Spend Some Time With Thread Painting; Part I

Give the Classic Still Life a Try


apple-graphic-e1408736221654Welcome to Day 14 of Janome’s Celebration of Sewing month. Today’s bite of sewing goodness is Part One of our Two Part little lesson on thread painting. Like watercolour, oil or acrylic painting, there are many different approaches to this stitched art form. Are you looking for a painterly, realistic interpretation or something more modern and minimalist? The choice is yours. This  project is designed to allow you to spend some time diving deeply into a small project, getting close to your subject and working intently with your machine. Thread painting is very forgiving, and believe it or not – relaxing. Mis-stitches can often be stitched over – no stitch ripping needed! Put on some music, set an apple next to your machine  and begin thread painting.  Pretty soon, you will not want to stop.

Thread painting can be done on many sewing machines. You need to be able to drop or cover the feed dogs and use a darning (free motion) foot. It is helpful to have a zig zag as well as straight stitch. Be sure that your free motion foot can accommodate a zig zag stitch.

This lesson will give you a starting point by looking at:

  • Stabilizing
  • Thread choice
  • Stitch selection
  • Contouring
  • Shading

A Firm Foundation

One of the biggest challenges with thread painting is keeping a stable, flat surface. The intense stitching of thread painting challenges a law of physics that says two objects cannot occupy the same space. Fabrics are woven warp and weft threads that are often very close together. This leaves little room for for thread painted stitching. The threads of the fabric are pushed and pulled, causing rippling and distorting of the fabric. Some sewists allow for this by using a somewhat more open weave of fabric to minimize distortion.

A variety of methods can be used to help hold the fabric flat. Hoops are a good starting point. They help with smooth thread painting by keeping the fabric taut and giving you something to hold onto while stitching. However, they need to be repeatedly adjusted for projects that are larger than the hoop size. A wide variety of stabilizing products can also be added to the back of the work to keep fabric flat and give the stitches something more to bite into. Multiple layers of stabilizer are often used.

One way to start out thread painting is to use an extra heavy stabilizer like Timtex(TM) or Peltex(TM) or a flat yet firm stabilizer like pelmet weight Vilene(TM). A piece of this heavy stabilizer can be stitched freely, without a hoop or other stabilizer products – making it a good choice for learning and developing your technique on. This type of stabilizer can also be the thread painting base that does not require fabric on top. It can be stitched on directly or pre-colored with ink or fabric paint before stitching. Today’s project will be stitched directly on a Peltex style stabilizer.

Your Stitching Order & Stabilizing: It is important to spread your stitching out. Do not overwork one area before moving to another. Do not only work stitches in one direction. Both of these will cause excess distortion of your base fabric. By moving around from one area to another of your base fabric and changing your stitch direction, you compensate for the stresses put into your fabric with your stitching. You bring balance to your thread painting intensity. For those familiar with machine embroidery, this is similar to the “underlay” stitches of a design.

Thread Selection

IMG_7157Any thread that can be worked through a machine needle can generally be used for thread painting. (My favourite needle to use is a size 14 topstitch needle – for its larger size and over sized eye that allow thread to move freely.) It is not necessary to use all one type of thread, but you should be mindful of threads’ different levels of lustre/ sheen. Rayon or polyester threads will usually have more of a sheen than matte cotton or cotton-wrapped polyester. In this project, I used Coats Dual Duty polyester, Star Quilting thread (variegated) and a Mettler Polysheen (because even though it had a higher sheen, it was the color I needed). These are all “average” weight threads, approximately 40wt.

Bobbin thread does not need to match the top thread in weight. In fact, I choose a lighter weight polyester thread with the belief that the less bulk that I add to the bottom of a project, the longer that I can stitch on top before the needle starts to ‘thud’ through the heavy stitching. A 60 to 80 wt. thread in a matching color to the top thread was used here. Upper tension was decreased to 2 – 3 to allow the bobbin thread to pull the upper thread to the bottom and not peak through to the top.

Thread colors: A minimum of three shades (light, medium & dark) are recommended to be able to achieve depth and shading for thread painting. More colors mean greater detail but also more frequent thread (and bobbin) changes.

A brief word about variegated threads: these are often a lot of fun to thread paint with. The ever changing thread colors add movement and depth to thread painting all from one spool. A single, strongly contrasting variegated thread was used in the background of this piece.

Stitch Selection

Free motion is commonly done with straight stitches, but a zig zag can also be used to add texture and more quickly provide coverage of an area. I use straight stitches for early sketching of a shape and later details that are added near the end. Quite often, I use a 3 – 5mm zig zag to fill an area and provide a base to add details on. When working the zig zag stitch, move in small circles to avoid stitching in heavy, angular lines.

Contour & Shading

Contouring your stitches is working your stitch direction in harmony with the shape of your subject, while shading is adding light and dark; heavy and fine detail in order to reinforce that shape.

Beginning to Thread Paint

OK – enough talking. Let’s start thread painting!

1. Look at your subject – your apple. Hold it. Get a feel for it’s shape and coloring. Create a quick rendering of the shape with paper and pencil. This practicing of capturing the shape on paper will help you become familiar with the contours that you want to capture in stitches. Get close to your subject.

Practice drawing your apple on paper and then sketch a rough outline on your background

Practice drawing your apple on paper and then sketch a rough outline on your background

2. Stabilize your stitches: Remember – we need to spread out our stitches and change direction now and then. I start by stitching a simple shape outline and then a very open weave of somewhat parallel lines of stitches. I then change direction by about ninety degrees to create a balanced base of stitches. This is also where I start to capture the contour of may apple’s shape. I used a mildly variegated red to pink thread.

A rough outline of the apple shape


A loose fill of stitches in one direction

Working a second set of stitch lines in a different direction to compensate for push and pull.

Working a second set of stitch lines in a different direction to compensate for push and pull.


3. The next step is to add a first layer of background {green} stitching. You might notice that your apple begins to distort and ripple the base stabilizer. This gives you an indication that it is time to balance your work and move to another part,  stitching the background. Thread painting is often about working in layers; working one area for a while, then leaving it, then returning to it. In this case, I used one variegated thread for all layers of the background. This first pass is the first of about three layers that fill the background. At this point, there will still be lots of “white space” visible beneath the stitches. I used a 5mm zig zag worked in small rough circles and meandering lines (see below.)

Starting to fill the background with a free motion 5mm zig zag

Starting to fill the background with a free motion 5mm zig zag

4. Back to the apple: You will notice that the distortion is tamed once a layer of stitching is added for the background. Now it is time to return to the apple. This time, I continue with the zig zag stitch as my goal is to ‘fill’ a lot of the apple in with a layer of thread. I used a mid tone red thread. I try to be mindful of the shape of the apple, working in curved rather than boxy, straight lines. This helps to reinforce the shape of the apple. These stitches may be barely visible in the finished project, but working with, rather than against the apple’s shape will give it a more organic and true finish.

The next layer of the apple stitching

The next layer of the apple stitching

Less red stitching is added where the apple is more yellow in color

Less red stitching is added where the apple is more yellow in color

Tune in next Sunday for Part II of thread painting, where we will add layers of detail, shading and finishing to this project.

If any questions come to mind, please add them to the comments and we will address them next week.

Happy Sewing!

Debbie B.

About Debbie
Debbie is the Manager of Marketing & Communications for Janome Canada. She co-authored two books on thread work and wrote for Quilter’s Home, A Needle Pulling Thread and Quilting Arts. She enjoyed teaching across Canada and the US. Her first new machine was a Janome MC8000 and she has been a “Janome Girl” ever since.




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One Response to Spend Some Time With Thread Painting; Part I

  1. trinagallop says:

    This is amazing! Thread painting is something I have always wanted to learn!


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