20 January 2010

Stitch School's new home

This will be the future home of the Stitch School posts you've come to love on my Primrose Design blog. I'll first be transferring the posts from there and then adding new stitches and more information about embroidery and needlework. But I'm crazy busy with the upcoming holidays and it may be a while before all that happens. In the meantime, find all your favorite posts here.

19 January 2010

time for tea

I recently helped out Susan at The T-Cozy by drafting a pattern from a very cute tea towel in her personal collection and she's now offering the pattern for sale on her Kitsch Encounter blog. The design is mostly cross stitch with a few outline and lazy daisy stitches so would be perfect as a first embroidery project for a beginning embroiderer. I used the colors from the original for the pattern (except for changing the leaves to green) but you could easily change that up to match your own kitchen decor.

It's $6 for the pattern and you'll receive a black and white traceable version, a color version that you can follow to count your own stitches (on open weave linen or cotton), a stitch guide, an instruction sheet on how to transfer patterns, and a color reproduction of the original tea towel, all packaged in a plastic sleeve. And shipping is included in the price!

You might also like the Home Sweet Home pattern I did for her a few years ago. But be warned—this one is pretty difficult. Lots of color changes, more variety of stitches, and hundreds of (or at least it seemed like) little flowers but great practice for French knots and lazy-daisy stitches!

02 January 2010


In embroidery, couching is a technique for attaching a length of thread to a base fabric by taking tiny stitches over it at regular intervals. The word couch comes from the French verb "coucher" which means to lay down, so it really applies to attaching just about anything (embroidery floss, thin cord, wool, or even ribbon) as long as it uses stitches over or on top. You can couch a length of ribbon with a row of French knots running down the center or by laying a row of herringbone stitches over the top. I'm going to talk about the traditional embroidery stitch today but don't be afraid to think outside the box and use the technique for attaching other things besides thread.

Couching looks really pretty when worked in two colors and is a nice alternative for working outlines, especially ones that form loops and have lots of curves. I discovered a few examples where it's used this way in my linen stash. The first is from a runner with embroidered flower bouquets and ribbons and each of those ribbons is done with couching—the base thread is dark blue and the couching stitches are pink.


In the second example it's used as a substitute for outline stitch and is done with black stitches over blue.


This is a super easy stitch. Bring your base or foundation thread to the front and lay it on the fabric. I worked a straight line but you can use it for curves as well. In fact, it works very well as a freeform technique if you don't quite know where you're going.


Now bring your couching thread to the front just above the thread you’ve laid down.


Take a tiny stitch over the base thread and pull the thread through to the back.


Bring your needle up a short distance from the first stitch and repeat.


Here’s what it looks like finished—


And here are some examples using different foundations. The middle one uses several strands of needlepoint wool and the bottom one uses thin satin ribbon.


I mentioned earlier that you can attach just about anything this way. Artist Megan Jeffery uses couching to attach wool yarn with embroidery thread to felt—and you can see some examples of her work here and here. And embroidery artist Debra Spincic has some beautiful pictures of her work on Flickr, many of which involve couching with ribbon and alternate stitches over the top. Be sure to follow her photostream to see lots of examples of the stitches we've already learned.

01 January 2010

back stitch

Back stitch is yet another stitch that can be used for outlining. Not much else to say about it, except that it's pretty simple to do.

Bring your thread to the front.


Take your needle to the back one stitch length to the right from where your thread emerges and reemerge on the other side at approximately the same distance. Mine is a little off, but you'll want to keep your stitches the same length.


Pull your thread through, then take your needle to the back through the same hole where the first stitch ends. Reemerge on the other side at the same distance.



Continue along until you reach the end of the line. Take your last stitch to the back through the hole at the end of the previous stitch and weave in the end.


This is what the finished line looks like:


And this is how it looks on the back—sort of woven.


new beginnings, happy endings

A reader asked a few weeks ago if I could talk about ending your work so it's both neat and holds up to washing and use. It's a subject that requires more than a simple answer, so I'm going to devote today's post to talking about it.

Preparing your fabric
You should always prewash your fabric before starting a project. There's nothing so disappointing as finding out that your fabric shrunk the first time you washed it and the embroidery floss didn't. You're left with a puckered mess and no amount of ironing will fix it. But, if you've purchased a vintage stamped-for-embroidery project DON'T wash it! The ink was designed to come out in the wash and it's likely that your design will disappear. You'll be glad of that later but finish your embroidery first :)

If you'll be working on a project that will take a while to finish you'll want to keep the raw edges of your fabric from fraying. Do this with a zigzag or overlock stitch on your sewing machine. Don't use masking tape to seal the edges because it might leave a sticky residue that will discolor the fabric and attract dirt. I always leave several inches of extra fabric around the design I'm working on. Fraying isn't an issue because I'll be cutting it away later. And it's nice to have some extra fabric to maneuver your hoop without getting too close to the edge.

french knot

French Knot or, as some of you have started referring to them, the dreaded French knot. Really, they aren’t that bad.

French knots are essential to embroidery because there’s nothing else quite small enough or that works so well for fine details—facial features like eyes and curls, for example.


They’re most often used singly for the centers of flowers, or massed together to form the flowers themselves.



They’re also very handy for making single dots—like for polka dots on a dress or for depicting fleece on a lamb (for a baby pillowcase, perhaps).

coral stitch

Today we're talking about coral stitch. Also called beaded stitch, German knot stitch, or snail trail, this stitch can be used singly to outline shapes, or worked in rows spaced closely together as a filling stitch, in which case you'll want to position the knots between those in the previous row. Here's how you do it:

Bring your thread to the front on the righthand side of your line and lay it along the line for a short distance, holding it in place with your thumb.



I neglected to talk about choosing fabrics for embroidery in the embroidery basics post, so created a separate post for it. A short post because you can embroider on just about anything and the end result you're going for will play a big part in determining your choice.

I mostly work on vintage stamped-for-embroidery projects so whatever fabric they're printed on is what I use. That's either linen or cotton and it usually has a weave that you can see. As a general rule, if you're doing stitches that involve counting threads then you'll want a fabric with threads that are easy to see—like linen, heavy cotton, or Aida cloth (specifically designed for counted cross stitch). If you're doing a lot of outline, lazy daisy, satin stitch, or french knots, then a fabric with a finer weave (a lightweight linen or smooth cotton) will work better. Smooth cottons work best for iron-on transfer patterns, too. I like fabrics with some crispness as they're easier to handle and stay in the hoop better without stretching and pulling. When you wash your finished project, that stiffness will usually wash out.

But, you can also also embroider on wool (try adding embroidery to a plain jane wool sweater), felt, flannel, gingham (chicken scratch embroidery), huck toweling—really, any textile that you can get a needle through.

There are linens called embroidery blanks designed specifically for embroidery—napkins, pillowcases, tea towels, and baby bibs. I buy my tea towels from Embroider This, and they have tons of other blanks for embroidering, too. I often recycle parts of linens that I've used for other projects—like if I've used the embroidered edge of a pillowcase for a pillow, I save the rest to cut up and use for other things. You can buy vintage towels at flea markets or on Ebay - the linen ones with stripes on the sides are particularly nice for embroidery.

overcast stitch

I found this stitch in a vintage (1964) Coats & Clarks booklet called "One Hundred Embroidery Stitches"—the illustration is reproduced from that book. Called overcast stitch (or trailing) stitch it's kind of a cross between couching and satin stitch. It resembles a fine cord and would be perfect for stems instead of outline stitch. Here's how to do it:

Start by bringing what we'll call the laid threads up to the surface. I used six strands of floss because I wanted a nice thick cord; use less for a more delicate one. Rethread your needle with a second thread in the same color (I used three strands) and bring it to the front using the same hole as the laid threads.

Hold the laid threads in position on the line of your design with your left thumb.

Work small satin stitches very closely together over the laid threads. You're doing the same technique as with couching but with that stitch they're spaced farther apart.

When you come to the end of your stem, rethread the laid threads onto your needle and take it to the back. Then take your overthread to the back in the same hole. If you're working a short line it might save time and be less hassle to use two needles and keep the first threaded with the laid threads. Either way is fine.

Here's what it looks like when you've finished. My line is kind of wavy—I think I need to practice keeping it straighter :)

talking about tools


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.

Special Tools

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.

seed stitch

Also called speckling stitch and isolated back stitchseed stitch is mostly used to fill a shape with bits of color. You could also use it to show seeds if you're embroidering birds :)

This is an easy stitch—essentially two short straight stitches side by side—but easy is a good thing sometimes, at least to balance the difficult ones.

Here's how to do it. Bring your thread to the front and then to the back a short distance away.


Pull your thread through and come up again right next to the beginning of the first stitch—not in the same hole but one thread over. Then take your needle to the back right next to the end of the first stitch.


You'll have two small stitches side by side and it should look just like a little seed.


When you work these stitches place them randomly and angle them differently so they look like they're scattered over the surface—just like seeds would be.


No examples this time as I've exhausted my stash of embroidery and can't find any new or different stitches on anything I own. If any of you have examples of embroidery that you haven't seen before and don't know what it is, email me a picture and I'll try to identify it and figure out how to do it.


Some beautiful examples of vintage embroidery can be found on monogrammed linens. It was very popular in the 1940s to embroider ones initials onto household linen—dinner napkins, sheets, and towels, and also onto handkerchiefs. This was done in two basic styles—tiny cross stitch (often done in redwork) and satin stitch (often in white on white or a pale color like light blue or pink). Some examples of monograms:

A redwork towel with monogram "MO" done in tiny cross stitch:

cross stitch redwork
Cynthia's Antiques and Linens

An elaborately-embroidered handkerchief with the letter "H" surrounded by scrolls:

H hanky
DeWitt and Co.

A light blue elaborate script letter "L" done in satin stitch:

monogram "L"

A monogram "G" done in a combination of stitches—outline, french knots and lazy-daisy:

monogram "G"

A two letter monogram done in a chunkier style. I believe this is done in tiny closely-spaced chain or Pekinese stitch:

linen sheet

You probably noticed that some of my examples are from Ebay and that's a great place to find monogrammed linens, either to just look at examples or to buy some for yourself. Search for "French linen sheets" and you'll find beautifully-embroidered linen sheets with monograms done in both cross and satin stitches.

Em's Heart has some lovely linens and handkerchiefs for sale.

Cynthia's Antiques and Linens has beautiful linens for sale including many towels and handkerchiefs with monograms.

Some of my fellow craft bloggers have done posts about monograms. See Redwork in Germany's post Vintage Monogram Stencils. And from Kimberly at Niesz Vintage Home, monogrammed linens with tons of pictures of things in her collection.

To read more about the history of monograms see Monograms & More and Love Those Letters at Embroideryarts.com

And finally, some free online patterns for monograms—

Two sets of large initials that you can cross stitch on a variety of projects.

Some designs with roses.

A vintage linen handkerchief pattern.

And do check older needlework books at your local library—many of them will have alphabets that you can adapt to your work.

ladder stitch

Ladder stitch is worked back and forth between two parallel lines and forms two chains with longer threads in between—just like a ladder! Here is the step-by-step diagram from my embroidery book in case the photos aren't clear enough. And when I refer to a letter in the directions it's this diagram that they correspond to.

First draw two parallel lines on your fabric. Bring your needle up on the left side (A). Insert the needle directly across on the right side (B), then up again to the left and slightly above the connecting line of thread (C).

Insert the needle again on the right side directly below the end of the first stitch (D). See how the thread crosses over the end of the first line?

Now come up on the left side slightly below the beginning of the first stitch (E). You'll want to leave just a bit of space in between and you'll see why in the next step.

Keeping your thread below the needle come up over and then under the first thread (F), forming a small cross like you see on the other side.

Now, on the right side, pass your needle from right to left under the first cross (G). Take care to not catch any threads from the last stitch when you do this.

Continue in this way, working back and forth, with the needle passing under the cross on each side to form the braided edges.

Finish on the right side by taking your thread to the back, forming the last cross on that side.

My biggest problem with this stitch was keeping the sides even and I didn't do a very good job of it. I found it really hard to keep the right tension—if you pull too tight the sides bow in; too loose and the long thread in between looks too loose. I'll need to practice this some more (see, even I need to practice). A slightly stiffer fabric might be a good idea, too.

interlaced band stitch

The Interlaced Band stitch is what's called a combination stitch. You start with a basic foundation stitch—in this case two rows of back stitch—then you work another thread on top. I found this in a vintage embroidery booklet and I'm going to include the drawing that illustrated it along with the usual photos. It seems a bit tricky at first but once you get the motion down it will get easier.

Start by working two parallel rows of back stitch about 1/2 inch apart. They should be exactly even in length (one reason I used a fabric with a very visible weave) and the second row should have the end of one stitch directly in line with the center of the stitch above it.

Thread your needle with a second color and come up between the rows and in line with the left side. Now go over and under the first stitch in the top row.

Pull the thread through so it forms a loop but don't pull too tightly—you want to stay centered on that first stitch and not pull it down.

Now, take your thread over and around the first stitch in the bottom row.

Continue this motion, alternating between the top and bottom rows of stitches, always going over and around and keeping your needle on top of the thread in the center.

Here's what it looks like when you've finished.