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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A Week In: Completely Random Embroidery!


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Golly! If a week’s worth of stitching on this yearly sampler idea that we talked about here is any indication of how my year is going to go, mildly chaotic would be a good prediction!

I need to pull in the reins.

Or not!

This week, my listening time was a little longer than it will be in future weeks of 2021, because I’m finishing up a series of lectures that I promised I would not fall behind on… that I fell behind on. So I’ve added those to my listening regime at lunch time, so I’m getting in a few more stitches on this project than originally planned.

Today, I thought we could talk briefly about random embroidery, just how random is random, whether or not random works for me (and how to know if it works for you), and I’ll try to mention a few helpful bits of information, too, for those interested in stitching this type of project.

Stitch Fun 2021 band sampler

I’m officially calling this project my “Stitch Fun 2021” band sampler, because it is a long, skinny band of linen that I plan to fill up during 2021, and I hope to have fun with the stitches while I’m doing it.

Two rules: no new threads, and stitching only during a relatively short time (20-ish minutes) every day, while I’m listening to a Bible-in-a-Year podcast that I committed to with a friend. This is outside my normal “work” hours, so it’s extra embroidery for me, and I don’t really plan to put a lot of thought into it.

I gathered together into a basket all the threads in my studio that are incomplete, loose, or untagged or in any way “un-new.” They’re threads that are serviceable, but have been tucked aside because there’s not much left on the skein or spool, or I have no idea where the thread came from or what number it is, or it’s a discontinued thread that I wouldn’t design with, or what-have-you. They’re all partials and bits, anyway! They include different types of fibers, but are predominantly cotton. And there is no (absolutely no) specific color scheme involved.

Into the same basket, I put a 5″ hoop, a pair of scissors, and a small needlebook with a selection of needles in it. I also stuck a small notebook and a pen in there, in case anything occurs to me that I need to write down. The basket goes next to a chair, tucked under a side table, so that it isn’t always staring at me.

During the past week, I’ve decided I should add a pencil to the basket.

Stitch Fun 2021 band sampler

I started by (over)embellishing the 2021 at the top of the sampler. I noticed that the 2021 was off center and a little discombobulated, size and orientation wise. This bothered me at first. I berated myself for not having planned a very neat and tidy, well-centered 2021 at the top of the sampler.

While the idea of completely random has its appeal for me, I’m not very good at it. I prefer at least a little planning, because I think that finished results are generally more pleasing when a little planning has gone into something.

At first, I considered picking out the 2021 and starting over. But then I told myself this really isn’t for anything or anyone else. It’s just an exercise, and for me, it might be a good exercise for loosening up a bit.

Alas, I’m not good at loosening up!

So I embellished around the 2021 with swirlies using a leftover twisted blob of stranded cotton in coral, added some running stitch in light blue, and then started French-knotting parts of it in dark blue. Without drawing lines and considering layout, I tend to go overboard, and things began to look lopsided and odd.

Oh well.

After a few days of working on that mess, I decided a straight line was a good idea.

I never did “finish” the mess at the top. Who knows? I might go back to it some day!

Stitch Fun 2021 band sampler

After the straight line (it’s a running stitch in light blue laced with dark blue in both directions), I reached into the basket the next morning with my eyes closed to pull out the next color. I didn’t want to be picky and particular about color, so I thought I might as well try making a blind selection.

I pulled out some strands of bright yellow, bright orange (leftovers from autumn embroidery) and one single strand of pink from who-knows-what.

Without any plan, I started across the linen with these little yellow and orange straight-stitched bursts. They are so sunny and chipper! I like them.

The single strand of pink never made it in, due to timing (and a secret desire not to add pink to my sunny bursts).

Stitch Fun 2021 band sampler

Somewhere in the next day or so, I began writing. It was a cold, bleak, windy morning, and Shakespreare came to mind: Blow, blow, thou winter wind…, so I stitched it.

This is the first time I’ve ever gone forth and embroidered a line of text randomly, with my needle and thread as my pen. It still looks vaguely like my hand writing, but I wish I had used a non-stranded thread (like floche). I think a non-stranded thread – either floche, coton a broder, or a #12 perle cotton – would have resulted in a tighter, cleaner text.

Future opportunities abound for text, so I’m not sweating it.

The text didn’t quite fill the line, by the way, so I tried to add some randomly swirly wind at the end of the line. It looks like scribble.

Choose Your Random

If you tend to be a more structured person, if you tend to feel more secure with a little structure, then with this type of project, it makes sense to choose the degree of randomness ahead of time.

For example, you might be better at random color selection or random stitch selection, but prefer a little more structure in layout and planning when it comes to design. That’s about where I fall in the scheme of things, and there is a part of me that already wishes I had ventured into this with a little more foresight.

You might be perfectly fine, though, with completely random planning and layout, but prefer a more harmonious color selection, in which case, you’d concentrate your forward-thinking on color choices.

You might get stumped by stitches, in which case, maybe you could make a list in advance of embroidery stitches you want to learn or practice, and work from the list.

You really have to choose your own level of randomness – what are you comfortable with, and what will ensure that you keep up the practice through the whole year?

I’ve decided I will just push myself out of my more rigid comfort zone of having a clearer layout, and make myself be completely random, with no forward planning… but that I will indulge in a pencil, to mark out elements or text here and there when the opportunity calls for it.

Some Structure

I finished modifying – yet one more time (just in case you don’t believe me when I say I tend to be a bit rigid…) – this rose design, and it’s transferred, the frame is set up, the supplies are laid out, and today, that’s my stitching job.

Goldwork Rose Embroidery Design

Talk about structure! This design is stylized, stately, and practically formal compared to the projects I’ve worked on this week! I’ll be delving into it this afternoon for two hours, and I can’t wait!

How have you started 2021, stitch-wise? Do you have a pet project underway? I’d love to hear about it! Feel free to join in the conversation below!

Back in the Shop!

By the way, there are more Let it Snow ready to stitch towel sets available in the shop today, and I’ve also added some Spring Variety, for those who are dreaming of spring!

Have a marvelous weekend!


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(53) Comments

  1. Hi, Mary,

    I love random; my sister hates it! We both howled over your post.

    I am working on 32 mini stocking ornaments using your template at 140%. I am making 8 each in red, purple, blue and green. I am using only stash threads “bits and bobs” and am improving stitch and thread patterns as I go. I am loving stitch improvisation and “discovery”, including Bargello in cotton on Aida.

    Thanks for the fun,


  2. Mary,
    Happy New Year! Your posts are definitely helping to make mine Merry!
    I admire you so much!

    I too am terrible at completely random. I am doing a Stitch a Week challenge that I have done before and learned so much about myself. I seems that my worst hang up is choosing colors. I got smart and used a pre selected package of colors last year and it made so much difference. This year I used my fabric stash, cut small squares of the fabrics I love and matched them up to yarns. I am trying to do a “stitch book” so for each page I am going to choose a swatch and use that color scheme. A wise woman once told me if you always choose the things you love, they will always blend together, and so it goes with thread I think.

  3. 2021 seems to be the year of using up scraps and finishing projects! Several people I’ve talked to are ‘clearing the decks’… I wonder if the confinement of 2020 has caused us to look around and find all the good stuff we’ve left unattended. I’m working to finish an embroidery/sewing project – a challenge from Sharon B (in a minute ago) for the embroidery – using reverse applique and Brazilian embroidery. The embroidery is all done and the fabrics all gathered to make a journal cover. Now to get to the sewing machine!

  4. Dear Mary

    You have already completed a lot on your 2021 sampler well done it looks lovely and don’t worry about the line not being straight, it looks fine it looks straight to me. it must be so nice just to pick up a project and say what stitches do I fancy today and just stitch away. I like the Shakespeare verses, it will be lovely to look back on in a few months time. Your tudor rose is coming along nicely and I can’t wait to see the progress on this project. Thank you for sharing with us your 2021 sampler with us and for your thoughts on random stitching it was very helpful. I’m working on felt animals at the moment and making the deer family so it is quite challenging but enjoyable I do like challenge even if it is frustrating at times. Have a great weekend.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  5. Wow, what a timely post! I’ve recently begun a mad adventure in crazy quilting (https://elizabethcbunce.com/2021/01/04/myrtlemondays-a-victorian-quilting-adventure/), and the randomness is Very Intimidating! Some days I stare at the work, having no idea what to stitch, and ripping out more than I put in. But it’s also very freeing–some days I’ve found it much easier to play and experiment. Last night I was even bold enough to freehand-sketch an element in one of the blocks, which isn’t even in the same universe as my embroidery comfort zone! I think by the end of my year’s crazy quilting journey, I’ll have enhanced my skills and courage immeasurably. I’ll be playing randomly along with you in 2021…

  6. I absolutely love the orange/blue swirls!!! Esp the first two photos and the part that winds around the 21! <3 I'm actually going to incorporate some of that in my random fill floral heart piece. I certainly hope you don't pick it out! I also love the orange & yellow stars. Are those 2 or 3 colors in that?

  7. Morning Mary
    What a delightful exercise you have in that basket and some wonderful suggestions for those of us that might want to do likewise. I’ll be saving URL for this particular blog for when I’m ready to set up my own so I can have some guidelines. Thank you.

  8. I have to admit I have not started my random sampler…
    It sounds like a wonderful project for ME especially—
    I am not a very “structured” person stitching wise; so as random as the stitching itself may end up being, having a certain structured time set aside would be terrific for me!
    Now to get started, in a few minutes I shall go to my “packed “ floor to ceiling fabric closet to find suitable fabric. And then, look through my more or less organized threads and get started… “Wish me luck!”


    1. I’m retiring in a few weeks & have just reread this post. I had started a stash a ways back to do one on the initials. My thoughts were to learn new embroidery stitches randomly placed around the “blank” initial. Among many projects I have planned, I am going to retrieve this idea to document this first year as I enjoy this major life change after 50 years of structure.

  9. I too am stitching while listening to The Bible in a Year podcast! I’m following along with a FB page, Thread Journal. I like your “line a day” design.

  10. I am still working on one of Triss Burr project from her brook, in which I have to do needle painting. OMG, that needle painting part have been made, then I decided it needed to come off, started over, and then removed it again. At one point, I will have to leave it if I ever want to finish this piece. This endeavour has left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, and has tempered my enthusiasm in stitching. This is why I will leave the needle painting part done as best as I can, and move on. Moreover, I have a question for you: how do you recognize a needle size 7 from a size 6, or a size 5 to 6?

  11. Ah, those tendencies towards perfectionism! I love your sampler idea and must admit that I’ve toyed for several years with the idea of doing something similar, only more in a format of a little book of stitch examples. Needless to say it hasn’t happened yet but maybe one day.

  12. The work you think is barely acceptable is better than most of us will ever do! Don’t be so hard on yourself! I think every stitch in your sampler is beautiful!

    1. I agree. Mary’s 2021 sampler is far better than any piece I will ever make.

  13. Mary,
    I would like to join your stitching fun. Is there a particular group for it, I mean for accountability, or is it more of a personal thing to which commit ourselves?

    Best regards,

    1. It’s just really a personal commitment at this point. I have a group on Facebook already (you can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/needlenthreadcommunity) and I might post updates there more regularly. I’ll also be using Instagram (@needlenthreadmc and tagging the sampler posts with #StitchFun2021), but other than that, right now, my time is pretty limited for starting and maintaining another group. :-/

  14. I am going entirely random and unplanned with mine, and treating it more like a doodle cloth, stitching whatever I feel like each day. My cloth is quite small so I’m trying not to embroider too much, so that there will be room for all 365 days!

    The only control I have is that I am using only one thread. It’s variegated, so the end result will have red, purple, green and tan on it, but I am not bringing in any further variation and I’m trying not to cut strands to pick particular coloured sections either.

    It’s fun! I don’t really mind what the end result looks like, I’m just enjoying the regular moment of stitching every day.

  15. In late November, I signed up for a basic stumpwork class through EGA, something I have longed thought about doing. I must have all the lessons completed by Dec 1, 2021. So most of my stitching time will focus on this. It’s leading me in a new direction that is not always comfortable, but I need a challenge and for this year, this will be it.

  16. Your comments today perfectly match my present project. I’m doing a kit from Wattle and Loop in Australia. Kylie Wright calls it slow stitching and it’s a very free and easy, boho or maybe shabby chic type of work. No finished edges, quite a bit of fraying, lots of layers of fabric if you wish, not a lot of direction about stitch choice. I’m having a ball! It’s soooo liberating. Too bad I can’t add a picture.
    Wattle and Loop

  17. Oh Mary, the “Random” is delightful!!! Bright and happy … something we all could use today. Thanks so much for all you teach us! Happy Happy New Year!!!

  18. Alas, most all of my embroidery is random. It’s about mood, and the creative moment and inspiration….And whenever something isn’t quite sitting right, it is an opportunity for embellishment!!
    To always do “planned” projects would be too restrictive for me…don’t get me wrong, I do Love a good plan…at least to start with! Ha!

  19. Good morning from Alaska. Mary, I had a chuckle over your comment, “Alas, I’m not good at loosening up!” A chuckle because I will be having trouble with total randomness also. I’m glad you left the top and kept on going – it will encourage all of us to do the same. I am in the process of packing to make a short distance move, so after finishing my snowflakes I have worked on tea towels that were already stamped. They are easy and quick to do for a gift. My random on them is looking at the stamped design and picking out colors, then stitches to use. Your project is one I want to join, but I will have to figure out which part is random. Thank you for your wonderful site and bringing all of us together as a group.

  20. The idea of a sampler of stitches across a piece of linen or other stitching fabric sounds very freeing to me, if I can keep from being too perfectionist.

    I started an old (2000) 3 piece kit with an Americana theme. It came with 32 count linen. The first pattern was chosen because it was small and simple. The second pattern was much more tedious but I finished it so I could get to the final piece, which was an alphabet sampler that is easy and fun. Three more sides to the border and I’ll be done. Then the challenge will be finding a way to finish the 3.

    I’m also considering 3 needlework projects that need to be finished. So, next I’ll work there.

  21. I am working on creating a coverlet (54″x 70″) with hexagon blocks that will have designs on each block but not completely filled. I had to create a diamond shape that will attach the blocks horizontally to each other. The blocks are 6 across and will have 9 rows. I had to figure out how to hoop them and attached horizontal strips and am able to put them across the top and bottom and a small strip at the side. I can them put two blocks in a 17″ x 11″ Q snap frame and stitch those and then move laterally. I am also expanding the threads that I have, but still stay with six strand or perle cotton, beads, and charms. My ‘husband gift’ was the DMC Etoile assortment and it is so much fun to use. I also self purchased a Sulky Petite Dream Assortment which is 12 wt. and also includes Blendables. Irresistable! If permitted, I would love to send an ‘in progress’ image. Abby

  22. I am still hung-up on hexies! I have some red-background-white-random-snowflakes fabric which I used for the six “petals’ of a coaster. I used plain white for the middle and back side with white batting to give it some firmness. I know of at least three lady friends who are “shut-ins” and trying not to get any disease. A winter coaster for their coffee or tea mugs seems to be an appropriate gift I can easily send with a card. Now I just have to find an envelope large enough.

  23. A family friend who was a very serious embroider died a couple of years ago and I was given some of her silk. I’ve never used silk before but I’m using it to make Christmas tree decorations for her sisters

  24. Hi Mary!
    I like your randomness project! Just because I am a Shakespeare addict (I have read the whole Shakespearean cannon) I would have added the rest “ crack your cheeks” and fiddled around with wind swirlies to introduce some regularity to the random quote. That’s just me though. I don’t credit myself with much random artistry. I do something different with my stitching. If I have a project that I would really like to finish, I put on a favourite CD and stitch every day for the length of the CD. You don’t seem to have difficulty getting to your stitching-since you have made a profession of it. At any rate I like your project and I thank you again for all of your hard work that results in our ability to stitch and stretch our creative instincts because of your encouragement. Happy 2021! We hope for a much better year all ‘round!

  25. One of my goals this year was 2 try some new stitches and threads and stitching over 2 (I am a basic counted cross stitcher). So, I found some 22 count fabric in my stash, a box of #12 thread from Sulky, in 6 colors, and have 2 rows done in a band sampler from a x-stitch magazine. It’s a start at learning!

  26. It’s good to embrace the random, things may not always look right on the first round but you can surprise yourself by the solutions you find making things look balanced. Don’t unpick, only improve!

  27. Mary, I love this idea of a random 2021 stitching. I just bought, randomly, an antique cloth which I told myself I would embroider something on. Now I know I will use it for my Random Stitches 2021. Can’t wait to start, maybe tonight!!

  28. I tend to plan little bits and have a vague idea about the overall thing, but I haven’t (yet?) really planned a *design* and stuck to it (or used somebody else’s). This is not unproblematic, methinks, but it does keep things interesting.

    Currently trying to learn to crochet. This is possibly embroidery-related. That is, I hope it might be. However, it certainly isn’t yet and probably never will be. I am very, very bad at it. At least, so far I’m very bad. I dare say my first attempts at knitting and embroidery weren’t better but, thing is, I don’t remember those! Tempted to abandon this exercise in futility.

  29. I am combining some ideas I have had going round for a while. I found a rather large piece of linen left over from an indigo dying project. I am using that as a base for a grid of inches. I want to try some crazy quiltesque ideas and lots of little bits using thread and fabric and beads and buttons and whatever.
    I tend to be a touch too random, I love playing the what if game, so thought the one inch square would force some order. I have the squares laid out with 1/4 inch between them.
    That is the first rule I am breaking. I am doing 2021 in the first four squares in voided monogram style.
    8 days in and I am behind! But I started late…so off we go on a bit of adventure.
    Thank you Mary for sharing ideas and pushing me once more just past my comfort zone!! I have fallen in love with my needle again from following your adventures!

  30. Thank you for sharing your struggle with randomness! I have to build my confidence in knowing what I am doing will not be judged by anyone but me. No one has the same piece of art….it’s quiddity.

  31. Random is so difficult! I’m happy to throw colours at non-counted surface embroidery (although my comfort zone is monochrome and counted) but I find it really difficult to go beyond a few basic and familiar stitches. I really should pull out your Stitch Fun Alphabet again and play with some of your stitches and wonderful stitch combinations – that, and Sharon Boggon’s stitch combinations – to stretch my horizons.

    Stitching for the year – I’m working on a large vintage (non-counted) tablecloth for a friend that I expect will take me a couple of years. To keep myself (relatively) sane I expect I’ll be stitching a lot of smaller projects on the side. Current WIP is a blackwork sampler but I can see some random and playful needlebooks coming up as well as lots more counted pieces.

  32. Random is hard! I also decorate cakes and when I need to do random, boy, is it tough. Your scribble doesn’t look like scribble. It looks like blowing wind. Your scrolls look like the “filigree” I do on cakes around capital letters. I may “borrow” a bit of your design. On the bright side…with random there are no errors!

  33. I was so frustrated that I have not been stitching. I love stumpwork and I’ve made many large projects. But this requires design, nice fabric, good lighting, thought and care. I wasn’t having any fun doing it any more. I just want to embroider. So, like you, I have decided to stitch every day. I have made rectangle pieces of calico and embroidered 4, 2.5 inch squares with a running stitch. If I fold it in half, I have a page for a book. My favorite embroidery hoop just fits around the 4 little squares. I now sit in front of the tv, embroidering silly things like purple fish and little pink chickens. I don’t care if I forget to take the hoop off and it leaves a ring. I don’t care if I eat buttery popcorn while I still stitch. I have never felt so free and my creativity is actually back. I like curling up on favorite comfy chair. I love using all of the fancy variegated threads that I really had no plans for. I have embroidered already more in 2021 then I have all of 2020.

  34. Mary, I can’t do random at all. I think that’s the analyst in me. Am still leading a small group of lovely ladies in the Medina, Texas area who want to create with embroidery. Yesterday, we watched (and rewatched several times) your video on the Cast On stitch. Followed with a few hours of working that stitch, mostly laughing at our disability to rotate our finger to make that little loop! This year, we have challenged ourselves to complete one UFO by our September meeting. To put our money where our mouths are (or hands), we chip in a dollar into a kitty each month. Those that complete their UFO will split the cash! We show our progress each month, for encouragement and suggestions, if we are asked. Why September? The local quilting club wants to include our stitching in its quilt show in October! Stay well and Happy Stitching!

  35. Very nice embroidery. My question, did you use a stem stitch for the writing? So neat and beautiful
    Thank you gracie

  36. Well, I thought I was doing good until I saw how fancy yours was. I love plants and flowers so on one of my lines I have tops of carrots showing like their growing and little baby seedlings. I plan on doing rows of different stitches between. I’m going to use stitches I have problems with. And lots of different colors. But it is fun. Please guide us on this from time to time.Thanks

  37. Hello Mary,
    I know how you feel (except I am not quite such a perfectionist as you to start with!) Last year I completed a 2020 crazy quilt following the Pintangle challenge. In fact your website was invaluable in helping me learn more unusual stitches. Some sections were really successful, but some I could have really improved if I tried again, but there was no way I would finish it in 2020 if I had started unpicking bits. I think the real value was the learning process, rather than finished piece, and I look at it as a ‘sampler’ to give me ideas for future projects.
    Thank you for sharing your ups and downs, your posts are like news from a friend in this time of isolation!

  38. Hi Mary! I’m working on a piece representing a favourite view. I’ve outlined sections representing fields and hills and I’m restricting the colours I’m using to greens, greys and yellows, all from stash threads. I’m keeping the stitching simple and not planning the filling stitches (lots of running stitch, seed stitch, French knots) just working in field blocks as I go. I had thought it would be something to do at odd times over several months but I’ve got involved in it and have spent many hours stitching this last week. Maybe I’ll end up doing a series of them using different colour schemes! It’s really interesting hearing your thought processes as you do your piece. Helps validate what I’m doing!

  39. Gostei muito dos bordados.Muito bem explicado,gostaria mas,não domingo o inglês,se pudesse ser em espanhol seria muito bom.obrigada

  40. I Love this sampler and how it is turning out! I think is great to allow ourselves to experiment, sometimes it is hard when there is so many ideas flowing in my head! I would love to do this, i find giving one restrictions like you are doing(one can choose which ones make sense), also essential to not feel overwhelmed. I have done a sampler before but it was for me to use essential stitches, so one that is more free flowing can be exciting! Thank you for sharing

  41. Hi Mary,

    I wasn’t able to find a place to comment on your emessage from 1/20/2021, so I went here to do this.

    In terms of covering up the 2021, which you indicated you were interested in, have you talked with anyone who has a tattoo or might know a tattoo artist? They might have some suggestions for things they use to cover up numbers or letters for people and would impart that to you.

    Good luck! I am looking forward to seeing how your year continues to unfold, no pun intended.

    All the best,

    Amy in Plymouth Meeting
    (formerly Conshohocken)

    1. Hi, Amy! I’m not quite sure I follow the question or the relation with tattoos…? In any case, I didn’t really want to cover it up. I just kept stitching randomly around and over it, to minimize its unbalance. I don’t really care enough about it to cover it completely, and I don’t really want to. But if it did bother me enough, I wouldn’t cover it – I would just pick it out and re-stitch it with better planning. I don’t think ink would come into it, though, so I’m a bit confused on that connection! :-/

  42. Mary,
    Aside from enjoying your lovely stitching and helpful videos, I want to thank you for mentioning The Bible in a Year Podcast in one of your posts. I signed on and I’m listening every day to Fr. Mike Schmidt read a passage and a psalm. What a gift! Thanks, Mary. (You’re in my prayers.)

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