While basic embroidery is relatively easy, certain aspects can be aggravating to the beginner and experienced stitcher alike. There are a whole host of excellent articles and classes that teach the five most common period stitches: chain, stem, split, knots, and couching. Rather than reiterate that information, collected here some little hints to improve your work, make your life easier, and move you on to the next level. Some will focus on making items more period in material or construction. Others are purely modern conveniences.
Needles - The most important tool you can have is a good needle. Yes, I know you can go down to the local craft store and buy a plastic wheel filled with needles of varying sizes for $0.97. Please don't. I know it seems like it can't possibly make that big a difference, but try me. Invest in a selection of nice, stainless steel English embroidery needles. My favorites are Wendy Schoen, though John James are nice as well. Sizes and types will vary with the fiber and stitch you intend to work. Experiment a little. Small needles whose eyes are no wider than their shafts will prevent you from leaving large holes in fine silk. Large crewel needles with large eyes will minimize the fraying that occurs dragging wool thread through your ground fabric.
Try to get used to the idea that needles are a renewable resource. Use one for a single project, or about 12 hours total stitching time. Then THROW IT AWAY and get a new one. If you're intermittent with a project and the finish tarnishes on the shaft of your needle - throw it away. If you bend it - throw it away. Needles come in packages of a dozen for a reason.
Period style needles can be had, made of drawn wire with a round eye. Bone needles are also available. They are usually several factors of magnitude more expensive than modern needles. They can make your work a little more challenging. And bone needles can be dangerous if you stab yourself with them. I reserve these for working at demos or in public.
Frames and hoops - Square stitching frames can be seen in a number of illuminations and paintings. Modern variations are widely available. Most involve basting your ground fabric to webbing that is attached to two dowel rods. The frame is then assembled with two stretcher bars and accompanying bolts. Square frames keep a nice, even tension and do not mark your fabric with creases. They do tend to be heavier, and cause more hand fatigue if you don't have a stand.
Hoops are even more common and come in a range of sizes and materials. Try to stick with wooden hoops when you're at demos or events - they're less obtrusive than neon plastic. Hoops are easy to use, quick to change and move around, lightweight and cheap. They do tend to crease fabric, and can damage delicate silks and linens. To minimize this, inspect wooden hoops carefully and sand off rough areas. When using very fine fabrics, either wrap the hoop in strips of muslin before hooping you fabric, or cut two rings of muslin and sandwich your fine fabric in between. This way, the rough edges or sharp bits of the hoop are padded and less likely to snag or break threads in your fabric.
Marking designs - There are a host of period ways to transfer your design to fabric. Cennini mentions several of them, including painting on an ink cartoon. You can also draw your design on parchment or similar paper, prick the outline with a pin, then lay the paper on your fabric and pounce it with chalk.
Modern methods include using graphite paper or chalk, water-erasable markers, and stabilizers. Graphite paper or number 2 pencil works best on light fabrics. It does tend to brush off as you work, and can stain your lighter colored threads. This will usually come out when you wash the finished piece. It often helps to press and starch the ground fabric before transferring your graphite design. The starch coating will keep your image sharper. Chalks and white graphite paper make appropriate marking media for darker fabrics.
Both air- and water-erasable markers are available. Air-erasable markers normally disappear within 24 hours. Water-erasable markers need to have the marks rinsed out. Always test both types on your fabric to make sure they really do fade or rinse away. Press your fabric before marking your design, but make sure you remove the marks before pressing again. Heat from an iron can set these types of ink permanently!
You can also transfer your design to a temporary stabilizer, hoop the stabilizer with your fabric, stitch through it, and remove it when done. This works best with water soluble stabilizers such as solvy or tear-away stabilizers. Just be sure when using solvy that your pen or marker ink won't set into your fabric or stitching when you rinse away the stabilizer - test first!
Stabilizers - Modern embroidery machines require a stabilizer to prevent puckering most fabrics. Hand embroidery really isn't any different. Period solutions often include a second layer of linen laid behind your ground fabric and stitched as one. Modern options include interfacing, tear-away stabilizer, water soluble stabilizer, and paper.
Interfacing comes in woven and non-woven, fusible and non-fusible. Most often embroiderers will fuse a small piece of non-woven interfacing to the back of the area to be worked. Fusible interfacing does alter the drape of the fabric and tends to break down and shed off over time. Woven fusibles also stiffen the fabric, but tend not to fall off. Areas that have fusible interfacing behind then are usually obvious from the front of the object or garment. Non-fusible, non-woven interfacing does not significant alter the look of the fabric, but disintegrate fairly quickly. Woven, non-fusible interfacing is essentially equivalent to a layer of synthetic linen hooped with or basted to the ground fabric.
Tear-away stabilizer was invented primarily for machine embroidery. However, designs can be traced onto it, then stitched through it by hand onto the ground. Stick with a lighter weight stabilizer. Be aware that the act of tearing away the stabilizer may pull out or disrupt your finished stitching. In addition, once the stabilizer is removed, the stitching may shift over time. The same concept can be employed with lightweight paper, but with the further drawbacks of rapidly dulling needles, and being difficult to work in a hoop.
Water soluble stabilizer comes in sheets or rolls. It looks like thin plastic, and works up easily. It can be used like tear-away stabilizer to transfer the design and provide stability during working, though it is less likely to disturb your stitches, since it is rinsed away, rather than torn away. It is NOT a good choice for velvets or for fabrics or threads that bleed excessively, since it requires copious amounts of water for complete removal. Water soluble stabilizer can also be dissolved in water and painted on fabric. Once dry, it provides a temporary stiffening for the fabric which can again be rinsed out when finished.
Cotton floss - By far the most common choice for embroidery is the ubiquitous 6-strand cotton embroidery floss. Many people state that they choose it because it looks like silk. It doesn't. Nor does it work like silk. It is, however, much more economical and available in a wider range of colors. I'm not saying don't use it - I'm saying be aware of what it is, what it can do, and what it can't. No mercerized cotton in the world will replicated the sheen and drape of real silk. It also fades more quickly if exposed to sunlight. But for large projects or those requiring lots of colors, it's a reasonable substitute. Keep in mind that the deeper colors have been known to bleed. It sometimes can help to soak them in vinegar water and rinse them thoroughly before use.
Wool - The premier choice for outerwear, as well as many early period projects. It also can be stunning in later period pieces. Wool is a "fuzzy" fiber. It responds best when worked in short lengths. Dyes on wool tend to be more color fast than on cotton. There are a number of good sources for wool embroidery threads, both in modern dyes and in natural. Try to get a sample before you order everything you need for your project since weights vary significantly.
Linen - Linen thread can be difficult to work, as it tends to be quite stiff. It also takes dye less readily and comes in a limited palette commercially. It is phenomenal, however, in heavy wear applications like "prick-stitched" hems. It's also a subtle thread that wears beautifully over time, picking up a softness and sheen with each washing.
Silk - silk embroidery thread is available in both stranded floss and perle weights. Sewing thread is also a good choice for finer works. Brands vary widely in their color palettes, but both chemical and natural dyed silks are available. This is the top-notch choice for Opus Anglicanum and Or Nue. Eterna can be had for $1.00/skein. So it isn't so cost-prohibitive as many people think. Work in short length to prevent your thread from "blooming" with fuzz and losing its sheen. Check for fastness, especially with the darker colors.
Metallics - Period metallic threads in embroidery were generally either thin gold foil on a fiber core or various metal wire preparations. Japan thread makes an excellent approximation of wrapped silk for couching. Real gold, gilt, and plated buillions of various shapes are also available.
Rayon - This synthetic floss has a sheen more dramatic than even silk. It's very strong, and makes a statement. Rayon isn't period, but can be useful, especially for favors that are likely to suffer abuse. It can be a frustrating fiber to work with due to its tendency to knot, snarl, and curl. This can be tamed by wiping the working thread down periodically with a damp cloth.
Wash and dry your ground fabric if at all possible. Press it lightly. Consider starching, especially with cottons and linens. Remember that many fabrics will continually bleed beyond the first washing. Check for this, especially with deep reds, blacks, and purples.
Pick your transfer technique based on your ground fabric and the stitch technique you'll be using. If you intend to completely cover your ground fabric, go ahead and draw on it!
Pick your stabilizer. Split stitch needs a lot of support. A simple stem-stitch scroll vine much less.
Use waste knots to start your threads: Make a knot in the end of your thread. Pull your thread through your fabric from the front about an inch or so from where you intend to start stitching. Stitch your pattern, leaving the knot in place until the thread leading to it has been covered over, then cut off the knot.
Weave in your ends. Try to avoid leaving actual knots. On garb, they tend to work themselves onto the surface. On other pieces, they create a lumpy surface.
If bloom or wear on your thread is a problem, try a needle with a larger eye and consider waxing your thread. Just realize that excess wax attracts dirt and generally only washes out with fairly warm water. This is a consideration if your ground fabric is dry-clean only.
Work all of the stitches in the body of your piece first, then come back and outline the piece. This will prevent you from having to work around your outline stitches later, and losing definition.
Human figures - Especially in split-stitch embroidery
Stitch direction often follows the direction of the drapery folds on clothing. Cheeks on figures are often stitched in circles to enhance the illusion of flesh. Study illuminated manuscripts for hints on perspectives and rendering of facial features.
Embroider your figures first, then couch any gold background afterward.
If you look closely at many extant pieces, the gold threads are turned at the edge of the figures, rather than taken underneath to float. This is an extremely economical use of a very expensive material.
If at all possible, rinse your piece after you finish. This will help remove residual markings, dirt, and oils from your hands. Orvus paste is a good cleaning agent for find washables.
Once dry, press the piece, face down with a towel to pad your ironing board.
Wendy Schoen needles - www.wendyschoendesign.com
Many fine needlework and quilting stores carry John James or other Sheffield Steel English Needles.
Hedgehog handworks - www.hedgehoghandworks.com
Linen thread, silk floss, silk pearl, and wool embroidery fibers. Many are naturally dyed with period-appropriate dyes.
Krenik - available at many cross-stitch and needlework stores. Try the locator on their website. Products include Japan thread in several sizes, silk floss.
YLI - another silk floss manufacturer. Again, this product is pretty widely available. Color range is somewhat limited.
Caron - Makes a variety of threads, including Waterlilies silk. These are often overdyed, but monochromatic schemes can add a depth to your work. This is also one of the nicest working silks on the market.
DMC - The most common manufacturer of cotton floss. They also make Rayon and linen threads, Medici wool, and some metallics. None of DMC's metallics are as nice for couching as Krenik's Japan cord.
Eterna Silk - a nice, single ply silk floss that comes in the widest range of colors.
Rainbow Gallery - Makes both Splendor, a 12-strand silk floss, and Grandeur, a 3-ply silk perle.
Orvus Paste - Many small needlework and quilting shops carry this soap these days. It's a gentle, non-stripping detergent designed for washing sheep. SO, if you know a lot of needleworkers, you can probably get it more cheaply from a feed store or elevator. If you can find use for a 5 pound bucket.
Stabilizers and transfer pens are very common at fabric stores. Look for pens with fine, sharp tips. Buy small quantities of stabilizers at first and see which brands and types you prefer. Sulky makes a wide selection, including Solvy, my favorite water-soluble brand.