Thread painting - art from your needle

Have you tried thread painting? This embroidery technique, also known as needle painting or silk shading, makes use of long and short stitch to produce works of art on fabric.  

Is thread painting hard to stitch?

The stitches themselves couldn't be easier, just a straight stitch coming up and going back down through the fabric. However, thread painting can be deceivingly tricky.

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.

I also learned that coming up through the stitches for subsequent rows avoids the "holes" that occur when you push the needle down through them.

The term long and short stitch is perhaps a little misleading, as only the first row comprises stitches of different lengths. This gives a staggered edge into which further rows of stitches fit. This way there isn't a harsh line where one row, or shade, meets the next.

What thread should I use for thread painting?

The term silk shading suggests that you need to use pure silk. Although work done using this natural fibre is lustrous and beautiful, you can use more economical threads and still achieve a great result.

Embroidery floss has a soft sheen that lends itself to flower petals or animal fur worked in this manner. 

The stitch is also often employed in crewel work to fill areas with crewel wool. 


Flower petals tutorial - have a go yourself

Let's work through a simple example together, keeping in mind the photos below are taken from very close up. 

Step 1

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 reduce the size of the hole it made in the fabric. 

fig. 1 - The first row of long and short stitch

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

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 2

Using the second color I worked the next row by starting the stitches in different places, sometimes piercing the thread of the first row of stitches with the needle. At other times I slipped the stitch in between those in the first row.

Again stagger the bottom edge of the stitches.

fig 2 - the next row of stitches in place

Step 3

Each additional row of stitches fits into the previous one, keeping the general direction of the stitches pointing towards the centre of the flower. 

Fig 3 shows the effect after I used three colors.

fig 3 - adding the third shade

Step 4

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

I only used a little of the darkest shade to add a few straight stitches and a shadow around the underside of the petal.

fig 4 - the darkest shade in place

Step 5

I continued working each petal around the flower. As you can see in fig 5, my drawing was rather lopsided. I changed the shape of the last two petals as I progressed through the embroidery. 

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.

fig 5 - working the third petal

 I could have remedied this by working a row of split stitch around the petal first, then stitching over that when doing the thread painting.

However, some petals have raggedy edges so it is not essential to do this extra step with all flowers.

Finishing 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

It takes practice to get a nice smooth finish to long and short stitch, but it is worth persevering.

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

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