Monday, 21 March 2016

A tutorial: How to Make String Art (with a needle and thread)

String Art Tutorial How To

In the house where my husband grew up, there was a piece of string art on his bedroom wall that his father had made years earlier: it's strung on painted black wood, with red thread wrapped around the nails that have been carefully tapped into place. We've taken it with us from house to house and it's so geometrically perfect and fascinating to look at; although the colours don't feel overly restful and I've always really regretted not taking the opportunity to ask my father-in-law to make one for me in different colours when he was alive. 

string art

One of my birthday gifts from my husband this year was nine identical empty box frames. It felt like a really lovely invitation of a gift and contemplating what to make to go in them has preoccupied my thoughts on and off. Initially, I was going to create nine English paper pieced quilt blocks, but I struggled to find fabrics that felt right. Finally, last week I realised that I'd really love to have a go at making something inspired by my father-in-law's string art, but without using nails and wood.

I used some beautiful Melton Wools from Abraham Moon for the backing - it's really lovely and many of the colours have a soft heathered appearance - I'm planning to make some cushions from them at some point. Melton II and Melton III are my favourite ranges (although they have lots of herringbones and tartans for dressmaking too). If you have a spare few minutes and are as enraptured as I am at seeing cloth being woven, then do go and watch the video on the Abraham Moon site, as I think you will love seeing the traditional processes this British mill use.

String art close up

The first evening that I began experimenting with string art, I stayed up until 3.30am, as captivated by this new form of making as I had been when I first began making rope bowls. Just like the bowls, it's often a surprise to see exactly how the piece will turn out and what form it will take - it's really thrilling to watch the point at which a curve begins to form, threads begin to cross over one another and a new pattern begins to appear! The one below was the first I made - I wish I'd stuck to the outline of the circle a bit more religiously, but I love the colours changes in it.

pacman string art

I made quite a lot of different designs and, if you're interested, I'll put some links to how to create them later on as there are a lot of sites studying mathematical geometry that will put you on the right track. However, as the original 1970s designs were mainly nails and string, I thought I'd write up a quick tutorial about how to go about a basic abstract design like the one below, created using needle and thread. Officially, it's string art, but that seems like a beast of a name to give to something made with finer threads, so from here on in I'll refer to it as thread art. Let's begin.

String art tutorial 5

Ingredients List: 
  • Cloth/Fabric
  • Lightweight interfacing (optional)
  • Embroidery Hoop
  • Ruler
  • Frixion/erasable ink pen or chalk
  • Protractor
  • Thread
  • Needles (I used Clover's Gold Eye Embroidery Needles Sizes 3-9)
I have an absolutely loathing of skeins of embroidery floss, because not only does it seem to tangle itself into the most hideously untanglable knots, but it's also multi-stranded, which offers further potential for knotting. Instead, I used Lana wool thread made by Aurifil, which is 12-weight (so quite thick), single-stranded and served on a spool, which combats all of my badly-behaved-skein-of-embroidery-floss problems. In the UK, it's stocked at Eternal Maker and Pretty Fabrics & Trims.

I ironed a thin layer of fusible web to the back of my Moons' Melton Wool cloth to stabilise it, although I'm not entirely sure this was necessary. 

To get a really even finish, it's often desirable to make quite a lot of markings on the fabric and they need to be clear and precise. I think Frixion pens, which disappear with ironing, are about the only thing that would have worked on my textured cloth - they left perfectly clear marks and were erased in seconds with the iron, once I'd finished. 

String art tutorial 1

Begin by drawing a circle onto your fabric. All of my designs are based on a 4" drinks coaster, but any size will do. 

String art tutorial 2

Next, use a protractor to mark dots at evenly spaced intervals around the perimeter of the circle. I found that 5 degrees apart was perfect for most of my designs, but again, anything will work as long as you're consistent. 

String art tutorial 3

To produce a similar shape to mine, which my son has named 'pac-man' after the iconic 1980s video game character, start about two-thirds of the way across the circle, but you can actually start anywhere. The nearer to the edge you are, the more narrow the curve you'll create; the nearer to the centre, the fuller the finished shape - you can see examples of both on one of my pieces below. 

Moon string art

To make things clearer, I've created a few diagrams about the stitch order you should follow! 


You can see on the above example, that I'm always moving to the right at the top of the circle and to the left at the bottom of the circle; making lines that pull against each other in opposite directions like this is what eventually causes the threads to form a curve (or would do on a less ugly diagram, but you get the idea).


You can actually use far longer lengths of thread for thread art than you'd ever use when hand-sewing. To change thread colours, just overstitch or knot a few times on the back of the fabric to secure your stitches before changing colour. I love the point where the threads overlap and a triangle appears. Just keep sewing until you've reached the bit where the gap (to the right of number 1) is finally filled in.

abstract string art

I thought I'd share some of the other resources I found useful, as I did quite a bit of research. The flower below came from a pattern that I found on this site

flower string art

I regretted doing the one below in white, as it looks more snowflake than flower, but it's a really pretty pattern. You can find it here

snowflake string art

The pattern below I found on a maths website: it's a cardioid. I haven't heard of a cardioid before and I feel more inclined to believe that it's actually a juicy fig that's been cut open and is lying on my work surface! You can find details of how to make your own fig quite a long way down this page. 

fig string art

I may redo the next one at some point as it's quite a long way from being perfectly executed, but it's a curved stitch isometric cube...that disguises its own cubeishness once you've stitched it. 

String Art in Progress cube string art

When I turn it the other way up, it makes me think of someone wearing a gas I prefer it this way up. 

horseshoe string art

This lucky horseshoe just arrived of its own accord as the result of some free form experimentation. Ditto the raindrop below. 

teardrop string art

There are at least another nine or ten designs that I ended up cutting off the cloth and starting over with. Interestingly, some of the more complex designs that I really enjoyed creating didn't look as aesthetically pleasing once they were finished. These are the final nine I've chosen and at some point this week I'll hopefully get them into their frames and up on the wall. 

string art

Some more general links, just in case you're interested: I love this design, but I didn't like the colours I chose for it, so I haven't shared it here. This design is amazing and would look really impressive - I didn't attempt it as most of my pieces were around 4" finished and it seemed one that would only work on a larger scale. I researched some books around thread art, but it seems that many of the really good ones went out of print when string-art went out of fashion. However, I'll be scouring second-hand bookshops for How to Enrich Geometry Using String Designs and Curve Stitching: The Art of Sewing Beautiful Mathematical Patterns and/or hoping that thread art may come back into fashion and cause the books to be reprinted. 

Born in 1977 and owning our own original piece of string-art, I feel I may have reopened a box that also contains Burt Reynolds' moustache and John Travolta's dance moves in making these. Revival is an odd thing: there's something slightly cringe-inducing about revisiting an era, but these are too much fun to make to leave permanently behind in the 70s and I'd implore you to join me on the dance floor in making some of these yourself.  

Florence x

Ps. Whilst on the subject of 70s-inspired crafts, for the last few years I've seen more and more woven wallhangings popping up in my Instagram feed - I'd love to make some of those too!

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