Joyce Hughes – Thread Painting with Panels

Joyce Hughes Fabric Panel

Joyce Hughes

Joyce with Mother’s Day in the background.

At Spring International Quilt Market, Rhonda Pierce, attended a Schoolhouse Session about fabric panels. Sponsored by Northcott Fabrics, it was a trunk show featuring the techniques of Joyce Hughes, an award-winning, world class thread painting artist.

What Joyce was doing with simple fabric panels was incredible, and her personal story is even more amazing.

Sewing was never part of Joyce’s life. As a child, Joyce’s mother and sister sewed, but she had no interest or time for a sewing hobby. After earning her degree in nursing, she got a job she loved in the oncology department of a busy urban hospital. Life was good.

But, in one of those freak moments — everything changed. An out-of-control patient violently kicked Joyce, severely injuring her. After many surgeries and months of painful rehabilitation, even though Joyce’s spirit was willing, her body was unable to return to those grueling 12-hour nursing shifts.

For the next ten years, Joyce worked with her husband in his business. When her daughter, Emily, was a senior in high school a group of mothers (all friends since their children were in kindergarten) decided to make t-shirt quilts for their sons/daughters. “None of us sewed. I did not own a pair of scissors and I had to borrow a sewing machine. I soon discovered this was not going to be a one-night process.”

After that first t-shirt quilt, Joyce wanted to make a second quilt for her daughter. She went into her local sewing shop, Byrne’s Sewing Connection in Doylestown, Pennsylvania to buy fabric for a simple nine-patch with frog appliqués. Trying to cover up her wonky points, she placed one frog and lily pad on the “mistake” corner. She liked it so much, she went on to add additional design elements like flowers, trees, etc.

Without ever taking a class or reading a book, Joyce started her project with a quilt sandwich and added layers of fabric and numerous threads, “thread painting” became her new passion. Joyce was creating a technique that was all her own.Byrne Sewing ConnectionBecause she received awesome support and encouragement from the staff at Byrne’s Sewing Center, Joyce stepped up her game and became more confident with each project. Debbie Byrne says, “My staff recognized Joyce’s talent right away and her work was very free and different. When I asked her to teach a class, she was surprised and very reluctant, but I told her to just show them how you do it.”

In her own words, here is a description of Joyce’s basic thread painting technique:

Nothing is hooped, and I never use stabilizer. I drop the feed dogs on my machine, put on the free motion foot, insert a SCHMETZ Topstitch 90/14 needle and AWAY I GO.

  1. Starting with the size I want, I piece together the background. For example, the top of the piece might be blue for the sky; the bottom would be green for the ground, etc.
  2. On top of the background piece, I lay out the main design elements which I have cut out of fabric (clouds, houses, trees, etc.). I iron them in place using Heat & Bond LITE.
  3. I am thread painting through three layers right away. The 3-layer sandwich is: base fabric, batting, and backing fabric.
  4. I use a spray adhesive to keep the three layers together.
  5. Generally, I start in the center, and work up and out … constantly moving around. My first go-around is simply to secure the three pieces of the sandwich together. I always start with a zig-zag stitch and variegated thread. This simple base stitching will eventually disappear because I use many layers of thread.
  6. As the project progresses, I add layers of smaller, more detailed elements (leaves, flower petals, butterfly wings). Adding solid colors makes it more dimensional.
Northcott Euphoria Collection

Northcott Euphoria Collection

With Joyce’s method, the back of the piece shows all the stitching. So, when she is finished, she often adds a new clean back.

After years of trial and error, Joyce prefers to work with silk finish cotton thread and she likes the look of the thicker weight thread … 40-30 wt. thread.

She always uses the SCHMETZ® Topstitch 90/14 needle because it has a bigger eye, which helps to prevent any shredding of the thread as it goes through so many different layers. “I will go through a whole pack of needles for one project — I always tell students to change their needles BEFORE they have a problem.”

Joyce was very new into quilting, and as she was learning and trying new ideas she would incorporate the new techniques into her classes. They became more involved and complicated, and class time was being effected. There were times when the design process took so long; the students didn’t have time to start the actual thread painting.

One Sweet Day

One Sweet Day

Joyce had to come up with a way to alleviate this problem. That is when she thought of using fabric panels for the basis of a thread painting class. It was a genius idea!! Debbie had a few bolts of panel fabric that was not selling well — and Joyce took a panel home to see what she could do with it. Debbie says, “Joyce came back into the store the very next day with a stunning sample. The whole bolt sold right away, before we even had a chance to offer a class.”

Joyce started to look at fabric panels as the “canvas” for thread painting, embellishment and trapunto classes. The panels took the intimidation factor of designing away with all students starting at the same place, yet each piece turned out unique. Class time was much more effective, and students got a chance to really experiment with their machines, using the darning foot, applying layers to their project with fabric and thread.

Joyce says, “When I started to work with panels, I didn’t look at which company designed it. I was just concerned about how it would work for thread painting and/or embellishing classes. Several years ago, a sales rep from Northcott, Shirley Mandler, noticed my work and showed it to Deborah Edwards, their designer. She asked me to work with a few other panels from Northcott, leading to many more projects together. This past winter, I was asked to do a presentation for their Spring International Quilt Market Schoolhouse Series.”

Most of Joyce’s art quilts have a story. When she is designing a quilt, she becomes obsessed with the project and she only works on one piece at a time.

Joyce Hughes Mother’s Day Quilt

Mother’s Day

Working on her first major art quilt, “Mother’s Day,” Joyce was encouraged by her daughter’s high school boyfriend, Kyle. Emily had left town for her freshman year in college, but Kyle was still living at home and often came to the Hughes home for dinner. He loved checking the progress of Joyce’s quilt. He said, “Mrs. Hughes — that quilt is wonderful, and it should be shared so other people can see it.” He did some research, and because of Kyle — “Mother’s Day” was entered in the Pennsylvania Quilt Show.

Sometimes this is how life works.

On September 7, 2007, Joyce got a phone call in the morning from the organizers of the Pennsylvania Quilt Show telling her that “Mother’s Day” had been awarded first place in the quilt show. Later that same day, she received a second phone call. This time, from Kyle’s mother … telling her Kyle had been murdered.

Joyce Hughes Words to Live By Quilt

Words to Live By

Weeks after Kyle’s death, Joyce found herself driving … and crying … with no particular destination. She ended up in the parking lot of Byrne’s Sewing Connection. It seemed like the right place to go. It was Kyle who got her started down the road of art quilts … and she felt compelled to make a quilt to honor him. “Words To Live By…” is that quilt. Inspired by Kyle’s poetry, Joyce used his handwriting to create the words on the quilt.

Debbie Byrne’s says, “We often see people turn to sewing or quilting because of a huge grief or loss in their life. Creating something can be cathartic, and it can become an important part of the healing process. Conversely, celebrating the joy of life such as birthdays, wedding, and holidays is a wonderful way quilters share their inspirations.

Joyce has done so many wonderful things for us at the store. Her classes are terrific, and she has inspired so many people to express themselves and not be afraid. The most remarkable thing about Joyce is that she makes ordinary people believe they are artists. I like to say ‘we knew Joyce before she got to be so famous’.”

In today’s world, every brick and mortar store in America is dealing with competition from Walmart, Amazon, etc. But no big box store or internet quilt shop could ever create the magic that happened between Joyce Hughes and Byrne’s Sewing Connection.

Joyce says, “I am so grateful to Byrne’s Sewing Connection. Their encouragement has meant the world to me and so many wonderful things have happened for me because of them. Being asked to teach classes gave me a boost of confidence, and I was able to experiment with students to develop different techniques and ideas — to see what worked, and what didn’t. I cannot believe I am now traveling and giving lectures on quilting and thread painting. I love it! When I am designing, sewing or teaching, I can’t imagine a better way to spend my day. It took me a long time to see it — but sewing is a gift in my life.”