Freestyle Embroidery – How To Embroider Without A Pattern

Have you ever wanted to create embroidery more intuitively? Toss your patterns aside, because we’ll be learning the art of freestyle embroidery today!

I will be the first to admit that I usually come up with some sort of an embroidery design before I get started, but I feel so lucky to have gotten the opportunity to loosen the reins and follow along with Jennifer Clouston’s book Foolproof Freeform Embroidery: Exploring Your Creativity with Fabric, Threads, & Stitches. 

embroidery notions and suppiles

Freestyle Embroidery

In celebration of the book release, I have put together a tutorial with some tips for embroidering without a pattern. But first, I wanted to share with you a little bit about the book and why this method of stitching is so beneficial.

About Foolproof Freeform Embroidery

Jennifer’s book walks you through her process for embroidering freeform embroidery designs. I will be honest, this was a very different process for me as I almost always create an embroidery design before I stitch since most of the work I do is thread painting. But I love a good excuse to switch things up and get creative.

Why Stitch Without A Pattern?

Jennifer explains that “Creating without a pattern, a guide, a kit, or instructions may seem daunting. However, by eliminating these restrictions, we are free to create without fear of failure, of stitching outside the lines, of not living up to expectations, not having the correct thread, the list goes on. As we learn to create without a preconceived idea of what the finished project will look like we learn more about ourselves, our style, our color palette, our genre. Our work will be ours, unique to us. (Foolproof Freeform Embroidery, 8)

One of the most common blocks a lot of people have with creativity is a mental one: they delay or completely put off starting creative projects because they’re afraid of not having everything planned out. Failure, for many people, is one of their worst fears. The easiest way to get over this is to view creativity as play; set aside the criticizing thoughts and view it as an opportunity to explore.

A few years ago I picked up The Artist’s Way, which is a workbook to help artists get more in tune with their creativity. One of the practices in the book is the Morning Pages, which is a stream of consciousness exercise where you write down 3 pages of your thoughts each and every morning. I was thrilled to read that Jennifer has applied the principles of the Morning Pages to her practice of daily freeform stitching. I had never thought to do something like this and I think it is an absolutely genius idea.

By exercising your creative muscles, you’ll be able to come up with new ideas and discover more about yourself and your art!

Now let’s jump into the tutorial.

How To Embroider Without A Pattern

embroidery threads laid across a piece of yellow fabric in an embroidery hoop

Choosing Your Supplies

There are no instructions and no rules to follow with this embroidery project. We’re going patternless! Your creative process can and should start now while you’re looking for supplies and materials to use.

Use What You Have On Hand

Take a look around your craft space and select interesting fabric and fibers to incorporate into your embroidery. Sometimes inspiration strikes when you have less choices to make and you are forced to work with what you have.

Choose A Fabric

Fabrics that are made up of natural fibers are best to work with. But you don’t have to use a single, solid color piece of fabric if you don’t want to.

In Jennifer’s book, there are a ton of projects and ideas for creating what she refers to as your “backgrounds”. From English paper piecing to Boro work, there are so many different ways to create an interesting canvas to stitch on.

Play With Texture

As with any embroidery project, you don’t have to limit yourself only to embroidery floss. Beads, crewel wool, ribbon, and buttons are always great to add into the mix. Adding different textures and notions into the design will make things way more interesting.

Choose Thread Colors

While the stitching process will be very freeform, it is helpful to take some time to carefully select the colors you want to use. Using too many colors or being less than intentional about the particular ones you choose could result in the embroidery looking quite muddy and busy.

There are many places you can look for inspiration to choose a color palette. If you’re at a loss for where to start, this post will walk you through the basics of choosing colors for embroidery.

Important Tip: When you are selecting a color palette, keep in mind the color(s) of the base fabric you plan to use. You should consider this to be a part of the color scheme unless the fabric is neutral in color.

Ideation

The process in which you find inspiration and come up with ideas is unique to you. Again, there are no rules! This exercise is one that you should use your imagination and allow yourself to play around.

Set Your Intentions

Freestyle embroidery can simply be a meditative stitching experience or it can be more structured where you decide upon a theme and work off of it as you go.

Inspiration

If you feel it would be helpful for you, gather any inspiration from nature, some flowers you picked on a walk, your favorite art books, etc. However, this of course is not necessary.

Once you have a general idea of the subject matter you’d like to stitch, now is a good time to start brainstorming different embroidery stitches that would work well. If you need some ideas, check out the embroidery stitch library.

Remember, you don’t need to have it all figured out. You can make decisions or even change directions as you stitch.

curved line of stem stitches

Start By Drawing A Basic Line Or Shape

You can leave the fabric completely blank if you want to, but I personally find it easiest to lightly mark the line or shape I want to start stitching off of. This will be the main element of the design, which you can work off of and add more stitching and detail to as you go.

This is the only time you’ll need a fabric marker; the rest of the process can be completely free-flowing without making any additional marks to the fabric.

Start Stitching The Main Element

The first thing you’ll want to do is choose one or two stitches to start as a base for your embroidery. Stitch or fill in along the starting line or element.

Then you can start adding more details, refining the design as you go.

Once you jump off of this hypothetical cliff, it’s all you and your imagination. This can feel intimidating at first! But it’s through letting go of the structure and potential outcome that you will be able to tap into your ingenuity.

diagram of the freestyle stitching process - starting with a curved line with basic stitches, then adding more details of birds and flowers
Left: a line of stem stitches and straight stitches
Top Right: embroidered birds using the oyster stitch, satin stitch, and straight stitches
Bottom Right: decorative elements added in between the birds and branches using back stitches, ribbon stitches, and French knots

Play around with different shapes, sizes, and positioning of elements. To keep things easy on the eye, try to leave some negative space between elements.

diagram of the freestyle stitching process - starting with feather stitches, then adding more details of flowers and leaves
Left: a branch made up of feather stitches
Top Right: flowers made of ribbon stitches and leaves using detached chain stitch
Bottom Right: beads and pistil stitches

Foolproof Freeform Embroidery has a 5 step process for freestyle stitching that makes this process a lot less intimidating. There are hundreds of examples in the book that are sure to get your creative ideas flowing.

This stitching process makes it so easy to get into the creative flow. Leave behind any judgements of your work and really try to enjoy the process and be in the moment.

Final Thoughts

I hope this tutorial provided you the help and inspiration you were looking for. I found this activity very liberating and I plan to incorporate more freeform stitching into my creative practice.

I highly suggest you check out Foolproof Freeform Embroidery. Overall, the projects and examples in the book are inspirational and very approachable. While there are loose instructions to complete some of the projects, the book leaves everything very open ended so you can take these ideas and make them your own.

I truly think this book is such a gem, one that will be a staple in every stitcher’s reference library. You can find the book on Amazon.

If you’d like to be a part of the giveaway, please leave a comment on this post with your name, email, and your favorite embroidery stitch. The giveaway closes on June 10th at 10am EST.

If you enjoyed this tutorial, check out some of these other inspiring tutorials:

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14 Comments

  1. This is timely, as I have been musing on ways to be more creative and mindful with my embroidery. The ideas that you’ve shared are great and I thank you! 🙂

    My favorite embroidery stitch is long and short done as soft shading in crewel work, but really, I love them all.

  2. Interesting concept! I get bored following patterns exactly but I don’t always feel confident going astray 😀
    Would love to get the book 🌸

  3. My favorite stitch is probably the back stitch. But I really don’t know if any are truly a “favorite.” I try to use one new stitch in every project just to play around.

  4. My favorite stitch (at the moment) is the woven wheel. I love how simple it is with BIG impact. I love the idea of being more free form – I do a little of that when using patterns, adding when it feels right and using different stitches than it calls for.

  5. My favourite stitch is bullion – there’s always a moment when you’re pulling the thread through where it feels like it could all go horribly wrong, but when you end up with that neat little coil, it’s just so satisfying!

  6. I really enjoy stitches that give some texture. I’ve been adding the bullion knot to a few on my projects. I love the idea of giving a little more freedom to the piece!

  7. I love the wagon wheel stitch! I’m pretty new to embroidery but have already played around with freestyle and would love to have the book for some guidance.

  8. I loved your end design! It made me want to try integrating ribbon into my next practice attempts ❤️

    My name is Suset, email is sbebelagua(@)gmail.com, and my favorite embroidery stitch is the French knot

  9. This is such an interesting article! Definitely great for learning to be more creative! I’m just starting up embroidery, but I love the look of just a simple backstitch or whipped backstitch.

  10. I’ve been heading more towards freestyle embroidery over the past couple of years after years of doing counted work. I will definitely want to get my hands on this book to help guide me in this process! So glad I came across your Tiktok post! And my favourite stitch is Rhodes stitch 🙂

  11. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to sewing and challenging myself to work outside my comfort zone is always a goal! Trying to not let perfect be the enemy of done. I’ve been using a whip stitch to do visible mending on some shirts, and I think it’s my favorite at the moment.

  12. This would definitely be pushing my creative envelope. I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but you certainly lay out a clear path when I’m ready.

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