A photo of an embroidery project.

Thread by Thread: Why Embroidery Should Be Your Next Art Project This Summer

Stitching can be the perfect hobby for anyone who wants to enjoy a moment of tranquility in the midst of daily stresses.
June 11, 2021
11 mins read

Another summer is here, COVID-19 has yet to fully disappear and sourdough, Pelotons and virtual worlds are so last year. This sunny season, try embroidery — an activity for everyone with a free moment of time. Whether you are on the go or staying at home, love fashion and sustainability or are just looking for an inexpensive and fulfilling hobby, everyone can benefit from the joys of embroidery.

Hand embroidery is an antique way to embellish fabric using a needle and thread. For millennia, people used hand embroidery to decorate, mark and mend their clothes, shoes, religious objects and household belongings. Embroidery comes from the French word “broderie,” meaning embellishment. It has existed ever since fabric was a thing, and can be traced all the way back to the Cro-Magnon days of 30,000 B.C. This tradition has lasted so long partly due to the numerous personal, environmental and artistic benefits that it brings.

Embroidery Is a Personal Art

Embroidery is more than just pretty petals: It can be a subtle and creative way to display your brand, your art or even your political beliefs on everything you own. There’s an embroidery style and technique for every taste: from classic Crewel and opulent Goldwork — yes, embroidery with gold threads — to bold 3D pieces, embroidery is far more than just dotted lines. You can even mix traditional and modern embroidery to create an unconventional design that’s uniquely you. It’s a quiet activity that only needs a few moments of peace and calm, but you can also listen to an audiobook or watch a movie at the same time. Embroidery can be more engaging than you think — once, while swept up in a particular design, I blew through the entire “Lord of the Rings” series without even realizing it.

Embroidery Can Be Practical, Not Just Ornamental

A painting is useful for decorating a wall and collecting dust. Banana bread is eaten and forgotten the next day. But with embroidery, you can wear it, carry it around on your backpack, walk around in it or even sleep on it. Yes, painting and baking can be easier and will yield faster results (disclaimer: embroidery is not suitable for the impatient); however, paint is messy, and cleanup is oftentimes the worst part of most hobbies.

Cloth and thread, on the other hand, are clean, dry and warm, both literally and figuratively. It’s comforting — it draws you in with promises of hours of tactile wonder and familiarity. Embroidery has a wide range of possibilities. Use it as a fine art medium and create realistic or impressionistic pictures. Fix the hole in your favorite jeans with a cute stitched bandage or cheeky phrase. Mark your items and stop your roommate from stealing your towels with monogrammed initials.

But probably the best part of embroidery is that you can take your hobby with you, wherever you go. Long bus rides and flights, awkward family reunions and dull graduations, grocery lines, toilet breaks, beach vacations, dorm life, hotel room stays and camping trips all suddenly become much more entertaining and calming if you bring a needle and thread along. Embroidery tools and materials — a needle, cloth, a hoop and thread — can be minimal enough to fit in your pocket, with no preparation needed beforehand.

Embroidery is also a cost-saving measure — personalized or hand embroidered designer clothes are expensive. But once you learn how to embroider by hand, it’s all over for Gucci and their $680 embroidered bee sneakers. And you can forget about the holiday gift-giving stress — a handmade present beats store-bought items any day, from matching tote bags to greeting cards to personalized baseball caps. There is nothing more sweet and wallet-friendly than a handmade present.

Furthermore, once you learn simple hand embroidery and mending techniques, you can darn, adjust and upgrade your wardrobe, decreasing the need to buy trendy apparel or accessories. Hand-stitching is the ultimate sustainability measure. Your clothes become more precious when you pour time and care into their construction. Hand embroidery uses a small amount of natural, sustainable materials like cotton and silk threads, linen fabrics and fabric scraps, which means minimal carbon emissions and electricity consumption. There isn’t a more eco-friendly choice for a hobby.

Embroidery Is a Healthy Hobby

Embroidery is an art form that is not only beneficial aesthetically, but also emotionally and physiologically. Needlework has been recognized as an effective means of therapy since World War I when soldiers stitched as part of their rehabilitation process. For senior citizens especially, embroidery is an activity that can keep brains agile and fingers dexterous, as proven through medical studies. It’s sufficiently challenging, too. Threading one strand through the slim eye of a needle is ambitious enough, but six or even 12 threads — which embroidery often calls for — is positively Herculean. Being able to follow or create a certain pattern or design can also boost creativity.

And, as with many hobbies, embroidery can relieve stress and anxiety by the very nature of the art. Embroidery asks for a peaceful moment of time — a time that is difficult to find in a digital generation that’s always working, always on the move. Embroidery offers an opportunity to tune out the noise and the chaos, to enjoy the meditative in-and-out movements and the soothing susurrations of the thread through the cloth. When a person’s focus is narrowed down to just what’s in his or her hands, the body and mind will calm down. And, of course, the sense of accomplishment that results when a piece is finished proves to be incredibly satisfying, a feeling crucial to our well-being as humans.

Anyone Can Stitch!

Starting a new hobby is usually an investment of time, effort and money before you can see real results. I’m happy to announce that embroidery requires only one of these. No more buying a long list of expensive materials and tools! No need for costly, grueling lessons with a condescending teacher! It’s enough to have a needle, thread and a piece of fabric, which can be found literally anywhere and for under a dollar. A hoop is useful for making crisp designs and for framing your work but isn’t absolutely necessary.

Further, hand embroidery is easy to learn — all you need to start embroidering are a few simple stitches, such as the running stitch, satin stitch and stem stitch, which you can then use to unlock almost every design. YouTube tutorials are your best bet for learning how to hold and thread a needle, how to create basic stitches and how to manipulate the embroidery fabric inside and outside the hoop. Some great ones include this beginner tutorial by Craftsy and this follow-along tutorial and explanation by Chloe Wen.  For those looking to embroider along with someone, Diana Vingert is a popular YouTuber that has millions of views on her ASMR-like tutorials that can be a soothing presence as you embark upon your own embroidery expedition.

For those with some experience, there are tons of resources available to learn new stitches and techniques. DMC, a renowned embroidery supplier that has been around since 1746, has over 700 free patterns to choose from, as well as pages upon pages of inspiration. Fruits, forests, famous landmarks and flowers are just a few of the many categories. You can also conveniently buy the included kit of the design that has all the necessary threads and colors, as well as add-on accessories like hoops, scissors, needles and transfer paper — all available on their website.

Embroidery is much like falling in love — slowly, then all at once. For beginners, it might be a bit frustrating and slow at first, but if you stick with your needle and thread it’ll grow to be much easier and more enjoyable. Like love, embroidery is a mystery that unfolds, stitch by stitch, in pleasurable anticipation. So, get stitching!

Karen Lu, Yale University

Writer Profile

Karen Lu

Yale University
Economics, Global Affairs

Karen Lu hails from Florida, but her favorite place is Shanghai for the food stalls every five meters. When she’s not juggling her double majors, she can be found writing for publications and fan fiction equally.

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