Professor garners international attention for embroidered portraits

Photo by Andrew Ringle

Andrew Ringle, Spectrum Editor

Typically, the first stitches of an embroidery are made after careful planning and sketching — but Michael-Birch Pierce embroiders his pieces in five minutes or less, with no planning ahead of time.

“They called them ‘stitchies’ for one event I did,” Pierce said. “But honestly I hate that name.”

He prefers to call them embroidered portraits, and he’s made them for high-profile clients, including Shaquille O’Neal, Helen Mirren and Bob Odenkirk.

Pierce studied fashion design as an undergraduate at VCU. Today, he teaches classes at the university and calls Richmond his home. His work takes him around the globe, but he always comes back to his quiet, sunny studio on Mayo Island.

Pierce started experimenting with free-form embroidery at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he received a Master of Fine Arts in fibers in 2012. He said he wanted to see if he could stitch something just by looking at it, so he invited a group of models to his studio and made his first portraits.

“It turns out I’m really good at it,” Pierce said. “I don’t sketch it or plan it. It’s just one impulsive, continuous line.”

He starts at the eye, then works the line of thread down the nose, back up to the other eye, down the cheekbone to the mouth, then the chin and the neck. After a few minutes of chatting with the subject, the portrait is finished.

“I have a formula of going through it, and I sit there and stare at them and study them. But we have a conversation the entire time,” Pierce said. “It’s this really intimate moment that occurs in a big, crazy crowded room with a sewing machine running between us. None of it makes any sense, but it creates a really cool moment between me and the person.”

Meeting celebrities has become a normal part of the job, and Pierce said he never acts starstruck. Instead, he talks to famous clients like they’re anyone else. He said it’s his cool attitude that appeals to many of his clients, so he stresses communication skills in his classes at VCU.

“My biggest piece of advice [to my students] is that they have to learn how to talk to people,” Pierce said. “They have to learn how to sell themselves as an artist, because no one else is going to do it. Being a designer is more than just having skill, and it’s more than just making nice dresses. It’s about being the person that people want to hire.”

Photo by Andrew Ringle

Pierce uses a humble Brother CS6000i sewing machine to create his embroidered portraits. The device can be found online for less than $200, and Pierce has gone through several. Many have broken after catching on fire because of different outlets in foreign countries.  He always packs two in case of emergencies.

On a trip to Portugal in 2017, the power converter in Pierce’s machine stopped working, causing it to catch fire in front of his audience in the middle of a portrait.

“For a moment I was like, ‘Holy shit’ and we unplugged it,” Pierce said. “Everyone was freaking out, but I didn’t even skip a beat. I put it down on the floor, pulled out another one, threaded it and just kept going.”

Pierce’s embroidered portraits and personal work can be found at michaelbirchpierce.com.

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