How to create realistic water using hand embroidery

02 September 2021
In the first instalment of our series on embroidering water, Emily Wilmarth of The Floss Box shop dives straight in to share her take on using hand embroidery to capture different forms of water. 

Filling areas of water with embroidery presents many artistic challenges, especially when trying to convey realism. However, there are many ways of handling it when it comes to creating dimensional effects and texture, as well as all the possible colour combinations to create a realistic representation of water in embroidery.

How to hand embroider water

By Emily Wilmarth

Breaking down the process

I see embroidery as an art form and love it for its textures, colours and all the amazing possibilities. I view each project as an experiment, a chance to learn something new. However, the process for each project is largely the same…

1. Taking your time is essential – from planning to execution.

2. Consider the type of water you wish to capture. Is it a dark, brooding pool? A calm, tropical sea? Or perhaps a storm-ravaged coast? This will influence your choice of stitch, thread, and fabric.

3. It's difficult to envision how stitches will look and what texture they'll provide. So, a series of stitch samples on the same fabric as the project will save many hours of frustration on the actual project. I'd also recommend keeping these samples for future reference.

Top tip! Embroidery artist, Becky Stevens (@beckystevensstitches) urges you not to be worried about being neat! She likes to incorporate a variety of stitches, layering them up to portray the movement of the water – particularly if working on a huge wave. For the tops of waves, she uses French knots, scroll and stem stitches.

Hand embroidered waves in a hoop by Becky Stevens

Hand embroidered waves in a hoop by Becky Stevens.

Fascinated by what you can create with needle and thread? The possibilities are endless, just as Stitch magazine demonstrates! Every issue is packed with inspirational projects which are designed in an easy-to-follow, step-by-step format, plus you'll find expert features and the latest from the world of stitching along with a glossary of the stitches used in each edition. Open up the world of possibilities with a subscription – check out the offers today!

4. Colour choice comes next. Blends are often best to create complex colouring. However variegated threads offer many possibilities as well. Again, making stitch samples would be an excellent idea here.

5. Once you've created the bulk of your water, it's good to look back over and add to it with variations of colours to add hints of shadow and movement.

Top tip! Amy Cooper (@amymearsc) reckons you should approach embroidering water a little like painting. Start with the darkest base colour and layer the lighter colours on top. She finds the sea is generally darker in the distance with light catching it more in the foreground. Her go-to option for surface foam is good old running stitch combined with split stitch, and chain stitch a favourite for breaking waves. 

Approaching embroidering like painting with an ombre of shades by Amy Cooper

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Approaching embroidering like painting with an ombre of shades, by Amy Cooper.

6. Don't limit yourself! Stitching realistic water is a great way to stretch yourself so always be sure to consider every possibility when choosing your threads and stitches.

Putting it into practice

Dragonfly wreath embroidery by Emily Wilmarth

Dragonfly wreath embroidery by Emily Wilmarth.

This is the exact process I went through with my dragonfly wreath project. I wanted a stitch that emphasised horizontal lines as a way of increasing the serenity of the scene but with a colour that wouldn't be flat. So, I worked with a blend of strands. I tested both stitches and blends of thread together to find the right combination.

After much deliberation I decided on long and short stitch, decreased the number of strands to four and switched the colours to create a new blend. This sample was exactly what the project needed. For a final touch I added a few long straight stitches in beige to add a hint of brown without making the stitching bulky. 

Hand embroidered sea using straight stitch and white thread by Emily Wilmarth

Hand embroidered sea with straight stitch detailing in white thread by Emily Wilmarth.

Similarly in the landscape project, I found a blue variegated yarn to couch down. Then I added a scattering of straight stitches and white thread to capture the feeling of white caps on gentle waves. The shifting colour and texture of the stitches contrasted well and created a really interesting effect that added the mood of the finished piece.

Find out more

Emily Wilmarth

Emily Wilmarth


Why not have a go at stitching realistic water for yourself? Tamina Astrid's 'The Great Wave off Kanagawa' hand embroidery tutorial is the perfect opportunity with easy-to-follow steps!

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