Embroidery Techniques

Painting with the needle

To the painting with the needle first of all flat stitching is used. Many yarns and many shades are necessary to the appropriate effect.
First we sew with flat stitches a line near each other on the pattern, but in the continuation of the embroidery the end of the thread shouldn't be straight. In the next line we stitch the next colour yarn in between the uneven threads and carry on this method until the finishing of the pattern.

Painting with the needle

This embroidery must be carried out always on an embroidery frame: this way we can see where which colour shade will be set, and because of the multiple overstitching we can easily draw the cloth together.

The origin of this special embroidery goes back to the Kopt textiles in the 4-5th centuries A.D. This is the age to which those textiles date back which were made painting with the needle like technique on linen, depicting hunt scenes and plants and are kept recently in the Louvre in Paris. The next relics made with similar technique date back to the 10th century A.D. and imitated miniature painting (arm scarf and stole of St. Cuthbert).

The important work that is considered the forebear of every embroidery technique was made in the 11th century: the Bayeux dorsal. (This wonderful masterpiece is 68,3 cm in length, 0,5 cm in width, and presents an exact chronicle on the Norman conquest of England in 1066.)
Different embroidery techniques were used in this work, including shading.

Typical of this age is that miniatures were imitated even on the ecclesiastic and royal clothes.

In the age of Gothic art the most popular embroideries in Europe were those made in England. Painting with the needle was used here first of all in the faces of the figures.

In the 15th century Italy took over the main role: even the most famous masters of Renaissance designed embroidery motifs (even Raffaello made designs for King Francis I) gaining even more ground for painting effect in embroidery.
The leading role of Italian embroidery workshops remained until the rise of the Rococo; then France took over this role. Colber founded a good many manufactures. Curtain manufactures and weavers' workshops with their higher productivity and more affective work pushed out painting with the needle from its leading place which sank into oblivion for a time.

On the turn of 19. and 20. centuries Art Deco and the Secession used embroidery again and painting with the needle also revived.
The Royal School of Needlework founded in 1872 has been teaching every branch of textile arts on a high level, among them painting with the needle.

From on the 1920s hand art has a new boom though first of all not on business but hobby grounds. Hand art magazines appear which are available for anyone.

Thread counting models

One of the oldest techniques, developed from weaving and bases on counting threads. The decoration motifs are determined by the material because the geometrical decoration consists of the yarn stitched into the threads of the base textile. Even the most complicated spun motifs can be embroidered with this technique.

Just like in the case of so many embroideries also this goes back to the Kopt textiles with its first examples. The first Kopt textile made with this technique origins from the first part of the 7th century A.D.

It played a significant role in the mediaeval Germany and later with the spread of weaving everywhere in Europe.

The motifs treasury came from the weavers' model books. These books were left as heritage from father to son and these contained the most popular and most fashionable motifs.

Holbein stitch (blackwork)

We take a base material with easily countable threads because the elaborating of the decoration motif bases on counting the threads.
We go on with the stitches there and back, the decoration (if we worked carefully) would be enjoyable on both sides of the cloth.
We go on with straight and diagonal stitches, but the yarn never crosses another stitch.

Holbein stitch

Holbein stitch (by Kövessi Edit)

One of the most interesting type of thread counting techniques is the so-called Holbein stitch (blackwork). Formerly it had many different naming, recently we use only these two. In the English speaking world people call it blackwork, on the continent its name is Holbein stitch for the same technique.

Its origin is uncertain, probably of Moorish origin with transmission of the Spaniards. The technique and the first samples might be brought by Catherine of Aragon when she came to England in 1501. That time the leading role of England in textile art was on the decline, still this technique passed to the continent, first times it was very popular but later the Italian Renaissance clothes took over the popularity of this monochrome very decorative technique.

In the end of the 19th century Emilia Bach, directress of a Vienna handwork school studied textiles on the pictures of Holbein and discovered again the forgotten technique and named it Holbein stitch. Recently it is in revival and many experts study this speciality.

Cross stitch

The other very popular embroidery technique is the cross stitch.
We use it with smooth woven base cloth which consists of easily countable threads. The stitches go between the threads leaning first from the left to the right (diagonally over the threads of the base material) and then going back they lean from the right to the left, crossing the threads of the former stitches.

Egyenlő oldalú keresztszem

    első menete                     második menete

  harmadik menete                  negyedik menete

Közönséges keresztszem két öltése

It was a very frequently used technique in those countries which had a traditionally well developed weaving industry. It developed from easy-to-follow geometrical motifs. In certain regions geometrical motifs are typical (Scandinavia), in other regions we can meet with plant and figural ornaments as an influence of free hand drawing (Middle Europe, Balkan - first of all an effect of Turkish influence).

In the folk art typically one-colour elements predominate, "remembering" weaving as its origin. This explains that we can see "overlaps" on numerous cross-stitched samples: similar models were used in many countries, furthermore the inherent characteristics of the thread counting technique resulted these similarities.

When woven draperies took over the leading role in France, as a by-effect cross stitch and Gobelin tapestry spread. These textiles are smaller in size, can be manufactured even at home, and are typically cushions and furniture draperies. From on the 17th century this can be considered to be the most popular embroidery technique.

Recently this drapery-effect trend is in fashion: Gobelin-effect cross stitched works are very popular all over the world.

In Hungary in many regions developed special motifs treasury independently from one another (Bereg, Rábaköz). The mediaeval tradition can be traced first of all in the figural motifs (dragons, pelicans, lambs), the weavers' model books tradition is shown in the facet and star motifs.


This technique has two versions: the thread counting technique (ajour, subrika, Kalotaszeg "vagdalásos" - this latter is identical with the Norwegian 'hardanger' embroidery technique! -, toledo) and the white-embroideries made after tracing (madeira, Richelieu or Renaissance embroideries).

  • Thread counting white-embroideries:
  • Ajouring

    We pull out 4-5 similar direction threads of the base material and the perpendicular threads will be stitched together in groups.

      Azsúrozás első öltése     Ladder ajour        

    The ladder or changed ajour stitch may be further decorated if we twist the "legs" or in wider ajouring we repeat the technique again and again in more lines.
    We add so called "corner spiders" (additional weaving) to the corners; these consist of knots which are sewn in the middle of the diagonal yarn groups.


    Like in ajouring we pull out the threads and weave in, according to different patterns. It is a complicated technique, demands considerable skills and practice, it is called therefore also 'masterpiece'.

    Kalotaszeg "vagdalásos"

    "Vagdalásos" is Hungarian for "cutting", and refers to that the threads of the linen will be cut and pulled out. The thread ends will be elaborated with stitches and the threads will be twisted on the pinked surface.
    This method can be used with dense woven hard linen. With loose woven base material threads may be cut only after having the motifs sewn round.

    A kalotaszegi vagdalásos hímzésnél alkalmazott öltések


    It demands very accurate counting and preparing because the pinked lace surface is constituted by the pulled and twisted threads, the motifs are constituted by the remaining round sewn material.
    It is recommended that first we calculate and trace the motifs with a different coloured yarn before we pull out the threads.

  • White-embroideries made after tracing:
  • English madeira

    The essence of this technique is that the densely round sewn motifs are linked with so called "feet".
    This means that we stitch there and back between the two hems of the motif, paying attention to that the needle should go through the material only on its two ends. The resulting bundle will be closely twisted round.
    After it we cut in the material, fold it back on the line of the trace and sew densely perpendicular to the sign thread.

    Hungarian madeira

    The traced motif - round or drop form - is sewn round with tiny stitches and cut its middle with pointed scissors.
    We make it bigger with a hole maker - it can be substituted with a knitting needle - and sew round very densely perpendicular to the sign thread.

    Richelieu or renaissance embroidery

    First we make the feet constituting the lace base of the embroidery. We stitch about 3 times there and back between the facing sides of the motif (caring to that the material should be stitched through only with little stitches on the hem of the traced motif) and twist the feet closely and smoothly.
    More feet may be made linked in one another, these off branching feet (yarn sticks) are made in the way that a part of the yarn stick constitutes the starting point of the overstitched yarn group with attention to the hem of the base material. When the feet are ready, we sew round the motif densely with tiny stitches.

    "Lábak" besodrása, varrása Richelieu hímzéshez

    After washing and ironing, the material will be cautiously cut out from under the sticks with sharp and pointed scissors.
    The embroidery is made on a frame in order to prevent that the material would be drawn together by the feet.

    Perhaps this is the "youngest" kind of embroidery and it is most popular first of all in folk art. In the famous Italian and French lace manufactures sewn and reel laces were made and these were extremely time consuming. Their line-like motifs were imitated by the renaissance or Richelieu embroideries.

    These embroidery techniques have been known since the age of Renaissance, but they got an important role only when Colbert founded lace manufactures in France. The centre of big hole sewn lace manufacturing was Sedan.

    The so called English madeira consists of more defined model elements while Richelieu or renaissance embroidery comes from the elements of free hand drawing and wide, lace-like surfaces may be produced with it.

       Angol madeira motívuma    Richelieu-hímzés motívuma

    An interesting speciality can be observed in the development of Hungarian madeira embroidery. The palóc, zalai, somogyi, veszprémi embroideries know only flat embroideries and round or drop forms or perhaps creepers link motifs to one another. But dunántúli, rábaközi and höveji laces contain even weaving-ins, these are more airy and lace-like. The former mentioned were used first of all in decorating shirts, the latter were used rather in decorating shawls and covers.

    Rábaközi hímzés részlete

    Höveji hímzés

    Gold and silver embroidery

    Its basic stitches are the so called overstitched metal embroidery and the stretched metal embroidery.
    In overstitched metal embroidery first we sew the motif around and then pre-fill it sewing more stitch lines above one another. Then the way is similar to that with flat stitching.
    Similar result may be reached if we copy bigger surfaces on thick cardboard and tack on the material, but in such a case the embroidery won't be as bulging as that made with the former mentioned method.

    Áthímzett fémhímzés fokozatos készítése

    Kartonon átfeszített fémhímzés Bouillon embroidery

    In stretched stitching the preparations (filling of the base or the cardboard scheme) are the same, but here the metal yarn won't be sewn through the material but we fasten it with a strongly waxed thin yarn and put the yarn to the other end of the motif and fasten the metal yarn stitching up the sewing thread.
    It is considerably more time consuming than overstitching therefore it is used rather with operations with genuine metal threads, like in the work of restorers for example.

    Metal thread embroideries are of Eastern origin. In Europe they appeared first in the age of the Roman Empire's emperors period. Church and secular dresses and draperies were decorated with them.
    The gold and silver embroideries were made originally with genuine metal threads; these did not oxidize during centuries. They drawback is that they get thin from wear because gold in its original state is soft.

    Metal thread was produced with a drawing method in which a wire was made from the metal and that was rolled flat and wound on silk thread. The thickness of the metal thread was determined by the thickness of the silk thread inside.

    The rolled metal band can be formed in different ways and according to them different effects can be reached.

    For economical reasons mostly the so called stretched metal embroidery was used in which the metal yarn was not stitched through the material but an auxiliary thread fixed it.

    In our days synthetic fibres are used instead of genuine metal (this is called Lyon thread).
    This embroidery technique should be used only on frame.


    It can be made with the help of tracing but through tissue paper as well - because stencilled patterns cannot be used on the surface of velvet evening dresses.
    We tack very dense the tissue paper pattern on the material and fix the beads on the material one by one.
    When the motif is ready, the tissue paper can be taken out with the point of a needle from under the beads.

    Beads have been used for decorating dresses since ancient times. At first pearls were used for decorating dresses.

    It disappeared more times but revived again.
    One of its most interesting periods was that when Henry II and Henry III, Kings of France made wearing black dresses compulsory in the royal court. In order to balance the gloominess people began to use gold and silver embroideries and bead-works in an enormous measure. King's decrees tried to stop this prodigal fashion again and again but all in vain. Later when black dress was already not compulsory the rich gold and pearl decoration still remained on the coloured dresses.

    After the inventing of glass beads bead-work embroidery spread in wider circles. It reached its zenith in the age of biedermeier when it was used richly not only on women's dresses but also on handbags even pictures were embroidered with it. Crocheted and knitted works were made with beads, too.

    Recently it is popular again as clothing decoration and not only on special dresses. Used together with other embroidery techniques special effects can be available.

    Reticulated works, crocheting

    The "prefiguration" of reticulated works is filet lace, it is a quicker and more durable version of that.
    Crocheting is based on the chain link and the sticks in different sizes. Every motif can be made with them.
    First we form a loose loop then with the help of the crochet-hook we pull over the thread from our finger. A new loop is formed through which the thread will be pulled again, resulting a chain. The stick is made by bending the thread over the crochet-hook (one, two or more bend-overs determines the length of the sticks and their naming is based on this as well: one-over, two-over, etc. stick), we stitch it into the chain link, and pull the thread through the loops in a way that the hook will be lead always on two threads.
    Reticulated work consists of these elements in a way that squares are crocheted. The motifs are formed by the changing of empty and full squares.

       Kezdő láncszemsor     Recekockák horgolása

                 Minta horgolása       Recesor kezdése tele kockasor esetén

    This technique is characterised by a special duality.
    On the one hand it is in connection with the most ancient technique, the filet lace (the "ancestor" of which is fishing net). That's why we have a huge treasury of motifs. Each motif known in thread counting techniques can be used here.
    On the other hand the technique of crocheting arrived in Europe relatively late, in the 16th century, it came from China. It spread very soon, because relatively big surfaces can be made with filet lace technique.

    In Hungary it spread quickly, too, and folk art took it very early. First of all hem laces were made with crocheting.

    Recently crocheting is in fashion again, it is used for decorating dresses.


    Kelim belongs to the rare group of thread counting techniques in which threads are counted not in a square but in an oblong form. If there are 2 threads in the oblong across, then there are 4 threads in its longer side.
    The diagonals of the oblong will not be closed with a cross stitch, in the next line there will be diagonals, too. But these diagonals are not parallel with the stitches of the former line. The starting points of the diagonals coincide.

    Kelimöltéssel készült sor
    Kelimöltéssel varrt sorok jobb- és balfele

    The origin of this embroidery is uncertain. Possibly it got its naming from oriental woven carpets in which similar thread direction is used.
    At first the geometrical motifs of these oriental carpets were transformed applicable in sewing techniques (knotted carpets also have got their sewn version) and in the age of Secession - when the attention of art turned towards the East - complicated arabesques appeared, and stronger colours came into fashion. The European design used heraldic elements besides plant motifs. The typical V-formed stitches are embroidered with wool thread.

    Like in every thread counting work the motifs from old weavers' model books can be used.

    © Judit Boldizsár

    Katalin Munk
    Ferenc Márton