Learn how to embroider today. Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something……made by you with your embroidery basics! Embroidery has been around for centuries and was even enjoyed by Marie Antoinette right up to her trip to the guillotine. The Queen of Fashion embroidered her love of flowers onto everything including décor and fashion. The beauty of this skill is it can be as simple or as detailed as you like. The only tools you need are a needle, your material and a thick embroidery thread.
So where do you begin?
How to Embroider
Start with knowledge of the basic tools required and then learn some simple stitches.
Many of the stitches you see in embroidery are just slight variations of basic stitches. Simply by adding in a thread here and there or changing the thread used, you can embellish your work to look very professional.
Practice always makes perfect so start out with an embroidery stitch sampler or simple embroidery project. There are many kits available to start you on your way.
How to Embroider – TOOLS
The tools needed for embroidery basics can be broken up into needles, scissors, markers, frames and threads. You will also need good lighting.
Crewel needles are used for embroidery because they have a sharp tip and long eye. Basic embroidery needles come in sizes from 1 to 12 with 1 being the largest and 12 is the smallest. If you are not sure what needles to start with, give these a try in a mid to large size.
Tapestry needles have a short shaft and longer eye and are slightly blunt. This enables them to go through woven fabric without splitting the threads.
Milliner’s needles are short with a round eye, the eye and the tip are the same sizes. They are ideal for sewing French Knots and other ‘wrapped’ stitches.
If you are having trouble threading thicker threads through your needle then try using a needle threader. (Read how to use a needle threader.)
A neat sharp pair of embroidery scissors is a must-have.
Embroidery scissors have smaller sharper blades to get closer to the fabric and snip unwanted stitches more accurately. I love my little stork embroidery scissors and you will often see them in my photos. I also quite like using sewing snippers which can be operated without putting your fingers through the holes. Like embroidery scissors they are also very sharp.
If you will be doing a lot of embroideries, you may want to use a thimble to protect your finger. You can get comfortable rubber and leather thimbles which are better for long periods of use than the metal ones.
Embroidery frames or hoops come in different sizes and in plastic or wood. The frame is important as it holds the fabric taut and ensures the stitching does not pucker.
FRAME MATERIALS – A wooden frame is preferable as they are often stronger, but a beginner may want to start on the plastic version and move onto wood as they become more proficient.
FRAME SIZE – You don’t need to go for large hoops to embroider large areas. Instead, get a manageable size and move it around the area you need to embroider. Smaller hoops are often more convenient when embroidering clothing.
How to Use an Embroidery Frame
As you can see in the photo below, embroidery hoops are made up of 2 rings that sit inside each other. This same system is used for both wooden and plastic hoops.
Separate the rings by unscrewing the outer ring.
Place your fabric over the smaller inside ring, put the larger ring on top and tighten the screw until the fabric is taut. As the screw is tightened it pulls the gap closed.
When learning how to embroider, you will need some markers to transfer your design to the fabric. Removable fabric markers are best so that no trace of the pen is left behind. Test that you can remove the marks first before spending hours on your embroidery design. Pale colored tailors chalk pencils can also be used.
If the edge of the design will be covered or outlined, I often use a lead pencil.
Fabric comes in many different weights and textures and just about any kind can really be used for embroidery. It is important to know about the thread count for cotton and linens so that you choose a more open weave of fabric. This will give your needle easy access through the weave.
When starting, try fabrics such as calico, canvas, muslin, cotton, Osnaburg, Hardanger and linen. Kona cotton is a popular choice for quilting. Aida is often used for cross stitch as it is stiff and has a very open weave with visible fibers that as useful for counting stitches.
It is a good idea to try out your options before you start a project. I always use unbleached calico for all my samples as it is cheap and easy to embroider. As with all sewing, there is no right or wrong. Just choose the fabric that you think looks nice and if you are a beginner, get a cheap one.
It is commonplace to use white or cream fabric for embroidery but if you want to use hot pink then go for it! Be individual.
Embroidery Threads (Floss)
The choice of embroidery threads, also called floss, may vary according to your project. Some come in single strands and others come in multiple strands so you can vary the thickness of the embroidery to suit the look you want.
A word of warning – the second those black bands come off, the thread will start to tangle! Store your threads with plastic or wooden spools and then keep them in plastic craft containers.
Brands of Embroidery Floss
DMC is a commonly used brand name that has beautiful stranded embroidery floss in a variety of colors. Each piece of floss has six strands and can be separated and used accordingly. The more strands you use, the bolder your embroidery will be.
I usually use all 6 strands as I don’t have the patience for really fine embroidery but my grandmother could embroider the finest of strands. This is from a tablecloth she made many years ago. The strands on the donkey are so fine it looks like it could have been done with a machine. I can only imagine this must have taken weeks or even months to complete. Embroidery can be a relaxing thing to do in the evenings while the tv is on in the background.
Alternative Threads to Use
Fine ribbon is used as a thread for ribbon embroidery and yarn can be used for tapestry and thicker embroidery.
If you use yarn for your embroidery, choose one that is not too fluffy and won’t pill. Pure wool in a fine weight such as 2 or 4 ply makes nice embroideries. Cotton crochet yarn can also be used.
If you are embroidering clothing or quilts, use quality brands so that the colors won’t bleed or run on to your fabric when washed. I also found that the cheap craft assortments were more likely to tangle and were a little harder to use. Save the craft threads for when you won’t be washing the finished item. On the plus side, they are really reasonably priced and the kits have amazing assortments of colors.
Lighting for Embroidery
Embroidery is fine work and good lighting is essential. There are special lamps available with bright white bulbs and some offer magnified lighting. If I need my stitches to look really neat, I always use my magnifying lamp and put on my stronger glasses.
If you don’t have a lamp, then a good bright sunny spot in the house is the best option.
How to Embroider – PREPARATION
Once you have the tools for your embroidery basics, prepare your fabric for action and practice the stitches you need for your first project.
It is important, especially with 100% cotton and linens, to pre-wash the fabric and treat it as you plan to during its normal wash cycle in the future. Wash, dry and iron ready for use. Without prewashing, the fabric and the threads may shrink at different amounts. Although ideal, it is rarely practical to prewash the actual threads. Most embroidery threads do not shrink but they may bleed when wet. The red color is most likely to run so wet a strand and test it before using it.
The exception to this is when you don’t plan on ever washing your embroidery, for example, if you are sewing a wall hanging.
When you have decided on the nature of the embroidery and the stitches, you may like to stabilize the back with some iron-on interfacing. Stabilizing will give soft fabric more body to support heavy embroidery.
There are lots of free embroidery designs to be found on the internet but really the best source is often kids coloring books. They are full of simple flowers, plants and animals.
If you can draw, well you have it made! Draw something original and make me jealous. Although I’m crafty, fine art is not my thing.
Etsy is a good place to look for simple embroidery designs done by independent small designers.
Designs can be transferred to fabric with a light-box underneath the paper template. If you don’t have a light-box, use a window with bright sunlight shining through. Hold up your paper and the fabric on top and you should be able to see through enough to draw the design.
Original designs can be drawn straight onto the fabric with your preferred marking method.
The best method to start and finish embroidery should not leave you tied up in knots! Starting your stitch craft with a knot is actually frowned upon in most embroidery sewing circles. How do you begin you may well ask? Here are some simple alternatives to begin an embroidery piece.
How to Embroidery – Starting and Ending
How to Start Embroidery
This is a great way to start however it does restrict you to using two threads. The loop method requires one strand of floss that is doubled and threaded through the needle before starting to sew.
Pass the needle from the wrong side to the right at the point you wish to begin and then leave a loop on the underside.
Return the needle to the wrong side close to the loop and pass the needle through the loop, pull tight and there you have secured your thread and are ready to continue the sewing process as you push the needle through to the right side.
The Waste Knot:
It is true that the perfectionist embroiderer will frown on any knots, but the waste knot is a knot that is wasted and does not affect the final design.
If you are going to start with a waste knot you will need to make your knot with a tail of thread to see on the right side of the fabric. This is placed a few inches away from the starting place of the design.
Leave the knot and the tail showing and start the design with a few stitches working towards the waste knot. While you start the stitching of your design, stitch over the other threads of the waste knot on the reverse side of your work. When your stitching is secure it is possible to cut off the knot, it is discarded no longer needed to secure the thread.
Managing a bit of thread holding while you gently sew some backstitch is also a clean method to start sewing. Pull your needle and thread through from the back and hold onto the thread while you put in a couple of backstitches to secure its place in the design.
When you are sure the thread is secure you can snip off the thread at the back.
The Normal Knot:
Use the knot method to start with the knotted end being at the back of the fabric. Hold onto the knot and incorporate it into the sewing as you continue to stitch the design.
This kind of knot is easily camouflaged if you are working with satin stitch or a series of stitches that will cover over the original knot. Knots can affect the texture of your work and they can unravel with disappointing results, so try not to resort to the knot as a starter.
How to End Embroidery
Finally, how to end with perfection? The end of the embroidery story is really simple.
Hold onto your final thread at the back and either weave the last threads through the stitching on the back or close your design with a few back stitches. Keeping the back neat is the sign of carefully planned work and attention to detail.
The reward…a sense of achievement, beautiful back view of your embroidery and a claim to ‘waste knot want not!
How to Embroider – STITCHES
Basic stitches form the fundamental structure of decorative embroidery and some of these stitches are the initial stages of other stitches.
Making a sampler is a great starting point for how to embroider. It is an opportunity to practice the stitches and at the same time see what they look like while you make this reference for yourself. The sampler can just be a swatch with each stitch visible and a note written on the fabric describing the stitch. Unless you embroidery frequently, you will probably forget the names. Use big stitches on your sampler to make them easier to see.
To identify different stitches you may have seen, read my article on 21+ embroidery stitches.
Easy starter stitches for embroidery basics and learning how to embroider include:
- Cross stitch – you can use this stitch for entire designs or as part of a design
- Backstitch – great for outlines and stems on plants
- Blanket stitch – can be used in circles to form flowers
- Running stitch – the most basic of all the stitches, it can be used for outlines
- Chain stitch – variations include lazy daisy, detached chain, feathered chain
- Fern stitch – great for stems and coral
These easy stitches can form the basis of patterns, borders and outlining designs. As you grow in confidence, they can be added to other more elaborate stitches, open weave work, tapestry and needlepoint.
If you have never sewn a hand stitch before then start with the running stitch and backstitch.
With just these 2 stitches, you can do outline embroidery and put it on t-shirts, kids clothes and wall hangings. Look at the cat I made! Coloring book pictures are a good source of simple pictures to embroider.
How to Embroider – RUNNING STITCH
- Bring your needle up from underneath the fabric to the top at (1).
- Moving right to left, put the needle back down through the fabric at (2). The distance is up to you. The photo below shows the different effects you can get by varying the length and consistency of the stitches.
How to Embroider – BACKSTITCH
- From the top of the fabric, put the needle down at (1) and then come up at (2) a short distance away. When you are testing this stitch, try putting the stitches 1/4 inch (6mm) apart. Once you get experienced, you can do any distance. Smaller stitches tend to look neater.
- From the top, put the needle back into your first stitch at (3) and come up an equal distance away from (2). This will be point (4).
- Repeat until you have a line of stitching!
- The first time you do this stitch it will probably be in a straight row but next time, experiment with curves. Backstitch can make nice flower and plant stems.
After you have learned how to embroider the first 6 stitches, it is time to move on to more! Even though I have called them intermediate, they are still relatively easy and just build on some of the embroidery basics above.
All the links below will lead your to full detailed articles with loads of step by step pictures.
- Couching Embroidery Tutorial (stitching over threads to give texture)
- Double Herringbone Stitch (geometric looking stitch for contrasting threads)
- Faggoting Embroidery (stitch used to join edges of fabrics)
- Feather Stitch (feathery, free flowing stitch)
- Fishbone Stitch (solid-looking stitch that makes leaves)
- Fly Stitch (Y shape stitches which can be joined to form leaves)
- French Knots (makes nice small cluster flowers)
- Herringbone Stitch (geometric stitch)
- Lazy Daisy (pretty flowers)
- Sashiko Embroidery (Japanese style running stitch)
- Satin Stitch (solid stitching for shapes, flowers and leaves)
- Seed Stitch Embroidery (Rice Stitch)
- Stem Stitch (just as it sounds! great for stems)
- Straight Stitch (these are a group of simple stitches)
- Web Stitch | Embroidery Tutorial (look like spider webs and can be used for flowers)
- Whip Stitch
How to Embroider – Embroidery Basics – In Conclusion
Starting out with embroidery basics and learning how to embroider should never have to tie you in knots. The best advice is to start simple and find a small motif that inspires you. Join a group or forum of other embroiders who will gladly give you some guidelines and then as you build the confidence you will be stitching away and loving your new-found hobby.