Hints and Tips for new Hand Stitchers

Why stitch by hand? Well, with needle and thread you can do so much. Recent studies have shown hand needle crafts are good for your health and well being too.
I admire artists who create near perfect needle painting and exquisite silk embroideries, but that's just not me. My approach is a wee bit more laissez faire. I don't do straight lines, and counting threads is way beyond me. I don't want perfection, or something that looks like a machine made it. Using your own hands, heart, and mind to create something unique is what’s important to me.

You can take embroidery practically anywhere; it's relaxing, and very sociable. You can stitch and chat with friends - and make new ones. You probably have much of the equipment you need to start stitching, and  tools are reasonably inexpensive.   

Basic embroidery tool kit:

  •   embroidery needles (assorted)
  •   small, very sharp scissors    
  •   embroidery hoops, various sizes (but you can start off with one and 
  •   buy more as you need)  
  •   an emery board- for keeping needles sharp (a small piece of sandpaper will do)
                   Stitches can be used to create lots of different effects
Always stitch in a good light, and use a lamp to help you see better. 

Make yourself comfy, and don't forget to take a break from time to time.
Before you start a project, practice any new stitches first, and make sure you are happy using them. 

Most important, find the way to stitch that is right for you; have fun and enjoy yourself!
 Patchwork and quilting go wonderfully with stitchery - embroidery and applique

 A bit about the detail

Transferring a design

Tape your design to a window pane with masking tape, ensuring it’s flat, smooth and level. Make sure your fabric is ironed and as smooth as possible. Then tape your fabric over the paper with more masking tape and  carefully trace the design.

(This process can make your arms ache, especially if you are 'vertically challenged', like me! Do be sure you get it at a comfortable height before you begin.)
I use a brown waterproof pen with a fine nib (Zig Millenium 0.5  or Pitt Artists pen SF) to transfer designs to fabric. Brown ink isn't so noticeable if you don’t stitch completely over the traced line. 

If you’re using a very light coloured fabric you may be able to trace directly onto it from your design. Again, make sure it’s as smooth, flat and as stable as possible. If you've taped it you can have a rest or a cup of tea if necessary and come back to it!


 Buy the best quality you can afford and treat them well! There are lots of different types of thread, but  I'm mostly going to talk about 6 stranded cottons - most easily available and  very versatile.

When you begin stitching it's easy to think using longer threads will save you time -  sadly, this is not true. Please don't  use too long a thread, or you'll get lots of horrid, knotty tangles.  Really frustrating; especially when you are trying to master a new stitch. The rule of thumb is - cut a length from your index finger tip to your elbow. 

 Separate the strands into single threads, by fluffing them out gently. Pull one thread out, and keep the rest straight by smoothing down with your hand. Repeat the process for each strand you need. Separating each strand and then putting them back together for stitching, keeps the threads more even; your stitches will be really neat and smooth! 

I used to wind my thread onto bobbin cards, but I now often use it direct from the skein. This is because each thread has a nap (the direction of the pile) and it  helps to get smoother stitches if you use your thread with the nap in the same direction.  You don't know which end you are using if it has been wound onto a bobbin.

If your project will need to be washed, like a tea towel, use a colour fast  thread.  Do a test piece and put it through the wash before you start!

Cotton Perle or Pearl cotton is another great thread to use for beginners, it comes in a variety of sizes and lovely colours, and doesn't need dividing!

                                    Using one colour ( redwork) can be really effective.


Find a needle that's right for you and the job you are doing- regardless of what the instructions say. For example, I always hand sew with embroidery needles.
Use the correct size and type of needle for the number/type of thread you are using, though. There are a lot of different types, but basically embroidery needles size 7 and 8 are a good starting point. They will take about 2 strands of thread.  If your needle is too small it will be hard to pull the thread through the fabric and  too large a needle will leave holes.

Threading problems?:
  • dampen the needle very lightly
  • flip it over (needle eyes have 2 sides, top and bottom, where they are pressed out; so the thread will go through the 'top' more easily than the bottom,  clever huh!).
Invest in some thread conditioner,  not expensive and lasts for ages. It stop threads tangling up and makes for smooth stitching.

A small piece of  fine sandpaper or an emery board is handy for keeping your needles sharp.

To hoop or not to hoop?  It's a personal choice,  and like most needle crafts,  depends on the tension you use to hold your fabric and thread.  They come in different sizes and types;  I like traditional wooden ones with a metal screw fixing.

If you bind your hoop with cotton strips or tape it provides more friction and  also helps protect more delicate fabrics rubbing against the wood. Binding  may seem a chore, but it doesn't take long, and you'll probably only have to do it once. Most of my hoops were bound 25 years ago and are still going strong.

Choose an appropriate sized hoop to hold your design. The fabric shouldn't be tight as a drum,  but have enough 'give' for you  to stitch easily.

If you take your work out of the hoop each time you finish, there's less chance of getting a dirty ring around it, or a permanent hoop mark. 
Tacking a 'hem' around your fabric stops it catching and fraying while you work.

               Long tailed tits in stump work  - simple stitches, just used in a different way

Most of all, have fun!