Learning hand embroidery stitches

We each have our own recollections of how and when we learned our first hand embroidery stitches.

I was musing the other day how fashions in embroidery stitches change. For example in the 1950's when I was a child no one seemed to use cross-stitch. Crewel embroidery stitches, lazy daisies, blanket stitch, chain stitch and satin stitch for leaves and petals all abounded but not that much cross stitch. As a result I didn't learn that one until I was in my early 40's, when I fast became addicted.

I was taught some of the others, but not at my mother's knee. Looking back I can see how talented women were in the 50's. They could make clothes, garden and keep a house immaculate with few of the modern cleaning impedimenta or labour saving devices we have today. My mother was a truly talented housewife who could turn a ham bone and some split peas into a nutritious supper for five and yet find time to do acres of fine sewing.

She used hand embroidery stitches on table and tray cloths, chair back covers and things you decorate dressing tables with. When I was a toddler all my dresses were hand smocked. Teaching however was definitely not one of my mother's copious talents!

It therefore fell to Miss McQueen, one of my primary school teachers, to instill a lasting love of embroidery into a 9-year-old with astigmatism, poor co-ordination and two left thumbs. The fact that she succeeded was because Miss McQueen was one of these dedicated teachers who never gave up. She was ageless. Always dressed in the same grey suit which in winter was woollen only to mysteriously became linen in Summer, she appeared very ancient to us - after all she'd taught some of our mothers, who themselves were amazed how she had manage to impart so much knowledge without ever raising her voice.

Part of the magic was that her classroom was the hut set in the woods next to our small country primary school. We sweltered in the summer so that sometimes lessons were held outside or were combined with a nature ramble. In winter took we took it in turns to rotate round the only method of heating, the round pot bellied stove in the middle of the classroom. Those with colds or chilblains got to stay there longer. When it snowed the ink literally froze in the inkwells at the back of the classroom and I remember wearing our coats indoors. Health and Safety would take a grim view of our environment today but we were hardy children and wondered what all the fuss was about.

For me the good thing was that there were no spiders. They preferred a more hospitable environment such as the farther corners of the outside toilets.

It being the 50's, all us girls were taught domestic stuff like basic hand embroidery stitches. I am not sure what the boys were doing at the time - possibly learning basic engineering skills by damning the nearby stream.

Miss McQueen, being a thorough educator and no soft touch, insisted I spent a lot of time un-picking the previous hour's hard done work. It wasn't personal - she was just determined we were going to get it right. We quickly recognised that we had met an immovable force with incredible reserves of patience. It struck me then, as now, that un-picking was incredibly boring and two left thumbs or not, I was doing it right in no time and embroidering my own dressing table set.

Looking back I am amazed how many basic embroidery stitches she taught us as listed below. Later I discovered that these basic stitches all had interesting variations and these with illustrations are included as well. Many of the photographs on this site are of my Australian aunt's tablecloths stitched in the 1950's and which I recently inherited.

At the end of the year it was back to the big school; back to long division and essay writing in preparation for the dreaded 11 plus exams. I never did finish the tablecloth I started.

When I stitch sometimes its as though I was back in the hut in springtime. Watery sunshine is coming through the windows, through an open door can be seen daffodils and crocuses and through the sound of birdsong we've all got our ears open in anticipation of hearing that first cuckoo.

And in this web site are the hand embroidery stitches that we were taught and I suspect none of us have truly forgotten.

Long armed cross stitch

Chain stitch
Lazy Daisy stitch
Zig Zag Chain stitch
Square Chain stitch
Feathered Chain stitch

Blanket stitch
Long and Short Blanket stitch

Fly stitch
Closed Fly Stitch