Needles come in a variety of types and sizes and the size is given as a number—the higher the number, the finer the needle. Ideally, when chosing which size to use, the shaft of your needle should be about the same as the thickness of the thread you'll be using. The thread should just fill the hole left by the needle as it passes through the fabric. Here are some needles and the types of threads they're best for:
Chenille—a thick needle with a large eye. In sizes 18-24, this is suitable for thick threads such as tapestry and crewel wools, six strands of embroidery floss, no. 3 and no. 5 perle cotton, thick silk, and heavy metallic threads. Perfect for ribbon and wool embroidery.
Crewel (Embroidery)—a finer needle with a large, long eye that's relatively easy to thread. Size 9-10 is suitable for embroidery using one or two strands of cotton, silk, or rayon. Sizes 3-8 are good all-purpose needles for use with three to six strands of embroidery floss. This is what I use and what's shown above.
Sharps—a good general purpose needle with a small round eye that provides needle strength and prevents excess wear on the thread. More commonly used for sewing thread, I think.
Milliner's (Straw)—originally used by hat makers, this needle has a tiny eye and long, thin shaft. Size 9-11 is suitable for one to two strands of embroidery floss, silk, or rayon; size 5-8 for three to four strands. Sizes 1-4 are for four to six strands, no. 8 and 12 perle cottons, and metallic threads.
Tapestry—a medium length needle with a thick shaft, long eye, and blunt tip that is used to part the threads of your fabric rather than piercing it. Sizes 26-28 are suitable for decorative hemstitching on fine linens, fine counted cross stitch and petit point. Sizes 18-24 are for embroidery that uses counted threads—cross stitch, blackwork, pulled and drawn thread techniques, and Hardanger. This would have been a good choice for the woven filling stitch I showed you last week where the needle is going under and over the threads.
What you'll use for your embroidery depends on the look you're going for. You can use just about anything that will fit through the eye of your needle—even ribbons and string! But I think when people talk about embroidery they mean the kind that uses stranded cotton or embroidery floss as it's more commonly called. The most common brand (in the U.S.) is DMC and it comes in what seems like a million colors. Their website has several pdf color charts that you can download and print out. Buy your floss at Joann, AC Moore, Michaels, or Hancocks and do wait for sales—you can sometimes get them 4 skeins for $1!
I have some vintage embroidery thread from companies like Lily, Bucilla and J.P. Coats, but I don't believe any of them are still in business. I'd be interested to hear from non-U.S. readers which brands you have available where you live.
You can also use needlepoint wool—Paternayan is a good brand.
Or perle cotton, which has a single strand.
But, for our purposes we'll talk about regular DMC floss. It comes in six strands, and you'll separate out the number of individual strands you'll need for your project. That will be three strands for most uses. I sometimes use two strands if I want a more delicate or subtle line (like for a fine linen towel with delicate flowers) and occasionally will use one strand to outline an eye or for cat whiskers. In reading up on this subject I discovered a suggestion to do what's called "stripping" the thread. Separate the strands into six individual threads, then put them back together in the amount you'll be using. I have to admit that I've never done this but I'll try it and see what's different about it.
Some tips: Use short lengths of thread because long strands are more likely to tangle and wear thin from going in and out of the fabric. And if you find your thread getting too twisted let your needle hang free and the thread will spin back to the correct amount of twist.
There are a few things that will make your work go more smoothly. A hoop (wood or plastic) to hold your fabric taut while you work. These come in a wide variety of sizes and you may want a few different ones. I like a medium-sized hoop for most things and a small one for detail work. I've never liked the very large ones because the fabric loosens easily. You only work on a smallish section anyway—just move your hoop when you need to.
A needle threader is also a good idea, although I can't recommend the ones with the thin wire—I'm always breaking them. In fact, when I tried to locate one for the photo, all I could find was the metal part—the wire was long gone.
A small pair of scissors comes in handy. You can buy special embroidery scissors if you want to but any small pair with sharp pointed blades will work just as well.
What if I don't want to buy all this stuff—can't I just buy a kit?
Of course you can! If you're looking for a good beginner's embroidery kit, may I suggest the Sublime Stitching Stitch-It Kit from Jenny Hart. It includes an embroidery hoop, needle, seven colors of floss, two tea towels, and 35 cool patterns. All for $22.95. It's published by Chronicle Books but you can purchase it right on her website. If you're a bit more advanced you'll find stitchery kits in craft stores, too.
I have all the basics—where can I buy patterns?
Sublime Stitching has hundreds of cool patterns. You can search on Ebay for vintage embroidery kits and transfer patterns, although be prepared to spend a lot—they're a hot commodity. If you love vintage patterns but don't want the hassle or expense of finding your own, consider buying reproductions at Patternbee or Primrose Design. The Primrose Design patterns are digitally-traced designs from my personal collection of vintage stamped-for-embroidery projects. If you're artistically inclined you can trace photos or pictures from old books and make your own patterns, too. The possibilities for imagery are endless.