Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ho To Series 1: Thread Painting 101 - The Basic Stitch

The Beginning...

My adventure in Thread Painting started with some machine applique leaves.  I had been working on a fall leaf wall quilt, when I realized my leaves looked nothing like the gorgeous full of color leaves outside my window.  My kids were bringing me fallen leaves to trace and to match fabric.  They were younger at the time, and before long I had a giant pile of leaves on my table!  I began to realize that none of my fabric could compete with the real thing, and that to get those colors onto my leaves I would have to use the decorative threads.  With some trial and error, and experimentation with different combination's, I finally had it: Thread Painting.

This is a much later version of those leaves with the basic thread painting stitch, but the technique is the same.  The main difference is I am using better threads on both the top and bottom.  You can also see that I have added embellishments to the leaves.  By using this basic stitch on my leaves, I was able to transform a 'nice' applique into something 'WOW'.  My entire focus on quilting and threads changed in that week of experimentation and I have never looked back!

The Basic Thread Painting Stitch: Zigzag Meander

The basic Thread Painting stitch is really just a simple free motion zigzag.  Our goal is to add color where we want it and by using a zigzag stitch we can achieve a painterly effect with our threads without much fuss.  I use this stitch to add color, but also to shade and highlight. 

Machine Settings

Before we start Thread Painting, we first need to set our machine up right. Lower your feed dogs, attach your free motion embroidery foot, and insert an Embroidery or Topstitch needle.  You should have bobbin thread in the bobbin, and a decorative embroidery thread in the needle. Check your machine's tension; every machine is different so we will start with the basic mid-range setting for your top tension.  We will adjust this as needed once we start sewing. 

If you can, adjust your presser foot pressure to zero or as high as it will go.  This will help prevent any drag with the foot, allowing you to stitch with ease. 

Set your machine to a medium width zigzag (on my machine this is about a 3 wide setting) and because we are free motion stitching our stitch length will not matter.  A mid range width on our zigzag is a good place to start.  This can be adjusted depending on what you are working on, but for most things and to start out this is a good setting.

Before you start - close your eyes, take a deep calming breath, roll your sholders forwards and backwards and release all your tension.  Relax. Open your eyes; you are now ready to begin.

Begin to Stitch

To start, lets use a practice piece of fabric with a tear away stabilizer in back.  You don't have to bother with an applique piece unless you really want to.  We really just want to get the feel for the stitch.  Place your hands on either side of your fabric. (*tip: use only your fingertips to move the fabric around. Your fingers have finer motor control than your entire hand and arm)  Begin to stitch slowly, moving the fabric slowly and smoothly under the needle.  Don't worry about what it looks like at this point.  For the moment we are just getting used to the feel.  Move the fabric forwards, backwards, side to side, all around in a meander.  If you feel comfortable, increase the speed of your machine and continue to move the fabric smoothly and slowly under the needle.  It is important to not jerk the fabric around under the needle.  These too quick movements will lead to broken needles.  Relax, remember to breath and blink.  (This is something I do and always have to remind myself: Breath! Blink!) 

Pay attention to your Tension.  Ideally we want only our embroidery thread to show on the top.  This means that on the back of your piece you will see bobbin thread AND embroidery thread.  The top thread will pull to the back, and that is OK.  If you see bobbin thread on the top of your piece, you need to lower your tensions.  The smaller the number on your tension dial or display, the lower the tension.  Lessening top tension will allow the thread to pull more to the back.  *In some of the Bernina machines, there is a special hole in the bobbin hook for the bobbin thread to go through, increasing  your bobbin tension for free motion work.  In order for any thread painting to work in these machines, this needs to be threaded correctly. 

notice the bits of colorful embroidery thread on the back

Now that we have adjusted our tensions and gotten the feel of the stitch, lets look at our results.  When we move forward and backward our stitch looks rather like this:

Forward and backward                                  produces a zigzag stitch
In this diagram, the straight lines represent the direction of the stitch with the resulting stitch shown next.  Once in a great while I use this forward/backward motion, but for the most part I don't want it to LOOK like a zigzag stitch.  What we really want is a nice meander, which 'confuses' the real stitch pattern and simply applies color in many stitches of thread.  This meander or stipple stitch looks something like this:

meander motion                                     meander thread painting
When applied to an applique, the results are much more apparent.

meander motion results
forward/backward motion results

Multiple colors can be layered to create shadow and depth, color pop, and highlights.  Start with your shadows and dark colors, working your way up to highlights.

solid threads
Using variegated threads can add quite a lot of color pop.  I love to use these threads to add multiple color hues at once, to blend and transition colors, and sometimes to add that bit of zing to a piece.  They tend to blend themselves into a piece better, without being extremely stark.  Play with the different variegated threads, their results will surprise you.

variegated threads
Rarely do I use only one or the other type of thread.  The best results are obtained by using a combination of both.

Homework: Practice, Practice, Practice!   Play and have fun with this basic Thread Painting stitch.  Experiment with the meander stitch motion, different threads and colors, and blending.  If you want to practice on the leaf shown in this tutorial, I have created a small PDF file for you to download.  It has some very basic instructions for fusible and machine applique. 

Next Week: Directional Thread Painting - Straight Stitch

Directional Thread Painting means we will stitch in specific directions to get a specific look.  This can be done with both a straight stitch and a zigzag stitch.  To get a feel for the directional stitch we will start with the Straight stitch.  You'll be amazed at what you can do with a straight stitch!  See you next week!


  1. Interesting! Thanks for giving us all this info!!

  2. Great Tutorial!!! Can't wait for next week!!

  3. Good tutorial! I forgot about the little hole in top of my Bernina bobbin. I will try it. Thank you for taking time to post this tutorial and all the great photos.

  4. How lovely and interesting tutorial about thread painting. So useful! Thanks for sharing. Györgyi