Introduction: Embroidered Inverted Family Tree: Family Roots

About: Engineer by day, maker by night; I make art to relax and focus. I enjoy drawing, painting, embroidery, paper crafts, and sewing among many others, but I'm always up for learning a new skill.

It was a family friend’s birthday recently and I wanted to branch out from my usual gift, which is a bottle of wine, and make something for her. She’s particularly interested in her family history, so I decided to do something with her family tree.

I’ve been feeling inspired recently by graphical representations of relationships, so this project was a logical extension of what I’ve already been doing. I’ve been focusing on representing current, geographical relationships---but ancestral relationships have its own challenges that are compelling.

I never particularly liked the idea of mapping out a family using a tree metaphor. For one, who’s the trunk? And for another, above the soil is only half of the tree equation. Now root structures (specifically, tap roots in the style of carrots or, in this case, clover), on the other hand, I can get behind. Roots anchor---like families! Clover roots, because they’re nitrogen-fixers and like my gift recipient’s family, enrich the soil in which they grow! (A bit of a stretch, but we’ll go with it.)

Step 1: Materials

  1. Fabric (I’d recommend going a little thicker than the muslin I chose---you can see all of the dark thread through the fabric)
  2. Embroidery floss (I used browns for the roots and root hairs, and green, white, and purple for the clover)
  3. (optional) decorative hoop for display

Tools etc...

  1. Embroidery hoop (I used a plastic one for the actual sewing. I find those tend to slip less)
  2. Other sewing supplies (needle, sciessors, etc.)
  3. The family tree of the person whose family you're mapping. (I was able to get mine because a relative of the person whose family I was mapping let me borrow their account)

Step 2: Map Out Your Design

Families are complicated things to map out, especially by hand and especially in two dimensions. The method I used simplifies the project by following one parental line (in this case maternal).

Take a look at the family tree you want to map out. The idea behind this method is to work back from an individual and illustrate the familial relationships so that each mother in the line is a “node” from which her children grow as separate roots. Using this visualization you trace the direct maternal line of the person you’re mapping as far as your knowledge extends. The diagram illustrates what we’re going for here.

As for the secondary nodes (children of mothers in the direct matrilinial line, ie. siblings, aunts/uncles, great-aunts/uncles, etc.), you represent their children as off-shoots of the side roots, illustrated in the next steps.

Step 3: Mark the Main Nodes

After you diagram your family tree, mark the "nodes" or loci of descendents (direct maternal line mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and so on). I only knew my tree six generations back, so, before starting, I marked six nodes---using french knots---for spacing purposes, being sure to position them so that there was plenty of room available for the roots and plant at the top.

Step 4: Fill It In

  1. Trace out the outline of the inverted family tree with simple lines.
  2. Fill in the lines, making the old ones bigger and the recent ones thinner.
  3. Add french knots at the nodes to represent a branching point in the family "tree"
  4. Add in the plant of your choice---In my case, a bunch of clover.
  5. Finish the piece by transferring it to a decorative hoop, sewing the back pieces together, and tucking the rough edges underneath a sturdy piece of card stock or cardboard, as shown in the images.

Some tips...

  • If you have successive generations of only children, like I did, add root hairs to those generations. A family is made up of plenty of people who aren't direct relatives, and root hairs can help symbolize that, especially for smaller families.
  • Use a variety of shades of brown in the roots to make for a more interesting piece.