Some arts and crafts are antifragile – they do not die. Centuries and millennia come and go, but they endure, getting stronger with improvements in technology.
One such is the art of embroidery.
Would you believe that they were embroiderers even in ancient Egypt? And yet the art has not changed much. Some may even tell you that previous eras created more aesthetically satisfying embroidery than we do today.
Fast forward to the twenty first century and things have both changed and not changed. What has changed is technology – we use machines now. What hasn’t is technique.
But there is more…
I have prepared a feast of information that will enlighten you about the basics of embroidery, and transform you from a know-nothing to a pro.
What is Embroidery?
Embroidery is a type of craftsmanship that involves adding decorations to fabric or other materials while using needle, thread, or yarn. Other than yarn or thread, you can also use beads, pearls, sequins, and quills.
Modern embroidery is most often used on hats, caps, blankets, coats, denim, golf shirts, dress shirts, and stockings. The embroiderer is only limited by his or her imagination, and has a wide variety of thread/yarn color and materials to choose from.
The History and Origins of Embroidery
Embroidery developed from the process of patching, mending, tailoring, and reinforcing cloth – that is sewing. The development of sewing techniques spawned myriads of decorative possibilities, and this in turn resulted in the art of embroidery.
In fact, it has been noted that over the centuries, embroidery has not changed at all. One cannot see any progression of technical advances from a primitive stage to a more refined one. In fact, the early works of embroidery we have at our disposal today demonstrate a level of skill and technical accomplishment that works from later eras lack.
Embroidery does not belong to any one culture – it is a universal craft. Early pieces have been found in China, dating to the Warring States period of 500 to 300 BC. Embroidery was also practiced in ancient Egypt.
The history of embroidery reveals that it has been practiced both as a widespread popular craft and also as an art reserved for a few highly-skilled experts. Consequently, there was a proliferation of works, with some being royal and regal, and others being mundane.
As I said, the techniques of embroidery have changed little even as centuries have come and gone. The same basic stitches that formed the foundation of embroidery in previous millennia are still in use today.
In the 19th century, during the period we today know as the Industrial Revolution, sweeping developments came into the practice of embroidery in the form of mass-produced, machine-embroidered goods.
Consequently, the embroidered goods that had previously been the preserve of the moneyed became available to poorer economic sectors. As a result, there are two main types of embroidery today: hand embroidery and machine embroidery. This article will look at the two major types of embroidery in detail.
Hand Embroidery for Beginners:
Hand embroidery has been in existence since the days of ancient Egypt; and as I said, the basic stitches have changed but little over the years. In Egypt, they used embroidery for the decoration of royal robes. During the Middle Ages, they used it to decorate tapestries.
While it cannot compete in terms of production output with machine embroidery, it persists today as an art form. Many people still enjoy embroidering by hand their wall hangings, quilts, pillowcases, table runners, and so forth.
What You Need for Hand Embroidery:
- Embroidery hoop
- Sharp needles
- Embroidery floss
- Thread heaven
Steps to follow in Hand Embroidery:
1. Prepare the Embroidery Hoop
Your first action should be to separate the embroidery hoops from each other. Your hoops may be made of plastic, wood, or metal. Choose plastic for the snug fit.
Wood hoops lack this snug fit, and you may have to add an extra lining between the hoops to provide the fit. Metal ones are not easy to find – you might get them at vintage shops.
2. Thread the Needle
Separate the embroidery floss into strands – one to six strands. How thick your stitches will be depends on how many strands you use. Ensure your threads are not too long; otherwise, you will face the problems of snagging and unnecessary knotting.
Here’s a pro tip: when separating the embroidery floss into strands, operate using the rough part of a Velcro, holding the floss against the Velcro with your thumb as you gently pull on the thread.
Another pro tip (optional): if you want the threads to be strong, run the strands you have separated across a thread conditioner.
3. Start to Stitch
Now this is where the enjoyment really begins – the first two steps are only preparation. I will assume you know the basic sewing stitch (bringing the needle up through the fabric from the inner side of the fabric.
There are, of course many types of stitches you can use in embroidery. For instance: the running stitch, the backstitch, the split stitch, the stem stitch, the satin stitch, the straight and seed stitches, among others. As you get more experienced as an embroiderer, you will learn how to execute different stitches.
Back to the stitching – I was talking about the basic sewing stitch. As you would do with this basic sewing stitch, insert your needle behind the fabric, pulling it out on the other side with the thread almost to the end.
Next, re-insert the needle into the fabric to create a stitch of approximately ¼ length. Exit the fabric a stitch length through the needle. Re-insert the needle through the hole marking the end of your first stitch. There you have it: a backstitch. Carry on stitching until you complete the length you require.
4. End the Stitch
You can end the stitch by three methods:
- Weaving your floss in between the stitches
- Tying a basic knot
- Or tying a split knot when your floss is on the shorter end.
The first method involves turning to the wrong side of the fabric and then inserting the needle under the stitches and proceeding to weave your floss.
The second method involves creating a knot and then inserting the needle into it as it becomes tighter. All the while, ensure the sharp point of the needle points against the fabric as you bring it down the knot. Consequently, the knot will tighten against the fabric, and thus secure your stitch.
The third method involves splitting the floss into two threads and using them to create a knot. After that, cut the excess using a pair of scissors, and that’s it.
Pros of Hand Embroidery:
1. Hand embroidery is a highly artisanal process. As such, you have plenty of room to express your creativity. You can therefore create a unique piece that incorporates your personal touches or point of view.
Cons of Hand Embroidery:
1. Since you are doing everything manually by hand, the hand embroidery process is super time-consuming. You will need over two hours just to create a two-inch square piece of embroidery, And if you are working on something particularly intricate, you will spend a lot of time on it. That’s why it is not used for commercial purposes.
2. When the embroiderer is unskilled, there is a high risk of personal error in the embroidering process. Such mistakes can lead to a poor result when the piece is complete.
3. Your hands may end up making the piece you are working on dirty.
Machine Embroidery for Beginners:
While hand embroidery is manual, machine embroidery requires the use of a sewing machine or an embroidery machine. Commercial uses include product branding, corporate advertising, and uniform adornment. The fashion industry also uses it for the decoration of garments.
And on the non-commercial front, hobbyists and crafters use machine embroidery in the decoration of clothing, gifts, and home décor. They decorate pillows, quilts, wall hangings, and so forth.
Types of Machine Embroidery
Types of machine embroidery include:
- Free-motion sewing machine embroidery
- Link stitch embroidery
- Computerized machine embroidery
1. Free-motion Machine Embroidery
Free-motion sewing machine embroidery uses basic zigzag sewing machines, with designs being done manually. Since the sewing machine is essentially designed for tailoring, it does not contain the automated features you would get with a specialized machine.
To create a design on a garment, the embroiderer moves tightly hooped fabric under the needle of the running machine with skill.
This type of embroidery is rather time consuming since it is a manual process. However, being a manual process also means that it creates unique embroidery that cannot be reproduced like computerized embroidery.
As a result, free-motion machine embroidery is a creative process. Since there is no uniformity, there is room for mistakes and that enables you to create something that another embroiderer cannot. The lack of restraints gives you total control over stitch direction and the rhythm that results from the needle speed and fabric motion.
2. Link Stitch Embroidery
Link stitch embroidery is the preferred choice for commercial undertakings. It may be done both manually and automatically controlled. Another name for it is chenille embroidery.
3. Modern Computerized Machine Embroidery
Modern computerized machine embroidery uses an embroidery machine which is controlled using a computer that embroiders stored patterns.
Computer-controlled embroidery machines are mostly used for industrial and commercial purposes.
The Computerized Machine Embroidery Process:
Contrary to popular opinion, computerized machine embroidery does not have a ‘push’ button. It can be just as tedious as a non-computerized process. Here are the steps involved in the process:
1. Either create or purchase a digitized embroidery design file that is compatible with the machine brand you are using. Creating the file can take hours, even for small or simple designs. The software needed to make such designs is rather costly.
There are two types of embroidery file formats: source formats specific to the software you use to create the design, and machine formats specific to a particular brand of embroidery machine.
2. Take the design you have purchased and edit it to fit your intentions. You can also combine it with other designs to get a unique design.
Embroidery programs enable you to distort, scale, stretch, rotate, split, crop, or duplicate your design. You can even change the colors of the design, or make them monochrome. Highly sophisticated packages enable you to add, edit, or even remove individual stitches. Some embroidery machines come with built-in design editing features (rudimentary ones, though).
3. Check that the design file is in the right format, and then load it into the embroidery machine. It will fit in the appropriate hoop.
Different machines favor different formats, preferably those proprietary to a particular company. Examples of common design file formats for the home and hobby market include .ART, .HUS, .JEF, .PES, and .VIP. You transfer the design file to the machine using cables, CDs, floppy disks, USB interfaces, and so forth.
4. Take your fabric, stabilize it, and place it in the embroidery machine.The stabilization method depends on the type of machine you are using, the type of fabric, and the design density. For instance, knits and large designs need firm stabilization.
5. Start the machine, monitoring it, to change thread colors, rethread it, or to troubleshoot any problems that may come up in the process. As the operator, you should have an abundance of needles, bobbins, a can of air, scissors, and a small brush.
-How long it takes to sew a design file will depend on the size and quality of the design – it could take a few minutes, and it could also take more than half a day.
6. If the project is botched, discard it and start afresh. Reasons why a project can get botched: wrong stabilizer for item, wrong thread, machine malfunction, and badly digitized design.
7. Start afresh – repeat until you succeed.
Pros of Machine Embroidery:
1. Since all you have to do is upload the design pattern into the computerized embroidery machine, you can rest assured that the end result will be exactly how you want it.
2. The process is quick and efficient. And that’s why it is used for industrial and commercial purposes.
3. It minimizes human errors such as design mistakes, ripped materials, dirt. Such errors may even be entirely absent.
Cons of Machine Embroidery:
1. Computerized machine embroidery involves a factory aesthetic that churns out embroidery pieces in uniformity. As such, there is less room for individual creativity or uniqueness than in hand embroidery. Each piece from a single design is identical to the other copies.
There you have it – your gate to the world of embroidery. Now that you have learned the basics, it’s up to you to seek out more information along the lines that interested you most in the article.
Is it hand or machine embroidery that fascinated you? Even then, remember that doing it is always much better than reading about it. Try your hand at embroidery – experiment and fail until you get the hang of it!
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