I was enamored with embroidery from an early age. Before I was old enough to handle a needle, I tried to embroider paper towels with yarn and a knitting needle (word to the wise: it didn’t work).

Once I was a little older, my mom gave me the Simple Embroidery book by Klutz. From then on, I was basically self-taught. I used to practice my designs on scraps of fabric from my childhood curtains using the neon green, plastic embroidery hoop that came with my book.

After a long hiatus, I picked this hobby up again when I was staying at home with my family during the pandemic. As an adult, embroidery is a great way to unwind from a long day; it keeps my hands busy (and away from my phone) and my mind free.

If you want to try your hand at this fun and relaxing hobby, here are a few tips to get you started.

Choose the right materials

For your first project, you will need:

  • Fabric. I recommend working with tightly woven cotton. Avoid anything with stretch to it; the extra “give” in the fabric can warp your design.
  • Needles. Find a pack of needles labeled for embroidery, with multiple-sized “eyes” (the opening at the top of the needle that the thread goes through).
  • Embroidery floss. Floss is basically just multiple strands of thread, held together in a “skein” or a loop. It comes in different kinds of fibers. Cotton is probably your best option, since it comes in lots of colors, and it’s very cheap. Silk is another nice option.
  • Hoop. These are the wooden (or plastic) circles that you use to hold the fabric taut while you embroider. The basic bamboo option is affordable, and it looks really nice as a frame, if you want to hang your project when you’re finished. Pick a size hoop that is larger than your intended design to make sure you have plenty of room to work.
  • Interfacing. If you are planning to embroider a garment or to wash your project when you are finished, it is a good idea to add some iron-on interfacing to the back of the fabric when you are all done.

Try a pattern first

There are several options when selecting a design. You can opt to freehand, which is just what it sounds like: no pattern to follow, just eyeball it.

Alternatively, you can trace a design on the fabric. Tape up a picture of your pattern on the window, tape your fabric overtop, and trace with a pencil. However, if your fabric is too thick or too dark for this method, you can print the design on transfer paper and iron it onto your fabric.

Prepare your materials

Once you have prepared your design, it’s time to prep your materials.

First, place your fabric in the embroidery hoop. Twist the hardware on top of your hoop to loosen the outer ring. Sandwich your fabric between the two rings and press them together. The fabric inside should now be flat. Tighten the hardware to hold the whole thing together. The fabric should be snug, but not stretched; otherwise it will warp your design.

Next, it’s time to pick your needle. The bigger the eye, the more thread that can fit through, and the bigger the hole your needle will make. If your fabric is thin and delicate, a big hole could tear your fabric. If your fabric is thick, it will be near impossible to poke through with a small needle. I recommend experimenting with a scrap of your fabric to figure out what size works best.

Finally, choose the number of threads you will need. Regular embroidery floss includes six threads. However, when you cut the floss, you can always separate the threads to only use one or a few of them. Too much floss, and the fabric will lose the tension necessary for you to pull your needle through. Too little, and you will be able to see the hole that the thread comes out of. Trial and error is key; you’ll develop a second sense for the right needle to thread ratio with time.

Get stitching

Once your tools are ready, it’s time to stitch. Cut yourself a long piece of floss, separate the threads you need, knot one end. Then thread the other end through the eye of the needle. (If you struggle with this step, try using a needle threader, or just lick the thread first—it’s gross, but effective.) Now take your needle, and push it up through the fabric from the back side of your piece (the side with the smaller hoop).

Now you are ready to start embroidering! It’s easier to learn the basics from images or video. I recommend checking out tutorials like this one on YouTube or picking up a “how-to” book. Whatever stitches you use, the important thing to keep in mind is that practice makes perfect. I recommend doing a mock-up with some extra fabric and floss before you commit to your “final draft.” Leonardo Da Vinci did practice sketches, so don’t stress if your first attempt at a project isn’t quite right.

What next?

Once you finish your project, chances are, you will want to put it on display. Keep in mind that embroidery is made out of natural fibers. Your piece needs to be exposed to the air so the fabric can “breathe” (and not turn yellow or musty), and it will fade if it is left in direct sunlight for too long. Swap out what you put on display to preserve your work.

If you want to frame your design in its original hoop, try backing it with felt to protect (and hide) the back of your pattern. If you would rather mount the design in a board or in a frame, I recommend leaving off the glass so that the fabric can breathe. Finally, if you need to put your project into storage, keep it somewhere cool and dark in an archival box that will let air circulate (no plastic bins!). These cardboard document boxes are an affordable and pretty option.

The great thing about embroidery is that it is easy to learn, and there is always more to learn. So grab a needle and thread, and give it a go!