embroidery is a surface application technique applied to existing fabrics. It is similar to and often used in conjunction with sewing, bit focuses much more on the application of threads to the surface of a fabric for decorative and/or functional purposes.
|Structure||Ability to be Emboiderd or Embroidered Upon by Hand||By Machine|
|Filament||yes? (perhaps through laying? or by hand.||no?|
|Roving & Top||no?||no|
|Singles||no, not strong enough but with a delicate hand.||no|
|Braided Rope||yes, if its fine enough and/or large enough to be embroidered upon||if its fine|
|Knits||yes, but typically needs to be fine knit and stabilized||yes with stabilization|
|Woven||yes for narrow, flat, or tubular weaves||yes|
|Non-Wovens||yes, if sliced or rolled into thin long pieces||yes?|
|Solid Objects||no, but can be used to attach solid objects||same|
Hand embroidery is an effective technique for adding surface details and often requires the use of a technique for stabilizing the fabric as you puncture in and out of it. This can be an embroidery hoop and/or adhesive stabilizer.
Stitch Floral offers a great introduction to many basic hand embroidery techniques
Embroidery machines offer a much wider set of design features for doing thread-based patterning and structural deformations on the surface of a fabric. You can get small machines or room-sized machines. High end embroidery machines can lay and cover threads, for instance, if you need to run insulated traces across the surface of fabric. I have also seen them be able to programmatically join a thread to micro-controller througholes!
You can also achieve free hand machine embroidery using a conventional sewing machine if you have a machine where you can lower the feed dogs.
Barbara Layne's Portfolio of Embroidered E-Textiles
Embroidered state machine using electromagnets:
Combining 3D Printing and Embroidery for Texture Changes:
Machine Embroidery for Interaction Design: