Embroidery techniques: exploring what’s possible with needle and thread


Chloe Redfern - 'As Good As Gold' (from Stitch issue 123)

Embroidery is the art of embellishing with needle and thread. Start exploring the embroidery techniques you can do with them and a whole world of possibilities opens up…

New to embroidery and looking for an introduction to get you started? We’re going to talk you through a variety of embroidery techniques and show you what’s possible with needle and thread. Prepare to be amazed we’re sure you’ll be hooked when you see what beautiful and diverse creations can be made! Let's get started...

Embroidery techniques

Scroll down, or pick and choose the individual embroidery techniques by clicking below:

  1. Freestyle hand stitching
  2. Silk shading
  3. Needle painting
  4. Crewelwork
  5. Whitework
  6. Blackwork 
  7. Canvaswork, including cross stitch
  8. Stumpwork
  9. Goldwork 
  10. Appliqué 
  11. Mixed media 
  12. Time to travel the world
  13. Needle felting
  14. Beading 
  15. Free-motion machine embroidery
  16. Machine embroidery

1. Freestyle hand stitching

Let’s start with the obvious – stitching by hand or ‘freestyle hand stitching’. There are literally hundreds of different stitches, all manipulating the thread in a slightly different way over a woven fabric to achieve different effects. 

There are stitches to create lines such as the stem stitch, chain stitch, split stitch or couching. Then those designed to fill areas from a simple seed stitch through to the versatile long and short stitch to the more ornate needlelace formations. Then you have stitches that can sit alone or be grouped together like the French knot, lazy daisy stitch or bullion knot. And let’s not forget those with their own singular beauty like the rose stitch or the woven spider’s web. Add in all the different shades and types of yarn available and whatever you think of, you’ll be able to replicate it in stitch.

Maggie Gee - Shes Got It freestyle hand stitching embroidery technique

Maggie Gee, 'She's Got It' – freestyle hand stitching embroidery technique (project from Stitch issue 123).

Rebecca Mackay - Carbon Footprint freestyle hand stitching embroidery technique

Rebecca Mackay, 'Carbon Footprint' – freestyle hand stitching embroidery technique (project from Stitch issue 124).

Then there are the techniques that limit the options. This could be the yarn used, the colours, the types of stitch or the base fabric. It’s fascinating how less choice fuels creativity!

2. Silk shading

Silk shading essentially employs one stitch with one aim – to create densely stitched areas where thread shades are blended together and lie smoothly. The effect is sumptuous. It’s normally worked in a single strand using long and short stitch, often worked over an outline of split stitch for definition. It sounds simple but may take a bit of practice to master. The results are stunning, so well worth the effort!

3. Needle painting

Needle painting is exactly what it says – painting with a needle. The aim is to create lifelike results – the needle is your brush, the thread your paint. It requires painstaking attention to detail and patience. Again, the stitching is normally done using just a single strand of thread in long and short stitch but with many, many different shades – so progress may be slow, but the finished embroidery is often breathtaking!

Jessica Devin - Your Majesty needle painting embroidery technique

Jessica Devin, 'Your Majesty' – needle painting embroidery technique (project from Stitch issue 124).

4. Crewelwork

Taking a step back in time, crewelwork dates from the 11th century. The Bayeux Tapestry is probably the most famous example of this surface stitching style. Traditionally it includes stylised flowers, trees, animals, birds and insects. Many of the stitches cross over from hand stitching. What is key here is the yarn used – it must be crewel wool. It’s much thicker and heavier than stranded cotton. Consequently, it tends to be worked over more substantial fabrics, such as linen, twill or tweed. 

5. Whitework

Whitework is simple yet exquisite – one colour of fabric stitched with the same colour of thread. It’s always white on white so, with the big decisions made, you can concentrate on quality of the stitching. The stitches provide surface texture and definition, achieved using a mixture of openwork, cutwork, pulled and drawn thread work, counted satin stitch and eyelets. It’s Scandinavian cousin, Hardanger, makes extensive use of cutwork – holes created by snipping the fabric threads and not the stitching. You need a steady hand!

6. Blackwork 

Blackwork is a style worked with a very limited palette of threads – if you were being purist then just black thread on a neutral background. Dramatic monochromatic effects appear by working the stitches in a geometric grid pattern. The signature shading is achieved by varying the thickness of the threads, as well as the number and angle of stitched lines built into the grid. Contemporary interpretations use the same principles but often introduce colour. 

7. Canvaswork, including cross stitch

Counted cross stitch is hugely popular and eminently satisfying – one stitch forming a cross worked over a counted thread fabric to create beautifully detailed designs. Adventure further into canvaswork and you’ll discover an array of stitches often creating images based on geometric patterns. All of them with the same aim – to obscure the base canvas with straight stitches worked over a varying number of canvas strands and in varying directions. You just need to be able to count!

Now it’s time to raise your game - stitching does not have to lie flat!

8. Stumpwork

Stumpwork embroidery embraces the third dimension and can involve a bit of construction. There are a number of different ways of achieving this:

  • Stitches, like cast on roses, that sit away from the surface.
  • Layering stitches over each other as with the padded satin stitch.
  • Covering an area padded with felt or string with stitch and/or fabric.
  • Or using wired shapes stitching within and around the frame - to create leaves, for example. 

It’s well suited to modern, humorous or even whimsical designs.

Elaine Mork - 'Rocket Man' stumpwork embroidery technique

Elaine Mork, 'Rocket Man' – stumpwork embroidery technique (project from Stitch issue 122).

If you’re interested in any of the projects featured in this blog, then it’s easy to buy the relevant issue… browse the back issues of Stitch and take your pick!

9. Goldwork 

Welcome to the embroidery bling – goldwork! Here you work with the sparkle of metal threads, always sewn on to the surface of the fabric. The majority is laid work or couching where the metal threads are held in place with much finer cotton or silk threads. For more extravagance, use stumpwork techniques to lay and stretch the purl over padded areas or wire frames. 

Consider different embroidery techniques… look beyond the obvious…

10. Appliqué 

Don’t just embellish with stitching – add to your base material by attaching other pieces with hand or machine stitch, also known as ‘appliqué’. As with mixed media, don’t be constrained to just using fabric.

Cherrilyn Tyler In the Pink applique embroidery technique

Cherrilyn Tyler, 'In the Pink' – appliqué embroidery technique (project from Stitch issue 124).

11. Mixed media 

Embroidery doesn’t just use fabric. Paper, plastic, metal, glass, beads and foam can all be worked with. Paints can be added into the mix as well – watercolours can give a backdrop for further embellishment with hand or machine stitching. As long as it’s linked with needle and thread then it counts.

Find out more in our focus on mixed media.

Jessica Grady - All That Glitters mixed media embroidery technique

Jessica Grady, 'All That Glitters' – mixed media embroidery technique (project from Stitch 124).

Cas Holmes - The Waste Land mixed media embroidery technique

Cas Holmes, 'The Waste Land' – mixed media embroidery technique (project from Stitch issue 124).

12. Time to travel the world

... how needle and thread are used to embellish varies across the world. Scandinavian Hardanger has already been mentioned. 

Head east and you’ll come across approaches that breathe new life into fabric or clothes with simple but effective use of the humble running stitch. Kantha from India is new cloth made from layers of old fabric, patched and quilted together. 

In Japan, shibori uses stitches to create resist areas before dyeing the fabric its signature indigo colour, while boro, the art of visible mending, often uses decorative shashiko stitching to reinforce patches. It’s traditionally worked in regular patterns using white thread on an indigo blue fabric. Although rooted in thrift, the stitching takes these techniques into another league altogether.

Find to more in our focus on shibori.

Chloe Redfern - 'As Good As Gold' embroidery technique

Chloe Redfern, 'As Good As Gold' – embroidery technique (project from Stitch issue 123).

13. Needle felting

Needle felting is a completely different needle technique where no yarn is threaded. Instead, you use barbed needles to stab wool fibres. This constant poking interlocks the carded or roving wool tops forming felt – using different shades is where the artistry begins. It’s easy to learn, fun and quite forgiving if you make a mistake. The results are extremely rewarding.

Find out more in our focus on needle felting.

Silvia Sapsford - 'Shepherd's Delight' needle felting embroidery technique

Silvia Sapsford, 'Shepherd's Delight' – needle felting embroidery technique (try the project from Stitch issue 124).

14. Beading 

Beads can be an embellishment within a hand stitched project. Or they can be the focus of the item itself. Always though, it’s needle and thread that have played the critical role in holding everything together.

Or maybe you’d rather work with machinery…

15. Free-motion machine embroidery

If pedal power is more your thing, then you can use your domestic sewing machine for free-motion embroidery. By disengaging the feed dogs on your machine and fitting an embroidery or darning foot, you are free to move the fabric in whatever direction takes your fancy. You can stitch curvy lines, zigzags, outlines or fill in whole areas. The only thing that limits is your creativity.

First, you’ll need to relax – it may take practice to work out the rhythm between the machine tension, needle speed and fabric movement. But there’s only one way to find out – grab a doodle cloth and have a go!

Find out more in our focus on free machining and have a go at creating a cocktail collage, a wonderful project courtesy of Anne Brook.

Stacey Chapman - Theres No Place Like Home free motion embroidery technique

Stacey Chapman, 'There's No Place Like Home' – free-motion embroidery technique (project from Stitch issue 122).

16. Machine embroidery

For this you need a bespoke embroidery machine. These come with pre-programmed motifs and often the facility to monogram. Sometimes you’re able to upload bespoke designs. The difference is you spend your time deciding on the design, then you load your fabric into a hoop with an appropriate stabilizer and the machine does all the stitching for you. It’s a worthwhile investment if you want perfect, professional results time after time. 

So with all these embroidery techniques, where do you start? Check out the Stitching blog for more inspiration, projects and expert interviews (new content every week!). And for EVEN more, download a digital issue of Stitch. It does all the hard work for you, covering all the techniques, all the stitches and all the steps. Each issue comes with easy to follow projects, showcasing the best designers so you can explore and enjoy all embroidery has to offer!