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Love Those Letters!

by Richards Jarden
Creative Machine Embroidery, February 2001

"There's something about a smartly designed monogram that gives a lift to whatever it 's on. Perhaps it's that 'all our own' look that magically makes the simplest things elegant, the fine pieces positively luxurious."
from "Truly Yours," by Anne Means, Better Homes and Gardens, October, 1938

In the 1930's, nearly every upscale linen shop had its own monogramming department. In stark contrast, commercial embroidery shops that specialize in monogramming are few and far between today, making the home embroidery machine the perfect vehicle for contemporary monograms achievable by home embroiderers. This option has never been available before and embroidery machine dealers report that new machine purchasers cite home decor and lettering as principle reasons for their purchase.

Monogramming Conventions

The most commonly asked questions about monograms have to do with the number of letters to be used, and their order and arrangement.

Single letter monograms: These can be quite large without being visually overwhelming. Usually, the initial from the last name or surname is used, although there have been periods, notably in the 1930s and 1950s, when it was fashionable to use a single first name initial.

Two letter monograms: Usually a person's first, then last initial, defines this look. Since there's typically no confusion about the letter order, both can be the same size, or, to add interest, the first initial can be smaller than the last.

Three letter monograms: This arrangement is the most common, featuring first, middle and last. Note: Keep in mind that some people do not have three names/initials. The order of these three letters varies by usage and letter size, which can be confusing. Therefore, it's most common to place them as follows: first, last, then middle, making the center initial (last name) noticeably larger than the other two, helping to identify the surname.

If you're working with small letters the convention would be first initial, middle initial, last initial. Each is the same size, and should therefore be arranged in the order you would write the name.

Defying Convention

The trouble with "conventional" arrangements, is that they're just that, conventions, or common practices, that were established at some point in history because they worked well for a majority of those using it.

What about the "unconventional?" This question has gotten considerably more complicated in recent years with the widespread fashion of hyphenated last names. It's easy to imagine the marriage of two individuals with hyphenated last names creating a complicated combination of six or eight letter monograms, unless some simplification occurs. The rules on how to do this are yet to be established.

Another example is the monogram for a surname like "O'Connor" Whatís correct practice in such a monogram? "O" or "C" or "O'C?" The answer has more to do with your personal preference than it does with the "rules".

Practical Applications

We'll concentrate on three monogramming applications - men's shirts, ring bearer's pillows and linens - although there are as many as your imagination allows.

Men's shirts

The featured shirt shows a three-letter combination (ABC) utilizing standard- looking machine lettering - a good source for simple, one-color monogram styles. We've used three initials, all the same size and employing first-middle-last order. The letters are all simple, block-style capitals, all 3/8" (9mm) high - a good size that's readable, but not too aggressive. Expensive shirts often have the monogram on the pocket itself, approximately 3/8" (9 mm) below the upper edge of the pocket. This is simple to replicate if the pocket is embroidered first, and then sewn onto the shirt. Trying to monogram a pocket on a ready-to-wear shirt, however, is much more difficult. The pocket would have to be removed from the shirt, then sewn back on once embroidered, or the pocket would be embroidered shut (not an acceptable solution in most cases.)

Another alternative is to carefully cut through the shirt behind the pocket on all sides but the top. Fold back the flap, embroider the monogram, then reattach the fabric flap from the back with heat-fusible tape. This may not be an entirely acceptable solution because the result may be too informal, or durable enough to survive multiple washings.

A better solution is to place the monogram just above the pocket on the shirt front.

Combining the required letters within an embroidery software program, then insuring that the combination of letters starts and stops at the design center, will make embroidering the monogram much easier. It is also possible, choosing the letters one by one, to simply sew them individually, left to right. Using this method you must take care aligning them. Practice this on scraps before attempting it on a garment!

In any case, placement and alignment are important. The monogram should be centered, left to right, and aligned with the upper edge of the pocket, ensuring that it's straight in the hoop. A hooping frame helps immensely in this process, but you can be quite precise without one.

Try this trick: stitch a sample of the monogram and photocopy it. Using a ruler, draw a vertical, then horizontal line through the monogram center. Punch a hole where the lines cross, using a single-hole paper punch.

  • Hoop the shirt, being careful to keep the edge of the pocket is square in the hoop.

  • Cut the photocopied "template" so it's slightly narrower than the pocket width, and the letters are centered left to right.

  • Slide the template inside the pocket and center the monogram just above the pocket. Use an air-soluble pen to mark the placement, through the hole in the template.

  • Position the needle directly above this mark, and stitch the monogram. The same monogram could be placed on shirt cuffs.

Ring Bearer's Pillow

For formal purposes, fancier letters than those available as pre-programmed lettering are more appropriate. Memory cards/ disks are available for most embroidery machines that contain more elegant alphabets, and some companies design an market multi-color alphabets.You can digitize your own unique alphabet if you have the appropriate software. Research alphabets, calligraphy, etc. at your library to find unique lettering styles. Typically, you would embroider a single-letter motif (the couple's last-name initial) in the center of a ring bearer's pillow, using either a tone-on-tone look (most formal), or picking up the wedding party accent color.


Embroidered bed linens -- top sheets and pillow cases -- are among the most popular vehicles for embroidered monogramming. While these have traditionally been hand-worked, machine embroidery can produce very pleasing results. A traditional one,-two or three-letter monogram looks very stylish on linens, and an elegant and traditional tone-on-tone embroidery is always fashionable.

We took a nontraditional approach to our featured bed linens, embroidering all 26 letters across the hem of the top sheet. Used this way, the letters become a more abstract design element, producing a very pleasing flow of shapes.

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