One of my favorite embellishing techniques is thread painting using free motion machine embroidery. You can create a complete picture or just highlight and accent pieces. Free motion stitching can also be used in art quilts and bed quilts. The two basic rules are sit up straight so your arms can be in a relaxed, natural position and remember to breathe! Then guide the fabic with a flowing motion under the needle. I think the hardest part is to breathe because you are trying so hard to get the movement right that you forget to breathe.
Thread painting can be used to create depth by using dark and light threads for shadows and highlights with very dense or minimal stitching, depending on the effect you wish to achieve. It can also be used very effectively with fabric painting. A book that inspires me is The Art of Annemieke Mein: A Wildlife Artist in textiles. She uses all kinds of textiles and fibers in combination with fabric painting and thread painting to create incredibly detailed wall hangings.
Another wonderful book is Thread Magic: The Enchanted World of Ellen Anne Eddy. Ellen gives lots of detailed instructions on the fabric dyeing and thread painting techniques she uses to create her art quilts.
OK, on to the fun stuff!
To give you a feel for thread painting, made a small test project. Because the density of the stitching will distort your fabric, you need to stabilize it using an iron-on stabilizer or interfacing. I use Totally Stable for something with really dense stitching but one or two layers of interfacing on something that I am just high-lighting with decorative threads. Analyze your fabric and the stitch density you are expecting to use and stabilize accordingly.
Cut a small piece of fabric - no more than 8 inches square or large enough to fit in an embroidery hoop. I find that a hoop gives me more control on a small project.
Draw or trace your design on the fabric and apply the stabilizer. You could also fuse a cutout from another fabric. I usually have a colored picture on hand to help me if I am starting a design from scratch.
Select the threads you wish to use. If I am highlighting a fused appliqué piece cut from another fabric, I just pick my thread to enhance the design. Choose the section on which you wish to start and thread the machine with the appropriate color.
Insert the fabric in the embroidery hoop and gently slide it under the foot. You may have to raise the foot a little extra with the take-up lever on your sewing machine. You may need to tilt the hoop to fit it under the foot.
Lower the foot and, holding the top thread so it won't be pulled to the back of the fabric, take the needle through one cycle down and back up by turning the wheel by hand. This will catch the bobbin thread. Gently pull the bobbin thread to the top of the fabric.
Hold the two threads in your left hand and, without moving the fabric, take several stitches in the same place to anchor the threads. I usually do a small amount of stitching to move away from the anchor point and then clip the threads so that they don't interfere with the other colors. If your machine has a "needle down" feature, engage that function. If it doesn't, then manually put the needle down by turning the wheel when you stop to prevent your fabric from moving.
Now you are ready to start. Shoulders back, breathe and remember that you, not the sewing machine, are controlling how the fabric moves. Sew at a medium fast speed and move the hoop smoothly back and forth so that the threads begin to fill in the design area that you are working on. This takes some practice so don't be discouraged if you aren't perfect on the first try. If you are doing a whole design (say a flower) blend the colors into each other so you don't have definite lines. Have fun!
References for this section are:
The Art of Annemieke Mein: Wildlife Artist in textiles
The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolff
Thread Magic by Ellen Anne Eddy
Machine Needlelace and Other Embellishing Techniques by Judy Simmons
Embroidery Concepts in Sulky by Sulky of America
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