If you’re just getting into hand embroidery and you want to know where to start to practice a bit, you might want to check out some of the free patterns offered on the Embroiderers’ Guild of America website.
Let me tell you what they have…
First, for general surface embroidery techniques, which could be adapted to crewel work, to silk, or to cotton, you’ll find a nice PDF pamphlet on Basic Techniques for Surface Embroidery.
Here, you’ll learn about setting up a design as well as the techniques for basic stitches used in the pattern. It’s kind of a Jacobean motif, and it looks like it would be fun to work!
Next, if you’re interested in trying out blackwork, you might take a look at their PDF pamphlet on Technique Basics for Blackwork. It’s a very simple motif. You’ll be shown how to set it up and work it.
Finally, if you like the idea of stumpwork but haven’t tried it yet, there’s a nice little pattern for Wild Cornish Fuchsia that’s very pretty. The directions are detailed and will guide you easily through the project.
You’ll also find Technique Basics for Counted Cross Stitch and some cute patterns for little embroidered name tags on their free embroidery projects page.
The EGA is a great place to start for all kinds of embroidery information, classes, and so forth, so while you’re looking at their free patterns, you might want to take a thorough look around their website and consider joining. Even if you don’t connect yourself to a local guild, and sign up instead as a Member at Large, you’ll have access to the Members Only section of the site (which is filled with all kinds of good information) and you’ll also be able to sign up for correspondence courses in all kinds of techniques!
Update 2017: The PDFs and projects mentioned above are no longer accessible on the current EGA website. Still, the website has a wealth of information to explore, so it’s worth a good browse!