In our color-saturated world, there’s something so pristine and timeless about white-on-white. Which is exactly why whitework embroidery is having a moment. If you want to tackle this elegant style of embroidery, here are the basics you need to know.
1. It’s Totally Beginner-Friendly
In its simplest forms, whitework embroidery features familiar stitches like the stem stitch, chain stitch, satin stitch and French knots. So if you already have these mastered, you’re well on your way to making a crisp project with stunning results.
2. It Needs Some Texture
To make whitework embroidery really pop, you want stitches and threads that provide different levels of texture and contrast. But that doesn’t mean your stitches need to be super complicated. Combining French knots, stem stitch, satin stitch and couched cord can create a bold, textured effect without any color.
Good to Know: Another monochromatic embroidery method: goldwork . As the name suggests, it’s created using metallic gold threads and, like whitework, relies on texture and contrast to come to life.
You can also use eye-catching stumpwork techniques, add 3D elements like beading, or try different thread weights to get your design to really pop. A heavy thread (think pearl cotton) will create a chunkier French knot, while a fine one (like a single strand of floss) will produce a delicate, tiny bud. The magic is in the contrast.
3. It Needs the Right Ground Fabric
The go-to fabric choice for whitework is linen. Because most forms of whitework are surface embroidery techniques (as opposed to counted techniques), you want a linen that has a close weave, without noticeable holes between the warp and weft threads. Whitework often relies on dense stitches, and a flimsy or loosely woven fabric simply can’t support them.
If you’re creating very fine whitework, try shadow work linen, handkerchief linen or cambric fabric. For more robust and dense whitework, look for medium-weight linen with a full, close weave.
Cotton is another solid option for ground fabric. In fact, Mountmellick embroidery (a whitework technique from Ireland) relies on cotton sateen. And cotton twill can be terrific for bold, rustic whitework, while cotton batiste makes an excellent ground fabric for very fine whitework.
4. Know the Most Common Threads
When you look at a piece of vintage whitework, it’s likely the threads appear softer, shinier, smoother and maybe even a little thicker than regular embroidery floss. That’s because the maker is likely using coton a broder. The most common thread used for whitework — and also referred to as broder coton or broder special — this mercerized cotton thread is non-divisible which, in simple terms, means it has a visible sheen and can’t break down into separate usable threads.
Coton a broder comes in a skein like regular floss, but unlike its counterpart it’s made of four tiny plies all twisted softly into one thread. (Think of it like pearl cotton, only finer and more loosely twisted.) It’s often available in several weights and thickness, indicated by number — in the U.S., 16 is typically the thickest and 30 the finest.
5. But Don’t Discount Other Threads
Regular stranded cotton, pearl cottons in various weights, cotton floche and cotton cordonnet all work well for whitework. And if your whitework is meant to be laundered, you should always use cotton. Otherwise, your threads (like silks) can be damaged.
If you’re not going to launder your project, stranded silks, buttonhole silk, flat and twisted filament silks all look wonderful in white-on-white embroidery, and the various weights and twists provide intriguing texture.
Don’t forget about linen and wool threads, either. Using them in different weights can be effective for whitework. Plus, at the end of the day, experimenting with different threads helps you develop your own style.
6. You Can Use Any Pattern
Whitework embroidery doesn’t require a special pattern. Start by finding a basic pattern where the thread doesn’t need to contrast (linework is great). Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to turn any embroidery pattern into a gorgeous piece of whitework.