Embroidery – the art of embellishing fabrics and other surfaces such as paper or leather with decorative stitches – has been around forever. With a needle, a bit of thread, something to stitch on, and your imagination, you can add beauty and interest to anything. Add a bright flower to your favorite converse kicks, stitch a heart on the back pocket of your jeans, create something lovely to hang on your wall, make custom throw pillows for your sofa—you can do all this and so much more with a knowledge of hand embroidery basics. Once you get a feeling for how versatile hand embroidery is, you’ll find yourself perpetually with a needle and thread in hand.
There are a variety of different forms of embroidery. One of the most popular and ubiquitous types in the United States is counted cross stitch, a sewing method that places cross stitches in even-weave fabric in a well-defined grid. Cross stitch is fun because the stitch is simple to learn and it’s possible to use color and shading to create intricate patterns. But cross stitch must be done on even-weave fabric, meaning the number of threads running in each direction (warp and weft) must be the same throughout the entire piece of fabric.
Surface embroidery (a vague term often used to refer to any embroidery that isn’t counted cross stitch), however, does not have any such limits. Fabric, of course, of all kinds can be stitched on, from the finest gossamer to the thickest denim and everything in between. But surface embroidery can also be done on paper, leather, and even eggshells!
If you’re interested in developing your embroidery skills, Discover Books is a great place to start. We’ve got a remarkable selection of books that will teach you skills and spark your imagination. You can build a solid library of embroidery reference books for a reasonable price.
I’ve been embroidering for many years. Here are a few titles I have in my personal collection as well as a few that are on my wish list:
Embroidery Stitch Dictionaries
Every stitcher needs a stitch dictionary – or two – by their side to provide instruction and inspiration. By far the finest stitch dictionaries out there are the A~Z series. These gorgeous books are an essential reference for anyone who stitches, beginner or advanced. Color photographs and step-by-step instructions help you learn and master dozens of stitches. You can use these books to improve your stitching and explore different techniques you’ve never tried before. These are technical books designed to teach stitches. Some of the A~Z guides have some projects and include other info about fabric, needles, etc.; it really depends on the book.
The A~Z books have been around for a while and have been published by several different publishers, so you may see the same books with different covers. (Note: A-Z books have become difficult to source. We have limited copies of several with many out of stock. I checked and we do get copies in but they go quickly. Sign up for Notify Me When Back in Stock on our site and we’ll email you as soon as we get one in. Sorry for the inconvenience.) Regardless, the content inside is exceptional. The series includes the following titles:
- A~Z of Bead Embroidery
- A~Z of Crewel Embroidery
- A~Z of Embroidered Flowers
- A~Z of Embroidered Motifs
- A~Z of Embroidery Stitches
- A~Z of Embroidery Stitches 2
- A~Z of Goldwork with Silk Embroidery
- A~Z of Ribbon Embroidery
- A~Z of Stumpwork
- A~Z of Thread Painting
- A~Z of Whitework
- A~Z of Wool Embroidery
- A-Z of Complete Embroidery Stitches
As you can see, you can find an A~Z guide for most any surface embroidery technique you’re interested in exploring. If you’re just getting started, I highly recommend picking up a copy of A~Z of Embroidery Stitches. This book has all the basics. You’ll learn about needles, threads, fabrics, and hoops, as well as receive outstanding instruction on dozens of beautiful stitches. If you only have one stitch dictionary in your library, make this the one.
In my embroidery book library, I have both volumes of A~Z Embroidery Stitches. These stitch dictionaries live full time in my embroidery basket and I reference them regularly. They’re so full of beautiful stiches, they inspired me to embroider this sampler pillow made by playing with the various stitches I discovered in the books.
More Specialized Emboidery Techniques
Beyond the basics of French knots and lazy daisy stitches lies a world of specialized embroidery techniques deserving of their own space on the bookshelf. Here are some books about two of those techniques: thread painting and crewel work.
Thread painting involves using long and short stitch to create intricately shaded, realistic images of flowers, animals, and other subjects. The stich is simple – straight stitches placed side by side in varying lengths – but mastering the shading takes skill and practice. One of the finest artists and instructors out there for thread painting is Trish Burr. Her work is jaw-droppingly beautiful. If you’re interested in this type of stitching, your embroidery library must include any of the following titles from Ms. Burr:
This volume is on my wish list. My own efforts at thread painting have been lackluster; it really is trickier than it looks to get the shading to look natural and not contrived. In this book, Ms. Burr offers her own simple, straightforward methods for achieving the best results. She offers solid instructions, practice motifs, and projects with increasing level of difficulty to help you hone your skills. Best of all, the materials and supplies required to do the projects in this book are readily available; you can pick up a good piece of linen and some DMC floss at your closet fabric or craft store and get stitching quickly.
This book teaches thread painting technique and offers charming small motifs for practice. These miniatures are accessible projects that come together quickly and offer the chance to get more thread painting practice.
Mountmellick is a traditional embroidery technique native to Ireland. It’s worked with white thread on white linen using textured stitches to create contrast. Ms. Burr has taken the whitework Mountmellick style and added a hint of color to create 17 gorgeous patterns that are showcased in this book. I have this book and it’s amazing. The book itself is glorious; the hard cover, glossy pages, and color images are so satisfying. But it’s the projects inside that make this something special. One day I will stitch something from this book and it will be glorious. Until then, I will pull this book out every month or so and dream.
Mastering color is essential to thread painting and no one understands color like Trish Burr. She shares all her knowledge and insights into color, shading, creating contrast, and more in this giant book dedicated to using color in embroidery. DMC floss charts take center stage and are used to describe techniques for shading and developing color schemes for your work. Plus there are a handful of Trish Burr projects as well. This book is definitely on my wish list.
Crewel embroidery was historically worked with wool threads and featured stylized images of flora and fauna. The famous Bayeux tapestry is an example of crewel embroidery. I find crewel work to be very enjoyable. One thing that’s fun about crewel is that it goes quickly; wool threads cover a lot more ground than single strands of cotton floss. If I’m in the mood to stitch something that can easily be finished, I choose crewel work.
Beginner’s Guide to Crewel Embroidery by Jane Rainbow is a great introduction to crewel work. This lovely work gives clear instructions and includes several lovely projects. Ms. Rainbow also includes finishing guides to help you stretch and mount your completed work.
Simply Stitched: Beautiful Embroidery Motifs and Projects with Wool and Cotton by Yumiko Higuchi is a modern approach to crewel embroidery. Ms. Higuchi’s motifs are simple and charming and she uses them to embellish items such as scarves and bags. I love Yumiko’s work and this book is a favorite of mine.
Ideas and Inspiration
Project books are fun and there are some really talented designers out there. Here are just a few books I love:
- Scandinavian Needlecraft: 35 step-by-step projects to create the Scandinavian home, Clare Youngs
- Jane Austen Embroidery: Regency Patterns Reimagined for Modern Stitchers, Jennie Batchelor
- Embroidered Bags & Purses, Sally Milner
- Modern Folk Embroidery: 30 Contemporary Projects for Folk Art Inspired Designs, Nancy Nicholson
- Wardrobe Embroidery: Knit & Embroidery Projects for Upcycling Clothes, Warunee Bolstad
- Zakka Embroidery: Simple One- and Two-Color Embroidery Motifs and Small Crafts, Yumiko Higuchi
- Simply Stitched with Appliqu: Embroidery Motifs and Projects with Linen, Cotton and Felt, Yumiko Higuchi
- Simply Stitched with Embroidery: Embroidery Motifs for Purses and More, Yumiko Higuchi
In addition to project books, you can find dozens of books filled with motifs you can use to create your own projects. Here are some great ones to add to your collection:
- Bead Embroidery Stitch Samples – Motifs, CRK Design, Yasuko Endo
- A Year of Embroidery: A Month-to-Month Collection of Motifs for Seasonal Stitching, Yumiko Higuchi
- Doodle Stitching: The Motif Collection: 400+ Easy Embroidery Designs, Aimee Ray
- 500 Simply Charming Designs for Embroidery: Easy-to-Stitch Monograms and Motifs, E&G Creates Co. Ltd
It’s Time to Stitch
Hopefully this book list has you itching to pick up a needle and thread and try your hand at embroidery. Embroidery is a skill that’s well within your reach, especially if you have the right books to guide your efforts. If I can do it, anyone can. Discoverbooks.com makes it easy to start a new hobby. With prices as low as $3.95 and free shipping available, you can get all the books you need for instruction and inspiration. I know I’m adding a few titles to my cart right now. Shop today and you could be stitching tomorrow.