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!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

How To Series 1: Thread Painting 101 - Supplies Part 2

Last week we began talking about the proper supplies for Thread Painting.  Now that we have the correct machine feet and needles ready, it is time to talk about Thread, Bobbin Thread, and Stabilizers.  Remember, it is important to start with the correct supplies in order to be successful in our Thread Painting adventures!


While this tutorial is not an advertisement for any other company, I have included the names of several brand names that I like and use daily.  What I am giving you here is my 'formula' if you will, that I use to get the results you see in my work. These are the supplies and brands that work best for me.

Decorative Embroidery Thread:

Because I am a Thread-a-holic, I have a TON of thread in my thread stash.  Show me a pretty thread and I cannot resist!  I love to try out new threads and am always on the lookout for the unusual or for the 'perfect' color thread, which changes constantly depending on what project I am working on at the moment.  There are many different types of thread and for Thread Painting we will be starting with a basic Embroidery thread.  The two main types of embroidery thread are Rayon and Polyester.  Both are very shiny with a huge range of colors.  We will talk about these first, and then later in the series when we have gotten the basics down, we can get into Metallic and Specialty threads.

Rayon embroidery threads are shiny, colorful, fairly colorfast, but not very strong. Since they are meant to be decorative and not hold things together (IE: a seam on a garment) they work very well for decorative embroidery.  Some of my favorite brands of Rayon thread are: Robison Anton, YLI, Madeira, and WonderFil.

Polyester embroidery threads are also shiny, colorful, very colorfast, and very strong.  While I don't sew my seams with this thread, it is good to know that the Thread Painting I do will hold up to the test of time, wear, and light.  They are also much less troublesome in the machine than rayon threads.  Since it is a stronger thread to begin with and usually less lint (and therefore drag on the needle), there is less shredding and breakage.  My favorite brand of Polyester embroidery thread is by far Superior Threads.  In fact I will reach for this thread before any other brand when I am thread painting.  I also have in my thread stash Isocord, and Hemmingworth.  Because a polyester thread will melt at higher iron temperatures, keep a pressing cloth on hand to cover your work with when ironing, and try to iron from the back when possible.

Spool vs. Cone

Embroidery threads come wound onto a spool or a cone and both come in various sizes.  These are wound differently and need to be 'unwound' differently as well.  How the thread feeds into your machine will affect how it sews onto your fabric. A spool is usually wound straight and should have the thread coming off the side of the spool.  Cones are cross wound (note the direction of the thread on the cone) and need the thread to come off the top of the cone.

When thread is pulled off a spool or cone incorrectly, it causes it to twist more and that can lead to tension and breakage issues.  Since all machines are different, there are a few adapters out there that can help you adjust the way your spool or cone feeds into your machine.  A spool adapter will help with machines with vertical spool holders, allowing thread to be pulled off the spool from the side.  Slip the open end onto the spool holder with the little notch on the end facing up to keep the spool in place.  Cone adapters will allow the cone to sit upright while pulling thread from the top.  These adapters usually sit behind or to the side of your machine.  Sometimes my thread wants to 'puddle' off the cone too quickly causing problems with tangling and twisting.  A thread net helps to tame these unruly threads without adding a lot of additional tension.  I also use thread nets to store some of these more unruly threads.

Thread Net
Bobbin Thread:

Bobbin thread refers to a 60 - 65 weight two ply polyester thread used in the bobbin when embroidering.  Since your top threads will pull to the back (more on this later on) so that your bobbin thread doesn't show on top, you end up with much more thread on the back of your piece.  In order to keep this bulk down, and also to help form nicer stitches, we use a bobbin thread.  While there are several types of bobbin thread, and I have tried out any and all I can get my paws on, I now only use one bobbin thread: Bottom Line by Superior Threads.  At this time they are the ONLY company that manufactures an excellent quality bobbin thread in a huge range of colors.  While I tend to keep with a fairly neutral color pallet for my bobbin threads (OK, I'm lazy and don't like to keep changing my bobbin!) this range of colors comes in extremely handy.  Shown here is my pallet of bobbin threads. A light grey, medium grey, pink, deep red, green and a beige tone are what I use most often.


Have you ever tried to do a zigzag stitch on a plain piece of fabric?  Remember how the fabric puckered up into that zigzag stitch and everything distorted?  Well the same thing will happen when we Thread Paint unless we use some sort of stabilizer.  I have three main ways I stabilize, with other variations we will get into later on for special techniques.  A Tear Away stabilizer (I use Pellon Stitch n Tear) can be partially removed after stitching is done.  You can't tear it out from an area that is heavily thread painted, but you can remove the excess from around it.  I use this stabilizer when doing fusible machine applique.  Once my applique is finished, if I am not heavily thread painting I remove the stabilizer from under the applique piece.  The stabilizer surrounding the applique is left, creating a sort of 'hoop' around the area to be thread painted.  If I do plan on heavily thread painting, I leave the stabilizer under the applique for additional support.  The piece is thread painted and then the outer areas of stabilizer is removed.

When I thread paint really heavily on an entire piece, on or off my applique designs, I use a leave in heavy weight stabilizer.  Decor Bond is my first choice here because it has a built in fusible on one side, allowing me to fuse it to the back of my piece.  Because it is fused (notice the shine on the sample below) my fabric is now completely stabilized, plus I dont have to worry about my fabric moving around or loosing my stabilizer before I begin stitching.

If I want to keep my piece light weight with no stabilizers, such as on a sheer fabric or a wearable, I use a hoop.  These are not hoops you do cross stitch on.  These hoops are made to go under the machine and fit under your machine's foot.  For light to medium light thread painting, a spring hoop will work very well.  For heavier work, use a wood hoop.

Next Week:

By starting with the correct supplies and knowing why these specific items work better, you will hopefully have a much more successful start to Thread Painting.  And, now that we have covered the basic list of supplies, we can start actually Thread Painting!  Don't worry, we will take this in baby steps so that you can practice and become familiar with each kind of stitch before moving onto the next one.  First up: Basic Thread Painting Stitch - Meander Zigzag.  This is the easiest stitch to start with and will let you get used to the feel of free motion zigzag while playing with color.  See you next week!

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Leaf Bowls Pattern Done!

The new Leaf Bowls pattern is done.  This fiber art bowls pattern has been in the works for quite some time.  Like the Flower Bowls, this was originally a very popular class that I had many requests for patterns for the project.  My biggest issue was the Thread Painting, how to do the instructions to make it clear and fairly simple, with step by step diagrams.  Once I figured a way to do this, the rest of the pattern fell into place.  I did help that this pattern was pretty much test sewn, with many helpful comments from students and friends, before the 'real' pattern ever came out.  I am very happy with how this pattern turned out and even more with how the samples turned out.  There are three sizes of leaf bowls, my favorite is of course the largest one.

 Here is a close up of the pattern cover photo.  Notice the embellishing along the veins using couched decorative yarns and hand sewn beads from Embellishment Village.  I just love how they added more texture and sparkle to the Leaf Bowls.

This pattern is now available at the Laughing Cat Designs website! 

Friday, January 14, 2011

How To Series 1: Thread Painting 101 - Supplies Part I

Thread Painting, once you have the basic steps and a bit of practice, can be quite an effective way to enhance your textile art.  Often misinterpreted, Thread Painting is the process of applying color to your fabric using decorative threads with your sewing machine or 'painting with thread'.  Think of your machine and needle as the paint brush and your decorative threads as your pallet.  Transform a basic applique design into a work of art by adding color, shading, and highlights.  Most often, I use Thread Painting on my applique designs to really bring them to life.

Hummingbirds and Fucshias

Before we get into how to Thread Paint, we need to talk about the proper supplies so that we start off on the right foot.  These are the basic supplies that will get you started Thread Painting.  Other more specialized tools will be covered later on in the series when we get into the slightly more advanced techniques.  Because we are going into a bit of detail on some supplies, this Supplies post will be in two parts.  Part II will be posted next Thursday.


For Thread Painting I mainly use two types of needles in my machine: an Embroidery size 75/11 and a Topstitch size 90/14 or 100/16 depending on thread type.

 My default is the Embroidery needle.  This needle has a slightly larger and polished eye for easier passage of decorative threads.  It has a wider scarf or groove above the eye to help protect decorative threads from shredding or breaking and allows it to guide evenly through the eye.  A hump between the eye and scarf allow for better loop formation, which will help to avoid skipped stitches.  This needle also has a higher flexural strength (think of that side to side motion used for embroidery) allowing for longer life and less needle breakage.  The eye and groove both have very well rounded edges to keep from shredding your thread.  The size 11 I feel is a good balance between a strong needle that doesn't leave a really large hole in my fabric.  Note the red band on the needle, this is to differentiate the Embroidery needle from other needles.  

When I run into a 'problem' thread or use a thicker or metallic thread, I turn to the Topstitch needle.  The two sizes are handy; a 90/14 is what I usually start with for metallic or thicker threads and then if needed I move to the 100/16 for thicker threads.  I have been told that the Topstitch needle is exactly the same as the metallica needle, and it certainly works and looks the same.  Save your money, buy the Topstitch and skip the others.  As you can see Topstitch needles have a much larger coated and polished eye to accommodate those heavier threads.  A larger scarf or groove helps prevent shredding of the thread during stitch formation and the needle has a sharper point.   Recently, Superior Threads started distributing their own brand of Topstitch needles.  They have a very thin coating of titanium on them (gold coating as shown in the picture) which hugely increases the life of the needle.  Titanium coating doesn't make your needle stronger, it is to keep the needle point sharp and the surface smooth and free of nicks and burrs for much longer than the average needle.  

Machine Feet:

Machine feet vary quite a bit between the different brands of machines, with each brand having several different options to choose from.  The main thing to look for in a free motion foot to use for Thread Painting, is that it needs to accommodate a zigzag stitch.  A zigzag is the most commonly used Thread Painting stitch.  Additionally I like a foot that has a clear base so that you can see as much of the surface you are stitching on as possible.  Pictured below are several feet from several brands of machines that I use for Thread Painting.  Notice in the second picture the elongated opening that will allow for a zigzag stitch to be used.

OK, that's it for this week.  Stay tuned for next week when we discuss Threads: Decorative Embroidery Thread & Bobbin Thread, Stabilizers/Hoops, plus 'other handy things to have on hand'.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Another Leaf Bowl

The largest leaf is done!  This time I used my favorite vibrant and bright fall colors.  After taking this picture I added couched decorative yarns to the veins.  The beads are on my beading mat and I am ready to start embellishing both leaves.  The pattern should be available in about a week.

In the mean time, if you haven't seen them yet, check out the Flower Bowls pattern!  This pattern is available now, also by popular demand.  So fun to do, and easy with step by step Thread Painting instructions.

This photo was taken by Embellishment Village, I think the colors are more true here.

So tell me, what other types of Fiber Art Bowls would you like to see?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year!

I am starting off the new year with a new blog!  In the past, I have not done so well at posting regularly on a blog but I will endeavor to do better with this one.

A new Year, a new Blog, and a new Pattern!  Very soon I will be releasing the second pattern in the Fiber Art Bowls series (yes, more to come!)  Some of you are familiar with the classes I have taught for Thread Painted Flower Bowls and Leaf Bowls.  Many students and observers have asked for patterns.  Earlier this year I released the Thread Painted and Embellished Flower Bowls pattern and soon will be releasing Thread Painted and Embellished Leaf Bowls. Here is a sneak peek:

I have always made leaf bowls in fall colors.  During one of my classes a student made a 'spring leaf' in a beautiful bright green and I just fell in love with the color.  This bowl isn't finished yet!  I still have to add embellishments, so stay tuned for more...