The Basics of Hand Embroidery: How to Upcycle Your Old Clothes and Accessories

Written by Eleanor Binns

Bored of looking at the same items in your wardrobe? This can happen to us all. But before going on a spending spree and buying new things, why not try hand embroidering your old clothes and accessories to give them a new lease of life and make you fall in love with your wardrobe again?  


Not to mention that hand embroidery has so many benefits for your health, such as alleviating stress and reducing anxiety, keeping your brain active and your mind focused, it really is as therapeutic as people say! 


This may all sound well and good, but you may be wondering where to begin? In this blog post I will talk you through a simple step by step of the basic stitches, what you’ll need and a few of my recent upcycle projects. 


So sit back, make a cup of tea and get ready to enter the world of hand embroidery…


What you’ll need:

 



The beauty of hand embroidery is that you only need a few items to begin. These include: 


  • A pair of scissors
  • An embroidery needle
  • An unpicker
  • Embroidery thread (any colour(s)) 
  • Old clothes/accessories 

Getting started: 


Before you get going, you need to thread your needle. To do this, cut a length of thread from your embroidery thread and put this through the eye of your needle. I would recommend a medium length of thread between 12-18 inches, too short and you will need to keep re-starting, but too long you run the risk of the thread becoming tangled. 


Please note that most embroidery thread has six strands of cotton per thread. You can split this up into as many strands as you need when you thread your needle. If you only have a limited amount of thread, splitting it up into two strands per length will mean you have three times as much thread to work with. Also, the more strands you use the thicker the stitches will be. 


Next, you will need to tie a small knot in the end of your thread to stop the thread being pulled all the way through the fabric once you begin. Make sure to begin stitching on the reverse of the fabric so the knot is not visible. 


Top tip, when you are sewing your stitches, make sure that the end of your thread, which has been threaded through the eye of your needle is always pulled through, otherwise this will make your stitches double thickness. 


Once you have nearly run out of thread, tie another knot on the reverse of the fabric and cut off the remaining thread. 


Repeat these steps as you go. 


The basic stitches: 


Running stitch 


First up we have a running stitching, which is probably as basic as you can get. You can use this stitch to create outline of shapes or to create borders to your designs. 


  1. Start by sewing up through the back of your fabric, making sure the thread is pulled all the way through and the knot is secure. If the fabric has holes in it or is delicate, you may need to make a double knot or do a few small stitches in the area before you begin. 
  2. Next, decide on the length of your stitch and pull the needle back down through the fabric at this distance. 
  3. Leave a small gap and then repeat the first step. 
  4. Carry on in this fashion until you run out of thread or need to change colour. 

 

 


Back stitch 


This stitch is very similar to a running stitch, but without any gaps between stitches. This stitch can be used when you need to create continuous lines, maybe in drawing shapes or writing words. 


  1. Start by doing one running stitch.
  2. Leave a stitch length gap and come up through the back of the fabric. 
  3. Instead of sewing forward, go back on yourself and put the needle back through the end of the first stitch. 
  4. This will create a continuous stitch with no gaps. 
  5. Now repeat steps 2 and 3. 

 

 


Lazy daisy stitch 


Another simple stitch that you can use to create flowers, petals or leaves. 


  1. Firstly, sew up through your fabric.
  2. Next, sew back down in the same place, but leaving a loop as you do so. You may want to hold this loop with your thumb to stop it being pulled through. 
  3. Sew back up through the fabric on the inside of the loop. The bigger to loop, the bigger your petal will be.
  4. Then, sew down back through the fabric on the other side of the loop, holding it in place with a small stitch. 
  5. This has created your first petal. 
  6. Repeat these steps as many times as you wish to create your floral petals. 

 



French knot 


Another basic stitch that creates mini, circular knots. This can be used to create the illusion of polka dots or the centre of a flower. 


  1. Firstly, go up through the fabric. 
  2. Hold the needle in your dominant hand and keep the thread pulled tight in your other hand. 
  3. Wrap the thread around the needle twice. 
  4. Put the needle back through the fabric in the same place. 
  5. This should leave a small knot in your fabric. 

 


Satin stitch 


A final easy stitch to learn. This can be used for filling in blocks or colour such as leaves or love hearts.


  1. Firstly, if it helps to draw out your design please do so! 
  2. Start by bringing your needle up through the back of the fabric. 
  3. Next, sew back through the fabric at the opposite end of your design. 
  4. Bring your needle back up through the fabric at the same end as you began and bring it back down to the bottom of the design. It’s like colouring in but with thread! Make sure you always start and end each stitch on the same side. 
  5. Repeat these steps until the whole block is filled with colour. 
  6. If it helps, you can break up any large chunks into smaller sections to fill in as you go along. This is particularly helpful if you are doing a curved shape.

 

Need some inspiration? 


There are lots of patterns and designs you can do with just these basic stitches. Here are a few items from my wardrobe that I have hand embroidered to give you some design inspiration. Every item you upcycle will be completely unique to you and you can take pride in knowing that you have created the design and done the hand embroidery yourself. 


Remember, you can always draw your design onto your old clothing or accessories before you begin and you can always unpick any wrong stitches. Practice makes perfect and it’s important to take time to enjoy the process and the creativity it brings.