Thread Painting

By Lindsay Conner

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Thread painting is a technique that can help you achieve realistic effects on art quilts and portrait quilts. As you would expect from its name, thread painting by machine is just like "painting" on a canvas, except fabric is the canvas and colored embroidery threads are the paints.

A technique commonly seen in art quilting, specifically in portraits and nature quilts, thread painting by machine is a tool quilters can use to sketch in the fine details of an image. As you'll see in the examples below, thread painting and appliqué can be combined to achieve great realism in portraits and nature prints. However, you can also use the technique of thread painting without appliqué, perhaps by filling in your own sketch or a photo transfer. The possibilities are endless!

self portrait with thread painting

Machine embroidery paired with appliqué can offer stunning results, as seen in this Self Portrait by Cane Corso mom. "This was a first try for me on a realistic portrait quilt," she says about the project. "I just used methods I've used for other art quilts in the past, and it turned out successful. I used raw-edge appliqué, after enlarging a photo to use as a visual guide. After getting all my values and colors chosen from the right fabrics and heavily thread painting over the appliqued image to get shadows and highlights, the rest was easy. You just need to take your time."

bee thread painted quilt

In her quilt titled Bee, Cane Corso mom enlarged a photo to twice the normal size, to show the tiniest details, like the texture of the bee's body. She created the background first, without the bee, and then quilted the bee on a separate piece of fabric, later attaching it to the background with free motion quilting.

thread play

Thread painting can simulate the texture and color of hair on a portrait quilt. ReneeFV uses this technique in her Thread Play quilt, adding an impressive hairline, mustache and beard to the subject's face. She quilted the background and the subject's face minimally, to draw attention to, and highlight the areas of thread painting.

otto loves you

Otto Loves You by Pam George is an example of how thread painting can be used add shadows and expression to a face. Look closely at the wrinkles around the eyes, the pink color inside the ears and the outlines around the dog's feet. Without this machine embroidery, the white appliqué of the dog's body would appear flat and one-dimensional. However, with Pam's thread painting, the dog's face and body look very realistic.

appliqued flower

Appliqued Flower by gmatloff uses thread painting to give dimension and texture to the flower petals and leaves in this appliqued art quilt. Although the main shapes are appliqued, thread painting on the flower's center accentuates the lush texture of the quilt. To add even more dimension to your flower petals and leaves, try thread painting with a zigzag stitch until an entire petal is covered.

Preparing an Image for Thread Painting

To make your own design and prepare it for thread painting, you can transfer an image onto fabric with photo transfer paper or draw an image freehand.

Thread painting expert Nina McVeigh suggests buying pre-printed needlepoint kits as a way to get your feet wet with thread painting. Especially for quilters that don't consider themselves "artists", these pre-printed designs can guide color choices and give a paint-by-numbers solution to thread painting. Tip: Even though you won't use them, you can keep the needlepoint threads as a visual guide to match the intended colors when you go to pick out embroidery threads. There are also kits specifically for machine embroidery, which are a great entry point into thread painting for beginners.


To get started thread painting, you'll need a sewing machine, embroidery thread, a hoop, stabilizers and a free-motion foot. An embroidery sewing machine can also be used, but a regular sewing machine works just fine as long as you hoop your work.


It's recommended that thread painters use a fine-weight thread to fill your bobbin and a thicker thread as your top thread. This is to prevent the back of your work from having too much buildup and to allow the front of your piece to fill in quickly. Try a 60-weight thread in the bobbin and a 40-weight polyester or rayon thread for your top thread. Tip: The higher the number, the thinner the thread. Angela at Laughing Cat Designs discusses her favorite embroidery threads, hoops and stabilizers in her blog series on thread painting.


A 6" machine embroidery hoop is a good place to start when getting started with machine embroidery. Round and oblong hoops are available in different sizes, so you may want to ask other quilters about their favorite hoop for thread painting.

Tulle and Stabilizers

Water-soluble stabilizers, like Pellon 553 Sol-U-Film Lite (TM), are another recommended tool for thread painters. Tulle, the netted fabric used in tutus and bridal veils, can also be used to help hold a machine embroidered design together once stabilizer film is removed. This post at HGTV gives more details on how to prepare a tulle sandwich for thread painting.

Machine Settings for Thread Painting

To get started with thread painting, drop the sewing machine's feed dogs and attach a free-motion foot. (Move the stitch length to 0 if the machine doesn't have drop-feed capability.) Set the upper tension between 0 and 2.5.

Choosing Stitches

You may use a straight stitch or zigzag stitch for thread painting. A straight stitch is great for fine details, where you want a flatter texture with more control in tight areas. A zigzag stitch works well for filling in larger areas quicker, such as a flower petal or a person's hair.

When using a zigzag stitch, change the width of the zigzag to achieve the desired effect.

You may also try threading two colors of thread through one needle, to achieve a thicker stitch with added dimension. Just like a painter mixes paint colors, a quilter can use two thread colors at once to help blend the colors in a sketch.

Like with any quilting, it's a good idea to practice your thread painting stitches on scrap fabric before working on your actual project. Thread painting and machine embroidery expert Eileen Roche shares even more tips and tricks in her class, The Machine Embroidered Quilt.

What do you think about thread painting? Leave us a comment about your first time using machine embroidery and any tips you've learned along the way!

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