Sunday, April 24, 2016

Choosing and Using Embroidery Tools - Lesson One Embroidery School

These are the basic supplies you'll need for embroidery school.

    •    needles
    •    threads
    •    fabrics
    •    scissors
    •    hoops or frames

You'll also need a design or drawing to stitch up.

You can find most of the supplies you'll need at thrift stores. In fact, I recommend looking for hoops and needle packs at secondhand shops because they can be found for much less than new. Antique hoops are often real wood and stronger than new bamboo hoops.


Choosing a needle very much depends on the type of needlework project itself. The needle needs to be threaded easily with the type of thread, yarn, or ribbon you are using. It needs to be able to pass through the fabric without bending or breaking and without stretching the fabric. You may or may not choose a traditional needle for your projects.

Generally, embroidery uses one of the following four types of needles (the larger the number, the smaller the needle):

    •    crewel/ embroidery - sharp point; long eye; sizes 1-12; embroidery floss and perle cotton floss
    •    tapestry - blunt point; longer eye; shorter shaft; sizes 13 - 28; cross-stitch, needlepoint, plastic canvas
    •    sharps - sharp point; smaller, rounded eye; eye is same width as the needle; sizes 1-12; sewing, button, and coat thread
    •    chenille - sharp point; long eye; thicker than embroidery needles; sizes 13-26; wool crewel and ribbon embroidery

Sharps are what we usually think of when we think of hand sewing needles. The eye size of sharps is smaller and more rounded and the needle shaft and eye are about the same width. But most people, when faced with the need to add a bit of embroidery to a child's dress or a tote bag, often have sharps on hand rather than dedicated embroidery needles. Sharps may be a bit harder to thread with floss, but they are handy, sharp, and readily available in every travel sewing kit or grocery store.

The most popular embroidery needle sizes used with cotton embroidery floss are 7 and 9.

Darning/mending needles are very much the same as tapestry needles but longer.

Almost any hand sewing needle can be used for embroidery. Types of threads and fabrics and the amount of experimentation you do may warrant a completely different type of needle for your project.

Other needles include:

    •    beading - very fine and long; bend easily; sizes 10-15
    •    quilting - short and fine; round eye; sizes 5-12
    •    doll - very long with a large eye ; used for needle sculpting and attaching limbs
    •    wool yarn/plastic - great for teaching children to embroider and stitch through burlap, aida, and felt
    •    curved needles - used for tying quilts and upholstery-making; sizes vary depending on use

Care of needles: Pincushions were often filled with natural wool fleece as lanolin in the wool keeps needles from rusting. Emery or fine sand are also useful in pincushions as the very finely ground minerals keeps needles sharp. 

Losing your needles? Keep a magnet handy and swipe it over chairs, carpets, and floors where you stitch. If you have a habit of losing needles, consider gluing a flat piece of magnet (or reuse a business card-style fridge magnet) to the bottom of a tin and keeping needles there.


Embroidery can be accomplished with any kind of fiber or thread. The art form is so varied and fabrics so diverse, that in fact, any thread and fabric can be used to create a remarkable story.

Cotton stranded embroidery floss (or embroidery thread UK/AUS) or perle cotton are the most used embroidery threads. Embroidery floss is made of six strands and any number or all of these might be used to create lines and elements of varying thickness and heft. Perle cotton is non-divisible.

Wool tapestry yarn, wool crewel thread, metallic stranded thread, ribbon, coton a broder are other threads that might be used. 

Storing threads: Stranded embroidery thread/floss comes in skeins. There is one end that is visible and you should be able to pull it and have it come out smoothly without knotting up. This is not always the case but generally works. 

Most people take their new skeins and wind them around bobbins for future use. Bobbins come in plastic, cardboard, and balsa wood forms. DMC brand cardboard bobbins are thicker and longer lasting than the thin cardstock no-name brands. You can also make your own from milk jugs or cereal boxes. Plastic storage cases made to fit these bobbins can be found regularly at thrift stores and are available at fabric stores.


Cotton and linen fabrics make great foundations for delicious embroidering. The linen at most fabric stores (such as Spotlight in Australia) is far too thin and flimsy for a substantial piece of embroidery work. Look for good medium weight linen at better shops or seek out antique tablecloths or napkins if you can't find a weight you like in larger fabric stores.

Cotton fabric can be purchased anywhere. The least expensive and great for beginners is muslin (US)/ calico (AUS). It can be purchased bleached or unbleached. You will need to pre-wash your fabric if it hasn't been washed, but cotton fibers can relax and if you want a super crisp look to your work, I recommend hand washing and air drying on the line. You don't have to wash the entire piece of fabric. Just cut off the size you will use and wash and dry that piece.

Many fabrics can be embroidered and you may be working up a pillowcase, a quilt panel, or a piece for framing. If you will be displaying the piece in the hoop or if you are embroidering a small piece, cut the fabric about 2" wider and longer than the hoop so it will fit snugly without slipping.

Synthetics and synthetic blends are not recommended for most embroidery. The fabrics can stretch oddly and gather once released from the hoop. That said, you might like to explore for art's sake and see what you can create with a variety of fabric types. 

Storing and ironing fabrics: Recently I made a purchase of 5 metres of the homespun cotton I use for embroidery. I managed to actually buy the end of the roll so I was able to bring the roll home. Storing fabric on a roll rather than folded prevents a lot of ironing grief later. Fabric shops usually have several empty tubes lying around and will give them to you for the asking.

Even folding fabric once and then rolling around a paper towel or aluminum foil cardboard tube reduces the amount of creases in your embroidery fabrics.

When you do iron fabric, make sure to use distilled water or filtered water to dampen the fabric creases slightly. Water straight from the tap may have minerals that can leave brown, yellow, or red stains in the fabric.

(stork birth clamp from Antiques Navigator)


You can use any small sharp scissors, but embroidery scissors are the most handy. These are about the size of nail scissors and are very pointy. The very narrow point makes it easier to cut away a stitch or two if a mistake is made. This is harder to do with sewing shears or household scissors.

Why do embroidery scissors look like birds?

It used to be that midwives used umbilical clamps often made to look like storks and these looked like a small pair of scissors. Eventually it fell into favor to make small sewing scissors in the stork design. Modern "stork" scissors have an added component of being loose enough to create a chirping sound when open and closed quickly. Bird chirping embroidery scissors are very popular although not all embroidery scissors look like birds.

Keeping scissors sharp: My scissors have never dulled from cutting paper and I don't know why everyone thinks this will happen. Scissors get dull no matter what they are used for and can be sharpened at your local fabric shop or with a kitchen knife sharpener. I apologize in advance for upsetting all the sticklers out there, but if your scissors are getting extremely and suddenly dull because other family members are using them, they are not cutting just paper. I do recommend checking for nicks in your scissors as it is quite likely you'll cut into a sewing pin now and then and damage scissor edges.

Hoops or Frames

Hoops come in all sizes and are usually round or oval. Frames can be round, oval, or rectangular. Frames sometimes have cotton tape attached so the work can be basted on to hold it in place. Frames are most often used in needle point and tapestry work. Embroidery can be done without a hoop but a hoop can make it easier to keep the fabric taut so stitches remain even.

The hoop has an inner and outer piece. The fabric is laid over the inner hoop and the outer placed over to trap the fabric. The inner hoop is sometimes wrapped in cotton bias tape to prevent the fabric slipping and when the hoop is a bit warped or not exactly fitting. Plastic hoops have an extra lip which helps keep fabric in place.

Hoop art is made when the embroidered work is left in the hoop and displayed as is. Hanging embroidery in the hoop is not a traditional method as one's hoop was a tool not a frame and tools were taken care of and not replaced easily. These days, with inexpensive and convenient supplies available, leaving the work in the hoop is a great way to create art and gifts for friends, your own home, or a baby nursery.

(Young Girl Embroidering by Charles F. Ulrich 1858-1908)


You'll need something to embroider, now that you've collected your supplies. Visit my shop if you are looking for a design suitable for framing or to use as hoop art. 

Thanks for attending the first Embroidery School lesson. In the next post, you'll learn how to transfer that design you've bought or drawn to the fabric. After that, we'll start learning and practicing basic stitches. 


  1. Yah, I'm so glad to finally have all the absolute basics spelled out to me! I always thought that I was choosing the wrong materials and tools, but I guess I wasn't. And I'd always wondered why embroidery scissors are frequently in the stork shape. Fascinating! Now on to lesson 2! :) Lisa

    1. Embroidery is so perfect for people like you who already sew because they have almost everything they need already. Even heavy coat thread will do to experiment with and a hoop isn't absolutely necessary. I'm always amazed by how little we need to create beautiful art in our own homes. :-)

  2. Fantastically comprehensive ... makes me want to start stitching right now :D

    1. Wow, Dawn! That's truly a compliment coming from you. Big smile here.

  3. Fantastically comprehensive ... makes me want to start stitching right now :D

  4. I loved learning the history behind stork scissors! Great lesson, thank you!