Embroidery Artists Are Using a Needle and Thread to “Paint” Gorgeous Stitched Art

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Hand embroidery has many techniques for stitching designs onto fabric. Just like approaches you’d find in drawing, there are a variety of ways to create images in thread that range from stylized to lifelike. For those that want to incorporate realistic imagery or the feeling of movement into their stitching, thread painting is the technique to use.

What is Thread Painting?

Thread painting, also called needle painting, is an approach that uses a combination of long and short stitches and a variety of colors to produce embroidery that has the same qualities of a painting.

The technique originated with 17th-century crewel embroidery, but the premise today is the same; each stitch is like a brush stroke, and with the help of multiple hues of floss, the images can look like a photorealistic work of art or have an Impressionistic feel. It all depends on the type of fabric, size of needle, and thickness of thread that you use.

Basic Thread Painting Tools

Before you begin needle painting, it’s important to start with the right tools. Because the approach is very stitch intensive, it’s best to find a medium-weight fabric (like linen or cotton) that will remain firm as you sew. Another way to keep the fabric taut is to use an embroidery hoop or frame—otherwise, your stitches will sag.

For needles, it’s recommended to use a size 8, 9, or 10 depending on the number of strands you’ll use to sew. The smaller the needle size, the fewer strands you’ll want to thread through it—between one and three are recommended for thread painting. The number of strands you use also depends on the width of stitch you want to produce. For thicker lines, use three strands. For fine lines, use one. Some embroiderers also employ multiple needles simultaneously in order to stitch faster—especially with several colors of thread.

Traditional crewel embroidery features wool thread. Although it is still used today, DMC floss is much more common. The six-ply cotton comes in over 450 colors and is perfect for selecting a palette; you can easily pick four or five similar colors that range from light to dark.

Inspiration for Your Own Thread Painting

Traditional thread painting uses short and long stitches (placed side by side) in order to gradually build color and form. It’s recommended that the long stitches be about half an inch while the shorter ones measure a quarter inch. Make sure that you stick to varying the two lengths in order to ensure that your colors blend beautifully.

Of course, contemporary embroiderers don’t always play by the rules. Check out how different artists have used needle painting in their work in a variety of ways.

Emillie Ferris


Vera Shimunia

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Lisa Smirnova


Ell Violet

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Kate Hughes


Becky Mackay

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Desert Eclipse Studio


Josefina Jimenez

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Danielle Clough


Wildwood Needle & Craft


Esin Altay

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15+ Hand Embroidery Patterns Ready to Download and Start Sewing

Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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