Craft

What Is Embroidery and What Are the Main Types of Embroidery?

Learn about the infinite possibilities of this technique

If we wanted to define it in the simplest way, we could say that embroidery is a technique that consists of using a needle and thread to decorate fabric.

However, there is so much more to be said about this technique, which is enjoying something of a renaissance right now. What was once written off as an insignificant craft activity, embroidery is now recognized as its own art form. Learn more about this exciting activity, which you can start practicing right away.

What Is Embroidery and What Are the Main Types of Embroidery? 1

What is embroidery?

Embroidery has a long history – it has been around for centuries in almost every culture in the world. While techniques can vary from place to place, some stitches are more or less universal, and basic needlework is nearly always the same.

For me, embroidery is drawing; it is linework on a surface. Embroidery is to drawing what knitting is to sculpture.
–Gimena Romero
Gimena Romero, textile illustration
Gimena Romero, textile illustration

The origin of embroidery

It is almost certain that embroidery developed from sewing. Before the textile industry existed, people handmade their clothes with a needle and thread. At some point, people developed an interest in decorating garments as a sign of social status or, as is the case today, to express themselves.

Traditional Japanese embroidery with metallic thread. Photo: Ryan McBride
Traditional Japanese embroidery with metallic thread. Photo: Ryan McBride
Traditional Hungarian embroidery. Photo: Thaler Tamas
Traditional Hungarian embroidery. Photo: Thaler Tamas

Pieces dating back to the 5th century BC show impressive technical skills. As was the case with other artisan trades, it is likely that workshops dedicated to embroidery began to appear where craftspeople learned to perfect the technique. For example, in medieval Europe, such workshops were sought after by aristocrats who wanted to own embroidered pieces to show off their social status.

In this blog post, we look back on the history of this technique.

Traditional Mexican Tenango embroidery. Photo: Danya OC
Traditional Mexican Tenango embroidery. Photo: Danya OC
European embroidery on silk with metallic beads and thread. XVIII century. Source: Google Cultural Institute
European embroidery on silk with metallic beads and thread. XVIII century. Source: Google Cultural Institute

Embroidery and the role of women

Back when women were denied access to education and politics and were confined to the home, embroidery was an activity that allowed them to express themselves and socialize.

Today, the technical achievements of many anonymous embroiderers from the past are being recognized and form part of museum collections around the world. Contemporary embroidery–both by women and men–often reflects on this history, reclaiming its roots as a form of artistic expression, as a way to record one’s own story, and as a medium for activism and protest.

Ana María Restrepo, painting and embroidery
Ana María Restrepo, painting and embroidery
Valentina Castillo, needle painting
Valentina Castillo, needle painting

What materials do I need before I start embroidering?

Needles

The first thing you need is a needle. You will find different types of needles in a range of sizes. However, it is a good idea to start out using needles specifically for embroidery.

There are different needles for different embroidery techniques, for example:

Crewel embroidery needle. This type of embroidery is done with wool.
Punch needle or magic needle. This type of embroidery is done quickly and creates rich textures.
Kantan needle. This type of embroidery uses a special needle to create textures.
–Lunèville or French embroidery needle. This is used to add beads or jewels to fabric–think haute couture dresses! You can also add beads without needing to use this needle.

What material you use will determine what size needle you will want to experiment with.

Camila Rubio Erazo, beaded embroidery
Camila Rubio Erazo, beaded embroidery
Caro Bello, punch needle embroidery
Caro Bello, punch needle embroidery

Thread

You can find threads that are specially made for embroidery. The most well-known is the six-strand cotton embroidery thread (also known as DMC Mouliné thread). You can separate the strands depending on the finish you want to achieve.

Pearl cotton thread is also widely used for embroidery; it has a shiny and polished finish. It is available in different sizes.

You can also embroider with threads made from wool, rayon, silk, or that have a metallic finish. In any embroidery store, you will find a great variety of materials and colors.

Nayla Marc, raised embroidery
Nayla Marc, raised embroidery

Hoop

A great idea, especially if you are a beginner, is to use an embroidery hoop. This means you can tense your fabric and secure your stitches.

Another advantage is that you can use these hoops as frames for decorating your walls with embroidery pieces.

Adriana Torres, raised embroidery
Adriana Torres, raised embroidery

Fabric

When it comes to fabric, it’s best to start with cotton or another natural fiber. You don't want to start with a fabric that’s been too tightly or too loosely woven.

Aida cloth or even-weave fabrics are very popular. They are typically used for cross-stitch embroidery. Many people also choose fabrics made of silk, felt, canvas (cotton, hemp, or linen-like what you would typically paint onto), linen, and wool. You can embroider onto almost any type of fabric, as well as onto woven textiles.

L'Abu Studios, cross-stitch embroidery on wood
L'Abu Studios, cross-stitch embroidery on wood

Other basic materials

Now that you are ready to start your embroidery project, you will want to have these items handy:

– scissors (you can choose a small pair of embroidery scissors)
– seam ripper
– tape measure
– fabric markers
– needle threader

Embroidery materials. Bugambilo
Embroidery materials. Bugambilo

Alternative materials

You can experiment with alternative materials instead of fabric: paper, wood, metal grids, plant leaves, book covers... The possibilities are endless!

You don't even have to limit yourself to thread: some embroider with ribbons, jute twine, fabric, wire, worsted, shoelaces, plastic, and much more. Some people create very personal pieces using the hair of a loved one!

Katy Biele, painting and embroidery
Katy Biele, painting and embroidery

You can add other materials to your embroidery work, such as beads, gems, pearls, sequins, jewels, feathers, plants, seashells, and much more.

I started embroidery just as a hobby, so I could get away from the computer and make things with my own hands. But I got completely wrapped up; I couldn’t escape from its threads. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.
–Señorita Lylo
Señorita Lylo
Señorita Lylo

Most popular types of embroidery

In general, you can start embroidering free-hand right away if you know the most basic stitches.

If you want to try out some more advanced techniques, discover them below.

Some of the most popular techniques are:

– Cross stitch. This type of embroidery is typically applied to Aida cloth. X-shaped stitches are created to form a design. Today, some embroiderers use it to recreate pixel art, given that each stitch has a square finish.
Raised embroidery. This type of embroidery uses stitches that are slightly more complicated. This technique enables you to create pieces with volume.
Needle Painting. You can create realistic designs using this technique. Your needle acts like a brush, and your thread is the paint. Then you can create images using painting and illustration techniques.
Painting and embroidery. Create spectacular pieces of fabric by incorporating textile painting into your embroidery. You can paint your fabric using watercolors or acrylics.
Miniature embroidery. This trend has produced spectacular pieces measuring just millimeters.

Bugambilo, textile illustration
Bugambilo, textile illustration
Silvia Peligro, miniature embroidery
Silvia Peligro, miniature embroidery

If you want to learn how to create with a needle and thread, check out our embroidery courses here.

You may also like:

What is Crochet?
10 Amazing Handmade Projects That You Can Make Right Now
Embroidery Tutorial: Basic Techniques for Beginners

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