Embroidering a Thangka

the last stitching on the inner halo of textile Tangka

I enjoy working to commission, there are several pluses: someone actually wants my work and is willing to pay for it, I get a clear idea of the task ahead during discussions into the personal likes/wants/needs of the commissioner and I also get a time limit. The designer side of me likes working to deadlines as I can choose the type of techniques best suited to that limit and to the fee charged for the work.  But best of all – I work with a sense of purpose – not my own purpose as usual – so this lets me off the hook of why am I doing this? where will I place it? Is it a worthwhile use of my time and energy?

A Tibetan Buddhist Thangkha

I was shown a painted Thangka by a friend,  who practices the strict discipline of Tibetan Buddhism; he also showed me an image of the Primordial Buddha ( the Buddha with his female partner Samantabadri, signifying the union of wisdom and compassion) that his partner found particularly resonant, she has a small postcard pinned up of it in her study. He wanted it translating into a fully formed Thangka……and asked me if I would like to attempt it – as her birthday present.

first fabric search for making the embroidery

Looking at the wealth of fabrics surrounding the Tibetan paper image that he brought, I was enthralled. I suddenly  knew why I kept all my old fabrics, silver woven saris, Japanese and Chinese silk brocades – to use for this glorious commission. I showed him several of the fabrics I had that I thought would work as the frame, I precisely measured the large Thangka and gleaned as much information as I could about the meaning and purpose of the image chosen and Thangkas in general. I made a “worst scenario” price and it was accepted….

To calculate a real price and make an estimate of my time to fulfill the deadline – some 6 weeks ahead – I first made a tracing of the art work

traced and squared-up photocopied image

and then a full-scale working drawing, the sampling for this would decide how I would work the piece: the techniques, the fabrics and the overall time it could possibly take.

scaled up working drawing

Basically the smallest detail will decide the quality of the work, how and with what can I stitch this to look its best. within the budget and the time limit?  I now knew the work ahead of me, I emailed with the news and the price, roughly half the original cost –  happily it was  accepted and extra thrown in for the use of my beautiful metal woven antique fabrics….how good is that?

real gold leaf for the “halo”

I must say that the fabrics materials I used for this work were really sumptuous,real gold leaf for the 2 bands of light surrounding the figures. by some alchemy I had every piece of material needed in my own stash; the gold leaf and threads, the heavy silk brocades were in the perfect colours. Later in the project a few would have to be hand painted and dyed.

gilded silk bands of light pinned to studios wall.

The colours were kept brilliant by my own choice as I knew the taste of the person I was making this for  – she really loves strong colours,  so I did not soften them to look old, which is how the original image  appeared. The gold really shone threatening to dominate the entire piece – but it would become more worn as I made the work.

machine applique for the silk halos prior to stitching on the figures

Each element had to be made and slotted in the whole composition – like a jigsaw puzzle.

Samantabadri cut from pure silk satin with hand stitched silk hair

The simplicity of the figures lent themselves to machine applique, not my forte, but quicker by far than hand embroidering them –  and I can manage quite accurate  applique by machine.

the appliqued figures embrace one another

On the original post card the outer edge of the flower garland surrounding the figures  had been cut off – I had to invent a large area of the embroidery based on just a few flower buds at the top of the picture I set about dyeing raw silk for appliqueing the petals of the white lotus flowers

hand dyed raw silk for petals of the lotus flower garland

The lotus flowers were bonded into position, petal by petal with leaves underpinning them into a garland which were then machine stitched in a gold flecked thread.

petal of lotus flowers bonded into position

the whole halo area was hand stitched in a dull gold thread to illustrate the rays emanating from the Buddha and his partner.

the inner image is complete

now the s of the thangka had to be made – I had all sorts of different ideas for using my wonderful silver woven fabrics …but they had other ideas – traditionally the first 2 bands are gold and red – with a dreaded bias seam at the corners I sewed this by hand so that I get perfect alignment. also I had noticed of several fabric surrounds that the fabrics were pieced to make the lengths necessary – a common practice where fabrics are appreciated for their own beauty and worth.

bias cut joined woven silver silk fabrics for frame.

The remaining strips of the frame just came together very simply, I found that I had just about enough of each material I wanted to use – and where I didn’t I researched the traditional Thangkas for ideas of how to make them work together.

machine stitching the seams of the frame together.

There was one area that really gave me some problems though – the area below the image has often an apron or square of fabric but whatever i chose just dominated the whole piece. I tried several colours and systems, but eventually after dyeing an old silver brocade a dull turquoise green, I found the perfect solution to the surround.


For a more in-depth, behind the scenes, version of this post, please  go to the Commissions pages of the site.

5 thoughts on “Embroidering a Thangka

  1. Hi Janet,

    Thanks for this wonderful trip down your design process lane. Love your Tangkha and the recipient will too, I’m pretty sure. You captured it perfectly!

  2. Hi Jenny and Bozena
    thanks for these comments, and sorry for such a late reply, but have been trying to get the inside story written for this commission- see Commissions. I really enjoyed doing this work as I am sure you can both sense, the fabrics were so beautiful that i just had to use them as simply as possible and let them shine out. Janet

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