Mirror embroidery, also known as shisha embroidery, involves the application of small mirrors (and other objects) to fabric using decorative stitching.
Photos via Needle ‘n Thread
Shisha stitches are easy to learn and fun to experiment with! The basic concept of mirror embroidery is simple: foundation stitches are sewn over the mirror, and then decorative stitches are looped over the foundation stitches and anchored in the fabric.
Supplies used in shisha embroidery
Mirrors and mirror substitutes
If you’re venturing into shisha embroidery for the first time, you don’t have to use mirrors to practice! I often use a 3/4″ or 1″ hole punch to make decorative card stock disks that are easy to practice with.
You can also use other objects with shisha embroidery. Many embroiderers like to recycle old CDs by cutting them into shapes to stitch onto fabric. Large, flat sequins or paillettes work well, too, as do flat buttons, coins, punched heavy duty foil, mylar mirrors, seashells, or flat or half-dome gemstones.
Traditional shisha mirrors are called mica mirrors, and they are usually imperfectly shaped, a little bubbly, chipped, and very irregular. They’re good to use, if you want to produce authentic-looking shisha. They’re also quite thin, so they don’t add a lot of weight to the embroidery.
Craft mirrors that are available in pre-cut sizes and usually very regular in shape also work well for mirror embroidery. They’re usually much thicker than mica mirrors (or the mylar mirrors that are often substituted for real mirrors), and they can add a lot of weight to a project.
Threads used in mirror embroidery
Any strong thread will work with mirror embroidery. Keep in mind that some objects may have sharp edges, so very fine, delicate threads are not ideal in those circumstances.
With larger mirrors, heavier threads look better. Pearl cotton size 3 or 5 work well with 1″ mirrors or larger, for example. The full six strands of regular floss work well with larger mirrors, too.
With smaller mirrors (1/2″ or 3/4″) – especially small, thin mirrors – finer threads work better, as they don’t overpower and lose the mirror completely. Pearl cottons in size 8 and 12 are good choices, as is buttonhole silk.
Other stitching supplies
Mirrors can be affixed to any type of ground fabric, from delicate, gauzy fabrics to heavier silk and linens, to denim, and everything in between.
It is helpful to work with fabric stretched taut in a hoop or frame. If your project is a large one with lots of mirrors on it, an embroidery frame is a better choice, since a hoop can’t be shifted around the project.
A chenille needle is ideal when working with heavier threads on heavier fabrics. Crewel needles are another option for finer threads and more delicate fabrics. Needles with sharp tips work best.
Now that you know what supplies to use, let’s learn the basics of mirror embroidery!
How to work the traditional shisha stitch
In the following tutorial, I’ll be using pearl cotton #5 in two colors. The foundation stitches are worked in purple and the decorative stitches are worked in pink. Normally, all the stitching would be done with the same color thread so that the foundation threads don’t show up as clearly, but it’s easier to see the stitching process with two colors of threads.
Instead of a mirror, I’m using a 1″ disk punched from cardstock to facility clearer photography.
How to work the foundation stitches
The foundation stitches are worked over the mirror in two square sequences. The first sequence is shown in the chart below. Bring the needle and thread to the front at A, take them to the back at B, bring them to the front at C, to the back at D, etc.
The first sequenced, stitched, looks like this:
Once the first foundation square is worked, a second sequence is stitched on top of the first, as an off-set square, following the diagram below:
This completes the foundation stitches, which should look more or less like this when stitched:
Working the decorative stitches
The decorative stitch around the edge passes from the fabric over the foundation stitches, and back into the fabric. The traditional shisha stitch is a combination of a buttonhole movement and a chain stitch.
Start a fresh thread, and bring your needle and thread to the front of the fabric by any “corner” of the foundation stitches.
Left-handed stitchers might be more comfortable bringing the thread up on the right side of the mirror and stitching clockwise around the mirror.
Right-handed stitchers may find it more comfortable to begin on the left side of the mirror and stitch counter-clockwise.
Take the needle underneath the foundation stitches near your starting point, as shown in the photo above. Make sure to pass under all available foundation stitches.
Bring the needle out over the working thread, as shown.
Pull the stitch snug. This will pull the foundation stitches towards the edge. You don’t have to pull the stitch super tight, but just snug enough to pull the foundation stitches towards the edge a little, so that you can form a neat circle over the foundation stitches as you work around the mirror.
Take the needle and thread down into the fabric just next to (in front of or right behind) the place you first emerged.
Don’t pull the thread all the way through!
Leave a small loop on the front of the fabric, to form the chain stitch.
Moving forward a stitch length, bring your needle up inside the loop, and pull in the thread in the direction you’re stitching around the mirror.
This completes the first stitch.
Now, pass the needle back underneath the foundation stitches and out over the working thread, as shown above.
…and take your needle and working thread down into the middle of the first chain stitch you formed, again leaving a small loop on the top of the fabric.
Come up inside that loop, to make the second chain stitch, pull the thread in the direction you’re moving around the mirror to snug up the chain stitch…
…and then take the needle underneath the foundation stitches again and out over the working thread, to start the third stitch.
Continue stitching in this manner all the way around the mirror, always passing under as many foundation stitches available where you’re taking your stitch.
Here we are, at the half-way point!
Once you get used to the movement of the stitch, you’ll settle into a nice rhythm, and it will work up pretty quickly.
When you come to the point where you can only fit one more stitch on your mirror, it’s time to consider how to end the last stitch, so that the join is invisible.
Pass under the foundation stitches in the same manner as before, coming out over your working thread.
Instead of making the chain stitch at this point, though, pass the needle underneath the very first chain stitch you made when you started around the mirror.
Pull the working thread through behind this chain stitch, and take the needle down into the middle of the last full chain stitch you worked.
Turn the work over and whip your thread around the backs of the stitches to anchor it, and snip it off!
And this is the completed shisha stitch!
From here, you can add more decorative stitches in the fabric around the mirror. You can whip the chain stitch, add some buttonhole stitch, maybe some daisy stitch petals radiating around the mirror — all kinds of possibilities!
If you’re interested in pursuing other shisha stitch variations, I have three additional tutorials for decorative shisha stitches on Needle ‘n Thread, along with some fun explorations of using shisha with beetle wings. (Really, you can attach anything to fabric with shisha stitches — even beetle wings!)