Never Be Daunted: Hand Embroidery Pattern & Tutorial

At the start of 2017, I was burned out from motherhood and full of anxiety, and I needed a hobby. Something more active than reading, something that would keep my hands busy, that I could set down at a moment’s notice if necessary. Something relatively cheap. The hobby that fit the bill was hand embroidery. 

Hand embroidery encompasses a wide variety of styles, including the cross-stitch my grandmother used to do. My tastes lean toward more contemporary, less structured stitching. I didn’t know the first thing about getting started, though there are many artists sharing their work on Instagram and Pinterest. I cobbled together my own embroidery practice from studying their finished hoops, watching YouTube demonstrations, and through basic trial and error, and now I regularly stitch up my own designs. 

Hand embroidery is not actually very difficult — a basic backstitch goes surprisingly far — but it’s most likely not a skill that was passed down to you. While there’s been a resurgence of this old domestic art (sometimes with cheeky or subversive twists), it can still seem like a medium that one can’t just jump into without instruction. Several friends of mine have expressed an interest in learning, so I’ve put together this free pattern and tutorial to introduce you to this lovely art. And bonus: it’s one of my favorite personal affirmations, “Never be daunted,” with a simple heather wreath. You’ll learn some essential backstitching and satin stitching techniques as well as the basics of transferring a pattern and starting a hoop, and at the end, you’ll have your very own piece of uplifting wall art. 

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First: supplies. You’ll need a hoop, embroidery needle, embroidery floss, fabric, scissors or snips, and a pencil or water soluble pen. A basic wooden hoop from your local craft store is about $2. DMC owns the market on 6-strand cotton floss (embroidery thread), and you can buy small skeins in a wide array of colors, usually for less than 50 cents apiece. The colors in my sample are white (DMC B5200), navy (DMC 939), and green (DMC 3817). A huge range of fabrics works for hand embroidery, from denim and canvas to felt and velvet, but for this project, I suggest a basic quilter’s cotton or muslin, which you can find for about $5/yard or less. You’ll need a couple more inches than the area of your hoop. I chose an earthy mustard yellow. To transfer the pattern by tracing, which is the method I use, you’ll want to be sure you select a light-colored and/or thin fabric that you can see the pattern through. 

Download and print the pattern. It’s available in 5, 6, 7, and 8”. The sample I made for this tutorial is 5”. The lettering, however, will be less delicate and easier to stitch in larger sizes, so for a beginner, I suggest going bigger. 

The first step after getting your supplies is to iron and cut out your fabric, then place it over the smaller ring of the hoop, sandwiching it under the the bigger ring. As you tighten the screw at the top of the hoop, tug the fabric taut. We will trace the pattern by flipping the hoop to the backside, so the fabric can be laid flat face-down. We will mark the fabric facing the inside of the hoop, not the outside, which means when you first set up the hoop, if your fabric has a “right” side, you want it to be facing in instead of out. After tracing, we will re-feed the hoop the opposite way, but this allows you to draw against a flat surface. (There are certainly other methods for transferring patterns, which I invite you to try, but this is my go-to, so here you go.)

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Find a window during daytime, allowing sunlight to shine through the printed pattern and the fabric. Yes, this is very rudimentary, but it works. Trace the pattern onto the fabric using a water soluble pen, chalk, or a pencil. I prefer a pencil so I have better control, but keep in mind that any markings you don’t stitch over will be visible if you use pencil. Thin marks are smart. You’ll see in my pictures that I traced all but the very small tick marks on the bushy part of the heather. I did so knowing that I’m comfortable free-stitching those and because it can be tedious to make every tiny mark, but if you prefer to adhere strictly to the pattern, make all the marks. 

Remove your fabric from the hoop and flip it over, lining up the ring impressions and centering the top screw (so it will hang straight when you’re finished). Now the design on your fabric faces up on the front side of the hoop. Keep the fabric taut as before, and be sure you don’t skew the design by stretching too far in any direction. 

Begin with a green floss of your choice for the heather wreath. A length of a couple feet is good to start with. After cutting it, I separate my floss into three strands rather than using the full 6 because I prefer being able to make finer, more delicate stitches. This is particularly important for the lettering in this pattern, which is quite thin. If you don’t want to separate your floss, I recommend using the largest pattern size. (My high-tech method for separating without tangling the floss is to split the ends of the strand, then clamp one half in my mouth while pulling the other half away with one hand and keeping the long, 6-stranded end taut. It will twist apart as you pull, and if you don’t anchor all three parts, it’s very easy to tangle. Is this the official, textbook way to do this? Probably not, but it works.) 

Feed your 3-strand floss through the eye of an embroidery needle. Again, the high-tech method of preference here is to wet and flatten the ends by pressing your lips around it. Yes, there is a good chance if you buy embroidery from someone their saliva has touched it. I’m told there are other ways to do this if that grosses you out. Google is your friend. Anyway, pull at least a few inches through, leaving it free. Take the other end of the floss and knot it so your first stitch doesn’t pull right through.

You’re ready to start stitching. We’ll use a basic backstitch for most of this piece. From the underside of the fabric, pierce your needle up through at the start of the heather stem. The length of your stitches should be somewhere between a half- and a whole centimeter. The important thing is to try to keep them as uniform as possible, whatever length you decide. Smaller stitches will lie tighter to the fabric, which means your markings are less likely to be visible. They are also better able to capture smooth curves. Following the line of the heather stem, pierce the needle back down through the fabric at the length you’ve chosen. Your next stitch will come up again at the same distance along the line. This time, pierce it back down through the same hole at the end of your first stitch. This makes a backstitch. From this point forward, your needle will come up one stitch-length away from the end of the last stitch, and it will go back down in the hole at the end of that same previous stitch. Finish the curve of the heather stem.

Next, do single backstitches for each of the small tick marks which make up the bushy part of the plant. Backstitch the small stems that branch off for the flowers and buds. I recommend beginning your stitches away from the stem you’ve already made and working back toward it so that your needle can go down precisely at the edge of or just beneath the thread already there. It’s harder to feed a needle up under the stem without catching a strand. 

Do all the green before changing colors. If you run out of thread, turn to the backside of the hoop, feed the needle under one of the stitches there, and tie off a knot. Clip the end short. Then refeed your needle with a new strand. Be sure, as you stitch, that your shorter “tail” of thread (the non-knotted end) doesn’t become part of your stitches, or it will double up the thickness. Part of the reason you want this tail is that, if you make a mistake and need to remove a stitch, you can easily slip the needle off the end of the thread, pull the thread back through, then refeed the needle and continue on. 

I did the lettering next, which uses a backstitch and some satin stitching to fill out the fuller parts of the lettering. This is the most important portion of the piece to remember to split your 6-strand floss into 3 strands. The NEVER BE portion is comprised of simple backstitches, two side-by-side for each leg of the letters. Try to start and end these stitches right next to each other. (For the B, use shorter stitches to capture the curves.) 

Backstitch the lettering of DAUNTED, using a single line for the narrow parts and outlining the wider parts of the letters while keeping close to the edges of the letters and using very small backstiches to capture the curves. You will double back after you outline to lay side-by-side stitches over the thick parts of the letters. Start with your needle coming up just outside the outline of the letter and pierce it back down right outside the outline across the letter. Start from the top and lay your stitches as close to each other as possible, working your way down. This makes a smooth satin stitch. The lettering on this pattern is very thin, which means you won’t have to do a lot of satin stitching, but it is quite fine. Go slowly. The more precise you are in stitching right outside your outline, the better. Keep the stitches parallel as well. You can run them straight across or at a diagonal as you like. For the thinner parts of the letters, simply use your basic backstitch. I’ve found that dark blue or black floss hides any imperfections better than white. 

The flowers and buds use a similar satin stitch. Switch your floss to white (or another color of your choice). If you wish, outline the flowers in small backstitches first to be sure you lay your stitches precisely. I find that outlining first can make the pointy parts less sharp, however. After my first flower, I switched to satin stitches without outlining. I also like to allow my stitches to overlap a bit on the flowers for better texture, angling them as though each small section is a petal. This is something you will develop a feel for, just as a natural stitch length will eventually require less mental measuring. 

And there you have it, a beautiful piece of handmade art. You can remove the fabric and frame it or keep it in the hoop. I like to finish the back of the hoop by running a straight stitch through the outer border of the fabric to gather it. There are many other methods for finishing a hoop. Perhaps that can be another tutorial! (But you can Google in the meantime.)

If you use this pattern, I’d love to see the end result. Tag me on Instagram @microaffections. I’m also happy to answer questions if you hit a snag. Happy stitching!