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What is Embroidery?

The most basic description of embroidery is the art of using a needle and thread to decorate fabric. We've been embroidering since at least the Ancient Egyptian times - something that was presumed based on paintings inside pyramids and tombs, then proved true when an intact embroidered floral collar was found in Tutankhamun's tomb!

Before I get into more detail, I think I should separate embroidery out further. There are two groups of embroidery - hand embroidery and machine embroidery. I'll touch on machine embroidery, but this post is mainly about hand embroidery.

What Is Machine Embroidery?

If you're ever in a shop and see a piece of clothing or an accessory that has a pattern on it, then it's most likely been machine embroidered (unless you're in a very special, boutique shop!).

If you look closely at the pattern, you'll be able to tell - machine embroidery is easy to spot as machines generally only use one stitch. They repeat that stitch hundreds (or even thousands!) of times in varying lengths and with different colours to create the pattern. Machines are always being improved - the latest can stitch at up to 1500 stitches per minute, seamlessly (ha!) changing from one thread colour to another. These machines have software for creating digital embroidery designs. The machine then stitches the exact pattern onto fabric - so fast fashion loves it!

The last thing I should mention, before I go on to talk about hand embroidery, is freestyle machine embroidery. This is where you use a regular sewing machine to embroider patterns directly onto fabric. Whereas the first type of machine embroidery is all designed digitally, freestyle machine embroidery is an artistic skill that stands on its own.

What Is Hand Embroidery?

OK - so what is hand embroidery? Aside from the obvious clue in the name, it's an art form that now has many, many variations - embroidery has developed independently in different cultures over time. The list of distinct types seems endless - I plan to eventually learn how to do them all, but that's going to take a long time!

The overview here is not an exhaustive list - I'll expand it over time, but these are some of the more commonly known types of embroidery. I've included photos of traditional style pieces alongside more modern examples, to illustrate each kind.

Types of Hand embroidery

Surface Embroidery

Image of May Morris homestead and the forest bed quilt

Almost all of the embroidery patterns you’ll see on my site are surface embroidery. It’s essentially freestyle embroidery, where you use stranded cotton thread and any of the hundreds of types of stitches to decorate fabric. It's a ‘general’ type of embroidery (almost anything can be called 'surface embroidery'), but I find it helpful to mention - there are so many embroidery artists out there doing exciting things that there isn’t always a specific word for their style!

Image of Paraffle's moon gazing hare


Image of May Morris Maids of Honour needlepainting

Needle Painting is all done with one type of stitch: Long and Short Stitch. This allows you to blend different colours together - so you're literally “painting” something with thread. It looks complicated, but the stitch itself is quite simple! The complexity comes in having the artistic eye to blend the colours, and choosing the right thread colours. Just as painters - using paint, not thread- often use unexpected colours to create an end result (Blue is often used in skin tones, for example!), so too can needle-painters. I’ve just recently started doing my own needle painting kit – here’s what mine looks like!

Image of Paraffle's orange needlepainting


Image of Annie Eastwood historic cushion Crewelwork

The word Crewel was used in the 1700s as another name for Worsted, a type of wool yarn, and also an English village! Crewelwork is surface embroidery worked specifically using wool threads.

The most famous example of Crewelwork is the Bayeux Tapestry – a 70-metre-long cloth that shows the events surrounding the battle of Hastings in incredible detail. Wool thread is heavier and thicker than the stranded cotton thread used in surface embroidery so, generally speaking, the fabric stitched on in Crewelwork is heavier. Think cushions, curtains or extremely expensive bed hangings! Because the thread is heavier and thicker, you can get lovely textured effects that are more difficult to achieve (or impossible!) with stranded cotton thread.

Image of Melbury Hill Modern crewelwork


Image of Holburne Museum historic stumpwork

Another name for Stumpwork, which helps to explain what it is, is 'raised work'. You might sometimes see a machined version (called puff embroidery) of this on clothing accessories, where the stitches look like they’ve got something behind them holding them up. Secret - they do!

For traditional hand embroidered Stumpwork, wires would be shaped (e.g. into a leaf shape); the wire shape would be stitched around, and the finished piece then attached to clothing. It’s probably more common nowadays to see stumpwork being done with felt, where the felt is stitched over to add gorgeous layering effects.

Image of Stitch and Bone modern stumpwork


Image of Holbein portrait of Jane Seymour historic blackwork

Traditionally, Blackwork was done using black thread (in order to hide dirt build up!), but nowadays it can be done with any colour! It’s a counted-thread technique worked using a specific stitch called Holbein stitch.

Done correctly, this will result in your pattern being entirely reversible - both sides will look the same, unlike most embroidery work (my hoop backs are often a hot mess!). It’s also been called Spanish embroidery - Catherine of Aragon introduced it to England when she married Henry VIII.

Image of Purple Rose Rainbow Bubbles modern blackwork


Image of Swedish Armoury Historic goldwork

You might have used metallic effect threads - but these threads are typically made from a blended cotton/synthetic material mix.

Goldwork uses real metal – often gold, but it’s been made more accessible than it once was, with silver and copper thread being developed. Sometimes the thread is made entirely of metal, and sometimes it’s metal leaf wrapped around a normal thread.

Most of the time, goldwork is done using couching stitch - the metal thread isn’t sewn through the fabric, it’s held in place with another tiny thread. It’s an expensive form of embroidery, but the results are worth it!

Image of ECCI Modern goldwork octopus 


I’ll stop there for now - hopefully this has been a helpful introduction to some of the most popular types of embroidery.

As ever if you have any questions, get in touch using the comments section below!

1 Response

Dawn Rich

Dawn Rich

May 03, 2022

Hi I love your discription of the different embroidery techniques and the historical link. I have been embroidering for a while and like the way you have created your kits for beginners which look lovely BUT I would like to encourage you to do some intermediate or advanced designs. I love the swans in the crewel work section and I think its a swan in the gold work section as well. I am not keen on bugs…but if the stump work was a bee or butterfly that would be lovely. I found you from cat protection, so any cats would appeal. As I say I do quiet a bit of embroidery so I wouldn’t necessarily need the threads or hoop but your design and colour combination techniques and indeed the ethical foundation of you business really appeal. Well done and whilst you may not take up my suggestions I would like to encourage you to keep up the great work. Dawn
Paraffle Embroidery replied:
Hi Dawn, thanks so much for commenting! I totally agree – I love the style of the crewel work and gold work (and particularly with the swans!). I’ve been working on some more advanced designs – just yesterday I released a couple of William Morris inspired designs that are a bit more challenging, so that’s something that I’d like to develop more. I’d particularly like to get into goldwork, as it’s so unique! Your comment is really helpful – so thank you! Sammy x

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