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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The Devolution of an Embroidery Sample – Lessons Learned


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It started out as a quick sample meant to show off an embroidery thread.

One of those “this will only take an hour (or so)” sort of embroidered samples.

You know the kind: You want to test something new: an embroidery thread, a type of fabric, maybe a technique. Or you want to demonstrate a point: this thread works well in this scenario, or this fabric is perfect for that type of project.

And you think it’ll only take an hour or so to whip up your sample and establish your conclusions.

I’ll tell you something, between you and me: any time you think it will “only” take an hour or so to stitch up a sample, go ahead and second guess yourself.

Why? Because invariably, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be wrong. It’ll take significantly longer than you ever intended, you’ll wander down one diverging path after another until your hour turns into a day, and your day turns into two, and you’ll reach every other conclusion but the one you set out to establish.

Case in point: this monogram.

R Monogram with Tulip, embroidered with floche

I set out to establish the point that a particular thread (floche) is especially suited to stitching up a quick, simple, pretty monogram – with no frills, no extras, just a nice, classic monogram.

I mean, really: simple line stitching, very few filled areas. How long could it take?

R Monogram with Tulip, embroidered with floche

As I progressed, I reached quite a few different points where I should have made a different decision, or simply just ended the thing.

When I snapped the photo above, for example, I had reached a logical place to stop. I was already into it for 2.5 hours – which was 1.5 hours longer than I intended.

And, truth be told, I wasn’t in love with it. I was already planning the things I’d do differently, next time I stitched it. The whole thing was striking me as ho-hum.

Ho-hum, I should have said. I think I will quit now.

But I didn’t.

R Monogram with Tulip, embroidered with floche

I started the long, laborious process of filling the letter with split stitch.

(Ok, true: embroidery isn’t exactly ditch-digging, so I suppose laborious might be an exaggeration.)

But good grief! Whoever thought filling a little letter with a little bit of split stitch could take so long? 3.75 hours later, my hour-long sample was still evolving.

And I wasn’t sure if I was liking it more…or less.

R Monogram with Tulip, embroidered with floche

This little fellow, by the way, was not supposed to look like this.

And while I love padded satin stitch, there’s something amiss between the flower and its leaves. They aren’t comfortable together.

There’s also too much contrast in the leaves.

These are the things I was telling myself while I was stitching. And I could have stopped at any time. But did I? Oh, no. I kept going.

You see, there’s a Very Optimistic Half of Me that persists in whispering persuasive things to the Very Practical Half of Me. It says things like: This will look great when it’s done. You’re just not seeing it yet! Keep going! When you finish this, you’re gonna love it!

R Monogram with Tulip, embroidered with floche

The fact is, from the very outset of the stitching, I wasn’t even sold on the outlining.

Don’t get me wrong – I love split stitch! And I love split stitch worked with floche! It’s a great combination!

But I didn’t really like this split stitch worked with floche.

Perhaps it’s the color.

Perhaps it’s the design.

But – and here’s another fact – I didn’t even like this piece before I started stitching.

I didn’t even like it before I drew the pattern onto the fabric.

I don’t like the ground fabric. It was a scrap I discovered in a box – a linen blend that looked ok, but felt spongy. And I knew I wouldn’t like stitching on it when I first traced the letter. I said to myself: I don’t like this fabric.

And the Very Practical Half of Me said, It’s just for a sample. You won’t even notice it. Don’t waste good fabric… Because…why? A five-inch square of better fabric was going to set me back that much?

That is where I should have stopped.

If you start a project – no matter how big or how small – in the negative from the very outset, you’re going to have problems along the way.

Is it worth putting several hours of your time into stitching even a small sample on a piece of fabric you don’t like, if you’re going to be plagued with negativity, doubt, dislike, and dismay the whole time you’re stitching?

You might save money by opting for the fabric you don’t like. But at what other cost?

The most expensive commodity involved in your stitching is not the fabric. It is not the thread. It’s not the fine scissors you splurged on. It’s not your floor stand. It’s not even the tuition you paid for that “extravagant” class where you learned your dream technique.

The most expensive commodity involved in embroidery is your Time. It is the one thing you can never get back and you can never make up. Why spend it working on something you don’t like?

I was pondering this point the whole time I was stitching this sample.

I’ll still finish the sample – I’ve put too much time into it at this point to leave it undone. And of course, there’s still the Very Optimistic Half of Me, whispering Just you wait! You’ll see! You’ll like it!

Even if that half of me is wrong, at least now I know what to do with the next version.

Lessons learned!

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(36) Comments

  1. Oh that is soooo true. Worked on a project recently where I “crossed the finish line” , but I really didn’t like the flowers. As I stitched each flower I kept telling myself to wait and see what all 3 look like in the whole composition. Well I finished them, but the little voice kept talking, so I got several opinions, all positive, and even started to lace up for framing. The “little voice” persisted at every stitch while lacing. Well the little voice won, I ripped out all 3 flowers, stumpwork and all, and spent the next week on a redo. Yes I am now happy with it but I learned….that tiny little voice … listen to it. It may not be right 100% of the time but the high 90’s are good odds!

  2. Dear Mary

    I think it’s a lovely monogram and beautifully stitched, I think the colours match and I love the raised satin stitched flower. But I know what you mean I’ve been in this position where I’ve started a piece of embroidery knowing I wouldn’t like it but continuing because you tell your self it will look better once you see the finished piece and it doesn’t or you think it doesn’t, why do we do this to ourselves and as you say time is the most important commodity, but you always learn something from the experience even if it is agreeing not to repeat the experience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us on the dilemmas of time consuming projects.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  3. Ha ha ha…..I laughed out loud while reading this! Over years and years of seamstress work, quilting, crocheting and Yes,needlework, I have done that so many times. Forcing myself to work through a project I don’t like with materials I don’t like. I now have given myself permission to not finish a project as long as it’s not promised to someone, paid for, etc. Have a wonderful day (by the way, I like the monogram.)!

  4. Thank you for this Gentle Reminder. For years and years I too, have said to other embroiderers, “Your time is the most expensive part of your project.” The reaction would vary. Some would smile and nod and others would simply listen.

    The most interesting response was from a retailer/friend who said, “You may be right, but women are not taught that their time is worth anything!” I could not argue her point, but since then I have tried to be diligent in asking myself—is this piece really worth my time? If I am not sure, I put it down and work on something else.

    I do expect to always to change my mind—but doing embroidery reminds me that life and the living of it should be savored. I have also come to the conclusion that the time something takes should always be equal to the satisfaction one derives in making it.

    1. isn’t that so strange, that people don’t value their own time?
      I mean, it’s so very scarce and hard to come by, spare time I mean. it’s the most precious of all things required in practically everything in life, including needlework, and even needleworkers don’t think alike on this?!
      I said it myself on multiple occasions and got just as different reactions as you had.. so very strange when it happens.
      women may not be taught anything in life, but life teaches women many great things. if I find myself without enough time to do what I planned to do, I will teach myself to spend my time in a wiser way, it doesn’t seem that wild, does it? 😉
      and since I value my time just as much as I value others’ I will do my best not to waste theirs with redundant requests and idiotic remarks – wait, now I’m waffling about why I went on a social media hiatus from Facebook & such. completely off topic.

  5. A timely post. I can relate to so much of this; thank you for reinforcing that it’s okay to set something aside if you don’t like it.

  6. The most important thing you saidwas that you didn’t like the piece before you started. I no longer think I am going to like something more as I stitch on it. If it doesn’t give me that sense of excitment to get started then I am not going there. Only took me more than 60 years to figure this out!

  7. Well Mary, I do like it.

    I agree with everything you said and see your point entirely, but it is the first monogram I’ve every seen that i actually like!

    It probaby because of all the reasons you don’t; the flower looks a bit, I loather to say “awkward”, but yes, awkward. The split stitch lacks the super-sleek look of most monograms and the folderols on the R are quite pronounced because of the chosen stitch, but I find it charming.

    I usually find myself less than impressed with monograms because I find they look machine-made. I know! I know! that’s a compliment to the stitcher (I think it is ) but because they seem to lack individuality I find them boring and easily overlooked.

    Sorry to all the experts, you, but your little errors are lovely! In this case…..

    Cynthia in Nanaimo

  8. Hola Mary Corbet gracias por esas lecciones aprendo mucho contigo de nuevo gracias ese monograma me pareció hermoso

  9. Dear Mary:
    While I agree with all you lovely ladies, I have to say don’t beat yourselves up about this! Unless you are under a deadline, time is negotiable and all yours to do with what you want.
    If you feel a project is not right from the beginning, then don’t do it any more. By the way Mary, I rather like the monogram…

  10. Oh… I have had those conversations with myself. I recently finished in a stitch I did not like, pulled it all out and was SO much happier with the next stitch I used. But the mental argument of liking it better when it is done can be quite persuasive! For what it is worth, I think your monogram looks fantastic with the light pink split-stitch filling. Your work is amazing. For those of us still learning, it is nice to know we are not the only ones that have those negative thoughts set in sometimes along the way.

  11. So very true Mary. If you start off on the wrong foot the only way to go is down. Never mind, next time (as you say).

  12. Laborious split stitch! How funny! I see what you mean about the leaves, do you think they would be better in padded satin stitch to match the flower? I do like the two greens. But if you really don’t like it don’t you think it would be better just to stop, attach some notes that explain what you don’t like and what you would do differently? Or even take out the leaves and redo them. I think the split stitch filling is nice, but maybe a different color? You could try out different colors on different areas of the letter and use it as a reference piece. But here I am giving advice to someone with vastly more experience than me. How silly. (and I am NOT being sarcastic)

  13. I’ve had the same problem so many times it’s just crazy that I haven’t learned better! I’ll feel a little niggle of doubt or realize I’m not quite happy with some project I’m in the middle of but keep whacking away at it anyway, thinking it will be fine when I’m all finished. Then I end up ripping out way more seams or stitches than I would have if I’d just given up at the first hint of dissatisfaction. Even worse is if I stubbornly finish the whole piece then can’t bear to look at it at all because all I can see is the huge, glaring, practically-neon-spotlighted error.

  14. I forgot to add, I think the monogram is quite pretty! I like the style and your stitching looks flawless to my eye. A nice little piece of work.

  15. It is simply sweet looking. I understand your need to make it more refined and complex but it is what it was meant to be. The only “if” is if it were started on a pale dusty pastel of canvas (gold or rose or mint or lilac)it might have circumvented it’s bland-ness, (which I don’t think it is). Anyway, thanks for sharing it with us.

  16. oh, Mary! you cannot believe how much alike we are!
    I do own those two sides of me as well, I call what we do “brain debates”. sometimes I even burst into a sudden, loud “OH, PLEASE, NOW!” when Practical Me is saying something so very practical and so very ridiculous at the same time. I wonder what other people would say if they were around and heard just the answer to needlework nonsense such as “do you really need another pair embroidery scissors?”.
    I’m really sorry you didn’t fancy this monogram, when I saw the tulip I thought “what a brave contrast in those greens, I wish I was that brave” “and look at that shocking pink next to the soft baby pink and light brown in the letter.. what a delightful colour palette I had never thought of before”.
    “and those plump, neat filling stitches.. I really have to start embroidering next year and enjoy many hours of pump, filling in, it can’t take too much time, right?” – yeah.. last famous words.

  17. I had to smile as you have made me realize I’m ‘spending’ yet another morning online, looking at all my favorite stitching sites instead of putting needle to fabric and realizing my artistic dreams in the physical world. Thank you!

    Please don’t dis that spongy little monogram yet! Get it framed when you finish it, then put it up so you can regularly glory in its true worth! I really hope you’ll come to love this piece for it’s revelatory value. All lives are measured in minutes, so best to spend our time wisely. It’s wonderful to learn this at any age,even better yet when still young. Using a few minutes (or hours even)to deeply reach this understanding is not waste – Wisdom, though intangible, is true ‘values bedrock’. Congratulations on your acquisition, and thanks for sharing it. 😀

  18. Mary, The monogram is gorgeous. It’s wonderful that it is so small. Are these small monograms in your e-book? Floche is so hard to find, Do you have source we can find that DMC thread in many colors?

    Thank you,

    Sandra Popek

  19. The monogram is simply elegant–not fancy just “classy”. Do you think that this agonizing over the smallest detail is what has always been the reason for so much of our beautiful art works? Most of the creative people that I have known and worked with had this “bad” habit and that includes me.

    1. Hi, Sandra – thanks for asking. No, they aren’t in the Stitch Sampler Alphabet ebook, if that’s the one you mean. That book is for the alphabet featured on the cover, with all the instructions for the stitches involved in the letters. -MC

  20. Time notwithstanding (and I agree with everyone above on this subject!) i kind of wondered if this tendency wasn’t drilled into us as children — finish what you start. clean your plate. etc. sigh. sometimes “growing up” is just undoing some of our “childhood”! That little spark of passion should be fanned! and dying embers should NOT!!

  21. This is such a good lesson for us all to learn whatever we are doing: embroidery, sewing, painting, even cooking. The better the materials, the better the result.

  22. Hello, Mary I love your small monogram R. It is exquisite. In fact I adore all small monograms. My wish is that you make more for your blog or have another E-Book. Mary your such a great needlework Artist why don’t you publish a book. We all would buy it. It would be on the best seller list. Thank you for having such a wonderful blog!


  23. Hi Mary,

    This particular monogram has been floating around in my head since you first published the post. Could you please tell me where I might be able to find a complete alphabet of this particular design? Your interpretation of this particular monogram has inspired me to try it. Love it!

  24. Mary, I just have to say…
    First of all, you made me laugh (at first), yet again… that’s great
    But pleeease, this monogram is one of the most perfect and lovely ones I’ve seen. you can’t be serious! So what if that linen isn’t swell! Let’s not be snobs. Once you thought it worthwhile buying it. And you might as well use it. and you did. You made most of it
    As for Time. I know. I pointed it out myself. And that’s why I wonder why you lament over creating this beautiful initial (that most people would love), while you have spent many hours on such thing as embroidery on egg shells…..

  25. I like to ask you something I like to make a monogram filt whith outline stitches
    Do I make the stitches in onze direction .? Of from under to the top and then back to under?
    Hope you van read wath I mean
    Best regards,
    Bonnie Jansen

    1. Hi, Bonnie – Yes, the stitches should all go in one direction, but with outline stitch, you can stitch back in the other direction and change the location of the working thread, to achieve the outline stitch look, without having to go back to your starting place. Hope that helps!

  26. I would love to know/see more embroidery tips especially for beginners.
    And it is so true that if you start of with a negative frame of mind, stop and go get yourself a glass of wine!

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