Unravel the Secrets of Thread Sketching

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free motion thread sketching
Thread-sketch by Leni Levenson Wiener from In Stitches Vol. 3.

Thread sketching? Love it!

Using free-motion stitching with your sewing machine to create what looks like pen-and-ink drawings lends a real "hand of the artist" look to a quilt. The technique is also an effective way to add stitched imagery to fabric collages.

But, how do you come up with a suitable image? And after that, how do you get from the image to a thread sketched version on fabric?

Art quilter Leni Levenson Wiener has become an authority on thread sketching. She defines her work as fabric collage with thread painted details. Leni , a former photographer, often starts with a photo as her inspiration for a sketch.

She also recommends beginners start with:

  • Pen and ink drawings from books or the Internet (make sure to use an image that is free of copyright restrictions, if you want to exhibit or sell your work).
  • Children's art. The simple line drawings of coloring books are a great way to learn the thread-sketching process.

To transfer the design to the fabric, Leni prints the image onto paper, sandwiches her fabric between the printed page and another plain sheet of paper (to stabilize the fabric), and stitches over the lines.

So simple!

free motion thread sketching
Removing the paper after machine stitching.

There are several kinds of paper that will work: computer-printable foundation papers made for paper piecing, artist's vellum, and even regular computer paper. The thinner the paper, the easier it will be to remove after the sketch is done. If you don't have a computer, trace your design onto tracing paper.

For more detailed images where the lines are so close that it would make removing the paper too difficult, stitch over the main lines, remove the paper, and then stitch the details.

Or, use computer printable dissolve-away foundation paper. When using dissolve-away paper, finish your sketch and tear away whatever paper you can, and then soak your piece in water until the rest of the paper is gone.

You can see exactly how Leni thread sketches images and text in the video segment of her article, "Unraveling the Secrets of Thread Sketching," in Vol. 3 of the Quilting Arts In Stitches eMag. In the article, Leni offers advice on the pros and cons of using batting, what kind of thread works best, and how to stabilize your sketch.  Plus, she reveals her must-have sewing tools.

You can download In Stitches Vol. 3 right now to your PC or Mac and learn how to stitch through metal, combine hand and machine stitching, quilt a fabric portrait, and much more!

P.S. Do you have any thread-sketching secrets you'd like to share? Let's help each other! Leave a comment below.

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4 thoughts on “Unravel the Secrets of Thread Sketching

  1. I wanted to memorialize my beloved minor calico kitty so I put her in a quilt. I used a photo I had of her, embiggened it to the desired size, and printed it out in black and white. Then I put it on my light box, covered it with a piece of newsprint paper I had floating around and traced the contours of her face and her spots. Then all I had to do was stitch through the paper. I used a rayon thread close to the background color so just like kitties can sometimes do, she appears to pop out of nowhere right next to the appliqued vase of flowers.

  2. Tip to remove the paper:
    When ever I use the computer paper to sketch , after stitching on it, I dab a painting brush in water,shake off the water and run the wet brush over the paper and using a blunt object give slight press to the paper and paper comes off from tight spots without any problem.
    Shyamala Rao

  3. I trace the design onto Vliesofix, then iron the Vliesofix onto the back of the fabric. Before I cut it out, I freemotion stitch every design line working from the paper side and using a shiny thread in a contrasting colour in the bobbin. It doesn’t matter what you do use for a top thread. Then I cut out the shape precisely, peel the paper backing off (carefully) then stick the fabric down on the background. The rest is what you would expect.