Dont Fall for the Same Old Line

Are you up for some fun? Then let's do some exercises today, beginning with free-association. I'll say a word, and you respond with the first thing that comes into your head. Ready? Here we go.

Me: Draw.

You: …?

What came to your mind first? Pencil? Paper? Line?

How about thread, twig, soldering iron, wire, or cotton swab? Or paint, charcoal, dye, wax crayons?

When most of us think about drawing, pencil and paper are the first things we think of. As art quilters, we may even think about drawing with stitch. But there are endless ways to create different kinds of line and pattern on fabric and different ways of interpreting that line. Yet, most of us fall back on the same tools and techniques time and again, because they worked in the past, we feel comfortable with them, or we just fall in love with them.

A lot of other people shy away from any kind of "drawing" because they think they can't draw. But line is one of the most important elements in design, and it's essential when working in fiber, stitch, and surface design. You don't have to make a perfect drawing of something to turn mark making into fiber art design, though. By using different tools and materials to make the lines and marks, you can find inspiration for creating textures, shapes, and designs for stitch.

Here's a great exercise I found for exploring mark making, adapted from Gwen Hedley's new book, Drawn to Stitch: Line, drawing, and mark-making in textile art. It's a fun activity that's sure to loosen you up and get you seeing and creating lines in a different way.

Exploratory Marks Exercise


  • A variety of drawing tools
  • Sheets of heavy computer printer paper (plain and patterned)
  • Black ink
  • Scissors


1. Think about the different kinds of lines and drawing actions there are, such as:

  • Fuzzy, crisp, heavy, light, soft, hard
  • Fat, thin, varied, straight, curved, wiggly
  • Smooth, spiky, dotted, dashed, continuous, broken

2. Choose some of the drawing actions from above and choose tools and implements that will help you provide a range of marks. For example, a fine dotted line can be made with the end of a skewer; a cotton swab will make fatter dots.

3. Dip one of your tools in the ink (a cotton swab, for example) and make marks on the computer paper. You can twirl the tool over the paper to make a continuous, ribbony line of varied thickness, make dots, etc. Then take another tool and make different kinds of lines, letting them touch the previous lines.

4. Continue in this way until you have built patches of various kinds of lines in a variety of weights and lengths.

5. When you have filled your page with marks, make another page, this time using a paper with pattern or text (such as newsprint bonded to the paper). When you are finished cut the pages into strips, one lengthwise and one crosswise. You can cut the strips straight in even widths, make wavy strips, or vary the widths.

6. Weave the strips from both pages together.

Take a look at the results of your new abstract design. What fibers or stitches might you use to replicate the patterns you see? For example, you could make dots using: French knots, a satin stitch, reverse appliqué, free-motion stitching in a circle, stamping/printing, or a bleach pen to discharge the fabric.

What if you enlarged (or reduced) a section the weaving on a photocopier, transferred the design onto fabric, and hand stitched only the negative space? What if you used only red thread or yarn to create the pattern? Or oil sticks instead of fibers? What if…you see where I'm going with this?

Once you do an exercise like this, you'll start seeing lines everywhere. Good! Record them for future reference with your camera or in your sketchbook. You'll be amazed to discover how many different unusual line and pattern combinations are all around you.

In Drawn to Stitch, Gwen finds lines on rocks, trees, office buildings, stone walls, type, and a broken windshield, among others. I was fascinated by how, just by changing one thing–like the thickness of the yarn or needle felting instead of hand stitching–she could create entirely different pieces from the same pattern of lines.

There are lots of fun and enlightening exercises in this beautiful book, and I plan to try them all!

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