Think painting can only be done with paint? Not anymore! Introducing: thread painting. It’s exactly what it sounds like, and it might just become your new favorite hobby. Read on to find out what painting with thread is, discover incredible examples, and learn how to get started with your own textile masterpiece.

Thread your needles, and let’s dive in! 

What Is Thread Painting? 

Thread painting (sometimes called needle painting) is a modern form of embroidery—a technique that uses a needle and thread to create designs on fabric or paper. 

Unlike traditional embroidery, painting with thread is less about creating neat stitches and a perfectly smooth finished product. Instead, each stitch resembles a brush stroke, and the final design looks more like an oil painting than an embroidered piece. Stitches can have different lengths, thicknesses, and directions. They’re often layered on top of each other to create shading and give the piece dimension. 

Thread painting can be done by hand or using a sewing machine. You may have heard of special embroidery machines—they’re great for mass-producing identical logos and lettering. However, using a regular sewing machine and a technique called “free motion embroidery” will allow you to get creative and produce a truly one-of-a-kind work of art. 

embroidery portrait
Skillshare instructor Danielle Clough shares one of her thread paintings.

Getting Started With Thread Painting

What You’ll Need

Before we get into how to paint with thread, let’s briefly go over the materials you’ll need.

  • Fabric: Choose something that won’t stretch—cotton or linen are great options.
  • Scissors: Use sharp fabric scissors that you don’t use for anything else. 
  • Masking tape: Taping the edges of your fabric will prevent it from fraying. The tape will also come in handy when you’re transferring designs onto your fabric. 
  • Fabric marking tool: Water-soluble or heat-erasable markers are best for this.
  • Tracing paper and carbon paper: These make it easy to copy designs onto your fabric. 
  • Embroidery hoop: This will keep the fabric nice and tight while you stitch onto it. If using a sewing machine, it will also make it easier to move the fabric under the needle. 
  • Thread: You’ll need embroidery floss for thread painting by hand and standard sewing thread if you’re using a machine.
  • Needles: If thread painting by hand, you’ll need a needle with a large eye to accommodate thicker embroidery floss. If using your sewing machine, the needles that come with your model should be fine. 
  • Darning foot (sewing machine only): If thread painting with a sewing machine, the darning foot will not only help hold the fabric down while stitching, but also protect your fingers from the needle. 
thread portrait
Source: instagram
Skillshare instructor Jordan Gomez shares a thread painting she made with a sewing machine on her Instagram

Getting Your Design Ready

Whether you’ve decided to try thread painting by hand or using a sewing machine, you’ll need to start with a design. Feel free to sketch something from scratch, replicate an image you like, or take a photo of something that inspires you and then trace it.

If you’re sketching directly on the fabric, use a water-soluble or heat-erasable marker. If you’re copying an image or a photo, you can first trace it onto tracing paper, then transfer it onto the fabric using carbon paper. 

Lastly, tape the edges of your fabric with masking tape and place it tightly into an embroidery hoop. If using a sewing machine, place your fabric into the hoop upside down—you’ll be using the hoop with the fabric flush against the machine, so you’ll need to be able to see your design from this angle. 

You’re now ready to start painting! 

Paint With Thread Using a Sewing Machine

  1. Switch your machine’s presser foot to the darning foot. 
  2. Wind your bobbins with the correct colors and thread your sewing machine.
  3. Lower the feed dogs—these normally help move the fabric along, but you need to be able to move your fabric freely when thread painting. 
  4. Place the embroidery hoop with the fabric side down underneath the needle (you may need to lift up the presser foot to help fit it in).
  5. Move the fabric underneath the needle to create stitches over your sketched design. Move it slowly to create short stitches and faster to create longer ones. 
  6. Don’t forget to play around with the stitch width—zig zag stitches can help fill in areas much faster than straight stitches and can help add dimension to your work. 
  7. Switch the color of your thread as necessary. 
sewing machine
Skillshare instructor Jordan Gomez teaches how to paint with thread using a sewing machine.  

Paint With Thread by Hand

Thread painting by hand is a little more time-consuming than using a machine, but it allows you to have greater control over your stitching. Let’s go over the basics

Types of Stitches

Backstitch: This creates a single line of stitches and is great for outlines and thin lines. 

Couching: This involves making small, almost invisible stitches to hold down a piece of thread. It’s great for curved lines and adding details on top of other stitches.

Satin stitch: A series of stitches made side by side to fill an area with color.  

Short and long stitch: A version of the satin stitch, but nearby stitches alternate in length. This is especially useful for blending two colors together. 

French knot: This stitch looks like a knot and is perfect for adding texture and dot-shaped details. 

embroidery
Skillshare instructor Danielle Clough teaches different types of embroidery stitches.

Stitch Thickness

Embroidery thread is typically composed of six strands. You can use all six at once if you’re looking to create thick stitches and fill up an area faster. Alternatively, you can split up the thread and use just a few strands to add more texture or fill in finer details. 

Color Blending

Color blending is a technique used to blend together threads of different colors, which can help create a gradient effect or add shadows and highlights to your piece. 

To blend two colors, start by filling half of your section with one color using short and long stitches. Fill the other half with the second color, making sure to start each stitch where the other color ends. When you’re done, your section should have two different colors on either side and a mixture of colors in the middle. 

If you’re not satisfied with how well the two colors blend together, you can use thinner thread (fewer strands) to add more of each color into the middle section. 

Putting It All Together 

With these basic techniques in mind, you can start filling in your design with thread. You can map out which colors to use ahead of time, or simply see where the creative process takes you. 

The important thing to keep in mind is that there are no mistakes—you can always take threads out, replace them with something else, or add more on top. Don’t get too hung up on the small details—it will all come together in the end! 

Thread Painting Ideas

Before you grab your needle and thread, let’s take a look at a few ideas for what you can create. 

Thread Portraits

Who knew thread could be used to create such realistic portraits

embroidery portrait
A thread portrait by Skillshare student Vera Rolle.

Florals

Painting flowers is the perfect way to put your color blending skills to the test. 

embroidery cactus
Skillshare student Filiz Fidan shares a lotus flower using color blending techniques.

3D Designs

Turns out French knots make the most beautiful curls! 

embroidery portrait
A unique 3D thread painting by Skillshare student Sarah Urquhart.

Embroidery on Clothes

Stitch your designs onto clothing and wear them with pride. 

emboridery supplies
Skillshare instructor Danielle Clough teaches how to embroider on clothes in her class Live Encore: Make Wearable Art With Embroidery on Clothes

Beyond Fabric

When you fall in love with thread painting, you see just about anything as a potential canvas. 

embroidery on a racket
Source: instagram
Skillshare instructor Danielle Clough shares a unique project on her Instagram

Start Painting 

Inspired to start thread painting? We’ve covered the basics here, but there’s still much to learn. Luckily, there are plenty of Skillshare classes that cover this topic. 

If you’re looking to try thread painting by hand, check out Painting with Thread: Modern Embroidery for Beginners. And if you’re excited to use your sewing machine in a new way, the class How to Draw With a Sewing Machine—Free Motion 101 will teach you everything you need to know. 

Happy thread painting! 

Learn How to Paint With Thread by Hand

Painting With Thread: Modern Embroidery for Beginners

Written By

Sayana Lam

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