A centuries-old technique used across diverse cultures, embroidery is like painting with a needle and thread—and each of these artists has a colorful interpretation.

Across the Midwest, embroidery artists are pushing the bounds of the medium. Some stitch intricate two-dimensional line art, while others build layers full of visual and textural variety. One Cincinnati artist stitches photo-realistic pet portraits. Another in Chicago focuses on one stitch that replicates a tiny chain. Read on to meet these artists and others who are working to celebrate, share and modernize this timeless craft.

Modern embroidery by the Wondermakers Collective
Credit: Courtesy of The Wondermakers Collective

The Wondermakers Collective 

After connecting on social media, an artist in Minneapolis and another in Iron Mountain, Michigan, became best friends and collaborators—by mail. Mindy Sue Meyers and Jenna Freimuth send embroidery pieces back and forth, sometimes 7 to 10 times, for a series they call Wondermakers Collective. "It's an exercise in learning how to trust another artist and invite disruption into the process," says Freimuth. "To make something magical that you couldn't have made on your own." The project began in 2015 as an attempt to send drawings and sculptures through the mail. After experimenting with different media, they realized embroidery supports both their loves for layering and drawing. "We embrace each other's sense of magic," says Meyers. "We started this without really knowing each other and now we're like family and the art is stronger too. The layered embroidery is symbolic of our friendship." 

Humble Harvest embroidery by Ellen Wilkinson
Credit: Ellen Wilkinson

Humble Harvest Embroidery 

Ellen Barthel began embroidering with her grandmother when she was younger. In 2020, the hobby turned into a passion over the course of the pandemic. After realizing she can only have so many circle hoop embroidery pieces, the Minnesota-based maker began transferring her floral and botanical motifs to jewelry, hats, pillows and keychains. A friend pushed her to open an Etsy shop, so she did. The twist? Barthel takes none of the proceeds. Instead, she donates her earnings to Feed My Starving Children, an organization that packages and distributes food to developing nations. "Embroidery is something I love so much, and that's not something I wanted to profit from," says Barthel. "Instead I want to use those proceeds toward an organization that feels worth it to me."

finish embroidery project of a dog
Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Staub

The Stitching Sabbatical

In 2014, Michelle Staub was looking to make some extra money to pay rent after college. With no prior knowledge, she began stitching little animals. She drew inspiration from her cat, Pearl, for her first embroidery pet portrait. After uploading it to her Tumblr—and getting a lot of likes—she opened an Etsy shop based in Cincinnati. Since then, Staub has completed 600 pet portrait commissions. She uses an array of different colored threads to capture the true complexion and hues in a pet's fur. "People have a special bond with their pets," says Staub, who also offers more affordable black and white portraits. "Most of the ones I do are memorial portraits. Being able to celebrate that bond is really rewarding." Read our interview with Michelle and see even more of her intricate designs.

Club Chainstitch denim embroidered jacket
Credit: Ann Leachman

Club Chainstitch 

Armed with a renovated 1927 chain stitch sewing machine, Chicago fiber artist Ann Leachman takes vintage designs and blends them into modern apparel. "I came across this chain stitcher on Instagram, and it was so captivating," says Leachman. "It felt like the perfect combination of hand work and machine work." Leachman began embroidery when she was a little girl. She started with tea towels and beginner stitches learned from her grandmother. After growing tired of just creating wall art, she shopped around for a vintage sewing machine and finally found one online. She started by making clothes for herself. Many compliments and requests from friends later, Leachman launched an online store selling jackets, sweatshirts, shoes and more—all embellished with chainstitch.

Eight22Crafts botanical embroidery project
Credit: September Heidtman


Despite being intimidated by embroidery for over five years, September Heidtman took the leap and decided to try it. Now she runs her own Etsy shop from Otisville, Michigan, in between homeschooling her four kids. She finds time to embroider and package orders late at night and when her husband goes on break from his job. He works from home, and they share an office. The shop, Eight22Crafts, has been up and running for two years. Heidtman found Instagram daunting, so she made it her goal to learn how to use it to her advantage. In February 2022, she threw herself into her account. The inspiration for her designs is both loving florals and wanting to help beginners. She sells designs and creates tutorials for those also intimidated but intrigued by embroidery. "After I realized beginners like the floral design, I now keep them in mind," said Heidtman. "My designs are simple stitches, easy to do, not a lot of layering. I say, 'Be patient with the process.' When you're dedicated, just know that it's going to take time, but it will happen." 

Punchy Stuff embroidery hoop and yarn
Credit: Kelly Kendall

Punchy Stuff 

In 2018, Kelly Kendall was looking for a new hobby and an escape from a job she didn't enjoy. She discovered punch needle embroidery—instead of stitching through a fabric, artists push the thread through the fabric while keeping the needle on the surface. At first, it was difficult for Chicago area-based Kendall to find supplies, so she scoured the Internet. But a recent rise in the craft's popularity has made it easier to find tools and allowed her to launch an Etsy business in 2020. Alongside her finished works, her shop features kits for beginners with supplies and patterns. "I never thought about opening up an Etsy shop, but a friend of mine asked me to do some commissions," says Kendall. "I put a few up for sale, and I realized I liked getting involved and teaching people. In my mind, I wanted people to know how great this is and give them everything they need, and they would love it too."

Follow: @punchystuff