Hand embroidery is all about those stitches. But those stitches are all about that floss. Not sure what to use for your next project? Let's take a look at your choices. Really, it comes down to the big three: cotton, silk, and wool. Sure, there are other specialty fibers you can use, but these three will be your heavy hitters (and the easiest to find).
Stranded cotton or embroidery floss
Stranded cotton (sometimes also just referred to as embroidery floss) is hands down the most popular option. You'll find this at all your major crafting stores, and it comes in more colors than you could ever possibly need.
Why is it called stranded? Each thread is made up of six separate, fine threads, which can easily be pulled apart. Then each of those fine threads is made up of two even thinner plies that are softly twisted together. So. Many. Threads.
The soft twist means this thread is actually a little limp. If you want your stitches to have have some heft, try using the full six strands of your stranded cotton. Or if you're looking to do detail work, slim it down to just one thread.
Perle cotton is a non-divisible embroidery thread (so, the opposite of that stranded cotton we just talked about) used for needlepoint and surface embroidery. This thread is tightly twisted, which will give your project a more textured effect than regular cotton floss. Because it is normally heavier than floss (and you can't separate it into thinner strands), line stitches like stem stitch and chain stitch usually sit higher up on the fabric, compared to the same stitches worked with floss.
Perle cotton comes in four sizes normally used in needlework: #3, #5, #8 and #12, with #3 being the heaviest and #12 being the finest. (Yeah, the sizes are a little confusing.)
Silk is the Cadillac of embroidery threads. Of all natural embroidery fibers, silk is not only the strongest, but it also has the highest sheen — built in wow factor.
Two types of silk are used in embroidery: spun silk, which is made from broken and leftover cocoons, and filament silk, which is made from single silk filaments as they are pulled from the whole cocoon.
Stranded silk (made from spun silk) behaves much like stranded cotton. Actually, consider other silks almost the same way you consider cottons: The heavier the thread and the more tightly twisted it is, the more texture you can achieve with very little effort.
Wool embroidery threads (called crewel wool or tapestry wool) feel like wool (because, obviously). If you're looking to stitch something that looks and feels a little fuzzy, you know where to turn.
Same deal here: the number of strands you use determines the thickness of the embroidery. Wool is already thick and covers quickly, but if you want chunky, wooly embroidery, just use more than one strand in the needle at once.
To get the hang of adding texture and dimension to your embroidery, you just need to play. Throw different threads together, mixing and matching fiber, weight, and twist. Wool, silk, and cotton all get along just fine, we promise.