Skip to content

Personalising Garments With Embroidery

I decided a while back that I wanted to make my handmade garments more ‘me’ by embroidering designs onto them that reflect who I am and what I like. I’m not a big fan of prints – don’t get me wrong, they definitely have their time and place and some garments just cry out for a beautiful print – but I didn’t want to just make plain garments either. I decided the way around this was to add embroidery, but the most embroidery I’d ever done was very basic – letters and names in simple stitches. When choosing which garments I wanted to make for my Make Nine challenge, I also decided that it was about time I learned to do more complicated embroidery.

Choosing the designs to embroider and onto which garments

I love nature, always have and always will, so I’ve collected patterns of animals, leaves, stars, snowflakes, feathers and flowers – not exactly the most simple of designs for an embroidery newbie to accomplish! I therefore decided to start small; as I already have my Dawn jeans cut out and waiting to be made, I decided to embroider the back pockets.

Starting the embroidery on the back pockets of my jeans
Starting the embroidery on the back pockets of my jeans

Each pocket will have a different design on it, one will have a toucan (one of my absolute favourite birds, along with puffins and hornbills) and the other a leafy branch. I decided to start with the leafy branch as it seemed simpler than the Toucan (by An Hee Jin) – the toucan has many different stitch types, some requiring two or three strands of embroidery floss depending upon the section you’re working on, while the leafy branch has just three stitches. I hadn’t thought at all that the shape of the leaves might make them complicated!

Embroidery patterns are very different to sewing patterns; the instructions on how to make a garment are normally a step-by-step guide taking you through everything in the correct order, while the instructions for embroidery patterns are the different stitch types which have been assigned letters (and the thread colours have numbers) to denote the order in which you should stitch. This means embroidery patterns are just a few pages long and mostly consist of diagrams. Youtube tutorials have, therefore, been quite useful in translating these diagrams and learning how to do the stitches which are required.

What you need to get started with embroidery

Embroidery is fairly straightforward to get started in, mainly because the tools and thread you’ll use can be used across many different patterns – and they’re reasonably cheap too. The first thing you’ll need is an embroidery hoop. There are many out there in different sizes and different materials, though I’d definitely recommend spending a little more and getting a decent one.

My sewing plans this year include embroidering onto some of my clothes
Here's little collection of embroidery supplies I've gathered for embroidering onto my Dawn jeans

All the reviews I read of cheap bamboo hoops said they splintered easily, sometimes arriving damaged too, and there was no way I was going to use a plastic hoop. I therefore chose a 4″ beechwood hoop by Elbesee – made in the UK, their hoops are carefully sanded and waxed to make them easy to use and ensure they never splinter. Every review I read of Elbesee hoops was glowing, and it’s easy to see why when you have one of their hoops in your hands. In hindsight, a 5 or 6″ hoop might have been more appropriate, but I’m happy with my little 4″ one for now.

In addition to a hoop, you’ll need some decent needles. I chose sashiko needles because I knew I’d be working with denim (and because I also want to do some sashiko at some point). Sashiko is a Japanese embroidery technique, which is often used in conjunction with ‘boro’ – repairing and making new clothes from old and tattered ones. Sashiko is often (but not always) done on denim or other heavier weight fabrics, so I knew the needles would be appropriate for what I wanted to do. For lighter weight fabrics, I would choose crewel needles; these are the “traditional” choice for embroidery, but I felt that they might bend if I used them on denim, as they tend to be very fine needles.

Embroidery uses a specific type of thread, called floss. It’s almost always made from natural fibres – cotton, linen or silk – and there are several types of floss depending on the thickness of the thread its comprised of. Your embroidery pattern will tell you which colours and types of floss to purchase, as well as how much of it you’ll need. Pay close attention to how many strands your pattern tells you to use too – this determines how fine the details will be. Some patterns will have stitches which use different amounts of floss strands, so it’s important to make sure you get this right.

There are two main companies producing embroidery floss – DMC and Anchor – so unless you purchase a pattern from an independant embroidery designer who lists the colour codes for both, you’ll likely end up using the colours from just one or the other. Both of the patterns I’ve chosen to stitch onto my jeans are by DMC, so I’m using DMC floss, though I do also have one or two skeins of floss by Anchor.

Finally, you’ll need a way of getting your design onto your material. At first I bought a heat transfer pencil, which you can use to trace designs with and then iron onto your fabric. However, I quickly learned that it’s only really visible on the lightest of fabrics, which is no use for my dark denim. I therefore bought some magic paper to use. Magic paper is thin paper, made from the cellulose of wood pulp; you can trace your design onto it, or in some cases print directly onto it, and it comes in a sticky back version or a non-sticky version (I bought the non-sticky kind). It’s quite easy to stitch through and when you finish your embroidery, just pop the whole piece in some cold water and the magic paper will dissolve away.

Magic paper for embroidery is a great way to easily transfer designs onto fabrics which might otherwise be difficult to do so
Magic paper for embroidery is a great way to easily transfer designs onto fabrics which might otherwise be difficult to do so

There are a few other things which will help make your embroidery a little easier – such as embroidery scissors and a needleminder – but you only really need the above tools and threads to get started. As with many crafty skills, you can always invest in more tools as you progress, which is useful if you don’t have a lot of money when you’re learning (or if you don’t want to invest too much in a skill before you know if you enjoy it).

Learning embroidery stitches

Youtube tutorials are super useful as you can watch someone doing something and see exactly how it should be done. Therefore when learning how to do the different stitches I need for my pattern, I headed straight to Youtube.

The three stitches I’m using on my leafy branch are satin stitch, stem stitch and backstitch. Back stitch is as straightforward as it sounds and is used to create the details in the leaves, while stem stitch is used to create the stems and branches. Satin stitch is used to form the leaf itself. In the pattern I’m using, the Tropical Branch by Sew & Saunders, you’re supposed to start with the stem stitch, followed by the satin stitch and finishing with the backstitch. I couldn’t wait to get through all of that though and had to do just one complete leaf first! In the space of just an hour and a half, I had a complete leaf – and that includes the time I spent watching tutorials on the different stitches. For the rest of the pattern, I am doing the stitches in the proper order, though it’s nice to have that knowledge that actually this shouldn’t take me too long to complete.

The leaf design I've chosen uses three embroidery stitches - stem, satin and back stitch
A closer view of my finished leaf

I found a great tutorial on stem stitch by Stitch and Design; there’s no voiceover, they just show you how to complete this stitch. It’s reasonably straightforward to complete when you understand how to achieve the twisted look this stitch creates too. It’s probably not the most used stitch in my pattern, but it is the one I’m supposed to start with, so it’s definitely worth getting right.

Satin stitch seems to be a popular stitch for creating nature based embroidery – not only is it in this pattern, it’s in my toucan pattern and almost all the other embroidery patterns I’ve collected. I believe it gets its name from the shiny, satin-like texture the floss creates when you use this stitch, so it’s easy to understand why it’s so popular for creating everything from leaves to the moon. Paraffle Embroidery have a fantastic tutorial which not only covers how to do satin stitch, but also shows you how to use it on complicated shapes – perfect for learning how to stitch the unusual shapes of the leaves in my pattern!

As I previously said, backstitch is probably the easiest of the three stitches I’ve needed to learn. Stitch and Design have another great tutorial for this stitch – there’s not really much more to be said about it, other than it’s exactly as you would imagine.

Find a pattern you like and get started

Like most things, embroidery isn’t as complicated as it seems if you break it down into simple steps. It all starts with finding a pattern you like and taking things slowly – learn the individual stitches you need to complete your pattern and get started. There’s a whole host of patterns out there for you to choose from, so you’re bound to find something you like and feel comfortable attempting. Starting with something small is probably a good shout, as it’ll be faster to complete and it’s therefore more likely you’ll finish it and enjoy it.

If you feel more comfortable using a kit to get started, there are a lot out there. Many of these include everything you need to get started, making the choice of needles and floss super simple. Like many other skills, there are also several books and magazines you could also get if you wish – these will often detail specific techniques, such as whitework, which you can’t really learn from Youtube tutorials – and of course there are many different courses out there which you could attend, if you prefer to learn directly from a teacher. The way I do things isn’t the only way, it’s just the best for me, so choose whichever method you feel most comfortable with.

Of course I’m not going to be anywhere near as good as someone who has perhaps studied at the Royal School of Needlework or even those who have been embroidering for a long time, but that’s okay. For what I want to do I don’t need to be a master embroiderer, as I’m just embellishing and personalising my own handmade garments. It doesn’t need to be perfect, as long as I’m happy with it.