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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