Handbook of Embroidery: Materials and tools

When you click on links to various merchants on this site and make a purchase, this can result in this site earning a commission. Affiliate programs and affiliations include, but are not limited to, the eBay Partner Network. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.



Needles.—The best “embroidery needles” for ordinary crewel handwork are Nos. 5 and 6. For coarse “sailcloth,” “flax,” or “oatcake,” No. 4. For frame embroidery, or very fine handwork, the higher numbers, from 7 to 10.

It is a mistake to use too fine a needle. The thread of crewel or silk should always be able to pass loosely into the eye, so as not to require any pulling to carry it through the material.

Scissors should be finely pointed, and very sharp.

Thimbles which have been well worn, and are therefore smooth, are best. Some workers prefer ivory or vulcanite. Two thimbles should be used for framework.

Prickers are necessary for piercing holes in gold embroidery, and also for arranging the lie of the thread in some forms of couching.



Crewel should be cut into short threads, never more than half the length of the skein. If a long needleful is used, it is not only apt to pull the work, but is very wasteful, as the end of it is liable to become frayed or knotted before it is nearly worked up. If it is necessary to use it double (and for coarse work, such as screen panels on sailcloth, or for embroidering on Utrecht velvet, it is generally better doubled), care should be taken never to pass it through the eye of the needle, knotting the two ends; but two separate threads of the length required should be passed together through the needle.

Crewel should not be manufactured with a twist, as it makes the embroidery appear hard and rigid; and the shades of colour do not blend into each other so harmoniously as when they are untwisted.

In crewels of the best quality the colours are perfectly fast, and will bear being repeatedly washed, provided no soda or washing-powder is used. Directions for cleaning [Pg 4]crewel work are given later; but it should not be sent to an ordinary laundress, who will most certainly ruin the colours.

Crewel is suitable for embroidery on all kinds of linen—on plain or diagonal cloth, serge, flannel, &c. It is also very effective when used in conjunction with embroidery silk, or filoselle, either in conventional designs, or where flowers are introduced. The leaves may be worked in crewels, and the flowers in silk, or the effect of the crewels increased by merely touching up the high lights with silk.

Tapestry Wool is more than twice the thickness of crewel, and is used for screen panels, or large curtain borders, where the work is coarse, and a good deal of ground has to be covered. It is also used for bath blankets and carriage and sofa rugs. Tapestry wool is not yet made in all shades.

Fine crewels are used for delicately working small figures, d’oyleys, &c.; but there is also a difficulty about obtaining these in all shades, as there is not much demand for them at present.

Arrasene is a new material. It is a species of worsted chenille, but is not twisted round fine wire or silk, like ordinary chenille; though it is woven first into a fabric, and then cut in the same manner. It serves to produce broad effects for screen panels, or borders, and has a very soft, rich appearance when carefully used. It is made also in silk; but this is inferior to worsted arrasene, or the old-fashioned chenille.


“Embroidery,” or Bobbin Silk, which has now almost superseded floss, is used for working on satin and silk, or for any fine work. It is made in strands, each of which has a slight twist in it to prevent its fraying as floss does. As this silk is required in all varieties of thickness, it is manufactured in what is technically called “rope,” that is, with about twelve strands in each thread. When not “rope” silk, it is in single strands, and is then called “fine” silk. As it is almost always necessary to use several strands, and these in varying number, according to the embroidery in hand, the rope silk has to be divided, or the fine doubled or trebled, as the case may be.

If rope silk is being used, the length required for a needleful must be cut and passed carefully between finger and thumb once or twice, that it may not be twisted. It should then be carefully separated into the number of strands most suitable for the embroidery in hand; for ordinary work three is about the best number.

These must be threaded together through the needle, care being taken not to tangle the piece of “rope” from which they have been detached. There need be no waste [Pg 6]if this operation is carefully done, as good silk will always divide into strands without fraying.

In using “fine silk,” one length must be cut first, then other strands laid on it,—as many as are needed to form the thickness required. They should be carefully laid in the same direction as they leave the reel or card. If placed carelessly backwards and forwards, they are sure to fray, and will not work evenly together. With silk still more than with crewel, it is necessary to thread all the strands through the needle together, never to double one back, and never to make a knot.

It is intended in future to do away with this distinction between “rope” and “fine” silk, and to have it all manufactured of one uniform thickness, which will consist of eight strands of the same quality as the “fine” silk at present in use. As it will, however, still be necessary to divide the thread, and even perhaps occasionally to double it, the directions given above will be useful.

Purse Silk is used sometimes for diapering, and in rare cases in ordinary embroidery, where a raised effect is required.

Raw or spun silk is a soft untwisted cream-coloured silk, used for daisies and other simple white flowers, or in outlining. It is much cheaper than embroidery silk or filoselle.

Vegetable Silk (so-called) is not used or sold by the Royal School.

Filoselle, when of good quality, is not, as some people suppose, a mixture of silk and cotton. It is pure silk, but of an inferior quality; and therefore cheaper. It answers many of the purposes of bobbin silk, but is not suitable for fine embroidery on silk or satin fabrics. It should be used also in strands, and the same remarks hold good with regard to its not being doubled, but cut in equal lengths.

Tussore.—Interesting experiments have recently been made with the “Tussore,” or “wild silk” of India, which bids fair to create a revolution in embroidery. Not only can it be produced for less than half the price of the “cultivated silk” of Italy, China, or Japan, but it also takes the most delicate dyes with a softness that gives a peculiarly charming effect. It can scarcely be said to be in the market as yet, but in all probability before this work is through the press it will have become an important element in decorative needlework. It is much less glossy than cultivated silk.


Japanese gold thread,” which has the advantage of never tarnishing, is now extremely difficult to obtain. Being made of gilt paper twisted round cotton thread, it cannot be drawn through the material by the needle; but must in all cases be laid on, and stitched down with a fine yellow silk, known as “Maltese,” or “Horse-tail.”

Chinese gold” is manufactured in the same manner as the Japanese; but being of a much redder colour is not so satisfactory in embroidery unless a warm shade is desirable for a particular work.

Gold and silver passing, a very fine kind of thread, can either be used for working through the material, or can be laid on like the Japanese gold. They are suitable for “raised gold or silver embroidery.”

Bullion, or Purl, is gold or silver wire made in a series of continuous rings, like a corkscrew. It is used in ecclesiastical work, for embroidering official and military uniforms, and for heraldic designs. It should be cut into the required lengths—threaded on the needle [Pg 9]and fastened down as in bead-work. Purl is sometimes manufactured with a coloured silk twisted round the metal though not concealing it, and giving rich tints to the work.

Spangles were anciently much used in embroidery, and were sometimes of pure gold. They are but little used now.

Plate consists of narrow plates of gold or silver stitched on to the embroidery by threads of silk, which pass over them.

The French and English gold thread is made of thin plates of metal cut into strips, and wound round strands of cotton in the same manner as the Japanese gold. If the metal is real, the cost is of course great. It is sold by weight, gold being about 20s. per oz., and silver, 10s. per oz. In addition to its superiority in wear, it has this advantage, that old gold or silver thread is always of intrinsic value, and may be sold at the current price of the metal whatever state it may be in. Many varieties of gilt thread are manufactured in France and England, which may be used when the great expense of “real gold” is objected to. But although it looks equally well at first, it soon becomes tarnished, and spoils the effect of the embroidery. Gold and silver threads are difficult to work with in England, and especially in London, as damp and coal-smoke tarnish them almost before the work is out of the frame. Mrs. Dolby recommends cloves being placed in the papers in which they are kept.


We give here two recipes, which may be found serviceable. They are from different sources; the first is a very old one. They may preserve gold for a certain time.

1. Isinglass dissolved in spirits of wine and brushed over the thread or braid, which should be hung over something to dry, and not touched with the hand.

2. Spirits of wine and mastic varnish mixed very thin and put on in the same way with a brush.

Leave a Reply