Freeform Embroidery

This article is going to explore the basic stitches for surface embroidery and find additional ways to use them. Before we begin, here is what we need in our work basket.

Work Basket

Needles – Sharp needles are used for surface embroidery if you are using a tightly-woven fabric. If you are using a counted fabric, you can use a tapestry needle. The key is the eye of the needle needs to be large enough to accommodate the thread. Learn more about needles.

Scissors – You need a good pair of scissors that will cleanly cut your threads. Learn more about scissors.

Hoops and Frames – Keeping your fabric taut in a hoop as you stitch will make your work lay nicer. Learn more about hoops, frames, and stretcher bars.

Patterns – Many of us can remember working from an Aunt Martha’s transfer pattern. The Colonial Pattern Company in Kansas City has been making the Aunt Martha’s patterns since the 1930’s. Their designs have traditionally been days-of-the-week and cute motifs primarily used for tea towels and pillowcases.

Transferring a design – If you have a design you want to use, try one of these methods:

  • Use an iron-on pencil to draw your design on regular paper and then iron the design onto the fabric. You can iron the transfer two or three times!
  • With transfer paper you can trace or draw a design onto the paper with a lead pencil. Then turn the paper over and re-trace the design with the iron-on pencil. Iron the design onto the fabric. This paper also works for wood, glass, plastic or metal!
  • Using a light box make tracing your pattern onto the fabric easy.


The most important consideration for threads is whether they are going to bleed when you wash your piece. Technically, no thread is completely colorfast. Some of the thread companies do make notations on their thread tags. For example: Crescent Colours Hand Dyed Floss says "Not Colorfast". Weeks Dye Works has a statement "It is NOT COLORFAST. It must be washed…" Gloriana Silk says "Hand-washable in cold water. Dark colors and reds may bleed." Simply Shaker Sampler Threads has this statement on the back of the label "our sampler and simply shaker threads are colorfast, however, we recommend ….rinse threads in hot water BEFORE stitching." Splendor says "Hand Washable, but test first." Both DMC and Anchor Pearl Cottons say they are colorfast on their labels. EdMar rayon threads also indicate they are colorfast. That does not mean that they won’t bleed when washed especially the darker colors that have more dye in them. It is best that you determine if your threads will run or bleed before you stitch an entire piece that you know will be washed more times. Stitchers’ Paradise has an informative article with tips on testing and setting your threads.


When you talk to people about surface embroidery you will find varying opinions on whether this is a needlework technique for beginners only or if it is challenging enough for an experienced stitcher. Let’s see what you think. Here are some of the stitches considered basic or beginner:

Stem stitch »

Back Stitch »

Lazy Daisy »

Feather stitch »

Chain stitch »

French Knot – Sharon B’s website has a great example of a French Knot

Blanket stitch »

Satin Stitch »

This design is stitched using the "basic" stitches and then the same design using some variations of the stitch to show you what you can do with any surface embroidery design. The design is the "Tuesday" frog from the Frog Tea Towel designs by Aunt Martha’s.

The Basic Frog:

  • Solid colored thread was used for all the stitching, except for the cattails. Two strands of floss were used unless noted.
  • The stem stitch was used for the flora stems and the water (4 strands).
  • The lazy daisy stitch was used for the leaves on the ferns.
  • The Feather stitch was used for the insides of the two heart-shaped leaves.
  • The Chain Stitch was used for the outline of the frog’s body.
  • French Knots were used for the flowers.
  • The Blanket Stitch was used on the cattails and the lily pad (6 strands).
  • The Satin Stitch was used for the spots on the frog.

So, what can we do to these basic stitches? Here is the same frog design stitched a little differently:

One easy way to add excitement is by using variegated threads with the basic stitches. The frog and the smaller fern were done with size 8 variegated threads.

Instead of the Stem stitch, do a backstitch, and then go back and weave a thread in and out of the backstitch. You can do it going just one way, or do both directions. Play with the threads like use variegated, same color, or a shocking difference. The flower stems were done with this technique.

Create a thicker stem using the rope stitch, which is like a chain stitch, but the stitch is started to the left of the stitch before it. The cattail stems were done in this stitch Parkview 616’s Blog – About my life in stitches – has a great diagram and explanation of this stitch.

Use Lazy Daisies as little flower petals or scattered haphazardly. Tiny lazy daisy stitches were used as the flowers instead of French knots.

Vary the Feather stitch by making the stitches long but spaced closely together which is how one of the heart-shaped leaves is done.

The Fly Stitch can be great for leaves. Sharon B’s has several variations of the fly stitch on her website. Another one of the heart-shaped leaves is done in the fly stitch.

Do the Chain Stitch as you would normally, then go back in a different color and do a backstitch through the center, making a line down the chain. The water ripples were done in a variegated thread with a metallic line down the center.

French Knots can be done in close groupings or at the end of a pistil in a flower. The smaller cattail is done with French knots.

The Blanket stitch can be done in many ways including a closed blanket, a button hole filling, or even adding picots. The lily pad was done in a variation of the blanket stitch.

The satin stitch was used for the frog’s spots and two of the cattails but with variegated threads.

Isn’t it interesting how just these few simple changes totally change the way the design turns out? You can use your imagination on colors, threads, stitches, and designs. There are many books to inspire you:

Here are some excellent references for stitch instructions:

Hopefully you enjoyed this experiment and that you were able to gain some ideas to take your stitching to another level!

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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