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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Secret Garden Embroidery Project: Preliminaries


Amazon Books

Or should I call this preliminary preliminaries? Whatever the case…

We’ll mark today as the official start date of this series on an embroidery project based on a design by Johanna Basford, from her book Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book, which I mentioned to you in December.

To start off, I’ll show you my preliminary steps in preparing to think about embroidering the design I chose from Secret Garden, and I’ll tell you what you can expect in this kind of step-by-step project development on Needle ‘n Thread.

Secret Garden Hand Embroidery Project

The very first thing I did in preparing to prepare for this embroidery project (besides getting the artist & publisher’s permission to do all this with their book!) was consider the designs in the book and select the one I want to re-create with needle and thread.

If you’re familiar with the book and have your own copy of it, you’ll be able to go through it at this point to see what I’m talking about. Three designs struck me as particular suitable for the types of projects I was toying with: the owl, the peacock, and the hummingbirds. They each had their merits and I can easily see each of them translated with different types of embroidery techniques.

I settled on the hummingbirds finally, because as my ideas for the project developed, the “mirrored” birds seemed to be the best subject for translation.

Next, I did the one thing you should never do to a book: I cut it to pieces.

Secret Garden Hand Embroidery Project

This is where a craft knife (think x-acto) comes in handy. The way the book is bound required me to slice the page I needed out, rather than cut the page or undo the binding. A craft knife did the job well.

Unfortunately, in cutting out the hummingbird page, I had to disrupt a design on the back of the page that’s part of a two-page layout. But, it’s all for The Cause, my friends! All for The Cause! We do what we must!

Oh, yeah. And I have two copies of the book – that’s why I’m not sweating the destruction of this one!

Secret Garden Hand Embroidery Project

The next step I took is represented in the photo above, which doesn’t look too much different from the photo above it! But to clarify: I photocopied the design. In fact, I made two copies: the first is at 100% and the second at 90% (or 10% reduced in size).

Secret Garden Hand Embroidery Project

Then I marked which was which.

Why the two copies in different sizes?

Well, the 100% represents the actual size of the design as it comes in the book. It is approximately a 9.5″ circle.

Secret Garden Hand Embroidery Project

The copy that reduced the design by 10% produced approximately an 8.5″ circle. The actual elements in the design are not, individually taken, all that much different – just slightly smaller. But over all, the design is a whole inch smaller.

I wanted to see how much of a difference it would make in the individual elements, to reduce the design by 10% – I might end up working the 8.5″ round design rather than the 9.5″ round design. I haven’t made up my mind on this one yet.

Secret Garden Hand Embroidery Project

The next stop: colored pencils. This is the fun part! I love coloring, and I sat down to color with absolutely no plan – just a casual coloring exercise. I’m working on the original page from the book. I’ve found that regular Prismacolors work well here, and so do Prang colored pencils (which are much more affordable). I tried the Verithin Prismacolors, but the hard lead, when sharp, tends to tear up the paper.

Now, the colors I’m working with are not necessarily the colors I will use. In fact, I’m still playing around with ideas about techniques, stitches, and so forth. At this point, I’m just coloring the design to get familiar with it and to see what I like and don’t like, as far as colors go.

Familiarity is Important

Getting familiar with a design – especially if you didn’t draw it yourself – is a pretty essential part of the preliminary process in an embroidery project. You might glance at a design and think, Wow! That would be great as an embroidery project! But until you are actually intimately familiar with the design, you can’t make good decisions about stitches, techniques, colors, or anything else.

Keep a List!

So this step of actually coloring the original is a good way to familiarize yourself with the whole design.

Secret Garden Hand Embroidery Project

While you’re coloring, ideas about stitching will undoubtedly occur to you. It’s a good idea to keep a notebook on hand (or maybe an extra copy of the design that you can jot on), where you can write ideas down as they occur to you. Trust me! There’s nothing worse than having that Scathingly Brilliant idea that comes in a flash – that you’re sure you’ll remember – only to lose it again a few minutes later. So I always jot ideas down as I color or doodle!


Another way you can familiarize yourself with the design is to trace it. In my case, I made photocopies. But most home printers are not going to be able to handle the size of the original – it’s too wide for the typical home scanner that accommodates 8.5″ x 11″ pages. This page is approximately 10″ square, which makes tracing your pattern out a better option (though time consuming) if you can’t copy it. It might seem like a waste of time, when it would be much easier to photocopy, but while tracing, you’ll definitely accustom yourself to the details in the design.

Maybe I should mention that it’s always a good idea to have both the original of the design and at least one copy when you’re working out an embroidery project. I usually have several copies so I can play with color, take notes, doodle if I must, without worrying about marring up my pattern.

Step-by-Step Development on Needle ‘n Thread

What can you expect while I develop this project step-by-step on Needle ‘n Thread?

Secret Garden Hand Embroidery Project

Well, I’ll warn you in advance: I won’t be publishing an “official” list of thread types and colors before I start stitching – I’ll publish the ones I’m using as I go; I won’t be telling you what technique goes where, ahead of time.

Unlike embroidery kits and instructions that you purchase, this design has not yet been worked out in embroidery – that’s what the step-by-step development is all about.

What I’m going to show you here on Needle ‘n Thread are my choices, explorations, trials, errors, corrections, decision-making processes, tips and instructions and so forth as the project develops.

How can you follow along?

If you’re interested in stitching the same project, you can do it the same way I do it, by working on a delay. You can wait until I publish a finished area or element, and then stitch it the same way yourself…


… you can take what you’ll learn from my explorations and apply what you learn to your own development of the project, your own way, with your own choices of thread types, stitches, colors. That way, you’ll have something unique at the end.

You might not be interested in stitching the project yourself, or you might be interested in stitching a different design from the book (for your own personal use) – and that’s fine, too! You can still benefit from following along, because many of the points we’ll cover can be applied to any embroidery project.

Publishing Schedule

And just so you know in advance, I’ll be publishing articles on this project only occasionally – not every day. I’ll still be continuing with the same type of content you’re accustomed to on Needle ‘n Thread.

Think of it as a slow, meandering journey with a friend, full of adventures, obstacles, and fun moments along the way, and and you’ll have a good idea of what you can expect.

The Design

If you want to follow along and stitch this design – or another design in Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden coloring book – there’s one caveat: you’ll have to purchase the book. Since it’s not my design, I can’t share it with you. Please respect the artist’s copyright and don’t share the design among friends.

You can find the book through the following book affiliates:

In the US, you can find Secret Garden through Amazon and other major bookstores.

Free worldwide shipping for Secret Garden is available through Book Depository.


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(50) Comments

  1. Hi Mary
    I can’t wait to see what you are going to do with this. I bought the book after reading about in on here and tried to ‘guess’ which design you would choose but I haven’t managed to get to the end of the book yet as there is so much to look at on each page, I do like the peacock, and the fish, and the birds and bees and………everything!
    Don’t thinks I can bring myself to cut it up so may take the page and have it photocopied somewhere so I can join in and stitch.
    Thanks again for introducing me to Johanna Basford and her fantastic designs

  2. I do have copies of this book, bought for gifts when you mentioned it late last year. As I look at this design it already seems as if its individual parts are quite small and could be hard to embroider. I look forward to seeing what you do with it, Mary.

  3. I’m really looking forward to following along with this on the blog. SO true about really familiarising yourself with a design! I do botanical drawing as well as embroidery and I find that if I draw a plant (or bit of plant) I become so much more familiar with it as I’m doing the sketch, and really learn about the plant. I turned one into a small embroidery recently and having done the drawing first helped massively. It’s a similar sort of process going on here I think.

  4. So excited to see which design you chose. I love each of the ones mentioned and think any of them would have been suitable for embroidery. Really looking forward to working on this one with you.
    Thanks for taking us on another wonderful journey.

  5. My copy of Secret Garden should be arriving this week! I’m excited to participate on this pseudo-SAL. Won’t it be fun to see everyone’s interpretation of the designs? I hope we will all post pictures.


  6. Thank you for this work, I’m always curious about your approach and your step by step development.
    I am very eager to see more to adapt it to my own preferences.
    Thank you for all this.

  7. Just so you know, Mrs. Corbet, I have a (phisical) list of things that you should not do to books. It’s sort of long, and tearing books apart is most certainly on it!
    Anyway, I’m very excited about your new project. Can’t wait to share this adventure with you!

    Sarah 🙂

  8. I bought the book and markers after your post in December. Can’t wait to follow along with the project. And like you said the book has many more designs which inspire both big and little embroidery projects. I can’t wait to see your next installment on this project.

  9. Dear Mary

    It must feel good to start a new project and the Secret Garden looks so interesting with many different elements on one page. I look forward to following you on this project. Thanks for the tips above on starting a new project all the points you have made are so important when starting a new project especially familiarising yourself with the project as it makes it easier to decide on various needlework supplies. Thanks for sharing this with us. Hope you are feeling better.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  10. Oh my I love this! This is just the kind of thing I like to do and love that you are sharing your process with us! I love hummingbirds and have several designs I have thought of doing in either embroidery or applique. That book looks so fun, I will have to look for it. Looking forward to how your project progresses and thanks for continuing to be so inspiring!

  11. This looks like a very challenging project. All the small details involved, I’m anxious to see how you handle them all. I also enjoy seeing you use the colored pencils. I do that with designs (not my own since I can’t even design a straight line). My question is what do you do if you use some colors that seem right in your mind but then you decide they won’t work after all? Colored pencils don’t erase very well. My sense of color is about as good as my designing skills. LOL I end up making several copies to color until I get it right. I shred the others.

  12. Thank you so much. I bought this book for myself and my friend when you first put it on your site. I’m pleased that you will work from it and I’ve already started with photocopying a few pages to work from the book. thanks again, helen

  13. G’day Mary,
    An excellent start Mary, the beginning of the beginning. Thanks for pointing out the important preliminaries and the need for familiarisation of a design. I won’t be stitching this at the same time but hope to later. Will be following along with great interest.
    Cheers, Kath

  14. Mary…

    I just ordered the book and pencils from Amazon and the package should arrive by next week Sat. Thanks for inviting all of us to share in this new stitching adventure with you!

  15. I picked out the water well 14 pages into the book, made a 100% copy and about 10 90% copies. They are now in a contractor’s clipboard with some soft colored pencils, all ready to leave for the doctor’s shortly. Already I can see just what you mean about having to really get to know the pattern before any REAL decisions can be made!

  16. Got the book, got colouring pencils, ready to go! I am really looking forward to travelling along with you. Isn’t the internet great.

    1. Hi Sara bit off topic but great to see a fellow Irish person I’m from the north but haven’t bumped into many Irish needle enthusiasts. I love this blog for all the tips and even materials which we sometimes seem to be lacking in ireland I usually have to go to either Belfast or Dublin and still I’ve to look over the internet to find stuff so yes totally agree the internet is brilliant and so is Mary Corbet


  17. I love this Mary so excited to see this take shape. For me Im picturing it done in silks don’t know why but it has that feel to it. I’ve just ordered a copy of the book and just as excited to work out my colour scheme hb colouring it in as I am about stitching it. This is beautiful and contemporary too while still having something magical and almost fairytale about it too.


  18. Hello Mary,
    I bought the book yesterday on amazon.fr for 10 euros and … in french. It´s not a joke (with such a little bit of text :)))))
    I look forward to your next instructions …

  19. What a gorgeous design, Mary! This is going to be an amazing project.

    It is interesting to read how your colouring exercise is helping you to “learn” the pattern. I have been doing exactly the same thing with a new (as yet unrevealed) project I am working on. I can attest that it is extremely helpful!

    This will be a fun one to watch!

  20. Could cotton be used for the ground fabric? I’m new to embroidery, and I don’t want to use an expensive fabric for what is essentially a learning experiment. Everything I’ve done so far has been on dish cloths.

    If cotton can be used, do you have any suggestions? One of my friends says she uses quilting cotton, but she also quilts, and most of her work becomes part of a quilt.

    I received the book today (purchased from amazon) and it is absolutely gorgeous. I’m especially taken with the peacock and the owl and the fish, but there are so many gorgeous designs.

    I have to wonder how many sales they’ll get from this project. As soon as I received mine, I immediately purchased another copy for a friend who loves coloring books.

  21. Your Secret Garden embroidery project sounds great! Copies are such a blessing! I truly mean this. Copies and photographs (of my own work) make creating and making two dimensional works easier as they save a lot of time. I transfer my artwork via tracing paper, using Saral Transfer Paper graphite (no wax!) although making your own transfer paper works as well.

    When you mention becoming familiar with the design by coloring, do you mean developing the color scheme to be used or just being familiar with those lovely designs? I may use colored pencil minimally in conjunction with watercolor. Verithins are great for detail. I understand why they do not work for you in this project. The quality of the colored pencils have all to do with pigment lightfastness, so if the colored areas are not going to be saved for posterity, the less expensive colored pencils will be fine. If the colored designs are going to be saved and framed, I would recommend artist colored pencils, that have a greater range of colors, but cost more. Then again is always better to purchase more embroidery threads 🙂

    I love embroidery as much as painting and enjoy your blog very much. Thank you!

  22. Hi Mary,
    I’m thinking of following you on this project as an encouragement to start stitching again because Johanna Basford`s designs are really appealing. But I have a problem: I’ve never embroidered such a complex, large and elaborate design – mine tend to be quite simple – and I’m not sure I would be able to transfer it accurately to the cloth. To be honest, the simple thought of transferring it terrifies me… Would you be giving specific hints on that or would we have to search your website for those hints ourselves?

  23. Hello Mary
    I have always admired your designs and am grateful for the tutorials you include on your site.
    The book was actually previewed in an English newspaper last year with links to further information.
    I have order the book from The Book Depository and look very much forward to being able to view the book in a few days time. It is with great eagerness I await the “first instalment”.

  24. My book is coming tomorrow! I can’t wait to page through it, find the design and perhaps do a little coloring! Also coming tomorrow, the supplies to do the Tudor rose. I have always wanted to work with metal threads, now is my chance! Mary, thank you so very much for your blog/webpage!!!!! Can’t wait to take this journey with you!

  25. Love you! Absolutely! You are a wealth of information and inspiration! I purchased the book and have enjoyed coloring. 🙂 So looking forward to your take on the project you are planning. You are my absolute favorite go to for anything stitching related.
    Kyle S. Hall

  26. I am so excited to see this project as it progresses. I am a begginer at hand embtoidery. Your site has.been my teacher. I am going to try anfollow you slong even tho i am currently way behind u. I am currently searching to buy the book

  27. I have to apologize for my typing.my fingers never seem to hit the rite letters. I have a new touchpad and i am having problrms with typing what i want to say. I cant wait to gey started. What type of ground fabric an how much should i get? Thank you

  28. Dear Mary,
    Just joined local embroidery guild Queensland, Australia…. and was given your link. Entranced! Been browsing 🙂 Want to follow this particular project word by word. Have ordered Johanna Basford’s book. Can’t wait to begin the journey, and to pick up all the tips on the way. So excited ! And want to thank you in advance

    1. Hi, Clare! Congrats on joining up with the local guild – great news, and I’m sure you’ll love it!

      Hope you enjoy the Secret Garden project. So far, it’s been a lot of fun – I hope to get some stitching in on it today, if all goes well…

  29. Hi Mary,

    I am very excited about this project. Bought the book, it has so many beautiful pictures. Having a
    hard time keeping it away from the kids. LOL

  30. Just ordered the book. I’ve been watching your progress and just couldn’t stand it any longer. I only have about 3 or 4 others waiting, as well, but what the heck!! I’ll submit pictures where there’s something to submit – in the meantime, I’ll keep watching your progress – and drooling. It is coming out beautifully.

  31. I want to embroidery the Fox from her book for my own,,not to be sold,,,,,how do you get permission,,and do I need permission? thank you

  32. Hi, I really love this piece you’ve done from the secret garden coloring book with the humming birds. From Oct. 2014…I completely understand your respecting the books author…NO ONE should EVER copy right upon another’s work. But, I do have an issue. I really want mine to turn out “exactly” like yours. The coloring you used is so awesome & inspiring. I have trouble with my hands, they are partly crippled, but do allow for me to still do some things, takes me a LOT longer than anyone else, but I eventually get there. lol =) I would be more than happy to pay for the coloring book, but is there any way I could pay for yours? If U are willing to allow me to use the same colors U have? I am not very good at color coordinating, also I’m partly color blind…so I could never do what U did here. Not even close, especially the shading. I am willing to pay the author, I am willing to pay U for the color chart…what ever it takes, so that I can create something as beautiful as U have to pass on the 1 of my daughters, whom adores humming birds. I have cancer, & not sure how long I’ll be here, so I am trying to hand make each 1 of our 4 kids something I know they would love, & remember me by. This is not being told to U for “sympathy”, as I have a “wonderful” life, 4 beautiful kids, & a soul mate, best friend,(“BFF”) =) they are my entire world. Anyway, not to make this a story book, is there any way we could work something out please. Look forward to hearing from U, God’s loving blessings be with U. Kris. =)

    1. Hi, Kris! If you go through the articles on the hummingbird project (you might want to even print them out, if you’re going to do it the same way I did it), you’ll find all the colors listed, all the supplies and all the stitches I used in the various sections. I have no problem at all with people using them – that’s why I publish them on the blog. So do take advantage of the articles and the color numbers and stitch types listed in them. That’s what they’re there for! There’s no “color chart” per se. I just listed the supplies in the various articles as I moved on to different sections. I hope you enjoy working the project! I think it’ll make a beautiful heirloom for your daughter.

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