5 Essentials of Getting Started with Thread Painting

These are the 5 Essentials

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I have been asked many times what the tools are for getting started. I have written up a little guide for you to use. These are the top 5 things you need to get you going on the journey into thread painting.

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Bridget O'Flaherty sewing

You may be someone who thinks you have no creative talent, or that you are not a skilled enough sewer, or that your machine can’t do it. And I am here to tell you – you can do this, you do not need design skills you do not need to be a master sewer, nor do you need a top-of-the-line machine, BUT you do need one that can do the basics. I’m going to take you through the process of setting up your machine and the equipment you need to start.


Let’s define that first. It is called many things, freeform, free motion, free-hand embroidery, these can easily be confused with hand work and machine embroidery is now easily confused with digitized processes. I like to call it thread painting, because really it is like painting with your threads, as you layer multiple threads with your machine adding shades and colours to create an image. It’s an art and it’s very creative. Here is a quick demo.

Janome Sewing machine


Most basic domestic machines can be set up to do thread painting. If you have a machine that hasn’t been looked at in many years or ever… this may be the time for a tune-up or even a new machine!

Step 1: Get your Machine Out, Test Drive it!

Older Singer Machine

Many older machines are difficult to adapt to thread painting. It may be a workhorse in the sewing department, but it may be an exercise in frustration for this type of work.

Does it turn on, does the light work? ( it may just need a bulb replacement)

If it doesn’t turn on you should have it looked at or it may be a great opportunity to buy that machine you have had your eye on! You should do your research, and know what your needs are. If you are still dabbling, maybe borrow one from a friend or family member.

Some great brands? There are a lot of options out there with varying prices.

Janome • Bernina • Brother • Singer • Husqvarna • Pfaff

Test it out: can you sew a straight stitch perfectly?

  • Check the tension
  • Change the needle
  • Clean the dust-out

Check out my video where I find a whole family of dust bunnies in my machine!

  • Give it a proper oiling
  • If you are not sure how to do these things, check the manual
  • Do you have the manual?
  • If not you may want to try and Google your make and model and find it!
  • You will look for how to troubleshoot any problems with tension and threading here

Step 2: Get out your Free Motion Foot

You MUST have a sewing foot that can do this!

Every sewing machine is slightly different. It is often called the free motion quilting foot, embroidery foot or darning foot. You need to be able to do this on your machine.

4 different kinds of free motion feet for a sewing machine

  • Many of today’s machines have the foot included in the box of feet.
  • You may have to purchase a universal free-form embroidery/quilting/darning foot depending on your make and model of machine.
  • Check with your local dealer if you are not sure if you have the right foot, you can even take your feet in to check! Have the make and model number of your machine so they can help you properly.
  • You may have luck researching and ordering online as well.

Step 3: Drop your feed dogs

feed dogs and sewing foot on a sewing machineFeed dogs grab your fabric – ideal when straight stitching and quilting, terrible when thread painting. You have to be able to disable the feed dogs somehow. Again it is machine specific.

  • Check your manual!
  • Sometimes you can use paper (tape it down) over them so they don’t catch the threads.

Step 4: Use Stabilizers – Interfacing – Pellon

tear away stabilizerMost projects that include thread painting will require some form of stabilizing to prevent puckering of the fabric when you layer the stitching. Again, lots of options here. You will usually need some kind of stabilizer depending on how dense your stitching is and how big your piece is. Generally speaking, you need something when working with lightweight cotton as the tension on the thread work will cause puckering without it. If you are using heavier weight fabrics, you may not need it depending on the stretch and “give” of the fabric. Experiment with what meets your needs for your projects on a small sample first.


These will be applied to the wrong side of the fabric background. This is usually the best option for most thread painting as it will not shift once in place and give stiffness to the surface you are working on.

  • If using a fusible and a pieced background, be sure you have pressed any seams in the right direction, this cannot be altered once you fused the interfacing and have sewn on them.
  • Choose a stiffness that suits the project. If it is a small embroidery, you may be able to use a lightweight stabilizer. I generally use very heavy weight


These are sometimes good options for embroidery as they tend to be the stiffest products. Often I am doing so much dense stitching that I never tear away much and it becomes part of the finished product. As I usually make wall art, this is not an issue.

  • If you are making something that requires washing (a garment for example) you may want to stay away from the tear away kind.


Be careful of a bias. Some stabilizers are woven and have a bias (stretch) to them. You can use these, just be cautious. Sometimes I will use 2 layers and lay them in opposite directions to reduce the stretch.

  • These come as fusible and non- fusible, once you have started your stitching they are fairly well secured so you may not need to go the extra mile with fusible.
  • I would usually use a hoop with these stabilizers.

Step 5: You Need A Hoop!

Generally, a hoop will be required when you are doing any embroidery.

small embroidery in a hoop

  • The type of hoop you use is a personal decision. Again, there are lots of options. I use a 6” spring loaded steel hoop as my favourite.
  • There are inexpensive wooden hoops with a screw, these can work in a pinch, but tend not to be very durable for this type of work.
  • Friction fit, spring hoops and French spring hoops are a good option.
  • Smaller hoops can be used for smaller projects, but you want to have enough room outside of the embroidery to move the fabric and access the edge of the embroidery.
  • For larger works, you have to move the hoop, so a larger hoop allows for more working space without moving as much.
  • Place the stabilizer and fabric over the outside hoop and place the interior hoop on top of the fabric. The fabric should be taught like a drum.

different types and sizes of Free motion embroidery hoops

What’s Next?

All you need is the desire and interest to try it out. Play around with stitching directions and textures to get comfortable moving the fabric and you are all set to try your first thread painting!

Head to my YouTube channel to see demos of techniques and tips for setting up your machine.

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Do you still want to learn more? You can take a class with me! I have in-person classes and online classes coming soon.


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