What you need to know about hand embroidery fabrics

What you need to know about hand embroidery fabric

If you're new to the needlework world, chances are that there's been a question bugging you for a long time now: which fabric to use for hand embroidery?

Fabric is one of the key materials for an embroidery project and will heavily influence the end result, so it is only natural to strive for the best option. However, there are so many nuances and implications to this issue and the choice is so wide, that it might get really confusing. So here are some things that will help you navigate confidently through this matter.

Which fabric to use for hand embroidery?


Without valtzing around, I suggest us starting with the most important question right off the bat.

The answer might surprise you, but that's how it is and I want you to keep it in mind during the whole article.

The answer is: ANY.

That's right. Theoretically speaking, you can step into a sewing/needlework/quilting store and choose ANY fabric as the base for your needlework project. 

I mean, there are people who stitch on paper, printed photogarphs and even tree leaves and bark, so... Yeah! The choice might actually be much wider than you'd expect.

As a more exact answer, here's a list of fabrics you might want to consider as the base for surface embroidery:

  • linen, cotton, muslin (also called calico in some places), batiste, silk, blends (wool/sillk, linen/cotton, silk/cotton), quilting cotton, organza, twill, some synthetic fabrics (rayon, polyester etc. but I would avoid fabrics that are too stretchy – more on that below).

And the list goes on.

What you need to know about hand embroidery fabric

Basically, you can use any fabric which is strong enough to bear your stitching and which allows a threaded needle to pierce through it.

However, there is a catch. While you can use virtually any fabric out there as the base for your embroidery project, some options are more preferable for certain features, or because they fit certain techniques better. Or just because they are the classical options that haven't failed stitchers since long time ago (linen = ❤).

It is hard to break it down to one simple formula, but there are ways to narrow down your choices.

I don't want to put you in rigid frames, though, and say “take this fabric for such cases and don't use this fabric for such cases”, because even if I do say so, watch someone actually break all of these rules and pull it off successfully.

Plus we are talking about surface embroidery here. There are certain fabrics that will not work with counted techniques, drawn thread, cross stitch, etc. But for surface embroidery virtually anything will work except for Aida and other low count fabrics.

This article is here to encourage you to explore your choices and have a broad perspective on what might work, to make you comfortable with some fabric related terminology and provide you essential tips on choosing and using fabrics.

Warp weft thread


Terms you want to know


Let's increase our embroidery vocabulary by learning some useful terms and keeping it simple.

Ground fabric is the fabric you are using as the base for your hand embroidery project.

Sometimes when fabric is too flimsy to support the stitching, you might want to use a backing fabric, which is the one you attach from behind to the ground fabric. These two layers makes the base of your project stronger and able to bear heavier stitching. Only ground fabric will be visible, so for the backing one you can choose something simple (and non-stretchy!) like muslin or batiste.

You don't need to worry about backing your embroidery if your ground fabric is strong enough, though.

Warp – type of thread in the fabric weaving which runs parallel to the selvage, the lengthwise thread.

Weft – type of thread that runs perpendicular to the selvage, the widthwise thread. It crosses the warp running over and under it, creating the weaving on a loom.

Warp and weft threads can intersect in various patterns (compare linen and twill) and might be of different size and weight, thus the difference in fabrics' appearance and texture.

Thread count is the number of threads in a square inch of fabric in both directions (meaning both warp and weft count). In other words, the higher the thread count, the denser is the fabric's weaving. Looser weaving makes the holes in the intersection of threads more apparent which is convenient for some embroidery techniques like counted work or cross stitch, and tighter weaving is more convenient for dense stitching like needlepainting and surface embroidery.

Evenweave fabric (evenweaves) is the type of fabric weaving with the same number of warp and weft threads in one square inch, where the threads are also same size and thickness. The weaving forms a balanced, even grid with apparent holes between the threads.

Plain weave – the type of fabric weaving where each weft thread goes over and under warp threads alternately. One of the most common types of weaving. These fabrics are usually quite tightly woven, have smooth and even surface, are durable and stable and come in a huge variety from muslin to canvas.

Plain weaves can be evenweaved if the warp and weft threads are of the same thickness and come in the same number in one square inch. These fabrics are also called balanced plain weaves.

Bias goes diagonally across the fabric weaving. Usually when pulled diagonally, fabrics show the most stretch and distortion, which we need to avoid. So don't pull on the bias when you are stitching.

What you need to know about hand embroidery fabric

Tips on choosing the right fabric


I already mentioned the types of fabrics you can consider for hand embroidery in the beginning of the post, but here are some additional tips on how to choose from this variety of options.

  • First of all, when you only start hand embroidering, I recommend using simpler and cheaper materials for your practice. You can find good deals in thrift stores or when sewing/needlework stores run sales. It is up to you to decide on the quantity, but, in my mind, it is better to have 10 pieces of different fabrics so that you can try them and see what feels better, than having a big length of the same fabric which you might get disappointed in and grow tired of.
  • Secondly, for your more serious projects it is better to buy a nice fabric. The rule is: choose the best you can afford. Without getting broke, of course. Narrow down your options and chose the best quality from what suits your budget. Because if there's anything you should invest in regarding your embroidery projects, then it is materials, including the ground fabric.
  • If you have an opportunity to buy embroidery fabrics from specialty stores, it's fantastic! They are designed specifically for needlework purposes, usually have a great quality. Can be rather costly, though, so I would suggest using them for really important projects and not for practice, to not waste the cash.
  • If you aren't able to find any specialty embroidery fabrics in your place of residence and you are wary of ordering it in the web stores then you can try searching good quality cotton, linen or calico (muslin) at sewing or quilting stores.
  • I wouldn't recommend taking fabric that is too sheer and flimsy at first. Because it might not support your stitching well and you will have to back it up and for that you will need to find a backing fabric and preshrink which is a whole round of extra preparations. You want to save your time? Then take the fabric where the holes are not too apparent (the fabric looks smooth) and which is not too leightweight/transparent.
  • Lastly, if you are planning to make something out of your needlework – a pillow, a bag, a table runner – then choose the fabric based on which will work best for that purpose. So, not like “I have this fabric for hand embroidery and I will make a bag out of it”. You can, of course, but bags require a strong material that will withstand constant wearing, dirt, rain and sun, you know. So, choose the material for the bag first, then stitch on it. As long as a threaded needle can pierce it through, it will work.
  • With time you will develop intuitive understanding of what kind of fabric will suit your project the best. But intuition comes from experience and experience comes from practice, so stitch your heart out and try various fabrics until you find “the one” :)

What you need to know about hand embroidery fabric


Puckering alert


One of the worst things that can happen to your finished needlework is puckering. Not want to scare you though! Just going to share some tips that will prevent you from going through this trouble.

1. Be careful with stretchy fabric. If you absolutely need to use this kind of fabric (for example, if you are embroidering on some items of clothing), then use a sewing stabilizer. Otherwise, I would suggest to refrain from using these fabrics as a base for needlework.

2. Put your fabric in a hoop correctly in the following order: the inside ring + fabric + the outside ring. Do it on an even surface of a table, putting the outer ring on directly from above. After putting the fabric in the hoop make sure the tension is high without any sagging. Later, if you notice that the fabric is not as taut anymore, pull it on either sides, but not in the corners! It can cause distortion which ultimantely might lead to puckering.

3. Puckering can also happen after washing the finished needlework if the fabric shrinks too much. Shrinking after washing is common for natural fabrics like linen or cotton, which are also common ground fabrics for embroidery, so you see the tendency. If you want to avoid that – you can preshrink your fabric before you start your embroidery project.

4. After washing your finished needlework iron it and stretch it well. You can stretch it on a canvas, or photo frame, or pin it to a cork board, and leave at least overnight.

Now, if I'm to add my personal insight on the puckering thing:

I wash almost all of my embroidery works after they are finished and I do it without preshrining my fabric first and I've never dealt with any serious problems. I've only ever dealt with minor puckering, you can see it in the first pictures of the ironing and stretching posts. This minor puckering is very easy to remove by good stretching of the fabric.

To conclude this post, if you are starting with hand embroidery my main tip would be just to start. With the materials and tools you already have or you can afford yourself without breaking the bank and bothering too much. Work with simple materials first and advance as you gain more experience, find your style and learn more about your own preferences.


What are your tips for choosing hand embroidery fabric? Have you found “the right” one for yourself and what was your journey to it? Share your thoughts! :)