Spotlight: Irene Schlesinger, Embroidery and Mixed Media Artist

Colorful skull embroidery by Irene

Spotlight: Irene Schlesinger, Embroidery and Mixed Media Artist

When you are trained as a painter, but fall in love with stitch, what do you do? Irene Schlesinger creates on stretched canvas, but with needle and thread, yarn and embellishments. The unique combination of materials and technique as she paints with thread result in depth and texture not usually seen on canvas.

Irene Schlesinger headshot

How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?

I have been drawing since I can remember. It has always been my favorite activity. I also received a lot of attention and praise for it from my family. So it’s been a part of my identity all my life. I studied painting in college.

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Why textiles? Why embroidery and mixed media? What different creative media do you use in your work? How did you get started?

My grandmother loved the needle arts and tried to teach me knitting, crochet and stitching. Only the embroidery appealed to me because it was the most like drawing. I grew up embroidering on my jackets and jeans, while still drawing and painting.

At some point, I picked up a stretched canvas to paint on at a big box store. The canvas was different than what I had been using. I noticed the cotton on the new canvas was really thin. I wanted to see if it could be stitched and found it was easy to embroider on. That was a new beginning for my art.

Then, when I took a part time job working at an independently owned art supply store, I was introduced to a variety of acrylic mediums and encouraged to play with them to be a better informed sales person. I am still playing and experimenting with different mediums. This week, I’m playing with embroidering on aluminum embossing sheets – not as thin as foil, but works okay with a big needle. The possibilities of incorporating metallic touches are exciting to me.

Mixed media of hand stitching and fabrics

Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?

Since around 2015, I have been obsessed with skulls. I was starting to get very interested in Mexican folk crafts. Around that time, I lost several friends and a few family members. I was drawn to Dia de Muertos by my own grief.

Embroidering the skulls is a form of therapy in how I manage my losses. I never expected to love skulls the way I do now. I really look forward to Dia de Muertos. Looking forward to the upcoming festivities and making my altars fun and beautiful as I remember my beloved family and friends.

Skulls together by Irene

What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?

 I embroider on stretched canvas and because I see it as visual art, my rules are different than where I use a hoop or create something wearable. So, my canvases may have crazy stitching and a variety of embellishments to dazzle the viewer.

Skulls and music by Irene

What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Artful Embroidery on Canvas?

I want readers to relax and play with materials. If it’s a needle crafter that never tried designing a canvas, or if it’s a painter that never tried stitchery and if it’s a crafting newbie, my hope is they are inspired to mix it up. I also like to think that the projects in the book show it’s easy to create a lovely, personal and hangable work of art by using a simple shape (the book includes patterns for hearts, skulls, butterflies) and decorating it or around it.

Skull Roses by Irene Schlesinger

How do you get inspired for embroidery?

All sorts of things inspire my need to stitch. Materials such as a beautiful yarn or a piece of handmade paper make me yearn to create. Things I see – a tree or a pattern on wallpaper will get into my head and eventually end up on a canvas.

Work-in-progress

Do you plan all of your embroidery projects out ahead? Or do you let the needle and thread guide your journey?

I plot out most canvases but often change the design or direction as I go.

Colorful skull embroidery by Irene

What advice would you have for beginner stitchers?

I think for embroidering on stretched canvas, have a stretched canvas by your side for practicing stitches. It’s important to try using different needles, different sizes and styles until one feels right. I like darning needles for the size and sharp point. Someone else may prefer tapestry needles. What feels the best is the way to go.

Use the practice canvas to find out how the thread or yarn you chose behaves while stitching. Some yarns with knotty textures rip the canvas. So it’s good to know before you start if the yarn is going to be problematic.

Embroidery skull art by Irene

Which stitches do you think a beginner should start with and why?

I have the easiest stitch directions in my book for those who are new to embroidery – including stem stitch which is great for filling spaces.

Do you have a preferred type of embroidery thread? Pearl, six strand? What’s your preferred fiber content?

I love yarn and natural fibers, so I use cotton, hemp, wool, silk. I love the variety of acrylic yarn. My favorite gift is when someone brings me unusual yarn, paper, charms, etc.

Irene's living room studio

Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?

We just moved into a new home. The previous owner converted the living/dining area into a workspace. I needed a studio more than a dining or living room and now that workspace is my embroidery parlor. It’s about 300 SF. I can see both my front and backyard from inside. It can still be useful as a dining room on occasion. The guests have to like skulls because there are about 40 of them hung on the walls.  It’s also a good space for a small group event and workshops.

Irene's collection of threads and yarn

What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

Good lighting is key, so I have spotlights and overhead lights.

My 10-foot-long super sturdy table is the same table my family and I dove under during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. I’ve created a zillion projects on this table. Perfect surface, strong legs and doesn’t vibrate when I use my computer printer or sewing machine on it.

I have a comfy couch for sitting and stitching on small projects. My least likely indispensable tool is a softball. My mid back can get sore after hunching over a project. So I lie on the ball on the floor and roll it where the soreness is. After a few minutes, I’m back to stitching.

Irene's 10 ft. table

Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?

I have sketch pads and an iPad. If I want to use a doodle or design from my sketch pads, I usually take a photo of it with the iPad and can further manipulate the doodle/image on the iPad. I can flip, rotate, enlarge, etc., there and then print out the image to use in designing.

Lady Marvelous by Irene Schlesinger

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?

Lately, since I was added to TEDxMarin’s Innovator Artist Showcase September 2020, I started listening more and more to the talks offered. Before that, I was switching between music and audiobooks.  

Fiber embroidery art by Irene Schlesinger

Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?

The time came when I decided that I wanted to make bigger pieces. Unfortunately, my arm is only so long. I didn’t want to be limited to small canvases.

The solution was to figure the final size of the canvas at the start of a project, then begin the design in the middle and gradually move to larger canvases. Some of the final art canvases are composed of 2 or 3 hidden canvases.

If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?

There are so many creatives that I admire. If only one, I would like to chat with Pablo Picasso because he was the first artist I identified with. I love his loose drawings and that he kept trying new mediums.

Irene Schlesinger Quote

How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have developed? 

Some of the creativity and curiosity are in my DNA – one branch of relatives are in the arts. Lots of it developed as time and praise for exploring my creativity became part of my identity.  In identifying as a creative, I pay attention to other creatives, all kinds of crafts. I read up and get out to shows and museums.

Interview with Irene Schlesinger posted October 2020.


Browse through more hand embroidery projects and inspiration on Create Whimsy.


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