An overview of embroidery
Embroidery is a traditional textile handicraft using a needle and thread or yarn to decorate fabrics with stylised designs. Freehand embroidery has a rich history with connections in various ancient cultures.
A history of embroidery
Embroidery dates back as far as the Cro-Magnon days (30,000 BC) according to a significant archaeological find in Russia. Evidence suggests that primitive man discovered that thread could be made from plant fibres or animal sinews, and needles from bones. These were used to stitch animal skins together for practical purposes, but through the ages, man discovered they could also be used to embellish clothing.
As an art form, embroidery dates back to the Iron Age (1300 BC – 600 BC), however, examples of Chinese thread embroidery—the possible forerunner to modern embroidery—date back to around 3500 BC. Elaborately embroidered clothing and items have been a mark of wealth and status in various cultures including Persia, India, China, Japan, Greece, medieval and Baroque Europe, with artworks depicting ancient civilisations wearing such garments.
Various techniques have been fashionable through the ages affected by the growth in machine manufactured embroidery during the 1800s and the processes used to patch and mend clothing influencing new techniques. Early techniques included bead working, art needlework, Berlin wool-work, and counted cross stitch. Various cultures such as northern Vietnam, Mexico and Europe have distinctive traditional styles of embroidery.
Tools of the embroidery trade
The tools you need to start learning embroidery are simple and affordable. They can be purchased from most handicraft shops or haberdashery departments.
Hoops — Hoops can be used to hold fabric taut while you are embroidering. They are available in various sizes. It is best to use the plastic type as cheap wooden ones can snag the fabric.
Scissors — Small sharp scissors are recommended.
Marking pens — Several different types of mark-making tools are available for you to choose from. There are specialist markers, chalk pencils and heat transfer pencils, so it is worth researching which are most appropriate for you. Specialist markers come in two main types, permanent or washable/disappearing. Note, if you are using an iron-on pattern, you dont need marker pens.
Needles — It is a good idea to have a range of sizes for these, the higher the number on the packaging the smaller the needle. The size corresponds to the eye of the needle, the eye needs to be big enough to make the right size hole so that your thread can slide through the fabric easily.
Other tools — You may want to consider using a needle threader if you have trouble threading needles. Many people also use a thimble to protect thumbs when embroidering. You may want to try using tracing paper, stencils, or fabric stabilisers depending on the material you are embroidering onto and the type of design you are looking to make or recreate. Computerised embroidery machines are available for large scale projects.
Materials used in embroidery
Fabric — Using 100% cotton fabric is recommended but many other fabrics have been used to over the ages. It is worth practising on muslin as an affordable option, to begin with, while you build up your technique. Once you are a little more experienced it is possible to embroider straight onto items of clothing, bags, or pillow cases.
Embroidery floss — There are many different types of thread or yarn available for embroidery. Individual strands can be separated from thicker thread according to how fine you need them to be. There are commercially produced block colour threads or hand-dyed variegated threads. Ensure you are using colour-fast threads on anything you may need to wash e.g. items of clothing.
Techniques of embroidery
Once technical ability has been gained through patience and practice, the effects that can be created through embroidery are almost limitless. Different types of stitches create different effects and textures, and an experienced embroiderer can harness these to turn ordinary fabric and thread into a true work of art. This takes years of practice though, so start simple. There are simple stitching techniques to get you started in hand embroidery. Confusingly, different types of stitch often have multiple names based on reinvention and revival by different generations. Here are some simple techniques in embroidery, but please note in other places they may go by different names.
The following top 4 stitches are some of the easiest to master and most commonly used.
• Running Stitch — used to create a simple broken line
• Back Stitch — used to create a simple continuous line
• French Knot — for texture and embellishment
• Satin Stitch — for filling in block colour
Once you have mastered these basic stitches, you may want to consider learning the following.
• Split Stitch
• Stem Stitch
• Chain Stitch
• Feather Stitch
• Seed Stitch
• Lazy Daisy
Tips and tricks of embroidery
To achieve the best results in embroidery you need a great deal of practice, patience, and diligence. It is a very mindful activity to practice and was even recommended as an early example of art therapy to WWI soldiers suffering from shellshock (PTSD). Here are a few tips to get you going.
Time and practice are your main weapons. Be persistent, the skill of embroidery rarely comes straight away.
There are various YouTube tutorials available to help you master basic stitching and develop your techniques.
Make sure you take the hoop out of the embroidery in between sessions to ensure the fabric does not get creased or misshapen.
Always test out materials and hone your technique before using on a finished piece. Make sure you test out any markers or pencils on the fabric you will be working with before starting a project as some disappear within a certain time-frame or react differently with materials.
Once you have mastered basic techniques, you may want to experiment with adding beads, sequins, or ribbon to your needlework, or using a patterned background for a different effect. Hand-dyed variegated threads can be used for a more vintage look.
Ideas and inspiration for embroidery
The great thing about hand embroidery is that its quite portable and practical, so you can do it virtually anywhere. Once you have established the basics, you can take it with you to practice techniques or keep you occupied as a therapeutic pastime.
Embroidery has a rich history embedded in many different ancient and contemporary cultures. If you are looking for inspiration maybe pick a style that catches your eye and research the history behind it. There are the bold bright colours of traditional Mexican designs or the minimal elegance of Japanese and Chinese creations. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V and A) in London has a stunning collection of embroidery samplers from different ages and cultures (a sampler was a means of recording different embroidery stitches and patterns). There are also resources on their website worth investigating.
Embroidery has been a pastime that bonds communities for some years, particularly among women. Think of the Womens Institute or the traditional Stitch n Bitch groups that sprang up after WWII. You may want to consider joining a group or starting your own. Craft groups can be a great source of advice and inspiration, alongside offering opportunities to collaborate. You could work with a clothing designer to create bespoke items.
If you get really impassioned about different types of stitching and would like to do more intricate work, it is worth investing in a copy of Mary Thomas Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches. It was published in 1934 but remains one of the most comprehensive guides available. All stitches are based on a few basic techniques which artisans have adapted slightly to create an almost infinite range of visual effects.