Refresh Your Clothes with Embroidery

a denim shirt with an embroidery hoop place near the collar and chain stitching in progress in pink, gold, and mauve.

I’ve mentioned more than once that embroidery was my first fiber and stitching related hobby. I learned to hand sew as a child, and it has been a part of my life on and off since then. When I started sewing garments a few years ago, I was eager to find ways to incorporate embroidery and hand sewing into my practice. 

There are so many reasons to love hand stitching

And so much to love about the process and the product. Like so many functional art forms, from ceramics to weaving, embroidery carries with it a long, cross-cultural history, with different styles and techniques from place to place. Embroidery requires no machines, or fancy tools. All you need is fabric, thread, a hoop, and a needle. Generations of hands, using a needle and thread, to create something beautiful and wearable. It is lovely to think my hands can be a small part of that too. 

As I continue on my slow fashion journey, embroidery has become an important piece of extending the life of my clothing. Not only as a way of visible mending, but also to help me fall in love again with pieces that have been lingering in my closet for many years.

A little delicate embroidery on a neckline, or sleeve, or pocket makes something feel new again, and even better, makes it feel one of a kind. I like to think of the future life of that piece of clothing. Maybe it will be passed on to a friend or family member, who will think of my hands stitching it.

Maybe someday, far in the future, someone will pull it from a rack in a secondhand shop, run their fingers over the stitches, wonder about their origins, and take it home, the start of a new chapter. I’m day dreaming now. But making things does that to a person. Or at least it does that to me.

And embroidery is the perfect art for a day-dreamer, because you can make it in any style you want

I don’t claim to be an expert, and there are many, far more talented embroidery artists (some of whom I have linked below) but here is a short guide to how I add embroidery to refresh a garment. 

a denim shirt with an embroidery hoop place near the collar and chain stitching in progress in pink, gold, and mauve.

I’ve had this RTW top for a few years, and though I love it, I realized I haven’t worn it in a while. A little embroidery is just what it needs. I pulled these three colors from my stash of embroidery thread (Cosmo 233, 2307, and 426) and started by doing a little sketching. I am not altogether too confident in my drawing skills, but embroidery mostly requires a sense of composition and line. I gravitate to floral motifs, and often take inspiration from botanical guides, but I felt these colors leant themselves towards a more geometric design. 

Once I’ve sketched out my design, I draw it on my garment using an erasable chalk pencil (test whatever pen you use on a scrap to ensure it will in fact erase cleanly.) This design didn’t require much sketching. I simply measured and marked to ensure even spacing. 

Then the fun begins, and I stitch my design. My process is fairly intuitive, and I don’t often plan which stitch I’ll use until I do it. For this piece, I used chain stitch to give the lines a strong visual weight. 

Give it a good steam, and if you’d like, press a light weight interfacing to the back (full disclosure: I often forget to do this.) Wash as you normally would, and hang to dry. 

a close up of Meredith wearing a denim shirt with chain stitch embroidery of a sun-like geometric design, with one lock of hair falling over the embroidery.

I love the way my top came out. I’ve been debating mirroring the design on the other side, or adding something else, but for now, I am content. And that’s the great thing about embroidery, there is no rush, you can always add more later. 

If you aren’t ready to go it alone just yet, embroidery kits are a great way to get started, and can be used as art, a patch on a top or jacket, or incorporated into a quilt. Cozy Blue is my personal favorite. They also have great learn-to-stich guides.

Clothing Embroidery Artists on IG 

@christijay

@tessa_perlow

@plystreknitwear

@kzstevens

Embroidery Books

The Geometry of Hand Sewing, by Natalie Chanin

Anna Maria’s Needlework Notebook, by Anna Maria Horner

Mystical Stitches, by Christi Johnson

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  1. This is beautiful and so inspiring! I’ve been planning to make some white linen strata tops and embroider on them, but what a great idea to refresh some items I already have!

  2. Meredith, I deeply enjoy to read your writing! The topics you choose are always moving and inspiring!
    And I agree, making things for others, especially garments, makes me wonder what memories they will make in those gifts.

  3. What a lovely & satisfying project! I hope that you are getting a new enjoyment out of your revamped top. I really love adding special embroidery stitches to clothes I make for my daughter and have also used them to bring a little personality to RTW items languishing in my closet. Makes all of the difference, sometimes. Oh, and thanks for the sources! It’s fun to find some new inspiration.

  4. Loved this post! Thanks for sharing about Mystical Stitches— I can’t remember the last time I hit preorder that fast. It just arrived today and it’s absolutely stunning. I can’t wait to combine it with the inspiration from this post to add some embellishments to a few garments.