Embroidering Stuff: How-To

I can’t actually remember when I started to embroider. But I found a half-finished pre-stamped crewel piece of a frog on a toadstool saying “kiss me!” in a box of my old books, so clearly I have been embroidering for a good long time–at least 30 years. And the funny thing is that I’m still not an expert. There are dozens of techniques and stitches that I still want to learn.


I’ve done crewel, freestyle, cross-stitch, needlework, needlepainting, blackwork, whitework, redwork, some ribbon embroidery, a bit of crochet lace and smocking, and now stumpwork. So while I’m not an expert, I’ve done enough to be able to give some pointers to people looking for a place to start:

1. Cheapest: Needlepainting

Use a small needle and the threads you already have! Make tiny straight stitches in different colours to sketch or “paint” out the picture you want to make. Draw the picture directly on the fabric first, though, so you’ll have something to follow. If you have a good pattern to use, fantastic; otherwise, you’re best off if you already know how to draw fairly well, because it’s a lot of the same skills. Chloe Gordiano is a master of this.

2. Easiest: Cross stitching

There’s a reason this one still has its own magazines, and the rest don’t: it’s basically colour-by-numbers on the fabric equivalent of graph paper. If you want to put a cross-stitch design on a non-aida fabric (like the back pocket on a pair of blue jeans, or a shirt lapel), get yourself some waste canvas; you baste this stuff on top of the regular fabric, complete the cross stitch design, take out the basting stitches and pull the waste canvas out from underneath the stitches. (Trust me, it works.)

It’s also fairly inexpensive. It uses six-stranded cotton embroidery floss you can typically get for $0.5/skein or less, and aida cloth is similarly priced. Get yourself a cheap plastic hoop and a couple of tapestry needles, and you’re good to go.

3. Trendiest:  “freestyle”

This is the kind of embroidery found in Sublime Stitching or Doodlestitching books and patterns. Easy, cute, fun. A few basic stitches: back stitch, straight stitch, maybe a split or chain stitch, satin stitch if you’re feeling ambitious.

4. Best introductory book: Mastering the Art of Embroidery

Sophie Long covers an enormous range of different kinds and styles of embroidery in her large and absolutely beautiful book. Not only does it include a survey of different styles of embroidery and the main stitches of each, as well as some basic projects, she includes interviews with proficient artists in those crafts, and absolutely amazing photographs of completed work. The kind of thing that will make your jaw drop open. It is a great combination of inspiration, information and instruction.

It is not the kind of book that will help you master any one technique (no one book could do that); it is the kind of book that will help you figure out what kind of embroidery you might like to try, and where to start.

Also, Sophie Long is a graduate of the Royal School of Needlework in London.

5. Most fun and inspirational embroidery book: Hoopla

Many, many photographs of finished works by professional embroidery artists doing amazing and unexpected things, as well as interviews and a handful of projects and ideas. Ever seen cross stitch on a wooden door or car hood? Right, well. There you go.

6. Best intermediate embroidery books: the Royal School of Needlework Essential Stitch Guide series

The existence of the Royal School of Needlework in London, and the sad lack of any such institution here in Canada, often makes me wish I could pack up and move to Britain for a few years. This is a degree granting institution, people. In hand-sewing. And the work their graduates do is just breath-taking.

Also, their graduates publish a series of instructional books on a wide variety of different kinds of embroidery: crewel, whitework, blackwork, goldwork, stumpwork, and more. They’re small and relatively inexpensive and you can trust the information in them.

7. If you ever get to the point where you’re looking for embroidery books at a higher-than-intermediate level, you won’t need my help or anyone else’s. At that point, you’ll know the experts and the artists by name yourself, and trot after their exhibits and books and magazine articles happily wherever they lead. However, if you do want to browse some embroidery eye-candy, you can find my embroidery bookshelf on GoodReads here. There’s also a fair number of pattern books for different embroidery styles, if you’re the kind of person who loves to embroider but hates to draw out the pattern first.

8. Embroidery magazine well worth the cover and shipping charges: Inspirations

An Australian embroidery magazine with a very impressive roster of regular artists who contribute projects and articles. Everything about the magazine is very high quality, and their projects are helpfully organized by skill-level and type. You’ll find every kind of embroidery in it, with really fantastic photography. I’ve got more projects dog-eared in back issues of this magazine than I will ever have the time to make.

9. Inspirational web haunts: the Mr. X-stitch and &Stitches Flickr boards

Among others. You’ll see a lot of overlap, but there’s a good amount of really impressive embroidery on the internet. (And a lot of crap, of course.)

10. Embroiderers to Stalk on the Internet

Not including websites already linked to above…

Sophie Long

Jane Nicholas, stumpwork guru.

Mary Corbet, does just about everything well

Michelle Carragher, costume embroiderer, including Game of Thrones

4 thoughts on “Embroidering Stuff: How-To

  1. Thank you so much for this comprehensive list! I’m more of a wishful embroiderer than anything else, but I love looking at books and websites and dreaming of the gorgeous stuff I’ll make… or not.

  2. The Michelle Charragher site is amazing. It’s a long way from the little kits I used to get as a kid (I never finished the little lamb with the french knots! Too complicated!)

    1. I never finished the frog. 😉 Well, obviously.

      The Michelle Carragher site is amazing, you’re right. What she does is just incredible. I hope they’re paying her what she’s worth.

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