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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Desperate Times, Alien Hands, and Silk Threads


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Desperate times call for desperate measures – even in the calm and sedate world of hand embroidery.

I have a hand problem. It’s called “Dishes,” which closely akin to that other problem called “Meal Preparation.” Normally, I expect chapped or rough skin on my hands in the winter months, and I prepare for it. But I was taken unawares when this situation creeped up on me last week.

Embroidery Hand Care

I’ve talked about hand care before here on Needle ‘n Thread – an apt subject for the embroiderer, especially if you’re working with silk.

Now, mind you, I’m not a ninny about my hands. There’s a cliché out there about ounces of prevention and all that, but in fact, in every month but winter (November through March in Kansas), beyond regular moisturizer when I feel the need, I don’t fuss over my phalanges.

I don’t, for example, wear rubber gloves when I do dishes. And I like the water hot. Hot, hot.

I don’t get manicures as a rule. Though I did get one once as a gift, it’s not really “me.” (I can do it at home if I need to, for a lot less!)

I scrub lots of vegetables several times a day, and my favorite tool for that is often… my hands.

I’ll do whatever I need to do with my hands – even if it means breaking a nail, getting them dirty, and all that stuff. Mud pies with the kids? Sure, why not! Carving pumpkins and scooping out the seeds by hand? Is there an easier way to get that stringy mess out?

So I’m not a ninny about my hands!

Embroidery Hand Care

But this is the thing: there comes a time in the life of a woman where, even in the privacy of her own workroom, there is a certain level of consternation involved in wearing blue gloves that turn human hands into Alien Hands.

Still, I’ve discovered that these non-latex, non-powdered, nitrile gloves can be rather (ahem…) handy. Every other stitch, I was stopping to release silk from the sides of my fingers. Can’t you imagine the frustration? Desperate times call for desperate measures. I donned a blue glove onto my stitching hand, and voilá! The problem was solved.

It takes a bit of getting used to, stitching with these things on. And I suppose that there are other solutions – for example, these finger gloves. But I don’t have those anymore. A friend (thanks, Louise!) dropped off a bunch of these gloves, thinking they might help with dish-doing, and I thought, Why not try stitching with them?

These are the medium sized gloves and they’re a bit big, but they still work. I’m not sure if there’s any hard and fast rule about using these types of gloves when you stitch. I don’t know if the chemicals from which they are made might affect the threads or fabrics adversely in the long run. I rarely touch my fabric when I’m stitching (I don’t rest my hands on it) and I only have enough contact with the threads to cause them to snag. With so little contact, I doubt there’d be any effect. But maybe someone else out there knows better?

Later this week, I’ll compare two products made specifically to help the needleworker out in similar situations. Hand care is a topic worth talking about, especially with winter coming on, because we all have lives, and our hands do work. But when we sit down to stitch with beautiful and often expensive threads, it is a shame to undergo snagging frustrations, or worse yet, to damage the threads because our Most Important Tools (our hands!) need a little attention.

I’ve got a few other things up my sleeve in the next couple weeks. I’ve been slowly and steadily developing some smaller projects that I’ll show you. We’re in the last two weeks of The Nesting Place online class, and I’m planning another run of it after the first of the year. And I’ve even been editing some more how-to videos that I’m looking forward to sharing!

Hey. Maybe I should wear the blue gloves in the videos. Now, wouldn’t that be alluring?

Have a great Monday!

If you’d like access to all the tips and techniques discussed in the Medallion Project, including complete step-by-step coverage of the Tudor-Style Rose, conveniently collected in one document, interlinked, referenced, and indexed, why not add the Marian Medallion Project e-book to your library? It’s packed full of all kinds of embroidery tips for undertaking a project like this, all in a convenient electronic format for easy searching.


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(34) Comments

  1. This is so topical! I just planted my garden and was clipping my fingernails, digging the dirt out and scrubbing *HARD* the next morning for a class I was taking. Thanks for the tip! I wondered if those gloves would work!

  2. I do everything with my hands too, including woodwork and that dust can dry your hands out quickly. On top of that I am allergic to any lotion that contains perfume and in South Africa finding affordable lotion without perfume can become quite a mission. Some time ago I found one that contains Evening Primrose oil and Vit E and my hands are in quite a good state of repair these days, but the dry and flaky skin still raises its ugly head every now and again, the only thing that helps for this is good old petroleum jelly which takes forever to be adsorbed, my solution is to put it on when I go to bed which does spoil my linen, but it is either that or no embroidery and painful hands, so the bed linen is spoiled forever, but I get to enjoy my favorite hobby!!!!!

  3. G’day Mary, ya right ya know. As alluring as a doctor (either sex or otherwise) coming at you with blue gloves on, non-latex, non-powdered, nitril or otherwise, when your in a compromising position on the table, or otherwise!!
    Anyway, I’d rather have the allurement of those blue gloves than NO videos. I imagine the closer fitting ones could/would be ideal. I’ve taken over the gardening more now Mum isn’t here and the hands are objecting. I try to wear gloves but…as an alternative I can give them a try for embroidery eh.
    Thanks for the post, of good interest. Cheers, Kath.

  4. Our local pharmacist’s method for winter dry hands is to keep a jar of vaseline by every sink in the house. After washing your hands and before drying them rub vaseline into them. this helps keep the moisture in. My variation is to keep an tube of Udder Ointment by all the sinks and use after my hands are almost dry. It’s non-greasy.
    Years ago another pharmacist said to do 2 things. Drink lots of water so you’re not dehydrated,hence dried out, and 2 to slather up with vaseline or plain petroleum jelly at night and wear a pair of those white cotton gloves so you don’t get everything greasy-that will keep your hands from drying out overnight when you’re snuggled down ice and warm….and dry.

  5. In my line of work (wildlife rehab) my hands take a beating too. Scrubbing cages, wrestling beavers and porcupines, cleaning wounds, getting grabbed and pinched by geese and hawks all take a toll on my hands. So even working with DMC floss can be a challenge at times.

    There are gloves used in surgery that are wonderful. Most gloves desensitize your hands to some degree. The surgical gloves almost seem to enhance it. I can feel every little wound, bump, suture. Now those would be excellent for you. Trick is – where do you get them?

  6. I’m sure you’ll get tons of advice for dry hands so I’ll steer clear. But my question is how do you have your pretty nails? Oh, and as a former nurse, you look like a size 5 surgical glove to me. They fit a bit snugger but hey, if we can do hours of surgery in them we can sew in them! – and I can’t resist, here is a list of super hand helpers: Utter Butter, Bag balm (you do live in Kansas after all) Lansinoh cream (it’s a nipple cream for nursing mothers but it’s make from pure lanolin, great stuff IMHO) and finally honey. Put on honey and some lansinoh and then don your gloves and sew away for a luxurious treat!

  7. Sometimes this happens to me where even with a scrub I still have little nibbs on my fingers that catch the silk thread. I have one of those block sanders that are for fingernails with the progressively fine grits. It’s the kind you get when you want to buff your nails shiney like patten leather. I use that on my nibbs, usually on the 2nd to smoothest side, but sometimes I have to go rougher, especially after doing yard work.

  8. Well, since I got mentioned by name today, I am posting my first comment! Glad the gloves were helpful on this lovely project. As a friend of Marys, I will let you all know a little secret about her: she has the smallest hands on an adult that I have ever seen! I am going to have to see if my source has gloves available in size Petite for you, Mary.

    1. Hi, All! Thanks for your comments! Some very good ideas here!

      Carrie – I’ve heard of Emu Oil, but I haven’t tried it myself. Interesting idea!

      Oh – Bag Balm! The first time I ever heard of it, I had no idea what it was. I thought the little tin had pretty strawberries on it, until I looked closely and saw that they were cow udders! I know lots of folks who use it for eczema, but I’ve not actually used it for moisturizing – I might try it. You’re right, Heather, we have it in all the local pharmacies in Kansas!

      Thanks for the surgical gloves idea, Irene!

      Bette – Yes – drinking water is So Important for skin moisture (and for a bunch of other reasons, too). I’m a gallon-a-day-er myself. In deep winter, when chapping is a problem due to wind and severe cold, I sleep with cotton gloves with either vaseline or sometimes vapor rub on my hands. Works wonders. Vapor rub can sting if your skin is really chapped, though. But in cold season, it’s helpful!

      Thanks, Louise! Funny, as far as the hands go – they’re more like paws than hands. It’s the only reason I try to keep some length on my nails – so my fingers look longer! 🙂

      Kath – you’re right. Blue gloves are better than no videos, eh? But I don’t really have a problem with cotton threads, which is what I use in the videos, so that’s good!

      Elga – I prefer non-perfumed lotion, myself, but not for allergic reasons. More for peace of mind – I don’t want to sniff my hands all day. And I don’t want anyone else to, either!

      Dee – Non-latex finger gloves would be a great idea for those with allergies. I don’t know of any sources myself, but I’ll keep an eye out.

      Again, thanks for the informative comments!!

  9. Has anyone tried Emu Oil or Emu Lotion? (It comes from a bird by the say name I believe.) There are different grades/types out there for different uses. Check out a local health foods/natural foods store or on line. It was recommended by a physician when other products would not work. I was told that it was well known and used in Australia and New Zealand. Has anyone else heard about this?

  10. A tip not mentioned here or in your post on hand care is to use the same exfoliator you use on your face to smooth your hands. No mixing and storing of sugar and oil and whatever! I use Estee Lauder’s So Polished. I squeeze a dab on my palm and rub my hands for a couple of minutes. Rinse off and start sewing.

  11. From a rabbit raiser, where you get not only dry hands, but scratches constantly:

    Silk glove liners, the tightly-woven, very thin kind. Super sleek! Nylon ones also help.

    If you can find it, the Vaseline Intensive Care hand and nail formulation is very good, although still scented.

    Best hand conditioner EVER? (Don’t anybody gross out on me, please..) Raw or rendered SHEEP or LAMB lard. Not lanolin from the wool, although some folks say that’s their go-to, but the fat from the meat. Talk to your local custom butchers, and apply at room temperature. Did wonders for my hands, but then I’m a little wierd. 🙂 Doesn’t smell much either.

    As with so many other things, everyone is different in how they react to various lotions and potions, so don’t be afraid to try many things!

  12. I can’t speak for the chemical properties of nitrile per se, but I do know that one of the major reasons hospitals have switched to using them is that so many people (myself included — hence the knowledge) are allergic to latex, and this was becoming an increasing problem for hospital personal who were, well, wearing the stuff constantly, and hence more likely to develop a severe sensitivity.

    So here’s my guess — if latex is chemically active enough for people to develop allergies, but nitrile use isn’t showing the same problems (at least, so far), there might be a good chance that your “Alien Hands” might have less of an impact on precious threads than the tiny flecks of latex that are probably shed from the regular finger gloves (I say this because anyone who’s watched a pair of dish-washing gloves get brittle over time as seen them start to shed flakes…)?

    In other words, bravo for making a new discovery that I, for one, definitely want to try myself!

  13. Mary,
    My daughter is allergic to latex so she uses these nitrile gloves all the time. The blue disposables she uses at home for clean up jobs and painting, etc. She’s also the one in charge of all her company’s neighborhood outreach programs, like the picking up junk along the road program twice a year and the planting of bulbs in the fall and pansies in the spring around downtown etc. She has found a thicker nitrile glove (it’s knit lined) that chemical and lab workers, auto repair and professional cleaners use for really rough jobs for picking up stuff along the road and the river, because you never know what the “stuff” really is, and these are also more puncture resistant. There’s also black ones with a textured grip in the palm that are a bit heavier for maintenance work. The nitrile gloves do tend to run a bit small… she usually wears a size small in a regular glove, but gets mediums in the nitrile ones. A hand that is 7-8″ around at the palm is supposed to need a small…. she’s 7 1/2″ but gets a medium (usually for 8-9″ palms). She finds the best price for these gloves is not at a medical supply place, but at Harbor Freight… a hardware/tools type place. They’re something like $7 for 100 of the blue gloves on sale (reg $10 for blue or black texturized ones). The knit lined kind are much more expensive… about $8 the pair and harder to find). BTW, nitrile gloves are also deemed “food safe” for restaurant and cafeteria workers. They don’t chemically react to foods or the acids in sauces or condiments, etc… and they keep the spread of germs and bacteria down.
    PS… and I love my “Cow cream”..AKA “Udderly SmOOth” for my hands when sewing or embroidery. I’ve used Bag Balm, but it’s a bit “greasy” to me…. “Cow cream” (comes in a black/white cow print tube or jar) is NOT greasy…is absorbed into your skin almost immediately so you can get right back to sewing, is non-staining and is quite inexpensive… about $1 for a 4 oz jar or tube. It can be picked up in any fabric shop or even Wally World in the pharmacy department.

  14. Highly recommend lanolin, pure if you can get it, or a lanolin based product. Smooth on your hands then put on some cotton gloves & sleep on it. Sorbolene cream works too. Both readily available on supermaket shelves here in Australia, not sure about elsewhere. I have been known to use disposable gloves when preparing vegetables, I can still feel everything very well including the hot water but without the damage it brings. Dermatologist once told me not to use hot hot water, & to tone it down a few degrees. Used to garden with out gloves too, now they are a must. Have heard of emu oil but have not tried it.

  15. You mention washing your dishes in hot water..I have a good suggestion for you. Invest in a pair of rubber gloves, slather your hands with an excessive amount of your favourite cream, put the gloves on and wash the dishes. The heat from the water ‘drives’ the cream into your hands and, in effect, gives you a sauna treatment. It works and it’s a cheap solution.


  17. Hi Mary, A hint for those who like to work in the garden with their bare hands. Wet a bar of soap and scratch with your nails over the surface so that the soap goes under your fingernails. When you are finished in the garden just brush with a nail brush and water and voila! clean fingernails. :)Another tip for the hands, give your hands a good rub with udder cream or what ever you prefer. and put on those very same blue gloves when you go to sleep and keep them on overnight 🙂 xx

  18. hi Mary,
    i did a class with a silk embroidery teacher who is also a gardener and she recommends rubbing fresh lemon juice on your hands before stitching, it smooths out all the dry skin.

  19. Try the following to make your hands smooth:

    Rub your hands with baby oil. Massage in a teaspoon of sugar. Add a squirt of liquid soap or dishwashing liquid and wash your hands. This will leave them soft, free of nicks and very clean.

  20. Hi Mary–will you be joining the Blue Men on tour next?? LOL Just wanted to second the motions for sugar & evoo (extra virgin olive oil) & nail smoothers. Mix equal amounts of sugar (sugar in the raw works best because of the size of the crystals) & evoo–1 tsp each is plenty. Massage vigorously into your hands & nails, then wash & dry well. Nail smoothers are great on the corners where cracks develop between skin & nail. Also, Mary Kay makes the Satin Hands products. Great–but more expensive than ingredients in your pantry. I would also recommend a hand spa. My manicurist ordered one for me & I’ve taken it to seminars to share with roomies. Great fun wearing the heated mitts after a long day of stitching. Slather on the MK Satin Hands & let the emollients go to work. Make it a nightly ritual.

  21. My hands are a mess, and I have tried almost all the tricks mentioned here. Some nights when I am trying to stitch with fine silk threads I have even been known cry with the frustration of it all.

    It’s true that here in Australia emu oil products are highly recommended, and you can check them out at http://www.punchwithjudy.com.au. I haven’t used them myself because of the ornithophobia problem – I just can’t get my head around where the stuff comes from.

    I use Bag Balm as much as possible, but you can’t slather it on right before you start stitching because it is so greasy. I mostly use Innoxa One and All for very dry hands,nayy, and it helps a bit, as does the sugar and olive oil rub.

    Does anyone know where one could obtain nitrile gloves in Australia – our supermarkets are still selling latex.

  22. Always had a big problems with my hand skin but finally have resolved….Udderly Smooth cream was the solution that saved my poor hands, 3 times a day.

  23. You should try this hand cream http://www.dermaguard.com/ it’s called Derma Guard and when you put it on, it gives a kind of coating to your hands (but it’s non greasy and wont rub off on anything). I suffer from eczema on my hands, if I’m doing any needlework, I smooth this on, wait 2 minute, then I can get sewing without snagging the threads. I don’t work for this company and have no affiliation with them, but I do think this product is a miracle!

  24. Mary,

    Last fall my annual cracked dry hands season arrived with a vengence. By Thanksgiving, I had a split or crack in tip of every single finger! My aunt was visiting and she recommended I switch dishwashing liquids and use Dawn Hand Renewal with Olay Beauty. I haven’t had a bleeding split finger since! No wonder they use it in the dental clinics she works in as their hand soap!

    As far as Bag Balm goes, I would issue a word of caution. I used it extensively on my daughter’s eczema covered, dry, cracked hands when she was little and it turned her skin the same yellowy color. Now children’s skin is much more fragile and it more easily absorbs things, but still I wouldn’t use it on my hands or get it near my stitching projects.

    Thanks for all the lotion suggestions,

  25. Reading your article the other day, and seeing your blue gloves, reminded me of what I was going through. I was also asking many people over the last few weeks about lotions and creams. My hands have gotten really dry working with fabric and threads as I embroider as well as doing crochet. No one had an answer for me. While shopping I did find a product called Wool Wax Creme skin care Formula AT-10. It is great! Non greasy formula made with lanolin. I’ve only used it for about 1 week, but it is non greasy, and I’ve seen a considerable improvement in my hands since starting to use it. I even started using it on my heels and elbows. Really great stuff, and the cost was in the $3 – $4 range for a 9 oz jar. And a little goes a long way. From reading their website it is sold in all 50 states. I would recommend it.

  26. Mary, that sounds exactly like my typical day. I never use a dishwashing machine (too noisy and takes 40 minutes at least) Latex gloves will self-destruct if using creams and lotions before donning them. Try using Crisco shortening beforehand since it is the only thing that won’t eat away the latex – plus a big tub is dirt cheap!

  27. Here at Country Bumpkin in Australia our stitching friends seem to love The Udderly Smooth Udder Cream. We have it in several sizes, purse pack, larger and even a tub! The feedback we get is that it doesn’t leave residue, so great for stitches and we post it all over the world!!!www.countrybumpkin.com.au

  28. I string pearls with silk thread and have the same problem with the thread catching on my dry hands. I agree that you need to use a dishwashing liquid that won’t dry your hands if you don’t wear rubber gloves. I found Udderly Smooth cream when I saw a store display that said it’s good for quilters because it doesn’t stain the fabric, so that’s what I use during the day. At bedtime I recommend Aquaphor, which contains Petrolatum, Mineral Oil, Ceresin, and Lanolin Alcohol. It’s the same consistency as vaseline and has no odor. It’s a bit expensive, but you only use a little, so it lasts for a very long time. Apply to damp hands and wear thin cotton gloves to keep them from staining your linens. I get my gloves at the Dollar Store (or you can make cotton mitts from an old T-shirt–just trace your hand, cut it out, and stitch!). One other thing–you might not realize it, but in the winter, the car heater can do a number on your hands, too. Either make sure that the heat is not directed toward your hands or wear gloves.

  29. This got a lot of response. I have one more recommendation, Renew healing hand lotion from Melaleuca. It uses tea tree oil which has penetration properties not found in other lotions, thus healing at a deeper level. It is non-greasy (absorbed quickly) which is another reason to try it.

    You can not find it in the store however, you need to order directly from a shopping representative, which I am. Feel free to contact me for more information. Renew is especially effective for people with eczema and psoriasis. Major improvement in 24 hours vs. Eucern’s effectiveness in 14 days!

  30. Hi Mary,

    My husband and I have the same problem when washing dishes… We even have to take turns our finger start to peal and his get even worse then mine… He believes that the detergent is too strong for our hands… we even dilute it and still too strong… Hope your hands get better

    Jennifer G

  31. I had a slightly different problem: Sunday morning is major facial exfoliation and treatment – 10% AHA. Sunday afternoon needlepoint time became difficult because my fingertips had become so smooth and exfoliated the needle just would not stick.

  32. I am so happy that I came across your article. I was searching for any information on gloves for embroidery but only found articles on actually embroidering on gloves. For the last 6 months I have been having a rough time with my hands and have not been able to fix them. It’s a cycle that starts with terrible itching which of course leads to clawing to stop the itching that doesn’t work which leads to dead skin then cracked skin then open cracks. It’s a vicious cycle. I could open a store for all the creams and lotions I’ve bought. I have boxes of nitrile gloves to use with my resin craft but assumed the thread would stick to them. Trying them today. Love your site.

    1. Thanks, Carolyn! Yep, it’s an ongoing cycle! Perhaps a visit to a dermatologist might help, though? When it’s deep itching like that, there might be something that can be done for it.

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