20 Common Embroidery Mistakes

Stitched yellow heart
Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Every hobby has its learning curve, and embroidery is no exception. Avoiding mistakes can save you time, money and frustration.

By reviewing these top 20 common - and avoidable - embroidery mistakes on these 2 pages, you'll be a step ahead by knowing what to avoid before starting your next embroidery project.

1. Not reading the instructions before starting a project
Always read the instructions thoroughly.

One of the most common errors that happens when instructions are skipped, is that the wrong thread or number of strands of embroidery floss are used. This can lead to running out of thread before completing the project or not having the proper thread coverage (thread is too thick or too thin for the area being stitched).

2. Choosing the wrong embroidery fabric for the type of embroidery
Most forms of surface embroidery require a firm fabric foundation, often with a thread count of 28 or higher. Using an embroidery fabric with a lower thread count can result in poorly-formed stitches. Counted Thread or Pulled Thread projects require a lower, looser thread count. This makes it easier to pull and remove threads and create lacy stitches.

3. Selecting the wrong size of needle
Using an embroidery needle that is too large for the project can result in holes in the fabric where the needle and thread enter or exit.

It can also cause puckered fabric. A needle that is too small can be difficult to thread, and can cause unnecessary wear on thread, resulting in unwanted “fuzzies.”

4. Using a sharp needle when a ball-point needle should be used
Sharp needles should be used when the needle and thread need to pierce the fabric, as in surface embroidery and crewel.

Ball-point needles are used when the needle needs to slip between threads in the fabric without piercing them, as in counted thread, pulled thread, and Hardanger embroidery.

5. Starting and ending a thread with knots
Knots should always be avoided in any type of embroidery project. Instead, start a new thread with a waste knot, away knot, or by weaving it into the back side of an area that has already been stitched. Knots cause unwanted bulk on the back of the piece, resulting in the work not lying flat when pressed or mounted. Knots in projects that will be laundered frequently tend to work themselves free, leaving you with missing embroidered areas.

6. Selecting an embroidery thread that is too heavy or light for the task
Bold lines of embroidery require thicker embroidery threads, and narrow lines require finer threads. Threads can be combined to make a thicker strand, and floss can be separated into single strands or groups of strands. Also, using a thread that is too thick for the fabric chosen can cause problems as well - the threads in the fabric are moved and shifted to accommodate the thickness of the thread used, causing puckering.

7. Using a craft thread rather than an embroidery thread
Inexpensive thread sold in packages as a “Craft Thread” (often 6-strand floss or #5 pearl cotton) are meant to be used in craft projects such as friendship bracelets, macramé, or children’s crafts and should not be used for embroidery. The quality of craft threads is much lower than embroidery-quality thread. Craft threads fray easily and don’t come in as wide a range of colors. They also may not be colorfast, and the color can bleed into the fabric during laundering.

8. Marking your fabric with a pencil or pen
Always use a water-soluble fabric marking pen, chalk pencil or fabric pencil to mark an embroidery design on your fabric. Do not use any type of pen or pencil designated for use on paper. Regular pens (sometimes even those labeled as “permanent”) can bleed into the fabric with handling or laundering, or may not wash out completely.

9. Using a transfer pencil instead of a water-soluble fabric pencil or pen
Heat transfer pencils are permanent and are used for iron-on designs. This means that the marked lines need to be completely covered with embroidery or they will show in the finished project. Instead, use a water-soluble pen or pencil to mark the design on your fabric.​

TIP: When in doubt, test the pen or pencil on a scrap of the fabric you will be using to make certain it will wash out.

10. Iron-On transfers are fuzzy or distorted
Iron-on is a misleading term. Press-on transfers would be a better term, as pressing and ironing are two different things. When using transfers, fuzzy markings result when the pattern is ironed onto the fabric – the iron is slid back and forth on the paper (ironing), rather than carefully lifting the iron carefully and moving it to the next spot (pressing). Always lift the iron when moving to another section – do not slide it.

11. Not using an embroidery hoop or frame
Using an embroidery hoop, scroll frame or stretcher bars keeps the fabric taut and makes it easier to work accurate, well-formed stitches. Using these tools helps your tension consistent, helps eliminate puckering or stitch distortion, and also keeps the work cleaner as you won’t be bunching the fabric in your “holding hand” as you stitch.​

12. Rolling your fabric on a scroll frame in the wrong direction Fabric should be rolled on the bars of a scroll frame with the wrong sides of the fabric rolled to the outside (facing you). This helps keep the fabric clean as your project is worked, as the front side of the project is protected from your hands and airborne dirt by having it rolled to the inside.

13. Not removing the hoop before storing
Always remove your embroidery hoop before putting away your embroidery for the day, or storing it for any length of time. A hoop can leave a crease in the fabric that can be permanent or very difficult to remove. It is okay, however, to leave your work in a stretcher frame or scroll frame, as these tools do not cause creases. Be sure to also remove the needle from the fabric before storing, in case it rusts.

14. Not having enough floss or embroidery thread when starting the project
Before working the embroidery stitches, make sure you have all the necessary embroidery threads on-hand. This is especially true if you are using older threads from your stash, as older threads may have faded or have been pulled from the manufacturer’s current line, making it nearly impossible to find a new match.

15. Soiling your project
Always wash your hands before working on your embroidery project. If you have taken care while working on your design and washed your hands before stitching, you may not need to launder the finished piece. I must admit that I cringe whenever I see someone snacking while working on their embroidery projects. Often, certain oils and food colorings or coffee and tea may not wash out of a finished piece, and snacking while stitching is a no-no!

16. Improper cleaning or laundering for the thread or fabric type
If an item does require laundering, be sure to check the fiber content of fabric and thread before washing. Crewel is often worked on cotton or linen in crewel wool and should be hand-washed, while some fabrics are meant to be dry-cleaned only. Washing these items the conventional way can cause shrinkage of the fabric or threads, ruining the finished project.

17. Improperly pressing a finished embroidery piece, smashing the stitching
As embroidery buffs, we work hard to create beautiful works of art with delicate and dimensional stitching. Don’t ruin the piece by pressing a project like you would a shirt. Instead, preserve the texture of the stitching by placing the piece face-down on a plush towel when pressing – this will help prevent flattened stitches.

18. Improperly storing needlework fabrics and finished pieces
Needlework is an investment of both time and materials. Properly storing your pieces will help avoid staining and fiber breakage, ensuring you get a lifetime of use from your items. Always use archival quality (acid-free) tissue to wrap each individual piece, and do not store the items directly on wood shelving (wood can leach chemicals that will cause yellowing). Also, do not starch your items before storing, as this can cause fibers to break along a crease or fold. Re-fold your treasures often to avoid permanent creases – or better yet, roll your items on acid-free cardboard tubing to avoid creases altogether.

19. Displaying needlework in direct sunlight
Many fabrics and threads used in embroidery like to promise that they are fade-resistant. But, Mother Nature will still find a way to fade your hard work when displayed in full sun, regardless of what the label on the thread or fabric indicates. To help avoid fading and sun damage, do not display needlework pieces in direct sunlight, and when framing your items under glass, be sure to use spacers between the needlework and the glass, and use UV-protective glass.

20. Rushing to fix a mistake
If you make a mistake and find yourself picking out stitching, do this carefully and slowly. Do not pull or tug threads to remove them. Instead, cut them carefully and remove them with tweezers so that you do not damage the base fabric.