BDN reporter Sam Schipani demonstrates how to add simple embroidery to your clothes. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A touch of embroidery can make even the most basic clothes look couture. It is relatively easy and inexpensive to add hand-embroidered designs to your clothes with a few tools, a splash of creativity and a little patience.

Whether you are looking to give old clothes new life or just trying to find a way to pass the time with a fun, creative craft, here’s what you need to know about adding simple embroidery to your clothes.

Step 1: Gather your tools

At the most basic level, all you need to hand embroider your clothes is needles and thread.

When it comes to thread, it is best to use embroidery floss, which has multiple strands in one bundle that you will have to separate depending on how delicate you want your design to be. There is some variation between embroidery flosses as well. For example, the threads can have various weights or thickness, and can be made of cotton, silk, wool, linen or some synthetic blend.

“One needs to match the type of thread with the fabric to be embroidered and the design,” said Amy Van Natter, owner of Eternal Knot Studio in Harrington. “A good general rule of thumb is to use the same or compatible materials — cotton thread to embroider cotton fabric, wool with wool.”

J. Marsha Michler, a quilter, embroiderer and needle artist based in Portland, said that the basic thread for many types of embroidery is a cotton six-strand floss.

“Use one strand for fine work, or use multiple strands in the needle,” Michler said. “Another thread great for beginners is size eight pearl cotton — it’s heavier and easy to use. Try different threads to find what works best for you.”

Tools for embroidery. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Hand embroidery needles, or sharp needles, come in various sizes, usually ranging from 1 to 10 with lower sizes indicating a finer needle.

“When I teach I usually do a size seven,” said Kimberly Hamlin, owner of Fiber & Vine in Norway. “I would suggest getting a variety pack and seeing what fits best.”

Other helpful tools include fabric scissors and an embroidery hoop, though Van Natter said that they won’t work in every situation. One tool she would not necessarily recommend for beginners are stabilizers or backing.

“Stabilizers are used when a material is very thin, stretchy or otherwise difficult to keep flat and you want a very neat and specific embroidery,” Van Natter said. “I wouldn’t recommend such projects for beginners as it adds an extra element to contend with.”

Step 2: Pick something to embroider

Once you have your tools, then you have to figure out what you want to embroider. Certain clothes will be easier than others.

Hamlin recommended starting with woven fabric.

“I wouldn’t suggest a beginner to get started on any kind of knit,” Hamlin said. “You want a little more practice before you start doing that. I think thicker cotton [like] flannel [and] jeans, those are fun things that are easy to stitch on. If you want to embroider on a sweater that would be a good idea too.”

Michler recommended denim.

“Denim clothes are easiest for a beginner because the fabric is firm enough to not need a hoop,” Michler said.

BDN reporter Sam Schipani demonstrates how to add simple embroidery to your clothes. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

However, she cautioned against jeans that are a blend of cotton and stretchy materials like spandex, which are more difficult to work with because of their pliability. Make sure you check the material’s content.

If you are using a new article of clothing, make sure you wash it beforehand so the clothing doesn’t shrink around the design. For your first project, though, you might want to choose something that you don’t mind getting a little messy.

“I would suggest that people start on something that’s not super precious before they stitch on their clothes, [though] hand embroidery doesn’t do too much damage if you have to take it out and fix it,” Hamlin said.

Michler said the best way to choose a spot for your embroidery is to put the garment on, stand before a mirror, choose your spot and mark it with a small piece of tape. You also need to find a spot on your article of clothing with enough space to embroider.

“A key concern with clothing is access to the material,” Van Natter said. “If embroidering an existing article while it is [intact] you will need to have enough space to work. In other words, it would be very difficult to embroider the knee of a pair of skinny jeans, although not impossible.”

Step 3: Choose a design

Next, pick a design.

“Your own original designs are always best, but if you’d prefer a pre-existing design books of designs can be found in a web search,” Michler said. “Look for simple shapes and few details. As you gain expertise add details and complexity as you like. In addition to pictorial designs, you might try making letters, numbers and words.”

Hamlin said that you can go on Etsy for fun embroidery designs to print out and trace over with transfer paper, or iron-on. You can also draw your design directly onto the fabric using chalk, fabric pens or pencils that will wash out.

BDN reporter Sam Schipani demonstrates how to add simple embroidery to your clothes. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“My favorite method is to trace a design onto tracing paper, cut around it, then baste it onto the fabric,” Michler said. “Work an outlining stitch on the lines, then tear away the paper (carefully) and finish the embroidery. This method works best when a hoop is used.”

You can even free-hand — or free-stitch — your design.

“I think it’s fun to do a stream of conscious freeform,” Hamlin said. “I have a shirt that I stitch every day for 100 days. It looks like a crazy doodle.”

No matter what, Van Natter said to make sure you pick a design that inspires and motivates you — that way, you are more likely to stick to it.

Step 4: Embroider

Finally, it is time to put your design on your clothes.

Hamlin said to start by cutting “half an arm’s length” of embroidery floss.

“You get knots and tangles on the underside of your work [if it’s] any longer than like, half an arm’s length,” Hamlin said.

Then, separate the strands from your embroidery floss — usually, two or three strands will work for basic designs.

BDN reporter Sam Schipani demonstrates how to add simple embroidery to your clothes. Thread gets separated. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

You will need to know some basic stitches to start embroidering, which you can learn online or in a book. The most basic one that everyone should know is the backstitch.

“The basic stitch if you’re going to be doing an image is the backstitch,” Hamlin said. “It makes a nice thick line. That’s the easiest and probably the most commonly used for embroidery. My next favorite would be a and that’s the basis of a lot of other more complex embroidery stitches so it’s a really good thing to master.”

From there, you can learn a few more to fill out your design. Hamlin recommended the chain stitch, a series of looped interconnected stitches which she said forms the basis of other, more complex embroidery stitches. Michler also recommended the outline stitch for basic lines, lazy daisy stitch for simple flowers, French knot for circular accents perfect for elements like the center of flowers and satin stitch for filling designs. You can find tutorials for almost every embroidery stitch on YouTube.

“Try them on scrap fabric until you are comfortable making each one,” Michler said.

Michler said to keep stitches short as you can and placed snugly against the fabric to keep them from catching when you are washing or wearing your finished product. As you are stitching, make sure you are not going through to the other side of your clothing as well.

BDN reporter Sam Schipani demonstrates how to add simple embroidery to your clothes. Sam embroidered a heart on the collar of a shirt. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“You don’t want to sew through your pant leg,” Hamlin said. “I’ll put a piece of cardboard in the sleeve so I don’t go through to the other side.”

Once you are done with your design, Hamlin said that you can tie a double knot on the underside of your design and sew the remaining “tail” into your design.

“You could just put a knot anywhere if you don’t care about seeing what the backside looks like,” Hamlin said.

Michler, however, recommended adopting the habit right away of avoiding knots to begin and end a thread.

“Instead, use two or three tiny stitches placed close together at each end,” Michler said. “This avoids uncomfortable little bumps that can also get in the way of stitching.”

Step 5: Care for your clothes

Sam shows off the heart she embroidered on the collar of her shirt. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Once you have finished, make sure you care for your clothes in a way that will make your embroidered design last.

Van Natter said that in most situations the fabric will wear out before the embroidery threads, but there are two things in particular you have to watch out for: moths and friction.

“If you want the embroidery to last, keep it from situations where it comes into too much contact that causes friction with other surfaces,” she said.

Also, be careful how you wash your clothes.

“I did some stitches on a onesie for my niece and it immediately snagged and pulled in the washing machine,” Hamlin said. “Put it in a lingerie bag or hand wash them, perhaps.”

Even adding simple embroidery to your clothes is a great way to give them new life while expressing your creativity.

“It’s such an opportunity to make something just as unique as you are,” Hamlin said. “Just be patient with yourself. Stitching takes time. If you get to a point where you feel like chucking it across the room, it’s time for a break.”