When a stitcher asks, "How do I stitch with variegated thread?" my mind becomes bogged down with questions: What effect are you trying to achieve? What object are you stitching? What type of variegated thread are you using? Are you trying to be frugal with your thread? etc., etc., etc. I've had a post like this in my mind for some time, and I decided to finally put it together after seeing the question asked several times in about a week.
This post is intended as a starting point for exploring the many ways variegated threads can be used. It's by no means exhaustive. And of course, the bottom line is that you can do whatever you want, because it's your stitching and all that matters is that you like it. Pretty much everything I say or show you will be qualified with, "It depends," because it does. (Bonus points to anyone who counts the number of times I use that word or some form of it!) Ready? Here we go: Variegated Threads 101!
The first thing I want to show you is the different types of variegated threads (from now on, VT for short). These "types" are how I think of the differences in VT. Someone else may classify them differently (or not at all), but for my purposes, this is how I do it. To my way of thinking, there are three basic types: one color high-contrast (122), one color low-contrast (4045), and multi-color.
The "one color high/low contrast" threads are exactly what they sound like. In this example, both threads are multiple shades of the same green, but as you can see in the photo below, the high-contrast thread has shades ranging from almost white to dark green, while the low-contrast thread has much less variance in shades.
From what I have seen, the most common way VT are used is by completing a full stitch before moving on to the next stitch, as opposed to stitching a row of the bottom leg of the stitch, and then coming back along the row and stitching the top leg. The conventional wisdom is that this produces a more smooth, gradual color change. In large areas of stitching, it also produces a striped effect. It also uses a lot of thread. Here is an example of what the three types of thread look like when stitched completing a full stitch:
In the above photo, you can see why the type of VT makes a difference. In the top example (high-contrast), your range of color is from very pale green to very dark green, while in the middle example (low-contrast), there is much less variance, even in the same number of stitches. This matters a lot if you're stitching a large area. Something else to consider: how gradual or abrupt are the color changes in the VT? You can see in the top example that the color changes are very gradual, while in the middle example the color changes are much shorter along the length of the thread. The high-contrast VT will give you much smoother shading, but over a large area will look much more striped or color-blocked than the low-contrast VT. It depends on the effect you want, and if you want to take the trouble to cut the thread into lengths with matching shading.
When stitching with VT, stitching a row of half stitches and then coming back along the row to complete the stitch (as you would when using non-VT) is considered something of a no-no in certain quarters. I've never bought into this, as with everything else, it depends on the look you want. The argument against it is that it creates a "muddy" look to the stitching and doesn't show off the full range of pretty shades of color in VT. Here's an example of the half-stitch method right next to the full stitch method we just examined:
As you can see, in the one color examples the difference is not quite as striking as you may have expected. Clearly this is a small sample size and the effect would be somewhat more pronounced on a larger scale, but if you want or need to be frugal with your thread, the difference might not be great enough to justify the extra thread used for the full stitch method. Another thing to consider is ease of stitching. I'm much faster stitching a half stitch in one direction and completing the stitch in the other direction than I am stitching a full stitch each time. And personally, I think the half stitch method results in a more textured look to the stitches, which I like. But--all together now!--it depends on the look you want. As for the multi-color thread, the half stitch method gives you two-color stitches and a very mottled, subtle look. You still have all the colors, but they're sort of swirled together and softened.
This third method is one that I like to do. I'm sure it's not original to me, but I haven't seen it mentioned in the many discussions of VT I've read. The method is simply to mismatch the strands you've cut for stitching. Cut your length of thread, pull out your two strands, and then mismatch them, like this:
Then stitch using the half stitch method. Here's the result, next to the two we've already looked at:
I love this method for one color VT. You will still see some subtle striping or color blocking in the high-contrast example, but it pretty much eliminates that in the low-contrast example. I used this method on an evergreen tree on my Christmas ornament last year and loved the textured look it gives the stitching. In the multi-color example, you now have four-color stitches (two colors in the bottom leg, two in the top) and the result is a very soft wash of color, almost like a water color. Obviously, this technique will be more successful with some VT than it will be with others. For example, I don't think it would be very successful with a red/white/blue VT, but then again... it depends!
The final method we'll look at is what I call "pattern" stitching. You don't have to stitch in rows... you can stitch around the outside of the area and work your way in (top), you can start in the center and work your way out, you can stitch in a checkerboard pattern (middle), you can stitch on the diagonal (bottom). Here are a few examples:
For the checkerboard pattern, which results in a nice random look, stitch every other stitch in rows top to bottom (or bottom to top):
And then fill in the blank spots by stitching in columns left to right (or right to left):
So there we have it--my version of Variegated Threads 101! Keep in mind that this post is intended only as a starting point for using VT, and as a quick reference for the next time someone asks, "How do I stitch with variegated threads?" My preferred answer is, "However you want!" but I know as stitchers we like to have a visual on what to expect for results. Hopefully this has been helpful. Remember, it's just floss and fabric... experiment!