Embroidery 101

Technically, embroidery can be broken first into two major categories – Hand and Machine.

Hand embroidery can probably be traced back to the very beginning of clothing. Cultures often can be identified by their adornments. As a society becomes more stable and prosperous, the people have more time and resources to create embellishments and add adornments to clothing, linens and furnishings. Technology also plays a part in making supplies more affordable and easier to obtain.

Some techniques are known by the stitch or thread they use such as cross stitch or Redwork. Other techniques are named after the place they originated from like Hardanger or Mountmellick embroidery. It can get confusing because the technique might be known by a variety of names or is a compilation of several types of embroidery. We will look at some of the better known embroidery techniques later in the newsletter.

Machine embroidery has been around much longer than you might imagine. There are embroidery machines dating back to the 1800’s! Joshua Heilmann had a design for a hand embroidery machine that led to the invention of shuttle and chain stitch machine embroidery methods. One method, called schiffli, was invented around the late 1870’s. It used the concept of another new invention, the sewing machine. Issac Groebli used a threaded needle and a shuttle with a thread bobbin, to stitch yarn on both sides of the fabric to create a raised design. The shuttle resembles the hull of a sailboat, so the machine was called a "schiffli" machine which means "little boat".

In the early 1900’s Dr. Robert Reiner was an American salesman responsible for bringing large quantities of embroidery machines into New Jersey. As a result, many Austrian, German, and Swiss immigrants who owned the companies saw the industry expand. However, World War II had a negative impact with a couple of major foreign manufacturers stopping production. It took fifteen years before production began again, but this time it was Robert Reiner, Inc. with the first American made schiffli machine. (reference)

Today, technology has made it possible to have incredible machines for commercial and home use. Many people own machines that will do everything from a few decorative stitches to complex designs in a multitude of colors. There are even machines that profess to stitch a Hardanger design, but it’s not like the Hardanger we all know!


Hand embroidery can be divided a number of ways. For this newsletter, we’re going to separate the types into "counted thread" and "free" embroidery.

Counted thread is a category where the embroidery is done very precisely using a grid of threads like even weave fabric, canvas, or specialty fabrics such as huck. It usually involves the stitcher reproducing a printed pattern by counting threads on the fabric to make a stitch. That stitch might be done over a single thread or across multiple threads. Many of the embroidery techniques in this category have their own specific stitches which make the technique recognizable.

Let’s look at several types of counted thread techniques:

Hardanger Embroidery is named after a region in southwest Norway in the county of Hordaland by the Hardanger Fjord. However, it is thought to have originated from the Middle East. From there it spread to Europe with ties to the Reticella and Venetian needle laces. Hardanger embroidery uses several counted thread techniques such as pulled and drawn thread and cutwork. Learn more about Hardanger embroidery.

Blackwork embroidery is a very old form of counted-thread embroidery. Because many of the designs are geometric it is most often stitched on an even-weave fabric. Despite the name “Blackwork” it was also done in blue, green, gold or silver. Linen or cotton was the primary fabrics since the original purpose of Blackwork was for costume adornment. Learn whether it is Moroccan, English or Spanish.

Needlepoint developed as a way to recreate the look of expensive woven tapestries. It is estimated to have begun sometime during the 16th and 17th centuries using coarse, loosely-woven linen. Technically, needlepoint is stitching done on canvas that has even vertical and horizontal threads. Designs can be painted or printed on the canvas and stitches are made with color coordinated thread. There is also counted Canvaswork using a printed pattern just like counted cross stitch. Because the stitching is done on canvas, it should actually be called Canvaswork with three sub-categories: needlepoint, petit point, and Bargello. Read more about Canvaswork.

Bargello consists of a design laid out in a mathematical pattern using long and short stitches. There are two types of Bargello patterns: Florentine and Hungarian, however, their history is a mystery. It is thought the name originates from a series of chairs found in the Bargello palace in Florence, which have a “flame stitch” pattern. Traditional Bargello consists of straight stitches that are worked vertically in a stair-step pattern to create a zig-zag or arch design.

Cross stitch embroidery uses variations of the "X" to create the design. You can have counted cross stitch or stamped cross stitch so I suppose technically this technique could be both counted and free. However, most people associate it as being a counted needlework. As pattern books were published and samplers evolved, the cross stitch became the predominate stitch. However, cross stitch is not new. It has been reported that fabric found in Greece dating back to the 5th century BC shows the remnants of cross stitching. Learn more about Cross Stitch. Learn more about Samplers.

Assisi embroidery is attributed to the Italian village of Assisi back in the 13th century. The design is actually created by the white or void space, with the cross stitch and running stitches surrounding the design.

Swedish weaving is known by many names including Huck Embroidery, Huckabuck darning, Punto Oitinho (Brazilian), Yugoslavian Weaving, and Swedish weaving. (There is a form of loom weaving called Swedish weaving also.) This embroidery is done on specialty fabrics where you count and stitch under the floats on the fabric instead of threads. Learn more about Swedish Weaving.

Schwalm is being placed in this category because the filling and ornamental stitches are done on a grid created by cutting and pulling specific threads within a reinforced, stitched area. Schwalm is named after a region along the Schwalm River near Marburg, Germany. This particular form of whitework dates back to the late 18th century where most of the designs are based on the “tree of life”. Therefore, the motifs you will see most often include leaves, blossoms, fruits, hearts, tulips and doves. Learn more about Schwalm.

Drawn and pulled thread embroideries are often confused. Drawn thread has thread withdrawn from the fabric weave which creates the open foundation upon which to stitch. Today, we generally associate drawn thread techniques with even-weave. However, in the past, drawn thread embroidery was worked on all kinds of fabrics, including fine, high-count cottons and plain-weave linens.

Pulled work does not involve cutting the fabric threads to create the lacy effect. Instead tension is used when stitching to pull the fabric threads together. Unlike normal needlework, pulled work stitches are not always meant to be seen. This is especially true when you use thread the same color as your fabric. The voids that the tension causes on the fabric creates the patterns you see.

We have received several emails asking about Chicken Scratch Embroidery. This embroidery has also been called Amish Embroidery, Snowflake Embroidery, Depression Lace or Gingham Lace. Stitches are worked on the grid created by gingham fabric. I remember my great-grandmother working designs on gingham. If you have any examples or stories about this embroidery technique, please let me know. I’d like to do a newsletter on it because of the emails we have received.


Free embroidery doesn’t mean there might not be counting involved!! In Brazilian embroidery you may be counting the number of wraps you have in a bullion knot. However, you are not limited to a specific design as dictated by the fabric weave.

Crewel embroidery uses wool and a variety of stitches to follow a design outline applied to the fabric. It is thought to be at least one thousand years old. Jacobean is a type of crewel embroidery that is attributed to the reign of King James I of England in the first quarter of the 17th century. Stay tuned for more on Crewel in our February 15th newsletter.

Brazilian embroidery uses rayon thread instead of cotton or wool. It is called “Brazilian” embroidery because the use of high-sheen rayon thread in embroidery was first popularized in Brazil, where rayon was widely manufactured. Brazilian embroidery patterns usually include flowers formed using both knotted and cast on stitches. Although many of these stitches are used in other forms of embroidery, the technique used to create them is slightly different due to the opposite twist of the thread. Learn more about Brazilian embroidery.

Redwork is named because of the colorfast and durable red dye used on cotton threads. This was extremely important because harsh washing techniques and lye soap made other colors bleed and fibers breakdown. The dye known as Turkey red is believed to have been refined in the Middle East for Turkish carpets. The process for preparing this dye was a little more extensive than other natural dyes. Despite the thread costing up to three times more than regular floss, stitchers were willing to pay the extra price. Learn more about Redwork.

The town of Mountmellick in County Laois in Ireland will forever be linked with Mountmellick embroidery, one of the few needlearts to be native to Ireland. It started in the early 1800’s with a woman named Joanna Carter who ran a local school to teach girls how to embroider. Some of the things that set it apart from other free form embroidery is there are no drawn threads, open work spaces, or eyelets. It has contrast: smooth satin stitch against padded and knotted stitchery; and matte cotton embroidery thread against cotton satin fabric. There is often a buttonhole edge and a unique knitted fringe, which helps to carry the weight of the heavy embroidery to the edge of the design. There are at least two stitches specific to this technique. More about Mountmellick embroidery.

Temari can be considered to be an embroidery technique because it is embroidery on the surface of something, in this case a ball. I debated where to put it because you do some counting using a grid on the ball. Yet the gridlines were more like a stamped pattern on fabric that gives you guidance on where to put your stitches. So, I flipped a coin, and Temari ended up here! Temari or “hand ball” was a toy created for children of nobility to play catch. These balls were made from silk fabrics and threads from old kimonos. As cotton became available in Japan, mothers and grandmothers in the lower economic levels could now make these balls for their children. You can let your mind wander and explore all kinds of fibers and colors to create these treasures. Find out more about Temari.

Crazy Quilting can cover many different embroidery techniques. I think of crazy quilting as scrapbooking on fabric, plus it is a great way to use special fabrics and fibers, while cleaning out your stash! This particular Sales & Stash Issue #34 steps you through some stitches and includes a free pattern. Check out why spiders are considered good luck for stitchers and often appear in a crazy quilt design.

Ribbon Embroidery is a three-dimensional needlework using varying types and sizes of ribbon. Many people love this needlework technique because they say there are no mistakes! Every stitcher will lay the ribbon down just a little bit differently. Thus, each piece is unique and one-of-a-kind. Stay tuned for a future newsletter about this technique!

Candlewicking is a technique linked back to pioneer women. They used the thread meant to be used as candle wicks to stitch on unbleached muslin. Two stitches are used, a colonial knot (sometimes called a figure 8 knot) and the backstitch. It seems there may be a resurgence of this technique. It really is very easy to learn.

Whitework….well, I saved this to mention last. The name says it all…it is a pattern worked with white fibers on white fabric. The design is created either from the texture of the stitches and/or the void left as you stitch, pull, or withdraw threads. This sub-category encompasses many different techniques including Hardanger, Mountmellick, and Schwalm, not to mention Richelieu, Hollie Point, and Needlepoint Lace. In fact, you could get into a discussion on whether whitework is embroidery or lace? We are planning to look at some lace techniques in future newsletters. Do you have a specific type of lace making method you would like to know more about?

There are many people who study old samplers and needlework. They tell a history of the men and women who made them. For free embroidery one of the oldest known works is the Bayeux Tapestry which recounts the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It was commissioned by Bishop Odo with the design and construction starting soon after the battle. It documents the events leading up to the battle, the battle itself, and the aftermath. The images are sometimes gruesome, so it is thought to have been designed by a man/men who witnessed the actual event. It is 231 feet long, done on eight pieces of linen. Read more about this significant piece of embroidery and see pictures of the panels.

Fast forward almost a thousand years to a tapestry celebrating the beauty of the United States in embroidery called the National Tapestry Project. Judy Jeroy designed the tapestry and painted the five panels using twenty colors of acrylic paint. Each panel measures 2 x 4 ft. The project incorporates both hand and machine embroidery. All types of embroidery methods used to create the animals, birds, flowers, trees, mountains, fish, and plants. Each panel represents a section of the United States. Each region decided on which flora and animals would best represent them. The tapestry had been on display here in Fargo at the Plains Art Museum. It was a wonder to behold in person. If you have an opportunity to see the traveling display, plan to spend several hours pouring over the tapestries. Read more about the tapestry and see some close up photos of the panels.

Click on the tapestry labels at the bottom to see more about each one.

There are many more techniques we could have highlighted in each category, but there is only so much room in the newsletter. Perhaps your favorite technique will still appear in a future newsletter.

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

For those interested in using this article or others published by Nordic Needle, Inc., please use this copy when referencing the information:

“The following article was written by Debi Feyh of Nordic Needle and published in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted by Nordic Needle to share this article in (name of your publication). For information on subscribing to their weekly e-mail newsletter, visit www.nordicneedle.com. A free mail-order catalog is available to you upon request if you live in the USA or Canada.”

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