What is Embroidery? 5 factors that form the basis of this art

I would call Embroidery the art of stitching beautiful embroidery stitches on fabric surface with thread /embroidery floss and other materials. It is a very popular surface ornamental decoration for fabrics creating beautiful patterns on the surface of fabric with decorative stitches or laid thread.

Embroidery involves depicting beautiful imagery on fabric and succeeds in bringing wonderful texture to the fabric.

Embroidery can be done by hand or by your sewing machine. Hand embroidery uses needle and thread to make beautiful stitches. Embroidery Sewing machines use a zig zag motion stitch to create different types of embroidery designs.Learn some basic details about machine embroidery here.

There are specialised computerised sewing machines that can embroider up to 1200 stitches per minute with multiple coloured threads. There are embroidery software that can translate complex designs and embroider them with sewing machines within minutes . So even if you are into simple or if you are into intricate work there is scope in embroidery.

Other than thread beads, sequins stones etc are used to further embellish embroidery.

what is embroidery

What is the purpose of embroidery?

This is like asking what is the purpose of a Mona Lisa. The bright, vibrant and often colourful artform brings such joy to so many people around the world that this question is quite irrelevant. But sceptics may disagree but still relish sleeping on an elegantly embroidered pillowcase or get their shirts monogrammed. What is the purpose, indeed!

Embroidery has continued to delight humans from time immemorial. Small handkerchiefs to large bedspreads have been embellished with countless designs of embroidery.

Most of the time embroidery is closely related to the culture of a place and in sync with the traditions there. While you may think of embroidery as a women’s pastime there are places where embroidery techniques are the prerogative of men.

The ancient art seems to be showing no sign of dying out. There are some prerequisites for any successful embroidery work.

The 5 main factors that influence embroidery work

1 Design of the embroidery

All Embroidery starts with a design.

Either as a freehand drawing of a design or transferring a copy of the design you want from a sheet of paper to the fabric by a variety of means ( learn more about the different methods used to transfer embroidery designs to fabric here).

You can plan the design on paper and then develop on it on the fabric or start the design from the fabric itself. You can copy designs from easily available embroidery design works but developing your own design is wonderful. Imagine having a work of art which no one else has conceived and conceptualised other than you.

The most popular subjects for embroidery are from nature- plants and flowers, fruit, vegetables, sceneries of nature . Learn more details on designing embroidery- 10 sources of inspiration; how you can convert a favourite photo into an embroidery work here.

Simple geometrical forms like  circles squares can also form easy to do designs. Border designs are also very popular. They can be designed on their own or along with other motifs.

You can draw inspiration from traditional embroidery patterns and adapt them to suit your style with simple changes and make it your own. This way, those long forgotten work stays alive

2 Materials and equipment used for embroidery

The basic materials used for embroidery are the fabric,  a frame and thread to do the work. But with more tools, you can do more.

Embroidery hoop to hold the fabric pencil and other marking tools different type of needles appropriate for the fabric and the embroidery concerned, cutting tools like scissors, rulers are all things you will need as you turn from a beginner to a seasoned embroider.

Specialised equipment can make your job easier. To do complicated work like applique you can do a better job with the applique scissors; ari work needle can easily do chain stitch embroidery work far better and faster than the ordinary needle; you can make small holes with a stiletto for broderie anglaise work to make eyelets.

Different kinds of threads are used to do embroidery stitches like the common embroidery thread with 6 strands or Perle cotton thread, or metallic thread or even wool thread. Ribbon embroidery work is a study in its own and requires ribbon in many colours. Each thread departs their own look and change the result of the work

Related posts : 40 Different types of embroidery tools; Different types of embroidery thread; Different types of metallic thread; Different types of ribbon; Ribbon embroidery stitches; Bead embroidery stitches

2 Fabric selection

The type of fabric used, it’s surface texture, the prints on the fabric are all important aspects in the final look of the embroidery. For eg., A chequered fabric is used to do chicken scratch embroidery. That type of embroidery would not look as good on any other type of print.

Cross stitch is done on more loosely woven fabric. You need an even weave fabric for counted satin stitch and other counted stitches like that of pattern darning or black work. The printed fabric like gingham, striped fabrics or huckaback, are all popularly used in embroidery for their wonderful designs or weaves.

Canvas work is done on plastic canvas with open holes – the thread fully covers the canvas in vibrant patterns.

The shadow work is best when done on transparent sheer fabrics

For some embroidery you need same thickness for the weft and warp threads so these may not be successful when done on some fabrics like polycotton or satin with different types of weft and warp thread

If you want embroidery on a garment which will be worn and washed at home it had better be a fabric with easy care instructions.Wearability and washability are important. Learn more about the best fabric used for embroidery here.

Transparent fabrics or fabric with open weaves like net fabric call for a different treatment and embroidery technique than does fabric like linen. Looped, piled or flocked textured fabric all can be embroidered but they need special treatment and a careful analysis of what suits the fabric texture.

3 Colour scheme

Colour coordination is more important in embroidery than anywhere else. Contrasting colours, monotones, shades of the same colour, an ombre effect – all are popular. But colors are mostly personal. What appeals to you maynot appeal to me. What is popular in one society may not be used in another. A girl may want pink flowers but a boy may see it as childish.

There are different theories on finding the right colour combinations – you can check out the popularly used colour combinations and how they are formulated according to the colour wheel here.

You should know that colour value of a colour changes when they are placed with other colours – so keep the fabric and the colours you are going to use with the embroidery together and decide on the colour scheme you are going to choose for the embroidery project.

In my personal experience contrasting colours work best in embroidery – for eg a bright red flower amidst  green leaves on a light colourd fabric can look striking when compared to the same work done on a black fabric.

But then again, this depends on the effect you intend to create with the project. If you want a muted look, tone on tone embroidery can look very elegant ( this is the same colour thread as that of the fabric used for embroidery). Another idea is to use three tones of a single colour—light, medium and dark on fabric with one of the shades of the colour.

The number of colours used can also be a personal choice but restricting the colours to three of four is more prudent for a unified look.

4 Embroidery techniques

It is an extensive (maybe even exhaustive) work to learn all the different types of embroidery techniques that have been developed all around the world- so many different types of embroidery stitches, so many distinctive motifs. There are very simple to complicated embroidery techniques – depending on the skill of the person doing the work, place of origin etc

Most times we combine embroider stitches and techniques – but you have to know the effect of doing this in advance. It should look complete in the end not disjointed. The techniques and stitches should enhance each other and build upon each other. You may need to make a sampler to see this – a sampler is a test piece with the same fabric in which you work different stitches to see how they look  together

There are two basic types of embroidery – one is counted thread embroidery and the other is free embroidery. Counted thread embroidery stitches are made over a predetermined number of threads in the fabric in a pattern. pulled work, cut work, drawn work, canvas, laid work, blackwork are examples. The pattern has to be followed thoroughly for the work to look good. In free embroidery, you are free to fill the design as you wish.

5 Placement and purpose of the embroidered project

First you embroider a design on a piece of fabric and then decide to use it for something – is that what you do?. That is a wrong way to go about it.

You should do the embroidery after deciding on the purpose of the project and where the embroidery unit will be placed.

The design should be appropriate for the scale of the project. Simple designs may work better in some projects than complicated intricate designs. The proportion of the design is very important and so are the placement of design units in relation to the other like the distance between units. For an upholstery fabric, you may want an elaborate intricate design but that may not look good on a garment. So this should be taken care of at the design stage.

For sleeves you need 2 mirror image designs in exactly the same positions – this has to be planned after the pattern of the sleeve is marked but before the fabric is cut.

Appropriate placement and distribution of the design is paramount in embroidery – imagine the embroidery in your tunic placed just over your bust level on both sides – I would not want that exactly placed there, however beautiful the design is. But I have seen it done and it can look really awkward.

Hand embroidery stitches

The variety of embroidery techniques in this world is astounding. You can learn about the 60 plus hand embroidery techniques here. But most of them are based on some basic hand embroidery stitches. 

The most important among them are

1. Running stitch

Learn about running stitch here ( and its 9 main variations).

2 Stem stitch

See how you can make a Stem stitch here ( and its 3 main variations).

3 Chain stitch

Check out how to do chain stitch here ( and its 20 + main variations).

4 French Knots

Learn to make cute as buttons french knots here ( and its main uses).

5 Back stitch

Learn more on working the Back stitch here ( and its 2 main variations).

6 Fly stitch

Checkout the Fly stitch tutorial here ( and its 7 main variations).

7 Bullion knot stitch

Learn about Bullion knot stitch here ( and some easy bullion stitch embroidery designs).

8 Satin stitch

Best way to do a satin stitch here ( by hand and with a machine and its main variations).

9 Feather Stitch

Learn about Feather stitch here ( and its 4 main variations).

10. Blanket stitch

See how to make a Blanket stitch here ( and its 11 main variations).

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