Simply put thread painting is using a sewing machine like a paintbrush; free-motion stitching images and designs. It's such a simple process — all it requires is a sewing machine, fabric or canvas, thread, and patience.
This technique is unique for quilting in that it allows you to focus on a variety of design elements: trees, clouds, skies, shadows, water, roads, and buildings, not just on the fabric.
The dense stitching tends to stretch the fabric about 1⁄2" wider and shrink it 1⁄2" in length by the time the artwork is completed. Cut the fabric the size you want the finished piece to be, allowing for the change caused by stitching. Do not turn under the edge, but stitch directly to the edges.
Threads used for this technique can add both texture and color. You can use polyester, cotton, rayon and silk threads on the surface and YLI clear invisible thread in the bobbin. Though you might find that rayon is too shiny.
Use a darning or free-motion foot to stitch, size 80/12 or 90/14 needles, and keep the feed dogs up. The weight of the fabric is enough to serve as a stabilizer; no hoop is necessary.
Using only the straight stitch, try to maintain an even speed. Work all over the canvas, rather than completing an area before you move on. You can begin by stitching in the lightest area of the background — this speeds the stitching process since it is not necessary to match the bobbin thread
with the top thread.
Some machines have a bobbin case that has a “finger” with a hole close to
the top. Feed your bobbin thread through this hole to provide better thread tension for this technique.
It is also important to note that if you stitch in all directions your piece will warp. Stitch in a vertical direction, except when creating foliage. Then stitch in small circular patterns, to add texture. Finally, be sure to cut the invisible threads underneath your piece as you are working. They can catch on the feed dogs and pull the fabric, causing it to lay unevenly.
Excerpt from "Thread Painting" from Quilting Arts Magazine Winter 2003
A Few Thread Painting
Get your needle going before you move your hands.
In general, make your free-motion quilting stitches long; this will give a more painterly effect than short stitches. When using thick threads, create longer stitches; thin threads, shorter stitches.
When thread painting, good tension means that the top thread is pulled to the back. You should see the colored threads on the bottom of the work.
Excerpt from "Thread Painting 101" from Quilting Arts Magazine Feb/Mar 2009