The Complete Guide to Embroidery
One of the most appealing qualities of embroidery is how little you really need to get started. You might even find that many of the supplies are already in your crafting stash especially if you are a quilter or a seamstress—but if needed, you can pick up any of the necessary items at a crafts or needlework shop with little investment.
Although you’ll find linens, Aida cloth, and other specialty needlework fabrics at crafts stores and needlework shops, you can stitch on virtually anything a needle will pass through. In fact, it’s possible to stitch on surfaces other than traditional cotton or linen fabric. Felt, wool, paper, leather, velvet, satin, and decorator fabrics are all fair game. Pre-finished and store-bought items such as tablecloths, runners, and napkins make great stitching candidates, too. And, believe it or not, you can even embroider on wood by stitching through holes you’ve drilled into the surface.
Think all needles are the same? Before you reach into your sewing basket for your trusted mending needle, think again. While all needles have an eye and a pointed end, not all needles work well for embroidery. The key is to choose a needle that has a large enough eye to accommodate the type of thread you are working with, and to choose a needle that is the proper size for the surface you are stitching on. A needle should be able to make a hole in the fabric that is large enough for the shaft and threaded eye to pass through.
There are three types of embroidery needles: tapestry, chenille, and crewel. Each needle has a long oval eye, which is best for accommodating the thickness of multiple strands of floss, perle cotton, or yarn. Tapestry needles have a blunt end, crewel needles have a sharp end, and chenille needles have a sharp end with a long shank (chenille needles work well for ribbon embroidery). Each hand-embroidery needle also has a size. The larger the number, the smaller or finer the needle.
So how do you know what needle you need? If you’re stitching on a tightly woven fabric, you’ll want to choose either a chenille or a crewel needle so that the pointed end can pierce the fabric. If you’re working with Aida cloth or an open-weave fabric, the blunt end of a tapestry needle will work best. Many beginner stitchers find that buying a package of assorted sizes—which are often packaged by needle type—is a great way to experiment with different needles to find the right one for the job. Before you start your project, try pushing the needle and thread through the surface to be embroidered several times. If the needle eye catches or is difficult to bring through the surface, the needle size is too large. If your stitches are fine or the area you are working in is tight, you’ll find that a shorter needle is a good choice.
Threads are available in more varieties today than ever before. Depending on the look and effect you want to achieve, your options are vast. For beginner purposes, we’ll discuss the most popular options: embroidery floss, perle cotton, yarn, and ribbon.
Embroidery floss. Six-stranded embroidery floss is always a popular choice among embroiderers. It’s readily available, inexpensive, and comes in hundreds of colors. Sold by the skein, each color from each manufacturer has its own unique number. One of the best parts about embroidery is the freedom to customize any design to your preferred hues and shades. Feel free to pick and choose colors that you like. Just keep in mind that if you run out of a color in the middle of a design, you’ll need to remember what number you used so you can match it accurately when you continue stitching.
To use floss, separate the strands (also referred to as “plies” of floss) according to the weight of stitch you’d like to create. Use just one or two plies for fine details, or use all six plies for bold, thick stitches. A suggestion of three or four plies is common for most embroidery designs. You can even combine a few plies from one color with a few plies from another. This is a great way to create a shaded or variegated look.
You’ll also find a number of specialty embroidery flosses; overdyed, satin, fluorescent, glow-in-the-dark, and metallic are all options for giving your work highlights, sheen, glitz, and special effects. Just be aware that some specialty threads can be a bit more difficult to work with—but they may be worth the extra effort for the look you wish to achieve.
Perle cotton. This 100% cotton, twisted thread is sold by the skein or by the ball and produces raised, dimensional stitches with a bit of shine. Unlike embroidery floss, it is non-divisible, but it is available in four different weights: size 3, 5, 8, and 12. Size 3 is the thickest and size 12 is the finest. The thickness of your stitches is determined by the weight of the thread used. Size 5 perle cotton is commonly suggested for embroidery. Perle cotton is available in a multitude of colors; however, many crafts stores limit their inventory to more neutral colors. Specialty needlework shops tend to offer more color options in this thread category.
Yarn. Wool is the most popular and sturdy option in this thread category. Crewel projects are stitched with wool yarn on a linen background, producing a warm, textural look.
Ribbon. Ribbon gives basic embroidery stitches an elegant, dimensional look. Narrow silk ribbons are usually the preferable choice for ribbon embroidery and are available in different widths that are indicated in millimeters. A chenille needle works best when stitching with ribbon.
Not all scissors are the same when it comes to embroidery. A pair of fine-tip embroidery scissors is an essential item for every stitcher’s supply basket. Time and again, you’ll find those super-sharp points helpful for picking out stitches, trimming thread tails, and cutting off lengths of thread from skeins and balls. Scissors can vary widely in price and style. If you prefer elegant and traditional, indulge in a pair of lovely gold-handle stork scissors. For the more utilitarian, choose a pair of small scissors from the fabric store without the fancy decorations. Whatever style you choose, just make sure that you keep them sharp and prolong their life by relegating them only to cutting embroidery threads. It’s also a good idea to protect your scissors by keeping them inside a scissor holder or a magnetic needle case. Some embroidery scissors come with a leather sheath to protect the super-sharp points.
Embroidery hoops help keep your fabric taut while you work, making it easier to create uniform stitches. Hoops come in wood or plastic and have two parts: the inner hoop, which is a continuous ring, and the outer hoop, which has a screw connector for tightening the outer hoop around the inner hoop. If you use a wooden hoop, be mindful of rough edges, which could catch on your fabric and damage your work.
For patterns where you want to keep the original pattern intact, it’s useful to first make a copy using tracing paper. Lay this transparent paper over the original pattern, then use a pencil or marking pen to trace the design onto the paper. If you’re using light-color fabric for your embroidery, you can lay the fabric right over the tracing paper pattern and trace it again onto the fabric. For darker fabrics and surfaces, use transfer paper to transfer the pattern from the tracing paper to the surface.
Known also as carbon dressmaker’s paper, this special paper is useful for transferring patterns onto non-transparent fabrics and surfaces. It works by applying pressure with a stylus or ball-point pen to trace the design onto the paper, resulting in transferred pattern lines on the desired surface.
Marking Pens and Pencils
There are many different types of pens and pencils on the market for marking designs on fabric. Air-soluble fabric pens and water-soluble fabric pens are the most commonly available; however, some find the tip to be a bit cumbersome for transferring detailed designs, and sometimes a chemical residue can cause permanent staining. A soft #2 lead pencil works well, can be laundered out, or can be erased away with a non-marring art eraser.
Tips for a Getting Started
Transferring a Design
Bright window or light box. Once you’ve selected your design and the surface you wish to embroider, it’s time to transfer the design from paper to fabric. If you’re working with light-color fabric, all you need is a bright window or a light box. First lay a piece of tracing paper over the design and trace the design using a pencil or marking pen. Tape the tracing paper to a bright window or a light box, making sure it is flat and secure on all sides. Next, lay your fabric over the tracing paper, positioning it so the pattern shows through the fabric in the desired location. Using a pencil or fabric pen, trace the design onto the fabric. Use short, light strokes to avoid shifting the fabric while tracing.
Transfer paper. For non-transparent fabrics, such as dark-color woven fabrics, crafts felt, and wool, choose transfer paper to transfer the design to the embroidery surface. This paper also can be used on solid surfaces such as wood. Before beginning, choose a paper with a color that will be visible against the color of your fabric or surface to be embroidered. Once you’ve selected your paper, lay it with the colored side down over the surface you wish to embroider, then lay the pattern on top. Use a stylus or a ball-point pen to firmly trace the lines of the pattern, transferring the design to the fabric.
Prepare the Thread
A good rule of thumb is to cut the thread you wish to stitch to a length equal to your forearm from fingertips to elbow. Too much length will make it hard to keep even stitch tension.
If you’re using embroidery floss, it’s a good idea to separate the strands before stitching—even if you plan to stitch with all six plies. This process is referred to as “stripping” the floss and will make the floss easier to work with, will help to keep it twist- and tangle-free, and will ensure smoother, more attractive stitches. Simply pinch all of the plies together at the top with one hand, then pull one of the strands out from the top until it is removed from the group. Repeat with each strand until they have all been separated, then put them all back together again and run your fingers down the strands to flatten them out.
Hoop the Fabric
To put your fabric in a hoop, first lay the inner part of the hoop on a flat surface and center your fabric on top with your design facing up. Loosen the screw on the outer hoop so that it is loose enough to easily place over the fabric. Press the outer hoop down over the inner hoop until the fabric is evenly caught between the two hoops. Adjust the fabric as necessary and tighten the screw until the fabric is taut. The fabric will naturally loosen as you work, so occasionally you’ll need to stop stitching, adjust your work, and retighten the fabric in the hoop. If you plan to be away from your stitching for an extended period of time, remove your fabric from the hoop to prevent excessive stretching and to allow the fabric to relax.
Anchor the First Stitch
Rather than using a knot, the first embroidery stitches are anchored by other stitches on the back side of your work. Depending on the type of stitch, this can either be done by catching the tail in the back side of the stitches as you work, or by leaving a long tail that can later be threaded through a needle and woven through the back side of nearby stitches.
Ending Your Stitches
When you reach the end of your stitching or are running out of thread, secure the end of your stitches much like you did at the beginning of the process. With the thread still in the needle, weave the needle under a few stitches on the back side of the work, then remove the needle, leaving the remaining thread as a tail. Trim off the excess thread.
Once your embroidery is complete, it’s timeto turn it over and clean up the back. Use embroidery scissors to trim off dangling thread ends and weave in any long tails if needed. After you remove your work from the hoop, your fabric will most likely have hoop marks and wrinkles. Most small pieces of embroidery can be pressed with a warm iron. To help preserve the raised texture of the embroidery, lay the embroidered fabric facedown on a white terry-cloth towel and lightly spritz the back with water. With your iron set to a warm setting, gently iron the back of the work.
Sometimes you’ll find that your work has stretched and become distorted while you’ve been embroidering, especially if it has been in a hoop for a prolonged period or has many directional stitches that tend to pull the work one way over another. Before finishing it into something such as a pillow or a frame, block the piece to stretch it back to its correct proportions, and square off the sides so that it is prepped for finishing.
First, gather your materials. You’ll need a clean wooden board at least 3⁄4" thick that is larger than your finished embroidery, a piece of sturdy white cotton fabric about 8" wider and longer than your piece of wood, a box of round-head 1" rustproof nails, a staple gun, staples, and a hammer.
Wrap the board with the cotton fabric, stapling all raw and folded edges to the underside of the wooden board.
Lay your finished embroidery faceup and centered on the board. Starting in the center of the top edge of your needlework, tack a nail through all layers into the board. Only about 1⁄4" of the nail needs to go into the board. Smoothing the fabric with your hands and stretching it as necessary, tack another nail through the center of the bottom edge. Do the same in the center of the left and right edges. Working from the centers to the corners, alternating top to bottom and then left to right, nail the embroidery until all edges are secured. The spaces between nails should be about 1". Be sure to keep the design square while you work. This may require stretching and pulling if your needlework lost its shape while you were embroidering. Then, spray the finished needlework with cold water until it is completely soaked. Set the board in a warm, airy place and let the needlework dry. If you’re in a hurry, use a fan or cool hair dryer to speed up the process. When your work is dry, remove the nails with a hammer or pliers. Your work is now blocked and ready to be framed or sewn.
Click here to see pictures, diagrams, and how-tos of the must-know embroidery stitches!