Common Issues Seen in Judging Embroidery

By Susan Dawson, NAN-Certified Judge

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in winter 2018.


Many exhibitions require that work be clean. Spots are the most common reason for disqualification of an entry. The best work is always fresh, pressed (if appropriate), and crisp.

Fabric has a grid structure. It needs to be mounted squarely to avoid distorting the work. Look at the edges. Do the lines of the fabric follow the edges of the mat or frame? Are the lines straight or scalloped?

Judges often stop to admire dramatic presentations, but they know drama does not matter in judging. In the end, a plain presentation is just as good, as long as it is well done.


There are many advantages to glass, but it obstructs the view for judging and so it is to your disadvantage. Avoid non-glare glass as it can cause deterioration of your work.

Handling Threads

Threads are made of fibers twisted together. Threads in turn can be twisted (plied) together and taken apart (stripped). The most common example is floss (also called stranded cotton). Once a thread is stripped any number of strands can be used in the needle to change the density or the appearance of the stitching.

Watch the twist of the thread. If it varies (loosens or tightens), the work looks slightly dingy or distorted. Most people alter the twist while stitching. To compensate, rotate the needle in your fingers every few stitches or let the thread drop to allow the twist to rebalance.

If multiple strands or threads are stitched at the same time in the needle, in most cases they need to stay parallel, so they look orderly and do not cross or twist on them-selves. Keep threads parallel by laying or railroading.


In counted and canvas embroidery (and to a lesser extent, plain embroidery), use a thread that is neither too thick nor too thin. Instructions in the kits about how many strands to use are only a suggestion because things like tension or laying of threads affect the thickness. Observe and adjust. To some extent, this is an aesthetic decision (and so is neither right nor wrong), and it can be used to create subtle changes. But if the thread is too thick, it distorts the fabric, and the work looks heavy or crowded. If the thread is too thin, the work looks weak or faded.


Even if judges can’t see the back, they know what happens there because it shows on the front.

Avoid knots. Knots are a problem; on the back of the work, they make the front look lumpy. Instead, weave the ends into the back of the stitches as smoothly as possible.

Weave the end of a thread into itself. Weaving dark thread into light thread or light into dark creates shadows.

Limit traveling (running the thread) between motifs. Start and end the thread in each area. Traveling threads show on the front like mole burrows in a lawn. They also peak through the spaces in the fabric, making shadows.

Trim thread ends. Loose ends meander around and show through the front like traveling threads. They also get drawn up into other stitches and form lumpy tangles or get pulled to the front of the work.

Conventions and Exceptions

Cross stitches, at this time, are made with the top bar leaning to the left: \. This is not true in other parts of the world or at other periods in time.

Cross stitching at this time values consistency. Ethnic cross-stitching may not. During certain periods of history, consistency did not matter.

There are at least three common cross-stitch techniques. Each has a different structure on the back. The structure of each creates a subtle difference in the appearance on the front, so generally it is better to use only one technique in a given area.

The half-cross stitch and the canvas tent stitch look the same. At this time, they lean up and to the right: /. The direction of the diagonals made by these stitches is a design element. So, if breaking the convention seems logical, do so. For instance, by alternating rows of diagonals you can create a subtle chevron pattern. If you make an exception, do so deliberately, not carelessly. Either do it clearly and definitely or don’t do it.

Behind the Scenes

Stitching is a great stress reliever. However, stress shows in the work. Judges can see the change. If you are stitching through a difficult time, go back and review your work. It may need to be taken out and redone.

When technique is very good in light-colored areas and less good in dark areas, it suggests vision problems. Improved lights and magnification are a solution, but not the only ones.

  • Try covering your lap or the surface beneath the work with a contrasting color.
  • Try changing the angle of light. Rather than light coming from above, have it come from the side and toward your dominant hand. The resulting shadows may help you see better.
  • The Japanese make a simple box light. Start with a cube-shaped, sturdy cardboard box. Neatly remove the bottom and one side. Line the inside with white paper or paint it white. Get a battery-operated puck-style light for under a cabinet, and glue it to the inside top of the box.

Considerations Before You Start

  • Plain work done well is better than mediocre but fancy work.
  • Simple and well done is better than elaborate but mediocre.
  • Small work well executed is better than enormous but mediocre.