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Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Fabric for Surface and Tips on Linen

 

If you’ve got the bug to take up embroidery or to start a new project, you might begin by contemplating what fabric to use. Over this past week, I’ve received from readers many questions about fabric used for embroidery, so I thought I’d write a little bit on the subject.

First of all, there’s the primary question: what are you planning to stitch? Are you just practicing, or are you preparing a major project for yourself or for someone else? Your answer to this question will help determine the quality and type of fabric you’re planning to use.

Right off the bat, I prefer to use natural fibers. For some reason, they’re just better to stitch on: linen, 100% cotton, or, for fancy stuff, 100% silk are my choice fabrics.

If you’re a beginner and you want to practice an embroidery technique such as needle painting or just some simple surface embroidery with regular embroidery floss, I’d say to go with something less expensive, such as a good quality muslin in white or cream. Southern Belle is a nice brand of muslin and is available in quilt shops or online. I use Southern Belle muslin for needle painting projects and as backing for goldwork projects that are done on silk.

If you’re already confident in your needlework skills and you’re launching into a major surface embroidery project as a gift or for yourself, and if you have the funds to use for it, I’d go with linen of some sort.

Linen is my favorite choice for general surface embroidery projects. If I’m doing anything that has goldwork on it, I go with a medium weight linen. If I’m doing whitework, I go with a lighter linen with a higher thread count. If I’m doing crewel work or surface work in silks, I’ll use a medium weight or even a linen twill. (For crewel work, linen twill is the norm, I believe.)

As far as brands of linen, this is the thing: some linen can be just awful for stitching on, because there is “cheap” (as in, poor quality) linen out there. For major projects that I intend to withstand the test of time, my favorite brand of linen is Legacy linen. It’s a European linen imported by Access Commodities, and, from what I know of linen (which is not necessarily exhaustive!), it’s the best linen out there. Legacy linen has great body – which, unlike the case with some linens, is not the result of added starch. It keeps its body after washing. It has a smooth surface and nice hand (feel to it), and it isn’t slubby. It’s not coarse or brittle, either. Legacy makes even-weave and plain weave linens in various counts. But whether even or plain weave, the horizontal and vertical thread counts in Legacy linen are pretty closely the same. The linen is woven with warp and waft threads that are close in size, if not identical. I use Alba Maxima for a lot of my surface work (like this strawberry or my silk shading sampler, as well as for the Agnus Dei project from last year). For cutwork or whitework, Legacy’s ecclesiastical linen is excellent. It is crisp and firm and beautiful! And, for really light stuff, Legacy makes an equally beautiful shadow-work linen.

I don’t always buy Legacy linen, though, since it’s not always in the budget! It’s pricey. When I want a good linen that isn’t as expensive, I at least make sure I’m buying linen from northern Europe, where the best flax crops produce the best linen. Belgium, Sweden, Ireland, and northern France all produce beautiful linen.

You’re best off buying linen from needlework suppliers rather than fabric outlets, although occasionally your local fabric store may stock a relatively good linen. Make sure you look at it first, though. “Medium weight” linen sold on websites such as Fabric.com tend to look really good price-wise, but keep in mind that this type of linen is for clothing: it’s not super-attractive up close and it’s usually slubby and loose, intended for blazers and so forth. “Shirt” linen from such sources generally has a tighter weave, but can often be so irregular upclose as to be unsuitable for stitching. Any body to it washes out on the first go, too, leaving you with a flaccid linen with a proclivity towards stubborn wrinkles.

As far as silk goes, I like silk with body. Italian silk is beautiful and when I need a firm, buttery silk with good body, I generally will look for Italian silk. (I used a golden Italian silk as the ground fabric for this stole.) But there are different types of silk from all over the world available – depending on your project, you’ll want to select the right weight of silk for what you intend to do. Even if I’m using a heavier weight Italian silk, I back my silk with muslin before I stitch, framing up both the muslin and the silk at the same time and stitching through both layers. This is especially necessary with lighter, crisper silks, such as shantung and dupion.

Some further tips on fabric preparation:

If you are planning to wash your project before doing the finish work, it’s a good idea to pre-shrink your linen. Linen shrinks. If you’re making something like a table cloth or a book cover or anything measured, wouldn’t it be the pits to make the thing, wash it, and find it’s smaller than you intended? Anyway, I like to pre-shrink my linen to ensure that I’m not going to end up with puckers afterwards. There’s usually still enough shrink left (even after pre-shrinking) to account for any thread shrinkage (if there is any). But if you haven’t pre-shrunk, you can count on noticeable shrinking when you wash the piece at the end.

Here’s my shrinking formula for linen:

Lay your folded piece of linen in a clean bucket or shallow tub in your sink (sometimes, I use a clean glass bowl, depending on the size of the piece). Boil a kettle of water and pour the water on the linen. Swish the tub to get the water to move through the linen and heat it all up. Then rinse the linen under the coldest tap water, until it’s cold all over. In the meantime, have the kettle boiling again, so that you can repeat the process. Pour on the boiling water the second time and swish the tub to make sure the water penetrates through the layers of your folded linen. And then again, rinse with cold tap water. For the last soaking, boil the kettle, pour it on, and leave the linen to sit in the water until the water is room temperature. Rinse with cold water. The change in cold-hot-cold-hot is what shrinks the fabric.

Take the linen out of the water. It’ll be really stiff. Lay it on a clean towel and gently press the excess water out of it. Then you can either hang it or lay it to dry.

While it’s still damp, you can iron it, but don’t iron it to dry it. Iron it just to remove wrinkles. (You can wait until it’s completely dry, too, and then mist it with a spray bottle.) If you iron it to dry it, you risk overdoing it with the iron and scorching the damp linen!

If you’re working with a small piece of linen, consider taking a clean mirror and spreading your damp linen onto the mirror. Smooth it out over the clean mirror and leave it to dry. When it’s dry, you can peel it from the mirror and it will have nary a wrinkle in it!

So that’s a little bit about fabrics that I use for embroidery.

I would love to hear what you use – what’s your favorite fabric to work on?

 
 

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(23) Comments

  1. Mary
    My favourite is definitely linen;26count and Danish, I think.
    The’vintage’ linens I inherited with cutwork and surface embroidery were mostly on Irish linen – very fine with beautiful body. Have you tried putting damp linen in the freezer until evenly moist and them pressing? Definitely a must for my damask serviettes and tablecloths.

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  2. Im not sure what my favourite is, but I do know now, Not to do crewel embroidery on 100%cotton- it is too lightweight for the wool (I was being cheap because i couldnt afford linen twill). I like doing surface embroidery on cotton, either homespun or batiks.

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  3. Hi, Marge –

    YES, actually, I do freeze damp linen until I’m ready to iron it.

    For readers who have never heard of doing this, here’s what you do:

    Take your damp linen, roll it in a towel, and place the towel in the freezer. You can leave it there until you have time to iron it (handy if it’s a big piece that will take ironing time). When you take it out, be careful with it – let it sit a few minutes before you start unrolling it. While I’ve never had any crack, a friend of mine did. She took a piece out of the freezer and was rather rough with it in opening it up, and actually BROKE the linen! But that’s the only time I’ve ever heard of that happening.

    The advantage of freezing it is not merely to save it until you hve time. When I freeze it then iron it, I notice that the shine of the linen seems to be better. Now, admittedly, this may just be me, because I like the process… but perhaps there’s something to that!

    Thanks for the comments!

    Yes, Paula – crewel embroidery really works best on a medium-weight fabric. If the cost of linen is a factor, try cotton twill!

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  4. Mary, excellent article. Thanks! Do you have any preferred on-line suppliers for any of the fabrics you mention?

    I would like to add a little note… When you are going to be embroidering through two pieces of fabric such as silk on muslin make sure that the grains of the fabrics match.

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  5. A lot of great info’ here! Thanks very much!

    For my newbie embroiderer purposes, creating quilt blocks, embellished with simple iron on transfer patterns to be embroidered, I’m recycling cotton fabrics from various sources.

    For instance, I’ve had six very large panels of old Croscill drapes stored away for years and years. They’re 100% cotton, lightweight but not flimsy, a nice ecru color that I think is perfect for lending a vintage look to the quilt blocks.

    I deconstructed the panels, undoing all the hems and separating the drapes from their lining, soaked them in hot water and OxiClean to remove the yellowing that had developed on the exposed folded edges, washed and rinsed them well in a big old lobster pot, then popped them in the dryer.

    Avoiding the areas that I could not sufficiently whiten and areas that were previously sewn, I can still salvage enough material for around 15-20 ten inch blocks from each panel.

    This past weekend I hit the local flea market, specifically looking for embroidery supplies and totally lucked out when I found a stack of various white and off white cotton fabrics. Someone else’s abandoned sewing projects were my windfall. I walked away with yards and yards of fabric for just 3 dollars! Perfect for quilt blocks! Yay, flea markets! J.Mosley

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  6. Ladies this is exactly what I was looking for. As a new quilter but old embroidery buff I’ve been looking for how to combine the two. I’ll use an off white cotton for the center of the nine block pillow and embroider on that. I’ll look for suggested linen to be used on future projects. Thank you so very much.

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  7. Breaking linen is one hazard but if you put it in a plastic bag and also store meat scraps in your freezer until garbage day make sure the bags are well labellled!!!
    Usually not a problem for large items but can be for small ones!

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  8. Hi, I’ve returned to embroidery and when I started in high school, I used to just use linen pillow cases and cut them up.

    I read in a book recently (before I found this site) to buy ADIA #14 fabric to do embroidery. I could not feel the texture of the fabric in the plastic at the store. I do fine needle work and use pretty intricate patterns (like Celtic knots, birds, etc.) and I transfer the patterns with a pencil and tracing paper or draw freehand.

    This fabric is bumpy, stiff, and almost impossible to trace any fine detail upon. It seems more suited to other needlework than embroidery. I am dissapointed and am returning the unused fabric tomorrow.

    I’m not as broke as I was in high school and college and don’t need to use the pillowcases anymore but it’s linen for me from now on. Thanks for this information. This is a fantastic Website and resource.

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  9. Hi Mary – I’m fairly new to this site, which is why you’ll find me making comments or asking questions on 4-year-old articles! (I’m afraid I’m leaving more questions than comments – hope you don’t mind.) I’m new to embroidery, and would like to know what kind of fabric to use. I realize it differs depending on the project, but I’ve tried 28-count evenweave and tightly woven cotton. Neither seems to work for me. I recently bought at a yard sale some 40-count fabric that I don’t even know if it’s linen. It does seem to be evenweave, though. Is this a good count to do my “learning” projects on? Would the same count (in a linen evenweave) be good enough for something serious I wanted to do?
    Thanks for all your help.
    Melissa

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    1. Melissa,
      I use 28 to 36 ct fabrics for counted work. You can use 40 count for both counted work and reg surface embroidery and it will work. I have purchased a heavy muslin to use for sueface embroidery…actually it was drapery lining. I could not find it in white white though. For a yard extremely wide it was about $8.00. For anything else I save for real linen. Hope this helps you.

  10. Hello,
    I’m really new at this. Can you tell me what you mean buy the ground fabric? Also can you embroider right on ecclesiastical fabric, and how to hoop that so it doesn’t get ruined?
    Thank you

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    1. Ground fabric is the fabric you embroider on. It’s the “ground” for the embroidery. With ecclesiastical fabric, yes, you can embroider on it, but it is usually backed with another fabric, like linen or cotton, and it is normally mounted on a frame large enough to accommodate it, rather than with a hoop. Hope that helps!

  11. Hello!
    I have some linen clothing which is very plain and I would like to embellish with hand embroidery. Would you use a backing and if so, which is the best backing to use for this purpose?
    The linen is lightweight.
    Thanks
    Sandy

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  12. Great tips, Mary but I am curious where you get your silk fabric? I’m currently about to start on a little embroidery project myself with a bit of linen and I’m so glad I read this before I started. I had no idea Linen shrank!! Your a life saver, go Mary…
    I would love to try silk fabric next know any good online stores?

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    1. Hi, Mattie – Well, I buy silk usually in person. If I find it online, I order swatches first. Usually, I look for silk satin, but I’ve also used dupioni. The key is being able to see and feel it. You kind of have to hunt around – I don’t have one regular supplier. In Kansas City (which is a hefty drive from here), there’s a fabric shop called Kaplan’s, located on the Plaza, and I’ll often find good silk there in person. But their stock is not always consistent, so if I’m looking for something for kits or anything like that, I buy the whole quantity at one time. Anyway, if you have a specialty fabric shop in the area that carries nice bridal fabrics, you might check there. Otherwise, it’s a matter of hunting and ferreting out the ones you like! ~MC

  13. Hi!
    Your articles and tips have helped me so much on my embroidery adventures! I was wondering if you have any tips on embroidering chiffon and other delicate fabrics? I’m looking to sew and embroider an evening gown I designed but I’m a bit worried about the chiffon, since it’s difficult enough just to sew!
    Thank you so much,
    Kevin

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  14. Good Afternoon, Mrs. Corbet I hope you’re having a lovely Sunday! Well… I admit it I’m stumped. I tried to run searches for Legacy Linens and I found the site, but they had no prices just sections of fabric, bedding, and furniture. Very frustrating, then I tried searching for Alba Maximina and they didn’t even have an official site. So back to Hedgehog but all they had in Alba is white! I’m not looking to do my particular project on stark white linen. So, I’m lost. I don’t know where to go from here at all. Any help you can offer will be so gratefully appreciated. Have a great day!

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    1. Hi, Kristina –

      Legacy linen is not the name of company. It’s the name of a line of embroidery linen imported from France through Access Commodities, which is a needlework supply wholesaler. So you won’t find a website. They do have the Alba Maxima in an off-white / almost cream – only I don’t think it’s called Alba Maxima (alba being white). You can ask Hedgehog to special order it. I think you can also find it through Thistle Threads. Also, Napery Ivory by Legacy (available through Hedgehog as well) is an off white, good for surface work. I prefer AM, though – it is a bit firmer. -MC

    2. I should really just dye my hair blond and get the outside to match LOL! Okay thanks for the clarification. But, just wondering… How would one find embroidery linens in every color? Surely there’s more than white, natural, cream and black?

    3. Wool & Hoop carries a range of linens from Ulster linen company in colors. They sell a sample pack.

      The linen is not quite the same quality, but if you’re looking for many colors of linen for surface embroidery, fabric that’s not over-dyed or hand dyed and that’s colorfast, that’s about the best choice today, unless you happen to be able to get your hands on Sotema linens out of Italy, which has to be ordered directly from Italy, as there’s no US distributor here.

  15. I dont know
    where can I buy GOOD linen.

    I went to joann store. it was not good to for embroidery

    I want something unique and better quality fabric.

    help me please ㅜㅜㅜㅜ

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  16. Hello Mary- I’ve been reading through your information on what fabrics to use.(I’m a beginner) I’m using a good white muslin and want to back it with something but can’t seem to find the answer as to what I should use. Do I just double the muslin or use something lighter?
    Also, do I stick the two fabrics together so they don’t move while stitching? If so what do you use?
    Thanks so much for your time. I’ve been following your blog and admiring your work for awhile and have decided that I will try to embroidery… crossing my fingers 🙂

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