Discovering needle painting: an interview with Jessica Devin

20 August 2021
Get to know hand embroiderer Jessica Devin as she shares how her life changed path suddenly and how this led her to discover needle painting, also known as silk shading or thread painting.

Jessica Devin spent her life studying to become a professional ballet dancer. But a car accident changed everything. It broke her heart, but not her spirit. When she discovered embroidery, she found her life’s passion for silk shading.

What impact did the car accident have? 

It completely changed my life. I’d been preparing for a ballet career for as long as I can remember. It was my dream. I lay in my hospital bed, worried about how the scars would look on stage, not grasping the severity of the injury. There was a giant metal cast with screws into the bone on my left arm. And a scar that went from my armpit down my entire back to my lower hip. I was told I’d be lucky to use a hairbrush. 

A prognosis I refused to accept – not becoming a prima ballerina broke my heart, but I wasn’t going to let it break me. After a lot of physical therapy and hard work, I regained 80% use of my arm. However, to this day I’m in pain. It constantly feels like I’ve hit my funny bone. I also have severe back problems. Sometimes my back just gives out completely and I can’t walk. It’s hard, but giving up just isn’t in my nature.

Needle painted zebras by Jessica Devin

See Jessica's incredible project 'Colour Blind' in Stitch issue 132 – it’s a fresh approach to thread painting, worked with just eight shades of grey!

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How has embroidery helped?

It’s been very therapeutic in a lot of ways – emotionally and physically. For example, I can stitch with both my hands. I never really thought I’d be able to. At first I was terrible but, I don’t like letting things hold me back and I hate failing. Now, I have a hard time stitching with only my right hand! I just needed practice and patience. It was difficult at times, it still is, but it’s worth it.

How has ballet training influenced your approach to embroidery?

Discipline and sheer determination are the biggest influences. I’m used to pushing myself to my limit and not being scared to push a little harder. Ballet taught me to be my own critic and to learn from mistakes. So if I fall, I get back up, and am the better for it. I also try to impart a sense of grace into my pieces, I want them to flow. I love movement and balance, which was so important in dance. I want to express those qualities in my artwork. Especially as embroidery filled the hole in my heart that came from the loss of ballet.

Your Majesty kingfisher embroidery by Jessica Devin

Follow Jessica's needle painting tutorial in Stitch issue 124 to create this striking kingfisher, 'Your Majesty', made easy with a step-by-step guide.

What drew you to embroidery?

Nothing! I thought it was going to be like cross stitch, which I didn’t really care for as a child. However, my mother had stitched crewelwork Christmas stockings for every person in our family – even my husband. But she was stuck with a store-bought thoughtless one. 

One year I decided to force myself to make her one of an angel. From the very first day, I was shocked to find myself completely in love with this art form! I found out I’m terrible at following patterns – I kept tweaking things to see if I could make it better by doing it differently. I was learning and I loved it! So many things went horribly wrong – I cut a three inch gash in the angel’s wing from tearing stitches out. But I figured out a fix. It never felt like I was moving backwards.

What sources did you use to learn?

Mary Corbet from showed me all the basics. I loved learning through her about the different kinds of stitches, fabrics and needles. But I wanted to combine my new love of embroidery with a more realistic, painterly look. Although my first two needle paintings – also my first commissions – were done completely by trial and error! 

Since then I’ve done a lot of research and put in a ton of practice. Trish Burr’s books introduced me to a different way to approach the technique. She has her own incredibly unique style, she literally made up herself. She’s completely self-taught, which I admire greatly.

Did you know...? You can buy Trish Burr's Embroidery Transfers on our store – with an automatic 10% off PLUS free P+P! Get your copy today.

Robin Red Breast embroidery by Jessica Devin

Recreate your own Robin Red Breast with Jessica's in-depth needle painting tutorial in Stitch issue 127.

How did you improve your technical skills?

I enrolled in The Royal School of Needlework’s online needle painting class. I also found Margaret Dier’s book (Thread Painting and Silk Shading Embroidery). I was missing important information and skills required to advance. Marg really broke it down for me. From how to shift between multiple colours being used at the same time, to getting a more natural and accurate look to the shading. 

I’ve also been watching YouTube videos from I became intrigued with filament and spun silk threads after reading they allow for finer stitch work. I experimented with different brands and immediately became hooked. I prefer the look and feel of filament silk – it allows me to achieve fine detail in my pieces as well as test my skills and capabilities

Ready to learn more about the needle painting technique? Get hold of your own copy of Margaret Dier’s book, Thread Painting and Silk Shading Embroidery, published by The Crowood Press on our online shop… with 10% off AND free P+P!

Thread Painting and Silk Shading Embroidery book cover

Buy your copy

How would you describe your style?

My style is, to a degree, a fusion of Western and Eastern techniques. I’ve taken facets of what these different women have taught me. I read everything I can lay my hands on and I am always open to adjusting or completely changing the way I stitch when it better suits the look I’m trying to achieve. I feel like I’m finally able to express myself creatively the way I’ve always wanted.

Lily and butterfly needle painting by Jessica Devin

What technique or subject matter have you still to master?

One thing I’ve yet to nail down is stitching a bird’s open wing feathers. A bird in flight is difficult. I want the stitches to be on a diagonal slant like the feathers would be in real life. But doing it that way is difficult because the stitches are so small it’s hard to blend the colours. It would be much easier to do long and short stitch or split stitch in vertical lines down the feather. But I’m determined to make it work with a diagonal stitch!

You must have an immense collection of threads…

Oh boy, ya, I have a serious problem when it comes to threads! It started with DMC – I bought every colour in every line. I had to have it all. Then Anchor, Kreinik silk floss and Sulky petites... Gütermann cotton sewing threads work wonderfully for fine details. Then I found my favourite floss of all time – Eterna. I was beyond excited, until I found out it had been discontinued. My search carried on. YLI silk embroidery floss is nice, but choice is limited. Cosmo is now my go-to cotton floss, but it’s not silk. Then I found DeVere Yarns size 6 silk floss and fell in love immediately. It’s by far my favourite. I also ended up buying a thousand different colours of Chinese silk embroidery floss. It’s also wonderful to work with, if a bit finicky.

How do you keep your threads organised?

Managing floss became more efficient when I started using the DMC Stitchbow system. It’s amazing. It’s so easy to see exactly what I have and if any colour is getting low or missing. I also keep an Excel spreadsheet of all my floss brands, colour numbers and the amount I have of each. The hardest part is staying within my monthly budget for embroidery supplies!

Little Green Bee Eater silk shading by Jessica Devin

How do you decide which thread to use?

Choosing floss for a project is one of my favourite tasks. I’m like a kid in a candy store. I could spend hours just playing with thread. I decide what type of floss would look best for the subject I’m stitching. I’ll also mix up different brands to get the right colour palette as well as mixing stranded cotton with silk floss.

With so much detail in your embroideries how do you decide on colour?

Colour theory is so important to any art medium. I feel it can be overlooked. I get my colour wheel out for every project. I decide if I want to use one colour, two-colour, multicolour or related colour schemes. I figure out complementary colours, picking out my shades and tones and making sure they will blend well with each other. 

Once chosen I put all the threads on a large piece of white paper in good sunlight. I look to make sure each colour fits and makes sense in the scheme. If something is off, I’ll pull it and find one that works instead. I’m lucky I have a background in fine art and understand colour theory – it’s something embroiderers would really benefit from learning more about.

Anemones, peony and poppy thread painting collage by Jessica Devin

Where and how do you work?

During the week I mostly stitch on the couch. I have a lovely corner set up that allows me to give my son the attention he needs, while being able to sneak in a few stitches. On the weekends, I love sewing in my studio. It has amazing natural light. I can happily spend hours in there. It’s not unusual for me to stay up late into the night or wake up extremely early to get in some embroidery time. I try really hard to balance being a stay-at-home mom with running a small business. Sometimes I have to force myself to step away, otherwise I’d never get anything else done.

What’s your favourite part?

Watching a piece come to life one stitch at a time – it’s truly astonishing what can be done with a simple piece of thread and a good needle. It can be a slow tedious process. Most of my needle paintings take around 40 hours to complete, but I know I’m creating them with love and care. I use quality materials and try to add in those small details that make a piece special. I also love the concept phase. Planning out the next design and project is so much fun. It may be the reason why I have so many projects going at the same time. I jump around from piece to piece. If I start getting tired of one, or stuck on a certain element, I can switch. This gives me a break and time to figure out solutions.

Find out more

Instagram: @JDevinEmbroidery

Follow this with Jessica’s guides to beautiful embroidery and achieving professional results in embroidery. Or see what else is possible with a needle and thread with our introduction to embroidery techniques.

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