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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Pick What You Like – Color Choices for Embroidery


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I’ve had a lot of questions lately about color choices for hand embroidery, specifically when it comes to working designs like the Spring Variety designs in the ready-to-stitch towel set we looked at a couple weeks ago. (Incidentally, those and several other design sets on the ready-to-stitch towels are back in stock right now, if you’ve been waiting.)

Basically, the questions all boil down to this notion: how do I know what color to stitch where on an embroidery design?

This can apply to any embroidery design – we all face that color-making decision every time we stitch, if we’re not following someone else’s pre-determined color scheme.

And while this may seem like a very basic question, it’s a very good question. But it’s difficult to answer because there’s no set formula, despite theories of color, color wheels, design advice, and so forth.

Let’s chat about it a bit…

Pick What You Like: Color Choices for Embroidery

Above, you can see some typical “spring” colors that I usually lean towards when I’m looking for spring-ish colors for casual embroidery projects.

I love the combination of green, purples, and yellows. To me, they speak of spring. I see them as bright and happy.

Pick What You Like: Color Choices for Embroidery

And the colors above are also a go-to palette when I’m thinking “spring” – especially the bright pinks, greens, and yellows.

Pick What You Like: Color Choices for Embroidery

Maybe I want to heat the color selection up a bit. I’ll throw in some reds, corals, oranges, and orangey-yellows.

Pick What You Like: Color Choices for Embroidery

If I’m in the mood for them, I’ll pull in some blues. And – oh yes! – if it’s a garden-type scene, I’ll throw in browns and tans, and maybe some darker and duller greens to give some variety.

Pick What You Like

What it all boils down to, though, is that I pick the colors I like.

And that’s what you should do, too. Pick colors you like… because if you don’t, when you’re stitching, you’re not going to have nearly as much fun! In fact, if you pick colors you generally don’t like, you might even have a hard time carrying through and finishing your embroidery.

When it comes to combinations of colors in any given design, if it’s a garden-related scene (which is what prompted these questions), then pretty much anything goes! What colors do you not see in nature, after all?

And unless you intend to recreate an accurate image of a scene in nature, you don’t have to abide by specific colors for specific things: that butterfly does not have to be the living image of a blue swallowtail; those hollyhocks don’t have to be the natural color of hollyhocks (if you don’t want them to be); and that purple thing? Is it a dandelion puff? Why is it purple? Well, why not – if you want it to be purple!

This is where little kids have it easy! They naturally tend to pick colors they like when they are coloring, drawing, or crafting. Usually, children only pick colors they don’t like when their emotional state is off-kilter – they are either sad, angry, or maybe just being contrary. But if they’re happily crafting to please themselves and they aren’t being over-directed, generally the colors children pick are colors that they like – and there’s no hesitation in picking them, even if it means coloring the princess’s face blue.

The older we get, the more constrained we are (understandably) by our own experiences and even by convention. Still, to have that real joy with your stitching, make sure you pick colors that you like.

Pick What You Like: Color Choices for Embroidery

Right now, some of us might be stitching with limited palettes due to a lack of thread and the inability to get out and get some more. You might not have a wide range of colors and shades on hand – so here’s a little trick!

Whenever you’re working with two or three strands of floss in the needle at once (which is what I recommend for the stitching on the towel sets), you can combine more than one color of thread in your needle, to increase your color palette and to add a bit of color depth and variety to the finished design.

In the photo above, for example, mixing a brown and green together reduces the vivacity of the green and adds a woodsy look to the embroidered element.

If you only have a dark shade and a light shade of color, but you want a medium shade in that color, combine a strand of dark and light in the needle and you’ll get a lighter version of the dark (or a darker version of the light, depending on how you want to look at it).

It Also Depends…

The freedom of color choice also depends a lot on the type of embroidery you’re doing and the purpose of the finished embroidery.

If you’re embroidering as a commission, or if you’re stitching something for display, or if you’re creating a piece for a special heirloom gift, you mostly likely would be more circumspect in choosing colors.

My rule of thumb is that, the more “casual” the embroidery, the more I can mess around with color to please myself. And that’s probably why I like the ready-to-stitch towels so much!

And on that note, I have a slew of stitching to do today, so I can show you some finishes next week!

I hope you have a colorful weekend, and that you’re finding joy and relaxation with your needle and thread!


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(15) Comments

  1. I am absolutely in love with the way you stitched the hydrangeas above – do you have a tutorial available for them, or would you please do one? As it’s a miserable winter day (in April!) here in central Oklahoma, the spring flowers today were a treat! Stay safe…


    1. Hi, Aubrey – Thanks! It is just a cluster of French knots. They’re worked somewhat loosely, so that they’re not all jammed into the space tightly. I’ve combined two to three variegated threads in the needle – a blue-to-tan or yellow (can’t remember?) variegated and a yellow to pink variegated – which I mixed up by combining two of one with one of the other, etc. Just mix them up to get different color effects. So that’s all there is to it, really!

  2. Dear Mary

    I agree with you I tend to be more enthusiastic and enjoy a project more if I’m stitching with colours I like. Like you I tend to bend towards springy bright colours especially the yellows, greens and reds and as you say adding combination thread colours to a project enhances the overall design. Thank you for sharing with us your advice on how to choose thread combination in a project. Very helpful information. I hope you have a great weekend and look forward to next week with your finishes.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  3. Great timing! I just ordered the Spring Variety Towels yesterday. Looking forward to some slow stitching time.

  4. Well thank you for that! I love the term ‘casual embroidery.’ That perfectly describes most of what I do. And thanks also for pointing out how children operate when choosing colors. I’m confident I can now move ahead with my stitching more easily. {sigh of relief} It’s amazing what permission from someone else can do to release us from the chains we’ve allowed ourselves to be wrapped in.

  5. I don’t remember where I read it, but one designer wrote that she put all the colors in a pile, then pulled out what didn’t “fit.” Not scientific, but practical. If you can’t stand a particular color combo, then it’s not right for you.

  6. I have been so busy this past month that I haven’t had time to read any of your posts which is why I am so glad that they are timely whenever I do get to read them. Reading it brought back memories of the first two sets of pillowcases that I embroidered. Somewhere in junior high I got bitten with a bug to be sure I had things in my ‘hope chest’ so that when/if I got married I would already have some nice things to make my home with. I was able to bring to my home these things I had lovingly set aside. Too bad the ex never appreciated them but that is partly why he is an ex. Part of the hope chest were those sets of pillowcases that I used an Aunt Martha’s iron on transfer, some green, pink and purple embroider floss. I only had those three skeins so I did both sets with them. But even then I wished I had more colors and could change them up a bit. But lack of funds for a 7th-9th grader as well as lack of knowledge of different stitches as well as lack of knowledge of there being any other colors in the world than the display at the store where I bought them. I’m 64 I would think that maybe there wasn’t a variety of colors and types, but I have seen enough books by now to know that wasn’t true. But in my little world it was true. Over the years I have collected many colors and types of embroidery floss but as the child I was back then I always gravitate towards pinks as well as purples as an accent color. Even my quilts use a lot of pinks, reds, purples. I see some quilts that to me are so drab and wonder how anyone can stand to use such lackluster colors when there are so many delightful ones in the world! But that is me.

    I have been fortunate to receive a lot of art supplies over the last year and some of them are different brands of colored pencils. Oh the delight at seeing some many beautiful colors all at once. I have never thought of myself as artistic as most of my life by artistic ability was summed up in one sad tale of a black dog I drew in kindergarten. But I am determined to change my own perspective as in my heart beats the soul of an artist. I am hoping to use the art supplies in connection with my needlework/sewing supplies to see what I can come up with. Now to find the time. Embroiderers aren’t the only ones stitching. I sell sewing patterns online and they are flying out the door for the past month. I guess as usual, those that sew if they find they have extra time, just sew some more! Happy stitching to all of you. Thank you Mary for such a nice post!

  7. Not being a surface stitcher, I tend to make my textile crafts in a more ‘formal’ selection; that is, the color choices are fewer so I don’t necessarily need to be concerned as much. I use the vision I have in my head, usually inspired by whatever I’m holding in my hand, and allow it to “speak” to me – as the artists say! I limit myself to the home decor rule, which is; 3 main colors + 2 accents, mixing the order up (but not the colors) for different areas. My work tends to be detailed so I need to go easy on the color schemes.
    You, Mary, have a gifted eye for color – coordination when it comes to your field of work – which is what elevates you to master level; that – plus your exceptional skill! You are indeed inspiring to us, and we are in awe of your skills!

  8. So, so true about picking colours you like. I offered to make my young nephew a quilt. Instead of the bright colours I was expecting, he chose mossy greens and pinks. That quilt was a long, long time coming because that is not a colour scheme I enjoy. I also love the hydrangeas!

  9. Nothing was mentioned about the type of floss used. DMC, Anchor, or other brands found on line? I love the colors and combinations. Very springy.

  10. The one thing that helps me the most, is to choose all my colors ahead of time for the project I am planning. Sometimes I end up putting colors together that really add a spark but if looked at separately I would not choose them. The whole composition fits well together even though not all colors “match”.

  11. Thank you for your reply Mary. The Floss looked like DMC but wasn’t sure.
    I also like your technique with the Hydrangeas.

  12. You’re right Mary … there’s NEVER too much color … bright, saturated and happy!!! I am crazy about your heart border … it’s the perfect color and width and ties everything together! You have, once again, hit it out of the ball park!!!!!!! Have a blessed week!

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