While the current name for this style of embroidery is thread painting or needlepainting, it has been know by other names over time and cultures: silk shading or soft shading (Western culture), long and short shading (East Asia), and shaded satin stitch (China where the stitches are not worked back into the previous rows.) This particular stitching style will vary among the techniques as well as among the stitchers allowing for personal creativity.
Needlepainting is done on a firm, medium weight woven fabric. Cottons and linens are excellent choices. If you find a particularly lovely piece of fabric but it is too light, you can use a piece of muslin or lightweight cotton fabric as a backing. Prepare your fabric by washing it in hot water to remove the sizing and shrink it, then use a steam iron to get any creases out before starting. Finish the edges either by machine or with masking tape.
You must have a hoop or frame or your stitches are not going to lie correctly. Hoops are a good choice for small projects. One drawback is that you often need both hands when doing some stitches. A solution would be a sit-on frame. It is recommended to remove your stitching from a hoop each time you finish stitching so you don’t get a permanent crease.
Stretcher bars or scroll frames are a wonderful option. Stretcher bars are purchased in pairs so you can get the correct size for your project. Don’t skimp on the number of tacks you use to secure your fabric. You want it taut, and the more tacks, the better hold you will get. One extra feature to using stretcher bars is that you can wash your finished piece while still on the stretcher bars and it will already be blocked for you.
It is important to have the correct needles. Be sure your needles are straight and have no burrs. The size of your needle depends on the number of strands of floss you are using. Crewel needles have a large slender eye. They are sharp with a thin shaft. Generally you want to use a size 10 for one strand of thread, size 9 for two strands of thread, and size 8 for three strands of thread. Milliner needles are also helpful for doing knotted stitches because their eye is the same width as the shaft so your needle slides through the knotted thread easier.
A thimble can be handy. Wear it on the middle finger of your stitching hand to give an extra push to the needle so it is easier to grasp on the other side. A thimble should fit firmly with little slippage, but it should not feel tight or pinched. Clover has a flexible rubber thimble with a metal tip that is available in three sizes. Another tool you might want to invest in is a needle puller. As you fill your fabric up, there may be times when it is difficult to pull the needle through. Here are some options: Magnetic needle tugger , and Dritz needle puller discs.
One last item for your workbasket is a hard lead pencil. You may be tempted to use a water soluble marker, but that gives you a thick line. As you stitch, you will be marking the direction the thread should go and then stitching over the line, so the pencil won’t show. You can use a white or light colored pencil on dark fabrics.
Preparing Your Pattern
You will need to transfer your pattern to your fabric with a lead pencil using one of these techniques: a light box carbon or transfer paper, or a sunny window.
Once you get your main design on your fabric, go back and mark some directional lines. You may want horizontal and vertical lines radiating from the center points to help guide your stitching. For example, on a leaf you will want to mark the center vein and then the direction the leaf edges curve to maintain that shape as you stitch.
Picking Your Colors
Crewel used wool for the thread. For needlepainting you are going to use stranded floss which allows you the flexibility to add plies for thickness or shading. With over 450 colors to choose from, DMC floss gives you great flexibility in your "paint palette". DMC floss is a 6-ply cotton thread that has been mercerized to give it a high sheen. A great tool for deciding colors is the DMC Color Chart NOTE: DMC no longer makes the color chart with actual floss strands, so if you are lucky enough to have one of the old ones, hold on to it.
Whenever possible you want to find at least 4 colors to create your shaded effect from light to dark. DMC has done some of the work for you by creating some families. Here are three examples of threads combos picked right from the drawer in numerical order.
Aren’t these lovely? They provide enough shading yet the change from one color to the next isn’t startling.
Let’s Get to Stitching
There are basically three steps to stitching a leaf, petal, or design element:
Outline the design with the lightest color using a split stem stitch.
Work the first row using long and short stitches beginning in the middle and working towards each edge. The color you start with will depend on your flower type and the light source hitting your petal. With practice you will be able to adjust your stitch length to fill in the space while adding stitches to help fill in the spaces as you curve.
Trish Burr recommends that your long stitches should be about 3/8" and your short stitches 1/4". While you would think it works best to have a lot of shorter stitches, it will actually disrupt the blending of your colors.
The next row you will work all in long stitches using the next darkest shade of floss. You will stagger your stitches along your petal working from the center out. To make the colors blend, you want to go back into your stitched area about a third of the way. You want to split the stitches of the row before which also helps with the blending process. It also anchors your previous threads in place. Then go back and fill in the area, but vary your stitch placement so you don’t get a solid line. You will work from the stitched area of the petal into the unstitched area. This helps the thread blend nicely with the stitched threads. If you stitch the other direction you end up creating holes in the stitched area and it makes your thread changes more pronounced.
Continue with the next row and the next darker color. The stitches should be approximately the same length, but staggered ends. When you get to your last row, you should be using your darkest color. This row will have long and short stitches to fill in the space appropriately.
Before you consider the petal finished, hold it away from you to see if there are missing stitches or too solid of areas. If so, go back and work in a few stitches to fill in or break up the solid area.
Those are the basics to stitching your petal. There are a lot of subtle things you can do to make your stitching even more blended. A good resource is Long and Short Stitch Embroidery a Collection of Flowers by Trish Burr.
Here some other great resources:
Ready to try it?
Trish Burr has many free projects for you to try and she always provides excellent instructions. Let us know what you think about this technique. You can share your photographs with other stitchers at our Facebook Page.
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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