Spring 2024: Google ended its email subscription service in 2021. I believe I've found a replacement, but haven't had time to test it. I have been stitching a little bit here and there and have some posts ready for when the email subscription is active again. Fingers crossed, I'll have time to rouse this blog out of its dormancy sometime this year.

19 June 2020

Thread Painting Basics: Leaves and Stems

Right before the virus lockdown, I had started making plans to teach a beginning thread painting piece to a stitching friend. She had picked out a project from Trish Burr's book, Needle Painting Embroidery: Fresh Ideas for Beginners, and we were in the process of sourcing some ground fabric. Then the lockdown hit and we were unable to get together in person.

Recently, she has decided to start working on the project and I have provided some feedback via email. I thought that there might be others interested in following along, so here we go.     

The project is Red Alpine Rose.

Beginning a Trish Burr needlepainting project: Red Alpine Rose

The little rose is a good introductory thread painting project as it is small and not very time-consuming. I will focus on basic techniques such as stitch direction and blending and will share how I approach shading. I'm primarily a self-taught thread painter although I have taken classes that have included shaded elements. Over the last 15-20 years, I have adapted how I approach shading when I have either discovered new things for myself, or was exposed to better ways of doing shading. I don't always agree with other approaches, but that doesn't make them wrong. However, I'm a fairly logical individual and all of the methods I use make sense to me, logically.

Thread painting is different than decorative stitching. In decorative stitching you want consistent beautifully-executed stitches. The look of the stitches themselves is crucial to the design.  In thread painting, the stitching should be nearly invisible. What's important is the object that is being rendered in thread which is the rose in this case. You should be able to look at the finished piece and see a rose first and the embroidery second.

The rose is embroidered with single strands of cotton floss. I don't worry about thread grain as it doesn't exist. I will be using a Bohin #10 crewel/embroidery needle. Also, since this is surface embroidery, all design lines will be covered and should not be visible once the project is complete.

The fabric is a linen cotton blend that I use for experimental or play projects. Thread painting shouldn't be worked in hand as it is imperative that the ground fabric be maintained drum taut at all times. There should be no play in the mounted fabric. When you press on and remove your finger from the mounted fabric, the fabric should spring back. There should be no impression left in the fabric. Also, if you flick the mounted fabric with your finger it should sound like a drum.

As this is such a small project I'll being using a small wooden hoop (Hardwicke Manor/Klass & Gessmann) with a screw closure. Use a screwdriver to ensure the fabric is very well mounted in the hoop. If your hoop screw doesn't have a slot for a screwdriver, buy a better quality hoop. Fabric tautness is a key ingredient to a quality outcome, especially in thread painting.

The progress photos are larger than usual (when clicked on) so you can hopefully see useful detail.

Back to Front
To begin, look at the design and determine which elements are behind other elements (i.e., look for overlaps). In thread painting you work from background to foreground. With the rose that means stems and leaves first.


The stems are stitched with adjacent rows of split stitch. You can use regular split stitch or split back stitch. I usually use regular split stitch when I'm stitching in a straight line as with these stems. I tend to crowd my rows together somewhat. I don't try to lay them neatly side by side. I don't want the stems to be too wide or to spread out in any way.

The split stitches should be randomly placed so that the start and end points don't line up across the rows. I don't worry about making all the stitches the same length, I prefer some randomness, but don't go crazy. Stitch length should be shortened if going around a tight curve which is not an issue with the stems. I also try to work from light to dark, if possible.

The main stem is three rows and the side stem is two rows. I may add a shadow to the side stem later.

Split stitched stems on a beginner needlepainting project

Outlining the Elements
Elements don't have to be outlined, but there are definite advantages to outlining. It helps you create a neater edge, and if your stitches aren't precisely next to each other along the edge as they should be, the outline can help fill in the gaps, but only just a little bit. You really should lay your stitches right next to each other. Outlining also raises the edge ever so slightly which creates a nice finished look. I almost always outline elements before shading. Only in rare cases do I not outline first.

Important: Outline elements (e.g., leaves) one at a time as you stitch them.

Do not outline all the elements first and then fill with embroidery. If you outline everything you will make your life more difficult. Outlines on subsequent elements may need to abut or even slightly overlap already stitched elements. Also, if you pre-stitch all the outlines, they can get in the way as you stitch your current element. It's simpler to stitch each outline as you work the element. You'll have neater results and less hassle.

Use a split stitch or split back stitch to outline. Split stitch is a flat, narrow stitch and has no bumps like back stitch. Split back stitch is especially useful when going around curves because you put the needle down through the stitch from the top, so it's easy to position your needle.

Outline the element, but only the parts that belong to the element. Don't outline overlapping elements. When I traced the rose design, I was able to choose how the leaves and petals would overlap each other. Below, you can see that on my tracing the upper leaf is behind the lower leaf and I have stopped my split stitch outline accordingly.

Leaf outlined in split stitch

Shading the Upper Leaf
Now it's time to start shading with the dreaded long and short stitch. Don't get hung up on the long and short part. It's not that big of a deal. You're really just laying in colour like sketching with a coloured pencil. When you're starting out, the important things to remember about long and short are stitch direction and making sure you put in enough colour so that subsequent rows have something to blend into.

In the image above notice that I have drawn a line running sort of horizontally. That's the blending line. The two colours that make up that side of the leaf will roughly blend along that line.

The diagonal lines are for stitch direction. Stitch direction is critical in thread painting. If your direction is off, the object being stitched won't look right and the stitching will definitely be noticeable which is not what you want! Pay close attention to stitch direction when thread painting.

Below, I have put in the first few stitches for the first row of colour over the diagonal stitch direction lines. I think it's OK for beginners to put in these guideline stitches, but consider them to be training wheels. You don't want or need to do this as you gain more experience with the technique. Ultimately, you want a nice smooth line of stitches along the edge of the leaf and the guideline stitches can cause crowding. If you don't absolutely need the guideline stitches, don't use them. Simply drawing the direction lines should be sufficient when you have more experience.

Directional lines for needlepainting

Let's fill in the colour on the first row.

Important: When stitching the first row, come up on the inside of the element and go down over the split stitched edge.

When I started doing shading, I used to come up on the outside and go down on the inside (no thanks to the commercial kit diagrams from which I initially 'learned' shading!), but coming up on the inside and going down on the outside is much, much better. You have control over where your needle goes down over the split stitched edge which creates cleaner neater edges. It's easier, too, because you can see where the needle is going down on the edge.

Also, traditionally, you work from the middle of the element towards the outer edges. In real life, I don't do that on leaves. I start at the tip and work towards the stem. (For demonstration purposes, I will stitch the first side of the first leaf from the middle outwards.) The reason for starting in the middle is that it helps maintain the proper direction. Generally, it is a logical thing to do and when we get to the petals I will always start in the middle of a given petal and work to either side.

In the next two photos I'm coming up inside the leaf and going down just over the split stitched edge. Remember that the design line must be covered when you are finished so ensure that when you go down over the split stitched edge you cover the design line. The resulting embroidery is kind of like a ragged edged satin stitch. Make sure the stitches lay right next to each other without gaps along the split stitched edge. You want as neat of an outside edge as possible, but that can require practice. (Magnification can be helpful with creating clean edges.)

I tend to the use the blending line as the approximate length of my shorter stitches. (Usually, I make my shorter stitches a little longer than the blending line; in the photo below, I'm making a short stitch.) I do tend to make a long stitch and then a shorter stitch, but not always. Mostly, I want for there to be lots of colour on the fabric when I'm done!

Beginning the first row of a needlepainted leaf

Stitching the first row of a needlepainted leaf by stitching from the inside of the leaf over the split stitched edge

Here's half of the outer row filled. Notice how far the colour extends into the second row. This will give me lots of options for blending in the next row because there's so much colour already on the leaf. If I had been stingy with the colour in the first row, it would be difficult to blend into the next row.

Half of the first row of the first half of the first needlepainted leaf embroidered

Below, the first row is complete and I'm starting the second and, in this case, the final row. I'll begin at the tip and work towards the stem. Notice that because I'm still working with the outside edge of the leaf I come up inside the leaf and go down over the split stitched edge (at the tip).

Beginning the second row of colour on a needlepainted leaf

After finishing the few stitches at the top of the leaf along the split stitched edge you can begin to blend with the first row of colour.

Important: With all rows except the first row, come up in the previous row and go down into the element.

Do not come up on the inside and go down into already existing stitches. It pushes the stitching down, makes holes, and looks bad. Just don't do it. (I might have to send the mythical embroidery police after you!)

Below the needle is coming up in the first row and starting to blend the colours. Don't worry about splitting the stitches in the first row. If your threads are sufficiently close together you can treat the first row as merely colour and pick the spots where you want to bring in the next colour. Splitting will occur naturally.

Beginning to blend into the first row of colour on a needlepainted leaf

Fill with the second colour all the way down the leaf. Come up in the first row by staggering your starting points and also go deeply into the first row. Part of the beginning of the stitch will be swallowed up by the threads of the outer row, so go deeper than you think you should! The rhythm of the stitching is something like: go deep, go shorter, deep, shorter. You can vary this, but on a small element like this leaf, keep it simple. All stitches in the case of the leaf will end along the central vein, but they don't have to be perfect because the vein will be stitched over later.

Ensure there's some distance between the starting points of the longer stitches and the shorter stitches, and also in between the longer stitches. The two colours being blended should feather into each other otherwise, the colours will appear to clump. The distance between the stitches makes for a better blend. However, there can't be too much of a gap, either. This may require practice, but it's not difficult.

Below, the upper half of the leaf is nearly finished. When the first row ran out and the second row again was along the outer edge, I returned to stitching from inside the leaf to outside. At the bottom of the leaf the stitches started getting a little too long, so I kept them at an manageable length which caused the gap near the bottom of the leaf. I went back and blended in a very short row of the same green to fill in the gap.

First half of needlepainted leaf is nearly complete with two rows of colour

When it comes to stitch length I prefer the longest length I can get away with, but it's generally no more than 1/2" or 1 cm. Sometimes, it's longer. The reason I like longer is that if stitches are too small you can lose the effect of the shading. Lots of short stitches looks choppy. Light reflects better off of longer stitches. That being said, if the stitches are too long they will go floppy when you remove tension from the fabric. Experiment and see what works for you.

Here's the finished first half of the leaf:

Upper half of needlepainted leaf is complete with two colours

Moving on to the second half of the leaf, I'm going to make a small change to the original design.

The rose project calls for five shades of green:

Greens for use on needlepainted leaves

I think of them as shades 1-5, with 1 being the lightest. The first half of the leaf was stitched with shades 1 and 2. The other half of the leaf is supposed to be stitched in a single colour with shade 4.

I've decided to use two colours of green instead. I'm using shade 3 on the outside of the leaf with the original shade 4 in the second row. It is stitched just like the first half of the leaf.

This is the first row (shade 3):

Stitching the first row of the second half of the needlepainted leaf

Here, on the second row, is a deep stitch of shade 4 being worked into shade 3. Don't be afraid to go almost to the edge. Also, experiment with different depths.

Blending the second colour into the first row of the needlepainted leaf

I've finished blending into the first row and am changing my stitching order to go from the inside of the leaf and over the outer edge.

Finishing off a needlepainted leaf

Both sides complete:

Completed upper needlepainted leaf

For extra credit, add a little bit of shade 3 to the upper half of the leaf. It provides some depth by creating a bit of shadow. It also ties the upper half colourwise to the lower half.

A little bit of shadow added to the upper half of the needlepainted leaf

Lower Leaf
The lower leaf is stitched in the same way as the upper leaf. It is first outlined with split stitch. Notice that since this leaf has nothing overlapping it, it is completely outlined.

Lower needlepainted leaf outlined in split stitch

Here the leaf is nearly complete:

Lower needlepainted leaf nearly filled with embroidery


Lower needlepainted leaf completely filled with shaded embroidery

As with the upper leaf, I later added some shadowing on the left side with shade 3.

The original design calls for green shade 5 (very dark) for the central vein on both leaves. I chose to do something different. (In fact, I won't be using shade 5 anywhere on the project.)

On the lower leaf I embroidered adjacent rows of split stitch using shades 1, 2, and 3 which is very similar to the small stem that goes towards the leaves. I found this colour combination a bit too bright, but acceptable.

On the upper leaf I decided to tone the vein down by using shades 2, 3, and 4. I like this vein better, but am going to leave the first one in place. The veins don't look very different and it's fun to compare them.

View of veins added to needlepainted leavesAnother view of veins added to needlepainted leaves

Three rows of split stitching seems a little heavy for these small leaves. Two rows might be sufficient, but the darkest row somewhat disappears. Perhaps, I'm being overly picky.

After adding shade 3 to the small leaf stem for a little more depth, the leaves and stems are done.

In the next lesson, we'll work on the bud and discuss more about shadows. (Please visit the Gallery to view the other lessons for this project.)

Gratuitous kitten picture (this is 3 month old Meili's first embroidery project):

Siamese kitten helps with embroidery project



  1. Thank-you for this wonderful tutorial! I am trying to teach myself thread painting for botanical subjects and have just purchased Trish Burr's book and watched her video tutorial on YouTube and am practicing the techniques on a recently resurrected EGA correspondence course project long abandoned. I love seeing what you do differently and what you do the same.

    I am also a left-handed mostly off-the-grid needleworker. While traditional cross stitch and/or needlepoint depicting images have no appeal for me whatsoever, occasionally I will attempt a geometric or non-objective gridded project with stitch variations (e.g. hardanger or needlepoint) just for a change, but generally sharp needle surface work is what calls to me and always has, particularly for depicting images.

    1. Thank you! I hope it's useful. Feedback and questions are welcome.

  2. Thank you so much for this great, detailed tutorial! I bought Trish Burr's book last year on Mary's recommendation, and this is one of the projects I was most interested in trying. I'm going to have another look, and maybe I can stitch along with you. Thread painting is a technique I've always wanted to learn but most of the instructions are very contradictory and the neat "long and short stitch" diagrams don't actually give the painterly effect which very is confusing. I will be following along with interest! Please give Meili an ear scratch for me, her blue eyes are gorgeous and she looks so sweet :)

    1. I love the beginner book. It contains so many little gems. Please feel free to ask questions. I'm happy to help.

      I will definitely give Missy Mei a little extra ear scratch. She'll appreciate it, she doesn't get enough attention! :-)

  3. This is a beautiful little project and so helpful for refining my thread painting skills! I really appreciate every step which you have detailed in your instructions. Thank you for taking the time to do that! I am inspired to use your techniques to improve my embroidery.

    1. Thank you for the nice comment. I wish I could have detailed the actual blending better, but that's hard with static photos! It's better with video or, preferably, in person. Please let me know if you need any help or have any questions.

  4. Hello! I also just bought Trish Burr, ' Needle Painting at Joanne's. I'm excited to give it a go. Thank you very much for your in-depth teaching. I'll bookmark this, and keep an eye out for more! Thank you dearly. Lisa

    1. Oh, I hope you enjoy the book as much as I do! It's wonderful. Hopefully, I'll be able to post the next 'lesson' soon. Please let me know if you have any questions or need clarification.

  5. This is a great tutorial! I just wandered over from Mary Corbett's site where she mentioned it... I don't have this particular Trish Burr needle painting book, but I think when the current cross stitch project is done, I may need to pull out the one I do have and check it out again.

  6. Thank you so much for doing this! Looking forward to more!