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Learning to Embroider: Basic Stitches and Tips

Learning to Embroider: Basic Stitches and Tips main article image
Posted on July 7, 2021 by Kate Wilson

It’s fair to say that I’ve spent the bulk of my life working on craft projects and loving every second of it. From a young age, I was entering handmade ornaments, horribly sewn pillows, and baked goods into the State Fair in Delaware where I grew up – and somehow ended up winning 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place ribbons in almost every category I entered. Over the years, I’ve painted, crocheted, dabbled in woodworking, made more Christmas ornaments than I can count, and taken on countless other projects. But one craft I’ve never done – and was incredibly intimidated by – was embroidery.

A Brief History

Embroidery has been around as long as man has been able to make fabric. Ancient Egyptian paintings show us that clothes, tents, and hangings were embroidered with rich colors, and there have even been fossilized remains of hand-stitched and decorated clothing that are thought to date back to 30,000 BC (also known as the Cro-Magnon era). Embroidery spread throughout the Middle East and Asia and became more luxurious and colorful as time went on. One of the most famous examples of this are the Imperial silk robes made during the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1911), which were made with incredible attention to detail and precision (You can read more about the robes of the Ch’ing Dynasty, as well as all of the other dynasties in China, here).

In Northern Europe, embroidery was mostly reserved for the church until the Renaissance began in the 14th century. As time went on, popularity grew and embroidery was no longer solely for the rich or for the church, and it became more accessible to the lower classes. The time period I most associated with embroidery before learning more about it is the Victorian Era (1837-1901). While it definitely wasn’t the birth of embroidery by a long shot, it was an era when embroidery was more available to everyone, regardless of class. It was for both practicality, like mending holes, and for decoration. Most women only had one or two special occasion dresses, if that, and would embroider designs on their dresses to make them appear new or different.

My First Project

Even though I’m intimidated by embroidery, I wanted to try it myself. After all, if people thousands of years ago could do it, I could do it…right?

First, I set out to learn more about the basic stitches associated with embroidery. While opinions differ as to what the most basic stitches are, all of the sites I visited agreed on these three: the running stitch, the backstitch, and the satin stitch.

Running Stitch

The running stitch is what most people think of when they imagine sewing two pieces of fabric together. The running stitch creates a line of stitches that resembles dashes (see above picture). After threading your needle, you’ll insert the needle up through your fabric and then weave in and out of the fabric in a line with your needle. This embroidery stitch is useful for outlining an object.


The backstitch is also used in sewing and produces a tight line of dashes that are connected to one another. Inserting your needle up through your fabric and then back through the fabric a little further down, creating one stitch. Then bring the needle up through the fabric, about one stitch length away, and then insert the needle in the end of the previous stitch, going backwards (hence the name, “backstitch”). This embroidery stitch is great for words or for outlining an object and produces a solid line of stitches.

Satin Stitch

The satin stitch is great for filling in areas of embroidery to give it a smooth, solid appearance. The satin stitch requires you to stitch side by side, keeping your stitches as close together as possible. Start off by creating a single stitch, and then another stitch directly next to it, as close as possible to the first stitch. This stitch is quite easy, as long as you make sure to keep your stitches as close together as possible so you can’t see the fabric beneath it. Make sure to always stitch in the same direction to ensure a smooth, uniform look.

Getting Started

After learning about the three basic stitches outlined above, I decided to take on my first project. I purchased the materials I would need to get started from Michael’s, including a set of embroidery hoops, needles, and a variety pack of their Loops & Thread brand embroidery floss. I also ordered a package of Sulky brand Sticky Fabri-Solvy Stabilizer paper; this is a printable paper that you can print your pattern on and stick to your paper, stitching over it, and the paper dissolves in warm water. Since I am a total beginner, I wanted to make sure that I would be able to follow the pattern to the best of my ability.

When it came time to pick a pattern, I actually decided to make my own, since I was going to be printing it on the dissolving paper anyhow. You can download this design for free here!

I printed it out on the dissolving paper and decided that I would do two of the three basic stitches I had learned about for the project: the backstitch and the satin stitch. I used the backstitch for the words, and the satin stitch for the arrow and heart. The words are done in black embroidery thread, the arrow in brown, and the heart in red. I decided to embroider this design on a flour sack towel that I had leftover from a previous project.

Here are a few pictures of the project in progress:

Here’s the finished product:

It’s definitely not bad for a beginner! I can see where my stitches need to be straighter, and more uniform in length. But for my first project, I think it’s great. Here are a few tips from a beginner:

  • Make sure your fabric is really, really tight in your embroidery hoop.
  • Go slowly. If I hadn’t been in a rush for some parts of it, I think my stitches would’ve been straighter.
  • Have fun! If it doesn’t turn out the way you expected, it’s still an experience you can learn from.

Am I still intimidated by embroidery? A little. I don’t know that I’ll ever achieve the talent (or the patience!) to work on a large, detailed piece, but I am definitely glad that I tried it.

Do you embroider? If so, drop your favorite stitch in the comments!

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1 Comment

Super nice design, so impressed!
I really like the back stitch, but haven't yet tried the satin stitch yet (think I would like that one as well!)

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