Step by Step: Thread Sketched Pillow Design and Creation (Tutorial)

Below is a step by step process to designing and creating a pillow. I’ve included pictures from all 4 pillows to highlight some points. You need basic skills for sewing the pillow together and intermediate/advanced skills for the quilting and thread sketching.

  1. First, please take a moment to read my page “Thread Sketching: General Tips and Supplies”
  2. Decide on the image – lots of sources: internet, magazines, your own photo’s, Calendars, Catalogs, your own artwork or drawings. Remember – if it is not your artwork, work or photo do NOT try to sell/show unless you get written permission.
  3. Trace the image and make a color concept drawing. This helps you know what you will need for fabric colors.


  4. Decide on your design and size: What is the size of the pillow insert.  Make your cover 1/2″ less then add for seams.
  5. Is the image going to be the entire pillow? Or do you want to add other elements?Example: For the poppy I decided to add a leaf and poppy bulb so I drew them in.
  6. Make 3 black and white photocopies of the image.
  7. Lay image roughly on the pillow front and mark with a pin where your main picture will be.
  8. Select your fabric: choose fabrics with movement – no solids – solids read ‘flat’
    1. Colors don’t have to be exact as the picture (no one else will see the photo!!) Example: the poppy watercolor I chose from the internet is orange & yellow; I chose reds and deep oranges for my fabrics to better match the poppy from my photo from my garden.
    2. Look at the effects you want to create and select values of the same color tones
    3. Pay attention to shadows and use darker tonal shades or even color contrasts to highlight shadows.
    4. You can have different fabrics for the same color to add texture (this is definitely deed reds and oranges so I’m sure why the pic is so pinky but you get the idea about textures:
    5. 20180214_140818
  9. Prepare your fabric: If you do purchase fabric, wash it first – fusible will stick better.
  10. Iron the fusible paper to the back of each fabric before any cutting but do not peel the paper!!
  11. Make your pattern pieces: LOOK at one of the black & white photocopies of your image. It will reveal color values and depth much better than the colored image. See my inserted picture in #12: notice the dark, medium, lightly shaded, white values?
  12. Draw your own pattern pieces, or, like me, use a pencil to outline the pattern pieces on the photocopy that you think are needed to delineate the design including shadows, depth and colors.  NOTE: if you need to enlarge or decrease the image to fit your pillow NOW is the time to do so by enlarging/decreasing one of your black & white photocopies and then outlining the pattern pieces.  AND when you enlarge you may need to enlarge only parts of the image at a time (due to restrictions of the paper size on your home printer) and then reassemble the photo ….that is what I had to do here for the garlic pillow:20180214_161127
  13. Number each piece on the photo. Note below I chose to make some most dark areas a separate pattern piece; but I also chose to keep some in one piece – like #26 – where I would need a fabric with a lot of movement for the piece.1937485_733954476651827_8349112780729148860_n
  14. Make a photocopy of this marked up black & white. Keep the original for a pattern reference. Use the copy for pattern pieces.
  15. Cut your pattern pieces from the copy making sure to cut along your drawn lines. For #17 below I used this pattern piece for 1 bigger light purple base and then I came back and cut out 15 individual pieces in a patterned purple/blue. For the detailed stamens around #17  I also cut many small individual oblongs….(BTW, I did the same thing for the hairs at the top of the garlic bulb)
  16. Get started: lay the pillow front fabric on your working board/pad.
  17. Start building and testing fabrics: I select fabric, trace and cut one piece at a time: Chose the fabric for the one piece. If you chose fabric with lines or patterns make sure you look at the movement in the pattern piece (use your b&w pattern reference if you need to here) to cut the fabric in the right direction.
  18. Put your pattern piece FACE DOWN on the paper fusible (if you put the pattern piece face up your fabric piece will be backwards – you are working on the back of the fabric). Trace the pattern piece, put the number on the fusible paper and cut it out:                20180214_140917
  19. Start placing the pieces on the pillow front. I do edge-to-edge, very little overlapping. Do NOT peel the paper from the fusing and iron yet. Pin the piece in place with your glass head pins.  10580181_733954506651824_2115028837423819962_n
  20. Place about 1/4 or less of pattern pieces.
  21. STEP AWAY for a little while and then look at your design and the fabrics you used. I want you to note the red petal at the upper right in this picture in step 18… will see in the subsequent pics (step 23) I ended up replacing it with a totally different fabric (oranges).
  22. Okay? NOW peel the fusible paper, place/pin again & iron in place.
  23. Repeat with more pattern pieces to do the next 1/4 or so of pattern.10299170_733954516651823_7691781485780195447_n
  24. Repeat until all pieces are ironed onto the pillow front fabric. In the pic below I’ve ironed all but the flower center and I’m at approx. 85 pieces thus far…..10599173_733954573318484_1161060470313061809_n
  25. Start stitching pieces down: Outlined Appliqué or Raw Edge? I wanted to distinctly see the poppy petals so I did a very small satin stitch around the perimeter of each petal first.  For the leaves I FIRST sewed down with clear “invisible” thread in straight stitch or small zigzag.984167_733954656651809_2658706683255158459_n
  26. To outline a raw edge I used free motion stitching.
  27. To create patterns to catch light use another stitch like stippling.
  28. Prepare for Thread Sketching: Take another of your black & white photocopies and study the image for movement.  Using pencil, mark this black & white with thread sketching stitch lines to use as a guide for stitch directions and curves.10553478_733954576651817_8672049780608185110_n
  29. Cut a plain muslin fabric to the size of your pillow front and pin or baste the fabrics together. The muslin backing will be a stabilizer for thread sketching.
  30. ALWAYS start with a new needle!!
  31. Put the feed dogs down to allow freedom of movement of the fabric.
  32. Check your tension on a scrap layer and make a few practice runs.
  33. Use the same or similar color on top and bobbin UNLESS you want more texture. I almost always us the same or similar.
  34. Place your fabric to your starting point. ALWAYS pull your bobbin thread to the top to prevent ‘bird nesting’ when you start: hold the top thread and make one stitch; grab the bobbin thread and pull through. Make a couple of stitches and then cut both threads.
  35. Put on your gloves; relax your hands and shoulders and start thread sketching.
  36. Go SLOW to keep control of your stitching and stitch length. Try to keep the back neat without nesting or pulling. Below is the back of the fish after much of the thread sketching.DSC_0138
  37. Start with the ‘foundation’ colors and non-glossy threads. Foundation colors create depth and general direction of the pattern. This does not mean the foundation color is always the dark color. You can in the picture below that the foundation thread at the right is dark red and blends into the petal; but on the left the foundation is a dark orange that contrasts with the light orange petal.10583876_733954636651811_2445985999876355214_n
  38. Generally I do one color at a time, keeping the flow of the individual piece in mind, just a few lines of stitching and go through the whole picture and complete that color.
  39. Repeat with the next foundation color.
  40. STEP AWAY overnight if possible during this process.
  41. Make sure the flow of the lines and colors are working for your overall design. If not, now is the time to fix it.
  42. Now enhance with the glossy threads to create more dimension, lights and darks.10610477_733954676651807_2610465730198558282_n
  43. This time, work through the piece with one color BUT also focus on the piece with several colors to start creating effects.DSC_0144
  44. Keep some pieces simple; some with more stitching.DSC_0774-1
  45. Repeat. BE PATIENT, you will be changing thread colors and bobbins a lot! The petal at the very bottom near the dark stem has 5 thread colors!10592985_733954706651804_4682253454843975454_n
  46. STEP AWAY.
  47. Any special effects or dimensions still needed? You know what to do! For the flower center I satin stitched with a light color to show the little pieces; I sewed down the small stamen pieces with glossy thread; and to bring in a little light I filled in some stippling near the top left of the center with solid thread sketching in a contrasting light non-glossy periwinkle thread.10552643_733954616651813_5125013289599333385_n
  49. Oops!! You still need to “finish” the font and sew the pillow together.10606135_733954593318482_8766528028727564713_n
  50. Finish the pillow front with quilting: you want to highlight the image not overpower it!  I like stippling but any decorative quilting stitch can be used.

Example: I used white on white micro stippling (extremely close) immediately surrounding the poppy and garlic; while I used ‘normal’ stippling in variegated threads for the fish and filled in with free motion stitching to fill in the stippling at the lower edge of the fish.

50. Sew the finished front to the pillow backing; sewing buttons and buttonholes if appropriate (I’ll let you decide on pillow style). IF you close the pillow with buttons be sure to keep buttons in style with the pillow to enhance the overall design. NOW YOU ARE DONE!!!1907740_733954749985133_6520692331989763735_n

Last word – not every project goes as planned. Check out the Rainbow Trout pillow page to see where I almost ruined the pillow with my original idea for the pillow front and what I did to fix it (after my initial panic)!