5 Embroidery Tips from Leading Contemporary Artists

Alina Cohen
May 19, 2020 7:32PM

Jordan Nassar, A Flowers’ Field, 2018. Courtesy of the artist, Anat Ebgi, and James Cohan Gallery.

Billie Zangewa, Birthday Party, 2020. © Courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris / Brussels.

For thousands of years, embroidery has offered a skillful way to embellish fabrics with intricate, threaded designs. Whether you’re an artist or not, embroidery is an appealing practice: It’s portable, you don’t need a studio, there’s no painterly mess to clean up, and you only need a few basic materials

Embroidery isn’t just about beautiful results, either: Practitioners can enjoy the soothing process of experiencing pieces coming together, stitch by stitch. Artist Billie Zangewa said she first learned about needlework and embroidery through her mother’s sewing group, which occasionally met at her house when she was young. She marveled at the way drinking tea and sewing could relax the women. The practice, she said, “seems to really calm and transform people.”

Zangewa and fellow artists Max Colby and Jordan Nassar have generously shared their pro tips for those interested in pursuing embroidery. As you glean their advice below, keep in mind that there are many methods for working with fabric and thread. One of the most popular forms of embroidery, cross-stitch, involves creating X-shaped stitches across a grid. Cross-stitch and other “counted thread” techniques require great precision and fabrics with specific weaves. “Freestyle” embroidery, meanwhile, is a looser practice, with no restrictions regarding the underlying material.

Buy the basics

Max Colby, Elegy No. 1, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Max Colby, detail of Elegy No. 1, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.


Over the past decade, Max Colby has developed a practice that involves embroidering intricate floral patterns atop erotic magazine photographs, adding additional magic, romance, and ambiguity to images of queer love. To cover the basics, Colby recommends purchasing a bamboo or plastic embroidery hoop, needles, fabric, scissors, and embroidery floss. Right now, they’re turning to Blick Art Materials and Create For Less for supplies; the latter, they said, has “almost any sewing notion you could need.”

For embroidery floss, Colby suggests a six-strand DMC skein, which is a loosely twisted thread. Jordan Nassar, who is known for elegantly embroidered, abstracted landscapes, noted that this classic floss “will give your stitches a puffier, less defined look.” It works well for freestyle embroidery and satin stitch (flat stitches that cover background fabric).

Billie Zangewa, Soldier of Love, 2020. © Courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris / Brussels.

However, for counted stitch techniques, such as cross-stitch, Nassar uses crochet thread—usually gauge 10, or size 8 perle cotton, he said. These S-twisted threads will give your work more definition and accentuate the cross-stitched Xs.

As for the right base fabric, look for lower thread counts (under 150, as a general rule), so that the material isn’t too tough to sew. Zangewa embraces both scraps and textiles bought from a roll. Her favorite is dupion silk, an uneven double thread often used for formal garments. To develop texture, the artist blends the fabric with other materials, such as satin.

For cross-stitch beginners, Nassar recommends starting with Aida fabrics, size 12 or 14, specifically. “The number refers to the stitches per inch, so the higher the number, the smaller the stitches,” Nassar said.

Jordan Nassar, detail of A Day as a Single Cherry-Flower, 2020. Courtesy of the artist, Anat Ebgi, and James Cohan Gallery.

Billie Zangewa, Father and Child, 2019. Photo by Jurie Potgieter. © Courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris / Brussels.

If your base fabric is an even-woven fabric, such as Aida cloth, you won’t need sharp needles, since the material is already porous. For cross-stitch, said Nassar, “definitely don’t get sharp needles—these will scratch your fingers, get caught in the fabric (or make it easy for you to go in the wrong spot on your fabric), and even split the thread as you pull it through.” Instead, you can use blunt needles, sometimes called “tapestry needles.” Nassar recommends buying a multipack to figure out which size feels right and works best for your thread and fabric. “Too big of a needle (and eye) will stretch holes in the fabric unnecessarily,” Nassar said. Too small, and it’ll be impossible to thread.

Colby noted that freestyle embroidery requires a hoop to keep fabric flat; however, Nassar advises forgoing a hoop with counted stitch techniques. “A hoop will just slow you down, making you move your hands back and forth in front of and behind the work, constantly feeling around for the right spot to insert the needle,” he said. Instead, he suggested that you “roll the fabric in your non-dominant hand until your thumb is around the area you’re working on. Then, use your dominant hand for stitching, going in and out in one motion.”

Consult the experts

Max Colby, Untitled, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Max Colby, detail of Untitled, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Ten years ago, Colby taught themself to embroider with the help of several books. They recommend Crewel Embroidery (1962) by Erica Wilson, The Art of Crewel Embroidery (1975) by Mildred J. Davis, and The Complete DMC Encyclopedia of Needlework (2011) by Therese de Dillmont. They also recommend instructive videos led by Wilson—the “Julia Child of needlework”—which offer step-by-step advice.

Start with simple subject matter

Max Colby, Hotbed I, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Billie Zangewa, Cold shower, 2019. Photo by Jurie Potgieter. © Courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris / Brussels.

Zangewa, who embroiders images of women, often works from photographs. She advises against using highly detailed, intricate photos to inspire your work. After all, she noted, the real magic happens through the creative process.

Colby, on the other hand, has worked from drawing abstracted designs directly onto their fabric. If you opt to work this way, they advise using a fine-tip pencil or permanent marker.

Pay attention to your stitch tension

Jordan Nassar, Resounding Bell, 2020. Courtesy of the artist, Anat Ebgi, and James Cohan Gallery.

Billie Zangewa, Bedtime Story, 2020. © Courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris / Brussels.

Once you’ve started, Nassar advises making your stitches tight, without pulling at the fabric. “Make sure they are consistent!” he added, and avoid jumping long distances with the thread. If you must move more than about a half an inch, he recommends ending the thread and reattaching it where you want to go: In other words, he said, don’t make knots, but instead tuck as you go, or swim the thread under other threads along the way to keep it in place. When you’re finished with a thread, tuck it under a few stitches.

Embrace your mistakes

Billie Zangewa, Sunday Morning Pursuits, 2020. © Courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris / Brussels.

Jordan Nassar, Jaffa Gate, 2019. Courtesy of the artist, Anat Ebgi, and James Cohan Gallery.

While you’ll probably end up with knots, don’t fret. Most of them are “open” knots, Nassar noted, which should come apart with gentle picking and pulling. “If this keeps happening, use shorter pieces of thread to help reduce,” the artist said. “And if a knot just won’t come out, cut the thread and move on! No need to drive yourself crazy.”

Remember that even for the pros, it takes years to master embroidery. “With each body of work, I went through enormous trial and error,” Colby said. “It shouldn’t be intimidating, and it’s okay to make many mistakes while finding a way that works for you.”

Alina Cohen