Studio: Fibers – Embroidery Basics with Cassie Stephens

Video Transcript

Hi. This is Cassie Stephens for The Art of Education. I am a kindergarten through fourth grade art teacher, and I’ve been teaching art for close to 20 years in the national arena. Let’s talk about embroidery. Now when I was a kid, my parents would pack me up and ship me off for two weeks to my grandmas’ houses. I had two grandmas. I had swimming pool grandma and I had grandma who did not have a swimming pool. Now you would think that I would have enjoyed hanging out with swimming pool grandmother more, however my grandmother who didn’t have one taught me the fine art of embroidery and cross stitch. I loved sitting on her front steps and learning different techniques and new styles and and ways of stitches that she would take those projects and turn them into pillows for my home. Let’s talk about how to do embroidery with your students.

I have found that my kids absolutely love doing embroidery. The way I explain it to them is it’s like drawing but instead of using pencil to paper, it’s thread to fabric. They can draw essentially anything with their needle and thread. For you, when you’re teaching your students, you could work with a specific theme. This year, for example my students were learning about ocean animals so they all did an embroidered project of an ocean animal. In the past, my students have stitched very small pieces that we used in collaborative works. Think of this as a drawing that your students can do and think of all of the connections that you can make with your curriculum.

Let’s talk about the supplies you’re going to need to use for simple embroidery. I have found that the best fabric to introduce embroidery to for my students is burlap and I like burlap a lot for a couple of reasons. I like it because it’s porous. The students can see through it which means they can see what their hand is doing underneath which is really helpful when they’re doing embroidery. The other reason I like burlap is because it’s inexpensive and it comes in a wide variety of colors. When you have your burlap however, you need to make sure to prepare that fabric. You’re going to have to cut it to the correct size and you’ll also need to prepare the edges so they won’t constantly be unraveling.

Let’s talk about how to cut the burlap. When you’re cutting burlap, there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way to cut burlap. The reason there’s a right and wrong way is because burlap is actually woven fibers, so there’s vertical warp threads and horizontal weft threads. If you pull on one it’s all going start to unravel and you know students. If there’s something they love to do it’s pick at stuff. If they start picking and pulling at those fibers in the burlap, the next thing you know it will be unraveled. So you need to make sure to cut it correctly to cut down on that unraveling and also to seal your edges.

Let’s talk about cutting the burlap. Your first step will be to decide what size of embroidery project do you want your students to be working on. I’ve worked on projects as small as a patch size, this three inch by three inch square. I’ve worked on projects a little bit bigger, about five by five, and then even ones as large as this. It’s up to you, it’s up to the amount of time that you want to spend with embroidery with your students and the amount of money that you’re able to spend to purchase these embroidery supplies.

When you’re cutting your burlap and you’ve got your size figured out, the way to cut it is this. You’re going to make a small cut, doesn’t matter what end because the fibers are woven. After you’ve made that small cut go ahead and take out just one of those fibers of the burlap. Pull that string gently and what you’re doing is you’re creating a run in the fabric, kind of like run that we used to get in our stockings. Once you’ve gotten that you’ll be able to see that there’s a little bit of a space right there, and that where you want your scissors to go.

I’m just going to cut along that run. The preparation of supplies for embroidery can be a little time-consuming because you are wanting to cut this correctly. You don’t want to shortcut this and cut it every which way because that’ll cause those fibers to come out. Once you’ve gotten that side cut, go ahead and do the same thing. Small cut, pull it out, you’ve got your runner which tells you where to cut. Now that you’ve gotten your pieces cut, you need to seal your edges because as you can see, just one little pull causes those pieces to unravel. To seal those edges you have a couple of choices depending especially on what kind of time you have.

The fastest way to do it would be to lay these on a plastic surface like a plastic bag, or lay some plastic cling wrap on your counter, take your hot glue gun and just draw a bead of glue around the edge. That’s probably the fastest way to do it. You could also use regular school glue. This you would need to do the night before and draw a line of glue around the edge that way. One other alternative would be to tape the edges. When you tape the edges you don’t have to tape all the way around because the ends of the tape are locking those threads in place.

The only thing with taping the edges though is that once that tape is on there, it cannot be removed. The reason being is if you take it off it’s going to also take with it all of those woven fibers. When my students wove their ocean animals on this burlap this year, when they were finished we left the tape on there, we mounted it on a piece of tag board. I just simply put beads of hot glue down the tape and added that to the tag board. Then we created a metal tooled frame. The metal tooled frame overlapped the tape and hid it.

Once you have your fabric prepared for your students, then you are ready to start working on your embroidery. What I have my students do is draw their drawing on a piece of scrap paper unless you have a theme in mind for them. For example, we did a heart theme so all of my students had a small heart template that they simply traced around. My students who did the ocean animals, I had a bunch of stencils for them to use that they simply placed the stencil on to of the burlap and they traced around that with chalk. I have found chalk works great because it’s very forgiving. It can simply be erased with a little agitation of the hand, and I’m just going to draw a simple shape like a heart. You can see, because the fabric likes to move, I’m holding it taut with my fingers just like that.

Now once a design has been drawn on the burlap, your students are ready to start stitching. When you’re stitching on burlap, I like to use tapestry needles. I like to use the ones that are not sharp, but they’re blunt. For some reason, when I tell my students I’m going to give them needles they freeze up a little bit. They think that they’re going to get hurt, so I remind them, “No, you’re using the needles that aren’t sharp so there’s nothing to worry about.” Again, keeping these on those magnetic wands is great for picking them up and passing them out. Just place that on the table and every student can get their needle.

Now, threading the needle, boy, that can be a little bit of a headache because your students have probably seen an adult thread a needle and seen an adult put the string in their mouth and pull it out and attempt to put it through the eye of the needle. There is no way I’m touching icky sticky licky yarn, so for that reason, it helps to show the students how to thread their needle with a simple tool. Inside their sewing tackle box they have this little container. In this container are post-it notes and small pieces of folded paper. To make yourself a needle threader you just peel off one of these very small post-it notes, cut off the sticky part and fold this piece of paper in half. This little piece of folded paper is your needle threader and here’s how it works.

I tell the kids, “This is your hot dog bun and this is your extremely long hot dog. You’re going to take your hot dog, put it in the hot dog bun but make sure there’s no hot dog sticking out of that bun. You need to back up the hot dog, so I’m going to pinch this and back it up, beep beep beep, and once you’ve got it so there’s no hot dog sticking out of the bun, you’re going to put it in the opening of the needle which is called the eye. You’re going to stick that hot dog bun right in his eye, pull it all the way through and voila. Now your needle is threaded.”

When they see how simple that is, then you will not have to thread another needle. The key also to making sure that there’s not a long line of students needing your help is showing them how to go ahead and tie a knot. Surprisingly, I’ve even had fourth grade students who don’t know how to tie their shoes, so you can help them out here by showing them how to tie a knot. A simple way to do that is this. I tell my students to make the letter U, make an O, take the tail, put it in the hole and pull. Once one end is done, and I only do a single knot at that end, do the same thing on the other end but this time make sure to do a double knot. Because the burlap is so porous, you don’t want the yarn to keep sliding right through the burlap, so a double knot will help secure that in place.

All right. Now that they’ve learned how to thread their needle and they’ve got a knot tied at the top and a double knot at the bottom, they’re ready to get started. It’s important that they understand that when they are doing embroidery, if they are doing it by hand, not using a hoop, that they always make sure to start from the back. The reason being is we want all of their knots to be in the back of their fabric. For a good example, you can have them flip the sleeve of their clothing inside out and see how, when their clothing was created, all of those knots and unappealing parts are on the inside. Their embroidery needs to be the same. All of the knots need to be on the back so nobody sees them.

I tell them to imagine that this is a swimming pool and that this needle is their swimmer. Their swimmer needs to start from the back. We start from the back, doesn’t matter where, you’re trying to stay on your chalk line. Pull this all the way up until the knot stops it, and when they make their first stitch I tell them their first stitch should be the length of their finger. Some students will want to get a little careless and jump ahead and make very log stitches. I really hold them to the fact that they need to make sure that their stitches are just as long as their finger. Pull it until the knot stops it, and this is usually when they get really excited, when they’ve made that first stitch and they see that was so simple, to draw a little bit with my yarn.

Now, you need to make sure that your students understand if this is a swimming pool and this is your swimmer, and you’re swimmer is currently underwater, in order to get back up, he needs to pop his head back up. I have noticed that there’s going to be a couple of kids who will wrap their needle around. When that happens, and it’s bound to happen, just have them bring their embroidery to you and just fix it for them and just go over them one more time the concept that this is a swimmer and that’s the surface of the pool. Eventually they’ll understand that their stitches need to go up and come back down.

When students have finished their embroidery and they’re ready to end it or if their embroidery string is about as long as their hand, they need to stop and tie a knot. Let’s chat about how to tie a knot on the back. Oh, but before we do, when they do their stitches make sure they leave a teeny tiny gap between the stitches. They’ll soon find out that if they have a stitch that pops up through the same hole that they dove down, that they’ll take that stitch out which is really good to know in case they make a mistake. They will soon discover that, and by the way, this is called a running stitch. It helps to introduce that vocabulary to them. Let’s talk about what to do if your students have finished or if their yarn is as long as their hand.

Just like we chatted about earlier, if they’re going to make a knot, the knot needs to go on the back. At this point they’ll need to flip their embroidery over and they need to imagine that this needle is an airplane and so this airplane is going to pick up the closest stitch and once it’s picked up the closest stitch it’s ready for liftoff. It’s taking off and just as it’s flying away it gets a call that says, “Hey, you forgot to pick up the loop” so the airplane has to do a U turn, go back pick up the loop and now you have made a knot. It needs to be a double knot so you got to do that trick again. Airplane takes off, oh snap. You forgot something. Go back, pick up the loop and now you have a double knot. When that’s finished, go ahead and trim it off, so that is how you teach students how to do something simple like a running stitch.

Let’s talk about some other stitches that you can share with your students. On this star, you’ll see that I went ahead and did a running stitch all the way around my star. I drew it out with chalk first and that was also how I added those running stitches here. Let’s talk about how to do this flower stitch. I’m going to go ahead and have my needle already threaded. I do need to put a knot on the bottom, and once that’s done, to do the flower stitch all you do is have your students pick a center for their flower. I’m going to have this be the center. That means my needle is always going to be popping up here. Pull it until the knot stops it. Now, taking my thumb, I’m going to make a little loop about the size that I want the flower petal to be. Dive down and I’m going to hold that loop in place so as I pull it doesn’t become a small stitch. I held it in place so it’s right here but I need to tack it down.

To tack it down I now have to put a tiny stitch at the very end of that loop. I just went back up, came back down and now my flower petal is tacked in place. To do another one, same thing. Pop up, make a loop, hold it in place and tack it down. That’s a really fun stitch for students to do. What I have found with embroidery is some students will finish lightening fast and then they are ready to learn so much more. What I have done I my room in the past is I’ve created a little video showing just what I’ve shared with you and I play it for students who are ready to move on to those extra stitches. That way there’s no pressure for my other students who are still learning the basics of embroidery. It doesn’t mean that I’m only pulling certain kids aside, it just means that those kids can go watch that show independently on their own and have it so nobody feels left out. Again, if I’m finished with this stitch I need to go ahead and knot it on the back.

That’s how you do a running stitch and a floral stitch. Let’s talk about something called a satin stitch. Since we called embroidery drawing, a satin stitch would be basically the coloring in. You’re making stitches to fill something in, and those stitches are usually short straight lines about as long as your finger. For example, let’s say that I wanted to fill in one part of my star. To do that I’m just going to make stitches exactly like this orange one but I’m having them be close together, side-by-side, so they start to fill in that part of the star. I’m now making another stitch right beside that one, so It’s different than before. Before I was making a running stitch that went one in front of the other. These stitches are next to each other and they’re essentially kind of coloring in my star. That is how you do a satin stitch. You’re just making short stitches that are close together that kind of fill or color something in.

One last stitch that I want to share with you is something called a back stitch. Some of my students when they’re stitching, they don’t like seeing the gaps, that dotted line that this creates. A back stitch makes it so you have a stitch that does not have any gaps. It will look like a solid line even though it’s not. I’m going to go ahead and share with you how to do that. When you do your back stitch, it starts the same as a running stitch. You do a short stitch and then you’re going to jump ahead the width of your finger and then you go back. When you go back you go into that same hole that the yarn initially dove down, and that creates a solid line as opposed to a broken line. Now, one other thing that you can share with your students is how to add a button. When you’re sewing a button on, it’s a lot of fun to share this with kids because it really introduces them to something that’s quick, easy and immediately satisfying for them to know how to do.

To sew on a button, you, of course, need to go ahead and thread your needle. You need to make sure, though, that whatever buttons you’re using, that the hole of the button is big enough to allow your tapestry needle to fit through. It’s a good idea to buy those buttons that are a little bit on the bigger side for your students. Once they have their needle threaded and ready to go, the button needs to go on the front. Holding it in place with your fingers, starting in the back, go ahead and poke your needle through, slide your button down and pull and make that very first stitch. There you have it. You’ve now sewn on a button. Of course, since they now know how to thread a needle and make that short running stitch, they also know how to do the airplane trick and tie off on the back. The trick though, is that there’s not any yarn that has a stitch there, so just have them snake their needle underneath some of the burlap, pull and tie that knot.

What I love about teaching embroidery is that it can tie in to anything that you’re working on in your art room. You can introduce a wide variety of contemporary artists who also use fiber arts and embroidery in their artwork. You can introduce past artists who’ve created samplers that have examples of their different stitches. The possibilities for how you can bring embroidery into your art room are endless. When you’re trying to think about what kind of way that you can introduce something fun to your students with a brand new technique, think about using embroidery in your art room. Your students will absolutely love it.