Hand vs. Machine Embroidery: What's The Difference?

Alphabet logo design on towel in hoop of embroidery machine
Chatri Attanatwong / Getty Images

You can choose to do embroidery by hand or with a machine, but other than the obvious, what are the differences between these two methods? Here's what makes both hand and machine embroidery unique and why you might choose one over another.

Both types of embroidery involve embellishing fabric—and sometimes other surfaces—with thread, forming designs as simple as initials or a monogram and as complex as wall hangings or fully embroidered garments. They both use hoops, needles, and threads, but the process and results are quite different, even when they look similar.

Hand Embroidery

One of the hallmarks of hand embroidery is that it's a slow process as you work stitch by stitch. Sometimes, that's seen as a downside, but it can also be relaxing.

Because of the amount of time this method takes, hand-embroidered pieces are often seen as having a higher value or heirloom quality. As you embroider, you can choose colors and different stitches and make adjustments along the way, so you will have flexibility as you work.

Person Doing Hand Embroidery in a Hoop
Alyssa B. Young / Getty Images

Getting Started

Getting started in hand embroidery can feel a little overwhelming at first, but it's actually quite easy and inexpensive to try. The materials are simple and easy to find, and you only need to learn a few basics. Even kids can do this method, and the result is something that you made with your own two hands.

Types of Thread

There are lots of types of threads you can use for hand embroidery, including silk, wool, and cotton, which is the most common. Some hand embroidery thread comes in strands that you can separate to alter the thickness of the stitches, and you can work with different thicknesses or even types of thread throughout a project.


Hand embroidery has many different stitches you can use, and each one gives a unique look and texture to your work. For example, there are lots of ways to stitch a line, fill in an area, create flowers, and more. It's a very creative medium.


Patterns for hand embroidery come in a few formats. Some are iron-transfers that you press onto your fabric. Others are printed in books or come as digital files to print which you can then trace and transfer with different methods. There are lots of free patterns available, and the rest are usually low in cost.

Machine Embroidery

Embroidery by machine is a much faster process, and often once you get it started, the machine does the work for you. This is especially great if you love making things, but your hands or eyes make it hard to hand embroider. The finished embroidery looks more commercial and less handmade.

If you make more than one item with the same design, the embroideries usually look identical. Most machine embroidery patterns are pre-programmed, so you aren't able to customize the look a lot.

Person Working on an Embroidery Machine
SDI Productions / Getty Images

Getting Started

In addition to traditional machine embroidery, you can also use a standard sewing machine with the feed dogs lowered to do free-motion machine embroidery. This technique is more like doing hand embroidery on a machine, and sometimes people call it "drawing" with a sewing machine.

Sewing machines, and especially embroidery sewing machines, are a financial investment. The cost to buy a machine, along with the patterns and equipment, means that you're making a commitment to this new craft. Learning how to do machine embroidery requires getting familiar with how your particular machine functions and works with different materials, but you won't have to learn stitching techniques—unless you're doing free-motion embroidery, which takes some practice.

Types of Thread

Unlike stranded embroidery thread that you can separate, threads for machine embroidery come on spools, and you use them as they are. Instead of working with different numbers of strands, the thread comes in multiple weights so you can achieve the look you desire. You can also choose from polyester, cotton, rayon, or silk for your embroidery.


Embroidery machines can create different styles of stitches, and they match up with hand embroidery stitches. Satin stitch, long and short stitch, back stitch, and chain stitch are the most common.


Patterns for machine embroidery come as digital files that you load into the machine. There are different file formats for each brand of embroidery machine, so it's important to use the correct one.

Patterns typically tell you how many stitches are in the design, giving you a way to estimate how long it will take to stitch based on the speed of your machine. Depending on the size and complexity of the design, pattern files can range from free to a few dollars, and collections can be upwards of $50.

Embroidery machines also often have patterns you can use for combining embroidery and appliqué, lace, and DIY sewing projects known as "in the hoop."

Which is Best?

Neither embroidery method is better than the other, so choose the one that you like to use, or learn both techniques and make things both by hand and machine.