An Ode to Embroidery

Thursday, February 11, 2016

I've talked a lot lately about my newest hobby, embroidery. Famously stereotyped as a pastime of the elderly, there are a lot of things I like about it, but most specifically its simplicity, portability and economy. It's something I can do while watching television with the boys or to wind down before bed; I can learn a new stitch in minutes (there seems to be an endless number of stitches which means room for growth and challenge); and it's the least expensive hobby I've ever taken on (I have a laundry list of past hobbies, so I'm somewhat of an authority on these things—just ask my impossibly patient husband). You can bet I'll be bringing a couple of embroidery projects along to pass the time on my 15 hour journey to Spain tomorrow. (I'm getting restless just thinking about it.)

In the interest of efficiency, I decided to compile all of my embroidery must-haves and favorites in one place, rather than continuing to dribble the information throughout many posts. This is a semi-comprehensive list of the people, places and things that have made embroidery my favorite hobby so far. (And the one I actually see myself doing long-term.)

Fabric // I use primarily linen, which comes in a wide variety of colors. It has the natural, rustic look I favor, as does a heavier weight muslin. Just beware that not all fabrics are created equal. For instance, I bought a whole yard of linen fabric for a larger project, but once I got started I realized it had too much give and the fabric began puckering around the heavily stitched areas. (It also wouldn't stay taut in the 14" hoop.) Now I give any fabric I'm considering a rub between my fingers and a little tug before purchasing to make sure it will hold up. This is not to say you can't use regular cotton fabrics! Many of my favorite embroiderers on IG use patterned cotton fabric for some of their simpler pieces. But for what I'm doing I prefer a neutral palate and sturdy fabric, and linen + muslin check all the boxes. All of my fabric has been purchased at local sewing shops, but you can get it at any place that sells fabric. Because I buy small quantities (1/4-1/2 yard, typically), I don't mind paying a bit more to support a local business. Bolt Fabric Boutique and Modern Domestic are both awesome Portland fabric shops.

Thread // Most of my embroidery thread is DMC brand purchased at JoAnn Fabric. I'd love to buy local on this front as well, but smaller shops don't tend to carry the full array of colors. That being said, my local craft store sells Sublime Stitching's thread which is lovely. (I have several of their color packs.) But when I take on a project with a bunch of the DMC numbers listed in the instructions, it's more efficient to go with a big box store. In addition to regular thread, DMC also makes specialty threads like glitter, metallic, and color variation. (The color variation thread is my creates a lovely depth of color, especially on leaves and flowers. And although beautiful, glitter/metallic thread is kind of difficult to work with since they are prone to snagging. I'm hoping the thread conditioner I found at a local fabric store will help.) I've also picked up no-name packs of embroidery thread at Fred Meyer when I needed some basic colors in a pinch and they work just fine. I am starting to branch out creatively, and less likely to follow the original color scheme, so I like having a wide selection of colors at my disposal. At 40 cents a bundle, it's still very frugal. (True story: Husband picked up a ton of embroidery floss at a weird estate sale he went to recently. I'm talking a basement full of doll heads weird. They smelled a bit funky and need to be wound around some bobbins, but it has been a great contribution to my collection. He's pretty stellar, that guy.)

Needles // Clover Gold Eye needles for the win.

Hoops // Local craft stores, mostly. I've picked them up at JoAnn's, which is close to my house, but they are actually more expensive there than at my favorite Portland-owned shop. I've found Amazon is not great price-wise, but there are websites that offer them in bulk for cheap. I just don't need that many at one time. I stick to wood hoops because they go with that whole organic theme I like, and I typically pay a buck or two each depending on the size.

Scissors // The first time I took an embroidery project out of the house, I dug out the old portable pen scissors I've had since my 5th grade cross stitch days. (similar) Before that I'd just used the nearest household scissors. The pen scissors were understandably dull, and kitchen scissors cumbersome to carry around, so I sought out a pair that could be sharpened so I may have them for many years to come. I settled on Gingher's 4" embroidery scissors with a leather sheath, which I purchased locally. Owning a good pair of scissors I can tuck in a ziploc with a hoop and some thread has been nice. (Side note: according to TSA guidelines, scissors with blades under 4" are permitted past the security checkpoint. Mine are 4" total. Even so, I haven't decided if I want to take them halfway around the world next week and may instead opt for a cheap pair of round tip school scissors. That overly cautious rule-abiding 5th grader lives on.)

Pattern Transfer // There are a lot of ways to transfer an embroidery pattern on to fabric, tracing being the most common. When I was first learning to embroider by making 3" Christmas ornament hoops, I used my sliding glass door as a light box and traced the pattern onto muslin using a classic water soluble blue fabric pen. It's cheap, easy and simple. However, once my projects got larger and more complex, that method became time consuming and wrought with issues (a circular wreath pattern whose ends didn't match up when I made my way around because the fabric had shifted, for example), and linen isn't easy to see through. I moved on to tracing over a lampshade, but that can get too hot and didn't always work, either. I even had my very own DIY light box fail. Then I learned about water soluble fabric stabilizers and all was well with the world. I will still trace with a fabric pen for small or simple projects, but never again when it comes to large or intricate patterns. I simply print my PDF pattern onto Sulky Fabri-Solvy paper, peel off the backing, and stick it to the fabric. When the project is finished, I remove the fabric from the hoop and soak it in tepid water for a few minutes. The paper dissolves and any lingering pieces stuck in detailed areas gets gently wiped away with a clean toothbrush. I almost gave up on a project I really loved because I couldn't find an effective way to transfer it. (I recently picked up a pack of DMC's embroidery tracing paper which I thought would be good for smaller projects, but I haven't tried it yet. The Amazon reviews aren't instilling much confidence.)

Patterns // I definitely have an embroidery "type": woodland creatures, whimsical themes, and vivid colors. When I stray from this, my interest in embroidery wanes. Fortunately Etsy is chock full of super talented illustrators, embroidery artists, and cross stitchers that create and sell unique patterns. Bonus: PDF versions means instant gratification—no waiting for a pattern to show up in the mail. Some of my favorite sellers are...

littledear // Aimee Ray's book, Doodle Stitching, has been on my shelf since 2008, when learning to embroider was just a pipe dream. It's been my go-to for learning basic stitches along the way. I completed her Ship in a Bottle and Cuckoo Clock hoops and enjoyed every minute spent stitching them. (You can see her sketches, handmade embroidered dolls and little felt critters on IG. They are, like, totes adorbs.)

Satsuma Street // Although I primarily focus on embroidery, she has the most incredible cross stitch patterns I've ever seen. Her "Pretty Little" series featuring cities around the world is just, well, gosh.

Bustle and Sew //  Their Alice in Wonderland White Rabbit hoop is the large, detailed pattern I've alluded to several times in this post, but it is hands down one of my favorite designs ever. I came to realize I simply needed a little more experience and better tools and now I'm ready to tackle it. Also, I'm going to work it in sections using a smaller hoop for better fabric tautness. I can't wait to see how this one turns out. It may just be my embroidery opus.

cozyblue // Her designs are sweet and simple and I absolutely adore them. I've made her Sea Captain, Crafty Fox, and Bunny Boy so far. She's my go-to when I want to get back to basics because her patterns embody everything I love about embroidery.

Sublime Stitching // This brand has just about everything: thread, patterns, tutorials, textiles, and tools. I've picked up packs of their iron-on transfers locally and also ordered some PDF versions from the website. (Many of her other products can be found at local craft stores as well.) I used her Christmas Time and The Black Apple characters for some of my ornaments and was so happy with how they turned out. Her patterns tend to be edgier than most, but I like them for their uniqueness and ability to lend themselves to customization and artistic interpretation.

iHeartStitchArt // I'm a big fan of her simple flora + fauna designs. They remind me of vintage nature books, of which I'm particularly fond of. The monochromatic feel of white stitching on dark fabric is so lovely.

jennyblairart // She incorporates pretty bits of fabric into her designs, a skill I'm eager to tackle. On my short list is her bear and bird pattern.

HugSandwich // Her pop culture cross stitch patterns blow my mind. Totally amazing. Kiddo finished a little cross stitch kit he picked up in Seattle a year ago and decided to move on to her Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy pattern. I want to make all of these. (Harry Potter! Alice in Wonderland! He Man! Gah!)

She only sells finished hoops, but Sarah K. Benning is my embroidery idol. She freehand sketches directly onto fabric with a pencil and creates insanely beautiful designs.

Femmebroidery's wildlife hoops are gorgeous! She was my motivation for learning how to embroider flowers. I am crushing hard on her embroidery skills. Cinder & Honey is another crush. (IG is chock full of inspiring embroiderists.) (Is that a word?)

Tutorials // I'll be honest, when I picked up my first hoop I was a total novice. I had no idea what even the most common stitches were called, let alone how to do them. Now I have a decent skill set that allows me to tackle most designs. And when I don't know, there are a zillion how-to guides and books at my disposal. Some good websites for help are Sublime Stitching, Purl Soho, and DMC's website. Most often I just google "xyz stitch tutorial" and there are always a plethora of websites and YouTube videos eager to show me the way. (True story: I desperately wanted to learn how to make the incredible 3D flowers Maria uses on her hoops but had no idea what they were called. I googled every possible word combination that included "embroidery" and "flowers" until I finally figured it out. In case you're wondering, it's called the "woven spider wheel stitch" and it's rocking my world.)

In the realm of books, there's the aforementioned Doodle Stitching series by Aimee Ray which are really helpful and align with my whimsical style. I also own Storyland Cross Stitch by Sophie Simpson which I absolutely love. Woodland creatures for daaaays. (I just discovered she has another book, Secret Garden Embroidery, which is going into my virtual shopping cart posthaste.) I don't own Mary Thomas's Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches, but it may make its way to my bookshelf. It looks pretty darn comprehensive.

Organization // Split strands, ratty piles of unraveled skeins, lost DMC numbers... the embroidery floss struggle is real. To keep my supplies (mostly) wrangled, I bought a wire basket during our trip to Seattle. (similar) It houses a small, flat plastic tote full of miscellaneous supplies, extra hoops, fabric, and a plain manila folder which holds my printed instructions/patterns. I purchased plastic bobbins and enlisted the boys in helping me wind the aforementioned thread haul Husband bought me. (This will take a while.)  I did the same with all the skeins that have come undone. I use a fine tip Sharpie to mark the DMC color number in the corner of the bobbin. Hopefully this will help curtail duplicate thread purchases. Eventually I plan organize them by color for easy access, though this is certainly a long-term goal.

Are you still with me? Oh, good. This was a doozy!

Have tips, tricks or favorites? Share! Also, embroidery + a rambunctious feline friend? A practice in patience, for sure.

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