5 hand embroidery rules that I break

5 hand embroidery rules that I break

One of the things that you are attacked with when you start learning something new is a whole plethora of dos and don'ts, musts and mustn'ts. While it is important to know all the rules and tips (because in the majority of cases they are designed to make your life easier, after all), I would like to make a point that their significance in your craft is to be decided by you only.

Disclaimer: with this post, I'm not pushing you into breaking all the mentioned rules as well (although a bit of rebelliousness can be healthy sometimes, haha).

How do I say it... The purpose of this post is to merely show that the existing rules don't define you as a stitcher, and if you skip this or that while being content and happy with your own work and enjoying the process – then why not?

After years of stitching, you will probably establish your own rules, habits, tricks, and hacks. So, when you see these “have-to's” and rules – even if it is coming from me, although I try to avoid any peremptory language in my writing – know that you can create a masterpiece breaking any of them. 

Health before anything

Also, just to be clear, there are rules that in my mind you should be following and be mindful of – and these are the rules protecting your health and the appearance of your embroidery.

What I mean is: sitting with a straight back, using good lighting and if necessary glasses when you embroider, doing some exercises for legs, bottom, neck, and fingers if you are sitting for too long while embroidering. Let your body move! The lack of movement may result in... not so healthy things, so let's shake it up from time to time. Also, if you notice that your fingers get pricked by the needle a lot, you can use the thimble. Take care of yourself!

As for protecting the appearance of your embroidery: these are the things like avoiding drinking tea or coffee while you are embroidering (forget about eating while embroidering too!), washing your hands properly before starting stitching, hiding your project in a box/bag/drawer when you finished for the day so that it doesn't get dirty accidentally, protecting your works from animals and not leaving it out in the sunlight, as it will affect the fabric and thread.

Although I do break some of them (like I still can't resist sometimes having a cup of tea beside me when I embroider), nonetheless, these are the only rules that I'm ready to propagandize to everyone.

Contrary to that, the rules below are, in my mind, optional.

1. Knots

I don't know how many times I've already spoken on that and probably will speak a lot more in the future because this issue is something that affected me and I don't want that to happen to any other new stitchers out there.

When you start hand embroidery making a knot at the end of the thread is probably the only intuitive way of starting a thread for you. It was for me too and I was totally happy and content, living in a bliss and stitching my heart out until I started studying and reading about embroidery from the more experienced, professional stitchers, whose works I enjoyed but who often referred to knots as something “disgusting”, “terrible”, “ugly” and “absolutely unacceptable” in hand embroidery.

It kind of scarred me because they were like role models for me, you know, and it made me believe that if I use an “ugly” knot, which makes my backside ugly, so then my whole work is ugly as well, ugly, ugly, ugly.

Well, it did affect me to an extent, but I believe I'm a rather tough person when confronted with this kind of things so I thought “whatever”, accepted the “ugliness” of my knots and to this day I continue using them when I feel like it. My ugly knots are my friends, which save me when I'm too lazy to make complicated maneuvres of starting thread.

My point is... There are only two practical reasons to avoid knots:

  1. If you are going to mount your hand embroidery or frame it – the big knots on the backside will probably stand out and might cause irregularities on the surface. Even so, when you use 1 strand of floss in the needle the knot is usually not big enough to create this problem. Unless you work an excluded element, then you need to be careful.

  1. In the cases, where the backside of your embroidery will be showcased to other people just as much as the front side (say, when you embroider on a towel or a napkin), it is probably better to strive for a neater backside after all. But again, it is up to you. If you don't feel like being bothered about this, then just do you.

So, I'm simply practical about it. I like stretching my works on canvases and framing them rather than leaving in hoops, so I have to worry about any possible bumps that can spoil the look. That's why most of the times I prefer anchoring stitches as a way of starting thread because it is easy and leaves the backside surface even. But time after time I allow myself to use knots here and there, especially if I'm using 1 strand of floss and especially if it is just a practice piece.

I've shared my thoughts on this topic in the post about the backside in more detail.

2. Stitch names

If you've been around for a while you might be aware that sometimes I intentionally don't use the “canonical” names for some of the stitches.

Like the “stem stitch” and “outline stitch” which are basically the same stitch, and that's why both are stem stitch for me. Honestly, I can't be bothered to use a separate name for a stitch that is worked almost precisely the same way, and moreover has like half a dozen various looks.

Sometimes people say that this is how it's always been... I don't know, I read some books from those last century archives and didn't come across “outline stitch” there. Also what they referred to “buttonhole stitch” was what I taught in this post.

If you don't know, there is also this controversial situation with “buttonhole stitch” and “blanket stitch” being actually two different stitches (for real) but somehow with time what was called blanket stitch before became buttonhole stitch with time. And what was originally buttonhole stitch now is… kind of lost? I don't see it in the books anymore.

Some people still insist on using the correct original names, but as for me, the damage has already been done, haha. I prefer going along with the current generation and their understanding of what buttonhole stitch is.

Anyway, that's just how I'm building the stitch library in my head, and for you, my advice would be to read a lot of sources and books about stitches. Because even if the “outline stitch” is an excess for me personally, I'm still aware of it and when someone mentions it I know what they mean. Otherwise, I would end up lost and confused.

3. Binding the outside ring

Binding your embroidery hoop is a good tradition that I encourage you to try. It protects your fabric from strong creases and your embroidery from the pressure of the outer ring in case you move it. Here are the 4 reasons to bind your embroidery hoop written in more detail.

So, having your hoop bound is not something new and surprising in the world of hand embroidery. However, there is a detail I do differently: I bind the outer ring instead of the inner one.

Calling it breaking a rule is probably a stretch and I'm including it here simply because all of the instructions I've seen to this day demonstrate binding exactly the inner ring. Which always leaves me confused, because I see so many benefits in doing it otherwise! Anyway, here's the tutorial where I also explain why I bind exactly the outer ring.

4. Thread length

One of the questions new stitchers ask themselves is how long the thread should be when they embroider. And it really is a complicated question.

If the thread is too long you can avoid ending & starting thread again and again. But at the same time, there are some cons to this. First of all, long thread is more likely to twist on itself and create these tiny knots as you stitch. Secondly, your thread does get tired from moving back and forth through the fabric. So, the longer the thread, the more worn out it will look by the time it finishes.

The solution would be having shorter length of thread, but then you have to end & start your thread more often. And because these maneuvres require some free thread which is later trimmed off, it increases the thread expenditure.

The rule from the classic “old school” of hand embroidery would be one forearm. The length of your thread should be one forearm.

And personally for me that's too short, so I use two forearms. The thread doesn't twist much, but I still watch closely its state and if I notice that it looks worn out then I simply end it and start a new one.

5. Backing & preshrinking – never done

Other classic rules of hand embroidery say that you should always wash your fabric before stitching on it (it is also called preshrinking) and use backing to strengthen it. I've never done either of that.

To make a long story short. Why would you need to preshrink your fabric? Because if you are going to wash it after your embroidery is finished, then it will most probably shrink to an extent. That is a common characteristique for natural fabrics, especially linen, which are the preferred choices for hand embroidery. The problem is that after washing the finished needlework, while your fabric will shrink, your embroidery will not – therefore you will get puckers.

Do puckers happen to my embroidery? They surely do! But they have never been serious enough to freak out – I just stretch the needlework after ironing it and puckers go away. So for me preshrinking is an extra bothersome ritual that I prefer to skip.

Actually, I'm pretty sure small puckers might appear even if you preshrink the fabric, so stretching it after washing is still necessary. Then... why go through the pain of preshrinking in the first place?

Backing the ground fabric, actually, seems more practical to me, but I also prefer to skip the trouble, haha. Backing is basically attaching the second fabric to the base one and is done when your ground fabric is too weak for the heavy stitches you are going to use or when it is too transparent.

I often use cotton muslin in my embroidery and it is actually rather transparent! But I nullify this shortcoming by being more mindful about the backside. No stretches of thread in the back, no tails peeking out and so on. And when I mount it I use a white base, so the fabric looks brighter than the original color.

So, here are the 5 rules that I break.  After all is said, I want to stress the fact that I've decided on breaking this or that rule after reading, exploring, thinking, and trying things on my own. And there are still many rules and tips that I do follow and which make my embroidering process easier and better. 

Now, what about you? Are there any rules or do's that you skip? Share in the comments, I'm curious how many rebellious stitchers are out there!

1 comment

  1. It can be quite confusing nowadays, indeed! I do believe that initial naming of these stitches is the correct and logical one. I wonder what happened that created the confusion?


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