Making Changes and Substitutions in a Project

Making Changes and Substitutions in a Project

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All embroiderers like to start a new project, and it is becoming more and more popular for us to think "out of the box" and add our own touches to our projects.

This can mean substituting one material for another, or using a different type of thread to that specified, adding charms and even changing colours.

There is a danger to this however, and that is that many embroiderers are unahppy with the results of their changes. The question is often asked why this is so - surely using their own creativity is something that enhances a project?

To find the answer, one has to look at the design process of the initial piece.

The designer not only designs the basic "picture" they also spend a lot of time experimenting with fabrics, threads and colours to ensure that the finished piece will "work".

By using this same process, the embroiderer can make changes to her project, and still end up with a piece that has been worth all the time and effort - and one that will be unique!

To help you, I am going to look at some of the most common types of substituions that embroiderers make, and go through what you can do to ensure that your substitution works well.

Basic Substitution "Kit"

If you are going to do a lot of substitutions in your embroidery, then it is a good idea to have a "kit" on hand at all time to test things with.

This kit should include:

- if you do counted thread work, and have a preference for a particular fabric, or count, then buy a fat quarter of it for testing various weight of threads, stitches, etc

- a colour wheel. This is an invaluable tool as it helps you to see which colours work and which do not work together. Whether you do substitions or not, it is something that all embroiderers should have

- a skein of thread in various different types and weights (eg: stranded cotton, perle, cotton-a-broder, crewel wool, tapestry wool, silk (remember - some brands of silk come in different weights as well. Having these threads on hand will enable you to check coverage and weight suitability

Fabric Only

One of the most common things is for an embroiderer to change the material - whether it be a larger or smaller count, or a completely different type of fabric all together. Or even a different colour!


If the only substitution you are making is the count, then you will need to look at the number of threads used - or even the weight of the thread you are using. It is important that where you stitch, the fabric is covered completely, and if you change the count, it may be that you will need to either increase or decrease the number of threads used, or even go for a heavier or lighter weight thread.

If the thread is too light (not enough strands, or too light weight) it will not cover the fabric or the design completely, and fabric will show through. If the thread is too heavy (too many strands, or too heavy weight) then you will find that it is difficult to stitch through the fabric, and will cause holes or just make the piece look too bulky.

Using your substitution kit, stitch about 2 inches in each weight of thread, and see which one gives the best coverage.

If you are going to use a count that is not normal for you, then buy about 2-3 inches long (but the full width) of the fabric (either in addition to what you need to stitch the project, or separately before you buy the material for the project) and stitch with various types of thread on it.

Keep this piece as a reference, and on the back put labels saying the count or type of fabric, and the thread used in each section.

Thread Brand, Type and/or Weight

You may decide that a in certain areas (or even the whole) of the project, you want to use a different type or weight of thread.

This is easy - go through the same process as if you were changing the Count of the fabric - checking to see if the weight you want to use is suitable.

If you are going to use 2 different weights or types of thread together, stitch a section of these threads next to each other to see how they look and react. It may be that the two different types or weights do not look at all good together - especially if they are to be used in a scatter placement.

Often, changes in thread weight work best in large blocks - like using a heavier thread as a background, and the finer thread for the details of the picture.

If you are changing the thread brand, it may be that there are colours not available. You will need to look in the colour family of the thread you are using and locate the closest colour.

Don't rely on the numbers for this - actually look at the thread colours to make your decision, and stitch a piece using the suggested colour, and your substitution next to each other to see how different or similar they are.

Fabric type

If you decide that instead of using cotton, you want to use velvet or silk as your ground fabric (or any other substitution of this type), you must definately experiment.

Fabrics handle differently, and what stitches well on one, will not necessarily work on another.

As with evenweave type fabrics (Aida, Linen, Evenweave), the weight of the threads will be important. Finer fabrics will need a finer thread.

It is in using non-counted thread techniques and fabrics that too-heavy thread can cause real problems as holes in these fabrics are very noticeable.

Again - remember that you may have to transfer your design onto the fabric. The type of fabric and the weight of the thread you are going to use will determine what you use to transfer.

It is almost always best to use either a water-soluble or air-dissolving transfer pencil/pen as this will eliminate problems of visible lines.

Alternatively, draw your design onto fine paper, and then, using a contrasting sewing thread and running stitch, baste the outlines of the design onto the fabric. Tear away the paper, and keep the original design next to you for reference for fine details. The sewing thread can be easily removed if any shows when your project is finished.

Colour Scheme

It may be that you do not like certain colours in the piece - either one or two or the whole lot.

This is where you need to have your colour wheel handy.

firstly, look at the whole piece and ask yourself why you do not like the colours. You may want it to tone in with the colour scheme of your room, or you just do not like them.

Itentify exactlly which colours that you want to change - and why. Look at their relationship to the others around them, and ask yourself can you change just that colour, or will your changes need to be bigger.

Sometimes, it is that one colour just does not fit, and you will be changing it for another colour in the same family - a simple change.

Sometimes, it is the background colour - and again it may not be a change that is very big and no problems.

If, however, your changes involve a lot of different colour changes, you should stitch a sample piece with each colour next to each other and see if they harmonise together.

Use your colour wheel to check out harmonisiing colours, and get a second opinion of your proposed scheme before you go ahead with it.

Stitch Type

If you decide to change the stitch type in your piece, firstly make sure that the stitch you are using is suitable. Does it cover the fabric correctly? Does it suit the shape you are stitching? What is your reason for changing it?

Of all these questions, the last is the most important. Your reason for changing it can be anything from you don't know how to do the stitch, or you want to introduce a different texture into the piece.

Not knowing how is no reason for changing the stitch - it's an opportunity to learn a new stitch.

It may be that your changing the stitch type has come about because you have chosen a different fabric or thread to stitch with, and the change is determined by this.

Or it may be that you want to give some extra definition or texture to a portion of your stitching. Or even that you just do not like the stitch they used, and would prefer to use another that is more evocative.

These are all excellent reasons, but before you change it willy-nilly, look at the surrounding stitches - and stitch a piece using some of the surrounding stitches, plus the one you want to change. How do your changes fit?

Sometimes, changing a particular stitch can be a brilliant idea in your mind, but just does not work when it comes to stitching the piece. It may be that the change does not meld with the edges of the other stitches - and so leaves an unsightly gap. Sometimes this can be disguised, by adding another row of stitches, but more often it will always looke bodged.

If you are doing a counted design, ensure that your change of stitches is stil able to follow the outline - including all partial stitches - without being too blocky.

Embroidery is an art that lets you use your imagination and skills - but a bit of pre-planning with your project - especially if you intend on making changes - can be the difference between an heirloom piece - and another UFO.

Is there anything that you would particularly like to see an article on? If so, please e-mail me with your suggestions.

Happy Stitching

© 2001-2005 Megan McConnell

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