Embroidery For Beginners: Tools of the Trade

5 Tools You Need to Start Embroidering

Disclosure: This post contains some affiliate links and some not, but all I genuinely stand behind and use.

Disclosure: This post contains some affiliate links and some not, but all I genuinely stand behind and use.

My favorite way to up breath new life into old clothing is hand embroidery! With phrases like Konmari (Marie Kondo Method), sustainable fashion, refashioning, and up-cycled fashion becoming more and more popular people are looking for simple ways to add some panache to well-loved or thrifted items, enter: hand embroidery.

There are a million and one different ways that you can use simple basic embroidery stitches to update your clothing. I’ve been embroidering on clothing for 5 years now and if there is one thing I can say about hand embroidery on clothing it is: less is more. Simple designs are not only less time consuming, they add that little bit of extra to an item. There’s no need to go over board. Below are some of my favorite simple designs.

Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about tools of the trade. Luckily hand embroidery isn’t too cost prohibitive, and BONUS because it has been around for ages and everyone’s grandma has embroidered before, you can find some of the essentials at…drumroll plz…the thrift store!!! Some of my favorite hoops I have found at the thrift store AND I found a bag of embroidery floss at the thrift store that I used to embroider for the first time (after I tried to re-learn how to make friendship bracelets from 12 yr olds on YouTube and quit #truestory). Now I’m not encouraging you to seek all of these items out at a thrift store, but I am suggesting that you take a peek in the odd & ends area of your favorite thrift store. You can usually find hoops, thread, patterns, zippers, fabric and all sorts of other awesome sewing items from the past.

Thrift Store Embroidery Finds

Thrift Store Embroidery Finds

Hoops: Most embroiderers prefer a 3 ply bamboo hoop with metal screws, and I agree with them it is a nice hoop to use when you can find them. The only hoop I consistently use like that are the 3” hoops that I buy from JoAnn’s. I have also used plastic embroidery hoops (and buy them for my workshops) you can find them here, I find that they are also pretty durable. What I think are a better deal and will get you more bang for your buck is this assorted pack of bamboo hoops (here) that range from 4”-10”. I use my 4” hoops for smaller text on shirts, bandanas and small little details. I use the 6-10” hoops for larger back pieces where I do not want to move around the hoop as much and distort my embroidery. My one warning for beginners with hoop size is that the larger the hoop, the more difficult it is to hold and work with. When working on clothing, you usually can’t utilize the hoop stands, so you’re going to want to use something that is comfortable to hold. As for thrifted hoops (pictured above) my favorite to use have been the metal tension hoops, meaning there aren’t screws but springs. They are a litter easier to hoop and I feel are more sturdy than the new stuff we find these days… that just might be my unwavering “things were made better back then” old lady mantra talking there, but it is my opinion.

Needles: I have used a fair number of needles in my day and my favorite by far are the DMC embroidery no. 5 needles. They are strong, sharp, and I can punch through fabrics like denim and even the brim of a hat with out too much trouble. There are also larger eye alternatives for those who are just getting started and do not have “young eyes” as my kids call them. These large eye needles are the ones that I have used, they are not as sharp and take a little more effort punching through fabrics, but they get the job done and are easier to thread.

Space embroidered thrifted jeans

Space embroidered thrifted jeans

Scissors: So there is some controversy over scissors, what kind you need, how cute they need to be, and should you spend money on them or not. I’m team both. I have some cuteAF scissors (Pictured above shop here), some really good/sharp/fancy ones with a sheath (shout out to my MIL for the awesome gift) and I also use my Fiskars nippers when they are handy. As long has you have small sharp scissors you’re good! There is also the classic bird ones that also coveted and useful (again, not needed but you can find them here).

Hand embroidered vintage pearl snap.

Hand embroidered vintage pearl snap.

Marking Utensils: I have had quite the evolution and trial and error with ways to transfer or draw on fabric. I think I’ve really nailed it down now so here are my top choices. My number one pen that I use all the time now is the Pilot FriXion erasable gel pen. This pen is AWESOME!!! It disappears when you touch heat to it, like an iron, and is washable & erasable. I always tell my class that your work is only as good as your line, and this pen gives you a clear concise line, bonus it’s not permanent like other ink. I also use a blue fabric pen that disappears when washed, which is good for marking out where you want to work or guidelines for text. One other gold mine of a tool I have stumbled upon in my quest to find something that SHOWS UP ON DARK FABRICS! I have tried many many pens, and white markers and nothing really shows up. I’ve even resorted to drawing in pencil on black fabric, and sitting by a light embroidering on the shimmery parts. This tailors marking pencil is the only thing i have been able to find. Fair disclosure it is not perfect, or is it precise, but it works. Do I think you’ll knock out a fully detailed master piece on black denim? Probably not, but you can for sure write some text out and embroidery it, or trace out a simple outline.

Embroidered Texas bandana.

Embroidered Texas bandana.

Thread: I’m not going to go too much into detail here, I pretty much just use DMC embroidery floss. It is what they sell at my local craft store and from my experience have the best colors, and do not fade or bleed when washed over and over again. I would not recommend using unknown sold in a pack of 100 for $12 thread on clothing if you have never tested it out in the wash before. I have had thrift store red thread bleed all over a white shirt and I learned my lesson fast, goodbye hours of work.

Sun embroidered bell bottoms

Sun embroidered bell bottoms

Extras: These are a few extra things that you do not need to get started but will certainly help ya out once you get going.

Transfer Markers: My recommendations are Sulky markers and Sublime Stitching’s marker. I like the Sulky markers because they definitely work, but they do leave a solid thick line. You can make the line finer with less pressure, but I use some templates over and over again and I find they get a little thick, but they work well and they are permanent, all of them are FYI. Sublime Stitching’s marker also works as described. It is a fine tip, which I really love because you sometimes you can still see the thicker lines around the embroidery, but I will say it is a fairly faint line. I can get more transfers out of the Sulky markers, but I kind of prefer the fine tip one. It depends on how you are using the marker that will determine which is your favorite. More transfers with sulky, more detail with Sublime Stitching but less transfers.

Backing/Stabilizer: I use one backing and one only, Sulky cut away stabilizer. I have used it on my own clothing and can attest to the fact that it is super soft, non-itchy material that stabilizes your work on thin materials with ease. You will want to use it when embroidering t-shirts, vintage pearl snaps, army jackets and more. It was recommended to me by an embroiderer I trust, and I have not had a reason to try anything else. Bought and sold.

Thimble: I can’t use metal thimbles because I need to grip the needle and it bothers me not to feel it, but I did buy these silicone thimbles. They really help when my hands are tired or I am embroidering something tough like a hat or denim.

I hope this helps you get started on embroidery and if you already dabble I hope that it gives you a few extra pointers on some useful tools of the trade. Hopefully you’re inspired to finish out your embroidery kit and start embroidering on and up-cycling some clothing.

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A Small Business Journey: Stumbling Into Sustainable Fashion

Our story started before sustainable fashion became a buzz word. We were always sustainable in the sense that we sold and refashioned vintage clothing. Clothing that came from thrift stores or we rescued from the literal mountains of clothing piles in warehouses on the Texas/Mexico border towns where you can buy clothing by the pound. There are some good clothes to find in there, but you gotta work for it!! It wasn’t until I was swimming in a pile of clothing did it really sink in that there was a MAJOR problem with textile waste on this planet. I was determined to find a way to make a small difference.

Drowning in a mound of clothing in McAllen, 2015

Drowning in a mound of clothing in McAllen, 2015

I have always shopped in thrift stores for most of my clothing and when I moved to Austin I really started dressing head to toe secondhand. In 2009, I started refashioning thrifted office attire when a Temp agency sent me on odd office jobs—I was making it work with what I had right out of college. My friend Sarah would embroider on clothes and I would get busy cutting up hems and taking out elastic waistbands. We were Loving Cup Vintage for only a short time while I was going to cosmetology school, after I graduated I started working in the Austin Film Industry and took a 5 year detour that changed my life.

Below are some items we re-worked as Loving Cup in 2010.

Working on a feature called Thank You A Lot, this is Alejandro, also known as Shakey Graves, a then popular Austin musician on his way to the top.

Working on a feature called Thank You A Lot, this is Alejandro, also known as Shakey Graves, a then popular Austin musician on his way to the top.

Our line of scrap fabric products came about because we needed more products to sell and not having the funds to buy anything new. I was relying on my small business to pay the bills and sometimes rent wins over new inventory. That was just a reality, and sometime still is. I used all of the scrap pieces of fabric we had on hand and just made it work. At this point I still never focused on sustainability as our main goal, I just wanted to make cool clothes and accessories affordable.

When we started Socorro Society in 2015 our main scrap fabric product were fringe purses and, shortly after, hand embroidered denim purses made from pant legs of jeans we were cutting into jorts. I have also made scrap fabric camera straps and aprons as well. It was only in 2017 that I started to make the wire headbands (shop here) and just a few months ago that I put the rest of the scraps to use as scrunchies (shop here).

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I never pushed sustainability as my main focus five years ago because I didn’t realize the gravity of fast fashion and the massive humanitarian and environmental impacts it was having on the planet. Of course, I always knew that these super cheap clothes weren’t made in the best conditions, but the rate in which clothing has been made in the last 2-4 years has increased to a point where we can no longer ignore what is happening. To be honest, I’m just thrifty and have always had to buy my own clothing. I never understood how places like Urban Outfitters could get away with selling a “grunge inspired vintage looking flannel” for $49.99 when the real thing was so easily found on the racks of thrift stores. I wanted to get genuine on trend vintage pieces, items that already existed on this planet, into people closets. But that has grown to a much larger need to spread the word on shopping second hand, and empowering anyone with the ideas and tools on how to make those thrifted items new and unique.

In 2017 our embroidered vintage products became more popular and I started to teach embroidery (learn about our workshops) as a way to bring new life to tired clothing. Again, adding to the message of sustainability. Mending your clothing, putting in a little work to find what you need second hand first, make small changes to what is in your closet already before going out and buying new. I teach everyone the craft of embroidering with the focus being to embroider on clothing. I try to give examples on how minimal work can make a BIG impact with only one or two stitches.

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At the end of the day, living a sustainable lifestyle and focusing my business on promoting thrifting, refashioning, hand embroidery and creative reuse isn’t a gimmick; it’s just a way of life for us. Wither it be in my business or for our family making ethical purchases with our hard earned dollars is at the forefront of what we do every day. Yes it is a little bit more work, but it’s our reality that we cannot afford to buy every little thing brand new, nor is that in my nature. I know I can find good stuff second hand. We take our kids shopping at the thrift store all the time. Give your kid $5 and tell them what tag colors that are on sale, I promise they will leave with at least 2 or 3 good items plus get a math lesson or two. I am so excited to share easy ways to embroider on clothing, up-cycle thrift store finds and how to creatively reuse every day items to lesson our impact on the planet and do our part and jumping on the band wagon to a better tomorrow. I hope that y’all can find some useful tips and inspiration here and we can build a community of #fashionablysustainable warriors.

Here are a few good articles, sites and infographics about the fashion industry for a little more education on the industrial impacts on people and the environment, and a forecast on how our future shoppers will take their slow fashion responsibilities to heart. Click graphics to read more:

Thread Up’s 2019 Resale Report

Thread Up’s 2019 Resale Report