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Thread Painting

Learn how to add style to your quilts with these thread painting projects.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. Insert free-motion foot.

  3. Setting the upper tension - Lower the tension between 0 and 2.5 depending on the machine (normally the upper tension is around 4.5).

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Stitch length - With the feed dogs dropped, you are in control; only the width on the zigzag stitch can be changed.

  7. Needles - use a Sharp 60/8 to 90/14 depending on the size and density of the design.

Straight Stitch
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.

Zigzag Stitch
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

  1. Set the machine to a zigzag stitch with a 3.5 mm width.

  2. Rotate hoop so fence post is on its side and with fingertips on the hoop, move the hoop slowly right to left. Use a moderate machine speed.

  3. To change the look a bit, move the hoop in a diagonal direction and meander around the fence posts.

  4. Use this same stitch and hoop movement when thread painting the bark on trees.

Tulle Method Pumpkins

  1. Set the machine to a straight stitch.

  2. Trace pumpkins on the top piece of stabilizer film.

  3. Thread paint the underlay stitches. Underlay stitches act as the foundation for the thread painted design and keeps the design flat and helps keep puckers from forming at the edge of the design. Underlay stitches should be added on any design over 1/2 inch wide.

  4. With the pumpkin facing you, zigzag the underlay stitches moving the hoop right to left. With the machine still running zigzag up to the next line less than 1/8 inch away and continue the right to left movement. Repeat underlay stitches until the body of pumpkin is complete.

  5. Switch to a straight stitch and rotate the hoop so pumpkin is on its right side. Using a moderate machine speed, thread paint a line of thread on the left side of the pumpkin following the curvature of the pumpkin. Continue moving the hoop right to left and lay second line of stitches next to first.

  6. Continue following curvature of pumpkin until a third of the pumpkin is complete.

  7. Rotate hoop so pumpkin is on its left side and repeat procedure on right side until other third of pumpkin is complete.

  8. Rotate hoop so pumpkin is facing you and blend the two sides together.

  9. Finish off the top with bright gold highlights and thread paint in the stem.

Removing the Stabilizers and Tulle

  1. When the design is complete, cut away as much of the tulle and stabilizer film as possible.

  2. 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.

  3. Once the stabilizer film is washed away, blot the design between two towels and allow to air dry.

  4. 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.

Direct Method

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:

  1. Lay the quilt top or fabric over the stabilizer.

  2. 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.

  3. Hoop the four layers together.

  4. Set the machine to a zigzag stitch with a 4.0 mm width.

  5. With the canopy facing you, move the hoop on a diagonal and meander around the quilt top using a combination of diagonal and straight movements to complete the canopy. When thread painting the canopy of a tree, use several layers of different colors of thread to achieve depth.

Sunflowers and Goldenrods

To make these flowers using the direct method:

  1. Set the machine for a straight stitch.

  2. With sunflower facing you, follow the outline of the petal to fill in. Repeat for all petals

  3. For the goldenrod flowers, set the machine to a zigzag stitch and a 2.0 mm width.

  4. Rotate the hoop so the flower is on its side and thread paint a column of stitches to form the flower. Move to the petal underneath and repeat procedure.

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!

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