Hoop it Up: What You Really Need to Get Started with Hand Embroidery

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As with most crafts, getting started on hand embroidery can seem daunting when you consider the huge array of available hoops, frames, needles, thread cutters ... whew, you get the picture. But don't be fooled! The list of actual hand embroidery essentials is refreshingly short. In fact, all you technically need is a needle (if you're cool cutting thread with your teeth ... no comment). I recommend the handful of tools below to get you started.

Needle news you can use

From L to R: crewel needle, tapestry needle, milliner needle

Any needle can draw a piece of thread through fabric, but certain types do certain jobs better. Using the right needle for the job will not only make embroidery less frustrating for newbies, but it will deliver better end results. I recommend having three types on hand.

1. Crewel needle

The crewel needle is a sharp-tipped needle with a medium-long eye slightly larger than the shaft of the needle. It's the basic for hand embroidery. Crewel needles come in sizes 1 through 12, with 1 being the largest and 12 being the smallest.

2. Tapestry needle

The tapestry needle has a shorter shaft than a crewel needle, but it has a much longer eye, which is also slightly larger than the shaft. Its tip is blunt. Tapestry needles are commonly used in counted cross stitch and needlepoint, because the blunt tip does not pierce the ground fabric, but allows the needle to pass easily into the open holes in the weave. In surface embroidery, tapestry needles are the perfect tool for any type of stitch that involves whipping or lacing. The blunt tip prevents the needle from snagging other stitches on the fabric.

Tapestry needles are available in sizes 13 through 28, with 13 being the largest (it’s huge) and 28 being exceptionally fine. Tapestry needles are also available in standard and petite lengths. Tapestry petites are much shorter, allowing the stitcher to get as much use out of an embroidery thread as possible.

3. Milliner needle

The milliner needle has a shorter, almost-round eye, a very long shaft, and a sharp tip.The eye and the shaft on a milliner needle (also called a “straw” needle) are the same size, which makes the milliner needle perfect for working any wrapped stitches like bullion knots, French knots or cast-on stitches.

With wrapped stitches like bullion knots and French knots, the fact that the eye and the shaft of the needle are the same size makes it easy to pull the milliner needle through the wraps. So if you’ve tried French knots, bullion knots or cast-on stitches and have had bad luck with them, try a milliner needle! It makes these stitches so much easier to work, and they’ll look better, too. Milliners are sized like crewel needles (although there are some brands that offer a different numbering).

Most embroidery-related needles are available in assortment packages. For example, you can purchase crewel needles in packages of assorted sizes 1-5, 3-9, and 5-10.

Hoops and frames

An embroidery hoop keeps fabric taut, so your stitching doesn't pucker the fabric and your embroidery doesn't come out warped. A hoop is not absolutely essential for every type of stitching. But in general, especially for beginners, a hoop will help your embroidery look its very best.

The plastic or inexpensive wooden hoops at craft stores are fine for starting out, but eventually you might want to graduate to a better-quality wooden hoop. Unlike the cheaper varieties, a best-quality wooden hoop will have sturdy brass hardware on it that can be tightened with a screw driver. The two rings will fit together perfectly, and the wood will be very strong and as smooth as glass.

Besides hoops, there are several types of embroidery frames that can hold ground fabric taut. These include stretcher bar frames, slate frames, scroll frames, and more. But the hoop is less expensive and more portable, so start there.

Embroidery scissors

Embroidery scissors are different from regular craft scissors. They have smaller and usually thinner blades that are extremely sharp, and they normally come to a very pointy point. Most embroidery scissors are around 3.5” - 4” in total length, with blades that range from 1” - 2.5” long. The main reason to use embroidery scissors is that they can get really close to the ground fabric for cutting threads cleanly. You can certainly embroider without a pair, but most stitchers get pretty attached to this specialized tool, so it's worth picking one up.

Light and magnification

While magnification is not necessary for everyone, good lighting is essential for embroidery. You'll find lots of lighting options at craft and sewing stores, but a sunny window will certainly work in good weather!

A magnifier can help you enjoy needlework without straining your eyes. Even embroiderers who have great eyesight can make good use of a magnifier or magnifier/light combination, especially for detail work, miniature embroidery and needlepainting. Shop around at your local needlework store for options.

Smart storage

Organizing your supplies in light, transportable containers makes it easy to keep projects nearby for whenever inspiration (or a free moment!) comes along.

I like zippered mesh bags that come in different sizes for hoops, instructions, threads, etc. Make sure to slide pointy scissors into a sheath to protect their sharpness — and your other supplies — before tossing them into the bag. For needles, I like to slip a variety of sizes into a small needlebook with felt pages and tuck it into my project bag.

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