In 2014-2015 I had the privilege to help create the Magna Carta quilts with Alison Garner and a group of 25 local quilters. The quilts were created to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which was agreed on June 15th, 1215 at Runnymede between King John and his Barons, establishing the first foundation for Human Rights around the world. The quilts have since travelled to various venues around England and the United States, and are now in the permanent of collection of The Quilters Guild of the British Isles. There are 8 Magna Carta quilts , 4 Medieval quilts depicting the story of the Magna Carta and King John in a graphic novel style, and 4 Legacy quilts, depicting portraits of 80 Human Rights champions from across the centuries and around the world.

Above, the 4 Magna Carta Medieval quilts.

And these are the 4 Magna Carta Legacy quilts. So I thought you might like to see how we made the portraits for the Legacy Quilts?

Here is what you will need:

1- A copyright free photo of a person or an animal. For best results make sure that the facial features of your subject are as clear as possible in your photograph. Here I am using (with his permission) a photograph of Alex Veronelli of Aurifil Threads.

2- A piece about 16″ x 12″ of a neutral coloured plain fabric – 100% cotton dressweight, washed and ironed.

3- Terial Magic ( which is this amazing super starch ! ) and a small plastic basin or tray. The Terial Magic is available online. I usually get mine along with all the other items listed here from my local quilt shop, Creative Quilting in East Molesey

4- Transfer-Eze (which is a water soluble, printable, and self adhesive stabilizer).

5- THREAD ! I recommend Aurifil 50/2 threads.  In the Magna Carta Legacy quilt portraits we used 5 values between  black and white. Aurifil also sponsored the exhibition of the quilts in Houston in 2015.

If you want to use different colours of thread you will want to have a range of values from the dark, medium dark, medium, medium light, and light. To make this easier you might want to treat yourself to a one of Leni Weiner’s Art Quilter’s Value Scale Card from her website:


In the lower photo you can see exactly how the scale works…..the threads I’ve chosen have a value of  number 1 for the white thread, number 3 for the light grey, number 6 or 7 for the medium grey, number 9 for the dark grey, and a number 12 for the black,

Other things you need to make your thread painted picture are: A sewing machine which has feed dogs you can lower, a free motion foot for your machine, and the usual sewing notions such as an iron, scissors, and pins.

Steps to make your thread painted portrait:

1- The first thing you need to do is to posterize your photo. Use photo editing software to crop the image as needed. Making the photo black-and-white might make your job easier, as you will be able to see the values more clearly . You may also want to boost the contrast of your image before going on to apply effects such as posterization. I used the photo editing software in EQ7, but there are many free posterization services on the internet, such as Lunapic or Gimp where you simply upload your photos and play around with the various tools and effects. You can also take your photo to a commercial printer and ask them to posterize it for you. This is best done by placing your image onto a memory stick or e-mailing the image to them. Ask them to render the posterization in at least two values, up to 7 values of colour (or greyscale) and print them out A 4 sized or 8″ x 10″. What you want for thread painting is a posterized image with an Andy Warhol effect which separates your photo into colour “blobs”.  Print a copy of your posterized photo so you can refer to it during stitching. This is my original photograph of Alex after being posterized:

2- Next, copy and print this image onto a sheet of Transfer-Eze.

3- Now it’s time to prepare you piece of fabric. Place your piece of fabric into a plastic basin and spray the fabric with Terial Magic until it is thoroughly wet. Allow to dry for 20 minutes or so, then iron flat. The prepared fabric should feel like a piece of paper.

3- Peel off Transfer-Eze and adhere to the centre of the stiffened fabric.

4- Set up sewing machine , using your darkest value of thread first.  Use same colour of thread in the top and bobbin .Use Universal 80, Embroidery 75, Microtex 80, or Quilting 75 needle. Place free-motion embroidery or free-motion quilting foot on your machine. Lower top thread tension. Lower feed dogs.

5- Stitch: Use granite stitch or other loose free-motion filler stitch to fill the shaded areas of the portrait. When you finish filling one area, simply raise the needle and presser foot, and move to the next area of the portrait of same shade, lower the presser foot, and continue stitching. Repeat until all the blotches of that shade are filled. Your stitching should be loose enough so that the colour of the background fabric shows through. Stitch one shade at a time. Your bobbin thread should not pull through to the surface – to do this loosen your top thread tension as needed. Here is a closeup of what the stitching should look like….by the way, this is a portrait of the Queen I am in the process of making, not Alex!

7- When all the blobs are filled in with stitching your portrait is complete. Soak the portrait in cold water for 15 minutes, then rinse under cool running water until all the Transfer-Eze and printer ink are gone. Dry flat on a towel. Iron lightly.

And here is the finished portrait after being quilted:

When we did the portraits for the Magna Carta Quilts this method worked well for all of the people who stitched them. Everyone had slightly different styles of working. Some people produced one portrait, while others took to the method like a duck to water,,,,like our oldest Magna Carta quilter , Robbie, who produced nearly 40 of the portraits. Here is a photo from 2014 of the group ( Robbie is seated, wearing a red shirt )learning this method by producing a portrait of Emily Pankhurst.

It’s easy……Now it’s your turn to try it out!