>Intro to Thread Painting

>Thread painting is being featured in a lot of books and classes recently. I think many people see the word “painting” and think “Oh my gosh, I can’t paint!”. The fact is, thread painting is basically the same thing as free-motion embroidery. Free-motion embroidery is just sewing without the feed dogs up on your sewing machine. It’s not very hard, really, and like anything else, you can improve with practice.
Thread painting can be used to add detail to projects that would be too tedious to applique. It can also add nice highlights to pre-printed fabrics and works as a quilting technique. Layers of thread can be built up to resemble textures like bark and fur.

I have some suggestions for getting started with this technique. Like my tutorial on broderie perse, let’s use the fabric designer’s talents to make our work easier and look great!

(Click on any picture to enlarge it if you cannot see details.)

First, the machine set up:

  1. Put the feed dogs down. If you cannot do this, put tape over the feed dogs. You need to be in control of the direction the fabric goes.
  2. Use a regular 80/12 needle or embroidery needle. Have extras at the ready and allow for the possibility that some might break! if you plan to use shiny threads, like rayon, be sure to use embroidery needles.
  3. Take off the regular sewing foot and attach an embroidery foot. Open toed embroidery feet are nice because you can see where you are going better.
  4. Thread your machine as usual. The color or type of thread isn’t really important to start with—regular or embroidery threads will work fine. Use the same type in the bobbin. I’m using black in this tutorial so it can be seen more easily.
  5. Thread tension can be adjusted so that the TOP tension is LOOSER than normal. You don’t want your bobbin thread to be pulled up to the surface of the fabric. If you loosen the top tension a little, the top thread will be pulled under the fabric by the bobbin thread. (If you don’t want to try this, be sure to use matching top and bobbin thread colors.)
  6. Set a straight stitch. Length doesn’t matter because you will be controlling that aspect.
    Needle stop down, if you have it.

The fabric:

  1. Pick a piece of fabric from your stash that has a large graphic design like a floral, leaves, etc. I’ve had fun with Laurel Burch fabrics, which have cartoonish cats, horses, etc. plus foliage and graphic designs. We want some graphics that are at least 1 ½ inches across to start with.
  2. Make sure the piece of fabric is at least 12 inches across, so you have plenty to hold on to.
  3. Under your fabric you can add a layer of thin batting if you like. This will give your stitching more impact and texture.
  4. On the bottom you want a piece of stabilizer. There are many on the market to choose from. Sometimes I just use a piece of cotton canvas. If your stabilizer is not iron-on, you can use spray adhesive.
  5. If you don’t have spray adhesive, try this: Lay your stabilizer flat on the table, your batting (if you’re using it), and your fabric on top. Pin your layers together all around, then stitch or hand baste around the edges to secure everything together. You can even baste a big “X” across the center of your piece—the basting can be removed when you’re done.

Ready? Let’s sew!

  1. Slide your fabric under the needle and put the presser foot down to engage the thread tension.

  2. Choose a graphic detail—say, a leaf. Let’s outline the leaf. Take a couple of stitches in place at your starting point on the leaf edge. Some people prefer to take a stitch and pull up the bobbin thread, then stitch a couple of stitches and cut off the bobbin thread. That way you don’t get any tangles on the back. Personally, I rarely have this problem so I rarely bother!
  3. Make an “L” with your fingers and thumbs and place your hands around your chosen design with your thumbs about 2-3 inches apart.

  4. Now you’re ready to start stitching. You’ll have to experiment with how fast to stitch and move the fabric. Believe it or not, when you stitch/move a little faster, you can make smoother lines. It’s kind of like riding a bike. When you go really slow, trying to keep your balance, you’re more likely to wobble around. So don’t be afraid to step on the gas!
  5. Outline your leaf (or whatever). You can move sideways and backwards, so you don’t have to spend a lot of time stopping to rearrange your fabric like when you stitch with feed dogs. But if you can’t see what you’re doing, turn the fabric so you can!
  6. Deep breath…..exhale…..relax your shoulders, elbows and wrists……
  7. Now go around again! One thing I love about thread painting is building up lines of thread. And any little “wobbles” can be smoothed over with another line or 2 of stitching.
  • DON’T AIM FOR PERFECTION!! And needles sometimes break! I’ve broken A LOT of needles doing free-motion work. It happens, it’s OK. Just put in a new needle and keep practicing.
  • Now that that’s established, move on to another part of the design. If you’re doing a leaf, try the veins. On a flower, try the stem/leaves.
  • REMEMBER: when you’re ready, you’ll probably use matching or blending thread colors. This time we’re just concentrating on moving around.
  • You can practice stitch all over your fabric. This is a nice technique for quilting those printed panels used for pillows and wall hangings.

Here’s a “before and after” on another section of my fabric. I used thread colors that blend with the design. The difference isn’t dramatic, but it isn’t supposed to be. What we’re doing is embellishing, enhancing a design.
After: the next 3 pictures:

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Next time we’ll look at how color is used within an object in the design and focus on highlights.