For as long as there has been fabric, there has been embroidery. Since as far back as the 10th century, people have been adding their own bells and whistles to textiles of all kinds. How, then, does a novice embroiderer approach a skill that’s (literally) thousands of years old? With optimism, a dash of patience, and this handy-dandy guide.

I’m lucky enough to come from a long line of textile workers. My family is full of tailors, knitters, crocheters, and quilters. While some tricks have been passed down through generations, it seems each crafty lady in my family has adopted a new hobby of her own through gifted guide books or Google.

In other words, fear not. No matter how daunting embroidery seems, anyone can do it -- even you. So gather up your materials, set aside a few pieces of fabric for patience, and get to stitching.

Tools You Need

Embroidery tools, hoop, scissors, thread

First Thing's First: Setting Up Your Hoop

Embroidery hoop and thread
  • Place your fabric over the solid hoop (without the fastener). The fabric should completely cover the hoop with some extra around the edges to ensure a taut canvas.
  • Next, place the hoop with the clasp over the fabric, making sure the fabric is pulled taut with no wrinkles or lumps. Tighten your second hoop using the fastener at the top.

The next step is to thread your needle and set an anchor.

  • Thread your embroidery floss through the eye of the needle. Don’t tie it up here - the knot will put a hole through your fabric. Keep an eye on the string slack to make sure it doesn’t fall out (if it does, just re-thread and continue). But trust me, no top knot is the way to go.
  • Secure an anchor at the opposite end of your thread by tying off a small knot just before the end of the string. This keeps your floss from pulling through the fabric as you continue. If your anchor pulls through with a small tug, double or triple knot until the anchor holds under slight pressure.

Now you’re ready to get started! Here are the first five stitches you need to know (a.k.a. The easiest and most versatile):

Running stitch

running stitch
Melanie Davis

Start by pushing your needle through the bottom of your fabric. Create your first stitch by guiding the needle back down through the top of the fabric. The further away the needle is from its first point of entry, the longer the stitch will be. Shorter stitches are generally sturdier and less prone to tear or break.

Continue your line of stitches by threading the needle back through the bottom of the fabric a little ways away from your first stitch. Your stitches can be spaced as widely or narrowly as you wish, but remember: the wider the stitch, the more thread you’ll go through. If the space between stitches is too narrow, you risk threading the needle back through the same hole and undoing your previous stitch.

Quick summary: poke through bottom, guide back down to create stitch, follow your line and spacing, repeat.

Back Stitch

back stitch
Melanie Davis

Having trouble keeping your stitches evenly spaced? Try the back stitch next. You begin this stitch the same way you begin a running stitch. Thread from the bottom, guide back through the top, re-thread from bottom a little past the end of your new stitch.

With a back stitch, you are making all stitches after the first one ‘backwards.’ After you’ve guided the needle from the bottom of the fabric for the second time, complete the stitch by guiding the needle through the same hole as the end of the previous stitch.

Quick summary: poke through bottom, guide back down to create first stitch, follow line and space. Poke through bottom, guide back down through the end of previous stitch, follow line and space, repeat.

Split stitch

split stitch
Melanie Davis

The split stitch takes concepts learned in the running and back stitches and is a great stepping stone to the chain stitch.

Begin your split stitch by guiding your needle from the bottom of the fabric and coming back down from the top to create your first stitch.

To make your second stitch, guide your needle through the center of your first stitch (yes, the thread itself! It may take a couple of tries and a finger to guide. Don’t worry, keep trying!) and pull the string taut. Complete your stitch by guiding the needle back down through the fabric, following whatever line or guide you’re using.

Quick summary: poke through bottom, guide back down to create first stitch, guide needle through middle of first stitch from bottom, guide back down to create second stitch (all while following your lines and spacing), repeat.

Satin stitch

satin stitch
Melanie Davis

Ah, the satin stitch. The lazy body stitch. This is for creating large swaths of color. It’s great for coloring in outlines, creating texturized hair, or just filling extra space.

To begin, I’m usually using a stencil, outline, etc., to ensure I’m creating a stitch that will match the shape of whatever I’m "coloring in."

Start from one end of your shape (in this case, a square). Pull your needle through from the bottom, and create one long, continuous stitch that stretches to the other side of your shape.

Repeat on alternating sides, making sure to leave very little space in-between stitches. Continue until your shape or area is completely colored in.

Quick summary: poke through bottom, guide back down to create one long stitch, repeat on alternating sides down the length of whatever shape or area you’re wanting to color.

Chain stitch

chain stitch
Melanie Davis

Arguably the most complicated on this list, the chain stitch adds just a few extra touches to create a bold, sturdy line that can be used for outlining and coloring.

Begin by making your first "loop" - this is essentially a very small stitch through which you’ll guide the needle. It’s made the same way as your first running, back, or split stitch - except smaller.

Just like in the first three stitches, you’ll guide the needle from the bottom again. The bigger the space in-between, the looser the stitch.

Guide your needle through the loop you just made and pull taut. (Sometimes it helps to use the needle’s point to lift up the loop if your first stitch is a bit tough to get under.)

Push the needle back through the same hole it just came from, making sure to re-guide the needle to the opposite side of where it went through the loop. *If you guide the needle through the left side of your loop, complete the stitch on the right side of your chain.

As you continue, you’ll guide the needle under both sides of the previous chain. You’ll only need to make a starter loop once.

Quick summary: poke through bottom, guide back down to create very small stitch, guide needle back from bottom. Thread needle under starter loop/previous chain, guide needle back through same hole and pull tight. Make sure to guide the needle back through on the opposite side it came through the loop or previous chain.

At the end of every line of stitches, guide the needle through the bottom of the fabric and tie off. Cut off excess string.

A Few Final Tips

Cute hanging embroidery

1. Tracing is your friend. Use a light pencil to draw your design on your fabric before you begin. This will be your guide and helps to determine spacing, stitch length, etc.

2. Don’t be afraid to start over. Using a small pair of scissors or seam ripper can help you cut out anything you don’t want to keep. But be careful to only cut what you don’t want, and tie off anything you do to keep the piece from unraveling.

3. Make lots of new anchors and make them often. Starting from a new anchor keeps your strings at a manageable length and allows you to work all over the canvas without worrying about stretching your thread too far.

4. Be patient with knots in the thread. You can use the needle’s point to work out tiny snags that pop up. If it’s not budging, simply cut out the knot and tie on a new piece of string.

5. I can’t stress this enough: go slow. Practice your stitches before you begin your first piece, and when you do start, start small. Embroidery - just like any skill - is mastered in phases.

Use your new embroidery-prowess to customize clothing, accessories, dish towels, handkerchiefs, and any other fabric pieces in need of some extra flair. Alternatively, an embroidery piece still in the hoop or set in a frame makes a great DIY gift that is as sentimental as it is unique!

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