An Introductory Guide to Whitework Embroidery

Stitch in a single color and produce something that's of heirloom quality.

overhead view of cutlery on white traditional tea tablecloth
Photo: Brett Stevens / Getty Images

While you may believe that color is the key to embroidery, stitching in a monochromatic singularity is just as stunning. That is the simplicity, freshness, and elegance of whitework embroidery. Fine white linen was the fabric of choice for embroidery until about 1902, when tinted brown or ecru linen became popular as it complemented the dark, polished wooden furniture of the time. Whitework was found in bedsheets, tablecloths, and other household linens of a bygone era. Today, the technique affords you an opportunity to produce heirloom-quality work.

While this technique makes use of familiar stitches like the stem stitch, chain stitch, satin stitch, French knots, and so on, people more commonly associate the style of whitework with specific stitches—eyelets, pulled thread work, and padded satin.

Tools and Materials

In whitework, it is a form of embroidery in which the materials are reflected in the finished piece, so it is best to always use the highest quality supplies.

Pure natural fabrics such as linen or cotton are ideal, choosing a high thread count and tight weave. As with any embroidery project, you can use six-stranded floss. However, there are some specialty threads such as floche and broder special, which are both beautifully suited to whitework. Floche thread is one of the finest of cotton embroidery threads—thicker with a soft, mercerized finish and sheen—and best used in padding. Broder special consists of four non-divisible strands, producing a smooth surface and high luster. It's ideal for very delicate stitches such as openwork and cutwork as well as for fine motifs such as monograms and initials. Of course, variegated silk threads (such as Gloriana 12-ply) can be added to your embroidery to create special effects. Use these other supplies in your kit: needles, scissors, awl, and an embroidery hoop. A magnifying light can be helpful when working in this style of embroidery.

Handling and Treatment of Fabric

It is always a good idea to wash your fabric before stitching to pre-shrink it, or remove creases or wrinkles. (The exception to this rule is when using printed fabric, which could be distorted in the wash.) It's important to keep your embroidery clean and free of dust while you are stitching; otherwise, you'll be unpleasantly surprised by marks and stains that ruin the finished result.

Stitches to Know

Outline stitches are used to define a shape before it is filled; this provides a clean, precise edge and is most effective with a thicker thread for a raised texture. The running stitch is used for outlining shapes, and as padding for shapes and lines. The backstitch is used to outline small shapes and the whipped split stitch is a quick way of working a solid raised line. In eyelet holes, a small running stitch or backstitch will outline the circular outline. To fill in these shapes, the satin stitch is worked back and forth to produce padding. French knots, dot stitches, and laid stitches all result in additional texture. Try different ones to various results.

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