Thread painting - art from your needle

Thread painting, commonly known as needle painting or silk shading, is a unique embroidery technique that employs long and short stitches to create exquisite works of art on fabric.

Despite the simple nature of the stitches, this technique can be a challenging but rewarding skill to master. This comprehensive guide will walk you through the intricacies of thread painting and help you create stunning embroidered masterpieces.

Thread painted flower

The Art of Thread Painting: Is It Difficult to Stitch?

I first tried this as a teenager and struggled to get a neat effect. In my fifties, I had another attempt and discovered the incredible beauty that is attainable with this technique.

It wasn't until I was brave enough to stitch with a single strand of embroidery floss that I achieved the soft shading effect. Of course the right choice of colours helps, as does knowing where to put them.

The actual stitches in thread painting may seem easy – it's just a straight stitch coming up and going back down through the fabric. However, achieving the desired effect can be surprisingly daunting. The secret to unlocking the true potential of thread painting lies in using a single strand of embroidery floss and selecting the right colors.

By carefully placing the stitches and coming up through the stitches for subsequent rows, you can avoid the "holes" that may form when pushing the needle down through them.

The term "long and short stitch" can be misleading, as only the first row features stitches of varying lengths. The staggered edge created by this row allows for smoother transitions between rows and shades.

What thread should I use for thread painting?

While the term "silk shading" might suggest the use of pure silk, thread painting can be done using various types of threads. Although pure silk results in lustrous and beautiful work, more economical threads like embroidery floss can still yield fantastic outcomes.

Embroidery floss offers a soft sheen perfect for flower petals or animal fur.

Crewel wool is also a popular choice.


Step-by-Step Flower Petals Tutorial

To help you get started with thread painting, follow this simple flower petals tutorial:

Step 1 - Selecting Colors and Materials

I chose 5 shades of Anchor stranded cotton for this sample flower.

  • 1026
  • 968
  • 1016
  • 1018
  • 1028

I picked a fine embroidery needle with a small eye to minimize the hole size it made in the cotton fabric.

Step 2 - Sketching the design

I sketched out a simple five petalled flower, using a quilter's pencil which gave a line that washed out.

I stitched the first row of long and short stitches, varying the lengths to create a staggered inside edge, using the palest shade.

The first staggered row of long and short stichesfig. 1 - The first row of long and short stitch

Another option would be to use a disappearing ink pen to draw your practice shape. These come in two varieties, one needs water to erase the marks while the other disappears over 24 - 72 hours.

Step 3 - Creating the first two rows

Using the second color I worked the next rows with different starting points, occasionally piercing or slipping the stitches between the previous row's stitches.

I maintained a staggered bottom edge.

The second color used for row 2fig 2 - the next row of stitches in place

Step 4 - Adding subsequent rows

I continued adding rows, directing the stitches towards the flower's center, and adjusting the petal shape as needed.

Fig 3 shows the effect after I used three colors.

The petal after three colors of thread have been usedfig 3 - adding the third shade

Step 5 - Completing the petal

I got carried away and forgot to photograph the fourth color for you, so fig 4 shows all five in place.

I used the darkest shade sparingly, to create shadows and depth. 

The completed petal in long and short stitchfig 4 - the darkest shade in place

Step 6 - Making corrections

I worked on each petal of the flower and adjusted the shape of the last two petals as I embroidered, as shown in fig 5, as my drawing was rather lopsided.

If you look closely at the petal I am working on in this photo, you'll see that the outside edge is not perfectly even.

I could have added a row of split stitch around the petal before thread painting. But, this extra step is not necessary for all flowers, especially those with raggedy edges.

Working on the third petalfig 5 - working the third petal

Step 7 - Completing the flower

The photograph at the top of the page shows my completed flower sample. 

I used a hand dyed thread to work French knots for the centre, and stem stitch for the stem.

My first attempt

I thought you might like to see my first attempt, to encourage you to keep trying if at first you don't succeed. 

My apologies for the awful drawing! Apart from that, my fundamental error here was that I used three strands of floss for this thread painting attempt.

Do you also see the holes where I went down through the existing stitches, instead of bringing the needle up through them?

My first attempt at thread paintingMy first attempt at thread painting

Practice Makes Perfect: Don't Give Up on Thread Painting

Achieving a smooth finish with long and short stitches requires practice and patience. Remember that even the most skilled thread painters started with their first imperfect attempt, like mine.

Keep trying, learn from your mistakes, and soon you will be able to create stunning thread painted masterpieces.

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