A Hand Embroidery Debate: Convenience or Originality?

hand embroidery berlin work cat
Berlin work needle case, reproduction of a
19th century French pattern. Photo by Joe Coca

pokey boltonDo you like to follow a prepared pattern or design for your fiber art or start completely from scratch? Maybe your answer is "a little of both" or "it depends on the project."

Our "outside the box" art quilting instincts drive us to chart our own creative paths.

Yet we have such easy access to quilt patterns and projects online that can be downloaded in a matter of seconds, the temptation to at least start from a pattern or project is great. Is that "cheating"? (I'm talking about downloading a free or purchased pattern, not "lifting" another person's idea without permission.)

I'm thinking about this because, loving Victorian needlework as I do, I was reading an article about Berlin work during a layover recently when I felt the need to spend some time unplugged.

In the article (Piecework Magazine, November /December 2011), author Irina Stepanova explains that the Industrial Revolution pioneered the development of new high-quality materials for needlework. In Berlin in the early 1800s, embroidery patterns were first printed on a finely ruled grid and then painted by hand.

Thousands of these Berlin work patterns were printed and sold in needlework shops worldwide. Victorian taste and romanticism shaped the subject matter of Berlin work patterns, which explains why so many featured dogs, kittens, and pastoral scenes.

hand embroidery berlin work dog
Berlin work pattern intended as the top of
a carriage foot warmer.
Photo courtesy of Irina Stepanova

As charming as these patterns are, Berlin work has sparked a debate among needlework and embroidery enthusiasts, almost from the beginning.

On the one hand, mass production of these designs eased the way for thousands of middle-class women to take up needlework. On the other hand, detractors argue that Berlin work limited needleworkers' imagination and the number of different stitches they used and that its popularity was due more to the speed at which it was done than the aesthetic qualities of the finished product. (I just love a heated debate among needleworkers, don't you?)

In the 21st century, we also weigh the benefits of convenience versus originality. I absolutely value original design, but I have so little studio time available that I often long to go straight to "the fun part" of the stitching, needle felting, etc. And while I encourage newbie fiber artists to follow their own path, I also see the value of starting with a pattern, or even a kit, to help them learn the basics and gain confidence.

What do you think? Leave your comment below and let's see what kind of debate we threadheads can start!

By the way, if you are as passionate about the heritage of hand embroidery and other kinds of needlework as I am, you'll enjoy cozying up with Piecework Magazine.

Other topics you may enjoy:


Hand Embroidery, Quilting Daily Blog

37 thoughts on “A Hand Embroidery Debate: Convenience or Originality?

  1. I was interested in your article on embroidery. I do not do alot of it, but when I do I like a pattern to go by. I actually am a self taught quilter and any off shoots of thread type crafts. I am always interested in adding design to my quilts. If its embroidery by itself, then I like a pattern. I like your newsletters too!!! Sometimes I see quilt patterns in the letters that really peak my interest.

  2. Good question. I found starting out that it was easier to follow a pattern with a bought kit, and it saved me the hours of planning and material selection – I’m talking about quilting and needlework here. But I am now at the stage I am planning my own designs and have materials ready to go. I have learnt a lot from the kits and following the prescribed methods and making my own concepts is the next step. This includes looking at a bigger variety of stitch and process. And I agree that one of the pleasures of sewing by machine or hand is the contentment from the rhythm of stitching and delight on completion of a hand crafted piece.
    Judy from New Zealand

  3. I think what makes you happy works! I started with patterns and kits both in needlework and quilting. I still use them but change and embellish to suit me and my work. I always try to remember there are people who will appreciate the work because they can’t or don’t do it!

  4. I think anything that lets you create is valid. Either a kit, or your own design, as long as they bring you joy, run with it !
    If I have any time to work on any of my projects, I count myself lucky. I don’t stress over kit vs. orignal design, and pretty much I find, there are plenty of kits I like enough to make them, so don’t feel like I need to do an original design.

  5. Art quilt = originality and freedom for me. When it comes to embroidery, I am a ‘hand work’ or ‘free motion’ snob-no computerized machine for me! But that is mostly due to the freedom of creating. I have so much fun! And I do well without a pattern, because I don’t have the pressure to recreate ‘perfectly’. No rules, rules! :?}

  6. You ask a good question. I have so many magazines and books, they avalanche on the floor when I bump the flat surface they are piled on in my studio. I look through all of them, may read the article with some new project, product, or procedure and file them in my head. Who knows when that information will get worked into a project. I recently completed a totally “kitted” quilt and felt very frustrated having to “follow the directions (which had lots of errors in them)”. It will be my last.

    In needlework, there is room for everyone–that’s what I love about it.

  7. Dear Ladies and Sirs, of course!

    I loved buying an collecting books about antique and rare handcrafts since I was a girl. Most of them had been very expensive for me and my little budget. – Once I asked the clerk in the book store about new ones, and she answered that everything that needs more than half an hour of learning and doing until a ready-to-use result is out of fashion. – Berlin work or other projects like cross stitch tableclothes need quite more than half an hour until the project is done, and doing it correct and finish it in a good way needs knowledge and practice and patience. I wouldn`t be able to invite the wonderful (coloured) patterns, so I`m glad that I can buy and use them! And don`t forget: No one of these designers of the patterns would have had a job without people buying them! And that is also o part of that entire topic of creativity!

    For me no creativity is just putting things together of a ready-to-use-kit in a few minutes like in kindergarten to get something for decoration to do it in the dustbin a few weeks later.

    (I got a book with Berlin woolwork patterns as girl in my favourite book store!)

    Have a nice day!

    Uta from Germany

  8. I understand the need for a pattern when you are learning or stitching for stress relief. It is also good for people who have to plan everything out. Being creative and making your own ideas come to fruition is a creative outlet—it mostly comes to me after I have learned something and I want to do it “my way”.

  9. Historically, copying the masters has been a proven method of learning the basics, but with the advent of the Internet, and a better understanding of copyright laws, the whole issue of ownership of a design has impacted on all creative endevours. As Pokey described, as a working mother, I only had time for the fun parts, and spent every free minutes re-creating both quilting and embroidery designs that I had purchased, for that purpose. But I also had a close friend who designed embroidery patterns for sale–she tried to earn a living by selling the right to use her designs. She was done in by theft, and she knew of many other designers who had the same experience.

    I believe that we need to acknowledge any and every designer we can, but we also have to be sensible about it, and recognize that there is a limit to the length of time that this remains feasible. There is a reason for the time limitations in copyright law.

  10. I consider myself lucky to have the imagination and skill set to make things from scratch but there are still a few things I might get a kit for — most likely a heritage design such as a William Morris pillow. There are plenty of people in the world who aren’t as imaginative but who certainly have the skills to produce wonderful handwork. I don’t think they should be denied the opportunity to have kits or detailed design instruction. If a kit gives them enough confidence, they usually will try something different and perhaps in time create something of their own design. If it’s a passing fad, then more power to them for at least trying to make something with their hands.

  11. I think for anyone doing something for the first time there is more chance for success with a kit or pre-printed pattern. Who wants to get discouraged right off the bat. How will the wonderful needlework traditions carry on? As far as copying goes, I am not in favor of that but is it really possible to come up with a new quilt block? I think the way we alter them is by the use of color in the fabrics and the way we arrange them in the finished top but the basic shapes are pretty much repeats.

  12. If we argue this or that, well it doesn’t matter. What does matter is to get as much gear, equipment, procedures, plots, plans and designs in our tool box as we can.

  13. I think following a pattern in needlework, is like following a recipe in cooking.
    Depending on the difficulty of either, it’s good to follow a set of steps.
    Once one becomes familiar with the process, and one has a creative inclination, quilting or cooking “outside of the box” is the next step.
    Personally, I like to always “add” something that is totally my own, when I am making something from someone else’s pattern.
    Unless you make someone else’s pattern exactly the way it is shown on an accompanying photo, that pattern “becomes” one’s own when they choose one’s own fabric, embellishments, etc.

  14. I began working with preprinted canvas as a small child [my grandmother taught me and she died when I was 5] So that was quite a while ago. Now at the age of 69 I can not imagine working with someone elses ideas. I ocasionally take classes, but I go for techniques these are never finished. I am there only to learn. The only way I could see working on these projects after a class was if I was at a hospital sitting with a dying friend. I would be using others ideas to keep me from my thoughts.

  15. I am very new to quilting. Without some already made pattern I would not have been able to branch out into my own color world. I feel if it is put out there you are welcome to use it. I don’t believe in being able to sell it though.
    I am a creative person and usually like it my way. Some people are not so lucky.
    I believe in letting them learn where they can and make something from their hands they may not be able to afford to buy.

  16. Needlepoint kits, with the printed on canvas pattern, reminds me so much of the paint-by-number painting sets of the 60’s. I don’t find any creativity in that, only productivity. Book patterns to follow are a learning lesson for me. From that comes creativity.

  17. If you enjoy working other peoples patterns it is a good way to hone you skills and show your craftsmanship at the same time. Nothing wrong with that. Not having to design something can be very relaxing. Sometimes using a pattern can help you to learn a new stitch and spark ideas for your own original art work.
    As long as you are not passing the finish piece off as your original art.

  18. Embroidery kits and patterns helped me perfect the technical side of the craft. and I have been doing needlework for over 40 years. Now I love doing crazy quilts because of all the unscripted embroidery that I get to do where and when I feel like it.

    There is a place for fast but I like the process, I do get “products” but that is not the only reason I quilt, sew, and embroider. I love working with my hands and would usually choose a needle and thread over a machine for my work.

  19. As a beginner, I loved patterns. Less to think about… I could just “do”. However, now I like the challenge and freedom of doing my own thing. Honestly, I enjoy both approaches. The one I choose depends on my mood and who the recipient of my project is going to be!

  20. I agree that we should all follow our own path, and for most of us that path does become “making” our own way. However, even if we cannot put it into words, I believe we are happy with our path only if we are happy with the end product that we produce. If you use a pattern (or class or whatever way you choose to learn the process), and learn enough to be happy with your chosen process, then is the time to let go and find or “make” your own path. That time and effort spent becoming proficient lets your work shine, really speak to you and make you (and others, if you choose to share) happy with what you do.

  21. Needle work kits have a palce in this world in that they allow new or inexperienced needlers (Yes word, you can use it freely tho LOL) to gain experience in various techniques and to learn new stitches as they work on more complex kits. I have begun many a hobby in just this format. At some poiint nearly everyone will want to “break free” of the limitations of kits and “do our own thing” this is the magic moment when skills morph inot creativity and art is born.

    Let’s not look down on those kits and the folks working with them. we all started out somewhere. I can remember when I was about 6 or 7 Mom giving me a needle thread and a scrap of fabric to begin practicing stitches with. wasnt pretty, (god I detested hand work and still do!) but its a place to start.

    Nowadays, I sometimes dont mind a little handwork, I turn off the sewing/embroidery machine, the cell phonoe and the TV, get a lil music playing on the radio and take a lil break down the old garden path.

    kinda refreshing break too!. always feels like Momma, Granny and the aunties are there sitting with me too!


    Happy stitching!

  22. WOW!!! Love the debate!

    People seem to favour patterns / kits for learning, high-stress periods, as a means to help keep the craft alive… I would add that spending the time to do handiwork is a gift to yourself (and to the recipient if it is a present).

    I think using your own designs / colours / embellishments, if successful, moves the work more toward art on the art to craft specturm. If “unsuccessful” (which is difficult to define), it may have provided great learning, or demonstrate that you have different tastesfron others, you get to decide!!!

    I think both are valid and important in lives that are all too dominated by electronics, commuting and mass production.

    I am all in favour of personal production of useful or beautiful items, no matter the source of inspiration.

  23. I hardly ever follow a pattern with my fibre work, although I look at patterns for inspiration. However I believe this debate will always be with us. At the present there is the debate about whether those who create patterns for quilts, or paintings using photos and projecting/tracing from them are true artists, but I believe it is better to be creative than to worry about what people think about your process. there’s always going to be debate about new processes. The point is, new processes and creativity will always go hand in hand. I will always choose creativity.

  24. I have done hand embroidery , hand quilting, hand applique ,hand garment sewing, and hand beading…and now that I am “older” and I love a good machine. I still get to do the thinking and the skill work, just get to save what’s left of my hands for other things like touching people I love, gardening and other artistic persuits.

  25. I use the time that I am not working on that ‘big’ project to try out new stitches. It is easier than trying to figure out what all those abbreviations mean while in the middle of a project that asks for something unfamiliar. I have gathered old magazines, and pamphlets from the 40’s on, and can usually find new ideas for originality when the application part begins. The advent of the internet has helped tremendously when figuring out how to wrap the thread around the needle, and when!

  26. When I learn a new technique, I often will buy a kit to help teach myself the basics. After that, I prefer to design my own work. I do garner ideas from looking at other designers’ work, but always try to encorporate it into a new design of my own. My need to create makes me bore easily with mass produced kits.

  27. There should always be an opportunity for people to try their hand at embroidery. Kits allow anyone, beginner to advance, to enjoy the creativity of needle arts. Some may say that kits deter creativity, but just the act of sewing is a creative endeavor. Bravo to anyone who makes the attempt and enjoys the passion of sewing.

  28. I enjoy patterns and have worked off many many patterns. (This would include everything from knitting, quilting and most anything that uses a needle) That said, I now rarely follow one. Often I have started with a pattern, organized my thoughts and supplies and modify the project to fit my dream, space, or materials. I do get teased that I don’t follow patterns ( and recipes ) But I like being teased.

  29. I have enjoyed all of the comments on this topic that have been posted so far.
    I have been exposed to sewing an crafting most of my life. There have been lapses where life gets in the way, but it always seems to creep back into my life. I have been slowly getting back into quilting and some needlework over the past couple of years after an almost 10 yr break. Kind of like falling off a bike lol.

    I believe that the patterns and kits that are out there serve to help us get to where we long to be. Kits take the planning out of starting a new project so that we can try something new, or get something done quickly. I always find that patterns inspire me! I might start with something but end up changing it somewhat somewhere along the way. For me, I find that my creative outlet is the finishing of a quilting project – coming up with the freemotion designs that I want to help make the pattern ‘pop’. That is my challenge.

    So whatever path you choose, run headlong into your project and have a blast!!

  30. I see nothing wrong with using patterns especially if I am trying a new technique. This gives me the opportunity to try something new without the stress of putting a lot of effort into drafting a pattern and later finding out it won’t work out. Once I figure out how to do the technique it is a lot faster and easier to draft my own pattern.

  31. If I hadn’t had a pillowcase with a pattern on it I probably would never had tried to hand embroidery. I have never tried to do it by machine because I like hand work. But to me it is all in what the person is comfortable with. I am not very creative, I like to see what the finished product will look like so when I piece a quilt. I am more apt to buy a kit than try and figure out the colors to use.

  32. Annette Andersen Denmark
    I like to find small things packed to sew (that are already designed) and change them to be mine.. BUT
    I also enjoy making my own designs inspired from nature or waste eks old beercans I find at the streets. I have found inspiration in the lines that comes when it has been driven over and laid on the street during a winter. I frame my work in siverframes and my friens get these small artwork
    love your work have a nice holidayseason Annette

  33. I have done 32 needlepoint Christmas stocking…kits…and yet I consider myself a fiber artist. The stockings were for grandkids, nieces, nephews, etc. But when I do my own wall hangings, etc. in quilting/painting, beading, I use only my own designs…I have not tried to design an embroidery/needle point pattern so I guess I am like the majority of the responses…a time for all of it.

  34. There can be a lot of snobbery about the use of kits or other peoples designs in embroidery and other areas of textile work. I do design some of my own work but also sew a lot of cross stitch kits and sometimes feel a bit guilty about not doing more of my own designs; but after giving this matter some consideration over a number of years I have come to the following conclusions;
    1. I can draw to some extent, but most of the kits I stitch are much better drawn than I could achieve. By making up a kit I get a product I enjoy looking at much more than the second rate effect I would achieve if I had tried to draw a design of my own.
    2.In choosing a particular kit over others that are available I am exercising a degree of artistic choice. Believe me, for every design I would consider sewing there are thousands that I wouldn’t give a thank you for!
    3.Do we look down on people who buy works of art rather than painting their own pictures? The principle is the same as far as I can see.
    4. As other respondents have pointed out the designers of kits of any sort are doing it to make money and rely on people buying and presumably making them up and if they are good I think they deserve encouragement.
    5.Many of the historical textiles that are revered today were not original works of art. Designs were taken from books, magazines, copied from generation to generation, or from teachers or even drawn on to fabric by professional designers, but are still admired.
    I think there is plenty of room for both approaches and we should respect other peoples choice.
    Carol McDermott, Ireland