What hand embroidery supplies do you need to start stitching? I’m often asked this, and, with TAST (Take a stitch Tuesday) restarting next year, there are loads of new people signing up, joining the Facebook group and getting themselves organised. So I thought I would share some of my personal views on what you will need to start learning hand embroidery.
Hand embroidery supplies – Fabrics
Of course, first up you need something to stitch on. Beginners are often pointed toward specialty even-weave fabrics that are manufactured for hand embroiderers. Specialty fabrics can be expensive and could put you off the whole idea of trying hand embroidery. When I say expensive – I do mean expensive. For example, in Australia for one meter of 32 count Belfast linen, you will pay between $90 to $110. That is not cheap if you are starting out and trying embroidery as an experiment. Honestly, you don’t need to learn on these expensive fabrics. I will say more about specialty fabrics later in this article but first, let’s look at a few alternative hand embroidery supplies for anyone interested in exploring surface embroidery on a budget.
Time to go shopping and see what hand embroidery supplies you can get on a budget – at least that’s what I told my DH 😉 . I was looking for fabrics suitable for surface embroidery, that were economical and relatively easily found. The idea is to look for similar fabrics, not identical fabrics. My idea is to encourage people to try hand embroidery. I didn’t want to create a supplies list that fell into the “too hard” basket so that people put aside the idea before even starting.
Before I go any further, I am not affiliated with any of the products I recommend. This is just what I discovered in an afternoon’s shopping. I realise that what I have access to in Australia will be different if you live in Europe or the United States but hopefully you will be able to find something similar and adapt it to your needs. It gives you an idea of what to look for and where you might find fabrics that can be used on starter projects or for a sampler.
In Australia, we have two large chains that supply dress fabrics, haberdashery, threads, etc. These are Spotlight and Lincraft. Aussies will know these chains and I am sure people in other countries will have similar large retailers. In both cases, I looked for dress fabrics that would be good for surface embroidery. So head to the dress fabric aisle for a good look round.
There is quite range in both stores and I could have chosen handspun cotton and many cotton dress fabrics. If you choose cotton, look for how it is woven. You don’t want a really tight weave with high thread count. Fabric with a high number of threads-per-inch makes it difficult to use larger needles. Put simply, they can be tough to push through the fabric – you want a slightly looser weave, but not so loose that you see great holes in it. Many synthetics have a high thread count and are slippery making them a difficult starter fabric. I would steer clear of them if you are new to embroidery. Once you have a little experience you can embroider on just about anything.
In Spotlight, I found this dress/shirt linen which, although thin, would be perfectly suitable for a small project or sampler. As you can see from the photograph, it has a slight slub and is a warm oatmeal colour which I liked. This fabric was marked and sold as cotton linen as you can see from the bolt label. It is 55% cotton and 45% linen. It was on sale and half a meter cost me $6.
The second large chain I visited was Lincraft where I discovered this bone/stone coloured fabric. It was described as shirt linen but if you look at the fibre composition it is the same linen/cotton mix but comes from a different country of origin. Spotlight dress linen is from India and Lincraft sources its dress linen from China.
I paid $8 for a half meter. Both these fabrics came in a range of colours. I have chosen these neutrals as I plan to stitch a few comparison samples on them in the course of next year.
I also reach for neutrals as these are always easily hand dyed. Procion dyes will colour these fabrics if I want them in a different shade. So, after checking out both chains, they both offer similar options. They would certainly do the job, but I thought there might be other options. Time to think creatively!
The next place I went browsing in was IKEA where I found a serviette or placemat cloth called MARKNAD. I always check the label for fabric composition and discovered it was a cotton-linen blend. This made it ideal, and in Australia is priced at $2.99. It has the advantage of being already hemmed for you! It would make a perfect sampler cloth.
Another IKEA product discovered on the same shopping trip is a MARKNAD table runner which measures 40×140 cm or 16×55 inches. It is also a linen-cotton mix and priced at AU $4.99 – a good price.
Both of these cloths would make an ideal surface for a beginner to learn hand embroidery. IKEA always provides good information about the fabric content of their products. If you can not see it immediately on their labelling, you can always google it.
Also while in IKEA, I checked out the curtain department and found a linen fabric that was 150 cm wide (which is 1.6 yards) priced $12.99. It was firm, but not too firm for hand embroidery. If I was going to use this, I would wash it first but then I like a soft drape to my fabric. For linen, it was very reasonably priced.
LENDA fabric was even cheaper at $7.99 and being 100% cotton white fabric had the advantage of probably taking dye beautifully too.
I also looked for tea towels, as in the past I have often found that the fabric used in their tea towels makes it an ideal foundation fabric for hand embroidery projects. But today I was not in luck.
Recycled linens can often be found in second-hand charity shops. I have never had a problem using second-hand materials. I wash everything thoroughly, and let’s face it, reusing old garments is good for the environment. I decided to venture into my local charity shop (they know me well). On the discount rack, I found a very boring looking shirt for $2. Washed and ironed it would make a perfect surface to embroider.
Another piece I found was an old tablecloth. These are always a find because they are linen and often still very strong. Many are projects that were never finished so they haven’t been used. You can usually spot them, as they have an edge that is meant to be finished with crochet. I take these home wash them well using a hot wash setting and hang them in the sunshine. They are not an even-weave linen but they are ideal for surface embroidery!
Even-weave fabrics are created especially for hand embroiderers. There are many types of linen, cotton and linen-cotton mixes of varying counts. They are lovely to use but many are expensive. You can buy them in your local needlework shop or if you do not have access to a local store, then shop online. Google is your friend – a search of needlework fabric will bring up results for your area.
What about Aida? Honestly, I don’t recommend Aida for surface embroidery. Aida is great for cross stitch – that is what it is designed for, but it is a fabric with a firm grid. Although this is great for lining up your stitches and keeping them straight, there are often times when you want to work a nice curve. Aida will stall this. Working a curve leads to a jagged edge and it becomes dissatisfying. So keep Aida for cross stitch and have fun exploring other fabrics for surface embroidery.
This is another even-weave cotton linen mix fabric which is an oatmeal colour. You can find a range of even-weave fabrics that range from off-white to antique cream or a natural palette. You can also find a range of coloured fabrics but most of what you see on the market is on the conservative side. I also hand dye linens to brighten things up a bit if I am getting bored with what is on offer.
Linen itself is often very expensive. As I have already said, in Australia you will pay between $90 to $110 for a meter of Belfast Linen. Dublin and Cashel linen is about the same price. You can often buy packs cut in smaller sizes so you don’t have to fork out that much in one go. But I am sure you can see what drove me to offer the advice above. I know when I was younger I could not have afforded to stitch on linen – no matter how small the piece was!
However, I do suggest that once you have a stitching habit established and know this is a pastime you enjoy, it’s worth lashing out to buy some. Try it, as it is by far my favourite fabric to hand sew. As a tip, do keep your eye on eBay. And I regularly shop overseas for my linen. I can often buy linen from the United States, for example, and have it shipped – and still be ahead on cost. With some of the bargain sites, you may need to watch where the linen is manufactured, because different countries produce different quality linen. If the linen you are buying is a good brand name such as Zweigart you will get a good quality product but if the linen is simply listed as the fabric (no brand name) I would be suspicious.
Just a quick tip: you will find that linen can fray very easily. To prevent this I simply run a line of zig-zag stitching down the side. You will also find it is starched to make it easier to stitch but some people hate this (I do). It is not a problem, just wash out the starch and you will have a lovely soft fabric to handle and stitch.
I have pulled from my stash some Lugana 25 count fabric that is manufactured by Zweigart. It is made of 52% cotton & 48% rayon. In Australia, you pay between $45 and $55 a meter for Lugana. So it is an economical substitute for speciality needlework linen, when you think of linen as being double the price.
What does count mean?
What do we mean by ‘count’? You’ll find this term in reference to even-weave needlework fabric. You might hear someone say “You need to work this on 14 count” or “It is 32 count”. Count, is simply the number of threads per inch. If you ever have fabric for which you don’t know the count, you can work it out easily. Line up a tape measure against the fabric and count the threads! It is that simple.
If you want to check that a fabric is even-weave, the number of threads should be the same across and down.
If you are wanting to do cross stitch on even-weave fabrics you work each bar of the cross over two threads
Hand embroidery supplies – Needles
To carry the thread through the fabric you will, of course, need needles. This means you will have to check out those large chains for what they have on offer, or visit your local needlework shop. If you do not have access to either, then Google is your friend. Look online as there are many businesses that can help you. But the range of needle types can be confusing!
Crewel or Embroidery Needles
Buy a mixed packet of crewel needles as this type of needle you will use all the time. Sometimes these are packaged as ‘Embroidery’ needles. A crewel needle has a sharp tip with a medium eye. I suggest buying a mixed size pack so you can use different thicknesses of thread.
I recommend you invest in some tapestry needles. Buy a pack of mixed sizes as many surface embroidery stitches can be laced and threaded with a secondary thread. Take a look at the Threaded Cable Chain stitch or Twisted Lattice Band tutorials.
These are just two examples of stitches where a secondary thread is used to lace or thread a basic stitch. In both cases, you use a tapestry needle to avoid splitting the foundation threads because a tapestry needle has a blunt tip. A tapestry needle also has a larger eye so the thread you use to lace with can be any of the many novelty threads, or fine knitting yarns, enhancing the stitch, making your work unique.
For those embarking on the TAST challenge, I also recommend getting some size 26 tapestry needles so that you can have fun with some of the beaded stitches. With a size 26 tapestry needle, you can bead as you stitch. Since the eye of a tapestry needle is long, you can thread perle #8 and Perle #5 through the long eye. However the needle itself is thin which means you can add a bead to your working thread as you stitch. Here are some stitches that use this technique: Beaded Buttonhole stitch, Beaded Looped Cretan stitch, and Beaded Oyster Stitch. These stitches are found in my stitch dictionary. If you browse the tutorials you will find there are many ways to adapt change and have fun with stitches if you have some basic tools to help you.
Milliner or Straw Needle
The last type of needle I am going to recommend you buy is a mixed pack of milliner needles as they are very useful for many of the knotted stitches. Most embroidery needles have an eye that is wider than the shaft of the needle which means any stitch that wraps the thread around the needle often runs the risk of getting too tight to pull the thread through. Milliners or straw needles have an eye and shaft that are the same width which makes sliding the wrapped or knotted stitch along the needle easy. I recommend mixed packs because it gives you the option of experimenting with different thickness of thread.
Hand embroidery supplies – Thread
Most beginners use stranded cotton floss because it is cheap, easily accessible and comes in a huge variety of colours. Stranded floss comes in skeins that can be separated. There are six strands of thread, but people usually use two strands at a time. Stranded threads are great for cross stitch but I recommend you purchase some cotton Perle thread. In a class situation, I usually recommend #12, #8 and #5. Cotton Perle will make a difference to your embroidery as the firm twist of the thread makes the stitches sit firm and, if used in a textured stitch, cotton perle will sit a little more proud of the fabric.
If you are on a really tight budget, consider working in monotone – such as whites and creams or blues or neutral shades. If you only purchase fabric and cotton in similar shades, it works out cheaper because you don’t have to buy lots of different threads. Many threads of many colours is fun but it can be expensive. I often encourage beginners to experiment with different thicknesses of threads and different types threads. If you stick to one colour range it can keep the costs down. Once you have explored hand embroidery and know it is something you want to do more of, why not lash out and buy threads of all sorts – they really can make life and your stitching interesting!
Hand embroidery supplies – Hoop
I really encourage people to use a hoop. Hoops keep your tension even, and there are many stitches and embroidery styles that require good control over tension. So I always encourage people to learn with a hoop. I have a tutorial on How to bind and Use an Embroidery Hoop – it covers the basics and what you need to know.
Hand embroidery supplies – pens and markers to transfer your design to fabric
There will be times when you want to mark your fabric. I recommend that you use one of the fabric markers which can be washed off when you have finished the project. One thing to remember with these markers, is not to iron the project until you have washed them away. For many, heat will set the mark. There are quite a few on the market so check out your local needlework store and see what they have on offer. I have also used quilters pencils. Some people do not like to use these products because they worry about chemical residue left on the fabrics and I have heard stories of the blue pens particularly, re-appearing but remember with surface embroidery you stitch over the line you have marked so will most likely not see it on the finished project.
If you need to know how to do it, I have a tutorial on How to Transfer Embroidery patterns to fabric.
With some projects, I know I will stitch over the lines and they will be totally hidden. In these cases I use a permanent pen. Before I use them I always test that the pens will not run or partially wash out. I use Staedtler pigment liners, Copic multiliner, and Faber Castell Pitt artist pens. These all work about the same. They come in a very fine point and are waterproof.
Hand embroidery supplies – Scissors
Apart from having a pair of scissors to cut your fabric, you will need a pair of small embroidery scissors. Embroidery scissors have a small very sharp blade that allows you to snip close to the fabric. You will find there are different types of embroidery scissors – straight tip, curved, duck blades, hook blades and snippers and clippers of all kinds. It can be confusing! All you need to start is small pair of straight scissors that are sharp. Make sure they have a good snip to them. By this I mean they can trim a thread close to your work neatly. If they are designed for embroidery and are a reasonably good brand they will be able to do this. As you venture more into embroidery, you can experiment with some of the many types of scissors on the market.
I hope this advice about the basic equipment and hand embroidery supplies helps you embark upon a long enjoyable journey into the world of stitching. Hand embroidery is fun and does not have to be expensive or so daunting to start. Once you have all your stuff together, you might like to join TAST (Take a Stitch Tuesday) which will start up again in January 2018. The first 10 – 20 stitches will be the basic stitches that the craft builds on. Once you have those under your belt, you have the skills to develop in whatever direction you want to grow in. No need for signups just join in and have fun.
Or head over to my stitch dictionary and try out a few stitches. Try them out on a scrap piece of cloth – some stitches call them doodle cloths. The idea is to try just a few stitches on a cloth that does not matter before using it on project. Or start a small sampler and explore what is possible with needle and thread. No matter what, the idea is to have fun – and that is the most important thing
Have you seen my book?
My book The Visual Guide to Crazy Quilting Design: Simple Stitches, Stunning Results shares detailed practical methods on how to design and make a crazy quilt. Topics such as fabric choice, tricky challenges like balancing colour, texture and pattern, and how to create movement to direct your viewer’s eye around the block are covered in detail. I also explain how to stitch and build decorative seam treatments in interesting and creative ways. My book is profusely illustrated as my aim is to be practical and inspiring.
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These are simple to use. You simply position the template in place and use a quilter’s pencil to trace along the edge of the template. Stitch along this line to decorate the seam. I have a free ebook of patterns to accompany each set which illustrates how they can be used.
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