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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Favorite Stitch Dictionaries for the Classroom


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For my high school needlework class this year, I went through my bookshelf and selected my favorite stitch dictionaries to have on hand in the classroom. I thought I’d share the list with you. I’ve also linked to my reviews of them, in case you want to read a little more about the books.

Favorite Stitch Dictionaries

Knowing I had at least two left-handed students, I blessed the day Yvette Stanton conceived the notion of writing a left-handed stitch dictionary! Her book, The Left-Handed Embroiderer’s Companion, is an absolute must for any embroiderer’s bookshelf. She also has a right-handed version, which is on my to-get list. I suspect, between the two books, I’d be set for stitch instructions in the classroom!

Mary Thomas’s Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches is a standard go-to reference book. It’s been around for a while, it’s quite thorough, and always useful.

The A-Z of Embroidery Stitches and the A-Z of Embroidery Stitches 2 both made it to the classroom shelf with me. I noticed right away, when showing these books to students, that they are immediately taken by the photographs. To them, a photograph is “real” – they understand it and assimilate it more quickly than they do a diagram. I am ever-grateful for the series of A-Z books from Country Bumpkin!

And speaking of Country Bumpkin, their other stitch publication, The Embroiderer’s Handbook was a must right off the bat. Here, it’s not only a question of stitch instructions. It’s a question of inspiration. Along with the step-by-step photos of the stitches, in typical Country Bumpkin style, there are gorgeous photos of needlework throughout.

The Embroidery Stitch Bible is a great little compact stitch dictionary to have on hand. I like this book as a reference tool especially because it has a visual index of the stitches in the book, and all the stitches are grouped in a logical way.

And finally, a book I haven’t reviewed yet, but that’s been on my shelf for eons, travels back and forth with me to class daily. It’s Erica Wilson’s Embroidery Book. I like it for its instructional material and for its history and background information. It isn’t a flashy book – the photos are all black and white, and the stitch diagrams are simple line drawings – but it is a good solid book full of great information. I should review it and give you a closer look at it some day!

So those are my stitch dictionaries for the classroom bookshelf. When we get into specific types of embroidery (such as crewel work), I’m sure I’ll be taking in another round of books. But for this quarter, these stitch dictionaries are my perfect and priceless companions!

What are your favorite stitch dictionaries? Am I leaving anything off the list, that’s an exceptional resource in the classroom? Leave a comment below and let me know! Thanks!!


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(25) Comments

  1. After reading one of your columns I ordered a kit from Jane Zimmerman becasue you made them sound so good, Unfortunately one of the first stitches in the kit is one I am not familiar with. I tried to order one of Jane Zimmermans’ books from her web site aqnd while she was more than willing to take my money and mail a kitto Canada – she is unwilling to go to the trouble of sending me one of her books. I am quite annoyed with her and have spent considerable money on a kit with inadequate instructions! Please warn your readers.

    1. Hi, Jill – I am sorry to hear about this. I have had good luck with ordering from Jane in the past, but I don’t know what her situation is now. I’ll try to find out. Thank you for the heads-up! ~MC

  2. Dear Mary, Getting to learn how to do silk ribbon embroidery I bought two of Di van Niekerk’s books: “Ribbon Embroidery and Stumpwork” part one and two. Although the instructions are meant for two specific panels I have learned a lot from those two books in general. It has lots of photos as well diagrams and tips. Otherwise I think your selection of books covers quite a lot of the necessary information. Of the books you mentioned I own two. Wish you all the best. Your students are very fortunate, I mean you take even the “lefties” in consideration!! enjoy your tutoring. Love Elza Cape Town xxx

  3. Hi Mary, thanks so much for the support and encouragement. This has all left a really bad taste in my mouth. I think it was the fact that once I had removed the original images from flickr, she just blatently went back and got more. It seems to be resolved now though thankfully. I love your site, it’s getting bookmarked!!

  4. Someone on the Nordic Needle newsletter who is teaching children recommended Coats & Clark: 100 embroidery stitches. I looked out my copy, very old and tatty, but good b&w pics and, as she says, the stitches are grouped – straight, chain, etc.

  5. As someone who came back to stitching through the world of counted thread, I find Darlene O’Steen’s, The Proper Stitch, is amazing. The diagrams are fantastic. I’ve also used Donna Kooler’s Encyclopedia of Needlework quite often. And the book I’ve had since beginning to stitch as a teen is the 1974 version of Marion Nichol’s Encyclopedia of Embroidery Stitches.

  6. I am also a left handed embroiderer, mainly self taught via trial and error. I have never seen the left handed handed embroidery companion book that you mention. My first taste of embroidery was an Erica Wilson crewel book which my mother had received as a gift from one of her british friends. The book came with sofa pillow cases to embroider as you progressed through the book. My mother never embroidered so the book sat in her sewing room until I picked it up when I was around 6 or 7. I have no idea what happened to the pillowcases. I remember that it seemed to take me forever to finish those pillowcases but I still have the book.

  7. Mary-
    I love “The Stitches of Creative Embroidery” by Jacqueline Enthoven. It has a sort of 60’s feel to it, but she writes interesting comments about the uses of the stitches and includes some stitches that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I really enjoyed reading everything she had to say and added some great stitches to my stitch vocabulary.

  8. I like Jacqueline Enthoven’s “The Stitches of Creative Embroidery” because she shows so many variations on the basic stitches. The stitching diagrams are easy to follow and she also has photos of samplers made by students the same as your students. She also shows stitches she found on pieces from other cultures that have become favorites of mine. I also really like her diagrams that show how she’s combined stitches.

    A new favorite is one that I’ve just started reading, “Needlelace Techniques and Inspiration” by Jill Nordfors Clark. The diagrams are easy to understand and there’s a lot of color photos that are shown as examples. I find the book very intriguing and thought provoking – after only 30 minutes, I found my creative juices flowing! If you’re going to teach any needlelace techniques, I would definitely recommend it.

  9. Mary,

    I like the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Embroidery Stitches. It is one of the books I repeatedly checked out of the library when I was learning to embroider.

    Have a great weekend! Nita

  10. I’m not a big collector of embroidery stitch books especially since we have the ‘net. However, I have a few favourites.

    The Country Bumpkin A-Z’s are wonderful and have been my first choice for years. Being left handed I think The Left-Handed Embroiderer’s Companion may take over as my primary resource. (The ‘problem’ I have with the left handed book is that I’m so used to reversing stitching images in my head that when I look at the left handed images I reverse *them* too! 🙂 I recently bought the right handed version for a friend because I think Yvette’s book is so well done. If I was only going to buy one stitch guide it would probably be this book.

    The other book that I really like is called The Complete Guide to Embroidery Stitches and Crewel by Jo Bucher. My copy was published in 1971 (ISBN: 0-696-16500-7) and is a no frills stitch dictionary with nice, simple black and white stitch illustrations. It’s not a book that I would ever have bought had I not seen it in person, but I am glad that I have it.

    I have a couple other guide books, but these are the ones that sit next to me on the bookshelf and are at hand as I’m stitching.

  11. First of all, Mary, it’s all your fault I had to go buy “Felt Wee Folk” – I’ve been eyeing that book for months, and your critique was the clincher. For your needlework class, I would suggest the book “Crazy Quilting – The Complete Guide”, by J. Marsha Michler. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I think it would be a great book for inspiration, filled with stitch diagrams on everything from embroidery with floss, ribbon, and beads, to designing. With shows like “Project Runway” being so popular, it would show what can be done on fabric of all kinds, and put needlearts into a contemporary context. I’m looking forward to your posts on how the class is going, and what you are learning about teaching in the process!

  12. I second the recommendation for
    “Encyclopedia of Embroidery Stitches, including Crewel” by Marion Nichols, Dover Publications.

    One very cool aspect, is that each stitch is illustrated as it should from the front, but each stitch is also illustrated as it should look from the back. This has helped my many times to make sure I’m doing the stitch correctly.

    I am also a fan of Jacqueline Enthoven’s “The Stitches of Creative Embroidery”

  13. Hi Mary, I have Country Bumpkin’s A-Z of Embroidery stitches and I think I have the Reader’s digest book also but I dont know about the others. Thank you for the list.

    Also, have you received your copy of Inspirations yet? The one with the yellow cover? I cant remember the date and it is at the other end of the house.

  14. This is possibly going to sound silly, but my book “The Left-Handed Embroiderer’s Companion” is the one I refer to all the time! Sure, I wrote it, but truthfully, I cannot keep all the instructions for all those stitches in my head all the time, so I refer to it very often! And it also helps me to remind me of the existence of some of the more esoteric stitches, and USE them! All very nice to know of weird stitches, but using them keeps them alive!

    I also refer to “The Right-Handed Embroiderer’s Companion” regularly, as it reminds me how most other people work stitches! 🙂

    In terms of other peoples’ books, I love Mary Thomas’s Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches – the old one, not the revised one.

  15. Here are three more that I refer to often… ‘Embroidery Stitches’ by Mary Webb (covers both embroidery and canvas stitching); ‘Crazy Quilting – The Complete Guide’ by J. Marsha Michler (about crazy quilting, but there are tons of great illustrated stitches); and ‘Embroidery & Crazy Quilt Stitch Tool” by Judith Baker Montano (probably one of my favourites – instructions are shown for both left and right handed stitchers).

  16. In addition to those books which you mentioned, I also enjoy using The Anchor Book series: Counted Thread; Canvaswork; Crewelwork; Hardanger; Free-Style embroidery; and Ribbon embroidery. This series, published by David & Charles in association with Coats Crafts UK, is small in size with step-by-step diagrams, color photographs of the motifs showing the stitches in use and patterns for many of the designs. I find their size (approx. 5 1/2″ x 6″) very convenient to tuck into one’s workbasket. There are approximately 50-90 different stitches in each book with both written and illustrated instructions. I purchased the books for $5.00 each.

  17. I’m a new stitcher and also have Donna Kooler’s Encyclopedia of Needlework. Most of the time, though, I’ve been referring here to Mary’s archives. She’s a natural teacher and it shows. I’m also a lefty, so that left-handed book will be mine by the time the year is out.

    I’m an intermediate crocheter, and I learned by mirroring my grandmother. I can generally flip an image in my mind and manage a stitch (crochet or otherwise), but it can get a bit hairy before everything is sorted out. But always, practice practice, practice. I need to make my mistakes now, and not on my Christmas present projects!

  18. Allo Mary,

    Votre message quotidien est un puissant stimulant pour les brodeuses. Merci. Étant gauchère, j’apprĂŠcie grandement The Left-Handed Embroiderer’s Companion. Merci Yvette au nom des gauchères.
    Allo Mary, Your letter every day is a stimulant for us, the embroiders. Thank you. Being left-hander, I have always The Left-Handed Embroiderer’s Companion on my table. Thank Yvette from all the left-handed embroiderers. I am French from Québec, sorry for my bad English.
    Long life letters from Mary.

  19. Hi, Mary:

    “Sometimes workers try deliberately to make an embroidery appear like a painting, and with this object they disguise the stitches by making them imitate the technique of the brush. The technique of embroidery, rather than being disguised, needs emphasising, for rightly chosen and properly used it has much intrinsic value. Stitches, apart from what they express, possess qualities such as beauty of form, ingenuity and mystery, for they are sometimes curiously wrought, and in this there is charm.”

    This was written by Mrs. Archibald (Grace) Christie in her 1920 book, “Samplers and Stitches.”

    This is a treasured stitch book on my bookshelf that I return to again and again, for it has greatly influenced not only how I do stitches, but more importantly my perspective of how they are used in a design. Over and over, Mrs. Christie not only guides one on the execution of the stitch, she gently informs and advises the reader on how the stitch was used in the past, whether by Western European or Eastern embroiderers, for she was well versed on the textile holdings of the Victoria and Albert museum.

    Reading her stitch descriptions is like having a patient expert at your elbow who not only wants you to master the execution of the stitches, she wants you to appreciate the romance and dignity of the “special language” that stitches themselves impart.


    L. Haidar
    Access Commodities, Inc.

    P. S. On page 26 of her book is a line drawing of a 16th century embroidered jacket that she drew herself. In fact, most of the book’s illustrations are done by her.

  20. “When I bring up the Needle Arts class here on Needle ‘n Thread (which I promise won’t be every day!), I hope to make whatever I write about useful for you, too.”

    On the contrary. For those of us who are new at embroidery, I think showing what you do in your class would be very helpful. I would love to see how you incorporate various stitches into a piece and then suggest ways display the piece when finished.

    I also would love for you to do a series on the satin stitch. I consider a beautiful satin stitch the hallmark of an accomplished embroider. My goal is to be able to do satin stitch work that is as beautiful as yours. Okay, that may be more than I can do, but I will try!

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