Friday, February 11, 2011

How To Series 1: Thread Painting 101 - Directional Zigzag

The key to successful Thread Painting is Practice, Practice, Practice!  Have you been practicing your Thread Painting?  Now that we have the basics covered, it is time to expand on the stitches we have covered.  In the first Thread Painting stitch, zigzag meander, we used a zigzag stitch to apply thread color to where we wanted it.  With this new stitch we will be a bit more deliberate about where we apply our color.  In the quilt below, Hummingbirds and Fuchsias, much of the Thread Painting done on the applique pieces was a directional zigzag stitch.

Hummingbirds and Fuchsias

Directional Zigzag

The reason I call this a 'directional' stitch is because we are not just meandering but rather stitching in a specific direction to get a specific result.  The stitch is done by setting your machine to a medium width zigzag, feed dogs lowered of course, and stitching from side to side.  No moving all around, we always move side to side with only a very slight forward or backward motion in order to stitch the areas we need to cover. 

This stitching can be done very lightly for touches of color, on up to very heavily stitched pieces that look almost machine embroidered.  This is in fact the stitch we use for Free Motion Embroidery.  When we stitch heavier we need a bit of extra stabilizer, as this stitch tends to pucker a bit more than the meander or simple straight stitch detailing.  On the 'Hummingbirds and Fuchsias' quilt above, I used two layers of Stitch n Tear, and left the stabilizer under my applique pieces while I Thread Painted.  Once I was done I removed it from around the pieces, and ironed with steam using a pressing cloth.


Lets practice the stitch.  Layer a practice piece of fabric onto a stabilizer.  You can use two layers of stitch n tear or a piece of the Decor Bond.  Since we are just practicing, it is nice to have the extra stabilization to make it easier to stitch.  This can always be adjusted depending on the project you are working on.

Place your hands on either side of the fabric and begin stitching.  Slowly move side to side, a few inches at a time.  Try a a bit of a meander in your side to side stitching by moving slightly forward and backwards and back and forth as you create a line of side to side stitching.  Play with the stitch, moving slower while your machine stitches faster, and then switch to moving a bit faster with a slower stitch speed.  Pay attention to your results. Now cover a smaller area, concentrating on building color.  Alternate the length of your side to side stitch; this will be essential to blending and a more natural look. 

Rotating and Pivoting

Sometimes we need to rotate or pivot when we apply color with the directional zigzag.   This is done by always returning to our 'center point' before pivoting to a new direction.  In the Pansy below, the center point of the flower pieces is at the base of each petal.  Along the leaves the center is the vein line.

Building Color

Now that you have the feel of the stitch, lets Thread Paint a basic leaf shape using the Directional Zigzag stitch.  As with the basic Meander Zigzag, we stitch our colors in order starting with shadow and cool tones, then the mid range colors, and finally highlights and warmth.  Each of these can have as many colors as it takes to get the effect desired.  There are always exceptions to the 'rules' however.  In the Pansy above I was concentrating more on adding color to the flower than adding the basic shadow/mid range/highlight.  Those basics are in there, but in order to get the coloration I wanted I 'broke the rules' so to speak.

To keep this simple we will use just three colors.  One shadow, one mid range, and one highlight.  Remember that these three basic colors can also be variegated.  This will give the look of having added much more thread color than we actually did!  I chose a very muted green fabric so that you could see the thread work a bit easier as well.

Start Stitching

Machine applique a basic leaf shape to a background fabric, using two layers of stitch n tear or a piece of decor bond as your stabilizer.  Try to make a slightly larger leaf, so that you have room to actually practice.  On the leaf, trace a line for the center vein using a chalk marking pencil.  Now mark directional lines as shown.  These lines will give you a guide as you begin stitching so that you will know both where to stitch and what direction.


Begin stitching along one side of the vein with your cool color.  On my leaf I am using my favorite muted dusty purple to add cool.  Stitch side to side, always stopping along the center vein line but varying the length of the stitch line on the other side.  Pivot as needed along the vein line to keep your stitching fairly parallel to your guide lines.


Now switch to a medium tone, I used a nice green that went well with my leaf color.  Stitch around the cool tone on the one side, carefully pivoting at the tip of the leaf, and then stitch along the vein line down the other side.  Remember to blend into the shadow/cool area.


For my highlight color I am using a warm variegated yellows/oranges thread. This will do two things, it adds warmth and highlight at the same time, and it will help you to see the difference in the stitching for our example photo.  Stitch along the edges of the leaf as shown, and then add just a bit to the middle of the mid range area.  This creates kind of a visual 'bend' in the leaf by bringing that portion a bit more forward.

I use this same basic method for the flowers and birds in the Hummingbirds and Fuchsias quilt, and for the pansy applique.  In the photo below, the Leaf Bowls used the directional zigzag stitch over the entire leaf and many more colors are used.  You can see how building up your colors really makes a difference in the overall look of the finished piece. *Note - the Leaf Bowls (and the Flower Bowls) use a much heavier stabilizer called Fast2Fuse Heavyweight in order to give them the heft they need to become 'bowls'.

Homework:  Practice, Practice, Practice!  Play with different shapes, leaves and flowers and such, and use the Directional Zigzag stitch.  Build multiple colors up to achieve a painterly effect.  And absolutely have FUN with it!

Next Week:  Straight Stitch II - Thread Painting with a straight stitch.

Revisit this basic technique and play with more directional stitching in Straight Stitch Thread Painting.  Achieve a completely different look to your thread painted pieces.  Oh the things you can do with a straight stitch!


  1. Thanks for sharing. Your instructions are clear and easy to follow.

  2. Thank you! I'm learning from it and will be using this new knowledge to threadpaint on a postcard I'm making for a group swap this month. Your tutorial is easy to follow and I love all the photos. Your work is absolutely beautiful!

  3. Great tutorial. Clear instructions. Thanks for sharing how to use your technique in threadpainting. I really enjoy your method!

  4. thank you for the threadpainting tutorial. good job with the instructions. thanks for sharing!!!!
    <3 judi

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. I just. Found your site today. Wow. This is what I have been looking for. A lot of info. Love it. Just had my hand operated on so I can not try anything right now but I can hardly wait to get through physical therapy so I can play. Thank you so much for the inspiration

  7. Hi, I just got my new juki sewing machine and it is also a quilter. I want to do thread painting I love it. I was wondering on those little leaves of beautiful reds, blues what kind of material is that? I love it! I am going through you tut. and will be sewing soon. Your doing this all in free motion? no hoop? Thank you for posting these I wish more people would do it also so I can learn how to do all this neat stuff !

    1. Hi Laura, congrats on your new machine! Which leaves are you speaking of? If it is the bowl shaped ones they are cotton fabrics fused to a thicker stiff stabilizer called Fast2Fuse by C&T. All the thread painting is done free motion, sometimes I use a hoop, depending upon how heavy I thread paint and the type of fabric I am stitching onto. The leaves dont need a hoop because of the stabilizer. I suggest you start with the first tutorial and work your way through each of them. They will go over supplies and materials, and the different settings and stitches used. Im so glad you liked my tutorials :) Happy Stitching - Angela