Painting with Thread

Choice Not Chance

His shirt appeared to be pale green—until he sat down next to me on the plane. Then I realized that it was cream with a thin stripe of yellow-gold and another of blue. My eyes had mixed the hues and said green to my brain.

The magic of color strikes again.

In our embroidery world, thread is the paint we use to create our art. The palette of colors is limited only by our imagination and the creative research of the thread companies which are always hard at work to bring us new and exciting thread as well as varieties that create special effects. I applaud their efforts to offer us the dazzling and different, compensating for our inability to pour the hues off of the spools, mix them in a bucket, wind the result back on the spool and begin to stitch.

 What’s in Your Arsenal?

 We have to use every weapon at our disposal to create our embroidery because what we generally have—fixed form/proportion (a “don’t change it” logo) and fixed color (a spool of thread)—create the most challenging test in the world of color.  This is what we are up against when the logo is set in stone and we can’t mix our threads like the screen printer combines his inks.

Don’t overlook the simple solutions when seeking to create a dynamite design—stitch manipulation and wise thread choices. Think ahead of the challenge as well as outside the box.

How can we use the tools of the digitizing program to create texture? How can we juxtapose the shinier satin stitches and the matte fill stitches to produce a feeling of depth? What about stitch length? A longer stitch will create a shinier appearance in a fill stitch, a shorter one a flatter look. How manipulate stitch angle and density to create different color appearances due to the varying reflections of light? And, just as important, how can we select, combine and blend exciting threads to augment the digitizing decisions and make our designs stand out from the crowd? There are so many things we can do with thread, the end result looking like hours spent on the design. Fill a segment with blended thread for the look of a field of flowers, use a tweedy thread for the look of fabric, and, even simpler, use the colors of the threads combined together or with the fabric to mix colors in the eye and come up with the unexpected. Learn about warm and cool colors…use the warm to advance segments of the design the cool to make some recede. Do you know that when you use two warm colors, one takes the role of a cool color? That when you mix two cool colors, one becomes a warm?

 Educate Yourself

Sometimes it seems that the limitations imposed by the hues in corporate logos and the set palette of our thread racks hinder our creativity…much like a painter with only a few blocks of paint and no knowledge of how to create more. Even a limited excursion into the available information on color will help you make exciting thread picks when you have the latitude to be creative as well as make educated choices when you have a corporate customer that needs closest match and no color interference to mar the end result.

When confronted with color as thread in our daily work—whether it is basic thread or the special effects variety, it is important to remember that color has three attributes. It takes hue, value and chroma to define a color. To consider the color of a spool or cone of thread by only two is like describing a box by length and width but not by height. The hue is the color family, value is the word used to describe how dark or light the hue is (shades and tints) and chroma the word that describes how bright or dull the color.

 Mixing Things Up

 We can mix different hues with the same value for a subtle approach, the same hue with differing values for a look with more pop. We can mix different hues to blend in the eye to another color…and vary the value to see what happens. The combinations and possibilities are endless. Factor in what the flashy specialty threads do and it just gets better and better.

We can use more than one solid hue in a needle and create exciting combinations. We can even experiment with the special effects thread in the same way—threading more than one through the needle (use a larger eyed needle for more maneuvering room for the thread), or combining a special effects thread with a solid color.

We can place a loose density fill or pattern over a piece of fabric with a plan for the colors to mix visually. We can stitch a gold segment with rayon or polyester thread and then place the same kind of loose density fill over the top with a metallic gold, saving some pennies by using less of the more expensive thread and creating a subtle but still effective metallic appearance. Try this same technique with the metallic colored threads. Metallic threads come in an array of hues, not just the gold, silver, copper, pewter, and aluminum that help us add bling and the look of real metal. You can find red, blue, emerald, pink, purple, black, iris and multicolor with a metallic sheen that will give your embroidery a real punch.

 Some of My Favorites

 Yenmet metallic by Ackermann is created by wrapping a nylon core with in silver which is dyed and polyester coated for a wonderful sheen and lively colors. It comes in gold and silver and many colors. Perfect for creating the look of water, metal or even slimy fish scales, this thread can add real punch to your designs.

Glow by Madeira and Moonglow by Robinson-Anton, are glow in the dark threads that are charged by available light. This thread comes in many hues and would be perfect for stitching the eyes of a jack-o-lantern on a Halloween shirt or even punching up the eyes of a tiger.

Frosted Matt is a new offering by Madeira that provides the same matte finish found in cotton in a polyester thread—great news to those shops that specialize in towels and love the old look of the cotton on terry. It has the color-fast and bleachable properties of polyester and the flat finish of the finest cotton thread.  Available in 161 colors, it is a #40-weight thread that has an added ceramic ingredient that allows for bright colors and a smooth finish.

Twister Tweed by Robinson Anton comes in 21 exciting combinations. The colors are twisted together which gives a different look than variegated threads that change color along the length of the yarn. Use the tweed thread it in your embroidery designs where you need a subtle blend of color to lend reality to a design—clothing, a bear’s fur, hair. 

And speaking of cotton thread, Sulky has a blendable cotton thread in #12- and #30 weight available in 42 colors. These threads are a blend of different hues all with similar values and chromas (gray scale and brightness). The color changes every 2-5 inches in a subtle, blending manner.

Burmilana is Madeira’s brand name for a fine wool/acrylic blend thread that creates a soft look and can be used to create a little girl’s bangs or pony tail, an animal’s fur, a mustache—or just add a textured look to your embroidery. This is a thick thread and needs a larger needle (the size of the needle is dictated by the size of the thread) and some attention to detail when digitizing for it. It doesn’t travel well around tight corners, so allow it to make wide turns in a design.

One of my favorite specialty threads is the Solar Active color-changing thread offered by Robison-Anton. Superior Threads offers a brand called Sunburst that licenses the solar active technology. This #40-weight thread is offered in 7 white to color and 4 color to color hues that change when exposed to the sunlight. This special color-changing effect usually lasts for the life of the garment. Although the color change effect will gradually lessen, you can extend the life of the design by using it in combination with regular polyester or rayon threads. This will allow for a colorful design indoors with an extra WOW factor when the design is seen outdoors. Fills and satins show off the color-changing qualities better than line stitches, so plan your design accordingly.

 Don’t Forget the Fabric Color

When making color choices, however constrained by the dictates of logo and thread, it is also imperative that we factor in the target substrate as color is affected by the color that surrounds it. The most perfect match of corporate PMS colors will translate through the eye incorrectly if the hue of the shirt competes and washes over the logo. Stitch a red and blue logo on a lime green shirt and the colors will appear different than when stitched on a white or beige background. Be prepared to educate and guide your customer in garment color choices. Being able to explain the reasons behind the choices will enhance your reputation as an expert and a professional in your field.

Wrapping it Up With Thread

I have always been a firm believer that proper hooping (STABILITY) and proper digitizing are basics for quality embroidery. The wow factor is in the digitizing and the thread/color choices.

Learn to hoop well, use properly digitized designs and then learn about the thread choices available to you and you will lift your embroidery to a new level. With the added expertise of really understanding the color, 50 spools can do the work of 150 or more. Keep up with the thread development, watching for new specialty threads. Both you and your customers will stay enchanted with the embroidery you create.

I always tell folks at my seminars that it is better to understand processes and be able to repeat them than to hope for the best. Choice, not chance, is the mantra I repeat to encourage them to purposefully grow in the knowledge that allows them to make intelligent selections when deciding on thread colors and combinations. This also allows them to present a truly professional image in all areas of their business.