When teaching hand embroidery for beginners classes one of the first things my students asked was "is it hard to embroider letters?" They wanted to know how to embroider letters or names on their personal items.
In the past girls were often taught to stitch before learning to read, so they were equipped to run a household when they grew up. They often completed finely stitched samplers, containing at least one alphabet, before they reached their teenage years. They would also learn how to embroider a name on a quilt or other bed linen.
Continuing this practice, even in a limited way, helps keep alive a tradition. Of course, embroidering letters also has a practical use.
To create your own personalised item you can get away with just a few basic embroidery stitches. So what can you decorate in this manner?
The first step is learning how to transfer the word or letter you want to hand embroider onto your fabric. The best method depends on the type of cloth you are embellishing.
When I teach beginners embroidery I tend to stick with cotton, calico or polycotton materials for their first attempt.
Start by writing, or tracing, your letters onto tracing paper. Then lay that over your garment to check the size. If it looks good, turn over your paper and retrace with a transfer pencil or pen. This will ensure your writing is the right way round once you iron it onto the fabric.
Iron on transfers often don't wash out, so you will need to cover the lines with your stitches. For this reason try to keep your drawn lines as thin as possible. You can use a ruler to ensure straight lines and plates or cups as a template for curves.
A light box is a smooth surface with a light behind it. When you place your template and garment on top, you will be able to see through the fabric. You can then trace the lettering with a disappearing ink pen or a sharp-pointed graphite pencil.
Don't have a light box? During the daylight hours you could use a window instead.
The methods above won't work on textured fabrics such as baby's blankets or toweling. The deep pile, or nap, does not lie flat enough to get a good result.
A good method to use here involves tissue paper and tacking stitches.
You would first write the letters onto the paper, with care! Then position the paper over the garment. Using contrasting colored thread, stitch over the lines with a straight stitch. You can then tear away the tissue to leave a guide to follow for your embroidery.
This is a different technique entirely, and does not require transferring a pattern onto the garment. Instead the stitches are worked from a chart, in a similar way to cross stitch, only this time you use what is known as duplicate stitch which resembles the knitted stocking stitches.
The best stitches to use for embroidered letters will depend on the size.
Small words look great just outlined. You might like to get more creative with thicker letters or monograms. There is a variety of filling stitches that work well for these.
When tackling hand embroidery for beginners I suggest you start with outline stitches.
Backstitch and stem stitch work well for the name shown in the photograph.
Stem stitch gives a thicker line for the first letter and the line underneath. Full instructions for this stitch and variations are given in my stem stitch tutorial.
If you want to create letters that vary in width, split stitch is a good choice. You can work a single row in the thinner sections, and add extra in the wider parts.
This stitch is an ideal introduction to hand embroidery.
I recommend using an embroidery hoop and sit-on stand when working split stitch. You then have both hands free.
Thread your needle with an even number of strands of embroidery floss.
Start by bringing the needle up through the fabric from the back.
Take it down a stitch length away. You don't want to make each stitch too big - half a centimeter is large enough.
Bring the needle back up through the center of the previous stitch. Try to have the same number of strands on each side of where you split the stitch. This will give the neatest result.
Take the needle down half a centimeter away from its current position.
Repeat this, splitting the center of the previous stitch each time. You can achieve a similar effect with chain stitch.
Split stitch can also be used to outline a letter which is then covered with satin stitch. This helps give a neat edge.
Keeping the satin stitches laying smooth can take practice, but it is worth persevering. You might like to try out a laying tool to help here.
Try to avoid making your stitches too long, as they are liable to catch or snag.
In the photo I am laying the stitches on the diagonal to fill the letter L.
Padded satin stitch consists of two layers, often worked in different directions. It gives more dimension to your hand embroidery. For beginners, I would stick to just the first layer.
With more practice you can work over a cut out shape to create a raised letter, as shown here. Felt or a stiff interfacing work well for this technique.
I was lucky enough to find vintage letter shapes in a mixed box of transfers that were given to me. They were all the letter S but as my mother's name is Shirley I used one to make her a birthday card.
When working a curved letter ensure that you keep the stitches tight together on the inner curve and slightly spaced on the outside. This will help to create a smooth finished result without gaps or bumps in your work.
These are just a few stitches that you can consider when learning how to embroider letters. To learn more stitches do check out my basic embroidery stitches page.