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.

22 July 2020

Thread Painting Basics: Flower Petals

In the final installment of the Red Alpine Rose designed by Trish Burr, we'll work on the flower, especially the petals. There will be lots of blending practice and I'll show you a slightly different way of approaching shading.

The flower petals are composed of four reds. I think of them as shades 1 through 4 with 1 being the lightest.

Four shades of red thread that will be used to stitch the petals on a needle painted rose

Before jumping into stitching the petals, I want to mention the colour selection for this project. It's deceptively simple and beautifully elegant. Trish Burr is an absolute master at choosing thread colours. She makes it look easy, but it's not. I see many examples of shading that are lacking because of poor colour selection. There are abrupt jumps in colour and the shades don't blend very well. You can have great technique, but if the colours don't work, it doesn't matter. We should all appreciate Trish's exquisite colour sense and her ability to do amazing things within the limitations of thread palettes!

Background Petals
Technically, all of the petals are stitched in the same way. The lightest red (1) is on the outer edge and there's an orderly progress through the shades (2 through 4) towards the flower centre.

When I look at the reds, I see three shades and a shadow. The darkest red could become quite heavy if there's too much of it on the petal. So, I will treat the petals as if they are really composed of (mostly) three shades and then add in a little bit of shadow at the end.

One of my rules for blending is that I don't let non-sequential shades touch each other when I want a smooth blend. So, for example, with the petal reds there are four shades starting with 1 at the edge of the petal and progressing through 2, 3, and 4 towards the centre. I would not let shades 1 and 3 touch each other, 2 would always come in between. This produces smooth well-ordered blending (as long as you have well-chosen colours).

To start, choose a petal that is in the background. I have three petals that are behind and two that are in front or overlapping the background petals in some way. Depending upon how you traced the petals you could have a different layout.

I've drawn three blending lines on the petal for the three main reds and the petal will be almost completely filled with those three shades. The shadow colour will be added at the end.

Outline the petal's edges with split stitch, but only the edges that belong to the petal. Then, start in the middle of petal and work to either side with long and short stitches just like the leaves. Remember, it's really just a raggedy-edged satin stitch.

Below, I've embroidered the first half of the petal and will go back to the middle and stitch the other half. Recall that on the first row, you come up inside the petal and go down over the outside split stitched edge ensuring that the design line is covered. Make sure to place the stitches right next to each other and keep the petal edge as neat as possible.

Beginning the first row on the needlepainted petal

For subsequent rows you can, again, start in the middle and work to either side blending in the colours. That's the proper way to shade. If you're a beginner, you should definitely try this method. However, I'm going to show you how I shade which is a little bit different.

When I blend into subsequent rows, I first scatter a few longish stitches into the previous row. The starting points are staggered. (As usual, I come up in the previous row and go down into the unstitched area of the petal.) The photo below has been enhanced to try to show the scattered stitches. These foundational stitches are used to establish the deep stitches. It helps me not get hung up on long and short or get into too much of a rhythm with the embroidery. I want randomness not automation. It also makes me look at what I'm doing and pay attention to where the colours should go. Once these long stitches are in place I go back and fill in with more stitches in between. I think of this as sketching with thread. Because I jump around with the stitches the back is not necessarily very neat, but the front is what matters!

Starting the second row on a needlepainted rose petal.

Below, the second row is complete. Notice that the shape is almost entirely filled with the first two shades. There's lots of colour to blend into for the next row!

Second row on needlepainted rose petal completed.

Here's the third shade. I also used my 'sketching' method when adding this row. I've left a little bit of space along the edge of the flower centre for the shadow stitches.

Third row on needlepainted rose petal completed.

Finally, the shadow is added. I try to make sure that there is some shadow colour along the edges where the other petals will eventually overlap. This helps create the illusion that the petals on top are making a shadow on the petal(s) underneath. Don't overdo the shadow. It can get muddy very quickly.

Completed first petal of needlepainted rose

The other two background petals are worked in the same way as the first. Next, it's on to the foreground petals.


Before filling the foreground petals, let's discuss a little bit about contrast.

Here is an example of poor contrast. It's from a Trish Burr design (Pansies) that I did quite a while ago before I really started paying attention to contrast. The lower petal on this pansy is not well executed. There's no contrast between it and the side petals. They merge into each other in a dark mass of colour. If I was stitching this today I would ensure that the lighter colours of the lower petal were placed along the edges towards the center so you could see the petal edges in comparison to the side petals beneath. The side petals could be improved as well, but at least you can see the (upper) petal edges. It's low contrast, but there is some contrast.

Example of low contrast embroidery on needlepainted pansy.

This is an example of better contrast. It is another Trish Burr design (Victorian Pansies) where I focused on contrast. You can clearly see all the petal outlines created by the use of shadows on background petals and lighter colours on foreground edges. (It almost looks like some of the petals are outlined, but there are no dark outlines embroidered on any of the petals. I don't care for stitched outlines.)

Example of higher contrast on needlepainted pansy.

If you are a beginner, don't overly concern yourself about contrast for now. You have to get the stitch direction and blending working first. Worry about contrast later.

A Lesson in Outlining One Element at a Time
Below, I'm in the process of outlining the first foreground petal. This is a good example of why you don't outline all elements first and then fill. Notice where I've temporarily stopped outlining. If I had outlined this petal before working the petal beneath--where I've stopped the outline--it would have been difficult to stitch the background petal without biting into the upper petal's outline. Also, the background petal isn't perfectly filled, but I can use the outline to cover that up. It's much easier to do outlines as you go, rather than all at once at the beginning.

Split stitching the outline of a needlepainted rose petal.

Once the outline is complete you can't tell that the petal underneath has a bit of a ragged edge. You'll get a neater finish when you have a clean outline on top. I also didn't have to try to stitch underneath this outline when filling the background petal which is easier. So, you'll get better results and it's easier if you outline elements as you go. That's a win-win!

Completed split stitched outline on needlepainted upper petal.

Filling the Foreground Petals
The foreground petals are filled with the same four shades of red as the background petals. You can work them the same way as the background petals. However, for extra credit, and if you are comfortable with tackling contrast, stitch lighter edges where the petals overlap the petals underneath.

Here shade 1 has been stitched all the way around the petal. I don't know that I will keep this much of shade 1 showing, but I have the option to do so.

Filling the first row of a needlepainted foreground rose petal.

Shade 2 is added:

Second row of a needlepainted foreground rose petal completed.

Shades 3 and 4 complete the petal. I ended up not showing very much of shade 1 around the edges. There was too much contrast with the neighbouring petals. There's not a lot of contrast on the left side of the petal, but more than the photo indicates! The lower left petal, which is also a foreground petal, has better contrast on the petal edges.

Completed foreground petal on needlepainted rose.

With the petals complete the rose is nearly finished.

Intermission (aka Gratuitous Kitten Picture Time)

You never want to look down and see this when you are stitching:

Two Siamese kittens preparing to attack a scissors fob.

They are way too interested in something, a scissors fob in this case. Those looks means trouble.

I like them better this way. It's much safer for my embroidery!

Two sleeping Siamese kittens.

Flower Centre

The flower centre consists of two shades of golden brown:

Two colours of thread that will be used for the needlepainted rose's centre.

In the original instructions, the lighter golden brown is straight stitched around the center and the darker shade is used for French knots in the centre and around the edges of the straight stitches. I'm going to do something a bit different by embroidering the straight stitches around the centre with one strand of each colour in the needle. I want to see if it will add a little depth.

Beginning to the stitch the centre of the needlepainted rose.

Completed straight stitch portion of centre of needlepainted rose.

For the French knots, I used two strands and two wraps. The original instructions called for a single strand and two wraps, so my knots are bigger. 

There are three possible combinations with two strands and two colours: all light, mixed, all dark. I used all light for a few knots in the centre. I mostly used mixed for the knots in the middle and around the edges. I also used some all dark in the centre and around the edge. I like the results and it looks richer than if I'd only used single shades, but there's not a lot of contrast and the knots in the middle get a little lost. If I had it to do over, I'd probably use mostly all dark knots in the centre with a few mixed knots. I don't think I'd change the outer knots.

Completed centre of needlepainted rose with French knots.

The little rose is complete:

Completed needlepainted rose

This is a good introductory thread painting design and there are many more in Trish's book. I hope you have a better feel for shading and that I've been able to remove some of the mystery from the technique. It really isn't difficult, but does require practice.

(Please visit the Gallery to view the other lessons for this project.)


  1. I had intermissions just like you have. I preferred to call them 'Interuptions'.
    Oliver could have lived on Appleton Crewel Yarn, especially green. If I did not
    pay attention, big messes interupted the process. I had to change to needlepainting. I do enjoy what you post. Thank you.

    1. Yes, it's a challenge stitching with kittens, but they won't be kittens forever and I'm trying to enjoy every possible moment with them while they're little. They're my last kittens. :-( Considering what trouble they could cause, they're being pretty good.

  2. I really appreciate these three lessons of the Red Alpine Rose, which I stumbled upon after a mention in a post on Mary Corbet's site. I recently purchased one of Trish Burr's books and have still been a little too intimidated to start a project. These lessons have really broken needlepainting into logical steps for me, and I feel it's much more accessible than I'd first thought. One of the things that really opened my eyes is how "deep" the rows go into (maybe "under" is more accurate) the subsequent/later rows. Suddenly it all makes sense. Thank you so much for breaking it down.

    1. Oh, I'm so glad you're finding the information useful! I try to share things I wish I'd known when I was learning embroidery.

      Don't be intimidated, it's only embroidery. What's the worst thing that could happen? If you don't try, you'll never know if needlepainting is for you. I would say, though, that it's probably better to start with something simple and work towards the more complex designs. Needlepainting does require practice, so if it doesn't like exactly the way you think it should at first, keep working at it. It'll get better. Let me know if I can help.

  3. This lesson is exactly what I needed to learn. Thank you so much for posting. My thread painting skills are much improved.

    1. I'm so glad it was useful to you. I was hoping I could help people with thread painting.