Friday, March 9, 2012

Tint Your Stitch!

Recently, I was asked about my use of pastel colored pencils (pastel chalks in pencil form) to change the color of some of the threads I've stitched.  In other words, I will add color to the stitched work to change it.  This is not a new idea, nor a particularly original idea on my part.  But in needlepoint, perhaps it is unconventional and unheard of for many stitchers.

We creators of needle art are so fortunate to have thousands of different threads at our disposal; thousands of colors, and hundreds of textures and thread types.  We have cottons, silks, linens, wools, synthetics, and metallics..even wires.  We have single plies, multi plies; smooth, crinkly, shiny, matt.  We have overdyed, and we have neon brights.  We have every hue and texture on the planet at our disposal.  So WHY, you ask, would I even want to add color to my stitches?

Because it is fun.  Because it is easy.  (I'm a lazy stitcher!)  Because it is artistic.  Because it expands the possibilities for creating the look I want, and better yet, for a look I don't even know is possible!

Just remember...when you are confined to a grid upon which to create your stitches, and use a manufactured thread, the look of your stitches is 'confined' as well.  Often, I have found this to be too restrictive for my artistic nature.  I want my work to have a more fluid quality to it, in that I want to control the look of the stitch.  The stitch does not control me!  (Wow!  I like how that sounds!  Makes me feel powerful, ya know?)  And it is very satisfying to bring the work to a level that stitching alone cannot do.

I'm still laughing many years later, about a comment I overheard someone make in my tradeshow booth.  Two women were viewing a model that I stitched with all white threads, and then painted the whole thing AFTER it was stitched.  One woman muttered under her breath to her friend, "Hasn't she ever heard of DMC?"  Well! She completely missed the point!  And I would double dare her to get the same effect with thread alone, and that is not dismissing how much I love DMC threads either!

Here is a portion of the piece being discussed.  

Bear in mind, this oak leaf was stitched with all white DMC floss, and generously wetted down and painted after being stitched.   Here are some simple directions:

Use watered down acrylic paints (available at any craft store), mixed with a little Textile Medium, an additive for paint, to keep the paint soft after it dries.  (Also available at the craft store).  Wet the entire canvas generously with a sponge, and then go to town with the paint and a brush.  Don't be timid!  The canvas is still mounted on stretcher bars for this...and it will remain on the stretcher bars for the entire time you are working on the project.  When you are painting, put a layer of paper towels underneath to absorb the water.  Paint, paint, paint!  Broad stokes.  Let the paint flow.  Tip the canvas different directions to let the paint 'run' in the background.

Next, lay the canvas outside to dry in the sun.  Another way is to lay it in the bathroom sink and go at it with a hair blow dryer.  You can also lay it on the floor (paper towels beneath) and dry with the hair dryer that way too.  When it is good and dry, you are ready to stitch some more.  In the above piece,
additional overdyed threads by Caron were added in the veins and background after it was dry.

So, my question to this woman now would be:  How would you have achieved the same subtle shading and color gradations without a break, in the long straight line of upright stitches?  And what about that really great bleeding of color in the background that resulted from this technique?  Sure, it could have been a painted canvas with those markings in the background, and sure, you could have used different stitches on the leaf to create shading, but that isn't the way I wanted to do it.  I wanted to create the leaf with a fusion of thread and paint, enjoying the creative joy of discovery resulting from the process.  And I will add, that when my students have stitched and painted this same leaf design,  no two have ever been alike, and every single one has been uniquely beautiful, bearing the individual 'hand' of the person who created it!  This sets it apart from other painted canvas projects, where students end up with the exact same results (if they follow the directions explicitly).

Ok...that is only one way to tint a thread!  Another less dramatic, but no less beautiful way to 'tint your stitch,' is illustrated to perfection by esteemed needlepoint canvas artist,  Melissa Shirley.  Melissa graciously shared a portion of her stitch guide instructions along with this photo of her Indian Maiden.  Her stitch tinting method involves using colored pastels (chalks).   Here is Melissa's stunning piece, and her description follows.


Using a short bristled, artist’s paint brush called a “bright” and a quality set of soft pastels, you can rub the brush on the pastel and apply shading colors directly onto the stitching. This technique was
 used on the following areas of the Indian Maid.   TIP-If you use this technique, practice on a separate piece of practice stitching. It’s best to start with less pigment and add more if needed.

Maid’s cheeks and fawn's ears-warm coral pink                                                   
Folds of the blouse and skirt - warm grey
Golden detail at the bottom of the skirt-rusty orange
Centers of the top corner flowers-rusty orange
Bushes-dark greens
Tree trunks-charcoal grey
Tree foliage-dark greens
Fawn chest-dark brown
Bird-rusty orange
Foreground-dark brown

I hope this entry inspires you to go outside your comfort zone of prescribed stitches and threads, to transform them in a way you have not considered before.    Be brave!  Remember...there are no mistakes in creativity...only discovery!


  1. Wonderful post, something I never dreamed of doing now seems a possibility.


  2. I love this idea! I have been playing with copic markers...leaf would be perfect playground for you have writen instructio somewhere?

    1. I just updated this blog entry with a little more info about the process. Copic markers are permanent, aren't they? Not sure they would 'bleed' or that they are water soluble, which is a character of the paint that makes this leaf interesting. Give it a try, and report back, ok? I'd love to know how it goes with different mediums.

  3. Barbara, this is fascinating! I remember seeing some of your pieces at a shop and wondering how you achieved that effect.

    Do you take the stitched piece and brush water on with a brush, then pencil on the pastels? Do you use a brush to soften and blend the colors? Oh, I'm getting excited. I may have to run out to the hobby store and buy some supplies! And, I need to look at your calendar to see if you're teaching this anywhere that I might be able to take a class.

    Thank you so much!

    1. Do not use water with pastels! Only use the pastels and a dry brush to apply the pigment.
      The painting of threads is another method all together. I added more info about that to the blog entry this morning. I love to teach this..ask your local guild to have me teach a class!

  4. So enlightening... so wonderful... so Barbara. Thank you so much for this blog and all of the creative things you do for our industry.

  5. The leaf piece is stunning. The technique instructions for your application and Melissa's seem very 'do-able'. Oh my, what am I saying? I'll bring my piece to you and watch you transform it! Thanks for expanding our horizons, again, Barbara.

  6. Thanks for all the nice comments! This is what makes blogging so much fun...knowing that people are actually reading what you write, and getting 'something' out of it!
    Missy, I think you would be surprised at how much you would enjoy this. I've had people tell me the painting technique was as joyful as being in first grade again! And using pastels, although not quite as 'free' a process, frees up your stitches to be just a bit better! could say your stitches went to art school! LOL!

  7. I need some subtle shading on a Christmas stocking. Is the pastel technique good for a piece that will be handled over the years?

  8. Hmmm....I would not recommend it for something that will be handled frequently, but if you did use chalk pastels on it, and the shading faded or rubbed off, you could always give it a 'touch up' as needed. Or just threaten the life of the kid who gets the stocking, to handle it gently....:-)
    The other idea that comes to mind, is to experiment with OIL pastels or oil stick crayons using a brush or sponge to apply the color. That medium would be more permanent it seems to me, but I have not tried it myself. Try this method on a practice piece first, to see how you like it, and let us know how it turns out.

  9. Hi Barbara :-)
    What a fantastic idea! I totally adress re the colour variegation achieved via the colour wash of pencils being unachievable with threads.
    A thought - how well would it work to colour tint a white linen this way and then work on it as per normal? I imagine the threads would pick up the pencil colour unless some kind of colour fixative was applied, which then might make the linen rather...sticky. It'd be really great if it worked, can you think of how?

  10. Elmsley Rose, are you talking about linen fabric or linen canvas? Either way, yes, the threads would pick up the color if you stitched through the pencil/pastel. Are you wanting to change the white linen to a color before stitching on it? I would say use dye in that case, or paint it with acrylic paint that has had a textile medium added to it. As far adding a fixative to the fabric that you've colored with colored pencils, maybe if you let it dry thoroughly, it would not be a problem. Try it and let us know!