• Catriona Thomson

Sewing kit basics: hand embroidery

Updated: Feb 25

When you decide you're taking up a new hobby, the chances are you’re going to need some kit to get you started. Luckily for anyone starting embroidery, it's quite a short list of items which are going to get you going. Here are my picks for the bare minimum, plus some extra tools which I think are handy.

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The essential bits of kit:

1. Sewing scissors

It’s unavoidable that you’re going to need a pair of scissors, or if I’m being honest, probably two. Using a pair of household scissors that you already have lying around is not a good idea, they’re not going to cut fabrics and threads very well. Having dedicated sewing scissors will keep the blades sharper for longer, giving you a much better result with your embroidery. So, I’d recommend investing in a pair of scissors for cutting out your fabrics. It’s worth considering if you’ll be using them for other type of sewing as well. If you’re into dressmaking or upholstery then your scissors need to be heavier duty than if you’re just cutting base and backing fabrics for embroidery. They come in many sizes, so try a few and see what feels comfortable for you – again if you’re using them for things like curtains as well you might want a bigger pair to glide through big pieces of fabric. If you’re only going to be using them from time to time you might be more comfortable with a smaller pair which are easier to handle. I use the orange-handled Fiskars scissors in the photo for my base fabrics.

When you’re working on your embroidery, you’ll probably want a small pair of scissors for trimming your threads. You could either get a small pair of scissors – my favourite is the pair in the photo with a blade length of 30mm, which also makes them handy for taking away on holiday and cutting small pieces of fabric for appliqué. Or if you're only using it for your threads, you could get some sewing snips. I personally prefer a small pair of scissors as they’re more versatile.

The Fiskars scissors I use you can get from LoveCrafts* here.

2. Embroidery hoops

For any embroidery, an embroidery hoop is a must. It holds your fabric taught while you’re stitching to stop the material buckling and gathering as you stitch. They come in lots of different sizes, and a couple of different types as well. For me, you can’t beat the traditional wooden hoop. They’re easily adjustable and therefore suit a wide range of fabrics. You can reuse your wooden hoops on each project you do, or mount your finished artwork in the hoop - as we do with a lot of our kits.

Spring-embroidery hoops are another option, they’re easy to fit around your fabric, just squeeze the metal part, place your fabric between the metal and the outer plastic ring, and release for a tight hold. They're much easier to pop on and off your work than the wooden hoops, but I find they don't hold the fabric as well.

3. Needles

Needles are an area I could write a whole post on - there are lots and lots of them! But the main things to consider are the eye of the needle and the point. For the eye, you're going to want one which is big enough for your thread, or maybe one that's small enough to thread beads over. Generally, a long eye shows it's an embroidery needle, perfect for your stranded threads. A shorter, rounder eye is more likely to be your traditional sewing needle for ordinary sewing cotton.

As for the point, for pretty much everything you're going to want a point - anything which has a rounded end is either for needlepoint - where the fabric already has holes in it, or for wool. In this image there's a tapestry needle at the top, then embroidery needles in size 5, the most common needle we include in our kits, followed by a sharps needle in size 11, used for sewing your beads in our kits.

From LoveCrafts* this starter pack of Prym needles include embroidery and ordinary sharps needles, so a very useful pack. All our kits use Prym or John James needles for embroidery and sewing needles. I often use DMC tapestry needles, but remember to match the size you need to what you're sewing.

4. Your preferred method of transferring your design to fabric

If you're starting a piece of embroidery from scratch, you're going to need to find a way of transferring the design you're following onto the fabric. This is probably trial and error to find your preferred method. I like to use a fabric marker, which is like a felt tip pen, and you can get different versions of these which either fade when heat is applied (i.e. ironing your work) or that fades naturally in light.

Alternatively, you could use tailors chalk (shown here in pencil form) which will then brush off your fabric later using a stiff brush. We use graphite paper in lots of our kits - either in white or black depending on the backing fabric colour. This works like carbon paper, you place the paper on top of your fabric, place a template on top and draw around it. It's harder to remove residual marks from the graphite paper though, so you need to be accurate with your stitching. Of course, the simplest option is probably using an iron on transfer - these lack flexibility as you'll have to find a design you like which already exists. But when you've got one, you simply place it face-down on your fabric and iron with a cool iron to transfer the design, and again accurate stitching is needed here to cover all the lines.

From LoveCrafts* tailors chalk pencils, or graphite paper available from local stationers or Amazon.

5. Materials and threads

So the good news is that you can use pretty much everything! If you're just starting out, I'd suggest going with a cotton - it's reasonably inexpensive and easy to work with. Once you're comfortable try something different - linen is similar to cotton but a bit coarser, silk is slippery and fine, but looks very indulgent - or how about an embroidery update on clothes in your wardrobe?

As for your threads - I'd suggest starting with stranded cotton. These threads contain 6 individual strands which you should separate one at a time from the length you're sewing with and can then put together your desirable thickness in thread. Typically, I'd work with two or three strands depending on the fabric and stitch I'm working with. They come in an enormous selection of colours and you can get variegated colours as well. If you're looking for a chunkier finish, you could consider perlé threads which come as a single twisted thread with different thicknesses available. Once you've got used to stranded cotton, why not try some of the specialised threads from DMC - light effects are sparkly threads, while rayon threads have a sheen to them. They can be a little harder to work with though, so use shorter lengths to avoid damaging the thread as you sew.

Once you start using your stranded threads you should consider how you're going to store them - they're easily tangled once you've started to unravel them. All our kits contain card bobbins to wind your stranded threads onto, but there are lots of options. If you're using card bobbins, write the thread number at the top, and consider using metal rings to group similar colours together. Alternatively, you can get long plastic bobbins which you can then store in special transparent wallets so you can see all your thread colours at a glance.

All of these options come from LoveCrafts*, you can't go wrong with DMC threads in my opinion, and it's all DMC thread in our kits. Start with stranded cotton, but explore their other ranges as well. These are the long plastic bobbins I use and here are the card bobbins for storage.

Once you've got the essentials, these are also handy:

6. Pins (and a pin cushion)

I use large plastic headed pins as I find them easiest to work with. They tend to be a little longer than traditional glass headed pins and they have a larger head which is easier to grip. Pins are great for holding fabric in place while you stitch, very useful for appliqué or joining fabrics together. A pin cushion is a good way to keep your pins to hand while you're sewing, and much better than leaving them in the arm of the sofa!

Available from LoveCrafts* pearl headed pins.

7. Tape measure

A tape measure is useful when you're measuring your fabrics and threads. It tends to be easier than using a ruler because it's flexible and longer. Choose your tape measure based on the scale of sewing you're going to be doing. A long tape measure for upholstery might sound like a good idea, but it can be so long it gets in the way on smaller projects. From Love Crafts* 150cm tape measure (a good length for most embroidery projects).

8. Beading mat

If you're doing anything with beads, particularly seed beads, a beading mat will change your life if you've not used one before. It's a furry piece of fabric, and the texture stops your beads from rolling around and makes them easy to pick up from the mat directly with your needle. Any kits we have which include lots of beads come with a small piece of beading mat to help make it easier, but if you're doing lots of bead-work it might be worth investing in your own large mat. I also have a few shallow plastic boxes which I've lined with a beading mat making it a portable workstation for beading projects.

You do get different types, but these flocked bead mats from The Bead Shop are my favourites as they can be cut to size.

9. Thimbles

Thimbles are useful to help push the needle through the fabric, particularly handy if you're working on thick fabrics or multiple layers of fabric which put up a bit of resistance. For example, embroidering on leather or thick canvas (canvas shoes embellishments anyone?) can be quite hard on your fingers, and a thimble will help make that easier. They come in different sizes and can be metal or plastic. I prefer metal ones as they're more substantial, and choose a size which is comfortable on your first or second finger. First or second finger will be your personal preference, but generally if you're using the thimble for every stitch, first finger is probably easier, and if it's more occasional when a stitch is getting stuck, then second finger. The idea is that you can use the thimble to provide greater pressure on the needle to push it through the fabric, something a little more painful if you were just using your finger to push against it!

10. Seam ripper

This is one for "just in case". A seam ripper is a quick way to undo stitching. Mostly for embroidery you can unthread your needle and gently slide the needle under one stitch at a time and pull gently to undo your stitching if you go wrong. But if your stitches are packed closely together or if you've split your thread then that can be hard. A seam ripper has a small blade in the curve and allows you to slide the point under a stitch (or multiple stitches) and cut the thread. You can then carefully pull the smaller pieces of thread out of your work. Top tip, when you take the lid off, put this on the bottom of the handle (like you would with a pen lid) to create a longer handle to make it easier to hold. If you're not going to be using this too often (we all hope!) a basic seam ripper will do the job fine from LoveCrafts*.

Why not take a look at our video for a bit more detail on all the equipment?

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