have to really concentrate as much.  I definitely have more fun doing the hair and shirt and feel the real pressure and choices have to be made when I jump onto the face. Once on the face, I usually start right next to the hair and work in the forehead…then just keep going down.  I never jump and stitch all over the place because the color and direction of stitching informs what is right beside it.  I do have to make myself work looser so the work doesn’t get so obsessive with tons of dots.  I feel the most realistic areas of the face are made up of the spontaneous long stitches mixed with more detailed layers of short stitches and dots of color.

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 Do you find that to achieve a 3 dimensional look some areas required layered stitching and are thick or is the stitching quite flat and smooth? 

I rarely “get it” in the first pass over with stitching.  That is only the beginning.  Each area is built up in layers…some with more layers and detailing than others.  Sometimes the layers are necessary to create the illusion of a certain color that I don’t possess…other times it is necessary to create the illusion of the form.  I actually like that some areas are thicker because it creates more interest when the work is viewed in person.  I have only had a problem with the thickness of the thread when it occurs on the eyeball or on the teeth.  When viewed in person it makes it appear as if the eyes are bulging or the teeth are bucked.  To remedy this I try to get the eyes in quickly and trust my instinct and color choices.  Sew them and move on.  For the teeth, I now have a rule not to let anyone pose for a sitting with their mouth open. J  

My work is now represented by Lyons Wier Gallery in New York and on the west coast by Scott White Contemporary Art in La Jolla, California.   I recently was in a group show at Scott White in a show entitled String Theory featuring the work of Devorah Sperber and Kumi Yamashita.  I am presently creating new work and paintings to show at Art Miami in December.  If any of your viewers are on twitter…I now am on twitter and share studio shots of works in progress as well as what is on my studio mood board…or other artists work that I look at and admire.  On the news section of my website I have a short video into my process that was made last year…giving a sneak peak into my studio.

Cayce its been wonderful chatting to you – it is so humbling to see what an amazing talent you have and the stunning results you achieve with thread on fabric.   Thank you so much for taking the time to share it with us and congratulations on your success which is well deserved.  We look forward to following the growth of your art and passion in the future.



10 thoughts on “Cayce Zavaglia Miniature Embroidery”

  1. “I rarely “get it” in the first pass over with stitching. That is only the beginning. Each area is built up in layers…some with more layers and detailing than others. Sometimes the layers are necessary to create the illusion of a certain color that I don’t possess…other times it is necessary to create the illusion of the form. ” – makes me think about this more spontaneous form of needlepainting, rather than the more restrained usual version (picture the usual l&s stitch diagram here). I find that I need to go back over and put in a few wildly random stitches if creating a natural object (as opposed to a 16thc motif). Do you?
    Regarding the earring on the girl – let me go away and weep gently.

  2. Well I had my birthday yesterday Trish, It was a lovely day, but I rather like the look of your train journey

    Have a lovely birthday Trish, and come back all refreshed.

    When I look at what Cayce does, and then think of the trouble I have with a shaded petal – it’s quite comical really.

  3. Thanks for bringing this work to us. Breathtaking! Happy birthday. What a lovely gift your husband gave you and we will all benefit from your new inspiration.

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