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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Initials, Ciphers, & Monograms, Oh My!


Amazon Books

I’ve been writing a little bit lately about (and working in the background a lot lately) on monograms for hand embroidery.

The funny thing about monograms – and maybe it isn’t funny at all – is that the monograms that we think of as monograms these days aren’t necessarily monograms at all. And perhaps I’m perpetuating the problem, by calling the letters that I share here on the website, “monograms.”

Today, people often refer to decorative initials as monograms. They aren’t. To clarify, here’s a little primer on technical terms for decorative lettering used in embroidery.

Monograms, Ciphers, Initials for Embroidery

This is part of a page from an old pattern book that features three types of lettering for hand embroidery: initials, ciphers, and monograms.

So, let’s define (according to their technical meaning) these three types of letter designs pertinent to embroiderers.

Monograms, Ciphers, Initials for Embroidery

First, there’s the initial. The initial is simply a letter. If you have two single letters next to each other, they’re just initials, usually first initial followed by last initial.

Technically speaking, the “monogram” patterns that I share here on Needle ‘n Thread are not monograms, but rather decorative, individual initials. They are one-letter drawings.

Monograms, Ciphers, Initials for Embroidery

Slightly more complex than the initial is the cipher.

The photo above features a whole group of ciphers. Ciphers are two or more letters that are somehow artistically combined (often intertwining or overlapping), but that can still stand on their own as individual letters. The individual letters in a cipher do not share any parts with any of the other letters.

Each letter in each cipher is distinct and can stand on its own as it’s drawn, and be recognized as itself. The letters might look a little weird by themselves, since they are formed into certain shapes so that they work together to form a specific design, but each letter is distinct.

Monograms, Ciphers, Initials for Embroidery

See? The cipher on the left is NZ, and the one on the right is OO. You could remove each letter from the grouping and it would come apart whole and entire, as that letter.

Monograms, Ciphers, Initials for Embroidery

The most complex of the three terms is the monogram.

Technically speaking, a monogram is a group of letters wherein at least some part of the letters share common ground. The letters cannot be separated from each other and stand on their own as letters.

In the photo above, you can see six examples of monograms.

Can you pick out the letters? All six examples feature the same three letters. Some are easier to decipher than others.

In a well-designed monogram, you should at least have a vague idea of what letters are represented. If the monogram is for personal use, it’s not as important that the letters are all perfectly distinguishable. But if the monogram is for business use or public use, then the letters should be recognizable.

And, in a well-designed monogram, there won’t be any “accidental” letters – that is, the lines won’t form into letters that were never meant to be there.

Monograms, Ciphers, Initials for Embroidery

Now, the above example is kind of funny. You could almost consider it part monogram, part cipher. I think it’s poorly designed, considering the letters it is supposed to represent. (In the book, the letters are printed next to it.)

Can you read it? How many possibilities can you come up with? I’m pretty certain you’ll come up with some accidental letters – at least one, possibly two or more! To give you a hint: it’s a three-letter monogram.

Why Monograms?

So, you might rightly ask, why do you call the letters you share on Needle ‘n Thread “monograms”?

Well, what’s happened is this: the technical language of lettering (as is often the case in language) has been watered down, and even forgotten, through common usage. The term “monogram” is now commonly used for decorative initials that are embroidered on things.

If people are searching for “decorative initials to embroidery on things,” that’s not exactly what they search for. They search for “monograms to embroider” because that’s what they’re commonly called.

It’s not necessarily the best excuse. And, as I mentioned above, perhaps I’m perpetuating the problem when it comes to the technicalities of terminology. But the shift away from the technical terminology happened a long time ago. In fact, it’s mentioned in Monograms & Ciphers, written in 1906, so we know people were already confusing the technical terms over 100 years ago.

I want people to be able to find what they are looking for. And so, I call the letters monograms, because that is what most people call them today.

But now you know the correct technical names for these three types of decorative lettering in embroidery. I’m not sure if it’s vital information for your everyday life, but it doesn’t hurt to know the correct terminology, does it?

Favorite Monograms – PDF Collection

Looking for monograms to embroider? You’ll find 16 decorative alphabets – complete with all 26 letters – all in one place in Favorite Monograms, a downloadable PDF collection of 16 monogram alphabets perfect for hand embroidery and other crafts.

Favorite Monograms for Hand Embroidery and Other Crafts

In the photo above, you can see samples of each alphabet available in Favorite Monograms.

Each letter in each alphabet in Favorite Monograms has been carefully traced into a clean line drawing that can be easily enlarged or reduced on a home printer or a photocopier.

The 16-alphabet collection is delivered as via a download link to your inbox shortly after purchase, so that you can begin creating right away! Priced at less than $1.00 per complete alphabet, monogram lovers can’t go wrong with this collection!

Favorite Monograms is available in my shop, here.


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(27) Comments

  1. Buenos Tardes Senora Corbet! I’m very happy today, my terrible cold is nearly gone and I have most of my voice back! Now, to get to business… The reason I love this blog so much is that you ALWAYS teach me something interesting and useful (even if its only showing off my newfound knowledge to my family!) I think that people forget that Language and use of words, is a living thing. The English spoken in the 12th century, was not the English Shakespeare used, and the English we use today won’t be the English spoken 500 years from now.

    Who knows how people will define a monogram in the future?

    That said, the Ciphers and monograms in the pictures are kind of migraine inducing. I can’t read any of them.

  2. Mrs. Corbet,
    Thanks for the very precise clarification. I’m a very technical person, and so I like to know these things. It never hurts to know the correct terminology. Now if someone asks me, “What exactly IS a cipher?” I know how to answer.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Sarah πŸ™‚

  3. I too love the history lessons and words such a fascinating evolving subject.
    I learned my mothers broken English and her thought process translating from French to English. I have always said shut off the light, or open the light, I could not understand as a child that this was not proper English. Once in kindergarten we had to share a chore we did at home….” I was very proud to say I”plate” the clothes. Can you guess what it meant? My poor teacher could not either.
    My mother used the word pleat, for a fold, her French accent pronounced it plate.
    I will guess the first 6, are the initials T,H,E. The second hmmm, is it W,U,L.
    Thanks for the lesson.

  4. M U J??
    This is very interesting as I am currently designing a table cloth and matching table runners with our family initial “L”. So all your discussion on monograms, etc. and the links and advice have come at a very handy time. Thanks for the advice and inspiration.

  5. Mary,
    What an interesting article! I found it fascinating and will do some research of my own now.
    Vancouver Island, BC, CA

  6. Hmmm… The penultimate monogram/cipher looks like T, D, E. The ultimate? There is maybe a U, possibly a Y, perhaps an M. You are going to tell us, aren’t you?

  7. I found this article very interesting, now I know the difference between the 3 now! As for the last monogram I see M,V,P,U,Y, and either a J, or a very fancy L

    1. Well it’s been 7 and 1/2 years since this post, but I’m going to put my guesses out there. The first one is THE and the second is PUL.

  8. You really have thrown the cat in with the canaries today haven’t you?

    I think I can see T, I or lower case l and lower case e in the penultimate picture and in the last one I believe it is V, M and U.

    But please let us know, I am burning up with the need to know, lol.

  9. I’m thinking the six ciphers are ETF. The last single monogram I’m going to say UVE, but,I also see S and J. Tsk. Tsk. Mary, you are being a little mean, leaving us hanging like this! πŸ˜‰

  10. I am catching up on my email and also was wondering the result of these letters. My guess is WVU or VUT. I would love to hear what it is supposed to be. πŸ™‚

  11. The 6 monograms: a T and E, and I’m not sure about the third letter. I think I see a C in some of them, but not in others.

    The last, puzzling one: I’m voting JIP. (To me, the letters are not made of lines: they are surrounded by the lines.) Of course, I can also see V, M, U as some others have mentioned, but I think those are the accidental letters.

  12. Thank you so much for your daily message. I can’t tell you now much I look forward to each day and all the information that comes from you. I love it and you make every day very “exciting” for me – a constant positiVe learning experience.

  13. Hi Mary!

    I just love the letters pictured above the section about initials. I was wondering if you could tell me where to find them, please?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi, Kate – the single initials in the picture above come from an old Spanish embroidery transfer book (the name escapes me at the moment). I haven’t found a version of it online, though, unfortunately. It’s a neat book! The only copy I’ve ever found was over 100 Euros, so I think it’s fairly rare.

  14. I wouldn’t have called the initials ‘monograms’, but I would the ciphers. But what should I search for, in your opinion, if I want to know how to design and embroider a monogram or cipher as opposed to initials?

  15. I love this collection! I plan on embellishing a few sets with beads. Many of the patterns are well suited for such a project! Thanks for sharing.

  16. It is understood in modern times that a monogram starts with a verb: “to embroidery, engrave or write one’s initial(s)”, as in “a monogrammed shirt cuff”. The “cypher” (“cipher”) is any well-executed set of initials formed into a single design. A cipher literally means a “code” or a “riddle”.

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