What I Wish I'd Known When I Started Embroidering

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Kat McTee embroidering

I first tackled embroidery in middle school — I mean, who DIDN’T want an embellished denim shirt in the mid-70s? Unfortunately, I was teaching myself, using random supplies I found in my mom’s sewing stash. That little brown puppy design definitely didn't turn out as cute as I’d envisioned. Luckily, nothing could kill my budding textile obsession.

If I had a time machine, though, there are a few things I’d like my younger self to know.

Vintage clothes are fabulous. Vintage floss, not so much.

Treasure hunting in thrift stores and estate sales? Yes, please. Vintage craft magazines? SWOON! But a tangled web of thread, or a box of skeins that smell like an attic? No thanks. One reason embroidery rocks: The supplies are inexpensive, especially cotton floss. If those skeins sit for years, though, heat, household pests, and humidity take their toll. Treat yourself to a fresh new rainbow of floss (cue magical sparkly sound effects). It’ll stitch more smoothly and last longer.

Create your own colors!

As a beginner, I had no idea that I could separate six-strand floss into separate threads. Not only does this let you customize the line weight of your stitches, but you can blend custom colors. Need a certain hue that you can’t find? Take a couple of strands of one color, add a strand or two of another, and mix your own.

Don’t own a light box? Are you SURE?


Iron-on patterns are fun, but these days, I like to create my own designs, and trace them onto fabric using my favorite DIY light box: a window. Just draw or print your design onto paper, use painter’s tape to tack your design to the glass (in the daytime, natch), and then secure your fabric over that with more tape. Trace the design onto your fabric with the erasable pen or marker of your choice. DIY magic!

Kat McTee's embroidery sampler

Keep your mind relaxed, and your fabric taut.

Hoops matter. The first hoop that I dug up from my mom’s sewing miscellany dated back to, oh, maybe the Industrial Revolution? If your hoop isn’t holding your fabric tight, get a hoop made in this century. This is no place to skimp! Always adjust your fabric tension so your embroidery surface is taut, and pause to re-tighten it as needed: Nobody wants to stitch on a wet noodle.

Adjust the recipe to YOUR taste.

When you’re a beginner starting a project, it’s easy to fall into a confusion spiral. Few embroidery patterns will guide you through which stitches to use on which motifs. I got tired of that first dog project fast, partly because I thought satin stitch was my only option for filling in that pup’s brown fur, and I didn’t quite have that stitch mastered. Genuine Secret Pro Tip (shhhh): You can try any stitch on any part of a design. I could've used lines of backstitch or split stitch, nestled close together, maybe even in a couple of different shades, to bring that puppy to life. Be bold! You can even hoop up an extra piece of fabric just for auditioning stitches.

Now go stitch something! You've got this.

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What I Wish I'd Known When I Started Embroidering