Embroidery Basics Tutorial

Welcome to my Tutorial Tuesday series! This first Tuesday I thought I would cover embroidery basics. You only need a few items to begin stitching, and you can get all of them at your local craft or fabric store. The supplies below cost me around $5.

First you need something to stitch on. I’m using cotton fabric in the above photo, as I do for most of my embroidery projects. I recommend beginning with fabric while you are getting used to embroidery. Once you are ready for something new, try another kind of material. People embroider on all sorts of things – paper, metal, canvas, plastic, wood, etc.

Needles are next. Again, people embroider with all different sizes of needles. I just buy the cheap assorted packs of sewing needles and pick the ones I like. I tend to pick mid-size needles (2-2.5″) with fairly sharp tips. Again, it depends on the material you are embroidering on and what kind of thread/floss/material you are embroidering with. Here’s a great article from Needle ‘n Thread on embroidery needles.

I recommend getting a hoop or frame – especially when you are first starting to embroider – although you can also hold the fabric without any support. There are plenty of options and sizes, so I would suggest going to a craft store and trying a few out. I generally use a hoop one size bigger than what I will frame my project in. That way I have extra room if my embroidery goes to the edge of the hoop. There are frames and stands as well, but I can’t give you any personal feedback because I’ve only used hoops or my hands. My friend tried a Q-snap frame and really liked it – she said it didn’t leave as many marks in the fabric. Again, just try a few out and see what works for you!

My absolute favorite part of picking out supplies is choosing embroidery floss. If you are starting to embroider with a kit or specific project in mind, make sure to check which brand of floss they use. There are several popular brands – DMC, Anchor, Sullivan’s, etc. – and each uses a different numbering system for their colors. You need to match the correct brand with your project to find the colors they use. If you are starting without a project in mind, or want to use you own colors, feel free to pick any six-strand brand!

Once I buy my skeins, I wrap them around a floss card so they don’t get tangled (I swear I’m the queen of tangles – if it can, it will!). I also mark the card with the skein number or code in case I need to find a specific color or re-stock. Skeins in the store usually look something like the black and teal floss above. You can buy cards (above, far right), or make your own out of recycled cardboard (above, left).

You will also need scissors, and, if you’d like, a thimble and a needle threader (I’ll show you a threader in a little bit). I don’t usually use thimbles or threaders, but they are both handy tools to have around – especially when embroidering with or on unusual materials. Now, onto the next step!

If you are using a hoop or frame, separate the two pieces.

Place your piece of fabric on top of the inside/bottom part of your hoop. Ideally you should have at least 1-2″ of extra fabric around the hoop (like the example above).

Place the bigger/top part of your hoop or frame on top of the fabric, push down so the two parts of the hoop slide together, and tighten the screw at the top of your hoop. You don’t need to tighten it all the way, just until the fabric is fairly taut. You can also tug a little bit at the corners of the fabric to smooth out any wrinkles. Don’t stretch the fabric too much – that could distort the fabric and then the embroidery – just until it’s comfortably taut.

Bonus tip: Loosen your hoop/frame or take your piece completely out of the hoop if you’re not going to be able to work on it for a few days. Hoops and frames often leave impressions in the fabric (which can be frustrating to get out), and doing this will help avoid deep impressions.

Next, measure a piece of floss as long as your arm. This will give you enough floss to embroider a fair bit, but not so much that it will tangle all the time.

If you look closely at the floss, you can see that it’s actually made of six smaller strands (hence, six-strand floss!). Many embroidery projects are made using less than six strands. Sometimes people use a different number of strands for a visual effect (e.g. – one strand produces very fine detail, six strands can fill a space quickly). The number of strands may also depend on the type of fabric you use. Evenweave fabric (cotton, linen, silk, hemp, wool, rayon, polyester, or blended fibers) – like the piece I am using – has an even number of vertical warp threads as it does horizontal weft threads. They are woven close together, so you can’t see holes in the fabric (unless you look really really close). If you use all six strands of floss, you will have a hard time pushing the floss through the fabric (and it may leave unattractive holes). Other fabrics – like those used for cross stitch – have different weaves (and bigger holes) to stitch through. If you are using a cotton fabric like me, I would recommend using between one and four strands. I will be using three strands for this tutorial.

My favorite way to prepare my floss is to separate all six strands, straighten all of them out, then combine the number of strands I want to use. This ensures that the floss won’t tangle as much, and your stitches will look smooth and untwisted. I know this takes some time, but after I started untwisting all six strands first, I noticed a definite improvement in the way my stitches looked.

Now it’s time to thread your needle! There are several ways to do this, so as with everything else, it just depends on what you feel comfortable with. I’ll show you the “proper” way first. Above, you can see a needle threader. These are actually really helpful – especially if it’s difficult for you to thread a needle with your fingers alone. I always have one in my sewing box just in case.

Push the threader through the eye of the needle.

Thread a length of floss through the threader – make sure you have several inches of floss on each side.

Pull the threader and the floss through the eye of the needle.

Pull the floss out of the threader and make sure you have a tail (several inches of extra floss) pulled through your needle. This ensures that your floss won’t come out of your needle when you are embroidering.

Another method is to just eyeball it and try to get the floss through the eye of the needle. It’s not too difficult with one or two strands, but the more strands you use the trickier may be. I’m lazy, so I wet the end of the strands to help me push them through. I’ve read this is bad for the needle, because over time it causes the needle to rust. But I am a creature of habit, so I do it anyways. Here are a few other methods to try.

Whichever method you’ve used, you have threaded your needle. Now it’s time to knot the end of your thread. There are different knots you can use, and some people don’t like using knots at all. I will show you a basic knot, but here are some other options.

Twist the long end of your floss to form a loop, then pull the short end of the loop through and tighten. I sometimes knot a thread more than once, especially if I’m using one or two strands. This ensures the thread won’t pull all the way through the fabric as you are embroidering. Now you are ready to start embroidering!

Push your needle up through the back of the fabric, either along a line of your pattern or wherever you would like.

Side note: I just realized all my stitching shots are left-handed (like me!). Never fear – embroidery is not like knitting or crocheting where you need to learn with a different set of instructions. Just sew from right to left if that’s more comfortable for you. I’ll mention any stitch-specific differences in future posts.

Pull the thread all the way until your knot catches at the back of the fabric.

If you look at the back of your piece, the knot should lie flush with the fabric. If it pulls through, try knotting it another time.

Now push the needle up in the next spot, and keep on embroidering until you are finished!

Here I show a series of running stitches.

When you are ready to finish, you have to knot (or otherwise secure) your thread again. Here is one of my favorite methods:

Staying on the back of the piece, push the needle under the last stitch you have (make sure not to push through the fabric, just under the stitch).

Pull the needle and floss through, making sure not to pull your thread too taught (this could pucker your fabric or leave a visible hole).

Push the needle under the stitch again, and pull the thread through until you have a small loop.

Now pull the needle through that loop, and pull it tight until it forms a knot. You can do this more than once if you’d like (I usually do it twice), just to make sure it’s secure.

Cut any extra thread away, leaving a small tail on the knot. This way, if the knot ever comes loose, the stitches are less likely to come loose.

Congratulations – you just embroidered! Learn more about the running stitch, or explore other stitch tutorials.

 

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