Fancy Fabric: Adding Easy Embroidery to Knitting

I am a huge fan of vintage western wear, especially the embroidered shirts and suits made famous by rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn. I’ve always wanted to incorporate this look into my knitting, but since it involves so much embroidery, I was hesitant to try.

Robert Redford wearing a Nudie Suit in The Electric Horseman. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Have you ever tried to add embroidery to knitting? It can be really challenging! Making a few lazy-daisy flowers or a bit of blanket stitch edging is pretty doable. But covering a larger area with satin stitches is very difficult, especially if you are making something detailed and symmetrical.

Why is this so hard to do? Embroidery adds a lot of stitches that are not stretchy to a fabric that is quite stretchy. Accidentally pulling embroidery stitches a little too tight is easy to do, and constricts the knitted fabric. Or, embroidery stitches may end up a bit too long, so they don’t lay flat, as satin stitches should. These problems can be alleviated if you stitch into interfacing or another kind of light fabric behind your work.

But, there is still another problem—how do you mark out your embroidery pattern on a knitted fabric? Knitted fabric is bumpy compared to cloth and has holes between the stitches. This not only makes marking it difficult, but it also causes another issue: as you stitch into knitted fabric, your needle has a tendency to fall into the holes between the stitches, not the yarn itself. If this happens, the embroidery pulls the stitches farther apart, creating little holes. It also means that there are fewer different points in which the embroidery floss passes through the fabric, which makes your embroidery look distorted.

add embroidery to knitting

Using a piece of lace from a fabric store solves many of these problems. The lace stabilizes the knitted fabric enough to stitch into; it creates easy outlines to follow; flipping the lace piece over to the wrong side quickly creates a mirrored image; and the variety of lace patterns available makes customizing even more fun! I used this technique for the embroidery on the Loretta Mitts from knitscene Summer 2015, and you can create your own embroidery for your pair—or for any other project you can dream up!

You will need a piece of lace that has distinct motifs to cut out. Try to find a piece in a color similar to your knitted fabric or similar to the color of embroidery thread you will be using. You will also need some sewing pins (I prefer quilting pins because their heads are larger), embroidery floss, and an embroidery needle. If you have a hard time envisioning what colors of embroidery floss to use, look at photos of flowers for inspiration. Another possibility is to look at premade embroidered patches or photos of vintage western wear!

STEP 1: Carefully cut out the lace motif (figure 1). It’s okay to trim off part of the motif if you don’t want to use the whole thing. Also, remember that you can combine motifs and even flip them over to use the wrong side.

STEP 2: Pin lace motif to the knitted fabric (figure 2). Using lace for a template helps you clearly envision how your piece will look when it is finished. You can easily move your motif around until you are happy with the placement.

STEP 3: Using embroidery floss and an embroidery needle, start filling in the lace motif with satin stitches (figures 3–5). Be very careful not to pull too tightly on the embroidery floss, as this will constrict or distort the fabric. Depending on the stiffness of the piece of lace, you may find it helpful to place a thin fabric or lightweight piece of interfacing behind your work. If you have a tendency to pull your stitches tighter, this will help keep your embroidery in shape.

STEP 4: Use a stem stitch (figure 6) or backstitch to create outlines around your embroidery if you want to add a bit more dimension or color. A few radiating stitches in a contrast color (figure 7) with a French knot or small bead on each end makes a lovely flower center (figure 8).

STEP 5: Take a look at what you just did and congratulate yourself for conquering embroidered knitting—isn’t it lovely? Then brag about it to all your knitting friends!

This technique can be used on other surfaces, too. It works great on crochet or even on fabrics that are difficult to mark for embroidery, such as terry cloth or velvet.

Brenda K. B. Anderson is the author of Crochet Ever After and Beastly Crochet, as well as a frequent contributor to knitscene. She designs creatures and costumes from her home in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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