Thread Painting vs Thread Sketching….

After a discussion on a social media forum recently I thought it might be a good idea to talk about the differences between Thread Painting and what I call Thread Sketching on fabric or textile art.  While my opinion is just that and cannot be considered a rule, I think it’s important to differentiate between the two, as they have different approaches to construction of a textile piece or art quilt.

THREAD PAINTING –  usually involves densely stitching over a picture or image to “paint it”.  It often takes over the whole image and very little of the original image is left visible.  This is not always the case of course but in works by the likes of the thread painting artists listed below this is certainly the case. Thread Painting often is used heavily over the whole piece, or in a just a section of the quilt or textile piece, leaving other areas less densely stitched.


Thread Painting an entire image, “cherries” by Brenda Wood

The dense stitching nature of Thread painting can cause the fabric to warp so a good strong stabiliser under the fabric is recommended.  If your stabiliser is “stretchy”, (some are due to the manufacturing process) it is a good idea to lay 2 pieces one horizontal and one vertical to reduce the stretch in both the warp and weft.  Tearaway stabilisers are good, as are wash-away ones. I also recently learnt that some thread painted images are created separately, then stitched onto the background. For instance, using water soluble stabilisers.


Thread Painting an image, “pony tail plant” by Brenda Wood


Note the puckering of the fabric, this should have been stabilised more, or the background quilted to even the warping out.

Some artists incorporate the stretch of that thread painting creates into their art.  They use the added dimension as a feature.

If your piece in an art quilt, the stabiliser can be left in to add strength to the structure of the quilt.  Often it can aid in the look of the quilt when it is hanging, making it appear more solid, less flimsy.

After the thread painting is complete, then the backing and batting are added and the piece is quilted.  This would reduce the look of the piece’s back being a tangle of threads. Instead the top would be quilted around and perhaps the image and some of it’s featured quilted around, often this gives the piece more dimension, allowing portions of the piece to be above the wadding, rather than flattened against the wadding with all the stitching.

the thread sketching was done before the wadding and backing applied, then the image was stitched around to quilt it.  Reducing the thread on the back.

the thread sketching was done before the wadding and backing applied, then the image was stitched around to quilt it. Reducing the thread on the back.

The back of Cherries, showing minimal stitching on the back, due to it being thread painted, THEN quilted to the backing. (I have no idea why I used purple thread!)

The back of Cherries, showing minimal stitching on the back, due to it being thread painted, THEN quilted to the backing. (I have no idea why I used purple thread!)

THREAD SKETCHING – Usually involves a less dense application of thread onto the image.  It often is spread evenly over an area, if not the whole quilt and puckering is less of an issue.  With thread sketching much of the underlying image or picture is left visible and the stitching enhances the image or pattern, or as in the works below, the stitching creates the picture, but still does not paint it.

Thread sketching straight onto a quilted piece.

Thread sketching straight onto a quilted piece.

IMG_1111  IMG_1095

Thread sketching can often be done without stabilizers and depending on the amount of stitching to be applied can be done straight onto the quilt sandwich with batting and backing in place.  Where the sketching finishes, the quilting can fill in the open areas.


This is the rear of the Purple Sunset Thread sketched piece. It was stitched and quilted at the same time.


Purple Sunset by Brenda Wood

“Abstract Passion” by Brenda Wood.
Thread sketched to add dimension to leatherlook background.


The back of Abstract Passion showing minimal stitching from around the outer edge.


Abstract Passion was stitched before being attached to the batting and backing. It is paints and Shiva sticks on brown paper, which give a leather look. It was finally attached to the backing by selective stitching lines which allowed it to puff, and have dimension. Be careful when stitching into painted surfaces. They are unforgiving and stitch holes do not repair if you unpick.


trying to show the dimension, the centre (yellow) puffs out from the background

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that:

Thread Painting – Paints the image, filling in colour and structure, texture and leaves little of the image behind, it is what it says it is “thread painting”, “painting with thread”.

Thread Sketching – Enhances the image or design, adding details and structure, outlining and enhancing, leaving much of the image behind visible. The actual painting is made from the paint or fabrics underneath the stitch.

and it’s also been referred to as machine stitching, but I’m not going there! 🙂


Thread Painting Artists you might like to check out:

Alison Holt  Alison Holt refers to her work as Creative Machine Embroidery rather than Thread Painting…

Pam Holland Pam does wonderful Thread Painting as well as thread sketching.

Thread Sketching Artists you might like to check out:

Lorraine Roy An extraordinary artist who creates wonderful natural art quilts.

Sue Duffy An all round artist and traditional quilter.

Lois Parish Evans Thread painter and art quilt artist

12 thoughts on “Thread Painting vs Thread Sketching….

  1. Hi Brenda – that is my take on it too – although of course there will be grey areas – eg where someone is contour drawing/sketching and is doing some shading. In that instance, there will be more build-up of thread/stitching than in usual sketching. Check out Lois Parish Evans for amazing thread painting/free embroidery work – it is beautiful! and scroll to the bottom.
    BTW that sunset piece is gorgeous.


    • Ha ha! It came about because someone in an art quilt group said they were thread painting a painted quilt for another artist and how did they go about it! I think they may be thread sketching it rather than thread sketching it! There was much to and fro discussion on it! Lol
      And no! You are the stitch maestro!


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