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Blog > How To - Working With Ribbon and Handy Hints by Di van Niekerk

Hi stitching world! I hope you had a lovely weekend  I thought you would enjoy reading about how to work with silk and organza ribbon and I have also added other handy hints for you.

The downloadable lesson can be found here and saved for your collection.


About working with ribbon

Silk ribbon embroidery is surprisingly easy to master.  Use silk ribbon just like any other thread or yarn except take into consideration that it is softer and more fragile.  See “Needles” on page 8 of the downloaded lesson. It is essential that you use a needle with a large eye to make a big enough hole in the fabric so that the ribbon does not snag or fold.

  • Ribbon needs to be worked flat for most of the stitches.
  • Use only short lengths of ribbon – 30cm or 12 inches in length. Too long a piece and the ribbon will fray when it is pulled through the fabric too often. It is also difficult to work with ribbon that is too long, and the quality of the stitches will be affected.

Threading the ribbon onto your needle


Thread the needle and pierce the end that has just been threaded.  Pull the long tail to tighten the knot. 

Threading Ribbon

To start the stitch

 When starting with ribbon you have several choices:

a) Leave a small tail at the back and when you make your first or your second stitch, pierce the tail to secure it onto the fabric
b) or secure the tail with embroidery thread and stitches.
c) Or knot the 2 and 4mm ribbons as you would a thread. The texture of the design is busy enough to hide the bulkiness of the knot.


To finish

 a) Leave a tail 1-2cm (½in) long, at the back of the work and secure with 1 or 2 strands of embroidery thread.

b) Or catch the tail when you start your next thread.

c) Or weave the ribbon in and out of adjacent stitches at the back.


Hints for embroidery with silk ribbon

Remember to use short 20 cm to 30 cm (8 to12 inch) lengths, especially with the 13 and 7mm silk ribbons. For the narrow, 2mm ribbons, a longer piece: 40 to 45cm (16 to 18 inch) is acceptable – this ribbon does not fray as fast as the wider ribbons.

Use your left thumb (or right thumb if you’re left handed) to hold the ribbon flat when you pull it through to the back. Only let go once the stitch is almost done; this prevents the ribbon from twisting or scrunching up. Alternatively, use the blunt end of a spare tapestry needle to gently hold the ribbon flat until you have pulled it through.

Work with a gentle tension: ribbon needs to be handled lightly.  Keep stitches loose and unfolded; allow the ribbon to spread to its full width on the fabric before starting the next stitch.  If your tension is too tight and the needle too small, the ribbon will fold or scrunch up and the beautiful texture will be lost.

If you do pull the previous stitch too tight in error, don’t be deterred – simply make other stitch on top of it. This adds texture to the design!


Some stitches look good if the ribbon twists as you stitch, for example: spider-web roses, long straight stitches for leaves, larger detached chain stitches, large, loose ribbon stitches, and loose French knots. Refer to the close-up colour pictures in the kit  to guide you whilst you stitch. Make some of the stitches with flat ribbon and others with twisted ribbon for an interesting effect.


About Needles



The proper size needle is probably the most important choice you will need to make to determine a successful product.  Every beginner I meet is surprised at how big the needle is for ribbon embroidery.  It is essential that the needles create a large enough hole in the fabric. This way you can pull the ribbon through gently, without snagging or hurting the silk too badly.  The ribbon spreads evenly to form a soft, open stitch instead of it being all scrunched when pulled through too small a hole.  The eye of the needle must also be long enough (large) for the ribbon to lie flat once threaded



You will need the following needles for most ribbon embroidery projects.


Chenille needle: a sharp, pointed, thick needle with a large eye. In a mixed pack of 18/24 needles, the lower the number the larger the needle:  The size 18 needle is the largest.   Use a size 18 chenille needle for the 7 mm ribbons, a size 20 chenille needle for the 4 mm ribbons and a size 22 chenille needle for the 2 mm ribbons. A size 16 chenille needle (available in a separate pack) is used for the 13 mm and 15 mm ribbons.


Crewel /embroidery needle: a sharp fine needle with a long, large eye.  In a mixed pack of 5/10 needles, the number 5 is the largest and 10 the smallest. You will need size 8, 9 or 10 needles for one or two strands of thread.

The general rule:  The thread should pass through the eye of the needle quite easily, but if the thread is too loose in the eye of too large a needle, it tends to pull out easily. Too fine a needle will harm the thread since the hole that the needle makes in the fabric will be too small which causes the thread to fray.


Use a Tapestry needle (a blunt thick needle with a large eye) or similar object. You will use this blunt needle for re-shaping stitches, to work over when making loose, puffed ribbon stitches and to form the loop of the single-knotted stitches. A size 13 or 16 tapestry needle is used for this purpose.


All the stab stitches, (the stitches that are made through the fabric) are best embroidered on the hoop. Particularly satin stitch, straight or stab stitch, seeding, couching and French knots as the stretched fabric prevents the design from puckering out of shape.

Some of the surface stitches, such as chain and stem stitch, can be worked off the hoop, although I do find it is better to make all the stitches on the hoop, stab-stitch style. Take the needle and thread to the back and come up again in two separate steps. This is very much a personal choice – see what works best for you.


Do remember to pull the layers tight in the hoop as often as necessary to prevent the cloth from puckering out of shape. Pull all the layers gently on each corner and along the sides. Then tighten the hoop again.   Hoop stands are available that hold the hoop so that you have both hands free to stitch. These are available from needlecraft shops.


It is advisable to work from the top of the picture downwards, from left to right if you are right-handed and from right to left if you are left-handed. This way, the ribbon stitches are not damaged by hard working hands!

First do all or most of the thread work at the section that you have chosen (the leaves and grass in the background for instance) before completing the ribbon work. This prevents the ribbon stitches from pulling out of shape when handled too often. I have numbered the sequence that I used on the colour picture supplied in your kit but do feel free to change the sequence to suit you. Follow the step- by- step instructions on the pages supplied in your kit.


Always keep a damp face cloth or towel nearby as you work. Wipe your hands often to keep your work clean. Work on a towel so that the edge of the table does not leave marks on your design. When you are not working on your piece, slip it inside a large pillowcase or cover it with a towel. Stand the covered hoop up on a shelf or cabinet so no one can place something heavy on top of the covered hoop. I don’t know how many of you have cats in your house, but they ALWAYS choose the hoop as a bed! Remember to loosen the screw or wing nut if you will not be working on it for a while, and to tighten it (after stretching the layers taut) before starting again.


Other Handy Hints:


  1. Use French knots instead of colonial knots as it is easy to change the size of the knot by making 1, 2, 3 or even 4 wraps according to the size required in your design.
  2. Every flower and leaf differ from the rest; not one rose will be exactly the same as the next. I have met some embroiderers that are too critical of their own work and tend to be unhappy with some of the flowers or details in their design. I always encourage them to aim for accomplishment rather than perfection. Remember that once the entire picture is completed, you will not notice each individual flower or leaf in the design.  Don’t get hung up on one stitch; remember the bigger picture and enjoy what you are doing.
  3. Don’t be concerned about what the back of your work looks like. There will be a lot of interfaced threads and ribbons after a while.  Tidy up all the threads and ribbons, cut off the tails, especially along the outer edge of the design before framing.
  4. Thread or ribbon must pass through the fabric fairly easily. If it does not, change to a larger needle. For very wide ribbons, use an awl or stiletto (a size 16 or 18 chenille needle works well too) and make a hole in the fabric layers before you form the stitch.
  5. Roll up corners of the design and pin or tack so the corners so they don’t hinder you while you work.
  6. For long stems and grass, rather make stitches a few millimetres apart. Allow some of the background colour to show through to prevent a large mass of green. Closely formed stems and leaves become too heavy and tend to disturb the balance in a design. Allow some gaps between the leaves and blades of grass. Don’t try to fill every space; the space makes the shadows in the design. Refer to the close-up picture for guidance.
  7. Never use the sharp end of the needle to try to adjust the ribbon stitches as this will tear the ribbon. Rather use the blunt end of the needle or any similar blunt instrument for this purpose.
  8. Don’t store any needles in your embroidery piece as the needles damage the fabric. Rather use a pin cushion or needle case.

I do hope that you enjoyed this lesson. If you have any suggestions on how to improve (or what to add to) these lessons – please let me know. Don’t forget to send me some pictures - I do so enjoy seeing them! 

Visit our website to find out about other gorgeous designs in A Box full of Lessons series. They are popular and a wonderful way to learn! 

Until next time, have fun!


Di van Niekerk



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1 comment

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Di. As usual very generous in your advice

    Mar 29, 2023 at 14:25

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