Embroidery: Ten Rules

and how to break most of them!

I wanted to pass on what I’ve learnt about embroidery over the last forty-odd years. Not the specifics of stitch and style, but the general things that apply to almost every project. I hope you will find this article helpful and inspiring rather than dogmatic or proscriptive. If you find it useful, or if you think I’ve got something wrong, please contact me and let me know.



Rule 1: Check that you have enough thread and fabric before you start.

Nothing is more frustrating than running out of that unusual blue thread just before you finish. (Especially because Jones’s Law of Maximum Inconvenience guarantees that there’s no more of the same shade in the shop, the colour has been discontinued, or the manufacturer has gone out of business.) So play safe. Buy enough-and-a-bit. And if you need to make a test-piece, add another bit, and if you think you might want to use the same shades again (on another project for the same room, for example), add another bit…. You probably need to stop adding at some point, before the bill mounts up too high. You may take a long time to finish your project (especially a big project like a tablecloth), so better to be safe than sorry. After all, you can do something else with the left-overs. (While we’re at the purchasing stage, don’t skimp on the quality of your materials. If you are spending hours making a project, you don’t want it to lose its good looks too quickly.)

If you are using a kit, you should find you have ample thread and fabric provided by the manufacturer. But read the instructions carefully so you don’t accidentally waste your materials. Check how many strands you should have in your needle, check where on the fabric you should start working, and check what stitches you should be using. (With needlepoint-tapestry projects, for example, you will run short if you work in tent stitch where the designer has only allowed enough yarn for working in half-cross stitch.) Check the materials: even the best kit-makers do make mistakes sometimes.

How to break this rule:

Okay, we’ve all done it: discovered that we’re running short, and can’t get more of exactly the same colour. If the fabric runs short, there’s not a lot you can do; running out of thread is not always a disaster.

Keep an eye on how much thread is left, and if you suspect you will not have enough for the whole project, STOP and THINK before using up any more of it. Above all, resist the urge to tighten your tension, and don’t make starting and finishing threads too short to hold. You don’t want to spoil your work.

The more colours and shades there are in a design, the less a small change in one colour will show. Provided you can get something similar to the original thread, introduce it in a way that makes the change as unnoticeable as possible. For instance, if are stitching a tablecloth with a design in each corner, you might use only the new thread on the last corner. If you are working with two (or more) strands of thread in the needle, you can make subtle changes by using one strand of the new colour and one (or more) of the old. (If you are not much short, this may be enough to get you out of trouble. If not, you can then change to two of the new, etc.) The worst places to run out are continuous edgings and plain backgrounds: even subtle changes seem to show. But many treasured old embroideries show abrupt changes of shade, with no attempt made to hide the join. So if all else fails, just bite the bullet and use the new thread.



Rule 2: Make a test piece before starting a new project.

Unless you are already very, very familiar with the combination of stitch, thread, and fabric in your project (or the project is small enough to serve as its own test), it is wise to make a sample with the materials you intend to use. This is particularly important if you are designing your own work, or making alterations to an existing design. A test piece allows you to estimate materials accurately and resolve any problems. If you are still learning the techniques, you have a chance to practice and perfect them. If you learn on the project itself, your first stitches may look very ugly in contrast to your later work.

These pieces need not be ‘wasted’. It is good to keep them for reference, but you can use them for greeting cards, coasters, all sorts of things. Think of them as ‘starter projects’, rather than test-pieces, if that makes you more willing to do them. With kits, there won’t be enough fabric or thread for a test piece. But if you need to master new stitches, it’s worth finding some similar materials to practice on.

How to break this rule:

You can plunge ahead with the main project if you want to. You may be lucky. (I am often lucky.) You may find you can redesign your project mid-way, to cope with whatever goes wrong, or doesn’t turn out quite as expected. You could even end up improving the original design as a result! But don’t come complaining to me if it all goes pear-shaped.

Or you can stick rigidly to tried-and-tested, familiar stitches and your usual threads and fabrics. Boring, but safe.



Rule 3: Get the best from your thread.

 Instruction books rarely mention how to keep your thread tidy as stitching progresses, and how to make very neat changes of thread. I don’t see why these skill are treated as ‘trade secrets’, because the sooner you learn them, the better your work will be and the more pleasure you will get from it.Stitching builds up excess twist in the working thread, which causes it to coil around itself, tangle and even knot. Some books suggest letting the needle dangle from time to time, to remove excess twists. I don’t recommend this — you’ll end up hunting for dropped needles and it interrupts your work. Learn to twiddle the needle a little as you stitch, just as much as is necessary to keep the thread from trying to twist on itself. The stitch you are using and the direction you are working in will determine if you need to twiddle clockwise or anticlockwise. Once you have got the habit, it will become almost automatic. As well as making your stitching easier (I hate having to sort out thread that has knotted itself) it will help to keep your thread neat.

Unless all the stitching in your project is in small, discreet areas, at some point you will need to change the thread in the middle of a row of stitches. Keeping the tension even during a thread change is half the battle, so don’t pull last few stitches with the old thread too tight. (We all tend to do this, if we’re not careful.) Don’t let the old thread become too worn, or else the fresh thread will look much fatter and smoother in comparison. You will learn with experience how long a thread you can work with comfortably — this varies with different combinations of thread and material, and with the way you stitch. (Once you can make neat joins, you will be less inclined to use over-long lengths to avoid thread-changes. But as your stitching techniques improve, you may well find that you can work with longer lengths of thread before it looks ‘ratty’.) With some fluffy threads, it helps to draw the new thread right through the fabric a couple of times before you darn in and begin stitching, to take off any loose fibres.

The last part of the secret of making neat joins and colour changes is following the ‘pull’ of the stitch. You need to run your old thread off in the same direction that it would be travelling to make the next stitch, and you need to darn-in the new thread so that it comes up as if from the place where the old thread last went down. This usually means bringing the old thread through the fabric about 15-20mm away from the last stitch, so the long ‘stitch’ at the back can be caught down by the next few stitches. Darn the new thread into the back of the old stitches. Work almost to the point where the old thread is poking through the fabric, then cut the rest of the tail off neatly and continue stitching. This is not always enough if you are working very broad stitches, stitches which produce pulled-fabric effects, or complex stitches with more than one step: you need to figure out exactly where a change of thread will show the least. (It may be part-way through the sequence of stitches that make up one complete ‘stitch’, rather than at the end.) With stitching that will be seen from both sides, you can have even more fun figuring out how to change threads and hide the ends, but by the time you tackle reversible work, you should be an expert on twist, tension and ‘pull’.

If you are working right around a hem or making a closed shape, such as a circle, you also need to think about making the last stitch fit properly into the first one. (This is particularly important with buttonhole and chain-type stitches.) Sometimes the best solution is to leave a long starting thread which you can darn into the last stitch afterwards, making the ‘overs-and-unders’ appear to be totally continuous.

How to break this rule:

 This rule is best not broken. If you struggle with joins, design work that doesn’t have long lengths of one colour, or that doesn’t use stitches that are tricky to join neatly.



Rule 4: Don’t get hung up about half-finished projects.

It’s very easy to run out of interest and enthusiasm for a project, especially a large one. Sometimes all you need to do when boredom sets in is stitch one or two small pieces for a change (or do another craft for a while), then come back to the Big Project. It’s a good idea to have more than one project on the go — the big one that you only work on at home and when you can spend at least an hour on it, and one or two smaller, portable ones for holidays, train-journeys, lunch breaks and odd moments.

How to break this rule:

If you are going to pack a project away ‘for ever’, you should include all the instructions and charts, all of the materials needed for finishing it and a list of the brands, colour-numbers and fibre-content. If you want to include the needles, DON’T leave them in the fabric or touching the thread. (Needles can rust and ruin your work. It’s best just to make a note of the type and size of needles used.) Keep your work clean and safe, and one day someone else may be delighted to finish it. (Or you may suddenly regain interest in it yourself.)

If you get to the point where you utterly hate the sight of the design, you can do something else with the remaining fabric and thread. But put it aside for a few months first; don’t chop it up immediately.



 Rule 5: Keep records.

I used to be very bad at keeping records. After all, I knew exactly what I was doing at the time. Why waste ages writing it all down and drawing charts and diagrams? Then I would want to use that same interesting stitch again, find I’d forgotten how to do it, and waste even more time in re-learning it from scratch. So now I am usually good. I note down colour numbers and quantities, I make charts, I take reference photographs and I keep samples and test pieces. As well as having records for my own use, I can then show them to other people. Keep careful records: it’s worth the extra effort.

How to break this rule:

If you are working from a kit or chart or a pattern in a magazine or book, you don’t need to make detailed notes — unless you make changes. (But do note which kit, chart  magazine or book you used, so that you can find it again). It’s up to you how much you record. If you prefer to always work spontaneously, obviously there is little point it recording things for future use, but you might still consider recording them as examples of what you have achieved.


 Rule 6: Make friends with your tools.

The more comfortable you are with your tools and equipment, the better you will use them. Make sure that your needles are not bent or rusty, and that they are the right type and size for what you are stitching. Make sure that your scissors cut well, and that you are not struggling with a frame or hoop which is more trouble than it’s worth. Check your seat height is right, and that you have adequate light, too — especially if you are stitching for any length of time. If you want to wear a thimble for hemming and plain-sewing, pick one that fits you very well. (It goes on the middle finger of the hand holding the needle, not on the index finger.) Choose one that does not have a protruding ridge at the open end to dig into the adjacent fingers. Too many of those sold in haberdashery departments look like flowerpots and are practically useless. If you are lucky enough to have a good Victorian silver-plated thimble of a suitable size in your family (especially if it’s a ‘Dorcas’ thimble), take it off the mantelpiece and USE it!

How to break this rule:

I don’t advise breaking this one. It is best not to use poor or unsuitable tools. If you are teaching a child to stitch, make sure they also start with good tools as soon as they are old enough to use them safely. That way they will enjoy the work more. And once you have got used to using a good thimble for plain sewing, you will never want to sew without it.



 Rule 7: Learn to say NO to commissions.

It’s great to make things for other people, and it is really flattering to be asked: can you make one of those for me? However, do be aware that every commission takes time away from stitching for your own enjoyment, and may often leave you racing to complete a piece in time for a special occasion. People usually offer to pay for the materials, but rarely realise how much time and effort is involved. Only take on commissions if you are absolutely sure that you want to do the stitching and have ample time. It’s better to make what you want to make, and give it, or sell it, afterwards. If you are delayed for any reason, the item that was going to be a birthday-present this year can go to the same person next year — or to someone else — and nobody is kept waiting.

How to break this rule:

If you design your own work, why not provide instructions and charts, or even a full kit, and offer help and advice when needed. Just so long as someone else does most of the actual stitching! Apart from saving your time, this is a way to pass on the pleasure of embroidery. As an added bonus, when you have made a clear chart and instructions, you might find that a craft magazine or an embroidery shop would also like to use your design.



Rule 8: Get interested in your subject.

The history of embroidery, and the embroidery of other cultures are fascinating subjects to explore. As well as being worth studying in their own right, they will encourage you to learn new styles and stitches, inspire you with designs and colour schemes that you can adopt or adapt, and give you a deeper understanding of the vast field of possibilities that come under the heading of ’embroidery’. (You may also get sidetracked into other intriguing subjects such as traditional weaving-patterns or the history of fashion.) Books will start you off, museums will let you look at the real thing. Experiment with any technique or style that interests you when you read about it: you will understand it better as a result. </P>

How to break this rule:

If you get enough pleasure from stitching, and want to leave the study to others, that’s fine. Never feel guilty about not knowing what ‘stump work’ is, or not being able to tell Hardanger from Hawaiian appliqu&eacute;. Not everyone enjoys finding things out, and if you don‘t enjoy it, why do it? Just sit and stitch, and let those that know things have someone to impress with their knowledge: as long as you nod and smile occasionally, they will be happy.



Rule 9: Don’t think you have to do it the way they tell you.

A friend, who had carefully stitched a large cross-stitch picture from a kit, told me afterwards that she wished it had pink flowers instead of apricot-coloured ones, as they would have gone so much better in her bedroom. Why didn’t she change the colour? I asked. (It was a design where substituting the three or four shades used in the flowers with similar pink ones would have been simple.) She replied that she didn’t think she ought to do that!

Never be afraid to make changes if you are not happy with what you are stitching. There are no golden rules about how to stitch, either, or what stitches to use. If you want to do it another way, do it another way.

How to break this rule:

This one is impossible to break. But learn to cope with ‘helpful’ comments like “Pardon me saying this, but I think you’re doing that wrong.” And if you are ever asked to test someone’s instructions, or make up a  kit for display in a shop, then you are honour bound to follow the instructions to the letter.



Rule 10 Finish things well.

It’s very tempting to rush the finishing stages of a project. But if you rush, you risk spoiling your hard work. If there is a hem, make it as neat and even as possible; if you are making up a cushion or mounting a picture on a board for framing, do it just as carefully as you did the stitchery. (If you are not sure of your own ability, why not take it to an expert.) Then you can take real pride in what you have created. And don’t forget to sign and date your work. Take care with washing the item (if it is washable) and don’t press stitchery too flat — press it from the wrong side over a clean towel. Keep a note of the materials used, in case the item needs to be washed or cleaned again.

How to break this rule:

Break it at your peril! But if it does all go horribly wrong (or your work gets ruined later on, when the neighbour’s dog tears it to shreds), remember that embroidery, like all the arts and crafts, is something that you DO. However nice it is to have a tangible and lasting item to show for your hard work, the activity itself is what you learn from, not the results of that activity.

I hope you’ve found something helpful in this article, and something to think about.


13 Responses to “Embroidery: Ten Rules”

  1. Hello.

    A friend sent me this link, and it is wonderful!

    I belong to the Canadian Embroidery Guild in Guelph Ontario. May I send the link to the editor of our newsletter so that the other hundred or so members can also benefit from the advice? I would also like to make reference to it in my blog and include your link in my blogroll.

    I have been an enthusiastic stitcher all my life, and I thought I had found all the best online sources for embroidery information. I am SO glad to have found yours!

    • suetortoise Says:

      It’s great to find out when someone has found something useful, inspiring or interesting here, Ellen. That’s what it’s all about – but so few people comment! You very are welcome to link to your blog and pass the word around to anyone else who might be interested. Thank you for asking.

  2. DinaMontreal Says:

    Fun to read & great advice to boot!

  3. Margaret Clancy Says:

    Just found your blog through Mary Corbett. What great, practical advice. Look forward to reading more!

  4. Good advice but I’d like to add something to your rule 3. To untwist thread, dropping the needle works well with something wooly like Crewel wool. If you have something smoother and you know the needle will drop off the thread, try this: Bring the needle right down to the base of the thread until it is almost touching the work, Leaving the thread loose, pull the needle back up to where you had it. As you pull the needle, the thread will untwist.

    • suetortoise Says:

      Thank you for your suggestion, Serica. I can see that your method would take out excess twist. However, twiddling the needle is very much better for the thread. Running the needle up and down the thread is putting unnecessary wear on the thread, and that’s going to fluff it or weaken it quickly. I still think that twiddling is a very good habit to get into, right from the start.

  5. Nice explanation. I really like the fourth rule. I usually get out of interest but i hope your way will work.

    • suetortoise Says:

      I can’t say I’m always good at sticking to projects. I do try to have just one major ‘slow’ project on the go at one time, and I let small and medium-length projects come and go while I’m working on it. But with so much inspiration on the web these days, it’s so, so easy to get sidetracked, isn’t it?.

  6. Hi Sue,
    What a lovely post. So many could benefit from seeing it. May I provide a link to this page from the website for my local Embroidery Guild in Ottawa, Canada?

    • suetortoise Says:

      Thank you for asking, Mike. You are welcome to share the post with your Guild. I wish you all very happy stitching.

  7. coral smart Says:

    Thanks for your good advice. I am now spending too much time looking at embroidery websites and pinterest with beautiful projects. Oh I must do that one day. I have hundreds of project ideas and am addicted to websites and not doing enough stitching. Your site is fab keep it up.

    • suetortoise Says:

      I don’t worry when I’m not stitching – I know I’ll be reaching for my needle and thread before long, when I want to figure something out or just unwind a bit.

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