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A Simple Workflow to Start your Hand Embroidery Project

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Tools and materials used for hand embroidery, including needles, scissors, thread and fabric.

I always get super excited when I embark on a new hand embroidery project. Now, I always follow a simple but effective workflow before I even start my hand embroidery project. I don’t even think about it any longer as it is so ingrained in what I do. 

But it wasn’t always like this. When I first started with embroidery, I stitched without a frame, and I just picked any needle that I could find. As a result, my thread always used to be very long as I found starting and finishing my embroidery thread awkward, and somehow, you could always see where I started and ended my embroidery. As a result, the processes I used negatively impacted the quality of my work.

Here is an overview of the workflow I use today with some videos that I hope you will find helpful in your embroidery practice. 

The techniques within the workflow I describe here seem very simple but make such a huge difference when you start your hand embroidery project.

1. Transferring your design

There is a multitude of ways to transfer your embroidery designs onto fabric. The method you will choose depends to a large degree on the type of fabric you are using. 

Fabric characteristics

The two main fabric characteristics you need to consider for choosing your transfer methods are mainly fabric colour and density. So, for example, is your fabric dark or light in colour and is your material see through such as light cotton or fairly solid like canvas or denim. So, for example, for a see-through fabric, you can use a simple light source to transfer your design. On the other hand, if you have a dense material, you might need to use some carbon paper to transfer your design.

Other characteristics to consider are the sensitivity to heat and water and how fine or rough the material is. For example, can you apply heat to your fabric, or can you get it wet? Depending on the type of fabric, decide whether you want to use a heat, water or air erasable fabric marker to transfer your design. Also, do you want to embroidery on a woolly jumper or a smooth, thin piece of cotton?

Design consideration

illustration of the position of warp, weft and selvedge on a fabric.

Aim to match up the direction of your design with the horizontal and vertical lines of your fabric. So if your design runs from top to bottom, i.e. a portrait format, use the vertical lines (warp) of your fabric as a guide. If your design runs from left to right, i.e. a landscape format, align your design with your fabric’s horizontal lines (weft). Aligning your design with the warp and weft of your fabric will allow for fewer distortions in your final piece.

2. Hooping up your fabric

While using an embroidery hoop or frame is not essential to hand embroider, I strongly suggest it, as it makes it easier to work on your project. The reason for this is that you tighten up your fabric when using a hoop. A tight fabric makes it easier to push your needle through the fabric accurately. It also makes it easier to keep your thread’s tension even and reduces the fabric or embroidery thread to pucker.

But before you hoop up your fabric, I want to point out a few things you want to consider when hooping up your material. 

Hoop Size

First of all, you want to have a big enough embroidery hoop. There are a couple of reasons for this. 

If your embroidery hoop is not big enough for your design, your embroidery may get caught by the embroidery hoop. Not only might this damage or stretch your embroidery, but it will also wear on the embroidery thread itself and might damage the fibre. So naturally, you want to avoid this. 

If your design is too close to the edge of the hoop, it is pretty tricky to stitch as you cannot manoeuvre your needle freely, which can make it annoying when you stitch.

You can get embroidery hoops up to about 30cm (12 inches). The larger the hoop, the more difficult it is to keep your embroidery fabric taught. Binding your embroidery hoop with some fabric strips or tape will help the fabric to slip less. But, for larger projects, you might want to consider using an embroidery frame such as a slate frame to keep your fabric as tight as possible.

How much space is enough?

As a rule of thumb, you want to leave at least two and a half centimetres or one inch on all sides between your design and the edge of your embroidery hoop. This will allow enough space to stitch your design comfortably.  

What will you do with your hand embroidery project?

Also, consider what you are going to do with your embroidered fabric. 

You might want to leave it in a hoop and hang it on the wall, which is fine. But you might want to use your finished embroidery project for something else like a cushion cover or notebook. In this case, you need to cut out your fabric in the right size for your project first, then transfer your design where you want it on your cushion cover or notebook and then find the correct embroidery hoop size to take your fabric and design.  

Suppose you want to use the embroidery hoop to mount your embroidery project at the end. In that case, you want to measure a piece of fabric the size of the embroidery hoop, plus 3x the width of the embroidery hoop edge to leave enough fabric to secure your fabric later on. 

Binding your hand embroidery hoop

I would strongly suggest that you bind at least one part of your embroidery hoop with some thin fabric strips or cotton tape. Binding the embroidery hoop increases friction, and your fabric will stay tight longer. 

I have created a quick tutorial that shows you how to bind your embroidery hoop, which I hope you find useful.

3. Threading up your needle

When choosing a needle for your thread, you want to make sure that the embroidery thread slides pretty smoothly through the eye of the needle. If you feel a lot of friction when moving the thread through the needle’s eye, the needle is too small. The friction puts strain on your thread and may damage the fibre and be visible in your stitches.

If the thread comes out of the needle very easily, the needle is too large. A too large a needle is mainly annoying when stitching but can also damage the embroidery thread, as you constantly have to rethread your needle.

Commonly used needles for hand embroidery

The most widely used needles for hand embroidery are Embroidery or Crewel needles. These needles have a longer needle eye than standard sewing needles (sharps). They are good to use for stranded cotton. Sizes 7-9 are the most commonly used in this category. Due to the fairly narrow eye and the sharp tip, these needles slide nicely through different fabric types without leaving large holes.

Chenille needles have a large eye and a sharp point. These needles are good to use for a thicker thread, such as crewel wool or ribbon work. They are also good to use if you struggle to thread up your embroidery or crewel needle. However, bear in mind that these needles can leave larger holes in your fabric due to the large eye, so they may not work for more delicate fabrics. So do try these needles out before use. Most commonly used, finer sizes are 20-24.

You use Tapestry needles mainly for counted thread work such as tapestry work or cross-stitch. These needles have a large eye and a blunt tip. These needles are also great to use in surface embroidery for any woven work, such as woven wheals or whipping stitches.

4. Starting your hand embroidery thread

There are a number of techniques you can use to start and finish your embroidery thread. The method will depend on the type of embroidery you do, the type of fabric you use and the final purpose of your embroidery.

When I started out to hand embroider many moons ago I used, like many others, a knot to start my hand embroidery project. Starting with (and leaving) a knot at the back of your embroidery is a big no-no in traditional hand embroidery. One reason for this is that the knot can show through your embroidery when mounted. Another reason is that it can be visible when you use thinner fabric that might be somewhat see-through. Knots can also get undone, so there is a danger of your work getting undone as well. 

When I still used knots at the back of my work, my biggest bugbear was that I often pulled through the loose ends of the knot when my needle caught the knot. It was then always fiddly to remove those thread ends from the front of my work. 

I leave it up to you whether you want to knot or not. But you at least have a choice with the quick tutorials I share with you in this blog post. The tutorial will also show you how to finish your embroidery thread once you have run out of embroidery thread or finished stitching your design elements.

If you have any questions, please do post them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you. 

Talk soon and Happy Stitching


Signature reading 'Heidi'

PS: If you like some help with finding suitable supplies, why not check out the following post

Embroidery and Craft Supplies

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