If you thought a needle and thread were just for making or mending clothes, think again. Embroidery takes these simple tools and turns them into a sophisticated thread art—a handicraft that’s been around for centuries but that’s seeing a major resurgence in modern times.
Read on to learn more about types of embroidery, what you need for different techniques, and tips to help you learn to embroider like a pro.
What Is Embroidery?
Embroidery is the art and craft of decorating fabric with stitched patterns and designs. It’s usually done with embroidery floss, but it can also incorporate embellishments like beads, sequins, or metallic thread. Many embroiderers follow a set pattern, while others choose to go freestyle or create designs based on their inspiration.
Embroidery has been done for centuries across diverse cultures. Prior to industrial clothing production, embroidery done by hand was one of the only ways of decorating fabric, from clothing to tablecloths to religious and ritual accessories. The oldest known pieces date from the 5th century BCE from Byzantium, in the modern-day eastern Mediterranean.
Like many traditional art forms, embroidery done by hand was once extremely common, but nowadays, it’s mostly done by machine. Industrial sewing machines can be programmed to create patterns on fabric very quickly, so a hand-made piece of clothing is likely to cost a lot more than a mass-produced piece (unless, of course, you make your own items).
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Embroidery vs Cross Stitch
What’s the difference between embroidery and cross stitch? Cross stitch is a type of embroidery in which tiny cross-shaped stitches are made onto fabric with a grid-like weave to create images and patterns. Many people like the methodical nature of cross stitch because it usually involves following a pattern on a grid. All cross stitch is embroidery, but not all embroidery is cross stitch.
Types of Embroidery
There are countless different types across cultures, and you could spend a lifetime studying them. The most important two types to know about are below.
For centuries, embroidery by hand was the only kind that existed. Nowadays, it’s enjoyed by hobbyists and producers of high-end garments and fabrics. The process of manually pushing and pulling the thread through fabric takes time, but it can be quite a meditative process, and the results are gorgeous.
Embroidery done on a machine is often used to decorate mass-produced clothes and other fabric. However, you can also get pretty creative using a sewing machine. Freestyle machine embroidery creates a different look to sewing by hand and—once you get the hang of it—can be a fun, quick way to experiment with the art form.
Even if you have a sewing kit for repairing clothes, you’ll probably need some slightly different supplies for embroidery.
Embroidery floss, or thread, is usually thicker than thread used for other kinds of sewing. It’s made from about six individual strands wound together, and you can pull these strands apart to embroider thicker or finer details.
While you could potentially embroider with all kinds of needles, embroidery needles tend to be thicker than needles used for sewing, and they have a larger eye to account for the thickness of the thread. Cross stitch uses tapestry needles, which are blunt, as you only need to push the needle between the holes in the fabric rather than through the fabric itself.
Other supplies you’ll need include:
- A canvas to stitch onto, whether plain calico fabric or a favorite sweatshirt. The best fabric for use is non-stretchy.
- An embroidery hoop (made from plastic, metal, or wood)
- A thimble (optional)
It’s not difficult to learn to embroider, and there are many beginner-friendly projects you can try your hand at. If you’re a methodical worker, then following a basic pattern or trying cross stitch is an ideal place to start. If you prefer to be more freestyle with your crafts, you can visualize designs easily, or you’re happy to follow a rough pencil sketch on fabric, then try out thread painting—or creating free-form art with your supplies.
Embroidery stitches range from very simple (satin stitch, back stitch) to more complex (bullion stitch, braid stitches). You don’t need to know very advanced stitches to be able to create beautiful embroidery works—in fact, you can create all kinds of things using no more than simple stitches. But once you’ve perfected the basics, try some more challenging stitches to add texture and interest to your work.
Like stitches, embroidery knots add interest, texture, and detail to your work. Aside from tying a regular knot to secure your floss behind the fabric, you don’t have to incorporate knots into your embroidery. They can be a fun addition to different stitches, though, especially for more advanced crafters.
In addition to the variety of stitches and knots, a few different techniques can add more variety to your work. Here are some fun ones.
If you’re a freewheeler rather than a planner when it comes to your art, have a go at freestyle embroidery. There’s no need for a plan; just see where your needle and floss take you.
This fun technique adds texture. It requires you to stitch clumps of stitches that you then secure and cut to create a kind of pile, like a shaggy rug.
Stumpwork embroidery creates three-dimensional effects by raising parts off the fabric’s surface. You can achieve this with padding or by cutting out an embroidered element and stitching it onto another canvas.
Whitework embroidery refers to any kind of embroidery that uses white floss on a white canvas. Whitework usually incorporates other techniques, such as broderie anglaise (which includes cutting and lacework) or shadow work (worked on the reverse of a sheer fabric).
This sparkly type of embroidery uses stitches to secure small rounded pieces of mirror to fabric. It gets its name from the Persian and Hindi word for glass or mirror, and it’s a beloved form of fabric decoration in parts of Asia.
Display and Gift Your Embroidery
Embroidery takes time and effort, and you should be proud of your handiwork. When you’ve finished stitching, you can use your hoops as ready-made frames to display your creations. When you get more confident, try upcycling old clothing, tablecloths, or towels with unique designs. And, of course, gift your personalized items to friends and family: monograms, samplers, and mixed-media greetings cards make lovely gifts. Experiment and have fun!
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