What sewing enthusiast hasn’t stood in awe in front of a 13th-century embroidered cope or richly-decorated Chinese court dress? Who hasn’t stared at the elaborate designs of 18th-century coats and admired the needlework?
Not everyone who learns how to sew is interested in learning to embroider. Some are daunted by the variety of stitches while others prefer to keep their sewing simple. But if you are one of those who have always felt drawn to the world of painting in coloured thread, but don’t know where to start – this blog is for you.
The history of embroidery dates to the Bronze Age. In China silk embroidery can be traced back to the 5th-3rd centuries BC; at around that time we have the first finds of embroidered textiles in Greece.
In Europe, the earliest pieces use stem stitch, chain stitch and split stitch. In Late Antiquity, the roundels and bands of decoration found on Coptic robes and vestments were sometimes embroidered using those techniques; remains of Dark Age embroideries show that couched goldwork was already used to make borders (such as on the outer garment of Merovingian queen Arnegunde, 6th century AD) and panels in a technique that mature into the rich Opus Anglicanum of the Middle Ages (the Maaseik embroideries, 10th century).
Several techniques were used to make the amazing medieval wall hangings that have mostly survived from monasteries. The most famous of them all, the Bayeux tapestry, was made in a laid-and-couch method called Bayeux stitch or refilsaum, a technique otherwise common only in Scandinavia. Another couched stitch called Klosterstitch was popular in Northern Germany, while German brick stitch was used on tapestries, pillows, bags and pouches all over Europe.
The most elaborate and beautiful techniques were:
Starting the Renaissance, more pieces have survived using a variety of different stitches for surface work. Blackwork was very popular in the Elizabethan period, whereas the 18th-century saw the rise of ribbon embroidery in France, a technique that soon spread to other countries along with French fashion.
Tapestry or carpet-work became very popular in the 19th century, when cross-stitch slowly gained the popularity it knows today.
Embroidery needles, a hoop and embroidery cotton are some basic supplies to get started with. Photo credit: pinprick on Visual hunt
You are learning how to sew and already have a stash of embroidery supplies – you’re ready to start embroidering, right?
Not exactly. While if all you want to do is add little doodle flowers to a bag every few months, your normal sewing needle will do fine (though you will have a job threading it with embroidery floss), if you want to practice embroidery with anything like regularity you will have to invest in some embroidery tools. Fortunately, they are not very expensive.
To start with, you should probably buy one or two chenille needles if you are working normal cloth; tapestry needles if you are working evenweave or thick fabric with a loose weave. Unless you invest in enough needles to have one for every colour you want to use on your beginner embroidery project, the large eye of chenille needles will save you a lot sweat and tears when threading, and is kinder on your embroidery floss if you are using it thick.
Once you have mastered the basics you might want to try out crewel needles for finer work.
Additionally you will need:
While you can embroider with almost any thread or wool (beginners should stay away from normal sewing thread, but you are more advanced you can used it for miniature projects such as dollhouse upholstery), embroidery floss was invented for a reason. Don’t go cheap – Anchor and DCM aren’t that expensive and embroidering with them is a dream.
You can stitch onto any fabric, but a special evenweave embroidery fabric is perfect for beginner projects, as you know your stitches will be even. If you are doing cross-stitch, Aida fabric is a good choice.
So you have your basic sewing supplies for your first venture into embroidery. Now you simply sit down and try out some basic embroidery stitches.
You can. There is a whole fashion of naive embroidery designs done almost entirely in backstitch, that staple of hand sewing. But if you really want to experience embroidery, dare to discover the wide range of stitches and techniques, and let your imagination fly.
One stitch that you find in a great many styles and techniques is the stem stitch. So called because it is often used for plant stems in floral designs, it is a good stitch for curves and is often used to outline designs.
Chain stitch and split stitch are common stitches for more ornamental lines, and wrapped backstitch is an easy and visually interesting way to decorate.
The most-used filler or surface stitches is satin stitch, which is found in a great number of techniques including needle painting and whitework.
Counted-stitch embroidery often covers the whole surface of the fabric in designs needing you to count the number and position of your stitches; stitches used are cross-stitch, petit point, bargello and Holbein.
Of course, there are many more: buttonhole stitch, long-arm cross-stitch, Cretan stitch, sheaf stitch…
Embroider cushions and pillowcases with a variety of lovely embroidery stitches. Photo credit: The Stitch Up on Visual hunt
From several simple stitches, each culture and region has elaborated very distinct embroidery styles, each with their own stunning visuals. From Hungarian redwork curtains to Japanese Shashiko embellishments for your patched trousers, there are hundreds of different techniques to discover and explore.
Hesitant to hare off on your own? Need advice and tips for beginner embroiderers?
“Embroidery for absolute Beginners” by Susie Johns starts with the basics of how to put your work in the hoop and transfer patterns and ends with taking care of your newly-embroidered totes and pillows. If you are looking for a wealth of different stitches, try out Lucinda Ganderton’s “Embroidery Stitches Step by Step”. If you are looking to learn a specific style of embroidery, look to the Royal School of Needlework’s “Essential Stitch Guides” and “A-Z of…” titles.
If you prefer to learn embroidery online (and for free), The Spruce and Needle ‘n Thread have easy-to-follow instructions on basic (and exotic) stitches and forays into international and historical embroidery styles.
Embroidery lessons can be one-on-one or a class with a whole group of embroidery enthusiasts. Photo credit: City of Boston Archives on Visualhunt.com
If you want to devote three to five years to becoming a professional embroiderer, The Royal School of Needlework and the Manchester School of Art offer programs in embroidery and embroidery design.
For beginner embroidery classes, you can try the Victoria and Albert Museum or the London Embroidery School.
Don’t hesitate to go to your brick-and-mortar haberdashery to see if they offer beginner embroidery classes. Many do, or if they don’t they might have leaflets advertising an embroidery course near you.
But if you can’t make it to London or the other community centres offering embroidery courses, why not try to learn to embroider online? The Embroiderer’s Guild has a series of embroidery classes you can take; or if you are interested in historical embroidery, Thistle Threads offers online courses.
Or why not try out a private tutor? Here at Superprof, you can choose your own private tutor for at-home or online needlework courses, including embroidery.
Your local haberdasher’s can probably offer you a series of beginner embroidery kits to get you started on your first cross-stitch project. Commercial kits tend to focus on cross-stitch and needlepoint, but you can find some blackwork, redwork and crewelwork kits, too, if you know where to look.
Embroidery kits are a good way to see if you like the hobby and want to keep up with it. Photo credit: merwing✿little dear on Visual Hunt
The Internet, of course, is filled with free embroidery patterns and charts. Just Google what you are looking for and you are sure to find something. But to get you started, we recommend you stop by The Spruce or Needle ‘n Thread and look at their free downloadable patterns – you’re sure to find something there!