Embroidery Inspo: Making Art With Needle and Thread

See how two artists combine textiles and storytelling in the casual slow-art of embroidery. (It'll make you want to start stitching RN!)

Photo By: Tracie Noles Ross

Photo By: Bob Farley

Photo By: Bob Farley

Photo By: Bob Farley

Photo By: Bob Farley

Photo By: Bob Farley

Photo By: Tracie Noles Ross

Photo By: Tracie Noles Ross

Photo By: Tracie Noles Ross

Photo By: Tracie Noles Ross

Photo By: Tracie Noles Ross

Photo By: Tracie Noles Ross

Photo By: Tracie Noles Ross

Photo By: Tracie Noles Ross

Crazy Quilt

Embroidery is an age-old needlework craft. Combining traditions and techniques, stitchers set out to embellish and adorn everyday and ordinary items with ornamental designs using an array of different stitches and colors and types of thread. As mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers come to mind and into hand, embroidery is rooted in tradition. Borrowing and applying methods here and there, the craft becomes an expression of self and personal style.

Two skillful artisans and visual storytellers, Tracie Noles-Ross and Lillis Taylor, both multi-tasking and dual-purposing wizards, stitch and sew art into every part of their lives, and they connect and share freely the lessons they learn along the way. In this gallery, they share their work, their inspirations, ideas and techniques.

Tracie embroiders nature stories and symbols. She crafted the quilt pictured above (called "crazy quilt") with hand-dyed fabrics repurposed materials, hand-me-down threads and inherited toolkits. "It’s a family portrait focusing on insects and plants growing around the family's home in Upstate New York. I dyed fabrics with plants that grow in their yard and that also grow in mine," Tracie explains. "It’s all about connection to natural world and place!"

Make a Template of Sample Stitches

This tutorial sample was created by a member of the Bib & Tucker Sew-Op in Birmingham, AL for teaching beginner stitches. Lillis, the executive director of the sew-op, learned a lot during her first workshop and now she's adding her own stitches to help instruct others. If you can’t go to a workshop, find online video tutorials and experiment on scrap fabric before you begin your project. The great thing about embroidery is you can easily undo any mistakes.

Viva la Frida

As a tribute to Frida Kahlo, Lillis combined Mexican icons, La Calavera Catrina and Frida, and she accentuated the design with colorful floss embroidered onto broadcloth and by using a variety of stitch types to paint and fill in. Using an embroidery hoop helps keep the fabric taut while stitching for the purpose of consistent stitch tension and to retain the shape and integrity of the base cloth.

Calavera and Sacred Heart

Inspired by the Day of the Dead holiday, Lillis stitched the Calavera and sacred heart symbols onto digitally printed fabrics of her own designs. With bold and bright embroidery floss, she used backstitch, running and satin stitching. She framed the finished pieces with handpainted, wooden embroidery hoops.

Embellish Existing Patterns

Turning her watercolor paintings into textile design, Lillis digitally prints fabrics and then she punctuates the designs by embroidering and embellishing patterns in the cloth. "My background in industrial design has always guided me towards process-learning and I enjoy picking up skills that allow me to embellish and layer and build, so embroidery is a natural fit," Lillis explains.

Throw Out the Rules

Everything Lillis does related to sewing comes from a place of self-discovery, and everything goes together. Patterns and designs, painting and stitching, colors and textures and geometric shapes are layered through her everyday work. She instructs students to throw out the rules that intimidate and to not be afraid of trying something new. "I actually didn't know any stitches — only running stitch," Lillis speaks of when she began to sew. "I figured out a form of backstitch because I wanted my seams to be stronger. Then I started appliquéing little compositions in fabric, and that's where I discovered the stitch that tacks a piece of fabric down on top of another piece of fabric, where the 1/8" stitch is perpendicular to the edge you're tacking down. I'm not sure what that stitch is actually called."

Free-Form Collage

Tracie made a woodland-themed quilt with recycled fabrics and a piece of kimono for an artist friend who also makes nature-filled art. The crow is sewn onto the quilt using a combination of appliqué and embroidery stitching. Tracie says of her process, "Once I start piecing these parts together, I'm thinking more like a collage artist. I do a sort of free-form embroidery and I put things together much like a crazy quilter might."

Garden Spider

The golden garden spider shows up in a lot of Tracie's photos, paintings and her textile art as well. And in the summer, she happily hosts them in her yard. Weaving, stitching, spinning her web, the zigzag spider inspires the artist and especially the sewer.

Caddisfly Larva

Stitched onto eco-dyed cotton and joined with velvet swaths, the larval phase of a caddisfly wiggles its way onto the crazy quilt Tracie has been commissioned to create. Caddisfly larvae are aquatic. They spin silk, adorn themselves with gathered materials to form decorative and protective cases, and eventually pupate and metamorphose into winged terrestrial creatures.

Periodical Cicada

The narrative crazy quilt will go to a family in Upstate New York where Brood II Magicicada emerged in 2013 along with sustained musical sounds. The 17-year old cicada nymphs emerged from the soil, eclosed from their exoskeletons, mated, and deposited eggs on nearby trees. Eggs hatched, nymphs fell to the ground and tunneled beneath the roots, and the 17-year process began again. Complete with red eyes, the periodical cicada was embroidered onto the eco-dyed cloth. Tracie explains, "I dyed the fabric with species of plants that grow around the family's home, and I am embroidering a mix of flora and fauna that have meaning to them onto that fabric."

A Portable Craft

"I work in the car while waiting to pick up my kids. I work in bed. I work at the kitchen table," Tracie says about sewing the large crazy quilt that is a yearlong project. "That’s what I love about doing embroidery and approaching my work through piecework. The pieces are portable. I can make small intimate narrative little pieces and then sew them all together crazy-quilt style and make some epic narrative!"


Patched into the crazy quilt, poppies add bright color to the earthy eco-dyed fabrics and velvets. Embroidered with stem, split, chain, and satin stitching and French knots, the patch is sewn into the quilt and finished with simple whip stitching and fancy trimmings.

Luna Moth

A luna moth is included on the crazy quilt. Starting out, Tracie drew a simple outline with running stitches and continued to fill in between the lines with embroidery floss. "I approach my fabric work like I would a collage or drawing. I don’t know the names of any embroidery stitches. Embroidery for me is another way of mark-making — like drawing or painting," she explains.

Tulip-tree Silkmoth

Running stitches, backstitching, chain and satin stitching, and a whole lot of French knots went into the making of this tulip-tree silkmoth on eco-dyed cotton. Tracie stitched the life cycle of the giant silkworm moth with velvety wings, the moth's larval host plant, a silken cocoon, and then she appliquéd the embroidered piece onto a larger quilt made of repurposed fabrics.

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