Hand embroidery 101: 3 ways to start your thread

Beginning hand embroidery thread

Usually, when you open a book on hand embroidery, the first thing you see is the “theory” part: how to choose fabric, needle, and thread. Naturally, it is very important! But as for me... I think if you want to start hand embroidering the first thing you need to learn is how to start your thread and get going. Because you can get quite a good grasp on which fabric and needles are better already in the process. That's why I prefer starting with practice and polishing my experience and knowledge with theory later.

So, take a needle, thread and a piece of fabric (this will be a practice session so I wouldn't recommend using anything too fancy, though) and let's start.

There are three common ways to start your thread.
  1. Knot
  2. Waste knot
  3. Anchoring stitches


There are various ways of tying knots on the end of the thread. I use the same one since I was little – I wrap the end of the thread around my pointer finger making a loop and then slide it with my thumb, pulling the thread at the same time. It is quite easy once you get used – it takes only a fraction of a second. However, if it doesn't work at all for you, you probably might want to check other methods of making a knot at the end of the thread.

Starting the thread with a knot is probably the easiest method, but at the same time, costly. To be precise, it costs the “elegance” of your backside. You can take a look below on how it might look. (Actually, this is probably one of the ugliest knots I've ever done, usually they are tinier. But I decided to leave it like that as a demonstration of the worst case scenario)

Beginning embroidery thread

Waste Knot

This way of starting thread includes making a knot as well, except that later you can get rid of it so there won't be anything unnecessary left on the backside.

First, make a knot at the end of the working thread. Next, bring the needle down through the fabric on a certain distance from the starting point of your embroidery. The distance should be at least couple of inches. Note, that you are leaving the knot on top of the fabric this way.

Next, you can choose one of the two following scenarios. Either you start stitching, at the same time couching the thread on the backside, or you can simply forget about the knot and proceed to stitch, but when you finish, snip the knot and hide the tail of the thread under the stitches. Both of these methods will leave your backside clean with no bumps.

To make things clearer, let's have a closer look at both of these methods.

Couching method:

Here you leave the knot on the front side of your fabric, few inches away from the starting point of your stitching line.

Beginning embroidery thread waste knot

As you start stitching the line, you want to make sure that the tail of the thread is being couched by your stitches.

Beginning embroidery thread with a waste knot

Some stitchers even pierce through the thread to secure it even better, but this might be a bit risky because the floss can become fuzzy and reach the front of your work. As you finish with stitching, you snip off the knot and trim the tail of the thread to make it as invisible as possible.

Or you can forget about the knot until you finish. And only after you snip the knot, go to the backside of your fabric, needle the tail of the thread and anchor it by pulling it under some stitches.  

Starting working thread

Anchoring stitches

This one doesn't require any knot at all and is probably the “cleanest” way of starting the thread. I prefer using it when I use long-short stitching and other surface covering stitches, as they allow to hide the anchoring stitches perfectly. Using it when stitching a fine line can be really tricky.

The principle, however, is as easy as it can be. You simply make a couple of running stitches few inches from the starting point of your embroidery.

I made split stitches here and it was enough to get my thread anchored.

Starting hand embroidery with anchoring stitches

The main trouble, as I mentioned earlier, is that doing it on a fine line and keeping it unnoticed is rather difficult. You can see from this angle the base “layer” of stitching.

beginning thread with anchoring stitches

Another way to anchor your thread is to use juxtaposed stitches. I usually do it this way: pull the thread under one stitch, pull it under the second stitch and then pull it under the resulting loop. 

beginning embroidery thread

This will create a sort of a knot. To secure it even firmer, you can pull it under one more stitch. During all these maneuvres you don't need to touch the fabric at all.  

Personal insight:

  • I usually use anchoring stitches and a knot as ways of starting embroidery threads. I can use knots when I have only one strand of thread in the needle, and I don't think of myself as a criminal for doing that. Such knots are really small and barely visible, but they fulfill their function of securing thread perfectly and they don't leave any scary bumps. As for anchoring stitches, as I mentioned earlier, I prefer using it in the areas I'm going to cover later, or I anchor the thread in the previously laid stitches.
  • Waste knot with couching is my least favorite way of starting threads because it is a pain to flip the piece upside down over and over, as I make sure that I'm doing the couching diligently. However, if you practice a lot, you might develop a good feeling of the backside and won't need to check it all the time. 
  • As you stitch you start and end threads all of the time, so it is natural for these little tails to be all over the place like in my last picture. I recommend saving your nerves and trimming them in the very end. Because until then, as you touch, flip, move your work, these tails will inevitably leave their "nests" and get fuzzy. Trimming them over and over will hardly bring you any joy. So better save it for later. 

Which ways of starting embroidery do you prefer the most? Do you have your own tips? Please share in the comment box!