Years ago, I began teaching myself how to embroider pet portraits. It was fun and challenging at times, but it also felt long and frustrating to figure out. Eventually, I got the hang of it and have completed hundreds of custom portraits for people’s beloved pets.
There weren’t as many resources online when I first started, so a lot of how I learned was through trial and error. While I will always have areas to improve upon, I feel like I finally have a system and technique that works for me!
I am making this post to share some resources and tutorials that are available on my website and elsewhere that will be very helpful if you’re looking to learn.
Disclaimer: This post has some affiliate links in it. I receive a small commission from purchases at no additional cost to the buyer. I only recommend products I would use and love and that are of good quality. All opinions are my own!
How To Embroider Pet Portraits
There are two different “styles” of pet portraits that you will commonly see. The first style is realistic looking and the second is a more stylized, illustrated portrait.
For realistic looking embroidery, the best technique to use is called thread painting or needle painting. This method of embroidery uses the long and short stitch to blend colors together similar to painting and it allows you to add in fine details and shading into your work.
Illustrated Pet Portrait
The second way to embroider a pet portrait is by illustrating / creating a line drawing of the pet and then embroidering the lines using black thread. This is a less time consuming and somewhat simpler way to complete a portrait of a pet.
If you’re wanting to embroider your own pet but don’t want to deal with creating the design yourself, Cristin Morgan Thread has a custom hand embroidery kit! Upon purchase, send reference photos and you’ll receive a customized pattern and embroidery kit to embroider your pet. (Available on Etsy)
The rest of this blog post will be focusing on how to thread paint pet portraits, but most of these general principles will apply to illustrated pet portraits as well!
Finding a Good Reference Photo
Before you can begin a pet portrait, you’ll want to make sure you have a photo that is clear and well lit. This step is CRUCIAL because it will directly affect the quality of the pet portrait you are about to make. You can only stitch what you see, and using a less than ideal photo will sadly be a waste of time.
Avoid blurry, underexposed photos that don’t show the true color of the pet. You should also have a reference photo that is shot at eye level of your pet. Awkward angles of the animal that are shot from above don’t work very well for referencing!
If you already have a photo to work with, choose one that is:
- clear and up close – you should be able to see fur patterns
- well lit – true colors are shown
- shot at eye level – front, 3/4, or side view
- unfiltered – photos that are edited with a filter won’t show accurate colors
If you are going to take a photo:
- Take the photo in indirect light if possible
- Avoid super sunny areas – this will over expose / wash out the image
- Avoid over-editing the photo (changing exposure, shadows, and highlights is fine in moderation)
- Shoot on a phone with a good camera or a DSLR
- Take multiple photos so you have enough options to choose from!
Supplies You’ll Need
You’ll need pretty much all of the same supplies you would use for any type of embroidery project, but I wanted to go over a few specific products / things to consider when choosing supplies and materials.
I recommend using DMC 6 strand embroidery floss because there are so many colors to choose from. You’ll be using a lot of colors when thread painting pet portraits so you’ll want to have a good variety on hand.
The other reason I recommend DMC is because it is high quality and colorfast. You’ll most likely want to keep this embroidery for years to come, and DMC colors shouldn’t fade over time. Additionally, the thread colors won’t bleed onto the fabric if you end up washing or rinsing your embroidery.
I would personally recommend using a 5 or 6 inch hoop when stitching your first pet portrait. It can be hard to add detail into designs that are smaller, and anything bigger than 6 inches will most likely be overwhelming and take a long time to complete.
If you plan on keeping the portrait in an embroidery hoop, I would recommend using these beechwood embroidery hoops available on Etsy. They are easy to embroider in and they have a nice finish to them for displaying.
Plastic no-slip embroidery hoops work well too, but aren’t as ideal for displaying your finished embroidery in.
You’ll want a fabric with a tight weave that doesn’t have any stretch to it. A lot of surface area will be covered with stitches so natural, more durable fabrics are best. For all of these reasons, I recommend using linen or cotton for pet portraits.
Kona cotton ( Available at Joann Fabrics and Amazon) is the brand of fabric I use most frequently. It is high quality, can be bought by the yard, and the fabric comes in a variety of different colors.
In order to make transferring highly detailed patterns onto the fabric easier, I use Sulky Water-Soluble Stabilizer (Available at Amazon) because it is transparent and easy to draw fine details onto.
Another option is Sulky Stick N Stitch Stabilizer (Available at Walmart.com). This comes in printable sheets and sticks directly on top of the fabric. The only downside to this stabilizer is that the adhesive can make your needle a bit sticky as you are embroidering. If you keep a damp cloth on hand to occasionally wipe your needle off, it’s fine to work with.
If you don’t want to use stabilizer, there are several different ways to transfer patterns onto fabric that you can try.
For thread painting, you’ll want to use a fine embroidery needle. Usually, I use one strand of floss at a time, so size 10 DMC embroidery needles work well.
Thread Painting Favorites
Planning And Designing The Pattern
Use a tablet or a lightbox to reference and trace over the pet’s silhouette and features.
If you are using a lightbox, print out the photo and use tracing paper to create your design.
Mark fur patterns and color changes in the design.
You’ll want to create a design that is detailed enough that you can mark where fur patterns, shading, and highlights are.
Avoid making the design so detailed that you become confused and lost in the pattern. Everyone creates embroidery patterns differently, so this is something that you’ll have to practice and figure out what works best for you!
Transferring The Design To Fabric
Transferring With Stabilizer
I use a micron to draw on the Sulky Water-Soluble Stabilizer, then place the stabilizer over top of the fabric and place both layers in the embroidery hoop.
Another method that I haven’t personally used but have heard about is printing your design onto the fabric. You can check out a tutorial by Michelle Staub on how to do this here.
Tracing The Design
You can also trace the design you’ve made through the fabric using a sunny window or lightbox, but I have found that it is hard to visualize small details. Sometimes the quality of your pattern won’t be as nice this way.
Instant Access To Exclusive Tutorials
If you’re interested in step by step tutorials to help you learn the art of thread painting, which includes many tutorials about animals and pet portraiture, please consider joining my Patreon community!
When you join the Serious Stitcher tier, you’ll get instant access to:
- a monthly thread painting pattern
- behind the scenes content and progress photos
- ability to vote on future embroidery patterns
- instant access to video tutorials, PDFs, and helpful resources
Pet Portrait Tips Video
Free Tutorials For Thread Painting Pet Portraits
Now comes the fun part, actually stitching your design! Here are some tutorials I recommend reviewing.
How To Blog Posts
If you have never thread painted before, I have a thread painting tutorial that goes over the basic techniques.
I also made a post that goes over tips and techniques specific to embroidering animal fur. It can be a challenge to get your stitches to resemble fur, so definitely check out this post to learn more.
If you’re wanting to see the overall process of stitching a pet portrait, check out these embroidery artists’ YouTube channels:
These channels may not go into every detail about their process, but there are plenty of videos of portraits being stitched that are still very valuable to learn from!
There are several classes available online that teach you how to embroider realistically and will go over thread painting techniques.
- My course: Embroider A Realistic Butterfly – Available on Skillshare
- Freehand Needle Painting by Chloe Giordano – Available on Domestika
- Embroidered Pet Portraits: The Thread Painting Technique by Michelle Staub – Available on Domestika
Michelle Staub of Stitching Sabbatical also wrote an entire book on embroidering your pets! It’s called Pet Portrait Embroidery: Lovingly Stitch Your Dog Or Cat
I personally own this book and highly recommend it. It is filled with helpful information and it also has patterns of cats and dogs that you can practice with.
The above photo is a comparison of one of the first pet portraits I ever made compared to one I completed in 2021. I show you this not to brag, but to show you that with hard work you will improve, and we all start somewhere!
Let’s face it: Learning how to embroider pet portraits is hard! The first pet portrait you make will most likely not turn out exactly as you pictured it to look, and that is okay! You should be proud of what you make, and see it as a learning process.
If you are struggling or frustrated, keep in mind that it has taken me and many other pet portrait artists years to improve and hone our craft.
The more you practice, the more you will learn! It is important to try new things and make mistakes along the way because you will learn from them and find a style/particular techniques that work for you.