Make It Sew: Embroidery 101

Congratulations, cadets, on your admission to the inaugural class of Make it Sew, Pop Bunker’s new crafting academy. Crafts: The final frontier. Our continuing mission: to explore strange new crafts; to seek out new art and new artistic inspirations; and to boldly go where no crafter has gone before.
So you’ve got your fabric, a good sturdy needle, and some embroidery floss, and you’ve picked out or drawn a pattern (for beginners, I recommend the kind you can iron right onto your material, but more on that later). Let’s get down to business. The stitches I’m about to reveal to you are the ones on which most embroidery is based. It’s entirely possible to create a gorgeous project with just these three. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then we’ll begin. The back stitch is the backbone of any embroidery. You’ll use it for outlines, creating basic shapes, or adding detail on top of other stitches. You can do it in a straight line, at angles, or you can use it to make long sinuous curves. Basically, it’s the sewing equivalent of making a dashed line. Fortunately, it’s also just about the easiest stitch you’ll ever learn. You bring your needle up through your fabric where you want your stitch to begin,
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and then you poke it back down through the fabric where you want it to go back down.
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There! You made your first stitch! Now, bring your needle up through the fabric again a little way ahead of where you put it down, and then poke it back down in the same hole as the front end of the previous stitch.
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This is why it’s called a back stitch—because you come up ahead of your last stitch and bring the thread back to it. See what I did there? Back stitch? Get it? GET IT?So now you know the most important embroidery stitch. You can outline anything! But wait! There’s more! You can also use the back stitch to make little X’s, or cross stitches. Just make one diagonal back stitch, then make another crossing it at right angles. Bam! Cross stitch! But we’ll cover cross stitch in more detail in another lesson.
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You can also use back stitch to make little twinkly stars. Remember that X we just made? Well, on top of your diagonal stitches, put another one going across them horizontally. Now do another one vertically. You can make the horizontal and vertical ones longer, or the diagonal ones longer. Oh snap! A star! Little stars like this are a really easy way to fill in some white space on your project or pretty up a border.
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Okay, we’ve covered the basics. You know how to do simple, solid lines. But what if you want to do something a little more interesting? All that back stitching can get kind of boring after a while. So let’s add in another stitch. The Stem Stitch! It’s very similar to the back stitch, but instead of putting your stitches directly on the line you want to cover, you’re going to bring your needle up a little to the left of the line.

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Bring your thread forward to where you want the stitch to end, and make sure that your needle is crossing over the line of your pattern. Poke your needle back down a little to the RIGHT of your pattern.

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The next stitch will do exactly the same thing. Bring the needle up through the fabric to the left of your line, next to the center of your first stitch. Poke the needle back down to the right of your line, a little past the end of your first stitch. The effect you’re going for is kind of like the line of your pattern is being wrapped over and over. If you want a tight curve, like for a flower stem, use small stitches. If you want things to look a little more textured (say you’re stitching hair or fur, or maybe a grassy hill, or what have you), use longer, more angled stitches.

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Yay! Now you know two embroidery stitches! Let’s do just one more! This is where things get interesting. The Chain Stitch. *Cue ominous music* Up until now, everything we’ve done has composed of straight stitches, and the interest comes from how they’re placed in relation to each other. With chain stitch, you’ll actually be doing something different with the thread. Bring up your needle where you want the bottom (pointed) end of your stitch to be.

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Now poke the needle back down into the same spot you just came out of, but DO NOT pull the thread back down. You should have your needle on the wrong side of the fabric, and a loop of thread on the right side. Catch hold of that loop with your finger, but don’t pull on it. Just hold it in place. Now decide where you want the other end of your stitch to go, and bring up your needle at that spot.

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Now you can start tightening the loop of thread around your needle. Don’t pull it TOO tight or your fabric will pucker or tear. Just tight enough so that there’s a nice little tear-drop-shaped loop on your fabric, with your needle and thread coming up out of it.

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So you’ve made your first chain stitch, and now you have two choices.

1. You can go on making a line of chain stitches, which is really nice for curves, creating texture (like somebody’s hair, a power-up mushroom, a loaf of bread, etc.) or filling in a shape. To do this, poke your needle down as close as you can get it to where you came up, making sure it’s OUTSIDE the loop of your chain stitch, but again, don’t pull the thread through yet.

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Make another loop, and keep going till you’ve got as long a line as you want. On your last stitch, instead of making a loop, you’ll finally just poke your needle down outside the last chain and pull the thread all the way through, making a tiny little anchor stitch.

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2. Maybe you don’t need to make a line. Maybe you’re making an anime sweat drop, or rain, or a splash of blood, or maybe a little flower. So instead of continuing on with your chain, you’ll just pull the thread back down through, making an anchor stitch like we discussed in option number one.

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When you have one chain stitch by itself like that, it’s called Detached Chain, or more popularly, Lazy Daisy. Because it’s really easy to make a daisy out of them—just do five or six in a circle with their points touching. Bam! Daisy!

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And there you have it!  You can order iron-on transfers from her site, or buy the patterns as PDFs and trace them onto your material yourself. Jenny sells textiles to stitch on, floss to stitch with, and even glow-in-the-dark thread to make your projects really geek-tastic. She’s also super-friendly on Twitter: @iloveembroidery

Stay tuned next week for another exciting episode of Make It Sew, in which I’ll cover more complex embroidery stitches, and how to finish and display a completed project. Meanwhile, if you have questions, comments, or an idea for a tutorial you’d like to see, tweet me @theroseinbloom or drop a line in the comments section!

Header image by Jenny Hart. All other images by Danya Michael.

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