Embroidery : : keep it clean!

so far...

White fabric. It’s lovely to embroider on, but god how hard is it to keep clean, all the while that you’re working on it?

I noticed that this embroidered WIP of mine—a freehanded design based on crewel embroidery motifs—was getting pretty dirty. I haven’t really touched it since I went on holidays in March, and it has been sitting here, in the dust and everything, all that time. It wasn’t pristine to begin with…the fabric is from second-hand cotton bedsheets that some Darwin hotel threw away. But it had definitely gotten worse…especially along the two edges that were wrapped around the wooden rollers of the embroidery frame…which I found myself gripping with both hands, constantly, to tighten the darn roll. The dirt wasn’t so noticeable while the piece was stretched, but when I took it off the frame I could see the crisp contrast of white cotton against grime, right along the edge where I had folded and hemmed the fabric before stretching it. Eeeeek!

That’s the thing about frames and hoops…those hard edges that we tend to rest our hands or arms against while we work, or tend to pick the embroidery up by, push the fabric against surfaces and are fantastic at picking up the sweat, oils and dirt from our skin. Who hasn’t released an embroidery from a hoop to find, at some point or another—and even after ironing—a clear dark circle around the work?

And the bigger or more time-consuming the piece, the longer it stays in the hoop, and the dirtier it can get! This mother I’m working on will take me another week (c’mon, be realistic, TWO weeks!)to finish, and I am so worried that by the time it’s done it will look like poor people’s underpants. So much work, spoiled by literal elbow grease!

I could dimly remember reading about ways to keep an embroidery clean whilst working on it, from one of my old-fashioned embroidery manuals (okay, I’m being disingenuous again…I only possess one old fashioned embroidery book…Mary Gostelow’s Embroidery, 1978—bought for me by my mum in 1984). I finally found the passage again today…turned out to be under the chapter Whitework (really, it should be in the Basics part of the book…every embroiderer needs to know this stuff, not just whiteworkers!)

Here’s the enlightening passage (comments in brackets will be, er, mine):

Any whitework embroidery requires absolute cleanliness. perspiration from the embroiderer’s hands can stain threads, especially on a hot day…[What? In Carrickmacross and Mountmellick? On a hot day weren’t all the women digging potatoes while the men cooled off at the pub? 🙂 ]

Hands can be kept dry with powdered French chalk. Chalk is placed in the center of a square of muslin, the corners of which are then tied tightly together to form a ball which can be used to freshen hands as required.

As in metal thread work, another centuries-old tip is to cover areas of finished embroidery, using acid-free tissue paper temporarily tacked over the stitching.

Okay? So here’s what I’ve come up with, thanks to these instructions of Gostelow’s.

If your embroidery is going to be small (confined to the space within your hoop) and you just want to keep the ring-edge clean, you can do this:

protecting embroidery2

Lay the fabric over the inner hoop. Lay a piece of clean tissue or other fine paper (I have used sandwich paper, you could use baking parchment or gift tissue I guess) over the fabric. Slide the outer hoop over both. I seem to recall reading, probably still in Gostelow’s book, that you should not pull the fabric to stretch it in the hoop. You should adjust the hoop’s screw so that it is just possible to push it down over the embroidery, and this should make the fabric taut enough.

protecting embroidery3
Naturally, I like to pull and tug and adjust my fabric afterwards, tightening the screw as I stretch. 🙂 I only pulled the fabric, not the paper. If you do this, you’ll get wrinkles in the paper. Doesn’t really matter.

protecting embroidery4
Flip your hoop upside down, though, to make sure your fabric is nice and flat. That’s what matters, innit?protecting embroidery5

I used a seam ripper to start with, carefully puncturing the paper and cutting a hole big enough to get my little scissors in. You can use the seam ripper with the ball towards the fabric and the sharp point above the paper, that way you won’t rend a nice big gash in your fabric by accident.

protecting embroidery6

Then I removed the rest of the paper with a sharp, pointy pair of scissors. I just cut a circle out of the paper, leaving a bit of the protective layer of tissue all round the hoop’s edge.

So that’s if you don’t want a filthy ring around your embroidery.

If your embroidery is larger than the hoop, or if you have already done a lot of work and want to keep the finished parts of the embroidery clean while you focus on some other area, then you can do this:

protecting embroidery7

Same way of hooping up the work, with tissue over everything. Then, using the seam ripper (much more gingerly and carefully, this time…you don’t want to cut any stitched threads!) and the scissors, I open the paper up just over the spot that I want to work on.

protecting embroidery9

When I had finished one section, I cut a small piece of tissue, and basted it down over part of the hole. After basting, I trimmed all the excess paper around the patch, so it wouldn’t get in my way. I moved on to finish the adjacent area of embroidery.

baste tissue paper over finished areas

When that adjacent part was done, I basted another patch of paper over that hole, closing up the original opening I had made. At the bottom of the picture you can see a little bit of exposed fabric, which is  new hole that I cut so that I could work on this next part of the embroidery.

And. So. On…

To protect the rest of the embroidery that is hanging down from the hoop, you can roll up the longer ends into sausages, encase the sausage in a strip of paper, and baste the whole thing to keep from unrolling. Haven’t tried this yet, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.

Hope this helps somebody. It’s too late for this embroidery…this calls for extreme measures. Now I’m off to trawl the web for tips on how to get grime out of a white embroidery! I’m afraid it’s going to require more than batting at it with a little frou-frou pillow or daubing at it with lemon juice! It’s really dirty.

I vow to keep the next embroidery clean!


18 thoughts on “Embroidery : : keep it clean!

    1. Oh, absolutely! I didn’t mention washing hands because I sort of took it for granted that someone working an embroidery would wash their hands regularly, as soon as the palms and fingers start to feel sticky or damp. Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment!


  1. Yay for continuing that embroidery! I’m so in love with it and love to see every addition you make to it. 🙂 And of course: Thanks for the great tip! I always wash my embroideries afterwards but always dread the day any of the stains won’t come out or the color starts to bleed….


  2. I thought soaking the piece in a solution of ammonia would be the answer. Ammonia breaks up grease and oils and also helps brighten fabrics.


  3. Great ideas. Something else people don’t often think of – wash your hands each time you are going to embroider. And, if using a large frame, it wouldn’t hurt to wash your arms where they will touch, too. That way you know that YOU start out clean.


    1. YOU’RE WELCOME! 🙂 thanks for your enthusiastic comment, I am just so happy that it turned out to be useful to a few people…it’s a bit fiddly and fussy, I’m kinda an impatient embroiderer myself, but after seeing how dirty mine got I just decided I had to learn a new habit. It’s nice, working and knowing that everything else is safely tucked away under paper. Hmm, washing machine, eh? I may give that a try on my current project, if the gentler approaches don’t do the job. That’s it, the embroidery police will be onto you, now. Off to check out your link!


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