Learn how to add style to your quilts with these thread painting projects.
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Instructions provided courtesy of quilting expert Nancy Prince.
What is Thread Painting?
Thread painting, or free-motion machine embroidery, is a perfect way of embellishing quilts by "painting" images on a quilt top. Using the quilt top as a canvas and thread as paint, hoop the canvas and paint on designs with a sewing machine and free-motion foot. Only your imagination can limit the thread paint design.
Another option is to use an embroidery sewing machine, which offers more control but design is limited to commercially available designs.
Thread painting looks difficult, but is actually very easy to do. No advanced skills necessary and no special machine required. Some people find it a bit easier with a newer machine.
Machine Set Up
To set up a standard machine:
- Drop the feed dogs. With the feed dogs dropped you are in control so it won’t make any difference where the dial is set for the length on the straight or zigzag stitch. However, varying the width of the zigzag stitch can create a number of different looks. If your machine doesn’t have the ability to drop the feed dogs, move the stitch length to 0 and the feed dogs will barely move.
- Insert free-motion foot.
- Setting the upper tension - Lower the tension between 0 and 2.5 depending on the machine (normally the upper tension is around 4.5).
- Setting up the bobbin - Use a 60-weight bobbin fill thread. The 60-weight thread is a much finer thread so the bobbin holds more thread and the build up on the back of the design is reduced. In selecting thread, the higher the number the thinner the thread.
- Top thread - use a 40-weight thread in polyester or rayon. The 40-weight is a little heavier which means it fills in faster plus the sheen, especially on the rayon, is wonderful.
- Stitch length - With the feed dogs dropped, you are in control; only the width on the zigzag stitch can be changed.
- Needles - use a Sharp 60/8 to 90/14 depending on the size and density of the design.
No matter how the hoop is rotated, you still get a straight stitch, but you can turn a straight stitch into a scribble stitch, circular stitch, or use it to fill in the design. Straight stitch texture is flatter with less dimension, but has more control than a straight stitch and is easier to control in confined or curved areas.
The zigzag stitch most of us are used to is a satin stitch. Move the hoop up and down to get a column of stitches. This is useful for making tree trunks. By decreasing the width of the stitch as we progress up the tree, a tapered trunk appears.
If the hoop is moved faster and the width increased, the satin stitch spreads out, giving another look which is effective for creating tree canopies. If you take the same stitch and move the hoop right to left, you get a straight line. This becomes a fill stitch and is the workhorse of thread painting. If you move the hoop on a diagonal, you get another completely different look. This design has more texture and dimension than the straight stitch. By varying the width of the stitch, a number of different looks can be achieved. Reduce the width in confined areas for more control.
Thread Paint Methods
Two methods of thread painting are the tulle sandwich and the direct method. On the Autumn in the Country quilt, the tulle sandwich was used on the pumpkins, fence posts, hay bales and purple canopy on tree. The direct method was used on the foreground flowers, large canopy and small trees in the distance.
Tulle, or bridal illusion, is the cohesive factor that holds the design together once the stabilizer film is removed. It comes in many colors and can be matched to the design I am thread painting. Water-soluble stabilizer is clear and it is washed away when the design is complete. Use a heavyweight stabilizer.
To make the sandwich, place two pieces of tulle between two pieces of water-soluble stabilizer. On the top piece of stabilizer film the design is traced. This drawing is a road map and tells me where I have to thread paint next. Use a machine embroidery hoop to hoop the four layers. I use a six-inch hoop because the smaller the hoop the better the stabilization. Use the tulle sandwich method on designs with a high stitch density, designs larger than 1/2 inch, and on ones you can cut out.
Tulle Method Fence Posts
- Set the machine to a zigzag stitch with a 3.5 mm width.
Tulle Method Pumpkins
- Set the machine to a straight stitch.
Removing the Stabilizers and Tulle
- When the design is complete, cut away as much of the tulle and stabilizer film as possible.
- Run hot water over the design until most of the stabilizer disappears. The stabilizer is very sticky and once the majority of the stickiness is gone, put the design in a bowl with hot water and a few drops of dish washing liquid.
- Once the stabilizer film is washed away, blot the design between two towels and allow to air dry.
- The tulle can be removed with either a pair of sharp embroidery scissors or with a stencil cutter. I prefer the stencil cutter because the heat melts the tulle away and it can get into even the most confining areas.
What is the difference between the tulle method and the direct method? Basically the mechanics are the same. In simplistic terms, the tulle sandwich is used for high-density designs and the direct method for low-density designs. Use the direct method when the design cannot be cut out, because it's light and airy and can’t be cut out. Place two layers of stabilizer backing on a flat surface. Use either a cutaway or a water-soluble stabilizer for the backing. A cutaway stays with the quilt over its life and works well for very high density, thread painted areas. Here are instructions for how to achieve it for a tree canopy:
- Lay the quilt top or fabric over the stabilizer.
- Lay the stabilizer film on which the design has been drawn on top of the quilt top or fabric. The stabilizer film on the top is clear and the stabilizer backing is white.
Sunflowers and Goldenrods
To make these flowers using the direct method:
- Set the machine for a straight stitch.
Even though these instructions concentrate on specific landscape items, the execution on all landscape items is basically the same. If you are making a snowman for example, the execution is the same as the pumpkin; for a tree trunk, the execution would be the same as the fence posts. You get the idea!
Joanne Kluba returns to make a keepsake hinged box decorated with handpainted pears.