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Hand embroidery isn’t just for Jane Austen movies anymore. The art of tracing out designs with hand stitches has been making a comeback among those who grew up with most everything made by machine. The little bit of imperfection you try to avoid in other kinds of sewing is what makes hand embroidery so unique and stylish. It’s a relaxing hobby. It takes minimal equipment. And it’s quite easy to learn the basics… especially when you have someone like Amy Barickman to guide you. Amy’s latest book, Stitched Style is the perfect resource for someone who wants to start the craft as well as for advanced embroiderers looking for new ideas. Today we have a mini-tutorial from Amy.

Stitched Style includes 20 projects and 65 hand embroidery designs to trace or iron-on transfer. Amy’s inspiration for the book came from her personal collection of vintage bandanas with their wonderful paisleys, florals, and folk art geometric designs. It’s the same influence that brought about her SoHo Bandana collection, which we used recently for our Reversible Pillowcases and Woven Border Pillow.

While designing SoHo Bandana, Amy realized she wanted a heavier material to use with it, and her Crossroads Denim line was born. This beautifully soft and wonderfully vibrant fabric is used throughout Stitched Style as its texture is perfectly suited for embroidery.

Embroidery: An Extremely Brief History

During the Regency period (early 1800s) when Jane Austen set her novels, a woman’s skill with the needle was a significant measure of accomplishment. Jane herself was no slouch when it came to embroidery. One of her relatives said, “Her needlework, both plain and ornamental, was excellent, and she might have put a sewing machine to shame.” It’s ironic that now the most expensive new sewing machines advertise “hand look stitches” as a sought-after feature. 

Exactly how old is embroidery? It’s hard to say because textiles don’t survive thousands of years. There’s evidence it was used widely in ancient civilizations from China to Babylonia to Egypt, and probably originated in its current form before 3,000 BC. Skill in embroidery was considered a god-like quality. The Greek goddess Athena could strike down evil giants as well as do wonderful needlework.

From the classical age on, the aristocracy set themselves apart with their finely embroidered robes. One of the greatest works of early medieval France is the Bayeux Tapestry. It’s a 230 foot piece of embroidered linen, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. In Renaissance England, when colorful clothes and big frilly collars were all the rage, the Jacobean style of embroidery reached new heights of detail and precision.

Fast forward another 200 years to Jane Austen’s day, when among the upper classes, embroidery was even more popular than Angry Birds is today. If you were sitting, you were busy with your “work.” As you can imagine, the embroidery pieces from this time are simply stunning.

1930’s Embroidery Design by Anna Zumaris

Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers embroidered tea towels, linens, doilies, just about anything that wasn’t nailed down. But with more sophisticated sewing machines, handwork saw a marked decline. Today, with the popularity of all things handmade, it’s becoming a trend once again.

Embroidery Equipment: The Basics

You can do embroidery with any old needle and colored thread, but you probably won’t be happy with the results. Hand embroidery needles are specially shaped with larger eyes and the specially-milled thread you use is called floss. You’ll also want to get a simple hoop for holding your work and some other basic necessities, all of which can be purchased on a modest budget and will fit in a small box. Amy explains what you need and why in Stitched Style.

Current Embroidery Trends

What’s fun about hand embroidery is that you’re only limited by your imagination, from the very formal Modern Jacobean to the kind of grungy art you might see on a tattoo.

Here are a few of the major stitch categories:

Appliqué – sewing a decorative piece of fabric onto a larger piece of fabric.

Crewel – a type of decorative surface embroidery arranged in a fanciful, flowing design or repeating pattern.

Cross Stitch – a composite stitch consisting of two diagonal stitches that form an “x” on the fabric.

Sashiko – a form of Japanese folk embroidery using the basic running stitch to create a patterned background.

Redwork, Blackwork, Whitework (shown above), Bluework – use of a single color of thread for a particular open style of embroidery.

All of these can be used for traditional, modern, folk, or even edgy skater-style designs. In Stitched Style, Amy shows you how to use a number of them right away.

T-shirts with clever designs are very popular in trendy boutiques. People are paying $30 and up for a basic cotton tee with a simple line art design. You can easily knock-off a similar design with needle and thread for a one-of-a-kind fashion piece.

When you’re starting out, you want to think small. Amy’s book has project instructions for little business card cases, glasses cases, headbands, wrist bands, and other kinds of accessories that look great with just a few designs.

Of course, embroidery on denim is huge. A few single color paisley motifs across the shoulders of a denim jacket or down one leg of jeans are very cool. And Stitched Style includes a number of these larger scale projects .

Amy Barickman’s Hand Embroidery Starter Tips

Are you inspired to try your hand at hand embroidery? Let’s start stitching! Although there are a myriad of embroidery stitches, Amy has selected four simple ones to demonstrate here, which work beautifully in a variety of patterns and applications. She also explains a few supply basics.

Perfecting today’s four commonly-used stitches provides a great start to your skills. Once you’ve mastered these, try your hand at new ones, until you have a whole library at your fingertips. This is where Stitched Style is the perfect resource with 20 projects and 65 hand embroidery designs to trace or iron-on transfer.


  • Embroidery needle pack
  • ½ yard of foundation fabric: any woven fabric will do; linen, cotton, denim, etc., we suggest the fabulous Crossroads Denim.
  • 1 small hoop
  • Embroidery floss

Using an embroidery hoop

An embroidery hoop holds the foundation fabric taut during stitching so stitch tension can be kept even and consistent. Hoops can be made of wood, plastic or metal and are available in many different sizes. Most hoops have a screw on the outer ring to adjust the fit of the fabric.

  1. Place the foundation fabric over the inner ring of the hoop. Center the fabric so there is at least a 5″ border all the way around the hoop. 
  2. Place the outer ring over the inner ring, adjusting the screw on the outer ring so it fits snugly over the inner ring and the fabric.
  3. Move slowly around the hoop, pushing the outer ring down while pulling the fabric taut. 

Preparing the floss

Although there are many varieties, cotton embroidery floss is the classic choice. It’s made of six strands of loosely twisted, slightly glossy thread. You can find several brands of floss at just about any major sewing and craft outlet (both in store and online). Traditionally, the skeins are available individually or in color packs. When using this type floss, you will often separate the threads from one another, depending how thick you want your stitching line.

  1. From the skein, pull out and cut a length of floss no longer than 18″. 
  2. Separate three strands of thread from this length. Thread these three strands through your needle.
  3. To secure the floss at the start of the stitching, leave a 2″ tail of floss on the wrong side of your foundation fabric. Hold the end of the floss tail with one hand under the area to be stitched. With the other hand (your dominant hand with the needle), wrap your stitches around the tail. Continue wrapping your embroidery stitches until the floss tail is covered and secured by the stitches on the wrong side of the fabric.

Basic Running Stitch

The basic running stitch is one of the easiest outline stitches.

  1. Bring the needle up at 1; down at 2.
  2. Pick up several stitches on the needle before pulling it through.

Straight Stitch

A straight stitch can be of any length and worked in any direction. It can be used to cover straight design lines or scattered for an open filling.

  1. Bring the needle up at 1; insert it back through at 2.
  2. Work as many stitches as needed for desired design.

Stem Stitch

The stem stitch is primarily an outlining stitch, but is often used to create stems in floral designs as well.

  1. Working from left to right, bring the needle out at 1. Insert at 2 and exit a half stitch length back at 3. The distance from 1-3 and 3-2 should be equal. Repeat the sequence. 
  2. Note that point 3 of the previous stitch is now point 1 of the next stitch. The needle emerging at 3 is coming through the hole made by the thread entering at point 2 of the previous stitch. 
  3. As you make your stitches, always keep the floss attached to the needle and below the row of stem stitches, as shown in the illustration. This insures the floss wraps over the stitch correctly each time.

French Knot

A French knot is a textured, raised stitch. This is one stitch you might need to practice a bit before you get the hang of it.

  1. Bring needle up at 1.
  2. Holding the floss taut with one hand (your non-needle hand), wrap the floss around the needle twice as shown.
  3. Gently pull the floss so the twists are tightened against the needle.
  4. Carefully insert the needle near point 1 and pull through. Be sure your continue to hold the floss tail taut.
  5. Scatter knots as desired within your design area.

Finishing your embroidery

To secure your floss at the end of your stitches, tie a small knot.

When you are completely finished with your embroidery, lay your embroidered piece wrong side up on a clean white terry towel on the ironing board. Press the fabric from the wrong side. The plush nap of a terry towel protects the embroidery stitches from being flattened when pressing.

Trim the foundation fabric to the finished size needed for your final project.

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