Embroidery is Cool Again

But only if it’s on clothes. I think? Are my wall hangings and cushions cool yet? I didn’t think so.

This is a brain dump for those of you who might want to try hand embroidery on your handmade (or storebought, I suppose) clothes: a few tips, some ideas, and resources for inspiration and instructions.

Tl/dr–because oh my god Dear Readers I may have said I have a “few tips” but this is a really long post–if you don’t have time to read the whole thing now, and I don’t blame you, but you are interested in embroidered clothes, scroll all the way down to the bottom, read the last paragraph, and let me know what you think.

START SMALL

I mean, it’s not a requirement, no. But just as you probably would not start sewing your own clothes with a wedding dress or a tailored suit, you are best off to start embroidering a simple project. That doesn’t mean that the embroidery has to be simple necessarily (more on that below) but that the overall project doesn’t require a lot of assembly time. It’s awful to spend 15 hours assembling a dress and 40 hours embellishing it and then have it all go to waste because the embellishment didn’t turn out well enough. So, some ideas of small ways to incorporate embroidered embellishments into wearables that are low-effort and often reversible:

1. Buttons. Self-covered buttons are perfect for embroidery. Keep the thickness of the fabric in mind and for a thin or delicate textile, you will still need to stabilize (see below).

pretty cross stitch rose buttons:
Pedagogical note: Those stitches are perfectly square and even. The threads completely cover the canvas. All the stitches are formed in the same direction. This is your goal with cross-stitch.

2. Wearable hoops (wood or metal). Turn them into necklaces. I prefer the look of the metal ones but both are super cute.

3. Perforated goods. Perforated iphone cases for embroidery; perforated wooden charms for jewelry; perforated paper or plastic for bookmarks or decorations. And of course with paper or cardstock, you can just perforate it yourself and stitch away.

Rilke bookmark. Involved some small motifs taken from books, traced to book page, pattern pre-perforated along with the text, then stitched with mostly straight stitches and a few french knots.

If a needle can go through it, you can embroider it: even wood or metal if you have a drill with a small bit and a very steady hand. People have embroidered chicken wire and window screening, but unless it’s going to be inside that seems a lot of effort for something that will fall apart quickly.

4. Pouches. Make a small zippered pouch and embroider a piece of it. Small, quick, and if you don’t like it, chances are it’s being carried inside something else anyway.

Mexican Embroidered Pouch Lapicero by EricaMaree on Etsy:
Not mine. But super super cute.

5. Purses. You can have a lot of fun trying large, colourful, experimental embroidery techniques on a project that doesn’t take long to put together, is super practical, very pretty, and unlike embroidered clothes is rarely ever going to be completely out of style. The embroidered project I get the most use out of is still the shoulder bag I made years and years ago. And it still gets compliments.

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6. Small non-wearables: bookmarks. Eyemasks. Pictures for framing. Cushions. Holiday decorations. Pincushions. Needlebooks. Wallets.

HOW TO

1. Stabilize. Stabilize stabilize stabilize. (Stabilizers are interfacings applied to the back of non-embroidery fabrics to make them suitable for embroidery.) Your garment fabrics are not stiff enough or strong enough to support hand stitching. If you stitch directly on the garment fabric without stabilizing, it will warp and ripple. You can use a permanent, tear-away or soluble stabilizer, depending on how the finished garment will hang, but for the love of god: stabilize. (If you look inside storebought embroidered clothes you will often still see the stabilizer in place.)

Also: the design should work in concert with both the weight and the density of the textile being embroidered. Something light or gauzy or with a loose weave should have light, loose stitches. A densely packed or highly detailed pattern will work best on a densely woven fabric with some body: dense linen, muslin, poplin, crepe, and so on. Stabilizers can only do so much and they won’t transform a lightweight material into something suitable for a very heavy stitch. Whitework can be an exception to this, but it’s a lot more delicate than it looks and is hard to execute on a lightweight fabric.

2. Fibres: The most common type of embroidery floss is stranded cotton. Cotton is great; but cotton can shrink. Don’t pull your stitches too tight. Sometimes, the colours bleed. I recommend doing a test swatch with your garment fabric, a stabilizer, and a few stitches of the kind you are planning, thrown in the wash and then dried on hot to see if the floss bleeds or the stitches contract. Also applies to wool and silk fibres (wool won’t come in strandable flosses, but silk does).

There are synthetic fibres that won’t shrink, but they are shinier and/or sparklier than the natural fibres, so it will make for a different look. Most machine embroidery threads, both to buy and on embroidered storebought clothes, will be poly or rayon.

A standard craft store will typically carry only cotton stranded floss, and maybe perle cotton. If you want to branch out, go online or find a specialty embroidery or cross stitch store. There’s one in Port Credit I love for anyone in the GTA. If you google embroidery store, you will probably find businesses that provide machine embroidery services, so try “cross stitch store,” “needlework store,” or “petit point store.”

One last note of warning is that the chemicals used to treat leather and suede will degrade natural fibres, so if you’re going to embroider on hides, use synthetics.

3. Weights: Embroidery threads can be super super fine or very heavy. Also, there’s no need to restrict yourself to threads sold in the embroidery aisle. On a heavy fabric, try knitting yarn (I used yarn on that shoulder bag) or crochet thread. Do a woven rose with lace trim, or use a narrow lace in a running stitch or french knot. Thread painting is often done with sewing thread. Ribbons make gorgeous flowers, but you don’t have to use them for that. Use whatever you have that you can hook through a needle and pull through a textile.

4. Embellishments: Beads, sequins, goldwork–all good. Stabilizers will be even more important because embellishments are heavy. They will also alter the weight, and therefore the drape or line, of the finished garment. Just something to keep in mind.

18th century goldwork embroidery from south Germany. There are a variety of forms of metal here - sequins, plate, silver gilt thread and purl.:
From a post about 18th century goldwork on dresses. I don’t even want to think about how much that dress would have weighed. Pedagogical note: Perfectly symmetrical. Beautiful shading and blending between colours. Also expensive–a lot of this would be actual gold.

5. Knots: Knots should never be visible from the front side of a garment. This includes a knot that presses or pushes through to form a visible lump on the right side. Make Pretty Knots. Waste knots are a good way to start. If you want to tie regular knots, make them small, as close to the fabric as possible, and positioned well within the design area.

6. HOOPS: Just as important as stabilizers. If you don’t have a good firm tension on the textile surface, it will ripple and warp and you will have puckers and dents in your finished garment. You can use a standard embroidery hoop (the cheapest and easiest to find) or a scroll frame (harder to find but easier to use, and no hoop rings when you’re done).

IF YOU ARE EMBROIDERING PALE FABRIC: Your hands will leave stains on the fabric. Doesn’t matter how often you wash them. Put a strip of a very lightweight fabric or tissue paper between the fabric and the hoop/frame so that only the area to be embroidered is visible. Keep the fabric covered between embroidering sessions.

Your goal with a hoop is to have the entire embroidered area visible as you work. You can move the hoop, of course, but it will warp the fabric and any stitches you’ve already done, so try to avoid that if you can.

If you are embroidering a piece too small to be held properly in a hoop and that is going to be attached to a garment (pocket, yoke, collar, etc.), you have two options:

a) embroider it before you cut out the pattern piece, so that you have a large piece of fabric to securely attach in the hoop/frame
b) cut out the pattern piece, MARK THE SEAMLINES IN ADVANCE, baste it nice and taut to a larger piece of fabric that can fit in the hoop/frame securely. In this case the fabric it has been basted to will be the stabilizer and will remain a part of the fabric, so be careful in case your main fabric is sheer or light and the stabilizing fabric shows through.

7. Stitches: There are thousands of different kinds of embroidery stitches. You are limited only by what you yourself can produce with consistent size and tension on the fabric and project you’re working on. A beautifully consistent running stitch or cross stitch will be a thousand times prettier and more professional than the fanciest needlelace produced with inconsistent spacing and tension.

Stitches will leave permanent marks if removed, particularly on a good dense fabric (or hide), so consider from the outset if you are likely to get tired of the design and want to tear it out. Simpler larger stitches will leave fewer marks and be easier to remove if in the future you want to.

8. Use more than just thread: Multimedia works beautifully with embroidery. Some things to consider include fabric paints, dyes, screen printing, markers, pencil crayons, regular crayons (test first for running but usually it’s fine), and needle felting (yes on clothes–this will work best on wools and other feltable fabrics).

This gorgeous painting/embroidery combo isn’t on a piece of clothing–but it could be. And Missoni in 2011 did some beautiful multimedia embellishments on their collection:

9. Designs and transferring them:

You can buy an iron-on transfer or other design. (Sublime Stitching, Aimee Ray/Doodle Stitching, Mary Corbet (free), Trish Burr, Berlin Embroidery, Polka & Bloom — just to get you all started.)

poetry month-3-1
I made a needlebook out of a Sublime Stitching Pattern with a Sara Teasdale poem–another thing that gets a lot of use, and didn’t take too long. Pedagogical note: this uses heavy chain stitches, stem stitches, straight stitches, back stitches, and french knots on the border.

You can copy or trace one from a book or magazine. Sublime Stitching sells some nice pens and markers for making or tracing iron-on transfer patterns.

You can draw your own.

You can use simple designs that don’t need transfers, like a running stitch. In which case marking the stitch length and/or separation distance on a finger is the easiest way to produce consistent results.

You can trace the pattern or design directly to the fabric using a pencil, vanishing pen or a fine-tip sharpie/marker. Whatever you choose should be a fine enough line to be completely covered by your chosen thread.

You can use freezer paper or tracing paper, adhered or basted to the fabric, and sewn directly through.

IDEAS & INSPIRATION

A lot of the couture houses still do hand-embroidery as a staple part of their collections. To my mind Dolce and Gabbana and Chanel do it best, and I have stacks and stacks of pictures of their clothes torn from magazines for inspiration. But Google is your friend, too, if you just want to wander around and fall into a rabbit hole of pretty hand embroidered clothes. What they do–be warned–is not easy or quick. You’re probably talking a minimum of 40 hours just on the embroidery for any one of their garments, which is why they charge $10k for a dress.

Impressive collection of Dolce and gabbana dresses (4)

D&G is my favourite. It would take me a year just to make one of their dresses–but holy cow. Those flowers are thread-paintings–and enormous, so probably a hundred hours or so each.

Vogue and Elle (and sometimes Bazaar) are the best sources for embroidered clothing pictures. In the meantime, some Ways You Can Use Embroidery on Clothing Textiles:

1. Create a design on a solid fabric. This is the one people tend to think of first. Think placement. If you look at the fancy-pants embroidered clothes, you’ll notice the designs are hardly ever centred, and they usually are on the bodice, near the neckline and/or waist. Embroidery draws attention, so think of embellishment as you would a necklace, belt, etc.

Here’s an example from a pair of denim shorts I made a few years ago:

blog-6-5

I can’t remember where I pulled the pattern from, but this has french knots, chain stitches, satin stitches, fern stitches and stem stitches, worked in crewel wool, glittery synthetic floss, and perle cotton.

christie lake-9-6

I guess in this case I was thinking less “necklace or belt” and more “look at my butt.” But the embroidery is cute.

2. Complement or extend a design on a printed fabric. Outline a motif; add shading; fill something in; extend a flower with a bud. Put a bead or sequin in a flower centre. Thread paint over an existing printed element using the same colours for added texture.

Embroidery over print:
This one is not mine. Vogue Magazine is as close as I can get to its origins. Pedagogical note: The spacing between the stitches and beads is perfectly consistent. Look how smooth and even the fabric is around the beads–there is no pulling or warping at all.

3. Subvert a printed fabric. Put a spider or a fly near the flowers. Add a conversation bubble to a print with people on it, or change their clothes. Or give them little horns, or wings.

4. Completely overlay a printed fabric. Add words. Make a completely different kind of motif and just treat the existing pattern as a background: tattoo motif on a pretty floral. Pretty floral on an abstract or geometric print. Slogan on something retro or fussy.

5. Use blackwork stitches to provide a textured filling for an existing shape.

If it was good enough for Queen Elizabeth, it’s good enough for you

6. Use a running stitch for edge or top stitching. (Or another simple repeated stitch.) I did this on a shirt.

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7. Whitework to add tone-on-tone texture to a solid or muted print

Just like Jane Austen. Pedagogical moment: No visible knots. No pulling or warping–the fabric hangs perfectly straight despite the stitches. There are no borders or outlines, and yet the edges of the shapes are perfectly straight and even. You can’t see any knots; they will all be hidden within the stitching on the back, which I’d bet good money looks as good on the reverse as on the front. And check out that hem.

(Neither whitework nor blackwork need to be done with white or black threads; use a colour that suits the textile and project.)

8. Stitch a cross-stitch design on a gingham or other regular check pattern

Vintage 1950s Dress / 50s Pink Gingham Dress / 50s Pink Gingham Dress With Blue Embroidered Cross Stitch Star Design - S, M
On Etsy. Pedagogical moment: It is even more important to be perfectly even and consistent with a cross stitch on a non-evenweave/aida fabric. Look how even and straight the borders of the embroidered sections are. 

9. A fancy line-stitch along a seamline, like a fly stitch. Or along a pin-tuck or pleat. One caveat: if you have a lot of pin-tucks or pleats, take extra care to keep your stitches the same so they all start and end the same, and at the same points.

Top-left corner. Pictures from Inspirations Magazine, discussed below

10. Use waste canvas for any canvas stitching. Most common is cross-stitch but there’s lots of other options.

11. Insertion stitches to join two pieces together instead of a regular seam. Just remember that the insertion stitch is see-through. I did this with the borner on a Deer and Doe Chardon skirt last year.

bloggish-72
Please ignore the wrinkles: it’s linen, and it’s photo processing.

12. Pulled-thread embroidery to add texture and emphasis; again, it will be partially see-through.

13. Smocking instead of shirring.

14. Stumpwork for raised elements.

This is from a doll’s dress, and thank goodness, but you can see how it would work

RESOURCES

Books

Mastering the Art of Embroidery: eye candy and lots of different kinds of embroidery covered

Embroidery Stitch Bible: good visual resource of lots of different kinds of stitches with good descriptions and step-by-step photos

18th Century Embroidery Techniques: So many beautiful examples of embroidered clothing, along with pattern sketches and how they were done

Bags in Bloom: Great, simple purse patterns with nice and fairly easy to execute embroidery patterns for them. I’ve made a few and I still love and use them. If you like the embroidery patterns but would prefer a more complex bag, it’s easy enough to put the embroidery on any bag pattern you like.

Anything put out by the Royal School of Needlework

You can see my embroidery shelf on GoodReads here.

Magazines

Inspirations: Best embroidery magazine anywhere. Not a lot of clothing projects, but most of the ideas are transferable. They do have a lot of small projects like pincushions, pouches, needlebooks, and so on, that are a good way to practice stitching skills and make something practical, and a few times a year will carry a beautiful purse pattern.

Cross Stitcher: British cross-stitch magazine with lots of cute and modern project and pattern ideas. Of course, it’s all cross stitch, but they do it well.

There are no good embroidery magazines in North America. I don’t know why. South Africa, Australia and the UK seem to be where most of the really good publications and artists are based.

Websites and Blogs:

Mary Corbet (a bit of everything, and all done well)

Trish Burr (Thread painting. I love her birds.)

Feeling Stitchy (every Friday they feature an embroidery artist on instagram, which is how I found most of the ones I follow)

The Rebellious Needlewoman/Hazel Blomkamp

Instagram:

Jenny Hart & Sublime Stitching (first for her own art embroidery & second related to her store. She uses very few stitch types but shows just how effective that kind of simplicity can be.)

Sam Owen Hull (Fantastic, colourful and original mixed media)

Stray From the Line

Baobap (She makes the best buttons)

Heart of the Heart Embroidery

Forest Chorus (Her stitches are just perfect)

Marg Dier(I am so envious of her jewelry findings)

Victoria Matthewson (She bases her thread paintings on her nature photos and they are unbelievable)

Royal School of Needlework


So hey. This was an enormous pile of information. I hope it was of some use to those of you who are thinking about adding decorative hand stitching to clothes.

There’s a similar learning curve to embroidery as there is to garment sewing, and you’ll likely find as you go that projects that look amazing to you now look pretty handmade in a year or two.  Just like with handmade clothes, that’s not necessarily a problem, and no one who doesn’t sew or embroider is likely to notice.

The big difference is this: embroidery takes a lot more time than sewing.

Like an order of magnitude more time.

It’s a good idea to consider the time investment relative to your skill level when thinking about embroidering a piece of clothing. When you make a dress that took fifteen hours and in two years you realize that the seams are wonky and the hem’s crooked, it kind of sucks, but it only took fifteen hours. When you make a dress that takes fifteen hours to put together and then embroider it with a fancy design that takes forty hours, that’s now a total of 55 hours for a dress, and if you decide in two years that the dress is fine but the embroidery is amateurish–that lost time investment is going to smart more. It’ll be easier to swallow if the embroidery only took three hours because you kept it simple, or if the garment was fairly basic and didn’t take long to assemble.

That said, you should totally do it. Embroidered clothing is still better. Just recognize that you’re at the begging of a learning process similar to but much more complicated than the learning process involved in sewing your own clothes.

If I have the time and attention span, I might write a few posts in the next little while looking at an embroidered garment (couture or historical or whatever) and talking about what kind of embroidery it is, what you can figure out by looking at it, how it was done, and so on. What do you think? Is that something you’d like to read?

12 thoughts on “Embroidery is Cool Again”

  1. Thank you so much for posting all of this information!!! ❤ ❤ I can't wait to get started on my next project. I have to get some higher quality thread for my next project since I just used dollar store floss for my white dress (the shaaaame! my mom would be so shocked and appalled about that).

      1. It helps a lot! 🙂 I really want to try stump work for a picture, but I am stumped on what to use as the fabric base. Do you have any suggestions for that?

      2. What are you making?

        Generally something solid. The pros usually recommend a heavy silk like duchesse satin but considering I am not that fancy nor that rich I sub in polyester and that’s worked ok. Stumpwork is quite heavy and often involves a lot of holes and wires, though, so you want something good and thick with a high thread density, and even then it’s often backed with a stiff muslin to provide extra structure and support. If you’re working on something smaller and more lightweight you can get away with something lighter. Densely woven is better than loosely woven though.

        Jane Nicholas is a pro at this; any of her books are great. Her projects are often super complicated but the small ones or pieces of the big ones can be whipped up fairly quickly and are good for learning. Stumpwork Flowers by Sachiko Morimoto is a bit more beginner friendly.

      3. Thanks for the book recommendations! I wonder if I can get small cuts of duchesse satin. I could do a series of projects with a 1/4 metre. I was thinking just some small round pictures for the wall near my plants. Pictures of succulents or the other plants I have.

      4. That would be super pretty.

        I would definitely start with the Morimoto book–it’s all plants and even if you don’t copy the projects exactly she has good directions for things like stems and leaves etc. And I think she often uses linen or cotton; her stitching isn’t as heavy as Nicholas’s.

  2. Have you checked out Alabama Chanin? (www.alabamachanin.com) It’s a much more loose style that I didn’t like at first but now I love. I’ve made a t-shirt and a shawl, but it took me a very long time.

    1. I have but I’m not a huge fan. It’s a lot harder to pull of the homemade look than the professional look on purpose and well–you really really have to know what you’re doing IMO.

  3. This is fascinating! I’ve been seeing a lot Kore embroidery lately and think it’s so pretty! I’m actually planing on doing a few collars (they type you can button on to different bodices) with some kind-of beading or needle work. Would be totally interested in reading more!

  4. Beautiful post. I did a lot of needle work as a child but my eyes are totally shot now. Even readers and a magnifying glass don’t help. Sigh. It’s so very pretty.

    1. Thanks 🙂

      Yeah, my eyes struggle a lot with the detail work too now. It’s a milestone when you actually feel the muscles in your eyeballs working to focus for the first time. I can’t imagine even trying after major eye surgery!

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