There are very few things I can do for twelve hours straight. At this age, I doubt that I could even sleep for twelve hours straight if I’d tried, but somehow, for the past month, I’ve found it impossible to stop embroidering. It’s a meditative activity—there’s repetition, and precision, and artistry involved, and I’ve always been a sucker for some fine motor skill exercise.
Some of this craze has to be attributed to the ongoing lockdown, but my love for creating things with my hands has persisted since childhood. After rediscovering my love for crafting while jewelry making in May, I remembered how much I loved cross-stitching as a child and began to practice on some decade-old fabric. Once I got comfortable with that, I decided embroidery was the next step.
In the past month, I’ve gone from knowing nothing about embroidery to selling embroidered masks on Instagram to my friends and followers. Here’s how I got into it.
I started off with nothing but a small sewing kit (which I already owned for minor clothing repair) and old embroidery hoops (4 inch and 6 inch) from my childhood. Then I ordered a pack of 150 colored embroidery floss online and got to work. To keep things organized, I laid out all of the thread in ROYGBIV and shade order and then taped them down with some packing tape. This way, I can roll and unroll these clumps to easily find the colors I’m looking for.
Without much real fabric to work with, I decided to do my first project on this tote from Realisation Par which had started to come apart at the strap, figuring that if I was terrible, it wouldn’t be a crazy loss. I’ve had a bit of a fruit thing lately, so I stumbled upon DMC’s website when looking for fruit patterns. They’ve been a huge resource for me in the learning process and offer hundreds of great patterns for free!
I did already know how to backstitch and straight stitch, but filling shapes was a totally foreign skill set. Coming from cross stitching, where everything is very uniform and clearly marked, it was a little bit difficult to transition to the free-form aspect of embroidery. As you can clearly see above, the whole strawberry was my first ever attempt at a filled shape, which is why it’s a little wonky looking. Luckily, this pattern just called for backstitch, satin stitch, fishbone stitch, split stitch, and french knots, none of which are particularly difficult, so I watched video tutorials on each stitch from Cutesy Crafts (really clear instructions and tips!) to learn.
As for transferring a pattern, that’s where things get a little more tricky. The way I do it is kind of hit or miss, since I just look at the pattern and freehand copy it onto the fabric with pencil by eye. A lot of serious embroiderers will use contact paper for tracing or print out patterns, but I didn’t want to invest in too many materials before knowing what I could do. A regular HB pencil works fine for light-colored fabrics like canvas and cotton. For darker fabrics, I use the Bohin mechanical chalk pencil which has white lead.
After finishing the little fruit array, I felt comfortable enough to start working on a more serious piece. I found a lot of cool floral patterns but didn’t feel ready for all the stitches required there yet, so I picked this orange design for the next tote (this one from Brooklinen, still practicing). This one was much larger, and I made the fatal error of sketching out the design bit by bit as I worked. Clearly, it made my placement as well as proportions of the full design slightly off.
This is still my favorite piece I’ve done to date, but there are slight imperfections that irk me when I look at it. Nearly all of the filling in this pattern required the long and short stitch, which was difficult for me to grasp at first. You can see how the bottom orange isn’t blended very well. I should’ve started with a leaf or something smaller to practice.
Another thing I started to notice was the pulling on the fabric, which isn’t super visible from far away but is pretty apparent up close. To remedy this, I looked into what would help and decided to buy some cutaway stabilizer, which is attached to the back during the embroidery process and, true to its name, helps stabilize the pattern and reduce pulling.
By my third tote, I was ready to tackle a floral design, so I chose this wreath to frame the Brooklinen logo. I actually really enjoyed creating this one, since the small flowers used many different colors and stitches. Variety helps the embroidery process feel less grueling and more fun. (As much as I love the orange tote, it took forever to fill each shape and was pretty brain-numbing to make.)
I learned several more stitches for this pattern and honestly had a blast! But by the end of embroidering this tote, I felt ready to draw and stitch my own designs.
Designing My Own
After seeing other people’s hand-drawn embroidery designs online, I wanted to try doing my own. Rather than risk my own clothing, I asked Chris if he had any shirts that he’d like embroidered but wouldn’t be mad if it was destroyed. He gave me this maroon button down with a front pocket, which was a great place for my design. The material was much thinner than the thick tote canvas I was used to, so I knew I had to use stabilizer to keep the threads from moving too much. (Since then, I now use stabilizer in all of my projects.)
Since Chris has recently become a plant guy and is particularly invested in his peace lily plant, I decided to draw him a sweet little peace lily design. There weren’t many other embroidery examples of this particular plant, so I had to look up images of the actual plant and figure out how I wanted each leaf to fall and face. I sketched this out first in pen on a notepad, confirmed the design with him, and then drew it out onto the fabric. Choosing the stitches I wanted to use was easier—I used split stitch for the stems to give added texture, fishbone stitch for the leaves and flowers, satin stitch for the side-facing leaves, and tiny french knots for the insides of the flowers.
While I was in between projects, I embroidered this little lavender plant onto one of the tote straps and realized I could embroider masks – the hot new accessory of the year – and sell them. Since I had started posting my embroidery on Instagram, people were starting to request commissioned projects and express interest, so once I had this mask idea, I put out a feeler poll on my story to see if it had any chance.
The response was frankly overwhelming, since I expected about five friends to respond and instead got nearly ten times that. Suddenly I had to consider the logistics of selling and shipping my handiwork, as well as whether or not to have an inventory of specific designs. After a few nauseating hours, I decided that I’d create whatever designs I wanted and put them up as one-of-a-kind options for my followers to purchase. This way, I waste less resources and time, since hand-embroidering even a mask can take up to six hours.
I never intended to start selling embroidered masks with profit in mind, since the amount of time required for this kind of project is just astronomical compared to the prices people are willing to pay. During this process, I got a lot of feedback from folks about how to make my “business” more profitable, but to be honest, at this point in time, I’m really not interested in making the focus money. This is simply something I really enjoy doing, and I wanted to share it with people. To be transparent in terms of pricing, when considering materials, packing, and shipping, I’m making a net profit of about a dollar an hour. This is to say, I’m barely breaking even when you take time into consideration—which I am 100% comfortable with right now!
If there’s anything I’ve taken away from the pandemic and lockdown, it’s to care for oneself and others in the best ways you know how. For me, that means making things with my hands and sharing them with people I love.
Currently, I have a huge backlog of embroidery projects upcoming. Not only am I still designing and selling masks, but I’m also working on some gifts for loved ones and some exciting larger commissioned work for friends. I am still accepting custom orders, both for masks and clothing/accessory embroidery—just send me a message or comment on this post and we can hash out the details. I’ve really been loving the collaborative aspect of custom orders, so please don’t hesitate to contact me for something. You can order embroidered masks from my Instagram. New designs drop on Fridays.
Also, if this post has inspired you to take up embroidery or any other stitching-related pastime, please feel free to contact me with any questions and I’ll be happy to pass along resources or recommendations. I highly recommend making things with your hands and soaking in the tactile experience of being alive.