When it comes to hand embroidery, I’ve noticed that stitchers are really enthusiastic about their tools! Needlework tools often become the focus of the collector in many of us. We end up amassing a slew of tools that make our stitching more efficient or simply more pleasurable.
But sometimes, especially for beginners just getting into embroidery, the overwhelming amount of tools and accessories available can be a bit daunting. It can also be a real turn-off, because it makes embroidery seem like a hobby that’s complicated or expensive.
Images via Needle ‘n Thread
In fact, there are very few essential hand embroidery supplies. If you strip necessities for embroidery down to the bare minimum, really, all you need is a needle. You can cut thread with your teeth, after all!
For embroiderers who are just starting out or just beginning to explore embroidery a little deeper, here’s a list of five essential tools to help make your embroidery better, more efficient, or just more pleasurable. Want even more? Check out our resources for beginner hand embroiderers!
The right needle for the job
The most basic tool involved in hand embroidery is the needle. Any needle can draw a piece of thread through fabric, but certain types of needles do certain jobs better.
Using the right needle for the job will not only make embroidery less frustrating for the beginner, but it will deliver better end results. In other words, your embroidery will look better if you use the right needle!
To get started out in embroidery, I recommend having three types of needles on hand.
1. The crewel needle
The crewel needle (pictured on the left, above) is a sharp-tipped needle with a medium-long eye slightly larger than the shaft of the needle. The crewel needle is the basic embroidery needle.
The long eye helps accommodate embroidery threads. The sharp tip of the needle helps the needle pierce through tightly woven ground fabrics more easily.
Crewel needles come in sizes 1 through 12, with 1 being the largest and 12 being the smallest.
Add Dimension to Your Hand Embroidery
2. The tapestry needle
The tapestry needle (pictured in the center above) has a shorter shaft compared to a crewel needle, but it has a much longer eye, which is also slightly larger than the shaft. Its tip is blunt.
Tapestry needles are commonly used in counted cross stitch and needlepoint, because the blunt tip does not pierce the ground fabric, but allows the needle to pass easily into the open holes in the weave of the fabric.
In surface embroidery, tapestry needles are the perfect tool for any type of stitch that involves whipping or lacing. The blunt tip prevents the needle from snagging other stitches on the fabric.
Tapestry needles are available in sizes 13 through 28, with 13 being the largest (it’s huge) and 28 being exceptionally fine. Tapestry needles are also available in standard length and in petite length. Tapestry petites are much shorter, allowing the stitcher to get as much use out of an embroidery thread as possible.
3. The milliner needle
The milliner needle (pictured on the right, above) has a shorter, almost-round eye, a very long shaft, and a sharp tip.
The eye and the shaft on a milliner needle (also called a “straw” needle) are the same size, which makes the milliner needle perfect for working any wrapped stitches like bullion knots, French knots or cast-on stitches.
With wrapped stitches like bullion knots and French knots, the fact that the eye and the shaft of the needle are the same size makes it easy to pull the milliner needle through the wraps. So if you’ve tried French knots, bullions knots or cast-on stitches and have had bad luck with them, try a milliner needle! It makes these stitches so much easier to work, and they’ll look better, too!
Milliners are sized like crewel needles (although there are some brands that offer a different numbering).
Most embroidery-related needles are available in assortment packages. For example, you can purchase crewel needles in packages of assorted sizes 1-5, 3-9, and 5-10. To have a variety of sizes available while you stitch, consider purchasing assortments rather than a single size.
Embroidery hoops and frames
An embroidery hoop helps to keep your embroidery fabric nice and taut, so that your stitching does not pucker the fabric and so that your embroidery does not come out warped.
A hoop is not absolutely essential for some types of stitching, but in general, especially for beginners, a hoop will help your embroidery look its very best.
When considering an embroidery hoop, there are different types on the market. The plastic hoops at craft stores are fine for starting out. But eventually, you might want to graduate to a good wooden hoop.
Unlike the cheaper wooden hoops found at local craft stores, a good wooden hoop will have sturdy brass hardware on it that can be tightened with a screw driver, the two rings will fit together perfectly, and the wood will be very strong and as smooth as glass.
Besides hoops, there are various types of embroidery frames that can hold your ground fabric taut while you stitch a project. Stretcher bar frames, slate frames, scroll frames, and other types of frames are often used instead of hoops, but the hoop is less expensive and more portable.
One trick that helps keep your fabric under good tension while embroidering and that also helps protect your fabric and your stitching is to bind the inner ring of the hoop with twill tape. This tutorial for binding the inner ring of an embroidery hoop will show you how it’s done. Binding the hoop only works on wooden hoops; it does not work on plastic hoops that have a lip on the upper edge.
Scissors for hand embroidery
A good pair of hand embroidery scissors is the stitcher’s best friend.
Embroidery scissors are different from regular craft scissors. They have smaller and usually thinner blades, they normally come to a very sharp point, and the blades are sharp. Most embroidery scissors are around 3.5” - 4” in total length, with blades that range from 1” - 2.5” long.
The advantage of small, sharp scissors for the embroiderer are many, but primarily, the point of using embroidery scissors is that they can get really close to the ground fabric for cutting the threads cleanly.
Embroidery scissors range in price, from inexpensive to very, very expensive. Although you don’t have to break the bank to own a decent pair of embroidery scissors, it’s worth investing in a good pair that will last a lifetime, if well cared for.
Good lighting and magnification
While magnification is not necessary for everyone, good lighting is essential for embroidery. Good lighting reduces eye strain and it helps the embroiderer see detail better.
Craft and sewing stores carry a variety of good lighting options. If you can’t invest in a good craft light, though, a sunny window will work, or a sunny porch in good weather.
If your vision is not great, you don’t have to forego the pleasures of hand embroidery! A magnifier can help you enjoy needlework without straining your eyes.
Even embroiderers who have great eyesight can make good use of a magnifier or magnifier/light combination. Detail work, miniature embroidery and some types of embroidery like needlepainting can turn out better with magnification. When shopping around for magnifiers for needlework, look for a local needlework store. They often have a variety of floor models that you can test before making an investment.
Storage for embroidery projects
Once you’ve started an embroidery project, it’s a good idea to have a storage option available for your supplies.
Having a dedicated container for your embroidery will help keep your project supplies organized and your embroidery projects clean. Choosing a container that’s light and transportable allows you to grab your embroidery project and take with you, too, for your morning commute or your holiday road trip.
For individual projects, I like zippered mesh bags that come in different sizes and that can be found at local needlework shops or hobby shops.
But even a simple Ziplock bag will do the trick!
Choose a storage option — whether it’s a Ziplock bag, a sewing box, a tote — that will accommodate your hoop or frame, any instructions that might be necessary, threads (which you can slide into a smaller ziplock bag, to keep neat), scissors (preferably in a sheath, to protect the tips and your project) and a container for your needles. I like to slip a variety of needle sizes into a small needlebook with felt pages and tuck it into my project bag.
What about you?
There are many, many other tools and accessories for hand embroidery, but these five — the right needle, a hoop or frame, scissors, lighting and magnification, and a storage container — will afford any embroiderer with the necessities to start a project.
But what about you? Do you have any particular tool or accessory that you consider essential for the hand embroiderer, especially for those just starting out? If you think of anything I’ve missed that would be helpful for new stitchers (and beyond!) to know about, feel free to leave a comment below!