Embroidery is a technique that allows you to create designs with needle and thread.
People have been decorating their clothing and household linen with embroidery for thousands of years, and though today machine embroidery has taken over the decoration of cloth objects and knitting and crochet are often preferred as being more easily portable, there is still a large community of hand-embroiderers that create little gems with needle and thread.
Can I Embroider With My Sewing Supplies?
The short answer is: yes, but why would you want to?
Embroidery requires many of the basic supplies that are used in sewing - needles and thread. But embroidering with sewing thread is not much fun, as sewing thread is much thinner than embroidery floss and is meant to be invisible, whereas embroidery thread, whether cotton floss or silk, is meant to stand out.
And you can’t thread embroidery floss through the eye of a sewing needle - they’re too small and thin. Depending on the kind of embroidery you are doing, sewing needles are also too flimsy and might bend when pulling the thick floss through the thicker embroidery fabrics.
Thick fabric scissors are unwieldy and impractical for the fine work necessary when embroidering.
Even if you don’t embroider very often, a few simple embroidery needles don’t cost much and I personally like to use my embroidery scissors to snip thread when hand-sewing. You can buy your floss as you go and use any leftovers for basting.
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Choosing the Right Embroidery Equipment: Needles
Embroidery needles are thicker than sewing needles and have a much larger eye. They come in different lengths, with sharp ends and blunt ones. But which ones are good for what?
Crewel needles look a lot like normal sewing needles. They are fairly long and, though the eye is somewhat longer, the body of the needle is still fairly thin. They are used for surface work such as - as their name suggests - crewelwork.
Chenille needles have a fairly short shaft and a large eye for the fluffy chenille wool. They are sharp to pierce densely-woven fabrics. They are perfect for chenille work and ribbon embroidery, but a lot of embroiderers prefer them to crewel needles for surface work and crewel.
Tapestry needles look like chenille needles, but are blunt. Tapestry work and most counted stitch work (such as cross-stitch or blackwork) is done on fabrics with a very loose weave. There is no need to puncture the fabric; the blunt needle pushes the fabric weave aside, resulting in less fraying as the embroidery thread is passed through.
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One of the little joys of embroidery are the pretty scissors. They have fairly short, very thin blades and fairly small finger loops and are usually decorated in some way.
The traditional embroidery scissors have storks on them, but you can get them with other motifs as well, such as owls or even unicorns; or in a variety of other fun or elegant styles.
You might want to get thread nippers as well, though I like to unpick rather than snip anything I have redo. To unpick, you can use a very small crochet hook, the blunt end of seam rippers or the eye end of your needles.
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Embroidery Hoops and Frames
In embroidery, it’s very important to keep your fabric taut so it doesn’t pinch together while sewing, making unseemly ripples and stretching your piece out of shape. That’s why there are way of stretching your fabric. Early embroiderers used frames, but from about the 18th century, tambour frames - originally used to make tambour lace - became popular.
Tambour frames or embroidery hoops
Tambour frames became popular because they are not as bulky as the traditional frames. To work a frame comfortably, it needs to be set up on trestles or a special foot; but embroidery hoops can be held in one hand while you embroider with the other.
Embroidery hoops are made of two wooden hoops, one slightly larger than the other. The outer hoop can be tightened around the inner one using a small screw.
To stretch your fabric into a hoop, first lay it down over the inner frame, making sure the area you want to embroider is within the frame. Then carefully place the outer hoop over it and tighten the screw. As you tighten, gently tug the sides of your piece until it’s taut. Make sure the fabric doesn’t pinch, especially around the screw, or you might damage the fabric or the finished embroidery.
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If traditional embroidery hoops have a fault, it’s the screw. Fabric easily becomes pinched around it and somehow, no matter how you turn it, your thread always manages to get caught in it while you work.
There are modern embroidery hoops where the inner hoop is made of plastic and the outer made of an elastic, rubbery substance. Instead of dealing with screws, you simply slip the rubber loop over the inner one and gently tauten your fabric. No more pesky screws, and many of them come with screw-in eyelets so you can hang up your finished masterpiece without taking it out of the hoop.
A current trend is to use embroidery hoops a bit like picture frames to hang up small pieces of embroidery (or other crafts). Sometimes the hoop is decorated, sometimes it is left as is.
Some haberdasheries offer tiny hoops, 3-4 cm in diameter, for mini projects such as Christmas ornaments or embroidered gift tags.
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Tapestry and embroidery frames and stretcher bars
If the hoop is so practical, why do haberdasheries still sell frames?
Most traditional frames are rectangular, held together with butterfly screws. The upper and lower beams often have a sleeve to fasten the fabric in place, while the side beams have holes in them for stretching the fabric taut.
You need to either sew a sturdy fabric to the sides or embroider on something sturdy in of itself, as you need to thread a cord through the side holes and along the sides of the work. You pull on the cord to stretch your fabric.
As you can see, not only is an embroidery frame very bulky, it is complicated to set up and you need to be very careful when stretching your fabric.
There can be several reasons for preferring frames over hoops:
- You can set up long pieces in a frame - table runners or long strips for a skirt hem, for example - using the top and bottom beams to roll up the extra fabric. This is kinder on the part that you have already embroidered, which can be crushed when you screw a hoop on over it. Needlepoint and tapestry stitchers rarely use hoops.
- Somewhat counter-intuitively, frames are better for delicate fabrics. While a hoop might stretch and tear it, if you sew it onto a sturdy fabric and stretch that onto a frame, you can embroider on delicate silk and chiffon.
- Frames need less extra fabric. If you are working on expensive fabric, you can use as much as you need without having to leave a large margin for the hoop. Anyone who has ever tried to embroider the edge of a fabric in a hoop can tell you: use a frame or stretcher bars.
There are many variations: roll frames that scroll without the side tension, snap frames, stretcher bars that you can mix-and-match to fit your piece exactly….
Learn these simple beginner embroidery stitches...
Choosing Your Thread
Stranded cotton is the most common embroidery thread, the one you will most easily find at a haberdasher’s. It is generally 6-ply, loosely wound, and separates fairly easily so you can choose the thickness of your embroidery. DMC and Anchor are the two main producers of cotton ply or embroidery floss, as it is also called.
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Perle cotton is non-divisible two-ply thread and takes its name from its appearance: as though it were made up of tiny beads strung along the thread. Wonderful for surface embroidery that plays on three-dimensionality and optics.
After stranded cotton and perle cotton, the third easiest thread to find at your local sewing shop. Wool has wonderfully rich, warm colours and a homey, fuzzy feel.
The king of embroidery threads, silk is delicate and has a soft, rich sheen. It is perfect for elegant pieces in brilliant colours and is often used in needle-painting.
There are many others threads out there - chenille thread, crewel yarn, tapestry yarn, metallic threads (real or imitation), ribbons… Dare to try them out on small projects (maybe in one of your mini embroidery hoops?). Use them to set accents or provide contrast in a little project so you don’t need to buy more than one colour to start with, and see how they feel to you.
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You can embroider on almost anything, though very fine and delicate fabrics such as silk need very fine needles which means a lot of stitching headaches. To start out, you might want to try traditional embroidery fabrics.
Linen is usually woven in a very simple weave (called linen weave) that makes it ideal for embroidery. Finer linen can be embroidered with surface stitching for tablecloths or cute little embroidery hoop art, while looser weaves can be used for counted-stitch embroidery - though we recommend that beginners start with special evenweave or Aida fabrics.
Evenweave is a very, very loose linen weave and comes in cotton, linen and other materials. As a loose weave is best for counted-stitch embroidery that will cover the whole canvas, such as needlepoint, brickstitch or certain cross-stitch patterns; in tighter weaves it looks nice with pattern embroidery such as blackwork or redwork. It is also common for openwork such as hardanger.
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Aida may not look it, but it is an even weave as well - all the threads are perpendicular to each other and spaced evenly apart. However, its particularity is in producing little boxes that give it less of a net-like appearance, making it perfect for embroidery involving individual motifs. It is also ideal for cross-stitch because you don’t have to think about where you let out your needle: just stitch your cross over the little boxes.
Most ready-to-stitch accessories such as bath towels or table runners will have bands of Aida fabric for your embroidery.
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Other Useful Tools and Accessories for Embroidery
Even if your eyesight is good, you might want to invest in an embroidery magnifying glass. They can be bolted on to your work table or come as a stand, and are great if you are doing very fine work or counted-thread embroidery, where they help you focus on the area you are working on without getting distracted by what you just finished and what is yet to come.
When embroidering, you will often finish one element of a motif before moving on to the next - but still have some thread of one colour left over that you can use where the colour turns up again. There are tabletop thread sorters that are basically colour-sorted mini-pincushions (for those crazy enough to have one needle per colour), others that let you tie the threads on, and individual little thread sorters for smaller projects that you can sew onto your huswif or embroidery roll.
Huswifs and other sewing boxes
Embroiderers are suckers for special sewing boxes, bags, books and those special rolls called huswifs. A little sewing kit, in whatever form, will include a scissors sheath, needlebook, possibly an additional pincushion and some thread sorters and/or a little bag for thread and snippets.
Special types of embroidery such as ribbon embroidery or goldwork will need some specialised supplies, so make sure you read up before you launch yourself in a new techniques.
Discover also the history of embroidery...
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