How to embroider

The education of young girls was neither reliable nor consistent in the early 19th century, and the same might be said of the education of Jane Austen. Claire Tomalin’s “Jane Austen: A Life” biography describes not only the schools Jane and her sister attended but also a few other examples of schools ranging in quality from well rounded to worthy of the gothic novels parodied in “Northanger Abbey.” Many girls did not go to school and learned at home instead. Yet regardless of where and how they obtained their education, young girls were expected to learn the skills that would help them to maintain their homes as grown women. One of those skills was the ability to sew, and in the days before sewing machines everything was sewn by hand.

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“Girls School” by Jan Josef Horemans the Younger, 18th Century

In “Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels,” Deirdre Le Faye describes how girls would create samplers and cross-stitch patterns to demonstrate their stitching skills that would later be used for larger projects. She also says embroidery continued to be a popular pastime on rainy days for middle- to upper-class families. Mrs. Norris scolds Fanny in “Mansfield Park” for not better applying her time to such projects when she says: “Why cannot you come and sit here, and employ yourself as we do? If you have no work of your own, I can supply you from the poor basket.”

Thankfully Mrs. Norris is not here to nag us about how we spend our time. Instead, let us imagine that Jane herself is wishing to join us as she did with her sister in 1808 when she wrote: “I wish I could help you in your needlework, I have two hands & a new thimble that lead a very easy life.” If you have ever wanted to learn how to embroider, here are a few basic techniques.

You will need:

  • A bit of fabric (I use linen in this example)
  • An embroidery hoop
  • Embroidery threads (I use crewel, which is a fancy way to say “wool”)
  • Needle
  • Needle threader (optional – if the eye of your needle is big enough, you may not need a threader)

You could also hold the hoop this way, if you choose. This style is called “in the well.”

As you can see, the tapestry needle has a wide enough eye that I do not need a threader. The so called “embroidery needles” are very small and are designed for a fine cotton thread or beading work. If you are choosing to use this type of needle and thread, you will need to use a threader.

Once the thread is in the needle, leave one tail of the thread longer than the other. You do not need to knot the end.

Let’s learn three basic stitches:

First to learn is the Back Stitch.

You begin from underneath the fabric.

Then pull the needle through.

Keep pulling until there is only one thread going through the fabric.

Leave just a little bit behind. Here is what it looks like from the back.

This is the beginning of any embroidery stitch. For the back stitch, you will be moving along a line. Move the needle in the direction you wish to go and point it back to the first stitch.

Notice I am placing the needle below the other thread. You could do above the thread instead so long as you are consistent in every stitch. Pull the needle through and stop before the thread becomes taught.

Then, do the same thing. Move the thread further down the line you wish to make and point it back to the last stitch.

Continue in this fashion

After a while you will have a lot of little stitches creating a line.

Second to learn is the French Knot.

Again, we begin the stitch from underneath. This time we will place the needle close to where the thread comes out.

Then, wrap the thread around the needle once.

Twice.

Three times. Then close to the hole where the thread comes out we will push the needle in through the fabric and gently pull it through.

Here are a few French Knots together.

The final stitch here is the Satin Stitch.

If you are left-handed, you may find it easier to go from the other direction but as I am right-handed, I begin the stitch on the far left side of the area I wish to fill.

Then I will push the needle in to the fabric on the far right side of the area I wish to fill. When I do this I will be poking the needle out just above where the first stitch came out and pulling the needle out from above the fabric.

These stitches will fill a small area.

If you wish to fill a larger area, you can do so with overlapping the smaller satin stitches because if you make it too big, it will not keep its shape well.

Confused by these instructions? Here is a quick instructional video to demonstrate the exact same stitches.

Now that we have learned some basic stitches, we need a project! A new book is coming out in May (March for the UK) full of project ideas based on 18th-century embroidery by Jennie Batchelor and Alison Larkin called “Jane Austen Embroidery” (from Dover Publications).

In the meanwhile, however, I free-handed a design based upon a shawl attributed to Jane Austen herself. You can see an image of the original here.

Here I have drawn the stars in pencil. I will be using satin stitches and French knots.

After a little bit of progress……

A close up of a French knot in progress:

Here is the completed hoop.

I needed something in the middle so I drew a silhouette of Jane Austen based on an image search online and filled it in with black satin stitches.

Hope you enjoyed this miniature lesson on basic embroidery stitches!

About Robin Floyd

Robin K Floyd works as an educator at Wake County Public Schools. In her spare time she enjoys learning about literature, history, and fashion. Her favorite Jane Austen novel is Northanger Abbey, closely followed by everything else!

4 thoughts on “How to embroider

  1. Robin, this was so much fun! I knew nothing about this topic, but found it immediately addictive. Great job on the video, as well!

  2. Why not have an embroidery tutorial at JASP this year? I have done embroidery since I was 5 years old and always have a project going. I would love to have a sit-and-sew at our location this year!

    1. I must apologize for taking so long to reply. I love your idea and was trying to make it happen. Unfortunately, the official schedule for the 2020 program is fully booked. Suzanna Geiser (slgeiser@gmail.com) asks that you contact her in the fall when they begin plans for the 2021 program! In the meanwhile, I will be at the program and willing to discuss embroidery at any of the social events (like breakfast or elevensies, for example). Looking forward to seeing you then!

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