Different Types of Embroidery
There are an increasing number of machine-driven embroidery methods; however, hand embroidery continues to provide a whole world of creative possibilities. With combinations of stitches, fabric, and thread to work with, each hand-embroidered project has its own unique charm and ability to reflect your personal style.
With so many different types of hand embroidery styles out there, it can often get confusing as to what the difference is between each one. But there’s no need to get your stitches in a twist—we’re here to explain how each technique is different from the next.
Here are several popular techniques:
- Crewel Embroidery
- Blackwork Embroidery
- Stumpwork Embroidery
- Needle/Thread Painting
- Surface / Freestyle
If you’re just beginning to learn embroidery, cross-stitching is an easy style to master due to its simple x-shaped stitches. One of the oldest embroidery techniques, cross-stitch designs are usually applied to woven, grid-patterned fabrics (such as Aida cloth, Jobelan, and jute-style linen), providing a guide for even stitches. You can count the threads on the piece of fabric in each direction so that the stitches are of uniform size. For this reason, designs often appear less fluid and boxier than regular embroidery. However, this angular quality makes cross-stitch a great style for embroidering words and phrases.
Crewel embroidery, or crewelwork, is a type of surface embroidery that uses two wool threads at once. This technique is usually used to follow a design outline, and can be rendered using variety of stitches.
Crewel embroidery has a long history that dates back as far as the Medieval period, with The Bayeux Tapestry (created in the 11th century) being one of the earliest examples. The impressive 230 feet of embroidered linen cloth illustrates England’s historical battle that ended with the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
During 17th century England, crewel work was widely used to embellish Jacobean-style household textiles, such as curtains and bed covers. The technique was particularly suitable for decorative upholstered items due to the strong wool (called crewel wool) used for its stitches.
While many modern embroidery artists create work inspired by early crewel designs, it’s not uncommon to see them use a mix of fibers. From wool blends to hand-spun yarns, there’s a huge variety of embroidery threads available for crewel work. Common surface stitches include line stitches such as the stem, chain, and split stitch, as well as the classic satin stitch and French knots. If you want to achieve a traditional look, we recommend using a linen twill as your fabric.
Don’t be fooled by the name, blackwork embroidery doesn’t necessarily lack in color! The term comes from its traditional roots, when artisans would have used black thread to stitch their designs. The style was popularized in England during the reign of King Henry VIII, whose first wife Catherine of Aragon brought blackwork clothing with her from Spain. This is why you might hear the same style referred to as Spanish blackwork.
The counted-thread technique is best suited to those who want to achieve a traditional look and allows embroiderers to fill outlined motifs with elaborate, geometric patterns. Similarly cross-stitch, Blackwork can be done on just about any type of material but works best on an even-weave cloth so that you can follow a grid. However instead of cross-shaped stitches, the primary stitches used in blackwork embroidery are backstitch and Holbein stitch, which is also known as a double running stitch.
Unlike other traditional styles of surface embroidery that use needles with sharp tips, blackwork requires a tapestry needle with a blunt tip, making it easier to create back-stitches and double-running stitches.
Also known as raised embroidery, stumpwork originated in mid-1600s England. The technique takes hand embroidery to the next level (literally) by building on basic stitches to create three-dimensional designs. Using fabric as a base, stumpwork embroidery artists create their work by layering stitching, adding 3D embellishments such as beads, or stitching around shapes, wires, and padding.
Nature is a particularly popular subject for stumpwork artists. One craftswoman known on Instagram as Stitch and Bone uses beads and thick fabrics to create beautiful textile insects, while French artist En Avril turns her animal illustrations into incredible textural brooches.
Sometimes called needle painting, thread painting is a type of embroidery that uses a combination of long and short stitches and a variety of colors to produce images that look like textile paintings. Using multiple hues and tones of embroidery floss, each stitch is like a brush stroke that merges into the next. Depending on the fabric and thread used, thread painting pieces can look visually similar to an Impressionist painting or a photorealistic work of art.
Many contemporary artists have adopted this particularly expressive approach. For example, Cape Town-based artist Danielle Clough uses thick, vivid yarns to create incredibly detailed portraits. When asked what inspires her to “paint with thread,” she tells My Modern Met: “I found embroidery through a sequence of mistakes and opportunities. I almost stumbled upon it, initially doodling on a piece of felt with thread and slowly adding colors. This combined with photography developed into my technique, which to some is thread painting or freestyle embroidery. It’s even been called chicken scratch! I never had a moment that inspired me, but just a process of doing, loving, and making that grew into what it is today.”
Surface or “Freestyle”
This style encompasses embroidery that doesn't fall into a specific category. For contemporary stitchers, this is the most common approach today—they aren't limited to one style. Instead, they can pick and choose the stitches they use.