The impulse to embellish fabric with decorative stitches dates back thousands of years, and at least one thing about embroidery hasn't changed in all that time: No matter how complicated-looking the result, embroidery is remarkably easy. If you can use a needle and thread, you can embroider.
Eight basic stitches are shown here, and with a little practice, you should find them versatile enough to create a wide variety of lovely, personalized embroideries.
What You'll Need:
Finding the ideal surface for your creation is half the fun. Choose fabrics with a visible weave. Linen is ideal, but woven cottons or wool are also suitable. Felt, though dense, is especially nice, because it is easy to use. Natural cream and white are the traditional backgrounds, but pastels and brighter or deeper colors will allow for more dramatic effects.
Thread and yarn for embroidery come in many colors and textures. The standard is cotton embroidery floss, a glossy thread made up of 6 strands that can be separated from one another to create finer weights. Silk and rayon threads also come in divisible strands. (Two strands are good for most woven fabrics; a single strand will do for lightweight vintage fabric.) Wool yarn comes in 3- or 4-ply weight and cannot be separated into strands, so it is best suited to heavy fabrics such as canvas or the thickest linen. Be careful about bending the rules here: Bulky thread on fine fabric will pucker the material; light threads embroidered on heavy cloth can be difficult to see. Only when a thread is the proper weight for a particular material will it create the desired appearance: gently raised stitches with a satin finish on a smooth background.
When choosing a design, you can always go to crafts and fabric stores for ready-to-use iron-on transfers; but leafing through clip-art or vintage picture books can give you many more ideas. Calligraphy primers, coloring books, and old Christmas cards are rich sources for letters and numbers, and field guides can be helpful if you want to embroider birds, trees, leaves, or flowers. Look around your own house, too: Even a cookie cutter can give you a pleasing design to trace.
Any image that can be drawn with a pencil can be embroidered with a needle and thread. Embroidery, like most art forms, benefits from the innovations of the times. Use photocopiers to reduce or enlarge an image. Explore the Internet's thousands of images. Try drawing software to experiment with your computer until you get an image that's just right. Designs can be transferred onto fabric in several ways. A heat-transfer pencil lets you draw a design (in reverse) onto tracing paper and iron it directly onto fabric, like a store-bought transfer. Or you can use a "light table." Make your own by balancing a piece of glass between two chairs and placing a lamp beneath the glass. Lay the design on the glass, and place the fabric over it; use a sharp dressmaker's pencil or a disappearing-ink marker to trace the design onto the fabric. If you place your fabric in an embroidery hoop, be sure it is taut, like a drum. This will help keep the tension even.
An embroiderer's tools include:
1 and 2: Dressmaker's carbon paper and iron-on transfers for printing a temporary design on fabric
3: Silk thread -- similar in weight to floss -- for higher sheen
4: Wool yarn for canvas and other heavy fabrics
5: Cotton embroidery thread, often called floss, the most common and versatile thread
6: Linen thread, for a matte, nubby effect
7: A hot-iron transfer pencil, for drawing a design onto tracing paper, then ironing it onto fabric
8: A disappearing-ink marker for drawing directly onto fabric
9: Embroidery scissors for snipping very close to the fabric for the tidiest results
10: Embroidery needles -- fine, sharp needles for fine cloth; larger, blunt-ended needles for canvas
This sampler's versions of the letter "E" employ several shades of pink-cotton and rayon embroidery floss to create a glossary of the most basic embroidery stitches. We used typography books to find the letters, then transferred them onto homespun linen. The stitches shown are:
1: Stem stitch and satin stitch
2: Blanket stitch
3: Backstitch with satin stitch
4: Satin stitch and stem stitch
5, 8, 11, 12, and 13: Chain stitch
7: French knots
10: Satin stitch
Learn the Stitches: Backstitch
The backstitch is the easiest embroidery stitch. Insert needle from wrong side of fabric, coming out at 1. Insert needle at 2, pull back out at 3, and pull thread tight. Insert needle again at 1, and pull it out past 3 at a distance equal to length of the previous stitches. This is the first step for the next stitch; insert needle into 3, and continue.
A cousin to the backstitch, the stemstitch creates a ropelike effect. Insert needle from wrong to right side, coming out at 1. Insert the needle at 2 at a slight diagonal, and pull through at 3 (halfway between 1 and 2). Repeat stitching, keeping thread on the left side of the needle and making sure stitches are all the same length.
Made at an angle or straight across, these side-by-side stitches known as the satin stitch fill in the outlines of a design that incorporates shape or width. Insert needle from wrong to right side, coming out at 1. Insert needle at 2, and pull it back through at 3, right next to 1. Keep the stitches tight and flat to ensure a smooth finish.
Long and Short Stitch:
The long and short stitch is used to blend colors or create a feathery texture. Insert needle from wrong to right side, coming out at 1, insert at 2, come out at 3, and insert again at 4. Repeat for next tier. If desired, change colors and use the same technique for the following tiers, piercing the stitches in the previous tier.
The French knot is useful for creating a raised point of emphasis, like the center of a flower. Insert needle from wrong to right side, coming out at 1. Holding thread taut with one hand, wrap it twice around the needle close to fabric. Reinsert needle close to 1, keeping thread taut as needle is pulled through to back.
To make the cross stitch, first stitch a row of evenly spaced diagonal lines. Then stitch diagonally back over the first row, creating crosses as you go. Use the same holes when you can. Bottom stitches on entire project should all slant one way and the top stitches the other way.
This is a common finishing stitch for blanket edges. If using as a decorative edge, work so that base of the U goes along the edge of fabric. For lightweight fabrics, stitch along the finished edge. Insert the needle from the wrong to the right side, coming out at 1. Insert at 2. Come out again at 3; hold the thread under the needle with your thumb as you pull tight.