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Unique technique: thread painting.


Let your creativity go wild with thread painting. This free-motion stitching technique is easy to learn and creates one-of-a-kind designs. Learn professional tips and tricks for getting started.


Thread painting is created by freely moving tightly hooped fabric under a machine needle to produce a design. For this technique, the machine feed dogs are lowered.

Unlike computerized embroidery, which is a digital reproduction, anyone can thread paint to embellish or create works of art using a manual, free-motion process on any basic sewing machine with a straight and zigzag stitch feature. Now quite popular among quilters and fabric artists, the process creates a unique design that can never be exactly reproduced.

After learning a few free-motion fundamentals, a sewist can quickly move on to many other techniques, such as stippling, meandering, print embellishment, raw-edge applique, custom monograms, thread sketching, Zentangle quilting and 3D designs. Or stitch small thread painting designs to complement purchased digitized designs for added dimension, such as grass or clouds added to a beach scene.


An exact conception date for thread painting Isn't known, but instructions and illustrations were provided in a 1911 Singer manual entitled Art Embroidery, describing art embroidery on a straight-stitch treadle machine. With the Introduction and popularity of sewing machines featuring a zigzag stitch in the 1960s and 1970s, many books on art embroidery were written by well-known textile artists of the period, such as Lucille Graham, Verna Holt, Lois Ericson, Robbie Fanning, Janet Stocker and Bambi Stalder.

Free-motion embroidery really didn't enter mainstream America until industry innovator and icon Joyce Drexler came on the scene in the early 1980s. Joyce is widely regarded by her peers as being the driving force behind the rise in popularity of all things free-motion, including thread painting, which she coined in 1980 and used for the title of her first book in 1981. Joyce's Innovative techniques made it fast, fun and easy for anyone, especially non-artists, to learn and enjoy thread painting, monogramming, applique, cutwork, lace making and many more techniques. Joyce was a pioneer who was significantly responsible for the major shift in focus of the home sewing industry from sewing for money savings to sewing as a creative and enjoyable pastime. As an ever-increasing number of people learned and loved Joyce's techniques, more sewing machine companies introduced stand-alone embroidery machines In the early 1990s.


Both machine embroidery and thread painting fill a design outline with thread. Smaller free-motion thread painting designs can be created directly on hooped fabric and stabilizer without a design outline. Larger designs are usually transferred onto stabilizer, stitched, cut out and then used as an applique.

Digitized designs are created to embroider the same exact design multiple times, while thread painting creates one-of-a-kind designs each time, whether or not the same design is being used. In addition, thread painting doesn't have a limitation on the design size.


Select a sewing or embroidery machine with an electronic foot control to maintain a slow, steady stitching speed. Sit at a comfortable height at the machine with your nose in line with the needle, making sure your arms aren't elevated. If available, use or purchase a machine bed extension to anchor your hands, allowing just your fingers to move during stitching without any tension on your arms. Begin stitching at a slow to medium speed, increasing the speed as you become more confident and your accuracy improves. Most importantly, relax and enjoy the process.

Avoid inexpensive needles, threads, stabilizer, fabrics or hoops. Quality products make a huge difference in the process and finished project.


Thread painting is very forgiving. The design pattern is transferred onto stabilizer that is removed after stitching, so going outside the line is fine because it will be cut away when appliqued. If the stitches aren't too dense, simply stitch back over the mistake to fix it with more thread or cover the mistake with the next thread color.

Don't pile up too many stitches in one area. The buildup looks unpleasant and causes thread breakage. It's the same as having an overly digitized design that causes the machine to jump and make noise if there are too many stitch layers.

Proper tension is achieved when both the upper and lower threads meet as a knot in the middle of the stabilizer or slightly pulled to the wrong side. If the bobbin thread is being pulled by the upper thread too much, slightly reduce the upper tension and test-stitch again. If the upper thread is still pulled too far to the wrong side, decrease the bobbin case tension.


Coneflower Design

Create a flower to take your thread-painting skill set to the next level.


+ Stabilizer: lightweight cut-away & tear-away

+ Double-sided fusible web

+ Thread: 40-wt. rayon & matching 60-wt. polyester or bobbin

+ Size 80/12 metallic or topstitch needle

+ Spring-type free-motion presser foot

+ Water-soluble or heat-removable fabric pen (See "Sources.")

+ 8"-diameter hardwood hand embroidery hoop

+ Soldering iron or wood-burning tool

+ Coneflower template (page 41)


* Lower the feed dogs and install the free-motion presser foot and an 80/12 metallic or topstitch needle onto the machine.

* Thread the needle with 40-wt. rayon thread and the bobbin with matching 60-wt. polyester or bobbin thread. Select a straight stitch and the center needle position.

* If available, set the needle stop up/ down feature to the down position.

* Lower the machine speed to the lowest setting.

* Copy or trace the coneflower template from page 41. Using a removable fabric marker, trace the design onto a 10" square of cut-away stabilizer. Position a 10" square of tear-away stabilizer beneath the cut-away stabilizer. Hoop both stabilizer layers in the embroidery hoop, centering the design.


* Place the hoop under the machine needle, aligning it outside the design area. Using the hand wheel, pull up the bobbin thread to the stabilizer right side.

* Place your hands on the sides of the hoop. Position the stamen-shadow areas so they line up with the machine long edge.






* Lower the presser foot. To tie on, hold both thread tails. Take one stitch forward, one backward, and then one forward to secure the threads. Trim the thread tails close to the fabric surface.

* Straight stitch around each stamen-shadow perimeter at least once (A). Fill in using a smooth side-to-side motion. Fill in one section at a time without lingering too long in one spot.

* Change the upper and lower thread color as desired.

* Stitch around the flower-stamen perimeter. Stitch individual horizontal lines spaced approximately 1/8" apart inside the stamen to use as a guide. Work left to right and then right to left to create the horizontal stitching lines. Fill in the flower, using the horizontal lines as guidelines (B).

* Repeat to stitch the flower petals and stem.

* Change the upper thread color as desired. Working horizontally, stitch three to four lines over each flower petal.

* Change the upper and lower thread color. Stitch around each petal perimeter two or three times to highlight and define (C).

* Remove the hoop from the machine and the stabilizer from the hoop.

* Adhere a 10" square of fusible web to the design wrong side following the manufacturer's instructions.

* Carefully cut out the design, leaving 1/16" around the entire perimeter.

* Use a soldering iron to melt the remaining stabilizer from the design perimeter, making sure to move briskly to avoid a burned edge.

* Fuse the flower onto the finished project fabric. Free-motion stitch around the design perimeter to secure, changing thread colors to match the different flower colors (D).




Practice basic thread-painting techniques on stabilizer.

* Prepare the machine for free-motion embroidery following the steps on page 39.

* Draw horizontal lines spaced 1" apart on a 10" square of cut-away stabilizer. Mark a dot 3/8" above each line, spaced 3/8" apart. Sign your first name at least 1/2" tall on the last line (1).

* Position a 10" square of tear-away stabilizer beneath the cut-away stabilizer for added stability.

* Center the stabilizer squares within the outer embroidery hoop. Place the inner hoop over the outer hoop, pressing down with firm even pressure.

* Place the hoop under the machine needle.

* Working right to left, begin stitching on the first horizontal line and move upward around the first dot, circling it counterclockwise and ending on the horizontal line. Repeat to stitch the wave-pattern stitching line around the dots until the end of the horizontal line, maintaining the same distance from each dot when circling it (2).

* Continue stitching the lines and dots to practice, alternating stitching left to right and right to left.

* Continue practicing by stitching your signed name. Create a flower to take your thread-painting skill set to the next level.




To obtain consistent stitches per inch, make sure the fabric is moving at all times while the machine is running. Move the fabric slowly enough for consistent stitching, but fast enough to prevent excess thread buildup.


Shop Sew it All carries Pilot FriXion heat-removable fabric pens:

Sulky carries 40-wt. Rayon thread, 60-wt. PolyLite thread, KK 2000 Temporary Spray Adhesive, Soft 'n Sheer Cut-Away stabilizer and Tear-Easy Tear-Away stabilizer:

BY ERIC DREXLER, Courtesy of Sulky
COPYRIGHT 2016 Creative Crafts Group, LLC
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Drexler, Eric
Publication:Creative Machine Embroidery
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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