I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. And again. (And probably again!): Linen is my go-to fabric for hand embroidery, because, in my opinion, good linen is the Best Fabric for Hand Embroidery. There are many reasons for my tunnel vision when it comes to linen, and if you look up linen here on Needle ‘n Thread, you’ll find all kinds of articles devoted to that wondrous flaxy fabric, along with my reasons for loving it.
Now, this article is not about linen, so I’m not going to expound upon its glories herein. (Aren’t you glad?)
I do realize that linen is not the only fabric under the sun, and it just so happens that I also like stitching on other fabrics, too. There are times when silk makes a gorgeous ground for embroidery. There are times when it is appropriate to use cotton for hand embroidery. Velvet (silk velvet, or in a pinch, 100% cotton velveteen, even), wool – all are suitable for hand embroidery, depending on what you want to embroider. Some fabrics are more appropriate than others, depending on what you’re doing.
I draw the line at synthetics. I’m not a fan of synthetics as ground fabrics for hand embroidery. I find they are harder on the thread than natural fibers, they can be unpredictable regarding the finished outcome, and they are often a pain to work on. They’re tricky. And usually, they’re just downright icky.
But what about blends?
Blends are fabrics that contain more than one type of fiber, and sometimes, they can work for hand embroidery quite well.
Now, I’m not talking about natural / synthetic blends – I generally steer away from those, just like I do full-fledged synthetic fabrics. But natural / natural blends? Well, they’re a different story.
Some natural / natural blends, I don’t like. I’ve yet to find, for example, a linen / cotton blend that I really love, and I think that’s because a linen / cotton blend just can’t measure up to the real deal of good linen.
I’ve found many blends to be rather spongy, compared to the 100% options.
Spongy is my word for fabric that doesn’t hold a taut surface, that boings about, that retains a soft dent where you’re embroidered, when it’s pulled taut in a hoop or frame. Spongy fabric also has a little stretch on the grain, not just on the bias, and on the bias, spongy fabric has a seriously stretchy stretch.
I was on the prowl for silk fabrics that would make a good ground fabric for certain types of embroidery (goldwork, silk work, ecclesiastical embroidery, and the like), when I came across a silk / wool blend and a silk / cotton blend.
These are obviously fabrics used in the fashion world, but my curiosity was piqued. I wondered how they would work as a ground fabric for embroidery, and whether or not they would be spongy.
So I did what every serious fabric prowler does, and I ordered an abundance of swatches. Buying swatches is the only way to truly know a fabric before investing in a larger piece. It’s also the best way to see the real color of a fabric, especially if you are hunting for fabric online.
The nice thing about swatches from a conscientious fabric company is that they are always marked, so you know exactly which fabric you’re playing with. I save swatches in a notebook, with all the relevant order details, so I know where to find the fabric when next I seek it.
So, I ordered swatches. They came. They were about four inches square. Just enough to play with.
My first impression upon looking at the silk / wool blend was that…wow. It’s a pretty fabric! When I touched it, I said, Wow. It feels nice. And then I wondered how spongy it was.
I stretched it on the bias. It stretched as any fabric does – but it didn’t feel loosely-boingy. It felt a lot like the stretch on a good piece of silk satin.
Then, because I had already fallen in love with this particular swatch of “banana” silk / wool blend (it isn’t really what I’d call banana yellow, but it is gorgeous), I whispered a little prayer, I kissed the fabric fervently and pleaded with it, and then I tried stretching it on the grain.
Tight as a tick!
Oh, you happy, lovely fabric! You passed your first test.
Then, I put a piece of silk / cotton through the same extreme rigors.
It passed, too.
Test 1 was complete. Neither fabric felt spongy when stretched in either direction.
Initially, because the fabric swatches were small, I was going to attach them to a cotton ground and stretch them onto a larger frame to see how they would hold up to framing up.
But then I remembered I had a few of these 3″ teaching hoops, and that they were already bound with twill tape. And they fit just perfectly. So I hooped up the silk / cotton lilac swatch (which is not my idea of lilac – it’s a bit pale and insipid in the pinky sphere of things).
My goal was to see if I could hoop it up to drum taut tension, and how it would perform under drum taut tension. Would it maintain good tension, even if poked and prodded and pulled stitched upon?
Well, it hooped up perfectly, to a nice drum tautness – I could tap away on it forever and revel in its drumminess.
Another good sign.
Another test: would a micron pen used to draw a design bleed on this fabric? Nooooooo, it doesn’t. And that is jolly good! For those of you who have used silk satin before, you know that the shiny side of silk satin tends to suck ink into hairy bleed lines. But not this stuff!
For stitching, I chose Soie d’Alger, which is a soft, spun silk. I wanted to see how the fabric behaved towards this softer thread. Would it eat it up and make it fuzzy, fast?
Another stitch-related test: I wanted to see if the needle would make any visible fissures or separation lines in the weave of the fabric when it passed in and out. Those of you who have embroidered on silk satin or silk dupioni know that this can happen now and then, and it can be distressing if it ends up being noticeable.
Well, the Soie d’Alger held up just fine, using a standard short piece (about 16″).
And as for fabric fissures? Not a one, not a one! You little champ, you!
You can see in the photos that there is quite a noticeable weave to the fabric on this silk / cotton blend. I found that the weave actually made the stitching a little easier. I found myself using it to gauge stitch length and spacing.
Incidentally, in case you can’t tell from the photos, both the silk / wool and the silk / cotton have a sheen to them (thanks to the silk, and, in the wool blend’s case, somewhat to the wool, too). The silk / wool has more of a sheen than the silk / cotton, but they both have a noticeable, and beautiful, sheen.
For kicks, I tried Soie de Paris with some long and short stitch. All went well.
Notice where the needle is sticking up from the fabric? The fabric is not the least bit perturbed by it.
Next up was a silk / wool swatch, this time in red. And oh! What a red! Goldwork, beetle wing embroidery, jewel tones for something exotic and rich? I could see it.
But then, I’m partial to red!
It hooped up beautifully and taut.
The micron pen did not bleed on the fabric at all.
And although my stitching went completely awry, the fabric held up well to stitching – no fissures.
So I’ve added these silk / wool and silk / cotton blends to my swatch book of possible ground fabrics for hand embroidery, and later on, I suspect you’ll see one or the other turn up again here on Needle ‘n Thread, where it will be heartily embellished.
Tips for Selecting Ground Fabrics
Some tips when looking for ground fabrics for hand embroidery:
1. Consider your project and ask yourself what type of fabric will be most appropriate for the project. If you’re doing goldwork, cotton is not really an appropriate choice, for example. Or if you want to embroider a baby blanket, you probably wouldn’t choose linen, and if you’re stitching a fun little kitchen towel that will get used, silk isn’t really an option!
2. Look for 100% natural fibers – flax (linen), 100% silk, 100% cotton, 100% wool. Natural fabrics behave better for hand embroidery.
3. If you come across a blend, check the fiber make-up. Avoid natural / synthetic blends; especially avoid fabrics with even a little bit of lycra in them. Look for natural fibers blended together.
4. Check the weave of the fabric. A close weave (not loose and gauzy) will support embroidery better. Feel the fabric – check the “hand” (how it feels to the hand). Is it nubby and scratchy and dry and brittle? Or smooth and supple and soft? Check the drape, if drape is important in the finished product (for example, are you embroidering a piece of clothing that you expect to be slightly flowy? It needs to have some drape to it.)
5. Determine what cut you can purchase. If you are doing a one-off, small project and you can only order by the whole yard, you might not want to invest in a whole yard. Consider a different fabric. If, however, the fabric is perfect for what you want, find out if you can order it elsewhere in smaller cuts.
6. Order (or ask for) swatches. Test them with everything you plan to do with the ground fabric on the actual project. Do you need to be able to wash it? Check the shrinkage, check the colorfastness, check the rate of wrinkleness. Do you need to mark on it with ink or paint or chalk? Check to see how well these work on the swatch. And finally, stitch on the swatch and see how the fabric and thread work together.
7. Keep a swatch folder. A binder with card stock for the pages, on which you can staple swatches and take notes, works great. Use dividers for fabric types – linen, silk, cotton, wool, blends, etc. This will serve as a handy reference down the road, especially if you want to use the same fabric again, but you can’t remember the details!
8. Buy the best fabric you can afford to buy for your embroidery project. Your ground fabric has more than a little influence over the outcome of your project.
What about you? Do you have any good tips for seeking out ground fabrics for hand embroidery? Feel free to share them below, or to ask questions or add to the conversation!