Embroidery 201: Coloring Your Embroidery

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Try Embroidery

I often describe doing embroidery as "Coloring with Thread" and more specifically, to think about working satin stitch as coloring with a very sharp colored pencil.  Turning that one it's head, today I'm going to talk about how to color your embroidery with colored pencils, crayons, and watercolors.

All the coloring implements used in this tutorial are your basic Crayola crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors, which I borrowed from my five year old (like you do). The techniques will work with whatever materials you have on have, but I chose to use the Crayola products because they're inexpensive and widely available - all of which is to say, you don't need fancy art supplies to make these techniques work. 

Skin tones in colored pencil makes the suits "pop"

Skin tones in colored pencil makes the suits "pop"

Skin tone in satin stitch makes a bolder statement

Skin tone in satin stitch makes a bolder statement

If embroidery is like coloring, why would you want to color your embroidery? 

A reasonable question.

One of the great things about embroidery is that is provides a fabulous texture and dimension to your work, but that texture isn't always want you want. For me, this usually happens in regards to skin and backgrounds.  I don't want a heavily textured background, because I want my primary image to "pop." I don't always want to stitch in the skin tone, because it can make the skin look "lumpy". 

Other times, it may just be that your hoop needs a bit more color, and you don't fill like satin stitching inches of sky or dirt. Either way, it's a good technique to have in your toolbox. 

A few things to keep in mind when using any of the three techniques below:

  • Test your color on a corner of your fabric - it may not look the same as on paper.
  • Just because the crayon/pencil/marker/etc says it's washable, doesn't mean that it's totally washable. Once you start coloring, you're probably committed, so keep that in mind and test first.
  • It's  easier to color your fabric before you do the stitching. I'm terrible at following this tip, but it is true.  And if worse comes to worse, you can always cover up a color you don't like with stitching, rather than having to pull out stitching because your watercolors bled. 



  • Crayons give a nice soft color and are easy to blend and build to darker colors.
  • The higher the amount of pigment the better - avoid waxy crayons.  
  • Crayons will pick up on any texture under them including the texture of the fabric. You can use this to your advantage - if, for example, you want a wood grain texture, place your fabric on top of a piece of plywood. If you don't want additional texture, make sure to work on a smooth surface.

Colored Pencils

  • This is my personal favorite, easy to do, hard to screw up. 
  • The fine point of a pencil makes it easier to do detail work, especially if you've already stitched your piece.
  • It won't pick up texture as much as crayon, but tends to create stroke lines. 
  • Build in layers to get darker tones.


The prettiest results are often the trickiest techniques. With watercolor, you're essentially spot-dying the fabric and it can be tricky to control. I literally went through four versions to get this technique right for this tutorial - so try on scrap fabric and don't get frustrated if you don't get it the first time. 

Some tips for success:

  • I'd only recommend watercolor for larger areas.
  • Put a dry paper towel under the fabric - it will soak up the extra fluid and help control the bleed.
  • Try to get your brush as dry as possible when working near the edges of the design.
  • Barely touch the brush to the fabric. A tiny touch is all that's needed for the fabric to wick the fluid/color off the brush.
  • Work from the outside in and start at least a quarter inch out from the line you're trying to color up to. This will give you a chance to figure out how much the fabric bleeds.
  • Embrace the imperfections. Watercolor is going to give a mottled effect - if you want a solid color, go with crayon or pencils. 
  • Let the work dry completely before adding additional layers of color or beginning stitching.

Experiment and Have Fun!

Using traditional art supplies can be a fun way to add color to your embroidery pieces. And don't limit yourself to these three - try markers! Glitter glue! Have a mixed media field day!! 

To get started on the next step of the process, check out the tutorials below or click here for a downloadable PDF of basic stitches

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Transferring Embroidery Patterns to Opaque Fabric

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Generally, when it comes to transferring a printed pattern on to fabric for embroidery, my favorite (easy and cheap) method is to tape it to a window and trace.  But what do you do if you can't see through the fabric, even with a window/light box? 

Enter tracing paper. 

A pretty common notion in the sewing world, my mother taught me to mark my sewing fabric with tracing paper and a jagged edged wheel. For transferring embroidery designs, we'll skip the transfer wheel and use a pen, pencil or stylus to do pretty much the same thing.

Transferring an Embroidery Pattern to Opaque Fabric

To transfer an image to opaque fabric you will need the following:

  • Fabric
  • Embroidery design printed to appropriate scale and facing the finished direction
  • Single-sided transfer/tracing paper in a contrast color (I used double-sided here, because it's what I had on hand. In a pinch, you could rub a piece of chalk generously across a sheet of paper and use that.)
  • A pen, dull pencil, or stylus. Something with a decent point to get details, but not so pointy you poke through the paper.
  • Chalk pencil or water-soluble pen (optional)
  1. Sandwich the transfer paper, chalk side down, between the fabric.
  2. Trace over the pattern using your pen, pressing firmly and going over each line several times as needed to make a clean mark. 
  3. Remove pattern and transfer paper.
  4. The chalk marks can be very light and easy to brush off - if desired, trace over your marks with a chalk pencil or water-soluble marker for a more clear line.

That's it! Easy-peasy, right? 

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Embroidery 101: French Knots, Shading, Blanket Stitch and Finishing

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Today we'll look at more fill stitches, namely the French knot and using satin stitch to blend colors. Then it's on to the last step - finishing your hoop to hang! 


The classic stitch for adding texture, the French knot is a great addition to your stitching vocabulary.


  1. Secure thread at back of fabric.
  2. Bring up needle through fabric at desired position.
  3. With needle pointing away from fabric, wrap thread around shank of needle 2-3 times. (The more wraps, the bigger the finished knot).
  4. Holding onto the yarn tail until it becomes too short, push the needle down through the fabric just next to the spot it came up in. Pull snugly against fabric.

Repeat steps 2-4.

Excellent for eyes, textured fill on things like hair, clouds, sheep.


To create blended or shaded colors, I use "hairy" satin stitch, but instead of using one color for the entire section, I use a contrast color for one or two "rows".

Again, think of it like coloring with a very sharp colored pencil.  Using a single ply will give you a more blended look than 2 or more plys.

To subtly define the individual petals and clean up the edges, I used backstitch to outline each petal in a single ply of the darker shade.


While you could certainly do any number of things with your finished stitching (make it into a pillow, quilt square, a pocket, etc.) my favorite thing to do is frame it in the hoop. 


  1. Using the smaller inner hoop, trace a circle unto some felt and set aside.
  2. Put the inner hoop back on and make sure your finished image is placed where you want it in the hoop.
  3. Run a long line of basting stitches about a 1/2" from the edge of the inner hoop, securing at one end and leaving a long tail.
  4. Pull on the tail to gather the extra fabric around the back of the hoop.
  5. Place the felt circle over the gathered fabric and attach with a whip stitch or a blanket stitch (see below)


So named because it was often used to finish the edges of wool blankets, this is my favorite way to sew two pieces of felt together, or create a tidy edge.

  1. Leaving a long tail, insert your needle back to front about 1/4” from edge of fabric. Pull thread around outside edge of fabric and re-insert in needle at same spot, making a loop. Send your needle sideways under this loop at the top edge of the fabric, grabbing a bit of the fabric to anchor your thread.
  2. Insert needle back to front 1/4” from previous stitch at same distance from edge. Pull needle so thread tail is trapped along edge of fabric. 

Repeat step 2.

For a one-stop guide to all the stitches covered in this series,  click here for a downloadable PDF of basic stitches

Embroidery 101 Hoop finishing .jpg

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Embroidery 101: Stem Stitch, Split Stitch, Chain Stitch, and Satin Stitch

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So the danger of beginning to post a tutorial series before you've taken all the photos for it is after posting the first two sections, you might get a massive paper-cut on your finger, which would make for less than appealing tutorial photos, so you have to wait for it to heal and then you go to Canada on vacation for a week, and then suddenly it's been a month. Or is that just me? 

In any case, today we'll look at the other basic outlining stitches (stem, split, and chain) and start down the rabbit hole that is satin stitch. 

Needles threaded and paper-cut free? 

Let's go!


Stem stitch is my personal favorite outlining stitch. It curves beautifully, and I find it easier to stitch alongside my previous stitch than to evenly split the plys (as in split stitch below). As the name implies, its great for curving lines, like stems (or rivers or hair, etc.). 

1. Make a stitch of desired length.
2. Along the design line, bring up the needle at the center of the previous stitch, pushing the plys of the previous stitch to the side (left or right, but be consistent).
3. Bring needle forward and push down through the fabric at the same stitch length as first stitch.
Repeat steps 2-3.


The split stitch and stem stitch are pretty much two sides of the same coin. They're almost identical to work and can be used in the same way, though they do vary in appearance, with stem stitch having a more twisted rope appearance, while split stitch looks more like a mini chain. 

1. Make a stitch of desired length.
2. Along the design line, bring up the needle in the center of the previous stitch, splitting the plys evenly.
3. Bring needle forward and push down through the fabric at the same stitch length as first stitch.
Repeat steps 2-3.
Excellent for straight or curving lines, thicker borders.


Not a chain of fools, but a lovely stitch for thick lines that work lovely as outlines and (as used here) fill for smaller areas. It's a little more involved than the other outlining stitches, but when used as a line, you get one twice as thick. You can also use a single chain stitch individually as drops, petals or leaves.

1. Bring needle up through fabric, then push back through at same spot, leaving a small loop of desired length.
2. Along the design line, bring needle up through fabric at the base of the loop you just made (on the inside of the loop), then re-insert needle along the design line at the desired length of the loop, trapping the thread tail under the needle and pull tight.
Repeat step 2.


Ah, satin stitch. For so long this was my stitching nemesis. I never felt like I could get it look, well, satiny and my edges always looked a mess. Two things changed this for me:

  1. Practice.
  2. Using 1 ply. 

When you're using a single ply, it's much easier to fill in gaps and make small adjustments and really, it doesn't take all that much longer to do than with multiple plys. 

1. Outline area to fill with an outline stitch. If a large area is to be filled, stitch randomly within fill area to provide padding.  (Both of these are optional)
2. Starting at one side, pull up needle just outside outline stitching and pull across fill area.
3. Push needle down through fabric just outside the outline stitching.
4. Bring up needle on same side as step 2 right next to previous stitch.
Repeat steps 2-4

In general, I'd recommend thinking about working satin stitch as if you were coloring with a very sharp colored pencil. You're going to see the direction of the lines, it's not a blended or smooth as a crayon or a marker, but isn't that kind of the point? 


Is this still satin stitch? I think so. You get a glossy appearance, but I think this looks more natural, like fur, and serves as a great basis for shading, which we'll cover in the next post. 

For "hairy" or "furry" satin stitch, I like to start out making lines in the direction I want in 3-5 different lengths. Because the ends are staggered, you don't have to loop back underneath to the opposite starting point like with smooth satin stitch. Make one "row" of the staggered stitches. When working the next row, start some of your stitches in between the first row stitches and some starting at the end of the first row stitches. Basically, you don't want any clear "lines." Continuing adding "rows" until your area is filled.

In the example above, you can see about three "rows" in the main body of the bee, with one staggered row each for the remaining brown and yellow tail portions. 


When I talk about embroidery, someone will always invariably ask me how to keep the back tidy. The truth is, since I usually hang my hoops on a wall, or use them on a pillow and you don't see the back, I generally don't much care what my backs look like. But, if the back is visibe and you are concerned, my tidy back tips are this:

  1. If you have to move to a spot more than an inch away, cut the thread and anchor it anew in the new location OR
  2. Weave the working thread through the existing stitches (as seen above) until you reach your new starting spot.

That's it, pretty simple! 


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Embroidery 101: Prepping the Hoop, Back Stitch and Fixing Mistakes

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You've got your design on your fabric (either by transfer, drawing or pre-printed designs) and gathered your supplies. Now what? 

First, you've got to get your fabric in your hoop. Embroidery hoops come in two pieces, the outer "open" hoop with a screw closure and the inner closed hoop. Hoops are most often found in wood and plastic. I prefer wooden hoops because of the warmer feel and they make great inexpensive frames, just make sure to get one that is reasonably thick. When possible, I like to fit my whole design in the hoop without having to keep moving it across the fabric, so most of my designs will fit a 6" hoop, which I find the most comfortable to hold. Hoops can also be found in 4", 7", 8" diameters or there are straight edged stretchers for larger projects.  If you're just starting out, a handful of 6-inchers will get you far.

Prepping the Hoop

I generally prefer to put the inner hoop on the back, which I'll show here, but others prefer to do it with the inner hoop on top, try both and see what you prefer! First, loosen the nut at the top to allow the inner hoop to drop out easily.

Place your fabric, design up, on top of the smaller inner hoop. If the whole design fits in your hoop, center it. For larger designs that don't fit the hoop, center the part you're planning to work on first.

Testing the Hoop Tension

Place the larger outer hoop on top, trapping the fabric between the inner and outer hoops. I usually put the screw at the top of the hoop, but place it wherever it will be in your way the least. Pull the fabric tightly around the inner hoop, making sure the design looks even and tighten the screw until the fabric is well-tensioned between the two parts of the hoop. It should have only a slight amount of give and will feel like a drum head when tapped. If it's too tight, you're needle will squeak as you stitch. Too loose and you risk distorting the design. 

Separating Plys

Pick the thread color you wish to work with first and cut a length about 1 yard (36 inches) long, or the distance between your fingers and the center of your chest. If you've used my thread prep tutorial, your thread will already be the perfect length. For this tutorial we're using 6-strand embroidery floss (DMC is the most common brand). If you're using Perle cotton or another tightly twisted thread, skip this step. 

6-strand floss is so-called because it's made of six individual plys that are very loosely twisted together. Depending on the thickness of line you want, you can stitch with up to all six plys for a thick line, to one ply for a very fine line. For most standard stitching, I use 2-3 plys, except for satin stitch (we'll cover it later), which I always work with 1 ply. 

Here, we'll use 2 plys. To separate plys, take the number of plys (2) you wish to use in your dominant hand, with the remaining plys (4) in your non-dominant hand. Pull your hands apart and the floss will begin to form a "Y" shape. It can be helpful to hold the loose end between your teeth to keep the floss from tangling as it separates. 

Back Stitch

Back stitch will get you incredibly far in the world of embroidery. You could do an entire project with the one stitch. It's great for straight lines, text and turning corners.

As it's name implies, back stitch works backward - you put the needle up through the fabric a stitch length away from your previous stitch and the the needled is insert back down by the end of the previous stitch.

Because of this backward nature, it's great to start any stitching line with as it holds the floss in place after a few stitches with no need for knots, simply hold the thread tail with your hoop hand until established. 

Back Stitch:
1. Make a stitch of desired length.
2. Along the design line, bring up the needle the length of one stitch away from previous stitch.
3. Bring needle backward and push down at the end of the previous stitch.
Repeat steps 2-3.

The bee leg shown here is made of four back stitches. A good stitch length will vary by the design, for example, tight curves will require shorter stitches. I generally work most stitches 1/8" to 1/4" long. Try to keep your stitches even (this will get easier with time), but don't worry too much about perfection, you're going for an overall effect and no one is going to look at individual stitches.

Embroidery 101 Tutorial

Fixing Mistakes

If you DO wish to pull out a stitch (or two), simply remove the needle from the thread, use the needle to pick out any wayward stitches, re-thread and carry on. If it's all knotted up, use fine-tipped scissors (like the iconic stork embroidery snips) to cut out the offending stitches and re-stitch. Any offending needle holes can usually be steamed out with an iron. 

I'll go into detail on other outlining stitches in the next post, but until then you can Click here for a downloadable PDF of basic stitches

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Embroidery 101: Transferring a Design to Fabric

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While you can certainly improvise embroidery (and I suggest you do at some point!), to learn, I recommend working an established design. You can do this in three primary ways: draw, trace or transfer or you can purchase a pre-printed design, which are becoming more and more widely available. 

embroidery transfer tools


Draw is exactly what it implies. You draw the design you wish to embroider directly on your fabric. The pro is that you can make the design anything you want, but it can be harder to adjust once you've drawn it without starting from scratch. You can draw on your fabric with a number of tools, (from bottom to top in above photo)

  • A regular pencil (a thin mechanical pencil gives a delicate line). You might be able to erase it, but it is pretty much permanent.
  • A water soluable dressmaker's pencil - you can sharpen to a fine line and erase with water if needed.
  • A water soluable dressmaker's pen - this is a darker line and can be washed out, but is generally thicker.
  • The top tool is a iron-on transfer pencil, which we'll discuss later.

If you're working on a dark fabric, look for white dressmaker's pencils and pens. 


Tracing is my favorite transfer method. You can tweak the design on paper as much as you want beforehand and then when you're happy with the design and scale of your image, you then transfer to the final fabric. To trace, you'll need any one of the tools listed above, plus some painters tape and a bright window (or a lightbox).

Take your final design and tape it up against your window. Tape the fabric over the image, so it is placed where you want. Tape the fabric securely so it doesn't shift as you trace. If it's sufficiently sunny (or you're using a lightbox) you should be able to see the image to trace easily. Using your tool of choice (my preference is the water soluable pencil or pen) trace the entire image, coloring in lines thicker or thinner as the design dictates. 

When you remove the fabric (last image) you should have a light copy of the design to stitch over. 

Iron-on Transfer

I don't really recommend this method, since the marks the transfer pencils make are permanent and, honestly, really hard to see, but it's an available method, so I thought I'd share. 

To do a iron-on transfer, you'll need to print or copy your final image as a mirror of what you want the finished design to look like. That is, any text should be backwards, etc. Using a iron-on transfer pencil, darkly trace your design on the paper. Then using an iron set on medium heat, press the image, traced side down, on the fabric. It will leave a faint pink mark. (Last image - can you see it? Squint really hard.)

Once you've got the image on your fabric, we'll get it in a hoop and start stitching!!

Click here for a downloadable PDF of basic stitches

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Prepping and Storing Your Embroidery Floss - a tutorial

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Embroidery floss is one of those supplies that seems to sneak up on you. I did for me. I'd buy a couple of skeins for a project here, then a half-dozen for another project there. I'll tell myself that I'd wind them onto the little cardboard bobbins, and organize them into binders or boxes, but more often than not I'd pull them from directly from the skeins until I wound up with a tangled mess.

In truth, even when I did bother with the bobbins, I never really cared for them. The floss would get kinked on the card, I'd have to do a bunch of unwinding and re-winding ever time I'd need a new length of floss, and they never stayed put in their binder pages. It was more trouble than it was worth.

Then an acquaintance introduced me to floss braids and it was a gamer changer for me. No special equipment needed, quick and easy to do, and honestly, kind of pretty. And by using the existing label,  I didn't have to rewrite the color code on anything, and spare lengths could be looped back through the label..But the best part was that the thread was already cut into perfect lengths for stitching. 

Like I said, game changer. 

Embroidery Floss Tutorial by Ms. Cleaver
Embroidery Floss Tutorial by Ms. Cleaver
Embroidery Floss Tutorial by Ms. Cleaver
Embroidery Floss Tutorial by Ms. Cleaver
Embroidery Floss Tutorial by Ms. Cleaver
Embroidery Floss Tutorial by Ms. Cleaver
Embroidery Floss Tutorial by Ms. Cleaver
Embroidery Floss Tutorial by Ms. Cleaver
Embroidery Floss Tutorial by Ms. Cleaver


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