What is Embroidery? Definitions, Techniques, and Modern Usage

what is embroidery

Embroidery is the art of decorating fabric using a needle and thread. It has been practiced for thousands of years, evolving across different cultures and continuing to be a popular craft today. This craft involves stitching designs onto textiles to create complex patterns, images, or text. The designs can range from simple motifs to intricate patterns, using different threads and materials. It’s used for aesthetic purposes and holds cultural and historical significance across various civilizations.

What is Embroidery and Its brief History?

Embroidery has a rich and varied history, dating back thousands of years. It is one of the oldest forms of decorative art, with early examples found in ancient Egypt, China, and the Middle East. Each culture developed its own unique techniques and styles, contributing to the diverse array of embroidery practices seen today.

  • Ancient Origins: Embroidery artifacts from ancient Egypt date back to 5000 BC. Its tomb paintings depict embroidered clothing and furnishings. Ancient Chinese embroidery dates back to the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 CE), known for its silk embroideries. Chinese silk embroidery began around 3500 BC, known for its detailed and colorful designs. Encyclopedia Britannica​.
  • Medieval Period: From 330 CE to the 15th century, Byzantine embroidery was renowned for its lavish use of gold and intricate designs​​. During the medieval period, embroidery became a highly valued skill in Europe, often used to decorate church vestments and royal garments. The Bayeux Tapestry, created in the 11th century, is one of the most famous examples of medieval embroidery​.
  • Industrial Revolution: The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the advent of sewing machine, which made the embroidery more accessible and affordable​. it allowed more complex designs to be created efficiently.
  • Modern Resurgence: In recent years, embroidery has experienced a resurgence in popularity, becoming a favored hobby and artistic expression in the DIY community​.

Please visit the detailed history of embroidery here.

Types of Embroidery

Embroidery can be broadly categorized into hand and machine embroidery, each with distinct techniques and styles:

Hand Embroidery Styles

  • Cross-Stitch: This technique involves creating X-shaped stitches on a grid. It is often used for counted thread embroidery, where each stitch is counted and placed precisely.
    Example: A common project is cross-stitched samplers, which often include alphabets and motifs.
  • Crewel Embroidery: It involves a variety of stitches to create textured designs by using wool threads on a linen or cotton fabric.
    Example: Traditional Jacobean embroidery often features stylized flowers and animals.
  • Needlepoint: This type of embroidery covers the entire canvas with stitches, creating a dense and durable fabric. It is typically worked on stiff canvas.
    Example: Needlepoint pillows and wall hangings are popular decorative items.
  • Blackwork: Originating from Spain, blackwork uses black thread on white or light-colored fabric to create geometric patterns and motifs.
    Example: Blackwork is often used in historical costumes and modern samplers.
  • Stumpwork: This technique creates raised, three-dimensional elements on the fabric, making the designs pop out.
    Example: Stumpwork is used to create realistic floral designs and insects.

Each type of embroidery offers unique methods and artistic expressions, allowing for a wide range of creative possibilities. Whether for functional items like clothing and household linens or purely decorative art pieces, embroidery continues to be a beloved craft worldwide.

Machine Embroidery

Modern embroidery machines can create complex designs quickly and with high precision, making it ideal for commercial applications and mass production.

Techniques and Stitches in Embroidery

If you want to start embroidery then firstly you must learn the basic stitches for any embroidery project. There are 6 essential stitches:

  • Backstitch: Creates a solid line, great for outlines.
  • Running Stitch: Basic stitch for dashed lines and details.
  • Straight Stitch: Simple and versatile, used for stars, fills, and textures.
  • French Knot: Creates textured fills; involves wrapping thread around the needle.
  • Stem Stitch: Perfect for smooth outlines, works well on curves.
  • Chain Stitch: Forms bold, linked stitches for prominent lines.

Once you have mastered the basics, you can explore advanced techniques:

  • Goldwork: Embroidering with metal threads.
  • Hardanger: A form of whitework that uses counted thread techniques.
  • Tambour: Using a hook to create chain stitches.
  • Silk Ribbon Embroidery: Using ribbon instead of thread for a unique texture.

How to Start Embroidery

Starting embroidery involves a few essential steps:

Gather Embroidery Materials and Tools

To start embroidering, you need the following materials and tools:

  • Fabric: Common types include cotton, linen, and silk.
  • Thread: Options include cotton floss, wool, and silk threads.
  • Needles: Embroidery needles vary in size and type.
  • Hoop: Keeps the fabric taut for easier stitching.
  • Scissors: Small, sharp scissors for cutting thread.
  • Thimble: Protects your finger while pushing the needle through the fabric.

Transferring Patterns and Designs into Fabric

Creating and transferring patterns is an essential skill. Here are methods to help:

  • Tracing: Using a lightbox or window to trace patterns onto fabric.
  • Iron-On Transfers: Patterns that transfer with heat.
  • Digital Patterns: Printable designs for various projects.

Fixing Mistakes

Use a needle or seam ripper to undo incorrect stitches carefully.

Modern Embroidery: Art and DIY Culture

Embroidery has seen a resurgence in modern times, becoming popular in both art and DIY culture. Contemporary artists use embroidery in innovative ways, merging traditional techniques with modern designs.

Whether you practice by hand or machine, this art form offers endless possibilities for creativity and expression.

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Antonio Massey

Production Team: Folder

Antonio Massey recently joined NWCA in June of 2022. His role on the Production Team has greatly improved our processes and productivity. Antonio is always willing to lift heavy boxes or help his co-workers during busy times. In his free time, he enjoys playing with his dog and mastering video games.


Alicia Wada

Shipping Clerk

Alicia Wada is passionate about helping her co-workers at Northwest Custom Apparel in any way that she can. She works in our Shipping and Logistics department. Alicia, who goes by Ali, has a bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics. She lived in Japan for ten years and recently brought her family to America in 2019. She is interested in learning crafts and textile art from around the world.


Erik Mickelson


Erik Mickelson’s position as Manager is more than a job, it’s a passion. It’s always fun and exciting because he enjoys marketing, computers, and coming up with innovative ideas to help NWCA grow. He majored in accounting and finance at Washington State University, graduating in 1996, and returned to school to obtain his Master of Business from WGU, graduating in 2016. Erik continually strives to advance his education through podcasts, audiobooks, and industry tradeshows. He is married to a remarkable and caring wife named Wendy, a Registered Nurse, with whom he shares his many hobbies and a love for the outdoors.



Ruth Nhoung

Production Manager

Ruth Nhoung is our Production Manager and Northwest Custom Apparel is lucky to have her. Thanks to her vast knowledge of machine embroidery and dedication to creating a comfortable and supportive work environment, the production plant runs smoothly and customers are pleased with our work. She is a loving mother and grandmother and enjoys spending quality time with her siblings. She says, “I love everything about Northwest Custom Apparel: the people, the atmosphere, the work, and the customers. I love what I do and I embrace all of NWCA’s core values”.


Steve Deland

Art Director

Steve Deland has been our amazing Artist since 2017. He loves working at Northwest Custom Apparel because he appreciates the goal-oriented, progressive-thinking management style. He is most passionate about his art, which includes scroll saw woodwork, and his five grandchildren.



Taylar Hanson


Taylar Hanson is a highly acclaimed Saleswoman at Northwest Custom Apparel. She has a BA in Apparel, Merchandising, Design, and Textiles from Washington State University. “Go Cougs!” The best part of Taylar’s job is getting to work with longtime customers who trust us to do the best work and take care of their needs. She is passionate about appreciating nature, traveling, and spending time with friends and family.


Nika Lao


Nika Lao is very knowledgeable in how the business is ran because she began as an Embroidery Machine Operator and has worked hard to become the excellent and personable saleswoman she is today. She enjoys the stress-free environment and the many chances to connect with her co-workers over potlucks, BBQs, and bowling parties. Nika is a proud sister of two highly successful brothers and can boast mastering three languages herself: Khmer, Thai, and English. She is an avid camper, enjoys going to farmer markets, and loves cooking.


Bradley Wright


Bradley Wright has been a vital team member of NWCA since 2017. As our accountant and knower-of-all-things, Bradley is proud to work closely with his wonderful colleagues. He studied at the University of Washington. These days he dedicates his free time to his new house.


Dominic Nguyen

DTG Operator

Dominic Nguyen recently joined our Direct-To-Garment department. He says he loves the family work environment at Northwest Custom Apparel. In his free time, Dom likes to listen to music, hangout with friends, and play video games. He comes from a very big family which can be very chaotic at times, but is always exciting.


Sothea Tann

Production Team: Trimmer

Sothea Tann recently joined the Production Team in 2022. She finds Northwest Custom Apparel to be a good working environment with helpful and friendly staff. In her free time, Sothea spends quality time with her family and, overall, focuses on a peaceful and happy lifestyle.


Brian Beardsley

DTG Supervisor

Brian Beardsley has been with Northwest Custom Apparel since 2018. He is our DTG Supervisor. Brian loves that he gets to work with high-tech machines in a fun atmosphere. He has a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design. He said, “I always wanted to create visually interesting assets in a variety of mediums”. In his free time, he enjoys building and painting models, playing video games, designing, and playing his guitar.


UT Tri Tran

Embroidery Machine Operator

UT Tri Tran loves Northwest Custom Apparel so much that, although she has already retired after a long career in machine embroidery operations, she is happy to return part time. She says, “I love the family style work environment and how everyone shares food, laughter, and fun on a regular basis.” In her free time she is dedicated to living a healthy and peaceful lifestyle with her friends and family.



Embroidery Machine Operator

BunsereytheavyHoeu, who goes by Theavy, won our Operator of the Year in 2021. She takes on many roles in the production team. She says, “These are not my co-workers, these are my family! I cherish all the memories we make together”. When she goes home to be with her family, she makes the most of her time with them by holding family get-togethers and even karaoke competitions.


Sreynai Meang

Embroidery Machine Operator

SreynaiMeang is a hard-working Machine Operator. She is most passionate about helping people. Sreynai, who goes by Nai, likes to exercise in her free time and talk with her family in Cambodia.


Kanha Chhorn

Embroidery Machine Operator

Kanha Chhorn has been an Embroidery Operator with Northwest Custom Apparel since 2018. She is delightful and always makes everyone smile and laugh. Kanha takes on additional tasks that allow us to exceed our customers’ expectations. In her free time, she can be found at her local temple or spending quality time with her family and friends.


Savy Som

Embroidery Machine Operator

SavySom is one of our Machine Operators who is passionate about embroidery and sewing. She enjoys working at NWCA because of its flexibility. She has two teenage sons and loves spending time with her family on the weekends.



Embroidery Machine Operator

SorphornSorm has been a Machine Operator since 2011. One of her four sisters works here as well. Her other relatives are in Cambodia. In her free time, Sorphorn studies English, listens to music, and enjoys exercising.


Jim Mickelson


Jim Mickelson, after a successful career with a major oil company, founded Northwest Embroidery in 1977. This was the first commercial embroidery in the Pacific Northwest. Over the years, Jim has become the guru of embroidery never refusing to answer a question or offer advice to his fellow embroiders. Jim and his wife Leeanna raised four wonderful children who went on to successful business careers.