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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How to Choose a Ground Fabric for Hand Embroidery


Amazon Books

“Ground Fabric” sounds funny. If you’ve been around embroidery for a while, you probably know what it means, but for newbies, when they hear the term “ground fabric,” it raises questions.

I don’t mean ground, as in the past tense of grind – we aren’t putting the fabric in the coffee grinder (well, not today, anyway). And I don’t mean ground, as in dirt. By all means, keep your fabric out of the dirt! By “ground,” I mean the foundation upon which embroidery is worked. So, “ground fabric” is your embroidery fabric – it’s the foundation of your embroidery.

Right now, I’m in a Ground Fabric Quandary. I have a few projects in the Test Run phase. They’re ready to be worked out, but I’m oscillating over choices for ground fabrics. So let’s chat a bit about ground fabrics!

Fabric for Hand Embroidery

Fabric Swatch Books

I already know I want to use linen for the projects I have in mind, so I’ll concentrate on just my linen choices at this point.

Above, you can see part of my collection of linen swatches.

It’s super handy to build a collection of swatches. With a swatch collection, you have a little sample of different types of fabrics that will help you make some preliminary decisions about the fabric to choose for a hand embroidery project. Knowing what’s available and what it looks and feels like is a huge help, when it comes to making fabric decisions.

Build Your Own Swatch Collection

You can easily build your own collection of swatches over time. I really liked the idea of these clear plastic sleeves, each one labeled with the type of fabric, the color name, the thread count if applicable, and so forth. So I invested in these baseball card sleeves from Amazon, which I keep in a binder. As I try different fabrics for different projects, I put a small piece about the size of baseball card into a slot on the sleeve, and I label the outside of the slot with whatever information I know about the fabric, including where I originally found it.

It helps to cut and categorize swatches right away, whenever you acquire knew fabric. Otherwise, you might forget some details – like where you found it, or exactly what kind of fabric it is.

I try to keep my swatches categorized by manufacturer and type. So, for example, all my Legacy linen swatches are in their own pages, while I have a separate page for other linens, a page for silks and silk satins, a page for different types of velvets, a page of muslin from different manufacturers (Moda, etc.), cotton blends, linen blends, and so forth.

The swatches aren’t big, so I can’t stitch samples on them, but they are large enough to get the feel of the fabric, to know its weight, to see what it looks like alone, and to see what it looks like with different colors of thread.

Narrow Down Your Fabric Choices

Fabric for Hand Embroidery

After examining my swatch book, taking out different pieces and feeling them, putting them next to the threads I’m thinking of using, I narrow down my possibilities to usually a few fabrics. Sometimes, to more than a few!

After my last perusal of my swatch book, I narrowed down my linen choices to this stack. I ordered some pieces of the linen, so that I could stitch on them.

The pieces you order for testing don’t have to be huge. Some stores allow you to order linen in common sized cuts, which can be a whole lot less expensive than buying a fat quarter, for example. Needle in a Haystack in California will do this for you – and they’ll even neaten the edge of your cut of fabric for you for free, which is a nice bonus! I love them for that! If you visit the fabric page on the Needle in a Haystack website, you’ll find all kinds of good information about embroidery fabrics, cut sizes, and fabric terminology. Definitely worth perusing!

Fabric for Hand Embroidery

After seeing the larger cuts of fabric, I decided to focus on four that I’d like to test by actually stitching on them with the threads I have in mind, plus any other threads that might work better.

You can see that I’ve strayed away a bit from my “normal” palette of ground fabrics. My normal palette is usually white, bright white, antique white… you get the idea! And occasionally, I dabble on natural colored linens, too (kind of oaty colors).

For this experiment, I’ve narrowed down to four Legacy linens. I really love their linens.

Color was on my mind for a change, so I’ve chosen Atmosphere, Baltic Green, Wren Wing, and Porcelain Pink. Wren Wing, I’ve used before for surface embroidery projects, and I like it a lot. It’s a dark natural color, but the other three colors are blue, pale green and pale pink. All four of the fabrics are even-weave, from 30 to 34 count fabric, but they are suitable for surface embroidery because the threads of the fabric “fill” the fabric. There aren’t a lot of really thin threads that leave big, naked strips in the fabric.

For the type of stitching I’m planning to do, all four of these should be suitable. They wouldn’t hold up to heavy surface stitching (goldwork, heavy crewel work and the like) without a backing fabric behind them, but for medium-type surface stitching (most whitework, and general surface embroidery) they will work well.

Now, I’ll test! I’ll see how my color choices really work, stitched, on the fabrics. (In fact, I’m hesitating about colors, too – I have a palette of colors in mind, plus I have the option of whitework threads – not quite sure yet.) I’ll also see how the fabrics hold up to the stitching I want to do – whether they will need a backing fabric, whether they will work on their own. And who knows – maybe in the testing, I’ll decide that none of the four will do. Or maybe I’ll decide that all four will do, and then I’ll have a tough choice to make.

I’ll let you know how it pans out!

What about you? Do you have a favorite go-to fabric for your hand embroidery projects? If so, what is it and why do you like it? Are you always on the look out for decent embroidery fabrics? What do you look for in the fabrics you choose? Let’s chat about fabrics for hand embroidery! Have your say below!


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(35) Comments

  1. What a great idea! I really love this as it’s the same concept as doing swatches for knitting. I’m very limited in places I can buy fabric for embroidery, crewel, etc… are there online companies you can suggest?

  2. I do something similar for my swatch book, only I have a sheet that I use for each type of fabric to which I staple a sample. It gives me much more room to make notes. I like the baseball card holder idea, though, for keeping color swatches if I have multiple colors of a given fabric. In fact, I need to refresh my swatch book because some of the info is obsolete… hmmm time for some sample ordering maybe…

  3. Great topic, Mary, especially for those getting started in moving beyond what a designer specifies on a chart. I’m curious to see what you are planning. Quite a range of colors – I’m guessing those are in your project palette.
    For my own stitching, mostly counted thread stitches, my “go-to” choice tends to be 32 ct linen. Love Lakeside Linens – great “hand”. Also like Graziano (usually Sienna), when I can get it. Glenshee (29 ct) is another linen with a very full weave. My LNS carries a lot of 30 ct R&R, which I find rather stiff and an ‘open’ weave, although a wide color range. Lugana 25 ct has worked well for hardanger.

  4. Hi Mary,
    My Amazon wish list is becoming huge due largely to your blog recommendations! Baseball card sleeves as sample holders – brilliant idea. I have nothing useful to add about what types of fabrics I use as ground as it changes constantly while I’m also doing free motion stitching on my machine in conjunction with hand embroidery, but I am getting the kick in the butt I needed to start paying more attention to what I do use and document it. Thanks for another great informative blog post!

  5. I’m extremely limited with funds so I stick with cotton. I think the most I’ve spent is $7/yard but I’ve also been blessed to have been given some fabrics to embroider. Again nothing special but beautiful just the same. I appreciate your teaching me/us though because you never know, I may someday do something that NEEDS to be very fine and I’ll have a place to go for help on top of my sometimes shady memory!

  6. Mary,
    Your columns are always so timely for me! I was just wishing I could learn more about ‘ground’ fabrics and…boom…here’s your column!

    Thank you so much for sharing your extensive knowledge and expertise AND for the friendly, warm way in which you do it! I so enjoy reading Needle n’ Thread every day!

  7. Dear Mary,

    I’m a newbie of sorts….. I love embroidery I’ve also done some but never as meticulously as a hard core stitcher should! I’m truly inspired by you…trying to complete some ancient( at least three year old) embroidery pieces and will start something new. Soon.

    I’m trying to complete this old needle painting embroidery piece on terricot ….. And the cloth is so tightly woven that my enbroidery thread is kind of fraying after a few stitches!!

    Thanks for letting us in on your thinking process on fabrics! Some day i hope you tell about “backing fabric”….. sorry i’m an ignoramus here!


  8. I love how organized you are. I am so OCD about, well, everything, but being super organized is one of my biggest issues. This idea is great and I will definitely begin using this method. I just love your newsletter and all the wonderful ideas it brings.

  9. Hi Mary, Thank you for the opportunity to learn more about embroidery fabric. Would you please write a little something on thread count and what each is suitable for? I am fairly new to embroidery and am confused on which fabric count to use for redwork as opposed to crewel work. Thank you in advance for your response.

    1. Yes, please! I would like to expand beyond Aida. I was just going to start on some old napkins I have, but I am not sure about appropriate weave for the work. You are such a font of knowledge!

  10. I had a good chuckle about ‘ground fabric’!
    Mstly I am doing cross stitch and want either an aida fabric (16 count preferred) or linen/evenweave. At the moment I am wanting a 25 count for a Heaven and Earth design and will probably choose cream because the stitching will completely cover it. For surface embroidery I do like linen and am quite happy to use pastel shades but rarely deepr ones. I cannot afford the luxury of buying several pieces so would just look in a shop.For my cross stitch it would be Zweigart fabrics – and I have visited their factory.

  11. I love the idea of the baseball card holders. That is very smart idea that I will be using now. I am having a very hard time finding places that sell embroidery items locally so I am looking on line and so far I have not had any luck. (I can find cross stitch Aida cloth)Your website is the best for learning stitches and gaining knowledge but I really need somewhere that I can purchase supplies within a budget.

  12. Because I paint on my fabric as well and create really detailed work, I use 10 mm habotai silk, backed with 100% quilting cotton. It is beautiful to stitch through and the cotton is a good stabalizer as well as hidding any trailing threads. Another fabric I really like is a silk wool blend that is a twill weave available from G&S Dye in Toronto. It also paints beautifully and is a heavier weight fabric. Great when I want to work with more textured threads such as wools.

  13. Over the years, I have used quilting cotton fabric to do my hand embroidery. Recently, I wondered about exploring other types of fabrics and different embroidery styles (like fabric painting and stump work). Today’s message was “spot on” with what I am searching out to know about fabric! Thanks for this great topic!

  14. Dear Mary

    Thanks for the article Mary and for your advise on fabric and thread combination. Never thought to have swatches of fabric and compare with the thread to see if they match it’s saves so much time in the long run. Great idea to organise and label the swatches. I can’t wait to see what the project is.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  15. Ik kijk altijd naar hoeveel draden er zijn , vaak vind ik 16 draden per centimeter mooi!
    Het liefst wat ecru of nog donkerder!

  16. What a good idea for keeping swatches. I never would have though of that- and I needed the idea so badly.
    Thanks for all that you do.

  17. Mary;
    Being a rather newbie at more than just simple embroidery, I am hesitant to write but maybe there wiill be someone else in my category. I have done one sampler from Trish Berg and love her work . I received two of her books for Chrustmas and one on gold work. Anyhow I purchased a 200 count cotton fabric for her sampler and loved the feel and how it turned out. Trish also gave me her approval for this fabric. It seems that there are more embs that are unable to get other types of fabrics where they live. Any how here is my two cents worth on what little I know.

  18. My main embroidery love is needle painting.
    I like a very smooth surface so, silk doupioni
    or shantung backed with silk organza is my
    favorite ground. Thanks to Mary’s generous sharing
    of information, I bought a set of Evertite frame bars.
    I LOVE them! I just ordered the System 4 stand and
    can’t wait to try it. I’m so looking forward to fuss and
    grumble free stitching!

  19. What do you recommend for crewel? I would enjoy your comments on how to start one’s own design, fabric, how to choose colors, stitches, yarns, etc.

    1. Crewel is traditionally done on linen twill. However, I also like to do crewel work on regular weave linen. If you can’t find linen twill, a medium weight linen with at least 36 threads per inch would do. Strathaven natural linen works well for crewel, as does Alba Maxima by Legacy (it’s white-white, though). ~MC

  20. As a cross stitcher I usually end up with aida cloth, but I really like linen for its even weave and different weights depending upon how I will use it. Legacy is great fabric, but I have to order it out of a specialty catalog. Most of my stitching ends up on tea towels or comes from kits that are preselected. I keep swatches of my fabrics for quilting purposes as well so that I can mix and match weights and colors.

  21. I’m with Rashmi … would love to hear more about backing fabric some time. The concept boggles my mind. How do you know when to use one? What type of fabric do you use? Do you attach it some way to your ground fabric? Color me confused.

  22. I am always on the look out for fabrics. I recently tried out an online source called fabric.com. I ordered several linen / cotton blends as well as a 100% organic cotton duck cloth and twill. The most expensive fabric was $12.98 per yard and I even ordered a duck cloth on sale for $3.99. My order was received promptly with no shipping charges. I was really happy with all my fabric choices. I know this isn’t on the same level as Legacy linen, but I’m new to embroidery and crewel and this gives me the opportunity to learn with a modest expenditure. I love your site and check in at least twice a day.

  23. Hi Mary,

    Thank you for your interesting article on ground fabric. I have two questions. When you use linen, should it only be linen twill and if you are using a material that needs a backing, what should you use for the backing?

    Thank you,

    Belle Gallay

  24. Oh Mary, it would be lovely to know what “weight?” of linen would be best to support a particular type of embroidery or thread. I bought some linen (don’t know if I can mention the type) and I’m hoping to do the design with Coton a Broder 25 but am concerned that the linen is a bit on the “light/thin” side. Is there a rule of thumb or similar?

  25. Speaking of fabric…..my age will be quite apparent when I tell you that early in my stitching career all of the fabrics were either cream or white. There were no pastels (horrors!) or bright colors (even worse!) but only the ones that nature provided. I buy all of my fabric and thread from the Nordic Needle. When I was in Copenhagen, they referred me to the Nordic Needle in case I ran out of thread. And they have every kind of fabric in all sorts of thread counts. It’s an amazing place. I think they give a discount depending on how many miles you drive to get there! Better ask to see if they’re still doing that!


  26. Hi, Mary! Thank you for the info. Would you be able to explain the difference between plain-weave and even-weave fabric, and give some examples of a plain-weave fabric?

  27. Thank you for your newsletter describing how you label and choose fabrics for embroidery.
    I have a wedding project coming up that I have to hand monogram the couple’s initials on a towel set. It is amazing that your recent newsletters have covered lots of my questions.
    Since the towles are especially “loopy” I know I cannot embroider right on the towels and have been in a quandry of what fabric to choose for the monogram backing. I then figured to attach the monogram diamond to the hand towels only, with Rayon threads in my Brazilian collection by doing a narrow border of the flowers in the brides bouquet along with a vine. Do you think a linen would hold up in the wash. I hate to use Trigger fabric because it is so stiff. I figure with the flower border there wouldn’t be much of the fabric showing. I would hate for it to disintegrate with the first washing after putting so much work into it. What fabric would you suggest to use for this?
    Thanks for your newsletter it is so very helpful. Thank you also for your help with this. I am at witt’s end.

  28. Since 90% of my embroidery is on crazy quilting the notion of choosing a ground fabric is not an issue, but I am interested in doing other styles of embroidery and so it does become an issue.

    One of my projects involved stitching that covered the entire piece of fabric. I would like your advice on whether I should use expensive linen for that or is common calico/muslin acceptable? I used unbleached calico and after the stitching was done backed it with a natural seeded linen which was appropriate for the subject matter, but I am not sure whether it is the ‘done thing’ to use the cheaper cotton.
    Thanks, as always, for your great informative articles.

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