So you want to learn hand embroidery?

Embroidery is a great craft to learn, its fun, with endless possibilities for creativity and yet the basic techniques are simple to learn and the tools needed are minimal. It is a calming, relaxing, inexpensive and portable hobby. So what are you waiting for!

embroidery equipment, thread, hoop, needle and a pack of Lazy May Iron on embroidery transfer patterns

In this beginners guide to embroidery I'm going to talk you through your first stitches. If you would like to skip ahead to any part please use the links below:

Skip to about embroidery equipment
Skip to getting ready to stitch
Skip to how to follow an embroidery pattern

If you are looking for stitch diagrams just click here to visit my embroidery stitch library, which is full of illustrations and photos to help you master those stitches.

What Equipment do I need to Begin Embroidery?

The answer is not a lot, here's some info on the basics:

An embroidery needle

You can find needles online, in craft shops, or the supermarket. Packets of needles can be labeled as embroidery or crewel needles and they come in a variety of sizes.
Packets of needles in mixed sizes like the ones shown in the images below are available, these are great as you can try a few to see which size you prefer. A mixed packet of size 5-10 embroidery or crewel needles will give you plenty of options and you soon will find which size suits you best.
I like to stitch with a size 7 embroidery needle as it is thin and sharp but still has a fairly large eye and is not too tricky to tread.

a packet of hand embroidery needlesa packet of DMC hand embroidery needle in sizes 5-10a packet of korbond embroidery needles in sizes 3-9

All About Embroidery Thread

There are many different brands of embroidery thread to choose from, two of the most popular brands of embroidery threads are DMC and Anchor threads. These are the brands you will most often find stocked in craft and sewing shops in the UK. DMC and Anchor both produce high-quality threads in over 500 different colours.
The type of threads they produce are known as 'stranded cotton', which is the name for standard embroidery thread. Stranded cotton is a superb thread for beginners to start with as it is very easy to sew with and to handle.

Anchor and DMC embroidery threads

There are also specialist threads such as metallic thread, embroidery thread with glittery strands, embroidery thread that contains multiple colours and even glow-in-the-dark thread. You can buy these embroidery threads online, in high street craft shops and large stores like Hobby Craft in the UK.

You can also buy threads in larger multipacks from crafts stores or online, these threads are good as they are often significantly cheaper than buying thread individually. However, the quality is sometimes not as good and you might find yourself dealing with a few more knots.

Thread comes in 8m lengths, each strand of thread is made up of 6 thinner strands that are twisted together. The 6 thread can be separated and used in smaller numbers, for example, 3 of the 6 thread, to create different stitch widths and effects. Embroidery patterns will state how many threads you need to stitch each part of a design.

Embroidery Hoops
Embroidery hoops are inexpensive and make embroidery so much easier, common types are made from wood or metal and plastic. 

For most embroidery projects a wooden hoop of around 15cm (6") to 20cm (8") is a good choice. All of the Personalised Patterns here fit an 8" hoop, which is a nice size to hang on the wall. Elbesee is a good quality brand of hoop that is widely available online.

Elbesee wooden embroidery hoops in a variety of sizes

If I am stitching on a t-shirt or other stretchy fabric I prefer to use a tension hoop like the one shown below.  This is mainly because I find it easier and quicker to reposition multiple times. Again tension hoops come in a variety of sizes and are widely available in craft stores and online.

Tension hoop for embroidery

Embroidery Stabiliser

Embroidery stabiliser is not essential for embroidery but if you want to stitch on stretchy fabrics you will find it useful. Embroidery stabiliser is paper that irons or sticks on to the fabric to make it thicker, more stable and easier to stitch on. Once you have finished sewing you can either tear the stabiliser away or wash it off, depending on the type you choose.

Embroidery stabiliser is also hand for stitching on to dark fabric, you can transfer the pattern on to the front of the stabiliser and stitch straight through, as shown below.

Using stabiliser to embroider on dark fabric

Stitching though embroidery stabiliser on dark t-shirt


You can embroider on to any fabric but some of these easiest ones to work with are cotton, calico or linen as they are not too stretchy. Stretchy fabrics are fine to work with if you use an embroidery stabiliser as mentioned above.

The fabric can be plain or patterned but if you would like to use your transfer directly on the fabric choose light colours so the lines of the pattern show up clearly.

What Next? Getting Ready to Stitch

Using an Embroidery Hoop

Once you have transferred your pattern (see here or the back of the pack for instructions) lay your fabric over the smaller ring of your embroidery hoop, now place the larger ring over the fabric and small hoop.

Tighten the screw slightly and pull the fabric tight across the hoop, repeat until the fabric is taught and securely in place. You also need to make sure that your pattern is straight and has not become distorted.

Separating Embroidery Threads

Most embroidery patterns will ask you to stitch with a certain number of strands of thread, sometimes also called 'ply'.

You need to be able to separate the 6 strands in the skein of thread and select the number of individual threads you need. This could be 1 single strand or all 6, depending on the pattern, varying the number of threads will give your stitches a different thickness and effect.

Below you can see how the same stitch looks with varying numbers of threads. Each curl below is stitched in stem stitch, starting with one strand all the way up to the full six strands.

stitching with varying embroidery strand numbers

Separating the threads the first time can be a little tricky, keeping the thread short can make things easier.

1. Cut about 30cm (12") of thread and select the number of strands you need at one end as shown in the picture below.

how to separate embroidery threads, beginners guide to embroidery

2. Now put your finger in between the separated strands and pull gently downwards while untwisting the threads with your thumb and other fingers.

untwist embroidery threads, beginners embroidery guide

Threading a Needle

Now you have separated your threads it is time to thread your needle.
Tie a knot in one end of the thread, then pushing the free end of the thread through the eye of the needle.

Threading needles can be tricky, the more strands of thread you have the harder it is. Sucking the end of the thread can help stick the strands together and make it easier to post though the eye of the needle or, for the more hygienic, needle threaders are available cheaply in packs. 

When your thread gets too short to stitch with easily, make sure your needle and thread are on the wrong side of your embroidery and remove the needle. To finish, split the ends of the thread and tie them in a double knot, then cut off any excess thread. 

Dealing with knots

However long you have been practicing embroidery you will always have knots to deal with. One way to avoid tangles is to let your needle dangle loosely once every few minutes, this will get rid of any twisting of thread which is likely to cause knots.

Always keep your thread quite short, I would say no longer than around 60cm (23"). A good fact to know is the average female arm length is 62cm (25"), so you could measure your thread slightly shorter than your arm each time!
Now you have your fabric in your hoop and your needle threaded, its time to start sewing!

How to follow an Embroidery Pattern

When you transfer an iron-on embroidery pattern to the fabric you will have only grey outlines on your fabric. As you can see in the transferred wedding hand embroidery pattern below.

In order to know how to stitch over and fill in these lines you will need to refer to the embroidery pattern, you can see an example of the pattern for the wedding design below.

The pattern notes will tell you what colour thread to use and where, which stitch to use and how many strands of thread to use. An embroidery pattern will also give you extra tips for the specific pattern, such as if it is easier to stitch once section before another and how to deal with any tricky sections. 

As part of the embroidery pattern, you will also get guides to the different stitches used in that pattern.

an example of an embroidery pattern, how to read an embroidery pattern

I hope you now feel ready to take on a bit of stitching, it is a great relaxing creative hobby and so easy to pick up.

Here are a few patterns you could try to get started.







Lisa Neal