Hand Embroidery Techniques

Berlin Embroidery Designs

What is Hand Embroidery? Hand embroidery encompasses many needlework/embroidery techniques. Below is a description of hand embroidery techniques that are commonly worked today and specialty threads, fabrics and tools used.

Pictures shown are embroideries worked by Tanja Berlin and a few pictures of embroideries worked by Beppy Berlin.


Applique is used as a decoration technique in quilting, clothing, flags and in church work such as alter frontals. Applique involves sewing down individual pieces of fabric into a design and then the edges of the fabric pieces are  decorated with surface embroidery stitching such as couching, cords, stem stitch and buttonhole stitch.

Surface embroidery stitches are also used to embellish hand applique such as running stitch and elongated French knots on the Iris petals and French knots on the hair of the angel worked by Beppy Berlin.

Applique is a great technique for larger projects as the pieces of fabric can be cut as large as desired and can stand out well depending on the colours used.


Blackwork is a counted form of embroidery in which diagonal, horizontal and vertical stitches are worked on counted fabric such as Belfast linen and etamin cotton. A blackwork design can be worked from a chart in a similar method to cross-stitch and from individual graphed patterns in which the stitches are mapped out in a step by step format. Very pretty and interesting patterns can be created to make a design and you are not confined to working the patterns in just black, often coloured floss and metallic threads are used.

The blackwork patterns are sometimes adapted to create light and dark effects and dimension by missing out stitches in the pattern. Some blackwork patterns can be worked in a sequence so that the back of the embroidery is the same as the front. Blackwork is a good stepping-stone technique from cross-stitch to other forms of hand embroidery.


Brazilian is a surface embroidery technique in which a range of embroidery stitches are worked using rayon thread on a silk, polyester or cotton background fabric. Designs are usually floral in nature. Brazilian thread has a shiny surface which gives vibrance and dimension to the embroidery. The rayon thread is washable so makes the technique suitable to be worked on clothing, pillow covers and linens. Common stitches used are: Bullion knots, cast-on buttonhole, couching, detached buttonhole, drizzle stitch, leaf stitch, pistil or long-tailed French Knots, stem Stitch.

Canvas Work

Canvas Work can encompass a variety of techniques all of which are worked on counted canvas. Canvas work is durable so is suitable for upholstery and cushion covers but is often worked just for pictorial pleasure.

Painted Canvas: is a technique in which a design is painted on a canvas and the painting is stitched over with crewel wool or other yarn - the painting acts as the pattern. The most commonly used stitch on painted canvas is needle point.

Canvas Stitches: Decorative canvas work stitches can be worked in interesting geometric patterns using crewel wool or specialty threads such as variegated perle cottons, over dyed threads and metallic threads. Canvas stitches are usually worked for abstract embroideries. See example of a knot garden embroidery - right picture worked by Beppy Berlin.

Bargello: Is worked in straight up and down stitches known as the Florentine stitch in linear or geometric patterns often creating zig-zag or wave effects or the impression of flames using crewel wool, perle cotton or embroidery floss. The technique can be old fashioned in appearance due to the fact that Bargello is taken from the designs on the Bargello chairs in the Bargello palace of  Florence from the 17th and 18th century. The use of modern threads, metallic threads and the choice of colours can produce some interesting effects.

Cross-Stitch & Needle Point

Nearly everybody new to hand embroidery will begin with cross-stitch or needle point (also known as petit-point and half cross-stitch). Cross-stitch and needle point are a simple form of counted thread embroidery working diagonal stitches over one or two threads of a counted fabric such as aida cloth or linen fabric. Designs can be as easy as balloon for a child to embroider to pictures with complex colour schemes requiring patience and concentration.

Cross-stitch can be worked from a chart or directly onto printed fabrics such as table cloths. Cross-stitch is most commonly worked in embroidery floss. Designs are easily attainable from craft-stores, local needlework stores and many on-line stores.

Assisi is a form of cross-stitch in which the background of the design is worked in cross-stitch leaving voided (unworked) areas of the design see example of the Assisi rabbits opposite. Free pattern of the Assisi rabbits is available on the following webpage: Berlin Embroidery Designs: Assisi Rabbits

Needle point (half cross-stitch) can be a coarse as crewel wool worked on a canvas - see rose opposite or as fine as petit-point using silk thread on silk gauze.

Cross-stitch and needle point are a good starting point for other needlework techniques such as Blackwork and Hapsburg Lace (counted embroidery techniques) and gives the stitcher confidence to progress onto other hand embroidery techniques such as surface embroidery.


Goldwork is a surface embroidery technique that is used to decorate church vestments, occasional wear outfits, costumes, badges, logos and coat of arms and also makes lovely decorative pictures.

Often areas of a design are padded first with felt or crochet cotton and then gold threads are sewn down over the padding so a dimensional embroidery is created.

Or Nue is a goldwork technique in which a passing thread is couched down in rows with a coloured embroidery thread creating a pattern on the rows - see the dragonfly above.

Goldwork is an elaborate looking technique but when broken down into stages it is straight forward and rewarding. A good practice design is the Goldwork Sampler shown above as it uses many of the metal threads that are manufactured today and the projects range from beginners to advanced. Free Instructions for the sampler are available on the following webpage: Berlin Embroidery Designs: Goldwork Sampler

Hapsburg Lace

Hapsburg Lace is a very pretty form of counted work. Lacy patterns are worked on a mono-canvas using a contrasting perle cotton thread so that the lacy stitches show up clearly.

The defined holes of the mono canvas help the lacy patterns stand out. The patterns are worked from step-by-step charts.

The origins of the is technique are unclear but from its name it can assumed that the technique originated in Europe by a member of the Hapsburg dynasty. The technique was designed to give the impression of lace but works up much quicker and is a far easier technique than lace making.

Hapsburg Lace is fun for those who enjoy counted work such as cross-stitch and needle point and is easy to do in the hand whilst relaxing in an arm chair.

Jacobean & Modern Jacobean

Jacobean and Modern Jacobean are surface embroidery techniques that use a wide range of hand embroidery stitches.

Jacobean is used to decorate home furnishing such as curtains, cushion covers, seat covers, fire screens and as pictures and is worked with crewel wools such as Appleton's on a Jacobean Linen Twill Fabric. Motifs for Jacobean come from the tree of life and include birds, animals and ornate flowers and leaves.

Modern Jacobean uses the traditional Jacobean design motifs such as the tree of life but is scaled down and worked with embroidery floss on a silk ground fabric. Modern Jacobean uses brighter colours and often incorporates the application of organza fabrics, kid leather and metallic threads. Modern Jacobean is used to decorate small bags, small cushions, and as pictures.

Needle Painting or Thread Painting

Needle Painting also know as thread painting, silk shading, soft shading, painting with a needle, and long and short stitch is a surface embroidery technique. The most common stitches used in needle painting is long and short stitch, satin stitch, stem stitch, split stitch and occasionally decorative stitches such as chain stitch and French knots.

The technique is the most realistic form of embroidery interpreting a picture more life like than a same reproduction in paint or photography.

This is due to the dimension that can be created with the embroidery floss or silk thread. To create realistic effect just a single strand of floss is used to embroider a design. Several different colours are shaded/blended together using straight embroidery stitches, working the stitches much like painting strokes on a canvas, layering stitches on top of each other.

The finished effect is dimensional due to the shading and layering of the stitches and due to the light reflecting off the stitches. Once this technique is mastered the stitcher will be hooked for life.

The technique is used primarily for pictures but can be used to decorate soft furnishing and clothing if worked in crewel wool which is more hard wearing than embroidery floss.


Redwork is a very simple form of surface embroidery in which a red embroidery floss is used to stitch line drawings using stem stitch. Line drawings are typically of scenes of children, animals, nature, home etc. Traditionally redwork was used in the Victorian era for ladies to decorate their homes for quilt blocks, tea towels, aprons, cushion covers etc. Redwork is a good technique for someone who are new to embroidery and would like to have a go and get practiced at stem stitch. Some other basic stitches such as French knots, satin stitch, back stitch and split stitch can be used in redwork designs.

Silk Ribbon Embroidery

Silk ribbon is a surface embroidery technique that is used to depict floral motifs to decorate clothing, cushion covers, crazy quilting and to make pictures. The ribbon is sewn in the same method as stitching with an embroidery thread using traditional embroidery stitches such as straight stitch, lazy dazy, French knots and stem stitch.

A stitch specific to ribbon embroidery called "ribbon stitch" is used for petals and leaves, in which you sew through the ribbon that you are working with to give folded ends to flowers and leaves such as on the fuchsias and snow drops worked by Beppy Berlin. As ribbon is wider than regular embroidery thread, ribbon embroidery tends to come out more raised and bold yet keeps a subtle effect with the fine soft quality of the ribbon.

Shadow Work

There are three forms of shadow work:

Shadow Work was traditionally used to decorate table clothes. A sheer cotton fabric was used for the table cloth and a brightly coloured embroidery thread was used to work a herringbone stitch on the back of the table cloth to create a pattern such as a floral design. On the front of the work the herringbone shows through the fabric as a shadow of colour. By having the embroidery on the back of the work the embroidery stitches do not get damaged by every day wear and tare.

Today shadow work is used in pictorial form. Interesting shadow work designs can be worked on organza fabric and then displayed in two sided perspex frames or hung between two mats as a mobile. Shadow work can also be used for silk scarves, handkerchiefs, bags and greeting cards.

Shadow Applique is a two sided embroidery technique. Pin stitch or punch stitch (two sided stitches) are used to apply colourful fabrics to the back of an organza fabric. The excess fabric is cut away to leave a design in applique on the back of the fabric. On the front of the fabric the appliqued fabric shows through the organza fabric as a shadow of colour.

Shadow Trapunto Applique a piece of organza fabric is sewn down onto a piece of cotton fabric using back stitch. Shapes are formed with the back stitch. Slits are then cut through the back of the cotton fabric at the center of the shape (but not through the organza) and a coloured soft wool is stuffed through the slit and fills the space between the organza fabric and the cotton fabric and then the slit is sewn up at the back of the cotton fabric. If several shapes are filled with different colour wools a design can be created - see the Moorish Idol fish opposite.

Stump Work

Stumpwork is a raised form of hand embroidery in which motifs i.e. petals and leaves are sewn individually and then cut out and sewn down together to form a dimensional embroidery. Often motifs are padded or stitched over wire so that they can be molded into shapes. Wooden beads are wrapped with embroidery thread and used for fruit and glass beads are used for blackberries.

In some embroideries areas are padded and worked in needle lace - the jumper of the stumpwork lady embroidered by Beppy Berlin.

Stumpwork embroidery is worked in embroidery floss or silk threads. The technique was traditionally known as raised work in the 16th century but died out in popularity. It was revived in the 19th century and renamed stumpwork. The technique is used to make interesting pictures and for accessories such as to decorate sewing boxes.

White Work

There are many techniques in white work: Broderie Anglaise, candlewicking, casalguidi, fine white work, hardanger, hedebo, hollie point, mountmellick, schwalm, reticella, richelieu and more. Generally white work entails working with white threads on a white fabric although often colour threads and colour fabrics are used. Techniques used in white work are cut work, drawn thread, needle weaving, pulled work, needle lace and surface embroidery stitches.

Fine White Work has three layers of fabric which are sewn together using surface embroidery stitches and then layers of fabric are cut away to create dimension. Some areas of the embroidery are worked in pulled worked or drawn thread. Fine white work is the finest of all the white work techniques.

Mountmellick is a bold form of Irish white work which was traditionally used to decorate house hold linens that were washed on a regular basis. Mountmellick was stitched by working class ladies as a means of a living.

Embroidery stitches such as satin stitch, fly stitch, French knots, coral stitch are worked on a cotton satin jean fabric using mat cotton threads. Mountmellick is the heaviest form of white work.

Following is a brief description of the white work techniques. For more information on these techniques do a search on the Internet under the specific technique name.

Broderie Anglais is a surface embroidery technique which is worked primarily in satin stitch and pulled work eyelets.

Candlewicking is a surface embroidery technique where lines of a design are worked in colonial knots.

Calsaguidi is a surface embroidery technique with designs having raised motifs worked in padded raised stem stitch and basic embroidery stitches such as satin stitch, buttonhole stitch and stem stitch

Hardanger is a counted form of embroidery which combines satin stitch and cutwork.

Hedebo is a counted form of embroidery which combines cut work, drawn work and surface embroidery stitches.

Hollie Point is a surface embroidery technique which combines flat needlepoint lace with knotted or detached buttonhole stitch.

Schwalm is a counted form of embroidery and is one of the most diverse white work techniques that combines drawn thread, pulled work, needle weaving and surface embroidery stitches.

Reticella and Richelieu are counted forms of embroidery which combine cut work, drawn thread and needle lace.

2-Sided Embroidery

2-Sided embroidery or both sides alike was traditionally used on flags. One single piece of banner silk was used for the flag and stitches such as satin stitch, stem stitch and long and short stitch were used to decorate the flag. The stitches were worked so that the stitches looked the same on the back as on the front. It is necessary when working flags to work on only one piece of fabric rather than sandwiching two pieces together as the flag becomes too heavy if the fabric is doubled.

Today 2-sided embroidery is worked as a learning technique as it gives an embroiderer an insight on how a stitch is constructed which is beneficial for working other forms of surface embroidery. Surprisingly 2-sided embroidery is not as hard as it looks.

A finished 2-sided embroidery piece can be displayed in a two-sided perspex frame or between two mats and a two sided frame.

Specialty Threads

Goldwork Threads

There are many different types of goldwork embroidery threads available. The best made goldwork or metal threads are from the United Kingdom where they have are still making the threads in the traditional method.  Metal threads made in India are of a lesser quality, the metal is softer and more prone to cracking. Metal threads are also made in France, the quality is comparable to the metal threads made in the UK. The numbering of the metal threads in the UK differs to the numbering of the threads made in France and the terms used for the metal threads can also differ.

There are different methods in which to sew down metal threads. Purl threads and bullion threads come as long hollow yet flexible tube which is cut up into sections (chips) and are sewn down like bugle beads. Check thread, flat worm, Japan thread, large back, lurex thread, milliary wire, passing thread and  rococco  are strands of gold thread which are couched over with a same coloured or contrasting coloured thread. Pearl Purl, plates and twists are also couched over but in such a method that the sewing thread is hidden in the metal thread and is invisible to the eye. A full description of goldwork threads and pictures can be seen at the following website: Goldwork Threads Descriptions and Pictures.

There are are also different qualities of gold threads. Most gold threads are either labeled gilt or gold 2%. Both have a copper base and are plated with silver metal with a percentage of gold in the plating. The gold 2% has a higher percentage of gold in the plating. All gilt, gold 2%, copper and silver threads are metal based so tarnish over a period of time. There are no pure gold embroidery threads available as the gold thread would be too soft to stitch with and too expensive to manufacture. There are some synthetic threads in goldwork such Japan thread, lurex thread and some passing threads which look like metal threads but will not tarnish.

Mountmellick Threads

Traditional mountmellick threads are made from 100% bleached cotton. Mountmellick threads are mat in appearance and shouldn't be substituted with modern threads such as perle cotton which have a shiny surface. There are four weights of thread used for mountmellick ranging from #1 being the finest to #4 being the heaviest.

Specialty Fabrics

Belfast Linen

32 count Belfast linen is commonly used for blackwork embroidery. The threads of the fabric are uneven with small holes which gives a natural look to the embroidery.

Etamin Cotton Fabric

32 count etamin cotton fabric is commonly used for blackwork embroidery. The threads of the fabric are even weave with the holes fairly open and easy to count in comparison to Belfast linen. It is also soft to the feel and very pleasurable to work with.

Jacobean Linen Twill

Jacobean linen twill is a traditional linen fabric with a diagonal weave. The fabric is made in Scotland in the traditional method used in the 16th century when Jacobean embroidery was most popular. The fabric is strong and durable suitable for home furnishing such as curtains, cushion covers and fire screens. Jacobean linen twill is light brown or biscuit in colour as it was during the Jacobean period.

The Most Important Tools for Hand Embroidery

There are many tools available for hand embroidery, the following three tools are the most important tools to have:

Hand Embroidery Scissors

A pair of good quality, sharp and pointed scissors are important for hand embroidery. The gingher 3 1/2 inch embroidery scissors have proven to be very good quality for hand embroidery.

Pair of Tweezers

A pair of precision pointed tweezers are a valuable tool for hand embroidery. They are great for unpicking and for manipulating metal threads in goldwork embroidery.

Embroidery Frame

For the best results an embroidery should be worked in a embroidery frame. The only embroidery techniques that do not have to be worked in a embroidery frame are Hapsburg lace, cross-stitch and needle point. For all over techniques the embroidery should be worked in a frame where there is equal drum tight tension on all four sides of the fabric. The best frames available for hand embroidery are slate frames and stretcher bar frames.

Slate frames are generally used by professional embroiderers who want to spend a lot of time on stitching and also have a frame stand or tressels to support the frame as a slate frame can be heavy and cumbersome. The fabric is sewn into the frame so there is a fair amount of preparation time before the embroidery can be worked.

A very good alternative is a stretcher bar frame. The fabric is pinned onto the frame with thumb tacks along the sides of the frame and it is possible to pull the fabric tight in the frame. Once the fabric is tight in the frame it is not necessary to re-tighten it. The stretcher bar frames are also inexpensive and interchangeable i.e. you can use different length bars together to make rectangles frames and the right size frame to fit the fabric. You also do not require a frame stand to support the frame as a stretcher bar frame is light. You can work at table with the frame or in an arm chair. The most commonly used sizes in stretcher bar frames range from 6 inch to 20 inch.

Other Embroidery Tools

There are a variety of tools that are useful aides for embroidery such as laying tools (to align stitches) needle cases and needle keepers (to keep needles in one place), needle polishers, scissor holders, magnifiers and yazzii craft organizers to store the tools.

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Thanks Tanja

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Address: 1481 Hunterbrook Road NW, Calgary, Alberta T2K 4V4, Canada Telephone: (403) 274 6293  Email: tanja@berlinembroidery.com