What is Embroidery? Exploring the Needlecraft

It’s the artform that can add pzazz to any textile, and it’s done so for centuries. But precisely what is embroidery? We’ve got everything you 'needle' to know.

13 May 2024

In Greek mythology, it was a skill gifted to humanity by the goddess Athena. It’s been found wrapped around mummies in Peru and in Egyptian tombs, Tutankhamun’s among them. And the earliest known piece dates back at least as far as the second millennium BC. Embroidery, the needlework art of decorating textiles seems to have an appeal that’s not only timeless, but that transcends cultures and boundaries, with examples all over the world.

This is as true today as it ever was, albeit with advancements in machinery and fabrics expanding the field. But what is embroidery in practice? We’re exploring just that.

What is Embroidery?

Embroidered alphabet and numbers (Credit: NNehring via Getty Images)

In its simplest form, embroidery is the decorative art of stitching designs onto fabric or other materials using a needle and either thread or yarn. Wool, along with silk and linen, are among the most common embroidery materials, but by no means the only ones. Leather and paper have been known to be used. Zardozi embroidery, which derives in various forms from Iran and India, uses gold wire or thread. Meanwhile, embroidered works have also incorporated precious stones, sequins, beads and a range of other items.

From straightforward motifs, such as flowers or geometric shapes, to complex scenes or images and even typography, embroidery decorations run the gamut in terms of intricacy. The craft often incorporates various techniques, including cross-stitch, chain stitch, satin stitch, and more, to achieve different visual effects and textures.

The materials and techniques used in embroidery have evolved over time, incorporating new technologies and materials, such as modern embroidery machines, but the basic principles of the craft remain consistent.

What is an Embroidery Stitch?

Stitching a cushion (Credit: diephosi via Getty Images)

In terms of what is an embroidery stitch, stitches are the building blocks of this craft. They come in various forms, each serving a unique purpose. Common stitches include:

  • Running Stitch: A basic stitch that creates a dashed line, often used for outlining designs.
  • Back Stitch: A stitch that forms a continuous line, useful for text or detailed outlines.
  • Satin Stitch: A dense stitch that fills areas with solid colour, ideal for creating vibrant motifs.
  • French Knot: A raised stitch that adds texture, often used for floral centres or decorative accents.

These stitches can be combined in countless ways, allowing for endless creative possibilities.

What is Hand Embroidery?

Hand embroidery (Credit: Irina Vodneva via Getty Images)

Hand embroidery is the traditional method of embroidering by hand, using a needle, thread, and fabric. This approach allows for greater control and precision, making it ideal for detailed designs. Nowadays, machine embroidery has gained popularity for mass production. Nevertheless, hand embroidery remains cherished for its craftsmanship, individuality, and ability to adapt to various styles.

Machine Embroidery

Machine embroidery (Credit: Supersmario via Getty Images)

Having answered “what is hand embroidery,” the alternative is machine embroidery. Widely used in commercial and industrial contexts for embellishing clothing, linens, and other textiles, this technique uses an automated machine programmed with digital patterns, which guide its stitching, allowing for the efficient and accurate creation of intricate designs.

What do I Need to Start Embroidery?

Sewing needles (Credit: Adela Stefan / 500px via Getty Images)

Embroidery requires minimal supplies to get started, such as:

  • Needles: Embroidery needles come in different sizes, with larger eyes to accommodate various thread types. The needle size should match the fabric and thread weight.
  • Thread: Embroidery floss, available in a rainbow of colours, is commonly used. It consists of six divisible strands, allowing customisation of the thread thickness.
  • Fabric: Fabrics with a tight weave, like cotton or linen, provide a stable base for stitching. And even-weave fabrics make it easier to maintain consistent stitches.
  • Hoops: Embroidery hoops hold the fabric taut, preventing puckering and making stitching easier. They come in various sizes and materials, including plastic and wood.
  • Scissors: A pair of sharp, small scissors helps to cut threads cleanly, reducing fraying.
  • Marking tools: Marker pens or chalk pencils are just two popular tools for tracing a design onto a fabric.

Embroidery Styles and Techniques

Stunning example of crewel embroidery (Credit: bgwalker via Getty Images)

Embroidery includes several styles, including:

  • Surface Embroidery: This technique encompasses various stitches applied directly onto the fabric’s surface, allowing for freehand designs and patterns.
  • Counted-thread Embroidery: Embroidery in which the number of stitches per thread or fabric section is predetermined. The fabric used is evenly woven, and each stitch is counted and placed accurately, often following a pattern. The technique typically includes cross-stitch or needlepoint, creating precise, detailed designs and geometric patterns.
  • Crewel: A form of embroidery using wool thread on linen fabric, creating textured designs, often floral or nature-themed.
  • Ribbon Embroidery: This involves using silk or satin ribbons to create three-dimensional floral designs, adding depth and texture to fabrics.

Embroidery Explained in a Nutshell

Vintage sewing set (Credit: Ana Maria Serrano via Getty Images)

And so, that’s embroidery explained in a nutshell. From what is an embroidery stitch to what do I need to start embroidery, the answers have shown this craft offers endless opportunities for creativity, from personalised clothing to home décor.


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