Hand Embroidery Tips and Tricks

Idle hands were frowned upon in my house when I was growing up. There was always something to do. If I wanted to watch TV (and I wanted to watch TV!), I had to be doing something productive at the same time. So I would sit down with either knitting or embroidery, and watch to my heart's content.

Detail of some embroidery
stitches on one of my
Prayer Flags.

I remember knitting a hat during the Olympics one year, an intricate pair of Norwegian mittens during the first run of "Brideshead Revisited," and countless rows on a sweater that I will always associate with Julia Child.

Embroidery, in my mind, is tightly associated with Erica Wilson's Saturday morning show and hot tea that I would sip in front of the fireplace as I stitched reproduction samplers in the '70s and '80s. Those practice sessions led me to a real appreciation for handwork, and helped shape my love for fiber arts in general.

There is a wonderful resource in the early issues of Quilting Arts from the modern crazy quilt enthusiast Leslie Levison. I saw her work first-hand at a guild meeting when I first moved to Connecticut, and she's one of the reasons I love my back issues of Quilting Arts Magazine

herringbone embroidery stitch fish
Fish motif using the
herringbone embroidery stitch.
By Leslie Levison.

Leslie ran a semi-regular series in the early issues (2-16) that takes the 125-year tradition (or so) of Crazy Quilting and turns it on its head. Leslie illustrates dozens of stitches, using threads, fibers, sequins, and beads. Her work incorporates traditional hand stitching with contemporary subject matter, and makes an incredible statement. 

I don't make crazy quilts, but I do use embroidery in my own contemporary fiber art. Sometimes the embroidery is the focal point (as in the Prayer Flags), and other times it is just a small embellishment technique that ads to the overall piece (as in stitched lines and patterns in the background of either birds or other contemporary pieces). 

However you chose to incorporate these stitches, there are always a few things to keep in mind which will lead to a better finished project. 

herringbone embroidery patterns
Hand embroidery patterns using the herringbone stitch. By Leslie Levison
in Quilting Arts Spring 2002.

My tips for hand embroidery:

  • Handwork takes a long time, and it should be done with the best quality of supplies that you can afford.  There is a difference in quality in threads and fabrics, and you should use what works best for your project.
  • Learn how to use a thimbleit will save your fingers!
  • Threading the needle with multi-stranded thread can be tricky. Try folding it over the eye of the needle and pinching the fold between your finger and thumb nail. Sometimes it is easier to get a folded strand through the eye of the needle rather than a raw edge of cut thread.
  • Keep your supplies for your current project (threads, scissors, and instructions) together and store them in an inexpensive pencil case (available for $1 in the school supply aisles of discount stores.)
  • Use a fishing tackle box or a kid's matchbox car holder to organize your stash of needles and threads. These boxes are much less expensive than embroidery-specific cases, and often can be stacked more easily in tight studio spaces.
  • Hand-dyed thread is wonderful to work with and does much of the design work for you!
  • Learn a new stitch, try a new technique, and challenge yourself to move beyond your comfort zone.

What about looking through your back issues of Quilting Arts and trying one of Leslie's more unusual embroidery stitches or using one of her bead embroidery patterns to spice things up on your fiber art? Now, all the back issues from the first 10 years of Quilting Arts are available together in the 2001-2010 Quilting Arts CD Collection.

With 10 years of Quilting Arts back issues at your fingertips offering dozens of hand embroidery designs, your hands won't have an idle moment all summer!

P.S. How did you learn hand embroidery? Do you watch TV while you do your embroidery stitches? Tell me about your experience in the comments section below.

Other topics you may enjoy:


Hand Embroidery, Machine Embroidery, Quilting Daily Blog

13 thoughts on “Hand Embroidery Tips and Tricks

  1. I learned embroidery as a child, growing up in Shanghai, China, during the 2nd World war. We were Jewish refugees who had escaped the Nazis in Poland. I actually learned embroidery from other children, Chinese girls who started to embroider their own slippers by the time they were 5 years old. I have always engaged in embroidering various things, both stamped items, and later things drawn by an artist (my husband). We now live in Israel, and I have learned embroidery all over again with the influx of Ethiopean immigrants who do things quite differently than the Chinese or Europeans. The Ethiopians use only one stitch – the chain stitch, and they make very intricate patterns by manipulating and filling in with this one stitch. I must admit that this is much easier on the eyes as one get older — some of the Chinese stitches are now beyond me. Most of the things I make are Jewish religious items, designed by my husband. They include collars for Prayer Shawls, as well as covers for Challah and Matza and other Holy day items. Sarah Goldenberg

  2. Funny you should mention Leslie Levinson. Her articles were one of the reasons I subscribed to Quilting Arts in the first place! I was sorely disappointed when her series was discontinued. I’ve embroidered much of my life, and would suggest you consider resurrecting embroidery stitches in the magazine. Shirley Bentsen, Michigan

  3. My “fiber love” began at age 8 when my gramma taught me to knit on a spool! By age 10 I was making aprons and blouses as 4- H sewing projects. I have always made my own clothing as well as much of my daughter’s and grandchildren’s. In the early 70’s I learned to weave and bought a Le Clerc loom. Then in the 80’s I learned to weave baskets. I got hooked on primitive rug hooking in the early ’90s and find pleasure in designing my own patterns to this day. After retirement in 2000 I decided to try quilting. I have not found a quilt pattern I didn ‘t want to try! Currently, I am working on a 24 block Baltimore Album quilt which is entirely hand applique plus embroidery embellishment. Everyone I love appreciates my work of heart and treasures the results of my lifelong passion. I plan to explore these creative paths till the day I die. Carrie in Texas

  4. i totally agree with bentsens:
    one of the main reasons that i began reading and subscribing to Quilting Arts was that focus within the mag on HAND embroidery. it wasn’t much but it was something and now, not even that~!
    you really should consider shifting some of the content to those of us who engage more in the hand work. i know that bentsen and i are not the only ones out here~!

    :- O

  5. I agree with libbyquilter and bentsen. I first subscribed to Quilting Arts because of my love of crazy quilts and hand work. It also didn’t hurt that I saw my first issue in the hands of Pokey Bolton at Sew Expo out here in Washington State. My early issues are dog-earred and well referred to. The most recent issues…not so much.

    As to your question; I am mostly self-taught in embroidery, and now I teach it. I do watch tv when doing handwork… I had to harrass my eye-doctor to give me bifocals with a big lower close distance section, and a sliver of across the room distance at the top. But they work like a charm! For some reason, “Hell Boy” and “Sahara” are two of my go-to flicks when I have to finish a project.

    And I’ll quibble with your comment that hand work takes a long time. It kind of depends on what you are doing with it, and how much you practice. That’s one of the things I love about crazy quiting and certain illustrative embroidery. If I have just 15 minutes, I can usually make at least one pass along a patch seam with a stitch or some beads or such. That makes visual change and so I know I am making progress.

  6. I learned to embroider when I was in the second grade. My mom did iron-on transfer patterns of zoo animals on pieces of old sheets for me to cross-stitch and embellish with french knots and other stitches. When she passed away, I found the entire stash at her house, and plan to piece them into a quilt. The basic skills she taught me have served me well over the years, are are now finding their way into some of my art quilts, creating texture with threads, beads, and other findings.

  7. I am currently working on a McKenna Ryan ‘Sea Breeze’ pattern and I’ve decided to add embroidery details using a variety of stitch techniques. I learned to embroider at a young age from my grandma, but pulled out a book to help decide which stitches for the effects I was going for in my underwater theme. I sampled with a few to figure out which work best for the effects I was trying to achieve. I found using ‘free motion rubber finger tips’ helped me pull my embroidery needle through where the fabric had previously been stitched closely. Due to my poor eyesight, the best way for me to thread a needle with ‘multi-strand’ silk thread/cord is to ‘pinch’ the fine strands between my teeth (thus wetting it slightly), then use tweezers to further ‘flatten’ out the intertwined threads to finally thread said needle. I must also add that I have to use a visor with interchangeable magnification lens to help me with all of the above.

  8. My mother is an amazing woman. She taught me how to embroider, knit and sew at a very young age. I was so young, in fact, that I have no memory of not being able to do these things. I do remember knitting things to dress my barbie in. They didn’t look like much, just crooked little squares, but in my mind they were regal. I am endlessly gratefull to my multi-talented mother for teaching me so many things. What is the one skill she taught me that I am most gratefull for? That’s easy, she taught me that I can do anything.

  9. I learned hand embroidery from my great grandmother, back in the mid 50’s. It continued in the evenings in her little house, as the only entertainment. That’s right, no tv, yet. I continued with lessons from her and my grandmother, on days in the summer while I was on vacation from school. I was hooked, and continued my embroidery whenever I had a few moments to sit or in the evenings after I put the kids to bed. All this continued until my hands got too bent from arthritis. I still drool over patterns that I’d like to do. That’s how I learned.

  10. Great article about hand embroidery because a number of intricate designs can also be seen on Chikan clothes which look good whenever they are manufactured over cotton fabric. Kalidar embroidery done over the neck and sleeves of Chikan clothes make them the first choice of youngsters and college going teens.